Yosemite and Saddlebag Lake Loop Hike

Updated: Sep 28

Holiday weekends in Tahoe are always busy, and Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer for many people, so we get pretty inundated with beachgoers, hikers, bikers, and water-sport fanatics throughout the extended weekend, trying to maximize the final days of summer. It's usually a great reason for us to escape the frenzy in Tahoe and explore other areas. So, we headed down to Lee Vining, CA, for a hike, sightseeing, and a little Jeeping.


As we were driving along Hwy 28, it became obvious to us that this year might have been the busiest we've seen this corridor in the nearly a decade we've lived in Tahoe. As we headed east to get down to Hwy 395, we were astounded at the sheer volume of vehicles jam packed along both sides of Hwy 28 (parked both illegally and legally) for miles and miles along the east Tahoe shoreline.


We stopped for a late lunch at our favorite BBQ place that never disappoints and continued on our journey down Hwy 395.


Since the annual Burning Man event was winding down, we also saw numerous "burners" on our route. I had to take a pic of this one. The Playa dust-coated bicycles are a dead giveaway. Plus, the "Topanga" bumper sticker made me laugh.


Such intense beauty along Hwy 395.


Before we reached Lee Vining, however, we turned off the pavement and headed toward Kavanaugh Ridge. This route was one that my husband has tried to take two times previously (once with me in the Land Cruiser, and once with his dad in the Jeep), and both times were thwarted by deep snow and other impassable obstacles. So, this would be the third attempt. But since it was early September, we were pretty confident that deep snow would not be an issue this time.



The route to the ridge, overall, was pretty tame. A few bumpy spots, a few technical rocky spots, but nothing too crazy. We came across a few people tent camping, but other than that, not a single soul out on the road.


When we reached the ridge, the views were more amazing than expected.





On the left is East Lake, and down on the right, if you look past the patch of trees is Green Lake. The first time we hiked to Green Lake was when we also hiked to East Lake. And it was also the hike where we rescued Butterfly Betty. The second time we hiked to Green Lake was over Thanksgiving weekend when we took my husband's aunt and uncle to it and the amazing lake was frozen over!


Hints of orange-tinged wildfire smoke in the air.






As we walked back to the parked Jeep, we both chuckled when we noticed how it was half-heartedly resting on top of this rock. Jeeps have a certain reputation and it's as if the Jeep couldn't simply park normally, it just had to drive up on a rock. 🤣


At the top of Kavanaugh Ridge, the entire area is rocks upon rocks upon rocks. But I noticed this unexpected small patch of green encircled with dainty little white flowers amongst all of these rocks.



The Jeep in the middle of the rocky Kavanaugh Ridge.


We started to make our way back down the rough road, stopping for a nice shot with Mono Lake in the background.



Shortly after our off-road adventure, we arrived in Lee Vining, found our lodging, and checked in. But we decided not to settle into our room at the moment.


Despite our duration in Tahoe, we had yet to venture into Yosemite National Park. Our outdoor adventure plans tend to avoid busyness and places with large crowds. In 2021, Yosemite had 3.3 million visitors, and while that only ranks it 21 on the list of the 25 busiest national parks, out of 423 national parks, that's still pretty dang busy. So, naturally, it makes sense that our maiden voyage into Yosemite would be during a holiday weekend. 😬


The other obstacle to visiting Yosemite has been that an advance reservation is required to enter the park. In fact, during peak hours, any travel on Hwy 120/Tioga Pass (which turns into Tioga Road and Big Oak Flat Road and takes you through the park) is prohibited unless you have a park reservation.


But since we were in the area, we thought we might check it out a little bit. The "peak hours" window ends at 4 p.m., which means we can enter the park without a reservation after that time. We took advantage of the remaining daylight (and our annual national park pass) and headed into Yosemite for the first time.


Views of Tioga Pass into Yosemite.





We spotted a lone deer along the way.


At a stop at Olmstead Point, we hiked out to the overlook of Cloud's Rest and Half Dome at dusk.


We also stopped at Tenaya Lake on our way back out of the park.



