The terrain of the Virginia Lakes Basin is captivatingly scenic, yet a tad bizarre. Jagged peaks covered in blankets of scree form a barren perimeter around a series of shimmering lakes. The contrast between the alluring blue waters and the inhospitable rocky landscape is striking. Furthermore, some of the mountains have an odd combination of warm colors, with certain peaks containing light red and orange hues. It is certainly a unique environment—and an awesome place to hike.
The hike begins at the Virginia Lakes Trailhead about 20 miles south of Bridgeport, CA on the northeastern border of Yosemite. The trail starts at Big Virginia Lake—a popular fishing spot with a significant trout population. The first miles wind through the basin, passing Blue Lake, Cooney Lake, and Frog Lakes before reaching a series of exposed switchbacks.
The switchbacks lead you up a broad, scree-covered mountainside to Summit Pass at 11,100 ft. elevation—the highest point of the trip. From here you can enjoy excellent panoramas on both sides of the ridge, where small pockets of snowpack can still be seen in late summer.
On the other side of the pass, another series of switchbacks will lead you down into a pretty valley with some of the most scenic views of the trip. Keeping right at the fork, you will pass more peaceful lakes, including Hoover Lakes, Gilman Lake, and the sizeable East Lake. The terrain is mostly rock—limiting the amount of good campsites. But, with a little searching, you can still find a decent site.
I chose to camp at the south end of Green Lake, where I was able to find a nice flat patch of dirt that was fairly protected by the surrounding rock formations and some trees. There is easy access to the lake on the south end, and some great places for jumping in as well. Best of all, the south and east shores are rewarded with a killer sunset behind the lake in the evening.
Permits are required for overnight stays, but they are fairly easy to obtain. I got one on the day of my departure without a reservation, and my guidebook advises that reservations are not necessary. Pick up a permit at the Bridgeport Ranger Station. The rangers seem pretty diligent about checking permits—I passed a ranger on the trail who asked to see my permit.
Bear canisters are required. I saw a small bear near East Lake on my way back, so canisters are definitely justified.
Campfires are only permitted below 9000 ft. elevation. This is one reason why Green Lake is an ideal spot to set up camp. At 8,945 ft., it is the only lake below 9,000 ft.
Be prepared for rain. There were multiple instances of short, fairly unexpected bursts of rain during my trip, despite the forecast looking clear.