Hike Yosemite’s Mono Pass Trail Beyond Lake Spillway

Yosemite’s Mono Pass Trail is a magical trail, leading the way to snow-capped peaks and colorful red mountains framing high lakes. These lakes still sported some ice when I hiked this historic trail.

Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 11.04 miles
Difficulty: moderate to intense
Altitude range: 9,596′ – 10,972′
Elevation Gain: 1,605′
Date: June 9, 2022
Map: CALTOPO: Hike to Helen and Spillway Lakes
Canine hike? Nope

I left the house early and headed into Yosemite National Park via Arch Rock Gate. They hadn’t quite packed their things yet, waved my rush hour reservation pass and waved me through. I did not have my yellow slip to stick on my windshield during this trip.

When I drove through the Lake Tenaya area there was no road construction and I waited 20 minutes at Tuolumne Meadows construction. For the latest information on road construction in Yosemite National Park, including estimated wait times, you can read the latest information here.

I parked my car at the Mono Pass trailhead at 7:34, about 5.6 miles east of Tuolumne Meadows Campground and 1.4 miles south of Tioga Pass. I wasn’t going to take any chances with mosquitoes so I sprayed mosquito repellent, but I also hoped a breeze would keep them away from me on my hike. It was a little windy and those skeeters were minimal, but they can be pretty bad over Lake Spillway.

I headed up the Mono Pass Trail. When I refer to this trail I use the name Mono Pass Trail of Yosemite because there is also a place called Mono Pass above Rock Creek and Little Lakes Valley about 40 miles south of Yosemite. Back to Yosemite’s Mono Pass Trail, this was one of the main prehistoric travel routes through the Sierra Nevada and is still used today. From Linda W. Green’s Yosemite: the park and its resources:

It led west from the Mono Lake area, passed through present-day Bloody Canyon, through Mono Pass, through the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River, through Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Pass, and through Tenaya Lake . It left the current Tioga Road corridor near Porcupine Flat, headed west-southwest to Yosemite Creek, then south to Bluejay Creek, which it followed to the west to Ribbon and Big meadows. There, at a major Indian settlement, it connected with routes to Big Oak Flat, the Merced River, and other points in the San Joaquin Valley. Current archaeological and historical data indicate that this is one of the oldest continuously used trails in the Sierra Nevada and possibly the western United States, having been used first probably by game , then successively by the Indians, the explorers, the shepherds, the miners, the poachers, the American army, the first tourists of High Sierra and finally the trans-Sierra motorists. As previously mentioned, Walker probably followed portions of this route, as did Lt. Moore in his pursuit of the fleeing band of Yosemites in 1852. Later, around 1857, Tom McGee, a Big Oak Flat businessman , paved the way by joining her. to the Big Oak Flat Trail to facilitate the passage of miners and packers to the mining towns east of the Sierra.

I hadn’t walked too far when I saw this from the trail. I stopped and watched for a while.

I walked a little further and she wasn’t moving, so I walked beside her, taking a few pictures as I passed.

I made a stop by a small tarn to admire the reflected views of Mammoth Peak (12,090′ elevation). Very beautiful!

I wasn’t sure if I would need water shoes to cross the creek, but I attached them to my pack. It was my lucky day because I was able to use that skinny log to cross. It was the same one that was there the previous years but it is sinking a bit. I hopped on my return trip.

There was a tree across the trail but easy to walk through or around. I always like to stop at this old hut once lived by a miner whose name is lost in history. It disappears quickly and will disappear soon.

The trail came out of the trees and I was able to see part of the Kuna Crest.

And I looked at Madera Peak.

Spreading Phlox had started blooming along the trail.

The trail splits at about 2 miles, the left fork heading towards Mono Pass and I stayed on the right fork towards Spillway Lake. The trail was through a swampy area but I was able to cross it without going through too much water and mud.

Looking where I had traveled.

The trail ran along Parker Pass Creek. Some years the creek flows under a snow bridge where that bank is, but not this year. This snow bridge had already melted.

Then I headed up the hill, skirting Lake Spillway to the east. There were patches of snow which I skirted as I headed towards where Parker Pass Creek empties from Parker Pass Lake.

