John Muir/Sequoia, September 2015
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The One Star Trip.
The running joke this year was about 1-star
Yelp reviews of national parks
. In fact, it was a great
trip. We were here three years ago
got rained out, so it was nice to return and reclaim the region -- and
finally make it up Mt. Langley! Like last time, though, it was
very crowded, perhaps more so due to folks like us relocating to avoid
smoke. And weirdly, despite the drought, every creek was full of
Note that the naming of the Cottonwood Lakes differs between the USGS
map on the one hand and the Tom
map & the on-the-ground signage on the other. I
use Harrison's names below.
Day 0: Drive Up
The plan was to meet in Bishop and hike from South Lake to North
Lake through the Evolution Basin. I left Palo Alto around 7am and
had a nice, leisurely drive over Sonora Pass in my brand-new car. After
refueling at The Looney
Bean (best coffee in the Eastern Sierras!), I drove to the ranger
station to pick up our permit. The ranger was extremely happy,
but very discouraging of our trip: smoke from the Rough Fire was
blowing directly towards us, ruining the views and endangering the
health of hikers. In fact, I had noticed that the mountains,
usually standing straight up, seemingly only an arm's length away from
Bishop, were completely obscured that afternoon. I told him I'd
discuss with Alex when he arrived.
drove out of town to the Laws
Railroad Museum. It closed earlier than I'd expected, so I
only had half an hour to explore, but what a place! Not a lot of
trains, but a ton of ephemera from that era. I rushed from
building to building, taking dozens of rushed photographs in the
reddish, late-afternoon light. After the museum closed, I headed
back into Bishop for a drink at Rusty's and to
wait for Alex. My throat and eyes were stinging.
I met Alex at the Creekside
Inn, and we walked next door for delicious steaks at the bowling alley.
After dinner, we strolled over to the Tri County Fair, got some
funnel cakes, and admired the quilts.
1: Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead to
morning, the smoke was worse than ever
-- plus Alex reminded me of his asthma. Back to the ranger
station we went, to trade in our permit for one less smoky. The
ranger suggested going south, back to the Cottonwood Lakes area.
No problem. All my careful planning out the window, but at least
we were somewhat familiar with the area. We picked up some maps, drove
an hour south to Lone Pine, texted our wives with the new plan, booted
up, and started hiking. The sky was crystal clear!
out up the Cottonwood
Lakes Trail, then turned left at the unmarked trail up the South Fork of Cottonwood Creek.
The hiking was surprisingly difficult for us. I blamed the
altitude plus the lingering effects of smoke inhalation. After a
lovely, creekside lunch, we continued up the trail to the South Fork Lakes. Lake #1 was fairly nice but was
occupied, Lake #2 was nothing
more than a puddle amongst the rocks, and Lake #3 looked pretty empty and
muddy from our vantage point. We turned south and climbed
cross-country over a rocky ridge to try Cirque Lake.
Cirque Lake was
amazing. We found a great campsite at the western end of the
lake, which we had all to ourselves. The swimming wasn't great,
but we splashed a little, then settled in for a very comfortable night
on the sand.
2: Cirque Lake to Soldier Lake
A beautiful morning dawned, and after breakfast
we sat down to come up with a route plan. It ended up being very
similar to last time's -- there just aren't too many places to go in
the region with only 5 days.
We climbed back over the ridge to South
Fork Lake #3, then rejoined the main trail and climbed past Long Lake and High Lake. Soon began the
long, dusty switchbacks up to New
Army Pass. We ate lunch at the top, looking back down into
the valley full of lakes.
the familiar trail down the other side of the pass, we had
nice views of the Great Western Divide,
the Kaweah Range, and Siberian Outpost. We passed
some disappointed hikers who had planned on going all the way to
Yosemite but had been turned around by rangers at Forester Pass due to
the smoke. Eventually, we rounded the corner and strolled up to
good ol' Soldier Lake.
Crowded and with poor swimming, but still beautiful. I think
there were something like five groups camped around the lake this night!
