Trip Report - Mono Basin, Twenty Lakes Basin

Panum Crater Sunrise (Matt Pritchard) More photos below.

By Matt Pritchard

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Jody is a damn good sport. How many wives would wake up at 5:30 AM to pose for photographs in the early-morning cold, wearing next to nothing, all while being eaten alive by a thousand hungry mosquitoes? I offer, very few. Great artists make sacrifices for their work. Lesser artists marry great models who are willing to make those sacrifices on their behalf.

Labor Day weekend of 2006 found us in familiar terrain. The long weekend almost guarantees a trip over to the Mono Basin or Yosemite High Country, and this year we were looking forward to a couple of new day hikes and ample time behind the lens. We employed our patented alpine start from San Francisco and soon found ourselves sailing down Lee Vining Canyon as the sun broke over the Great Basin. It can be hard to snag a campsite in Yosemite during a holiday weekend, but Lee Vining Canyon offers several Forest Service campsites that are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s a great place to stay, with easy access to the spoils of the Mono Basin, Tioga Pass and Tuolumne Meadows. We found a good campsite and eased our way into a solid three-hour nap.

Well rested, we decided to go hunting for a ditch—a very special ditch, in fact. The Clover Ditch is a long-forgotten piece of Mono Basin history, but one that has special ties to Jody’s family. The relation itself has more twists and turns that Highway 120, but J.B. Clover was family, no doubt about it. And being the visionary that he was, Mr. Clover saw a great opportunity in the Mono Basin around the turn of the century. Looking to populate the area, the federal government was parceling the land around Mono Lake for homesteaders. Unfortunately, the earth around Mono Lake is about as arable as a sandbox, better suited for sage brush than any crop.

J.B. Clover noted this problem and envisioned a great irrigation ditch that would channel the clear, fresh water of the Sierra down to the Basin and around Mono Lake. He developed a plan, solicited investors and hired a crew to begin excavation for his great ditch. The steam shovel used to dig the ditch can still be found at the Schoolhouse Museum in Lee Vining. Unfortunately, Mr. Clover had the mind of a visionary, not an engineer. His plans called for a twenty-four mile ditch. They only dug twelve, and the water only made it to mile seven.

Looking at the rocky, sandy soil around Mono Lake it’s hard to believe that someone could think it would hold water. But there is no stopping the mind of a dreamer, and Mr. Clover was clearly that. Taking direction from the docent at the Schoolhouse Museum and anecdotes from Jody’s grandfather, we are pretty confident we found portions of the Clover ditch near the Mono Craters area off Highway 120 East, just south of Mono Lake. We look forward to many more trips to this area to piece together this odd and interested bit of family and California history.

Returning to camp in the early evening, we grilled up some righteous cheeseburgers and got to bed at a reasonable hour, knowing that we had an early wake-up call for our photo shoot at the Panum Crater. The shoot itself was part of an assignment for my Photo Lighting class. The assignment was titled “Amazing Light” and Mama Nature sure did deliver that morning. We took another rest day and spent the late afternoon exploring and photographing the incredible sand tufa around the Navy Beach area of Mono Lake. The sand tufa are more striking, if more subtle, than the traditional tufa around the lake, and this is the first time we had seen them. Jody was in her element, racing around the area with camera and tripod, taking photos in the warm evening light. The Whoa Nelli Deli came through with another delicious meal, and we settled down for the night.

After two days of loafing, we decided to pony up for a hike on Monday. We had planned two hikes for the weekend: one to Parker Pass and another to the Twenty Lakes Basin. We opted for the latter and were treated to a beautiful day in the Sierra. The hike to Twenty Lakes Basin starts at Saddlebag Lake, just outside the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park. The area is very popular with fisherman. Many hikers opt for a ferry ride across Saddlebag Lake to cut three or four miles off the round-trip mileage. We took the long route and hiked around the rocky shore of the lake. A bit of climbing puts you over Lundy Pass and into the Twenty Lakes Basin proper. The area is stunning, dotted with a number small lakes (twenty, perhaps?) and fenced-in by massive peaks. A short loop through the area offers countless views and at least one tricky snow-field crossing. We took lunch along the shore of Steelhead Lake and admired the massive profile of North Peak. The hike back was slow, but we were treated to a front-row view of Mount Dana, our conquest from the weekend before.

The familiar drive home lulled us into a sense of relaxation. From one home, we return to the other.

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