I’m grateful to be out of the rain, but it’s hardly ideal. I took cover quickly under the slight overhang of a shed-sized boulder, and I find myself squatting with my back against its sloping side. I have a tarp over my legs because they are sticking out into the rain, which is coming down hard now. Picture a ping-pong ball trying to take shelter next to a bowling ball.
A great thunderclap crashes and rolls around the rough granite valley of the Jack Main Canyon, echoing several times from side to side before fading, and then another thunderclap rings out and rolls back and forth. Huddled awkwardly in my tiny sliver of shelter I take in the experience; I enjoy the thrill of the thunderstorm, I appreciate that this downpour has chased away the mosquitoes that have been swarming me for most of the day, and I relish the sense of being very small in the large world of this wilderness.
I’m off trail in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park about 15 miles from the Hetch Hetchy trailhead, trying for the third time to reach Mahan Lake. Why, you might ask, am I doing this? What’s so special about Mahan Lake? Well it started 5 years earlier in May of 2016 when I set off on a personal quest to visit and photograph all of the named lakes in Yosemite National Park.
While the National Park Service says there are approximately 2,000 lakes in Yosemite, most of those lakes are not named, and some are quite small. I have chosen to focus on lakes that have names on the United States Geological Survey topographical maps, this has left me with a list of 167. Of those, you can reach two by car, 65 are directly accessibly via hiking trails and the remaining 100 require some amount of off trail hiking to visit.
While working on this project I have hiked over 800 miles, and spent 76 days in the park, as of this writing in May of 2023. You can view my progress and photos of each of the 143 lakes I have visited so far at my website, “The Lakes of Yosemite.”
Day one: Hetch Hetchy to Branigan Lake
Back to the Jack Main Canyon and my boulder, this particular trip started two days earlier. Having hiked out of Hetch Hetchy on three previous occasions the hike up to Beehive was pleasantly familiar. From the footbridge below Lake Vernon I enjoyed a surprisingly challenging section of supposedly flat cross country travel along the southern edge of the lake and the expansive series of meadows and ponds to the east. This was followed by a delightful climb over mostly open granite up to Branigan Lake where I spent my first night.
I mostly hike alone. Most folks will tell you that you should never hike alone, and I’d mostly agree. It’s certainly not for everyone, there are obvious safety considerations, and some people just plain don’t like to be alone. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend hiking alone to everyone, it works well for me.
Being alone makes me acutely aware of the stakes of mountain travel and I tend to be extra cautious in my decision making while alone. Not having someone else to keep up with, or to impress, means I don’t push myself in ways that could lead to risk-taking or fatigue. Since there is no one to follow, I’m entirely responsible for my navigation, and by consequence I am constantly aware of where I am and where I’m headed.
To my surprise I have found that I enjoy the solitude of hiking alone, and I appreciate being able to control my own pace, route and decisions while being in the wilderness. While hiking alone I focus more on my surroundings and the experience of being in the wilderness because I have fewer distractions.
On the other hand I sometimes miss the encouragement and shared commitment that comes from hiking with others, where one member of the party can pick up and motivate the group. When alone I am solely responsible for keeping up my spirits and motivation, which can be a challenge.
On this particular hike I’d go nearly 48 hours without seeing another person, and would camp each night on my own. Solitude like this is not uncommon in my experiences of visiting out-of- the-way lakes in Yosemite.
Day Two: Branigan Lake to Avonelle Lake
After a peaceful night at Branigan Lake I wake early to embark on a small side trip to Andrews Lake. From there I have a view to the north and can see where, on a previous failed attempt to visit Mahan Lake, I had turned back toward the trailhead and home after visiting Ardeth Lake
two years earlier.
Exploring the three Branigans plus their neighbor, Andrews Lake, took most of the day. Despite some cliffy terrain, and areas of dense brush, this was a fun, though painstaking, area to explore. I believe Upper Branigan Lake may be the brushiest lake I have ever visited.
I had planned to proceed along the shore of Upper Branigan Lake and head for the trail that runs between Jack Main Canyon and Tilden Canyon, but after seeing the lake I decided to backtrack in order to take a less brush-choked route. After a short stint on the trail, the only on- trail hiking of the day, I again set off cross-country to Avonelle Lake where I made camp in the late afternoon.
Hiking off trail
With 100 of the 167 lakes I plan to photograph in Yosemite being off trail, cross-country hiking is a common feature of my project. There is a freedom and a cost to hiking off trail. You get to choose where to go with each step, and you have to choose where to go with each step.
