The word "mecca" means a place that
is sought as a goal by many people. Although this mecca called
Saddlebag Lake is not really that well known by a lot of folks,
it is indeed a worthy goal. This is truly the promised land for
backcountry skiers seeking redemption from the brutal heat of
summer and steep turns to carry them through until the snow flies
Located near the eastern entrance to Yosemite
National Park on Hwy. 120, Saddlebag is reached by leaving 120
and heading north on Saddlebag Lake Road which is paved in some
spots and washboardy in others. It is a short drive to the Saddlebag
Lake Campground from the highway.
The lake is a popular destination for fishermen
and this works to the BC skier's advantage as there are boat
rentals and even better, a water taxi service that for a round
trip fee of only $8.00, will drop you and your gear off at the
far end of the lake, right near the goods, and return to pick
you up at the end of the day. The boat rides are a real treat
and are a spectacular way to begin and end the day trip. A few
years ago, on the return ride, my son and I witnessed a bald
eagle dive into the water, snag a fish and head to a shore side
snowfield to enjoy his dinner! This year all the talk was about
a breeding pair of Osprey that has taken up residence on the
lake. Lots of other wildlife can be seen here along with the
usual assortment of deer, marmots, squirrels and of course, the
The views from the boat are incredible, to
the south is the massive Mt. Dana and the famous Dana Couloir.
To the west is False White, White Mountain and Mt. Conness. To
the north is the sharp outline of North Peak and its equally
famous three summertime couloirs. Everywhere you look you will
see incredible ski terrain waiting for your edges.
Tim crossing the log bridge, Mt Dana and Dana Couloir, Hiking
toward Conness ridge
The short boat ride ends at the far end of
the lake and in the early season that is as far as you will have
to go, there are chutes and snowfields right there for the taking.
You can walk a hundred or so yards and crampon or kick-step right
on up. Great skiing can be found all along this ridge and as
the season progresses you just have to walk a little further.
We have skied many years well into August, in some of our favorite
spots, within an hour or so of the lake. Late season, look for
north east facing aspects for the smoothest snow.
All of the east ridge of Mt. Conness is good
to go and offers many north facing lines as far as Conness glacier
itself. Slope angles range from 30 to 45 degrees and maybe even
a little steeper in some places.
Another option is to head out to the aforementioned
North Peak couloirs for some true hairball descent opportunities.
Two of the three are said to exceed 50 degrees and hold snow
all year. There are numerous other spots to ski in this area
as well and all one has to do is pick a line.
Big Tim Photo by Neil Weber
Even in a low snow year there are always fantastic
shots waiting to be skied in the late spring and early summer.
The key for getting the early, close in runs is to get there
soon after the snow on the Saddlebag Lake road melts. Just when
the road opens can vary wildly, this season the resort was able
to open the first weekend in June, the earliest in recent memory,
while some years it does happen until August (very rare, even
El Nino year saw an early July opening). The boat begins to run
as soon as the lake breaks up, usually not long after the road
clears. Reliable information in this regard is somewhat hard
to find but you can try calling the Lee Vining Ranger Station
(760-647-3044), part of the Inyo National Forest, to ask about
the road status and the water taxi service. I am told that only
a couple of the rangers there usually know the scoop so you may
have to be persistent to get the beta. Often the Tioga Pass road
itself is still closed when Saddlebag opens as the closure is
further west than the lake road turnoff.
A further note and word of caution: This is
big mountain skiing and there are many places that just may fit
Pierre Tardivel's definition of extreme ( "..where if you
fall you die."). Past experience has shown that in case
of injury it will take emergency personnel a minimum of 6 to
8 hours just to reach the victim after somebody hikes out to
notify them. This is a very long lead time so essentially you
must ski as if you are on your own. Use maximum caution. As always,
know that you alone are responsible for your own decision to
ski or not to ski any given slope, and try not to get in over
your head. It is easy to do here.
At the Saddlebag Lake Campground, spots are
available on a first-come-first-served basis. Next to this campground
are two group camp sites that can be reserved by contacting the
Lee Vining Ranger Station. The campground has water, clean restrooms,
and the sites have tables and fire rings. Currently the fee is
$11.00 per night per spot.
Down by the lake is the all-in-one general
store/cafe and boat rental office.
A winter photo of the store, Photo by Linda
Built originally in the 1930's as a hunting lodge,
it is a great place to grab breakfast or a cup of coffee before
heading out for the day. It is also a good place to possibly
pick up a little info on snow conditions from other skiers (rare)
or a local or two that know what's up.Paul and Scott are both
skiers, working at Squaw Valley in the winter and here in summer,
if they are around they may be able to steer you in the best
Firewood is sold at the general store as well
as other possibly forgotten necessities such as mosquito repellent.
Ah yes, the mosquitoes, early season when the overnight temperatures
are getting low enough they are not much of a problem but once
things warm up, usually by early July, they really go off. Big
Tim had never been to Saddlebag before last week and while we
were packing up for the first day he authoritatively stated that
" the mosquitoes will not be such a problem when we get
away from camp..". Neil and I looked at each other and burst
out laughing, knowing that when he got off the boat at the far
end of the lake he was going to see more of the little buggers
than he had ever seen in his life. I mean, we are talking Alaskan
proportions here. Make sure you carry a good strong repellent.
We have used spray that contained only 6% percent DEET and it
was almost worthless, we even saw a mosquito land on the nozzle
of the bottle itself! Make sure yours has a DEET content of at
least 40% and dose up on all exposed flesh every 5 or 6 hours.
100% DEET is available but it is pretty noxious stuff so we usually
use it on our T-shirts only. The stuff works and really makes
the bug problem easily tolerable.
Here is an mpeg of the author doing what I love
to do at Saddlebag Lake. Riding 200cm Volkl Snow Rangers and
to movie clip shot by Big Tim Connolly on 7/11/00
A pilgrimage to Saddlebag Lake is a worthy
goal for any tele-skier and if you are in easy striking distance
an annual trip to this meeca certainly makes sense. All of the
well known skiing attractions of the Tioga Pass area are here
to enjoy as well as the boat accessed goods described in this
What is hard to describe is the vibe of this
very special place. The people, the terrain, the corn skiing,
the picturesque campground and all the rest combine to make Saddlebag
Lake a true classic destination and a defining Sierra Nevada
spring tele skiing experience!
Note: Backcountry skiing is a dangerous sport, the activities
described in this article can lead to death or serious injury.
Neither the writer, publisher or Saddlebag Lake Resort are responsible
for your safety. Only you can make the decision as to your ability
and the safety of the slope you may wish to ski. Be careful and
make sure your skills are up to the level required to be safe