Hiking the Eastern Sierra’s 20 Lakes Basin & Saddlebag Lake

One of the most breathtaking hikes from my latest road trip was the relatively lesser-known 20 Lakes Basin loop. A friend that I met in Peru lived in Lake Tahoe, and drove down to meet me for some adventures near Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras. Little did we know that our adventures would be akin to the ones we had in the Peruvian Andes.

I didn’t realize we’d need reservations for Yosemite, so we were bumming around Grant Lake, drinking some hard kombuchas and overall being way too drunk for midday. An older fisherman had set up camp close by, and chatted with us as he passed by every now and then. He’d compliment our music taste and toss us a beer, before scouting out his next fishing spot. I’m still not sure if he actually liked our music or not. His name was Carlos, of Mexican and Venezuelan descent. As the day wore on, he eventually cooked us a hearty dinner of tacos. We sat around a campfire drinking his Bud Lights and our hard seltzers. Aside from our choice in alcohol, not much separated our generations. Despite being apprehensive at first, we eventually became sponges to his sage wisdom.

Aside from the life stories he had to tell, Carlos had his fair share of recommendations in the area as well. Having lived in the June Lake area, he seemed to know his stuff. Whether it was the geological origins of the rocks on the beach or best hikes in the area, we trusted his word. One of his top recommendations was the 20 Lakes Basin up by Saddlebag Lake. Despite having never heard of it before, I was not one to take such a kind man’s recommendation lightly. My friend and I dropped our existing plans for the following day and decided that we would check out Saddlebag Lake.

While it started out pretty average, it sure did end with a bang. For a fantastic day out in the Sierras without having to pay entrance into Yosemite National Park, the 20 Lakes Basin Loop is a must-do hike.

Getting to the Trailhead of Saddlebag Lake and 20 Lakes Basin

If you’ve got the AllTrails app, look up the 20 Lakes Basin Loop and snag the directions from there. Basically, the best way to get to this trailhead is by heading towards the Tioga Pass entrance of Yosemite. If you’re coming from the east, you’ll want to take a right turn about a mile before the entrance. There will be a sign for Saddlebag Lake.

Follow the dirt road for a couple of miles until you reach Saddlebag Lake and Saddlebag Campground. You can park your car by the lake and begin the hike in either direction. Saddlebag Lake is quite underwhelming compared to the other lakes that you’ll see. If you want to cut out three miles from your journey, you might want to consider taking the ferry that shuttles you from one side of the lake to the other. It costs $14 and will save you some time and effort. However, our legs were spry and we were feeling pretty energetic. I can’t say the same for how we felt afterwards, but hey, we survived.

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Hiking the 20 Lakes Basin and Saddlebag Lake

Part 1: Looping Around Saddlebag Lake

From the parking lot, we followed the trail along the right side of Saddlebag Lake. While it was beautiful, save your memory card storage for later on in the hike. The dirt trail isn’t particularly challenging, as the incline isn’t particularly steep or difficult. Follow this trail until you reach an abandoned ranger cabin. At this point, you’ll start veering away from Saddlebag Lake and up towards the mountains. This is where the 20 Lakes Basin starts. Most people only come here for a day hike, but if you want to camp out in this area overnight, you’ll need to have a permit.

Views along the trail around Saddlebag Lake.

Part 2: The Beginning of the 20 Lakes Basin

This is where the hike really starts to get good. I mentioned that my friend and I had met in Peru. Specifically, we met in Huaraz, a region of Peru known for its stunning glacial lakes, 20,000 feet+ peaks, and multitude of multi-day treks. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this hike had stretches that reminded me of those epic Andean mountain passes and glacial lakes.

The first few lakes that you’ll pass are beautiful, but for the most part, unimpressive. In hindsight, anyway. I tried counting to see if there were indeed 20 lakes in the area, but some of them would qualify closer to swamps than actual lakes. There are plenty of calm, secluded spots to take breaks and dip your feet in, or even jump in to cool off. My friend brought her little donut floatie which proved to be a game changer as we relaxed in the heat of California’s late summer.

Part 3: Just… Wow.

It’s pretty crazy just how breathtaking this hike gets almost out of nowhere. After the first few lakes, we thought we had seen it all. Surely, it couldn’t have gotten much better? But it does. It definitely does. Pictures speak a thousand words, so I’ll dump a few pictures of the final few lakes that we passed by.

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And those are just iPhone pictures. I’m back in the basement of my parents’ house where the Wi-Fi is still prehistoric. One of these days, I’ll drop the camera shots. But I’ll admit, even those could hardly do justice to the incredible scenery along the way.

Part 4: The Journey Back to the Parking Lot

I could have spent forever hanging around those lakes. However, the thought of hot springs weighed heavy on our minds and we decided to hightail it back to the parking lot. Or at least, my friend did.

Maybe I’m just dumb but somewhere between the last few lakes and the parking lot, I got extremely lost. My friend had pulled ahead just out of sight and I must have gotten distracted and lost the trail. I spent a good 45 minutes or so trying to find the trail again, before I finally found a fellow hiker who had told me my friend was looking for me. I waited around for a bit before we eventually found each other and continued the journey back to the parking lot.

Make sure to stick with your friends, folks!! Once I actually found the trail, I had no idea how I lost it in the first place. It’s pretty well-worn, despite being a lesser-visited trail in the Yosemite area. This final stretch back is when I started to wish that we had just gotten the boat. We branched off from our fellow hikers, who waited at the dock for the boat to whisk them back. Lucky bastards. After seeing the beauty of the last few alpine lakes, everything else seemed a little bit meh. It didn’t help that we were exhausted and a little bit drunk in the late afternoon heat.

Part 5: HOT SPRINGS

The last bit was a blur, but we eventually made it back to the parking lot after completing the epic loop. We set off for our little cabin to take a quick nap before the real star of today’s show: the Buckeye Hot Springs.

Honestly, that’s the best damn part of adventuring in the Eastern Sierras. You can take on a monstrous hike by day and then jump into some healing hot springs to soothe the pain. Of all the incredible hikes we did in the Eastern Sierras, the 20 Lakes Basin Loop might have been the best. Thanks for the shout, Carlos.

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What To Bring On The 20 Lakes Basin Hike

The hike is pretty high-altitude, although I don’t recall it being particularly challenging. The terrain is pretty manageable, outside of a few stretches where you’ll be hiking on jagged rocks. Bring good hiking boots with ankle support and maybe walking poles if you want a little help with balance. Water is a must, of course, and I’d recommend bringing at least a liter. Bring more if you have yet to acclimatize to the altitude. Snacks are essential too, of course. And hey, if you really want to have a fun day out on the lake, bring a floatie.

Where To Stay in the Eastern Sierras

If you’ve kept up with my adventures, you already know that I’m ballin’ on a budget. It’s public lands or bust for me, babyyyy. However, if you want something a little more cushy, there are plenty of Airbnbs and hotels in the area. Lee Vining is the closest city to the Tioga Pass entrance and the 20 Lakes Basin Loop. However, you also have Bridgeport about 30 minutes north of Lee Vining. Heading south from Lee Vining, you’ll have the beautiful June Lake area, and a little further down will be Mammoth.

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