Backpacking 20 Lakes Basin & Saddlebag Lake Loop

Trip Date: July 24-25, 2020

Trail Overview

Trail: Twenty Lakes Basin / Saddlebag Lake Loop

Distance: 7.7 mile loop

Elevation Gain: 978 ft.

Location: Hoover Wilderness

Permits: Wilderness permits required for overnight stay. Permits can be obtained here.

The Story

There are some places that you keep returing to because it just feels right. So, how many times do you visit a place before fully exploring it? It was my 5th time hiking this specific trail, but my 1st time completing the loop. The Hoover Wilderness area, just outside of Yosemite National Park is simply breathtaking and I was happy to be there again, even if it was for the 5th time. Hiking the entire loop was something I have always wanted to do, just never got around it. Literally. So, when my buddy Courtney reached out on Thursday, I was excited to not only meet her for the first time, but to finally hike the Twenty Lakes Basin/ Saddlebag Lake Loop.

It was a beautiful summer morning when I woke up in Mammoth on Saturday. I allowed myself a quick head start on the drive to the trailhead, since my buddy Courtney would be up with the sun, taking sunrise photos in Alabama Hills. We had plans to meet at the trailhead that morning and one missed text before driving up Tioga Pass, had me worried about not being able to find her right away. This was the first time I had plans to meet someone for the first time at the trailhead. I was nervous to say the least, but proud of myself for stepping out of that comfort zone and luckily, she found me right away!

It was about 11:45 am when we started our journey across the Twenty Lakes Basin/ Saddlebag Lake Loop. My pack weighing in just under 23lbs. and I was a very happy camper. No matter how many times I’ve hiked this trail, every time feels a little different. I was inspired to dust off my camera for this trip, so immediately it felt like a different trip from the very beginning, but different in a good way!

Saddlebag Lake Loop can be hiked in either direction, but after finally completing it clockwise, it’s safe to say that the counter-clockwise direction is much easier, and with way less elevation gain. The west side of Saddlebag Lake is rocky, fully exposed and where we started our trek. At 1.5 miles we arrived at the south end of Greenstone Lake, a popular area for day hikers and fishers. Camping is allowed starting at the far north end of Greenstone Lake, with a valid wilderness permit. This was also our turning point, leading us to Lakes Basin Loop trail towards Steelhead Lake, leaving behind Saddlebag Lake trail.

Throughout the entire 7-mile loop, there is very minimal elevation gain, so it was nice to be able to breeze through the trail and really soak in the views. We had a small (30%) chance of rain and thunderstorms that afternoon, nothing surprising for an afternoon summer in the Eastern Sierra, only I had completely forgot to pack my rain jacket. The clouds were thick, but it was nice to have cooler weather, as that meant absolutely no bugs! The first lake we arrived to after leaving Greenstone, is Wasco Lake. To be honest, I didn’t realize this lake had a name until after completing the loop, because it was more like a small pond at this point, but the reflections were still pretty awesome. I was surprised to still see some wildflowers along the creeks and lakes, especially in the middle of summer!

It wasn’t until we reached Steelhead Lake did I feel like I started hiking in an entirely new area. Steelhead Lake is huge, a lot bigger than I imagined it to be, and a very deep blue. From our trail, we could spot a small waterfall, the outlet from Cascade Lake trinkling down and into Steelhead Lake. We also spotted a few campers and fishers far in the distance. From Steelhead Lake, we were about 2 miles from our destination for the night, Shamrock Lake. After passing Steelhead Lake, you’ll arrive to Exclesior Lake. Twenty Lakes Basin amply named. I didn’t realize that this was an entirely separate lake from Shamrock, as there was many smaller “ponds” surrounding the trail to Shamrock Lake. This is was a popular destination for overnight campers, and it was easy to see why! My friend Courtney, had done all her research for this trip, and actually scouted out the perfect campsite! We scrambled down a bit from the main trail, dropped our packs and set up camp.

The day was still early, and the clouds were still out, we snacked a little and packed a few things to explore some of the surrounding lakes. It was nice being able to roam around without a heavy pack! Unfortunately, it was just too windy and gloomy and there was NO way either of us wanted to jump in the lake. Before making it back to camp, it started to rain. And then it started to pour. Sooner than later, I was pretty much running back to camp, since I had my camera and no rain jacket. I missed hiking in the rain without having to worry about being too wet, or not drying in time before the sun went down. Of course, by the time we reached camp, it stopped raining. The clouds were moving fast, and you can start to see the beginning of a pretty colorful sunset. Courtney got out to snap some sunset photos, while I stayed in my tent trying to dry off and soak in whatever sunset views I got from camp.

The next morning, we woke up to clear skies and a beautiful day. I was expecting it to be a little chilly last night, after our little encounter with some rain, but it was absolutely perfect with no winds at all. My friend Courtney was up before the sun and caught some really awesome sunrise photos! The lake was perfectly still, so lake reflections were almost too perfect. We hung around at camp that morning, for a few hours actually; made breakfast, had a few snacks and even got in the lake for a brief moment. I have to say, it was absolutely perfect hanging out at camp that morning, something I don’t usually do, as I feel I’m always on the go.

It was probably right before noon, when we broke camp and set out to complete our loop. It appears that a majority of hikers and backpackers that were hiking the loop, chose to hike it counter-clockwise. There was not one group or person hiking the loop in the same direction as we did that weekend. As soon as we hiked up and out of Shamrock Lake, views of Lake Helen can be seen from the top. We spotted a few more campers in this area, and it was clear to see why. Lake Helen is huge and very blue. We hiked along the lakeshore before climbing up and over Lundy Pass. This is where we experienced the most elevation gain along the entire trail, and it wasn’t even that bad. Climbing the pass where the Odell Lake outlet flows down and into Lake Helen, was also where we spotted the most wildflowers! If I had to choose a favorite lake from the 20 Lakes Basin Loop, I’d have to say that Odell Lake really caught me by surprise! The color of the lake was a deep, almost shiny, blue- a color I’d never seen before from any nearby lake. If we didn’t get our hike started so late that day, it would have been nice to hike down and chill for a bit, but we decided to keep moving forward.

I can’t wait to go back and explore the lakes we passed by when completing the loop. Hummingbird Lake is the last lake we passed before reaching the east end of Saddlebag Lake, a slight reminder that we were reaching the end of our loop. Although we were only about 2 miles from the trailhead, that last 2 miles took a lot longer than I imagined. I had never hiked on this side of Saddlebag Lake, and even though it is a lot more forest-y and shaded, I think I still prefer to hike out on the west side of the lake, as it’ll cut out at least one mile; but now I can officially say that I’ve completed the Twenty Lakes Basin/Saddlebag Lake Loop!

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Vanessa is an outdoors enthusiast, hiker at heart, and the storyteller behind Forever She Wanders; a women's lifestyle + travel blog inspiring all to get outdoors, seek adventure and live an active lifestyle. As an outdoors enthusiast, Vanessa has found passion in being outdoors while backpacking, camping, hiking and creating memories of a lifetime.

2 thoughts on “Backpacking 20 Lakes Basin & Saddlebag Lake Loop

  1. Loved this hike! When we did it a few weeks before you, the thought of going clockwise never even occurred to us. But after doing the hike, I agree, that’s definitely the way to go. Can’t wait to head back that way again and hit Conness Lakes. Such a beautiful place!

    Liked by 1 person

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