Looking for an easy hike in the Eastern Sierras with the most bang for your buck? Look no further than the 20 Lakes basin trail loop. This trail starts at just above 10,000 ft but is relatively flat, undulating a few hundred feet of elevation during the hike. This hike can be done as a day hike or do what we did and take your time on a 1 or 2-day backpacking trip. Giving you an opportunity to visit these pristine alpine lakes at magic hour.
Just outside of the Yosemite National Park and close to the town of Lee Vining in the Eastern Sierra is 20 Lakes Basin Trail. Starting at Saddlebag Lake this trail is a non-quota trail so you don’t need a permit to backpack at this trailhead up till greenstone lake. If you are backpacking to 20 lakes basin you need to get a permit for the hover wilderness.
You can do this loop clockwise, counterclockwise, or in a figure eight with very well-marked trails along most of the route. We decided to go clockwise along the route to stare up at North Peak as we started the hike. You can do this trail as a 7.8-mile loop but we decided to add an extra .7 miles to go around the other side of Saddlebag Lake. More on that later…
Walking along the rocky path of Saddlebag Lake is maybe the worst part of the trail but is still a beautiful place to breathe in the 10,000 ft air. Just at the end of saddlebag lake, you continue straight until you reach greenstone lake which like many of the lakes in this area is filled with loads of Brook Trout. Hugging Greenstone lake fairly tight around the first corner there is a little stream crossing. At the stream crossing, you enter the 75 square miles Hoover Wilderness.
Moving around Greenstone lake it was a little hard to find the trail with the new growth but we managed to find it again. I built a few cairns to help others keep on the trail and do as little damage as possible to the surrounding area. Then we headed toward North Peak.
North Peak is the ever-present menissing mt that stands high above us during the duration of this hike. It stands high at 12,242 ft and there are a few mountaineering routes (SW face, NW ridge, North Couloir, SE Chute) to get to the top or close to the top to ski down.
You pass a few more minor lakes along the way, Wasco Lake and Golden Lake before you hit Steelhead Lake. Here you can choose to continue straight or go on the west side of the lake. One of my favorite parts of this trail is the west side of Steelhead Lake. It’s in the basin of North Peak and hosts many lakes and some of the best camping on the whole of the trail. The small sun-heated pools make for some good midday soaking.
Something to also note is that North Peak, Mount Conness, and Conness lake are all part of the Harvey Monroe Hall Natural Area is limited to day use so no camping or fires in that area.
Hiking around the basin there is a trail that heads down the north side of Steelhead Lake. Supposedly there is a mine around here but we couldn’t find it. Here is a link of someone that had better luck then we did finding the mine.
Jumping back on the main trail we hopped over another stream crossing and headed to Excelsior Lake, another fantastic place to camp and one that we stayed at during this trip.
This camping spot was great perched high above a few lakes providing some of the most amazing sunset views I’ve been lucky enough to see. This camp spot more than stayed the required 100 ft distance from the streams, rivers, and lakes required by the Hoover Wilderness.
While we’re talking about camping there are no fires allowed in 20 lakes basin and you are required to have a bear bin for all of your food. Please practice “Leave No Trace” principles so that this area can be enjoyed by generations to come.
From this camping spot, we did a few day hikes one of which was to see the Lundy Canyon waterfalls via Lundy Canyon Trail… I will say this is an extremely difficult hike that we did not fully complete. We decided to turn around due to the lack of trail and lose footing. We did however enjoy the waterfalls and had a nice lunch looking over the creek and valley below.
On the north side of the trail there were a few snow crossings, still nothing crazy but still, something to note. I was June 21st so a month earlier it might have been more of an issue. The daytime temps were in the mid-’70s getting down to the ’30s at night. It’s hard to tell here but there is a slight pink hue to the snow. It’s something that happens at this elevation. It’s called watermelon snow, pink snow, or blood snow. It’s an algae that grows on the snow and is toxic if ingested. Really it was more fun than anything playing in the snow.
The next lake on the trail one that we could see from our campground was Shamrock Lake. Shamrock Lake is by many people the highlight of the trip and it did not disappoint. We took the opportunity to stop and jump in the lake. I for one have a hard time passing up a midday soak in an alpine lake.
The last stop on the north side of the hike was Lake Helen. There was a bit of a scramble down to the stream below where you can tell the water level had been very high. This stream crossing is where Lundy Lake and Waterfall gets fed from. You hike right on the shores of Lake Helen and then head up a small pass. This is really the only kinda hill of the whole trip.
You hike high above on the west side of Odell Lake and level out to see Hummingbird Lake. I guess we should also talk about water here. If it isn’t obvious there’s a lot of water on this hike and don’t often recommend this but if you have a water filter this is a two-liter hike. No need to bring water to visit water. Hummingbird Lake has a nice running stream where you can get some water for the return journey.
At the intersections of a lot of trails back at the north end of Saddlebag Lake, there is a ranger house and a nice beach. This is where you could do a figure 8 if you wanted to be different. We decided to spend a little longer by hiking the east end of Saddlebag Lake and it was a great decision. The east side of the lake is much more forested and shaded then the barren and rocky west side.