Sunday, March 1, 2020

Descending from the Roof of the High Sierra: A Cross-Country Hike from Roosevelt Lake to Young Lake

August 1, 2019
Place: Yosemite National Park, California
Trailhead coordinates: 37.975692, -119.331303
Length: 4.3 miles
Level: moderate

The third night of the backpacking trip in Yosemite I went on last summer with my friend was the coldest of our nights there. It was the one night that justified carrying the base layers with us throughout the entire trip. When I exited the tent at first light I had all my layers on and was still shivering. The sun rays had lit only the highest peak on the west and the rest of the valley was still dark.
Approaching Daylight
I went about my morning routine, pausing every minute or two to rub my hands together or blow my breath in them. I collected water from the nearby creek and started boiling it for tea and breakfast, sitting on the big flat table rock and gazing at the lake.
Our campsite at Roosevelt Lake
My friend made it out of the tent in time to join me for hot tea and in gazing at the advancing line of light and the beautiful reflection on the very calm Roosevelt Lake.
Dawn at the Lake
The line of light approached slowly but as soon as the first rays of sun peeked over the eastern skyline  sunrise was happening really fast. It seemed that within only a few seconds the sun popped completely and washed our little valley in brilliant light.
At last we had a good, clear view of the southern slope of McCabe Pass where we had come down of the evening before. It didn't seem such a big deal in the bright morning light. It also didn't look all that much overgrown, but I remembered well the thicket of willows that we had to push our way through.
A little waterfall was visible now. I heard it last evening and now I could see it too.

I was tempted to go up to the pass once more to explore the wildflowers scene I had to breeze through so quickly the night before. My friend said she'll wait for me but won't go up herself and I didn't expect her too.
In the end however, I didn't go up. Perhaps I should have, because I don't know when next I'll get to see the alpine bloom again.
Roosevelt Lake
Fortunately, there was no shortage of wildflowers down by the lake as well, although many of them I had already seen by Lake McCabe.
Snow Willow, Salix nivalis
It didn't take long for the mosquitoes to wake up. The short respite we had from them while going up and down the pass was over. We got our stuff packed, hoisted our backpacks, and started down southward along the western shoreline of the lake.
Our hike from Roosevelt Lake to Young Lake
We were in no hurry, having the whole day to cover a fairly short distance to Young Lake, which was downhill. Roosevelt Lake is about a mile long and we walked lazily along the shore sans trail, enjoying the brilliant day and the lovely wildflowers.
Alpine Pussytoes, Antennaria media 
The mosquitoes bothered us, but they were not as ubiquitous as they were yesterday over the bog below Upper McCabe Lake. Between some feet and lots of swatting, we did ok.
For the most part the lake shore was easy enough to traverse. The soil was very moist and boggy and we had to hop over small brooks now and then. Whenever we could we moved to somewhat higher and drier land but we wanted to stay close enough to the lake and stray too far.

A flock of little birds were frolicking by the water, hopping on the rocks and flying low by the grass. They didn't seem to be bothered by us too much. Of course they wouldn't let me get too close, but I did get some nice shots of them from a reasonable distance. These were rosy finches - a species that loves the High Sierra. I've seen one before at Mineral King. Pappa quail hasn't seen one yet - I hope these little cuties will be enough a lure for him to join me on a High Sierra backpacking trip sometime.
Rosy Finch
The lake itself was very shallow. The water was pretty clear, and the light sparkled from the gentle ripples on the surface. Even the sun was taking a dip in the lake.
Roosevelt Lake
My friend pointed something out to me - a net was stretched below the surface from east to west. Why was it there? I do not know. As we walked along the lake we saw several of those. Maybe I'll find out one day. 
Another local dweller darted across and over a large pink granite slab. It was a cute little chipmunk. The chipmunk paused on the rocky ledge and munched on something while keeping a wary eye on us as we walked along. 
Alpine Chipmunk
Soon our progress along the lakeshore would become slower and more challenging: a large mass of granite rock blocked the easy way to the south side of the lake. Way had to chose between climbing the rocks or wade in the lake. Either chose would be while carrying our backpacks on.

