Little Lakes, Big Views

Geology, Hiking, Sierra

The light is different at 10,000 feet, just a hundred yards from the parking lot.

I’ve wanted to see some alpine lakes in the California Sierra for quite some time but always assumed that would require some serious backpacking and probably a sobering elevation workout to enjoy a classic view of blue water bordered by bold granite features. You know the pictures I’m talking about.

Then I stumbled on a posting about Little Lakes Valley on Outdoor Project ( It basically said you could get the alpine views without the lung-busting grade challenges generally associated with alpine views in the Sierra. I checked out a similar review on All Trails ( that said the same thing.  Big experience on a small (fitness) budget.

OK, got a destination. Now logistics.

I figured out a time slot where Susie and I were both free. Weekend before Labor Day. That’ll work.

Then I figured out how to get there (ranch > central valley > Tioga Pass through Yosemite > Hwy 395). 

Then figured out where to stay (camping? Too beat to bother. Mammoth Mountain = off season room rate!). Within the budget.

And one more thing: Order a couple of Zeiss Batis lenses from Lens Rentals ( just to round things off.

We loaded up the car (no chihuahuas this trip) and headed across the Central Valley and up into Yosemite.  Got to the entrance with my debit and senior discount cards in hand, only to find out access to the park was… free that particular day. It just keeps getting better.

We then took Tioga Pass through the park, which will take you past spectacular scenery as you climb to 9,000 feet or so.

We then took Tioga Pass through the park, which will take you past spectacular scenery as you climb to 9,000 feet or so. We then descended down the eastern side onto Hwy 395, ending up at Mammoth Mountain resort.

The chair lifts run in the Summer, and take you up to some grand, almost 360º views of the Sierra. You’ll share the ride up with mountain bikes and their pilots, who will hop off the lift and jump right into a trail using the alternative method for going back down the mountain.

After spending the next morning at Mammoth, we headed out for a beautiful ride south on Hwy 395. We turned onto Rock Creek Road for an equally pleasing drive to the Little Lakes Valley trailhead. (John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest) The road turns into gravel, but Google said we need to keep going, which we did. Incidentally, we passed numerous creekside campgrounds and a few lodges on Rock Creek Road, which we made a note of for our next visit.

We pulled into the almost full parking lot (it was a Saturday after all) loaded up the cameras and some water (in that order) and started the GPS tracker. To my astonishment, we were already at 10,000 feet. I’m like, wait… what?  We’re already at 10,000 feet? It just doesn’t seem that high. I just never thought I could drive to a parking lot in the Sierra that rests at 10,000 feet.

We started on the well marked trail and within minutes Mack Lake came into view.

A little further up the trail, Marsh Lake was next…

The experience was enhanced by the fact that there was still plenty of runoff in the streams (after an astonishing winter snowfall in California by any measure), there was still snow on the mountain tops (nice touch) and to my complete delight, wildflowers everywhere.

A few more minutes on the trail took us to Box Lake, offering the classic Sierra lake vista I had imagined:

It took a few minutes, but I also became aware of another upside: The light.

The light at 10,000 feet is different, especially if you’re coming from somewhere much lower in altitude where the humidity is high. It is certainly more intense, but it also seems to sharpen and clarify everything you see. I was so pleased with the images I got with the Zeiss Batis lenses, but in retrospect the light at that altitude didn’t hurt the images a bit.

Actually, I feel like we got away with something, that we beat the system a little bit: the pleasure of rolling streams, alpine lakes, Sierra mountains topped with snow and a late summer wildflower display that rivals any I’ve ever seen, all without the pain of a lung and knee-busting backcountry trek.

Are the bigger rewards with bigger hikes? Absolutely. But this was a really worthwhile, easy-on-the-knees trek.

There were so many wildflowers that I put them in this gallery below. 

Wlidflower Gallery:

Kid factor: (+) Easy access to a Sierra alpine experience; plenty of rocks to climb on and I suppose, water to play in if you’ve got those kind of kids that just cannot stay out of any kind of water. (-) The mosquitoes showed up near the water at dusk; think about sunscreen; some rocks are ledges, so think it through. Keep an eye on them and just in case, agree ahead of time on what you’ll do if you get separated. Give them some whistles to carry just in case. Just tell to not use them unless they’re in trouble.

Fitness factor: One staircase rule in effect. If you can do a single flight of stairs you can enjoy this trail. All of these pictures were shot along the trail with very little incline. I wish I could report that at least some of it was wheelchair accessible, but that’s not the case.

Photo factor: Look at the pictures. These were all shot with either the Zeiss Batis 18mm or the 135mm  with just an absolute minimal post work in Lightroom. I was astonished. Susie walked behind me when I was first reviewing the raw pix back home and was equally startled. And the 18mm +135mm selection proved to be perfect, as I find myself always shooting real wide for landscapes and in tight for flowers and other detailed compositions. The glass is just superb.

I’m sure the alpine light played a role in the results, but I’ve rented the Zeiss lenses before (the 85mm and the 135mm) and was equally blown away just shooting around the ranch.