July 26, 2009

The Eastern Sierras

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”…John Muir

Driving north on California Hwy 395, we are again staggered at the sight of those Eastern Sierra pinnacles...a valley of craggy peaks plummeting to the forbidding desert floor below. And yet we know of few places that are more diverse, fascinating and beautiful than the Owens Valley. Although these stony mountains look so impenetrable, they offer hidden passages to canyons, valleys and pockets yielding luxuriant greenery and unparalleled scenery. One would never guess that west of those granite walls and silent sentinels lie the vast and beautiful forests of the John Muir Wilderness area. Primal creeks, pristine lakes and magnificent peaks are what await the backpacker, angler or casual day hiker. During the subsequent days and over 25 miles of hiking, we were able to see more of this wildernesses countless faces and magical sights. Some re-visited…many more new. And a new joy for us... seeing our cute new packmate...Sydney...a 1 1/2 year old Australian Cattle Dog, find just as much joy romping up those mountain trails with her own little pack...designed perfectly to hold a six-pack of "emergency energy drinks".

A brief stop at the Big Pine Creek North Fork trailhead was like smacking your lips in a candy store…we could not wait to explore more. As we hiked along cascading Big Pine Creek, the views brought back many fond memories of our 2002 backpacking trip with John, Diane, Bud and Meg. During that adventure, our destination were the lakes of the Palisades...one of the finest hiking and climbing areas in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This trail retraces the path of ancient glaciers all the way to the top of the Big Pine Creek drainage. Here you will be in the throne room of the mountain gods, close up to the Palisades, one of the highest and most jagged crests in the contiguous 48 states. These colorful 13,000-14,000 foot peaks also hold the largest glacier in the Sierras, Palisade Glacier. While walking through a forest of lodgepole pine, you will pass a cabin built by movie actor Lon Chaney. All the lakes in this valley are fed directly by the Palisade Glacier and the beautiful milky turquoise color of the water is from the glacial powder carried from the melting glacier. And above the lakes sits the imposing dark mountain…the mighty Temple Crag.

As we entered Bishop, CA. we felt a wave of comfort...like you have when you come home. The town has welcomed our backpacking group every trip and then celebrated our safe return. Here was our true "base camp". Traveling a few miles north of town, we located the “dirt road to nowhere”...leave it to Jackie and "Do It In The Dirt" Bill to find such a place. A dusty, red carpet landscape dotted with shrubs and boulders, the Volcanic Tablelands is a gnarled expanse of boulders, serpentine ravines and volcanic bluffs. But also found in this high desert setting is an oasis…Fish Slough, a unique desert wetland ecosystem featuring the only natural springs remaining on the floor of the Owens Valley…and we saw fish. Apparently this area is also quite renowned for it’s many Native American petroglyphs.

Now we began some serious walking. Beginning at the 9,800 ft. South Lake Trailhead we began our hike up to the beautiful land of the Treasure Lakes. As we climbed and skirted South Lake, we gazed down upon the lake, nestled in a volcanic bowl…shaped as if it were cupped in one's hand. Direct sunlight and rays bouncing off the granite walls offer a full spectrum of the color blue, changing shades as the shoreline descends toward the dark depths. Adding to the brilliance of this canyon are the rich colors of green meadows dotted with wildflowers and a forest of pines that accent the gray mountain sides…oh yeah…here lie some breathtaking views.

As we completed the last slog, we entered a basin surrounded by those high Sierra peaks and there welcoming our arrival was the first gem of the Treasure Lake family. This 6 mile round trip hike to 10,700 ft. was difficult to say the least, but well worth the heavy air sucking. For the effort, we were offered a wealth of dramatic beauty…brilliant colored wildflowers lining clear streams and fern meadows provided some wonderful rest stops along the way. When you live at sea level, no amount of conditioning prepares you for the elevation. And thankfully, the new arterial stent was installed properly! As we took in the serenity of this place and the majestic views, the mermaid of our group realized she could not resist the alluring clear, blue waters on this warm day...so a "very" short dip in this invigorating 56 degree pool proved to be in order.

