Friday, September 24, 2010

Spuller Lake Trail, Monroe Hall Natural Research Area

Every Sierra trail is the most gorgeous one I've ever been on, or so it seems. When you break down what makes a great high sierra trail, you probably get something like the Spuller Lake trail; altitude, high peaks, stunning lakes, & broad vistas. More importantly at only 5.6 miles round trip, it's accessible to most hikers regardless of fitness level.


  • From Lee Vining
  • Take 395-S towards Bishop
  • Exit at Junction Hwy 120 (Tioga Road)
  • Park on the shoulder just after Tioga Lake Campground (about a mile from the gates of Yosemite, NP)

  • From Toulomne Meadows
  • Continue Hwy 120
  • Pass through Park Gates
  • Park on the shoulder near the Tioga Lake campground

After chowing down breakfast at Nicely's (it's mediocre)in Lee Vining we hit the road, climbing the Tioga Pass up to our destination. The start of the trail is not a beautiful one, and the roar of Hwy 120 lingers for almost the first half mile. After climbing the first ridge though, you disappear into the rocky Sierra backcountry. The elevation also opens up a broad view of Mt. Dana directly across Tioga Lake. The first lake is stunning, the high peaks jut over the top of the trees, and the shady lake is an oasis in a rugged alpine world.

Just beyond the first unnamed lake the trail climbs again, gently, but against the altitude it's a strain. At the top of the climb sits a mine with a fabulous view of the drainage valley the hike climbs in to. A small creek runs out of the closed off mine, the banks of which are covered in wildflowers. The trail descends and switches over [BLANK] Creek towards the remains of Bennetville (associated with the mines in this area).

Roughly a mile in, the first of the big, named lakes come into view. Shell Lake's shores abut directly into a steep talus slope across from the trail and the lake seems to hang precariously in it's position. Large Boulders are strewn around an otherwise calm, grassy shoreline. Near the end of the season, we found golden trout jumping out of the water every 5-10 seconds. The muffled "splish" sound of their plunge back into the icy water was all that could be heard beyond the gentle rustle of the pine leaves around us.

The trail around the Shell lake is gentle and flat, and feeds seamlessly into Fantail Lake just up the trail another half mile. Another shallow lake, Fantail is dotted with small grassy islands and does not have the boulders jutting out of it that Shell does. However submerged rock strata caught my eye beneath the shimmering waters. The best views of Fantail lake are above it, after climbing a small rise just off the trail on the east side of the lake I sat with Beylah and took in the grandeur of where we were. The back sides of Mt. Conness (3rd highest peak in Yosemite, highest peak north of the Tioga Road) and White Mountain both prominently asserted themselves in the distance, their white granite faces clashing against the deep blue sky of mid afternoon.

After Fantail Lake the trail climbs, somewhat steeply, and those interested in a simple saunter in the Sierras turned around and headed back for their cars (all 2 or 3 of them, the trail was hardly even in use). We continued on, having knocked back three beers with dinner the previous night, the altitude hit me quickly, and stayed in my face the entire climb. As the trail climbs, signs are all around the tree line is close by. No tall trees remain, and those that hang on in this desolate place are gnarled, dwarf versions of their grand siblings below.

After roughly half an hour of hard climbing up the granite slope, we reached Spuller Lake, the gem of this hike. Jumping right out from the slopes of White Mountain it hangs in the talus and its shores are strewn with rock. Its deep water is dark blue, and in the gusty sierras, shimmers. A small meadow sits on the north side of the lake, but even there, large boulders break up the grasses. A cascade spills out of its outlet on the south side, near the trail which feeds the lakes below. In the distance Mt. Conness now rises is prominently, and for every second I glanced around, I found my eyes drawn, as if by some external force back in toward Conness in awe of its sheer size, and dramatic cliff faces.

We stopped for a quick lunch, pondering that just 2 months ago, we were on the other side of these very peaks, then draped in a blanket of snow. We choose a spot in a small rocky outcropping which rises out of the water 10 or 15 feet. After soaking in the lake, and scarfing down our Burrito's I left beylah to have a short nap and climbed up the saddle on the far side of the lake from where we entered. After climbing just about 50 feet, A massive view of another entire lake basin unfolds. Maul Lake, and the Green Trebel Lakes sit out ahead, just at the base of Mt.Conness. For a minimal effort, just a short scramble, the view is amazing. It also leads to the tree line. As I glanced up I realized in no direction could I find a tree above me.

I headed back down, and met up with Beylah (though there were some miscues in communication which delayed us about half an hour, sorry bey!). I'm not sure if it was the altitude, the heavy breakfast, or the burrito which had baked all day in our backpack, but my stomach suddenly went sour. The hike out was, scenery not withstanding, a pretty tough one for me. Every few minutes I had to pause to catch my breath, and try to hold back the urge to puke (I don't believe it was AMS which was bothering me). On the way back we realized exactly how jam packed with landmarks this hike was as we quickly made our way back to the car and headed home.

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