After driving several miles into the park, we started to lose daylight, so we turned around and headed back toward Lee Vining. Before returning to the lodge, however, we stopped at the famous Woah Nellie Deli for a really late dinner and a couple of souvenir pins and stickers. It's the best "gas station" food you'll ever eat.


We woke up early the next morning and set out for the trailhead, just outside of Yosemite, to begin our hike for the day.



My husband plotted out an 8-ish-mile loop route that starts at Saddlebag Reservoir and loops around several other lakes. I did not know much about this area or the hike itself, so I was very pleasantly surprised at what we saw along the way.


By the end, I proclaimed that this hike belongs in my top-5 hikes list. It might even be bumped up to the top-3 list if we had done it earlier in the season when there was more water.


At first, it starts with Saddlebag Reservoir.




An old cabin along the route.

And some really official signage on this trail!


The smallest "wilderness" sign I have come across.


Once we departed from the surrounding terrain of Saddlebag, it turned to a slightly monochrome landscape with very dry scrub grasses and bushes, dotted with short, sporadic trees.

But the backdrop was still pretty impressive.




Amongst the dry vegetation was this unexpected small pond.


Little did I know what was awaiting just around the trail bend...



This pretty little oasis is known as Hummingbird Lake.




After spending spending several minutes here, I aimed to catch up to my husband, who continued on ahead of me while I thoroughly explored this lake. I don't know if it was the surprise factor at play, but I just loved this little lake.



Then onto the next oasis, Odell Lake, as we clamored along the rocky trail.





A short distance after Odell is this intense rocky canyon that descends to Lake Helen. As we were carefully making our way down the rough, unstable crevice, another hiking couple was struggling their way up it. Boy, was I glad we were going down rather than up.


Here was our first glimpse of Lake Helen from the top of this rocky canyon.



Looking back up at the canyon from the bottom. The two hikers are still making their way up to the top.


From the beautiful shoreline of Lake Helen. The rough, rocky canyon we hiked down is the crevice on the left. Several people were fishing along the rocky shore of Lake Helen when we hiked past.



We climbed quite a bit after circling Lake Helen and looked back at it along with some of the smaller unnamed lakes and ponds tucked amongst the green vegetation.





After climbing over some rock faces and boulders, we arrived at Shamrock Lake.














Then it was on to Steelhead Lake.


Along the trail that paralleled the lake, I actually saw a frog jump! Clearly, this area has plenty of water to attract and sustain a frog, but this entire hike was above 10,000 ft., so I was surprised to see a frog at that elevation.




Along our route, we crossed paths with numerous other hikers, but I wouldn't say it was a busy trail. This duo was among my favorites. A father took his daughter backpacking, camping, and swimming, and as they made their way back to the trailhead together, they were holding hands. My heart melted a little.


Shortly after this sighting, the next little "watering hole" was being fully enjoyed by a young family, complete with a buck-naked 3-year-old little boy. 🤣


We continued making our way back toward Saddlebag Reservoir, taking in the beautiful little chain of lakes and incredible backdrop along the way.



Greenstone Lake, the final lake before returning to Saddlebag.



Back to the dry vegetation.


Rounding along the other side of Saddlebag.


I was highly entertained by this scene as we hiked on the rocky trail along Saddlebag. From what we could tell, this was a group of 8 mergansers. Over and over again, they would – one by one, as if counting off – deep dive under the surface for several minutes, and then, one by one, each one would pop back up to the surface just the same. It was so funny!




This final stretch of trail along Saddlebag was so rocky. We actually had two mountain bikers come up on us from behind, and I honestly wondered why they chose this trail. They ended up walking their bikes for 95% of this.



Once we got past this rocky terrain, we had to cross the dam in order to get back to the parking lot. I stood on it, looking over the edge at a massive school of tiny minnows down below. Their movements like fluid choreography.


We made it back to the Jeep and got ourselves ready for the drive back to Tahoe. While I had no predetermined expectations for this hike, I was truly pleasantly surprised at how amazing it ended up being.




Saddlebag Lake Loop

Total Distance

8.64 mi

Total Time

4:20:00

Total Ascent

919 ft

Max Elevation

10,343 ft