With our legs still full of fuel, another short walk was in order. Our hike to Long Lake again began at the South Lake Trailhead, but split at the junction that marked the way towards Bishops Pass. Another short 6 mile hike at 10,760 feet, the trail provided us a moderate climb with a more than a few switchbacks…and for us climbing can be very spellbinding at best. This lake is perfectly named, as its length is so much greater in comparison with its width. As the trail skirted the shoreline, we gazed at the Golden trout surfacing to the surface, rippling the lake’s reflection of the surrounding granite crags.
Our experiences over the years have proven that the Eastern Sierra weather is incredibly unpredictable…and one should always be prepared for the inevitable. Wanting to sample one of those renowned Lake Sabrina Cafe cheeseburgers, we decided to drive up to the lake for a late lunch…hunger pangs driven by a long hike. We arrived under bright, warm sun and clear, blue skies…but finished our lunch in solitude under the lone deck umbrella under dark clouds, protecting ourselves from pea size hail and a down pour of rain. The lake looked like it was being peppered with bb's. Temperature stayed constant though…hiking shorts and tee were perfect attire for the day…you needed a rain parka only if you did not want look as if you have been swimming.

This day we chose one of our favorite destinations. Little Lakes Valley offers some of the most beautiful scenery in the Eastern Sierras and is one of the most photographed. The spectacular valley set in a glacier carved canyon is surrounded by some awesome peaks, while the valley floor is sprinkled with lush meadows and jeweled mountain lakes. A relatively easy hike begins at 10,300 feet and will take you over the Morgan Pass. This “Shangri-La” is a perfect introduction to all first timers to the Sierras. We chose a short 4 mile loop route along Rock Creek to a secluded picnic spot overlooking Box Lake.

Following up on another tip from Jackie & Bill, we headed up to the McGee Creek Canyon Trailhead. The single lane highway provided us fantastic views of the Owens Valley and Lake Crowley. Once into the depths of the canyon we saw it was far different from the other passes leading up into the mountains. It was like a giant slot canyon…walls close to you on each side. Once at the trailhead the canyon open up like a blooming flower to expose an alpine meadow leading up toward towering peaks.

The Sonora Pass was our chosen route over the Sierra’s. What a breathtaking ride. The road skirted the Walker River and climbed steeply through dense forests with stunning view points at each turn.

Sonora Pass Summit crested at 9,628 ft. At the summit was a PCT Trailhead marker…and another opportunity to explore. The Pacific Crest Trail is 2,650 miles long and runs from the US border with Mexico to its border with Canada. We have day hiked this legendary trail a mere three times…and only have 2,632 miles left. Until we find those "black holes" of time to bite off larger distances, we will continue to dream of days and live vicariously through the hikers that are doin it now…such as the three comrades we met at the summit who were continuing their trek to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite.

Howard from Seattle, Jim from Maine and Rees from Arcata.…friends forever (yesterday, today & tomorrow) have been chewing up miles of the PCT over the last 28 years…finding those elusive windows around careers, family and commitments…etc…you know how it is…and then substantiating the time to do so. But what was so wonderful to hear and see was…they haven’t stopped…they are making tracks now, leaving their mark on us and all who meet them and all while they continue to plan their next adventures for the coming years. To our three champions…we wish you a safe trip to families and home...and we toast you now…with a few “ice cold beers”. Until we meet again!(8/19/09 update...after our brief rondevous, these three comrades reached Tuolumne Meadows after "110 miles of magnificent and at times challenging Pacific Trail Hiking)

The John Muir Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in California, has by far the most spectacular and highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada. Deep canyons, lofty peaks, brilliant meadows, pristine lakes and never ending alpine terrain await all that choose to see and experience. And with over 590 miles of maintained trails there is no lack of backpacking highways to stop anyone. It is no wonder that this saying exists..."you can take the man out of the mountains, but you can never take the mountains out of the man". May we meet you on the trail!