Trip Report - Sabrina Basin, Blue Lake

Blue Lake (Matt Pritchard) More photos below.

By Matt Pritchard

I love DEET. It took a weekend trip to the Sabrina Basin for me to realize this point. After receiving an undisputed ass whoopin' at the hand of 5 billion hungry mosquitoes, I began to embrace the miracle that is N,N-diethyl-m toluamide, in all of its stinky, nasty, plastic-melting, carcinogenic splendor and glory. During our trip over the July 4th weekend, we also learned a critical lesson in the use of DEET-based insect repellants. For the repellent to work effectively, you must bring enough to last the entire weekend. It is a simple, but important bit o' wisdom that eluded us during our preparation for the trip. Half of a bottle seemed like it would be fine. We were wrong. A point made abundantly clear to us by the swarms that awaited our arrival.

So far, I'm making this trip sound much worse than it actually was. Itching and scratching aside, we actually had a great time. Our original plan was to arrive at the Sabrina Lake trailhead early, after driving through the night and picking up our permit in Bishop. Once on the trail, we were going to hike up to Blue Lake and spend the first night there. The next day, we would proceed to Hungry Packer Lake and set up camp before exploring the area and possibly hiking up to Echo Lake. On Sunday, we would hike out to the car and head home.

We left San Francisco at midnight on Thursday night. In an odd twist on the norm, Matt did most of the driving, and we made it over Tioga Pass and through Lee Vining just as the sun was painting the sky brilliant shades of deep blue and orange. Expecting high temps and a lot of people, we wasted no time getting to the trailhead and heading out. The elevation of the Sabrina Lake trailhead is 9,000 feet, so you find out very fast if you are in shape or not. We took it slow and found the hike to Blue Lake to be a bit shorter than we had originally thought. The distance indicated on the map was 4.6 miles, but I have a tough time believing that it was much more than 3.5.

After arriving at the lake, we promptly lost the trail and made a sketchy downclimb and stream crossing to get us headed back in the right direction. We were thankful to find a nice campsite amongst the granite boulders that surrounded the western shore of the lake. It was barely 11AM when we arrived, so after setting up camp and scouting out our surroundings, we settled down for a well-deserved nap. Two hours and twenty degrees later, we woke up sweaty and groggy. I was determined to cool off and Blue Lake was looking very inviting. Taking a look at the snow capped peaks that surrounded us, Jody concluded that I was nuts and she decided to watch from shore as I made my bid for membership to the High Sierra Chapter of the Polar Bear Club. It probably took me 10 minutes to get myself all the way into the water. I don't know what the temperature of the lake was, but I've been in Tahoe quite a bit and it felt about 10 degrees colder than that. There's something a bit surreal about dancing on the fringes of hypothermia when it's 80 degrees outside. I made a quick lap out to the island in the middle of the lake and headed back to shore before I froze solid.

Fisticuffs nearly ensued during a pre-dinner nap when a curious squirrel tagged Jody on the head to see if she wanted to play. Jody was less than amused. As it was the 4th of July, we had a special dinner of Hotdogs and Potato Salad. We ate a couple of candy bars for desert and spent the rest of the evening taking pictures of the lake and mountains around us. As the light faded, we came under heavy attack from the mosquitoes and were eaten alive by the little bastards. We were using the bug spray sparingly because we realized that our 6 oz bottle of Cutter Backwoods wasn't going to last the entire weekend. We would be lucky if it made it through the next morning. That night we made the decision to head out a day early and spend our extra day exploring Mono Lake or the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

There's something a bit surreal about dancing on the fringes of hypothermia when it's 80 degrees outside.

The next morning we packed up camp and made our way down to the car. The heat was getting to us and we took our time hiking down. Once in Bishop, we stopped for lunch at a BBQ place and decided to check out Galen Rowell's Mountain Light Gallery, which was right across the street. I knew his gallery was in Bishop and I had always wanted to check it out. It looked like our decision to bail was going to have some upside after all. The gallery was incredible and we probably spent an hour and a half taking it all in. As someone who is just beginning to get into nature photography, it was a special treat to view so much of his work up close. I have been reading a few of his books and some of his archived columns on the Outdoor Photographer website. I really appreciate his approach to photography which combines a strong scientific understanding of light and the natural world with the vision of an artist.

After the gallery, we paid a visit to the White Mountain Ranger Station and came to the conclusion that it was going to be too hot and crowded to enjoy the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Before leaving Bishop we made one last stop at Vons to buy the biggest can of DEET we could find. Muskol 40 % DEET bug spray - it's a beautiful (and totally disgusting) thing. We got back in the car and headed north to Lee Vining and the Tioga Gas Mart. This is one of the weirdest places I've ever been. Aside from being a very large gas station with a sizeable store inside, it has to be the only gas station in the High Sierra with a trapeze on the front lawn. And while all of that is well and good, the truly magnificent part of the Tioga Gas Mart is Tioga Toomey's Whoa Nellie Deli. For the uninitiated, this is the single greatest gas station restaurant in the U.S. Having toured this great land by converted school bus just a few years ago, I can make this statement with the confidence of a person that has eaten more than his fair share of gas station meals. This was our second time visiting and we were totally impressed once again. How many gas stations serve Grilled Salmon Salad and Herb Crusted Pork Tenderloin? Not many! If you are ever driving through Lee Vining and are hungry for a great meal, do not pass this place up. If you are driving through Lee Vining and aren't hungry, stop anyway and sit there until the faintest notion of hunger crosses your mind. It is located on highway 120 West, at the intersection with Highway 395.

With full stomachs and a few hours to kill before picture taking time at Mono Lake, we headed over to June Lake for a little R&R. After we cooled down and knocked the dust off with a good swim, we got back in the car and began looking for an alternate approach to the South Tufa area of Mono Lake. A ranger at the Mono Basin Ranger Station had suggested a different route that would give us a good view of the largest tufa formations without the crowds that can be found at the designated South Tufa viewing area. We found the dirt road the ranger was talking about and promptly put Jody's off road driving skills to the test as we turned off down one of the side roads that leads directly to the lake's edge. Ignoring the warning signs that clearly indicated loose sand, we continued down the road until we realized that dodging sage brush and fish-tailing through sand berms was a bit more than the Subaru was built for. On the way back we came very close to being stuck several times as we spun our way through some very deep sand. I kept telling Jody she was doing great with the driving and she kept pretending to believe me. I was absolutely convinced that we were going to have to be pulled out by a truck. But as a testament to her driving skills and my bullshit skills, we made our way back out to the main road without serious incident.

A few miles down the road, we found a good spot to stop and spent the better part of an hour taking pictures of the tufa formations as the sun set behind us. It was dark by the time we left the lake and we had no idea if our "secret" campsite near Crooked Meadow would be available. We found this campsite a year earlier when our spur of the moment Labor Day plans landed us at Mono Lake without campground reservations. It has a long and dusty approach, but the upside is huge. The Subaru redeemed itself along the bumpy, dirt roads leading to the campsite and we were happy to find that we had the place to ourselves. A good night's sleep refreshed us and breakfast at Tioga Toomey's put a smile on our face before a long drive home. It was not the trip we planned, but it was definitely one worth remembering.

Questions or comments about this trip report? Let us know.