Not all that thrilled to dip our bodies on the ice-cold water of Roosevelt Lake we opted to climb the rocks. There were enough holds and I thought I could see evidence of the humans passing through that place sometime before us.
Pink Alumroot, Heuchera rubescens 
We didn't have to climb too far high, only enough to get over the rocks to the other side, where the ground dropped again to the waterfront. And the cracks in the granite mass were like w beautiful rock garden, all abloom with wildflowers.
Western Moss Heather, Cassiope mertensiana 
Little birds flow from rock to rock around us, keeping safe distance as we made our way up and down the granite. They looked similar to those we've seen earlier that morning, but when enlarging the photos at home they showed to be of a different species.
Purple Finch, Female
We made it over the rock block and back down to the lake shore. There the ground was no longer the soft, moss-covered peat but hard and almost dry granite gravel. It wasn't too dry though, there was enough moisture there to support many little patches of bloom.
Sierra Penstemon, Penstemon heterodoxus 
Those little spots of color were balm to the spirit. Although my friend is not a botanist, I could tell that today's easy walk through the magical alpine spring was doing wonders to her soul and her health. I could see no signs for yesterday's challenge in her demeanor at all. No medication could have helped better.
Dwarf Alpine Paintbrush, Castilleja nana
The lake was much narrower on its south side, and more narrow it got as we continued following the west shoreline. There wasn't much snow left on this side of the pass, but the lake, fed by the melting snow, was full to the brim.
Roosevelt Lake
For most of our morning walk a light breeze rippled the lake surface. Near the south side however, we walked around a small, quiet cove where the surface was as calm as a mirror and the reflection just fabulous.
Like a funnel, the lake narrowed more and more, until disappearing into a narrow gap between the rocks on either side. We followed the funneled lake along the gravel shore.
Alpine Ivesia, Ivesia gordonii 
The alpine wildflowers are generally small in stature. Some of them however, were really really tiny and easy to miss. Especially those individuals which were just at the onset of their bloom.
Lyall's Rockcress, Boechera lyallii 
We kept on walking along the western bank of Conness Creek into which the lake funneled, looking for a convenient place to cross without having to take off our shoes. I looked back at the granite bowl we were leaving - it looked so barren! Only we've been right there and seen that t wasn't barren at all. Just a very low vegetation. I felt sorry to leave it so soon, there was so much there I wanted to see still!
View north toward the Roosevelt Lake Bowl
But there was much to see onward too. Certainly flowers, including species we haven't seen north of the pass.
Sanddune Wallflower, Erysimum perenne
After a short distance we found a suitable place to cross the creek without having to take our shoes off. It involved stepping on a small island in the middle of the creek where I paused to take in the view of the creek cutting southward through the rocks. What is not apparent in this photo below us that there is no level continuation with the farthest peak - just where the creek disappears from view the water drops down a very steep gully. We had to cross the creek before reaching that point because the terrain wasn't passable (not easily) beyond it.
View south along Conness Creek
For some distance east of the creek the terrain was very similar to what we've been walking on before the creek crossing. That is, low granite rocks and gravel areas decorated with low plants, all at the peak of their bloom.
Frosted Buckwheat, Eriogonum incanum 
The granite gravel was interrupted more frequently by patches of moist soil covered with green vegetation that was mainly sedge.
Sedge, Carex sp. 
Little by little the other colors were left behind and replaced with the green of grasses and sedges. Whereas before the green patches were the small 'islands' in the grayish gravel field, now the gravel patches made the small 'islands' in an otherwise green area.
Silky Raillaedella, Raillardella argentea 
Over the low ridge the green had its ultimate victory of colors. Between us and the mountain side lay a flat meadow of brilliant green, carved by a few narrow bands of blue creeks.
On any other occasion I would have been thrilled to see the meadow. This time however, learned by yesterday's experience at the swampy bog, all I could think of was 'mosquitoes'. Indeed, there seemed to be a rise in mosquito cloudiness around us. Hence I kept us going south along the granite ridge for as long as we could do so.

Eventually we did have to get down to the meadow. Up close it looked more beautiful than from above, and the mosquitoes weren't as bad as I had feared. We crossed the meadow and hopped over the narrow creeks, steering eastward.

The meadow wasn't completely green as it appeared from above - narrow bands of pink shooting star lined the creek banks.
Shooting Star, Primula sp. 
At its southeast side the meadow was drier and started sloping downhill. The green field became patched with large granite rocks that were bulging through the grass. Shortly further we arrived at the tree line. Small alpine sierra pines added their dark green to the High Sierra quilt of colors.

Out of the meadow we were back in the realm of wildflowers, more familiar now, of the lower High Sierra elevation. 
Tidy Lupine, Lupinus lepidus 
Our progress was faster now. Not only was it easier to walk but the lazy mood that we started with had finally lifted and replaced by a more industrious urge to cover distance. Still, I pause by every pretty flower I saw.
Sierra Daisy, Erigeron algidus
The butterflies became just as industrious. Many butterflies of many species were flying around us, rarely pausing long enough to get photographed. There was one exception - we came upon a narrow depression in the ground with thin, very moist soil. That one place had the intense interest of a group of about 15 blue butterflies that kept fluttering over and landing to suck something from the soil. I was later told that this way they draw minerals from the soil.
Blue butterflies 
After that the exposed soil was less frequent and the ground cover more green. Not the lush, deep green of the meadow sedges but the drier, summery looking green of grass. The downhill slope too had become, while not exactly steep, but certainly more pronounced.

