Golden Trout/Sequoia, September 2012

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Alex recently moved to San Diego, which gave us an opportunity for our first trip in the Southern Sierra.  Time was a little tight, though, so I planned a 5-day trip out of Horseshoe Meadow -- an easy and quick way into the high country.  As it turned out, two days of unusual rain dampened our spirits and we hiked out a day early.  Before the rain started, I was tempted to call this the High and Dry Trip (the trailhead is at 10,000’), but I think it more appropriate to call it the Crowded Trip. Although most of our days were without company, every night we shared a lake with at least one other group.

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Day 0:  Drive Up

I expected my drive to Lone Pine to take about 8 hours, so I planned a number of short rest stops on the way. First up was quick photo op at Olmstead Point in Yosemite.  This was Labor Day weekend and the whole park was very crowded, so I didn’t stay long. After exiting the park over Tioga Pass, I stopped at the Whoa Nellie Deli for some buffalo meatloaf.  Good, but overpriced.

Turning south on 395, I peeked in on Obsidian Dome a few miles later.  This is a bizarre place:  a mound of obsidian boulders, 2000’ in diameter and 100’ tall, plopped down in the middle of the forest.  I was very curious to go climbing some of the trails on it, but I didn’t really have time.

I then stopped for a quick espresso at The Looney Bean in Bishop and picked up a pair of hitch-hiking backpackers on the way out of town.  Turned out they were from Palo Alto!  I drove them to their trailhead at Onion Valley, which made them very happy.

I finally made it to the visitors center in Lone Pine at around 3:30.  I picked up our permit and headed back out of town for my last tourist stop:  the Alabama Hills.  This is a large area of granite, weathered into strange, towering formations.  Many movies, especially old westerns, have been filmed here, and it’s a fantastic place to explore and take pictures.

Alex showed up soon after I returned to town, and we spent a nice evening getting beers at Jake’s Saloon and dinner at Seasons, followed by a very comfortable night at the Best Western.

Day 1:  Horseshoe Meadow to Chicken Spring Lake

After breakfast at the Best Western, we drove an insanely scary road 6000’ up the side of a cliff to Horseshoe Meadow. It was Sunday night of Labor Day weekend, so the large parking area was still pretty full.  We geared up and headed out on the Cottonwood Pass trail.  

The walk was easy going for while, through bits of forest and meadow, before starting up the climb to the pass. The climb wasn’t bad, though, and before we knew it we were at the top.  We found an awesome east-facing ledge and ate our lunch looking out over Horseshoe Meadow and the desert beyond.

After lunch, we walked the remaining half mile to Chicken Spring Lake and found a nice spot to camp.  There were many groups camping at the lake, but they were spread out enough to keep it from being unpleasant.  We whiled away the afternoon exploring and reading. The trees at this lake were really astounding:  beautiful orange wood, striated and twisted into helixes and whorls.  Alex found The Best Tree Ever, which was really more of an abstract sculpture.

In the middle of the night I discovered that my Thermarest had a leak.

Day 2:  Chicken Spring Lake to Lower Soldier Lake

Our second day was a fairly easy and uneventful traverse.  We had fine views down onto Big Whitney Meadow and Siberian Outpost. Then we started our descent into Rock Creek canyon and soon turned right, towards the Soldier Lakes.  We made camp on the little peninsula jutting into Lower Soldier Lake.

The entire hike was over before lunch, so once again we had many hours to enjoy and explore our destination.  We were at about 11,000’, though, and the altitude started to get to me: feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety. I distracted myself with walking and photography and managed to (mostly) enjoy my afternoon.

I also spent some time finding and patching the leak in my Thermarest.  I’ve been carrying strips of duct tape on these trips for 10 years.  Finally, a chance to use them!

Day 3:  Day Hike in the Miter Basin 

From our campsite, we walked counter-clockwise around Lower Soldier Lake to where the stream from Upper Soldier Lake appears, then scrambled up a gully heading due north.  This is a route Alex had tried out the afternoon before, and it brought us to the edge of the mighty Miter Basin.  The basin is a large expanse of rock, punctuated by small meadows, surrounded by vertical cliffs 1000’ high.  Numerous lakes occupy the many side canyons.

We angled down the side of the basin to the stream at its bottom, then followed the stream up past small pools and cascades.  We soon turned right and started climbing up to Iridescent Lake.  Our plan was to have lunch on a rock jutting out from the mouth the lake’s side-canyon, but clouds had been forming all morning and a chilly wind was now blowing.  Instead, we continued on to the lake, which was more sheltered.  We had a nice lunch looking out over the deep, clear water, as breaks in the clouds sent shafts of light marching up the canyon walls.

After backing our way out of the side canyon, we headed due west towards the base of Sky Blue Lake’s canyon.  The climb up to Sky Blue Lake provided a number of lovely waterfalls, our enjoyment of which was not dampened by the rain that had started to fall.  We reached the lake and worked our way clockwise around it to a peninsula.  As we got there, the rain and wind really started up.  We both began to get cold and ended up huddling in a crevice between two rocks for a while.  I can assure you that the lake was not exactly sky blue this day.

After throwing on a few more layers, we started back down the canyon.  To exit the basin, we continued down to Rock Creek, where we joined up with a trail that climbed back up to our campsite.  By this time, the rain had stopped, the clouds were clearing, and we were able to enjoy another lovely (if somewhat damp) evening around camp.

Day 4:  Lower Soldier Lake to Horseshoe Meadow

The morning was sunny, and we were able to dry out all of our gear before packing up.  We started off the day’s hike by retracing the route by which we’d arrived at Lower Soldier Lake, then turning left up towards New Army Pass.  This was a grueling, steep climb over broken granite and sand.  At the top, we went off the trail to the left to check out the old Army Pass and have a snack.

Our plan for the day was to drop our packs here, day-hike up Mt. Langley, and then spend the night at one of the lakes on the other side of New Army Pass.  The clouds had been building since we broke camp, though, and it looked like Mt. Langley would be at best cloud-covered, if not battered by rain, by the time we made it up there.  We made the tough call to skip the peak and instead followed the unmaintained trail down from Army Pass directly to the Cottonwood Lakes.

That trail is one of the scariest I’ve taken.  The top portion traverses across a sheer cliff, weaving between and over rocks, completely washed out in some places.  As we got lower, the trail mellowed out just in time for the rain to start.  The rain was pretty heavy this time, and we were thoroughly soaked by the time we reached the bottom end of Lake #5 (or #4 -- the maps don’t agree on this).  We didn’t want to make camp in the rain, so we looked for a place to wait it out.  Miraculously, we found a great little cave under a giant, overhung boulder.  We crouched there for an hour or so, munching on snacks and watching the water drip down the walls.

The rain stopped occasionally, then started up again.  More importantly, the sky showed no signs of clearing.  The thought of setting up camp on the wet ground just to huddle in the tent and hike out the next day was not very appealing.  One more night in the wilderness is great, but not so much if you can’t enjoy it.  So we made our second tough call of the day and decided to continue on and hike out a day early.

The route out took us past the remaining Cottonwood Lakes and down Cottonwood Creek back to the trailhead.  It was a nice and steady downhill through pretty forests.  The parking lot was much less crowded than on the weekend.  We drove back into Lone Pine, found a motel for the night, and had another great dinner at the Totem Cafe.

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