3: Day Hike in the Miter Basin
the day by climbing up the gully from Soldier
Lake into the Miter Basin,
then made our way
across the meadow towards Sky Blue
Lake. Three years ago, the entire basin was for us alone;
this year, we ran into at least six other groups! Has the Miter
Basin been "discovered"?
After lunch at Sky Blue, we
spent an hour or two just lounging around, exploring the fabulous rock
forms and staring at the ripples on the water. We wandered back
down the valley and up to the lakelet at the top of the gully. As Alex
was preparing to pump water, I spotted a trio of bighorn sheep on the
hillside above us.
We made our way back to camp, had quick swim, and settled in as a light
evening rain came down. Our campsite was even more crowded this
night, with a large group right next to us frantically (and loudly)
trying to set up a tent without poles -- they'd forgotten them at their
Day 4: Soldier Lake to Cottonwood Lake 5
Lake, we climbed back up towards (Old) Army Pass, then down the other
side, past Cottonwood Lake 4.
We quickly found a delightful campsite on the shores of Lake 5 and had lunch. Leaving
our gear here, we continued on up the hill to Lake 6 -- an easy climb that was
fairly well ducked. Lake 6
turned out to be two lakes, both of which were immensely beautiful and
peaceful. Alex spent a lot of time basking in the sun on an
extraordinary lounge-shaped rocked on the shores of Lake 6a while I wandered around
As we were descending from Lake 6
we ran into a group of four bighorn sheep -- much closer than last
time. We approached them slowly, hiding behind bushes, and were
able to get within about 50 yards of them.
Continuing down, we stopped often to admire the amazing bleached tree
stumps dotting the region. Eventually we arrived back at our
campsite at Lake 5 and went
for a swim -- we finally found a lake with good swimming! This
swimming was particularly nice, with a sloped rock entrance, a sandy
bottom, and a number of barely submerged rocks offshore.
Nevertheless, Alex managed to stub his big toe and rip up the nail.
A beautiful evening came down, and we sat on our rock, looking at the
cliffs of (Old) Army Pass
until all light had finally faded.
5: Day Hike up Mt. Langley
The plan for today was to climb Mt.
Langley, a feat prevented by rain three years ago. Our
daypacks were too small for the water & clothes we thought we'd
need, so we stripped down our backpacks to just the essentials and wore
those. Leaving camp, we climbed back up (Old) Army Pass and then struck off
into new territory: the use trail to the summit.
The first ⅔ of this trail was pretty easy: a gentle climb up the
back side of the ridge. Then things got tough. The terrain was
very steep and crumbly. Think climbing a sand dune at
14,000'. I had to rest every few steps to catch my breath, though
I'm not the fittest person around. Truth be told, other hikers
were climbing without any obvious side effects.
After what seemed like an eternity of hell, the route finally flattened
out for the final stretch to the summit. And what a summit!
As I approached, my exhaustion was quickly forgotten in the face of the
stunning, 360-degree view. To the east, a sheer 1200' cliff
began the descent into the Owens
Valley, 10 miles away and 10,000' down. To the north stood
Mt. Whitney, a mere 500' higher
than we were. To the north and west, divides and ranges dotted
the horizon, and smoke rose thickly from Kings Canyon. To the south, Olancha Peak rose like a perfect
We sat for a couple of hours, marvelling at the view and chatting with
other hikers. It was still and warm -- no need for all the
clothes we brought. At one point, Alex looked out and spotted a
paraglider even with us, circling at 14,000' over the Owens Valley!
It climbed another 1000' or so and then took off to the north at
terrific speed. Finally, we reluctantly hiked back down,
retracing our steps and arriving back at camp just in time for a swim
before sunset. It was a great hike, and our first 14er -- on our
Day 6: Cottonwood Lake 5 to Cottonwood
We had an uneventful hike out down Cottonwood
Creek -- and passed
dozens of groups on their way in for the weekend. Back in Lone
Pine, Alex and I had burgers & beer at the Mount
Whitney Restaurant before saying our goodbyes. In Bishop, I
popped in to the Looney
Bean for coffee and Schat's
for bready treats, then peeled out up 395. I had an amazing,
caffeinated spin over Sonora Pass, stopped in for a quick carne asada
Michoacana in Oakdale, and made it home by 10.