Hiking around a true alpine environment usually involves many hours of uphill slogging.
Except when you start out at 9,943 feet elevation, taking advantage of California's highest trans-Sierra road -- Tioga Pass.
The hike to Gaylor Lakes and the Great Sierra Mine is one of the prettiest in Yosemite National Park, especially in fall when the air is crisp and clear, bugs are few and meadows grasses have turned golden brown.
From the small parking lot just west of the Tioga Pass entrance station, the trail climbs steeply at first, through a forest of lodgepole and whitebark pines, until topping out on a broad saddle of broken metamorphic rock with great views of Gaylor Peak, Mount Dana, Mount Gibbs, Lyell Canyon and the peaks of the Cathedral Range.
A few steps farther east and you'll be peering down at Middle Gaylor Lake. It's about a 500-foot climb (over 0.7 miles) from the trailhead to the saddle, and you'll lose much of that by the time you reach the lake. But that's OK. The scenery more than makes up for it.
Middle Gaylor Lake extends nearly to the edge of the shallow basin it occupies, so as you hike along the north shore and look southwest the jagged summits of the Cathedral Range appear to be rising from the surface of the lake. If you brought along a camera, now's the time to use it.
The trail then turns north and makes a gradual ascent to Upper Gaylor Lake, which sits at the base of crumbling Gaylor Peak. On your way up you might see a structure on the hillside above the lake. That's where we're headed.
The walls of several painstakingly constructed rock cabins, as well as two open holes that pose potential danger, are all that remain of a once-thriving mining settlement that sought to extract silver from Tioga Hill.
From this vantage point, you don't need a geology degree to tell where the gray granite that covers much of the Sierra meets the reddish brown metamorphic rock of the Tioga Pass area.
Once you've had your fill of the old mine, simply retrace your steps back to the trailhead. Or, if you brought along a map and possess some basic cross-country hiking skills, make your way over the small ridge to the west and down a series of benches to another basin containing Upper and Lower Granite Lakes.
From the south tip of Lower Granite Lake, it's an easy stroll across meadows, which last week were completely dried up, back to Middle Gaylor Lake.
Gaylor Lakes & Great Sierra MineLocation:
Yosemite National Park, Tioga Pass area
Length: 4 miles, out and back
Difficulty: Steep climb for 0.7
miles, then easy
Fees: $20 park-entrance fee, good for seven days
Trailhead: Trail begins from small parking lot just west of the Tioga Pass entrance station, 8 miles from Tuolumne Meadows
Maps: USGS, Tioga Pass; Tom Harrison Maps, Yosemite High Country
User groups: Hikers and horseback riders