Take a hike: George Lake is the ultimate destination

Picture yourself standing on the shore of a pristine alpine lake. A majestic peak looms above, and you're surrounded by a blue sky, crumbling cliffs and granite slabs with expansive views of the San Joaquin River watershed.

Congratulations. You've made it to George Lake.

Oops, it's not that easy.

There's more than one entry point into the Kaiser Wilderness, a 22,700-acre federally protected area in Sierra National Forest. Still, most hikers use the Potter Pass Cutoff Trail, which saves most of the elevation gain (compared to starting from Huntington Lake) and some of the extra driving (compared to starting from Sample Meadow.)

For the first mile, the Potter Pass Cutoff Trail ascends gradually through a mixed forest of Jeffrey pine and red fir before crossing several tiny streams and meadows. This stretch is abundant with summer wildflowers. Be on the lookout for lupine, primrose and red heather.

Views of snow-capped Red Mountain come into view just before the trail arrives at 8,990-foot Potter Pass after 1.9 miles. In the distance, the jagged Minarets, backed by the twin summits of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak, stand proudly on the horizon.

Ignoring the unsigned trail that heads downhill toward Huntington Lake, continue over the pass down a dusty hillside that often holds patches of snow until mid-July. The trail drops some 500 feet before arriving at a junction. Stay left toward Lower Twin Lake (3.3 miles) and then Upper Twin Lake (3.6 miles); both are popular hiking and fishing spots.

Pretty as these lakes are, the best is yet to come. Continue hiking around Upper Twin's north shore as the trail aims toward a prominent saddle on the Kaiser Ridge. George Lake sits at the base of the saddle, about 0.75 miles in the distance.

George Lake (elevation 9,100 feet) is clear and shallow with trees and granite outcroppings encircling the shoreline. (I've caught rainbows and brookies there up to 9 inches.) It's a great place to soak in the Sierra scenery. Adventurous types may choose to climb Kaiser Peak via a use trail that ascends an obvious gully leading to the saddle.

Even though it works as a day hike, George Lake is often used as an overnight destination. Permits are required for overnight stays, and trail quotas tend to fill up fast on weekends.