When hiking on a trail the trail guides each step and I can relax into a meditative state. In contrast, hiking off-trail requires much more attention, where I seemingly make decisions at each step. Indeed I find that cross-country travel not only takes more time than trail hiking, it also requires more mental and physical energy. It goes something like this: I want to travel in roughly one direction while either gaining, loosing, or maintaining altitude. So I pick a landmark ahead, aim for it, and start moving in that direction.
Now the decisions start: Shall I go to the right or left of that boulder, tree, bush, etc? Ok, left looks a bit easier, now I need to reroute slightly back toward my original target, and here is another boulder/tree/bush to negotiate. A slight right this time, and a new view, this time a fallen log ahead running across my desired line, so a tiny deviation to run above or below that log. On it goes, with nearly every step.
Hiking off-trail also feels like a natural metaphor for choosing something in life that hasn’t been widely done before. Want to become an accountant? There’s a well-made path for you to follow. Want to photograph all the named lakes in Yosemite? Now you’re creating your own route, you are working off trail. While you don’t have someone to follow, you also don’t have to follow anyone else’s approach, and you don’t have to compete with anyone, or conform to any existing conventions. It’s a kind of freedom that is both exhilarating and exhausting.
Day 3: Avonelle Lake to Moraine Ridge
This morning I woke on the low granite knoll that fences in the southwestern end of Avonelle Lake. Back at home when planning this trip by carefully studying USGS topo maps, I had thought I might head either north, toward Wilma Lake, or northeast to intersect the trail to Tilden Lake. After a long day of cross-country travel in the Branigan drainage the day before, these cross-country routes didn’t have as much appeal as they had when viewed on the map in the comfort of my home. Because of that, I decided to backtrack southwest to the closest trail, and take it to Tilden Lake.
Tilden Lake would be the highest elevation point of this trip, and there was still a good deal of snow in the area. Tilden Lake would also be the far point of the trip, and as I left it I was officially on my way back. I was no longer traveling into the wilderness, but back toward home. As I descended the mostly snow covered trail from Tilden Lake, I enjoyed the rushing cascade of Tilden Creek.
At Falls Creek I was relieved to find a crossable flow of water, but opted to stay to the south side of the creek and make my way down to Wilma Lake off-trail, thereby avoiding two extra crossings. Wilma Lake was experiencing high snow-melt water, and flooded banks. The Pacific Crest Trail passes through this area, in one memorable stretch the trail threads its way along a thin band of dry land separating the lake and a large pool of Falls Creek. During my short time at Wilma Lake thunderheads started to build quickly.
After crossing Falls Creek and resting briefly to dry my feet, I was back on the trail, and moving quickly down canyon with a growing storm moving in behind me. Just after I left the trail to make the short cross-country jaunt to Mahan Lake the storm caught up to me, sending me under the overhanging side of the shed-sized boulder. After a half hour or so the rain slowed and I decided to make my way up to Mahan Lake.
Coming up over a low open rocky ridge near the southwest end of the lake I was thrilled to catch my first glimpse of the lake nestled at the base of an impressive brush and granite covered slope rising over 1,000 vertical feet from the water’s edge. Standing on the shores of this lake with the storm receding and water dripping from the trees and bushes, time seemed to stop. In that moment I felt a combination of joy and awe dissolve my sense of self. This vaguely out-of- body sensation is familiar to me from other moments in the mountains, and is one of my favorite wilderness experiences.
Thick mosquitos at Mahan lake convinced me to keep on the move, and soon I was back on the trail passing through the truly remarkable Jack Main Canyon, which is filled with quietly striking unnamed lakes that each demand long pauses to admire
Eventually I made camp for the night near the top of the Moraine Ridge with a sweeping view up the Jack Main Canyon. From this viewpoint I could see much of the area I had explored over the previous couple of days, as well as happy reminders of previous visits to the area.
Peak dominates to the left. The shaded granite wall to the far right marks the bowl of Branigan Lake where I spend my first night. May 29, 2021
As I drifted off to sleep I reflected on how lucky I have been to get to spend so much time exploring the backcountry of Yosemite. While I’m sure I could have reached Mahan Lake in a more efficient manner, I’m grateful for all the time it has taken. I’m in no rush to finish this quest of mine, and in many ways the longer it takes the better.
If you want to go
If you are interested in visiting this area of the park, I recommend you be very comfortable with off-trail travel and navigation. You’ll also need a Beehive Meadows wilderness permit which you can get online or from the Hetch Hetchy entrance station. Permit quotas apply so make sure to
look into availability. Finally, I’d invite you to consider giving back to the mountains in some way. Packing out any litter you find, donating to the Yosemite Conservancy, as well as following the seven principles of Leave No Trace, are all great ways to start.
Discover the entire library of Yosemite Lakes at www.lakesofyosemite.com
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