It was there again that my navigator watch had once again become very useful. Not wanting to get all the way down to the trail and then having to go uphill again to Young Lake, I identified the altitude line of Young Lake on the electronic top map and did my best to adhere to it.
Mountain Pride, Penstemon newberri 
But we weren't quite there yet. We still had to go down a few hundreds of feet before we would reach the desired altitude. We did so pulling east as much as we could along the contour of the peak to our north without having to climb any large boulders up or down.

Either way, we were losing altitude quickly, and before long we were engulfed in the conifer forest we had left the day before when we made our ascend to Upper Lake McCabe.

In the forest the wildflowers scene changed again to display shade-adapted and higher moisture loving plants.
Jewelweed, Steptanthus tortuosus
There again we came upon the fairy-like Leichtlin mariposa lily. There were many of them all over the place, but not dense enough to give the impression of a carpet.
Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily, Calochortus leichtlinii 
we kept pulling eastward, more cautious not to get too low in altitude. An opening in the trees revealed a pointy, toothy peak that is fittingly named, "Rugged Peak". This peak is right over Young Lake and it was there we were heading.
Rugged Peak
Rugged Peak wasn't that far away but getting there proved a much slower process than I originally thought it would. We couldn't take the direct route because the altitude changes were too extreme so we had to meander all the way around along the slope we were on.
Shaggy Lupine, Lupinus covillei 
Little creeks made their way down to the gulch below, taking a much more direct route downhill. These small creeks were not an obstacle in any way, but we did pause near some of them to take short breaks and to fill up on water.
I kept counting the main creeks we've crossed. By the third one we shifted southward again, following the contour of the slope.
A nameless forest creek
It was nearing mid day and the day became hot. After negotiating a particularly difficult stretch of talus and fallen logs we came to a small clearing at the edge of a cliff where there were a few large fallen logs and an open view down. We stopped there for a lunch break, then my friend laid down on a slanted boulder and took a nap while I sat quietly and contemplated nature and other spiritual thoughts, eager to get going but not wanting to wake my friend up. Eventually I got on my feet and looked fr more wildflowers.
One-seeded Pussypaws, Calyptridium monospermum 
We stayed there for about half an hour, then my friend stirred and we got going once more, gradually dropping more in altitude. The terrain also became more level and easier to traverse. We crossed a few small grassy forest clearings that had some nice bloom. There I saw the first cornily plants since we made it down from the pass. They were not blooming yet, unlike those we've seen at Tuolumne Meadows on our first day.
California Cornlily, Veratrum californicum var, californicum 
Not farther down we came upon the last patch of snow. It was already alone and much diminished. although there was no sign saying it, I knew it would be the last.

We moved on through an alternating repetitive terrain, meaning forest interrupted routinely by small meadows, talus, and creeks over and over and over.
Slender Buttercup, Ranunculus alismifolius var. alismellus 
We were going westward by then, making the arch around the deep valley below. It became more and more difficult to maintain the altitude line I wanted because we constantly had to circumvent obstacles. Somehow it was always easier to bypass obstacles by taking the lower path.

Thus it happened that we came upon the last creek to cross about 200 feet below the altitude if Young Lake. Not only that, but we had to go down a pretty steep and slippery slope to get to the creek itself. This creek was coming down from Young Lake. We needed to get uphill along that creek but first we needed to cross it. I though of going up along the eastern creek bank but I didn't know how easy it would be to cross it up there. Knowing that we needed to get to the west side, I led us down to cross the creek right there. This creek crossing turned to be the most challenging we've had to d the entire trip because of the sharp slope and the fast moving water. It took us some time to find a suitable place to cross and we took our time to do it slowly and carefully.

On the west side we took our time to put our shoes back on, then we faced going up hill again with no trail, up a steep slope. It was by no means as challenging as the uphill climb we did to get to Upper Lake McCabe but we did have to walk slow.

The slow pace was fine enough for me because I could give attention to the numerous insect that were flying around us. Fortunately, the population of mosquitos had dropped to a more tolerable level.
Solitary bee
Although we walked up slowly, we reached the top quite fast. Then suddenly was the trail! After two days off trail we were very glad to see it.

Immediately we stepped on the trail and quickly followed it to Young Lake. 
Young Lake
We reached the lake and there we saw we were not alone in the wilderness anymore - there were other campers nearby. We were also met a a ranger who verified that we had the bear canister and the wilderness permit with us.
Common Merganser in Young Lake
Although there were other campers by Young Lake it wasn't difficult to find a got place with enough space and solitude to set our own little camp. There, my friend took out her mattress and commenced to take another nap while I pitched the tent and did some clothes washing.
A solar drier 
This nap was much longer. Bored, I took my camera and went exploring. And there was much to see. Not only the wide views but the teensy critters and their little big dramas, like these ants I saw that seemed to be pulling apart one of their comrades.

