Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

Ten Lakes Basin – a quick photographic pack trip

Earlier this week I spent a few days in the Ten Lakes Basin area of Yosemite National Park. Although I’ve backpacked widely in the high country of the park over the past years – OK, decades… – this was actually the very first time that I visited this popular backpacking destination. I think I had shied away from it for a couple reasons: it seems perhaps too popular and accessible, and I tend to prefer somewhat higher and more alpine terrain. But it was time, I visited, and I’m glad I did.

I managed to get to the park fairly early on a Monday morning and pick up a wilderness permit without problems. (Congratulations to ranger “Elizabeth” who issued her very first Yosemite wilderness permit to me… ;-) It was less difficult to get the permit than it might be under different circumstances: school has started for many and the midweek backcountry “traffic” begins to decline near the end of August. Although I had permit in hand by 9:00 a.m. or so, for a variety of reasons I did not hit the trail until about 1:30.

Although I carry a map and can do a fine job of finding my way around in the mountains with or without a trail, these days I sometimes don’t obsess over “knowing everything” (as if that were even possible!) about the route ahead of time. That was the case on this trip. I was familiar with the trailhead, having driving past it many times, and I had often looked up the valley into which it goes. But beyond that I initially had almost no idea of the actual terrain – in fact, I had long be under the mistaken impression that the Basin is on the south side of the ridge. Wrong.

Before I actually hit the trail I did consult the map more carefully and discover that the lakes are actually on the other side of the ridge… and a few hundred feet below the high point of the trail on a ridge that divides Mariposa and Tuolumne counties. I was starting to catch on that there might be a bit more climbing on this trip than I had really imagined – I sort of intentionally did not measure the climb… which turned out to be about 2000 feet. Now a 2000 foot climb is not a giant one, especially compared to some of 3000′ to 5000′ that I’ve done in the southern Sierra – but neither is it exactly a happy little afternoon walk. In the end, what with stops for photography and food and water along the way, it was close to 7:00 p.m. by the time I arrived at my campsite at “lake three,” the lake to the left of the trail when it arrives in the Basin. I basically set up camp, fixed dinner, did a bit of reading, and went to sleep.

Day 2 was fairly lazy. I did not get up early, so I missed some possible early morning photo opportunities, though I used the better part of the rest of the morning to scout out shooting locations for later. In the afternoon I wandered on up to the next lake and did a bit of photography, especially on the way back down when shadows from the cliff to the west were starting to create some interesting lighting conditions. I also visited the main lake (“lake two”) and found a couple scenes that I returned to photograph later in the evening.

By the end of this second day I was thinking more about the tremendous panorama I had seen as I crossed the high ridge above the lake on the way in. I was stunned by the wide open views, especially toward the peaks of the Sierra crest from Dana and Gibb past Conness to other high peaks far to the north, all set off against the rock-strewn summit of the ridge, tree covered ridges below, and below all of that the depths of the Tuolumne River canyon. I started to make a plan to do a “dry camp” on the ridge on the next night and try to photograph the evening and then the following morning.

On the third day I still had this plan in mind in the morning. But first I did more photography around lake three, including near the outlet stream where I had found some still-fresh vegetation and flowers. (By this time much of the summer plant life is starting to show signs of going dormant. Many flowers have blossomed and gone to seed and some very early hints of fall color are already starting to appear.) After this I decided to explore further up this creek and by a combination of use trails and cross-country scrambling I managed to get up to lake five. I returned to my camp by about 2:00 – hungry for lunch! – and soon packed up with the plan of doing that “dry camp” on the ridge for the photography.

Late in the afternoon I started up the trail and I reached the ridge by about 4:45 or so – but I was somewhat disappointed to find that a very large wildfire was burning to the west and sending quite a bit of smoke my way, and also generally adding a lot of brown haze to the scene that had been so clear two days earlier. I poked around a bit and found a potential camp spot for my bivy sack in a clump of trees on the ridge, but in the end I decided that the photographs I had in mind just weren’t going to happen in these conditions – and I decided to head out and drive home that night. (One often doesn’t know for sure whether such decisions are right or not – but I think this was the right decision given that the fire continued – continues, as I write this – to grow and shortly forced a closure of the Big Oak Flat road into the valley.)

So, at about 6:00 p.m. I started down from the ridge, having resolved to make a beeline for the trailhead. Most of the trail is conducive to fast downhill walking, with the exception of a few steep and rocky sections near the beginning and end of the descent, and I made good time. I arrived at my car before 8:00 p.m. – still enough light to see well, but fading fast – and was soon on the road back to the Bay Area.

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August 28, 2009 - Posted by | Trips, Yosemite | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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