For Labor Day Weekend 2018, we snagged permits for McGee Pass! I reserved them maybe two months before, and by then, pickins’ were already slim. I had done a day hike out of the McGee Creek trailhead once before to Steelhead Lake, but had never gone towards the pass. I didn’t know much about the area and was eager to explore it! We reserved our permits right away.
Out of curiosity, I checked permit availability sometime the week before LDW, and pretty much everything was taken. When we arrived at the permit station on Saturday morning, the line for same-day permits was longer than I have ever seen it. If you are planning on taking an end-of-the-summer backpacking trip over LDW, I would highly recommend booking far in advance!
Day 1: McGee Creek Trailhead to Big McGee Lake
6.8 miles, ____ elevation gain
Getting our permit on the Saturday took a lot longer than expected. As stated above, the permit office was completely inundated with backpackers. I’ve seriously never seen the same-day permit line so long before. I think that because there were so many same-day permit-seekers, the permit office only delegated one ranger to issue the reserved permits. Even though there weren’t many of us in line, it took us over an hour to get our permit. After we got out permit, we stopped in Bishop for breakfast and to get a few more supplies before driving to the trailhead. We weren’t in any sort of rush and ended up getting a pretty late start on our hike. I don’t think we ended up hiking out until around 12:30! Definitely the latest that I’ve ever started a backpacking trip.
From the trailhead, you have two options: a “high” trail and a “low” trail (for lack of better names). The low trail is allegedly .3 miles shorter than the high trail, but I’m not completely convinced. We missed the turn-off for the low trail on the way back, but the high trail completely paralleled the low trail. I really have no idea where the extra .3 would have come in – the two trails just followed each other with about 50 feet in between them.
It is super easy to take the low trail on the way out – the low trail starts straight from the trailhead kiosk. The high trail also starts from the trailhead kiosk, but is a little easy to miss. You basically take the trail to the right of the kiosk that looks like its heading in the opposite direction. It ends up switchbacking back south, but it seems relatively unnatural when you start.
The trail begins in the high-desert, surrounded by sage and high Sierra peaks. It follows the canyon for a little under a mile before it converges with the high trail. This area is extremely exposed, so prepare yourself for the heat!
After a long, straight, exposed slog up the canyon, you’ll finally come to a bit of a respite in the form of some aspen trees at Buzzkill Spring! Enjoy them while you can – you’ll be hitting some more exposed sections very shortly.
From here on out, you’ll alternate between exposed sections and little aspen groves. The aspens usually grow around small streams, but you’ll hit two fairly large streams (still totally crossable) once you get closer to the beaver ponds!
Around ___ you’ll hit the old beaver ponds. I heard a rumor that the beaver dam washed out sometime in May 2018 from a combination of snow run-off and a spring storm. I know it was all natural, but it was such a bummer to see! We ran into a couple that had been walking around down there, and they recommended that we take a stroll down to the “beaver lodge” to see the old entrances and exits. I had never heard of a beaver lodge before, but they seemed to be super impressed with it! Since we had already such a late start, we decided not to go explore the area, but if you have time, I would definitely recommend it!
Once you pass the beaver ponds,
The trail to Steelhead Lake