More lakes than you can shake a stick at
I was looking through my Sierra Nevada hiking books for a hike that I may not have noticed, that would be a nice late summer hike near Mammoth Lakes. I've hike many trails within a 20 mile radius of Mammoth Lakes, but I've always stayed away from SR 120 to Yosemite. It turns out that just a few miles east of the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park is this little gem.
For a hike that to me seemed quite out of the way, this can be a very busy place. In fact, we had to park so far down the road from the trailhead that we tacked on close to an additional six-tenths of a mile to our hike.
If you're looking for an easy hike, this is a good hike for you. If you're looking for a harder hike, this is the hike for you. Here is why. First, the easy. If you look at the first photo in my photo set, you'll see a boat in the distance. That boat is a water taxi. You can take the water taxi to the far end of the lake and effectively shave 4 miles off of your hike. Therefore, if you take the water taxi both ways that 4 mile savings turns the back part of the loop into a 4.5 mile loop. I should clarify that despite the fact that hiking books say there is only 300 vertical feet of climbing in the hike, it's a lot of up and down on very rocky terrain. I estimate from the peaks and troughs on my track log that the total gain is closer to about 1,000 vertical feet. Yes, it's only 4.5 miles, but it's not nearly as flat as hiking books would have you believe. But that's what we do to see such beautiful places.
We opted to do the full hike, which meant that because of the extra mileage from the far away parking, our hike was about 9.3 miles. This means a 4 mile trek around Saddlebag Lake, marking the beginning and end of the hike. We also did probably an extra quarter mile of extracurricular hiking. Therefore, the official distance of the while loop should probably be about 8.5 miles. Note that the west side of Saddlebag Lake is much shorter than the east side. The trade off is that the east side is more scenic and less rocky than the west side.
The recommended direction to take on the loop is counter clockwise. The reason is that there is a steep loose hill just south of Lake Helen and that hill is much better suited for going downhill than uphill. We opted to do a figure 8 that had us go up that steep loose hill. How you go is your choice.
The hike passes 9 named lakes and a number of streams with larger pond areas. The views at many of these lakes are stunning, so don't forget your camera. A short detour from the main trail will take you to several other lakes including the Cascade Lakes that are located just west of Steelhead Lakes and the Twin Lakes and Z Lake located in the middle of the loop. Several other lakes can be found higher up on the slopes surrounding the basin.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.