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Hiking with the Yosemite Toad to Helen & Spillway Lakes

On a day when it was over 100 degrees in the valley and foothills, what is a person to do? Go high! We went up to two beautiful high sierra lakes in Yosemite to experience snow, an iced over lake, friendly clouds, gorgeous reflections in the lakes and a rare opportunity to get up close with the elusive Yosemite Toad.

Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 10.8 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Elevation Range: 9,626′ – 10,953′
Date: June 7, 2013

Highlights: When it is hot as all get out, nothing beats the heat better than going to the high elevations of Yosemite National Park. We went up to about the 11,000′ elevation where Helen Lake was still about 90% iced over, and had a couple of feet of snow in the ground in places. Friendly white puffy clouds against the clear blue sky created amazing reflections for us wherever we went. Fishing was a success and we saw a rare creature on the hike.
We parked our car at the Mono Pass Trailhead, about 5.6 miles east of the Tuolumne Meadows Campground and 1.4 miles south of Tioga Pass. After using the restrooms there and stowing our stuff in the bear box, we headed up the trail. We hadn’t gone down the trail too far before a small tarn provided beautiful reflections of Mammoth Peak.

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We had brought our water shoes with us, knowing that the spot where Dana Meadows Creek and Dana Fork come together might require some wading. And it did. There are several different techniques for keeping your socks and boots dry. Gail demonstrates the “Crocs” technique. Trekking poles helped us feel our way across the creek.

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Looking up the trail to where we were heading.

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Looking back down the trail where we came from, we could see the first teeny cloud of the day. The previous days had some good thunderstorms and rain but we picked this day because it looked like we might have a good weather window. But, you never really know. . .

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Spillway Lake, which we skirted but would visit on our way down from Helen Lake.

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The trail ends at Spillway Lake, so we skirted Spillway Lake, hugging the small hill on the east side, gaining elevation as we could, avoiding the trees, shrubs, small creek crossings and swampy areas the best we could. I like to get around the creek that comes out of Helen Lake and approach the lake on the south side of that creek. I think it is easier going. The tricky part is finding good spots to hop over the smaller creeks that snake around in that area, espcially this time of the year.

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We started up the snowfield towards Helen Lake. As we gained elevation, we encountered a snow depth of 1 to 2 feet, melting fast though.

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Many plants were just starting to pop out from their winter sleep. A few were beginning to flower but their flowers had me stumped so I contacted an expert. Joanna Clines, the Forest Botanist for the Sierra National Forest, identified most of these for me. I couldn’t have done it without her help.

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Sierra wallflower, Erysimum perenne, Brassicaceae – Mustard Family:

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Showy penstemon Penstemon speciosus:

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I think this may be whoolly sunflower Eriophyllum lanatum:

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I originally wasn’t going to include this picture because the picture was fuzzy but when I found out from Joanna that it was bog kalmia, Kalmia polifolia, in the Ericaceae or Heather Family, and that it is very poisonous, I felt that I should share it.

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And what a view as we got our first look at Helen Lake, about 90% still iced over.

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My hiking buddies made their way over to a good lunch spot. . . .

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And I fished. The Brook Trout were biting and I took home some 8-9 inchers and released some others.

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The reflections in Helen Lake were a constantly changing scene from the white puffy clouds floating over us.

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A couple of panorama shots from Helen Lake.

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After wandering around Helen Lake, fishing and taking pictures, we headed down the hill from Helen Lake. The trip down the hill through the snow was easie and faster going.

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It is not dificult to take a good picture in such beautiful country but I will share one of my secrets.

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Gail Gilbert took this picture of me taking the previous pictures. Pack, fishing pole and shorts, sitting in the snow.

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It was also a great spot to get some shots of my hiking buddies heading down the hill through the snow.

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And Gail Gilbert took this picture of me heading down toward Spillway Lake, our next stop, in the view.

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The views were amazing on the way down toward Spillway Lake.

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Closeup of the outlet of Bingaman Lake, which is located above and to the west of Spillway Lake.

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When my hiking buddy Gail, spotted what looked like a frog, I got so excited trying to capture a picture that I poked myself in my leg with my trekking pole. Really!

“He”, who turned out to be a “she”, blended in extremely well with the surrounding vegetation. The important part is that I got the picture!! But what kind of frog was this? I knew just the person to ask. Beth Pratt, the California Director of the National Wildlife Federation told me that she thought it looked like a Yosemite Toad. She shared a chapter of her blog that she had done at the National Wildlife Federation’s website on the Yosemite Toad. She also has a link there to a great video that she took with the mating frogs and that is how I discovered that Mr. Yosemite Toad was really Ms. Yosemite Toad!

http://blog.nwf.org/2012/06/the-love-song-of-the-yosemite-toad/

It turns out I had actually heard their singing when we made our way down to the upper end of Spillway Lake but I couldn’t spot one. I learned that their “love song” can be heard up to 100 yards away. The natural range of the Yosemite Toad is limited to the high sierra. In Beth’s Blog, she says that It’s populations have vanished from 50 percent of its historic range and in the Tioga Pass area the declines have been up to 90 percent from 1971 to 1993. The change of our climate could be the cause, including drought conditions and shrinking snowpack

Try and see if you can spot the Yosemite Toad in the next picture. She is very good at blending in.

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We headed down the trail and right along side th trail, a butterfly modeled for us.

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We passed by a small herd of deer. Although we hoped we could align a shot with the snowy mountains in the background and the deer in the foreground, the deer did not cooperate. They did stand along side the trail, cautiously watching us as we walked on by.

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We had Helen Lake all to ourselves and it was truly a magical day up there. The snow is melting fast up there but it is still a very nice high mountain lake to head to. There are some swampy areas in the Spillway Lake and below Helen Lake that can be horrible when the moquitos are at their prime.

We have had to utilize mosquito netting on our faces, wear long pants Hiking with the Yosemite Toad 47and long sleeves and fully spray down to get through this area in past years. The best piece of advice I have for you is to try and avoid the swampy areas during this time and stay in the hills that surround that area the best you can.

Sources:
http://blog.nwf.org/2012/06/the-love-song-of-the-yosemite-toad/
Yosemite National Park, A Complete Hiker’s Guide, Jeffrey P. Schaffer, May 2008

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