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Hiking Up Yosemite’s Mono Pass Trail Past Spillway Lake

Views of Mono Pass, Parker Pass and Kuna Crest surrounded me as I hiked up Yosemite National Park’s Mono Pass Trail. I made a short cross country hike up above Spillway Lake, through some snow up to Helen Lake. A 20% chance of thunderstorms isn’t much of a chance but it all comes down to what cloud you are standing under at the right time.

Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 10.32 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation Range: 9,596′ – 10,975′
Date: June 17, 2021
Maps: Falls Ridge and June Lake Topogs
Dog Hike? No

I left the house early and headed into Yosemite National Park via the El Portal Entrance Gate. When I say early, I passed through the gate at 6 am. I had already printed out my Day Pass and since the gate wasn’t staffed this early, picked up one of the temporary white slips at the Entrance Station to fill out and place on my dashboard. If you aren’t aware, Yosemite National Park has implemented a Temporary Day Use Reservation system. Day Use Entry Passes are validated at the park entrance gate on the reservation date and can be used for 3 days of entry. There are some exceptions but reservations are required to enter Yosemite for day and overnight trips and you get them through Recreation.gov. If you have questions about those exceptions or changes, you can also check out Yosemite’s How will COVID-19 affect my visit?

Once through the gate, I headed up to and east on Tioga Road, then parked my car at the Mono Pass Trailhead, about 5.6 miles east of the Tuolumne Meadows Campground and 1.4 miles south of Tioga Pass. I put my snacks and cold drinks for after the hike and anything else that a bear might find irresistible in the bear box, then used the restroom. I had heard the skeeters were not bad but I was not going to take any chances so I sprayed down with mosquito repellent but I also hoped that a breeze would blow them away from me on my hike. I headed up the trail.







The same skinny log that I used last year to get across the Dana Fork was still adequate for the job. The trail led me on.

And past a pretty little tarn full of reflections. Love those cloud reflections! I purposely picked this day of the week for my hike because there was a 20% chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon. Those clouds always make the scenery up here extra special.

A few wildflowers were starting to show up.

We know this old miners cabin has been around a while because it shows up on old topographic maps and when I walk by it I wonder about the person who lived here back in the day. The trail that I walked on was a rough road utilized for silver mining that occurred in this area as early as the 1860s. The largest mines were the Golden Crown and the Ella Boss but there were many smaller mining efforts in this area. The Golden Crown Mine was established in 1879 by Orlando Fuller during the Tioga silver boom that also produced Bennettville and the Great Sierra Mine near Tioga Pass. Although the potential of these mines was talked up quite a bit, they were abandoned by 1890. The old cabin is shrinking every year, quickly disappearing and soon will be gone.

I continued on.

After a little over 2 miles, the trail splits and I stayed on the right fork, following the sign to Spillway Lake. The left fork goes to Mono and Parker Passes.

I started noticing more small wildflowers such as phlox and paintbrush tucked in the rocks.

As I started coming out of the trees, the meadow in front of me gave me my first peek of where I was headed.

The trail then started following up along Parker Pass Creek.

I always love this spot of Parker Pass Creek when you are almost to Spillway Lake. Those mountains just jump out at you and say hello!

I could see that the wind was up a little and that made me happy because it kept the mosquitoes away, but that wind wasn’t providing reflections on Spillway Lake so I bypassed that lake for now. I headed cross country up on the hills to the east of the lake to gain elevation for my approach to Helen Lake, keeping my eye on Spillway Lake as I climbed higher.

I soon had a nice view of my approach up to Helen Lake and it would be through a bit of snow which was just fine with me. To be honest, I was really hoping that there was still snow in this area. It was so darn hot at the house and there is a kind of psychological effect of being in the snow for a little while that makes that heat a little more bearable when I get home. And it is so pretty.

I soon reached Helen Lake (10,945′ elevation) and a slight wind was up, not conducive for those beautiful reflections in the lake that can occur, but still very pretty.

This beautiful lake is named after John Muir’s youngest daughter, Helen Lillian Muir. She was born January 1886 in California and died in 1964. She married Buel Alvin Funk in 1909 and moved to Belleville in San Bernardino County, California. Helen was often sick and the doctors thought that the desert air might help her health improve.

Belleville was a mining boomtown near Holcomb Valley and although the gold rush that hit this area from about 1860 to 1870 was long over, hard rock mining still took place up to about 1919. Helen’s husband Buel is listed as a Farmer on the 1920 through 1930 census in Belleville, owning their property after the 1910 census. The Funks continued to live in Belleville til at least the 1930 census and Buel died in 1934. Helen died in Spokane, Washington and is buried at the Bellevue Cemetery and Mausoleum in Ontario, California.

John Muir with wife Louie (Louisa) and daughter Helen on the front steps of the Martinez home (Photo Courtesy National Park Service)

I found a flat rock to eat a snack, admiring the view, and as I looked closer I spotted small flowers growing in the nooks and crannies of rocks.






I was anticipating those cumulus clouds to start building and didn’t want to be caught on a high point if some lightning started up, so around 11 I started heading down. Views of Mono Pass and Spillway Lake were very pretty.

One last look at the snow that I had come down through.

The area above Spillway Lake is kind of a marshy area in late spring and early summer, but in the fringe areas surrounding that part were several wildflowers.









And the bugs and small butterflies were busy working on those wildflowers.

I had been hearing occasional distant rumblings of thunder as I made my way back and it looked like maybe something was building in the Mono Pass area.

I made it back to the car just fine but as soon as I was pulling out of the parking lot, I started to get raindrops on the windshield. I only received about 100 of them but it was nice. There were a few traffic delays on my way home but they weren’t too bad. It was a small price to pay for a day in cooler weather and beautiful country. I saw about 7 people on the trail and I passed them on my way back as they were on their way up to Spillway Lake.

Bugs weren’t an issue on this hike but they sure can be up here. I remember one time that our pants and shirts were covered in mosquitoes. If this happens to you, get higher up on the hill above Spillway Lake and they won’t be so bad.

Dog Hike?

No, dogs not allowed in Yosemite National Park Wilderness.


What is a Doarama?  It is a video playback of the GPS track overlaid on a 3 dimensional interactive map. If you “grab” the map, you can tilt it or spin it and look at it from different viewing angles. With the rabbit and turtle buttons, you can also speed it up, slow it down or pause it.

Helen and Spillway Lakes Doarama

Map and Profile:


Helen Muir Bio by Sierra Club

John Muir: A Passion for Nature NPS

Yosemite Toad US Fish & Wildlife

Prior Blogs in the Area:

Adventures with Candace: Hiking to Helen and Spillway Lakes June 23, 2020

Hiking up Yosemite’s Mono Pass Trail to Helen Lake July 10, 2019

Hiking to Spillway and Helen Lakes July 6, 2018

Hiking up to Spillway and Helen Lakes August 1, 2017

Hiking up to Spillway and Helen Lakes June 29, 2016

Hiking on the Mono Trail to Spillway and Helen Lakes June 8 2014

Hiking and Fishing High Lakes along the Mono Pass Trail August 14, 2013

Hiking with the Yosemite Toad to Helen & Spillway Lakes June 7, 2013


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