Flyfishing the Sierra Blog
Thursday, 4 August 2011
Hike to Big McGee Lake
Topic: Destination Hikes

Just above Lake Crowley is a road along McGee Creek. This road will take you up to the McGee Creek campground, past the McGee Creek Pack Station, and end at the McGee Creek Trailhead. The trailhead has a main trail that used to be a road to the Scheelore Tungsten mine. So, for the first 4 miles it's an easy grade along the creek with ample areas to fish for brookies and rainbows. The trail goes onto Big McGee Lake which lays within a glacial cirque bowl at the end of the canyon. The trail runs past Little McGee Lake and reaches McGee Pass which drops you across the Sierra crest into Fish Creek and Cascade Valley.

During the 2011 season in early August, McGee Creek was still raging and was unfishable with a flyrod. The wildflowers were in full blossom and I knew there would be fishable water up at the headwaters, so I decided to take a day hike to Big McGee Lake and enjoy the 65 degree weather. I've numbered the locations on the map where certain photos were taken.




It's about 7 miles to Big McGee Lake, so I started early at 7:00am. The Trail starts due west directly in front of Mt. Aggie (11,561') with Mt. Morrison (12,268') just to the right. These peaks contain some of the oldest rocks in the Sierra dating to Pre-Cambrian. The summit of Mt. Morrison, a pendant, is comprised of Dolomite and Marble, a metamorphoism of limestone.



This westerly walk goes for about 3/4 of a mile along a fairly level terrain. The silvery gray shrubs along the trail are Artemisia tridentata aka Sagebrush. These shrubs are very common on the eastside Sierra.  The colorful rock face below Mt Aggie and Mt Morrison is the result of volcanic intrusions over the original sedimentary layers that existed when the Sierra was a sea bottom. Pressures folded these layers resulting in metamorphic formations with different colorations coming from these variable layers. Most of these rocks could be referred to as limestone.  Usually McGee Creek, which is just to the left, is very fishable within this area but not today.




As you reach the end of the westerly stretch, you start to view the valley as it wraps towards the south. Mt Baldwin (12,592') starts to show itself from behind an unnamed peak. The Tungsten Mine is just behind Mt. Baldwin. 




3/4 mile from the Trailhead you reach the boundary of the John Muir Wilderness.




Along the next 1/4 mile you will be within a Sierran Meadow filled with a number of wildflowers such as Mule Ears (Wyethia) which is related to the Sunflower.





And a few Cow Parsnips.

Just about to enter a timber stand, you look down the southerly valley and see Mt Crocker (12,458') which forms one of the back walls of this glacial cirque valley.



Before leaving this meadow, there were a couple more wildflower shots that had to taken. The Indian Paintbrush... these tended to be a distinct pink coloration.

and Sulphur Buckwheat. 


Next in view was Horsetail Falls flowing from the eastern slopes of Mt. Baldwin.


The stream from Horsetail Falls crosses the trail for the first stream crossing at 1.5 miles from the trailhead.


Looking down the slope through the Aspen Trees, you can see that McGee Creek is still a raging torrent....very difficult to fish.

The trail follows the western side of the creek through a number of Aspen Groves and other hardwoods.  From a clearing, you can look down the McGee Creek Valley southerly and see a saddle which is about halfway between Mt. Crocker and Mt. Stanford.  Below this saddle is Steelhead Lake.


A couple clearings provide the sunlight for some addtional wildfowers, Indian Paintbrush and Coyote Mint.

As well as Indian Paint Brush and Lavender Gilia (Ipomopsis tenuituba).

Reached the second stream crossing 2.3 miles from the Trailhead where the pack animals cross. Difficult crossing since water was up to my mid-thighs (breaking my wading stick mid-stream did not help, either!). The bridge above the crossing was busted but I took it instead on the trek back.



Walking along the eastern side of McGee Creek, the trail remains wide from the road that was built to the Tungsten Mine. The valley levels out and the creek meanders through this area, 3.0 miles from the trailhead. This is a good area to flyfish, however, the beavers flooded the valley to the extent that reaching the creek channels was not possible.



Still on the eastern side of McGee Creek, the signs of Winter avalanches were evident on a grove of Aspen.

At 3.4 miles you make your third stream crossing ( the second across McGee Creek). This one is not too bad and there are some nearby logs to walk across for the dexterious. Once on the western side the trail goes through some timber stands and brings you into a clearing of Lodgepole Pine that were downed by another avalanche.


Lightning Fires have also destroyed some of the trees, with winds leaning the dead trees against alive trees.  Definitely a hazard to look out for.


The woody material that does fall to the ground provides a nice organic matter for the Red Penstemons.

At 3.5 miles, the trail starts to gain some altitude with a series of switchbacks up a rock fall slope.


Then, at 3.6 miles the trail splits to a higher elevation route or a route along the creek. Since the water was raging, I chose the higher route.


The two trails meet once again at the end of a large brushy meadow about 4.3 miles from the trailhead.


At 4.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail gradually turns towards the west. You can see McGee Creek downslope to the left and focus on the nearby granite rockcropping that the trail will traverse on the right side.


5.3 miles from the trailhead, the trail approaches the creek once again with some small meadows with meandering brooks. It has the feeling of Alpine, so fishable water will be close-by.


When you reach 10,000 feet elevation, one of the indicator species for this region is the Mountain Hemlock. To recognize this tree, look for the drooping tops and short needles.

It's the 4th of August and I'm still dealing with snow at 10,000 feet. Take care when crossing these snow banks. Streams can flow under them and they will not support your weight.


At 5.7 miles from the trailhead, I can tell I'm getting close to Big McGee Lake. From here I can see the westerly side of this glacial cirque. Big McGee Lake will be at the base of that slope.

Nearby was a stand of Shooting Star wildflowers. These tend to grow in very wet, moist places. My dog is actually named after these, "Dodecatheon of Bishop Creek" but I just call him "Star".



Numerous small ponds are found near the trail. McGee Creek is just below me to the left.


McGee Creek below Big McGee Lake. Now....that's fishable water!

And it was....plenty of brookies taking the dries.


My last little meadow prior to reaching the lake. Shortly after this photo was taken, the McGee Packers came up with a scouting team. They left the pack at this snow bank while they scouted an impassible icefield that blocked access to Little McGee Lake and McGee Pass.


We reached the lake just in time for lunch. The lake was a light blue color with snow and ice along most of it's edges. There were no sign of rising trout.


My dog, Star, found this spot to his liking.

After lunch, we decided to fish just below the lake. A waterfall from an adjacent stream fed into McGee Creek about 1/2 mile below the lake. I wanted to try that area.

Wow!  What a place.  Caught a dozen brookies and had a hoot.


It was a Thursday. Outside of the packers, I only saw two others come into the canyon around the same time as me. On they way out, I encountered 6 more. All geared for overnight stays.  I reached trailhead by 5:30 pm. The fun thing about day hikes is you can travel light and enjoy your surroundings. Get away from the crowds and seek fishable water. There's not much better than McGee Creek.

Posted by stevenojai at 12:30 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 23 August 2011 10:26 AM EDT

Saturday, 12 November 2011 - 10:45 AM EST

Name: "Fishing Bamboo"
Home Page:

I was up on McGee in early August the fly shop told me not to waste my time, but I only went 1/2 way up were you went and was still able to find a few good spots. It is beautiful up there your pictures are mush better ten mine.

Friday, 18 November 2011 - 7:27 PM EST

Name: "Alex"
Home Page:

What a great account of a beautiful hike. I've never been in that area, and I feel like I know it after reading your account and seeing your images. Great article dude.


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