Exploring Spillway and Helen Lake in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park Day Trip Hike Near Tioga Pass

On the East side of Yosemite National Park not far from the East Gate at Tioga Pass is the Mono Pass Trailhead. This trailhead leads to three distinct locations all just to the east of the Kuna Crest. Mono Pass and Parker Pass are the two most visited location on this trail as they are spectacular passes with lakes and views into Ansel Adams Wilderness. However for a simple and very enjoyable day hike with a little less elevation is the trail that splits off to Spillway Lake and the option to climb a bit higher to Helen lake.

On my first visit to Spillway lake I came down cross country from Parker Pass, so on this visit it was my first time traveling up the entire trail to Spillway lake.

Spillway Lake Trail

The Spillway lake trail is 4 miles from HWY 120 off Tioga Pass. You will take the Mono Pass trail for about 2 miles before it splits to the right and follows the creek up to spillway lake the entire way up. The first wo miles is almost completely in the forest next to a meadow. the second half of the trail is a little more open as it crosses several meadow areas with panoramic views and then travels right next to the creek coming from Spillway up the ridge to the meadow that surrounds the lake.

The trail is easy to moderate with several areas that are almost flat and just a few areas that climb over small ridges. The last mile for the trail has a bit more incline as you make the final push up to Spillway at 10450′.

Spillway Lake is a meadow lake and the grass and sediment from the mountains surrounding the lake make the lake clear but the bottom is a bit more slimy than other Yosemite Lakes, but still is a nice place for an afternoon swim. There are almost no trees near the shore at Spillway Lake so sunscreen is a must on this hike. I did find a group of trees about 200 feet off shore to hang the hammock for the group on this day.

Blue lake granite mountain and grass shoreline
Helen Lake in Yosemite National Park

Helen Lake

Helen Lake sits 500 feet above spillway lake to the south, there is no official trail to Helen Lake however if you pay attention you will soon find a user trail that follows the tree line and then up along a creek that runs out of Helen Lake and cascades down side of the mountain. At nearly 11000′ the climb is moderate to hard just because of altitude. The terrain is fairly easy to follow however and besides the very last climb the slope is fairly easy. The last 50 to 75 yards are rather steep.

Helen Lake is a little clearer with that traditional Yosemite Lake bottom with granite boulders and rock, The shoreline grass lined so it makes for a great place for an afternoon snack, swim or nap. Again there are no trees at Helen lake so shade is no where to be found. Swimmers will find this lake colder than Spillway, but because of the extra climb you could have the lake completely to yourself and it is enjoyable to take a swim and then layout under the open sy and take a nap along the shore.

Coming back down the views of the Mono Pass Basin are stunning and looking North it is easy to identify the separation of Hoover Wilderness and Yosemite Wilderness in the Mountain ranges north of Tioga Pass and HWY 120.

Time for more adventure

If you have time and energy for more adventure climbing up to Parker Pass Lake and Parker Pass at just over 11000 feet from here is pretty easy, just follow the water up the mountain. Parker Pass Lake is a stunning small lake that is pure snow melt clear and cold. It might have a bit more of a mineral feel to it, as the water is so blue and clear, it seems out of this world on a clear summer day.

If you decide to to do this you can travel down the Parker pass trail to the Mono Pass trail and back to the trail split you used earlier to go to Spillway lake.

Heading back to the Cars

Typically on this day hike you will have been gone 4-5 hours so the afternoon sun is warm ,but around 4pm the deer on this trail start to come out for the evening and on my two trips up here I have seen dozens of deer right along the trail on my return trip to the car. Keep your eyes open as they are often just laying or eating right off the trail and are so quiet you can walk right by them.

We hope you enjoy this adventure as much as we did. Catch our other favorite Tioga Pass Hikes here.

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