I could see where I was heading towards Helen Lake. I was very curious how much snow there would be and how melty it would be. I had considered bringing my snowshoes but decided against it.

I found a good spot to jump over Parker Pass Creek then walked along the little tarns to check out the highlights.

I tried to stick to dirt and rock patches when I could, but got through some decent snow patches as I climbed.

Take a look (and breathe) towards Lake Spillway.

I soon reached Helen Lake (10,945′ elevation). I had been curious to know if there would still be ice on it, but the wind had mostly shattered it. A little ice still hung on the shore protected from the wind.

This beautiful lake is named after John Muir’s youngest daughter, Helen Lillian Muir. She was born in January 1886 in California and died in 1964. She married Buel Alvin Funk in 1909 and moved to Belleville in San Bernardino County, California. Helen was often ill, and doctors believed the desert air might improve her health.

Belleville was a booming mining town near Holcomb Valley and although the gold rush that hit this area from about 1860 to 1870 has long since ended, hard rock mining still took place until around 1919. Helen’s husband Buel is listed as a farmer from 1920 to 1930 census in Belleville, owners of their property after the 1910 census. The Funks continued to live in Belleville until at least the 1930 census and Buel is died in 1934. Helen died in Spokane, Washington and is buried at Bellevue Cemetery and Mausoleum in Ontario, California.

John Muir with his wife Louie (Louisa) and daughters Helen and Wanda on the front porch of the Martinez home (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

As I started to descend I could see friends heading towards where I was leaving. Can you spot them in this big country?

We chatted briefly and then headed off in our opposite directions.

Photo by Betsy and Mark Blum

As I descended the hill through the snow, going down was much easier than going up.

I wandered along the inlet and along Lake Spillway (10,476 ft elevation), looking for Yosemite Toads. It is a threatened species, likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future in all or a significant part of its range. It is native to California, and is found only within a 150-mile stretch of the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Ebbetts Pass in Alpine County north to Fresno and northern Inyo counties in south. It is a medium-sized toad, usually about 1.2 to 2.8 inches in length, found in wet grasslands and forests at high elevations. Once abundant, this species has declined dramatically over several decades and is now found primarily on state-managed lands at high elevations, including streams, lakes, ponds, and grassland habitats within national forests. and national parks. I didn’t see any on this trip but I have seen some in the past. They blend in really well with the vegetation. I go back down the path.

Once in my car, I quickly reached the Tuolumne Meadows road construction checkpoint, narrowly missing the last line of vehicles from the pilot car. So, I waited the full 30 minutes for the next one. Bugs weren’t an issue on this hike, but they can definitely be here. I remember one time our pants and shirts were covered in mosquitoes. If that happens to you, go higher up the hill above Lake Spillway and they won’t be so bad.

Canine hike?

No, dogs are not permitted in Yosemite Wilderness National Park.


What is a Doarama? This is a video playback of the GPS track superimposed on an interactive 3-dimensional map. If you “grab” the map, you can tilt or rotate it and look at it from different angles. With the bunny and turtle buttons you can also speed it up, slow it down or pause it.

Helen and Spillway Doarama Lakes

Map and profile:

CALTOPO has a few free options for mapping and here is a link to my hike this week: CALTOPO: Hike to Helen and Spillway Lakes

Topographic map of Helen and Spillway lakes

Profile of Helen and Spillway Lakes


Yosemite Rush Hour Reservation System Information

Helen Muir Bio by Sierra Club

John Muir: A passion for nature NPS

Yosemite toad US Fish & Wildlife

Previous blogs in the region:

Hiked Yosemite Mono Pass Trail past Spillway Lake June 17, 2021

Adventures with Candace: Hike to Helen and Spillway Lakes June 23, 2020

Hiked the Mono Pass Trail from Yosemite to Lake Helen July 10, 2019

Hike to Weir and Helen Lakes July 6, 2018

Hike to Spillway and Helen Lakes August 1, 2017

Hike to Spillway and Helen lakes June 29, 2016

Hiked the Mono Trail to Spillway and Helen Lakes June 8, 2014

Hiking and Fishing in the High Lakes along the Mono Pass Trail August 14, 2013

Hike with the Yosemite Toad to Helen and Spillway Lakes June 7, 2013

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