Aptly named Granite Dome is an immense granite massif with numerous micro-basins occupied by a series of stunning alpine lakes. The lakes are set amid granite cliffs that afford stunning vistas of the pristine lakes from above. As the adventurer gazing over these magnificent lakes is the audience to a stunning natural performance, I like to describe this region as the “Granite Balconies.” All of the lakes are located on the northern side of a massive ridge that culminates in the summit of Granite Dome. The region is characterized by ubiquitous ice polished granite carved into its present form by glaciers that blanketed this region over millennia. No trails travel into this area making it a relatively infrequently visited spot where solitude and ample room for exploration can be found. While the northern side of Granite Dome is rugged, the south side features more subdued terrain and no lakes until further down in the Emigrant Wilderness. The region is accessed via Kennedy Meadows off of the Sonora Pass Highway and includes a moderately steep trail to reach Relief Reservoir and beyond. The off-trail travel is fairly easy with navigation on friendly granite slabs. The primary objective in route finding on this terrain is to avoid steeper sections of granite that can become cliffs. The named lakes of the region include the Lewis Lakes (lower, middle, upper), Sardella Lake, Ridge Lake and Iceland Lake with a numerous other smaller tarns. Ridge Lake is arguably the centerpiece nestled beneath the towering cliffs of Granite Dome with waterfalls splashing down into the lake from the upper reaches of the peak. However, Middle Lewis Lake is perhaps the most dramatic with towering granite cliffs surrounding its shores like an amphitheater. Furthermore, the view overlooking Iceland Lake from the south is fantastic. GPS route here.
My first time visiting this region included a hike to the top of Granite Dome with excellent 360 degree views, especially down to the lakes below. Photos from my prior visit to Granite Dome can be found here. This time, instead of going to Granite Dome I explored the Lewis Lakes basin with Erica. We ascended beautiful granite slabs into the Lewis Creek Basin with clumps of pine trees and waterfall cascades. We made our way up steeper slabs to Middle Lewis Lake, the largest lake in the Granite Balconies region. Middle Lewis is an incredible lake that sees little traffic and is a true Sierra gem with top notch scenery. From Middle Lewis Lake, the easiest way to Upper Lewis Lake requires traveling north from the end of the Middle lake to easier slabs before turning left and heading west and southwest to Upper Lewis Lake. The direct route from Middle to Upper Lewis Lake contains some steep granite slabs that may prove too steep for many without rock gear or snow/ice gear in early season. Similar to my prior visit, Upper Lewis Lake was still partially frozen. We ascended a small rise near Upper Lewis Lake to our first “balcony” of the day overlooking the natural amphitheater surrounding Middle Lewis Lake. This tremendous vista is one of my favorites. From this viewpoint, we traversed around the end of Upper Lewis Lake and continued to stunning Ridge Lake. Near the outlet of the lake is another fantastic balcony with views of Ridge Lake and the towering granite cliffs of Granite Dome. From Ridge Lake we ascended the rise above Iceland Lake with a gorgeous panorama from yet another balcony. I recommend accessing the lakes via the east like we did by taking advantage of more maintained trail and avoiding the gullies and steeper granite slopes from Relief Meadows. On my prior visit to this region I descended to Relief Meadows, and while numerous routes are feasible, they require micro-navigating and almost certainly take longer than continuing up the main trail past Saucer Meadow and back down to Summit Creek where you can cross the creek and find easier slabs into the Granite Balconies region.