There was the bloom, of course, and much of it. I was happy to see more wildflowers that were new to me. A patchers of cottongrass by the lake shore reminded me a bit of the Lorax's traffula trees in  minute version.
Cotton Grass, Calliscirpus criniger 
There by the lakeshore I also met the already familiar rhododendron that I've seen by nearly every body of water throughout our trip.
Western Labrador Tea, Rhododendron columbianum
Then I made it all the way to the place where the lake's overflow spills into the creek my friend and I had crossed with some challenge earlier that day. The spillway was wide and shallow, with wood planks and rocks strategically placed across to enable easy crossing without having to wade. Turns out we could have hiked up along the eastern creek bank and save the crossing to when we've reached the lake. Oh, well. It there ever would be a next time there I'll keep that in mind.
Lake Young spillway 
I crossed to the east side of the creek and sat for some time, gazing at the flow of water and contemplating my life. The wildflowers were pretty.
Great Red Paintbrush, Castilleja miniata 
When I got bored of sitting down I crossed the creek again to the western side. I passed by our campsite. I found my friend awake and persuaded her to take a walk by the lake. At first I thought of getting to the upper Young Lakes but two other campers came by who were just returning from there and informed us that the upper lakes were ridden with mosquitoes. So we decided to walk along the lower Young Lake by the shore of which we were camping.
Our campsite at Young Lake
We took a lazy walk westward on the trail we would take on the morrow to return back to Tuolumne Meadows. We saw a few other campsites and came across a few other hikers/campers, but didn't get into any more chats with anyone else.

My friend an I chatted with each other plenty though. Always we have what to talk about. That was a very different experience form my previous solo backpacking trips, which were very silent, naturally.
Chatty as I was, I didn't neglect checking out the wildflowers, even the smallest ones.  
Dwarf Bilberry, Vaccinium cespitosum
I also found color not only in the flowers. Butterflies of course were plenty, and too active to catch on camera. But there were those small shiny emerald beetles, only slightly bigger than the grains of granite. As shiny as they were, they were actually pretty hard to see, unless when on the move.  

Of course it wasn't only the tiny critters that got my attention. There were plenty of birds about, but they were very active and I didn't have the patience to try and get any photographs. But then a single robing dropped down to the forest floor and eyed us closely. Close enough for me to snap some decent photos.
American Robin
We found a nice flat rock by the water and sat there for a long while, gazing at the lake and talking, until the shadows elongated enough to cover us. All of a sudden the air turned chilly, so we commenced our walk, going back to our campsite.
Young Lake
We made it all the way east to the lake's spillway and filled our water containers for cooking dinner. The grove of fir and pine across the creek was still fully illuminated and looked very lush and healthy. I truly hope that the Sierra forests ailments of recent years would not reach this place.

To the west the forest was already under the shadows. We paused briefly by the lakeshore to look at Rugged Peak, still illuminated by the westering sun, before getting back to our camp to cook dinner.
Rugged Peak
We had a peaceful dinner as the sun was setting. After that my friend busied herself with washing the dishes while I took my camera and headed back to the lake shore to follow the end of the day.
Sunset by Young Lake
As I have seen on other occasions while camping by High Sierra lakes, as soon as the sun went down the fish started jumping up, attempting to snag the insects that flew near the surface. I snapped at least a hundred shots trying to catch the fish out of the water but almost always I was too late. They had no pattern, these fish. I just hope that they were catching many mosquitoes because by the time I gave up on trying to get the perfect shot of a jumping fish I was pretty annoyed with them.
Jumping fish
I remained by the lake until the last rays of sun disappeared from the mountain ridge line. By then it got cold enough to prompt me to wear my sweater.
Young Lake at sunset
Young Lake was too high to have a campfire. Even if we could, we probably wouldn't have. Shortly after sunset the fatigue caught up with me. It was a very long day and, while we didn't cover a very long distance, it was quite strenuous. I also felt a bit serene, knowing that this night would be the last of our backpacking trip. That the morrow would take us back to Tuolumne Meadows and out of Yosemite. 


  1. very beautiful hike. The sunrise, sunset and reflection pictures are especially beautiful

    1. Seems like a dream now .... how I wish I was "in isolation" right there!

  2. oh wow, it's so so so beautiful!!! amazing, and all the flowers. especially those tiny alumroot, of the Saxifraga family. the lakes are delightful!

    1. I thought of you a lot while hiking there. You would have loved it!