Ansel Adams/Yosemite, September 2014

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The Weird Trip!  An awesome trip with lots of amazing sights and great lakes, a nice mix of forest and rocks, and a bunch of weird stuff.  The lack of crowds surprised me, since this is one of the classic Yosemite loops, but it turns out that the northern entrance to this entire region was closed off on Day 1 by the Meadow Fire.  That fire also made most of our views pretty smokey, but fortunately never got thick enough to bother our lungs.

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Day 1:  Fernandez Trailhead to Lady Lake

After an unbelievably greasy lunch at the South Gate Brewing Company (good beer, though!), we dropped Alex's car at the defunct Mountain House Restaurant (we were assured this was OK) and drove together the last 30-ish miles to the Fernandez Trailhead -- supposedly one of the most remote trailheads in the Sierras!  We packed up and hit the trail around 3pm.

As we wound our way up the first hill, we heard what sounded like gunfire.  We both stopped in our tracks, only to hear the "gunfire" quickly intensify -- and turn into the sound of a tree falling over!  We've both been hiking our entire lives, and this is the first time we'd ever seen a dead tree fall.  Pretty awesome.  It hit the ground with a huge thump about 50 yards from us.

Our trail continued up the hill, with occasional glimpses of Mount Ritter through the trees.  We also noticed some exceptionally large, billowy clouds to the north, which turned out to be the Meadow Fire. The trail leveled out and passed near some beautiful grassy areas before climbing a final ridge and descending to cross the outlet stream of Vandeburg Lake.  This, like every creek we encountered in the Clover Meadow Basin, was dry as a bone.  From here, the trail climbs gently west then southwest to finally arrive at (Lay) Lady Lake.

We arrived around 6:00 and began our unwinding process.  Alex quickly discovered that his brand new Camelbak had leaked all over the inside of his pack.  This happened again on Day 2, and he ended up strapping it to the outside of his pack the remainder of the trip.  And returning it to REI when he got home.

As the sun set, the sky became cloudy and the full moon drifted in and out of view like in a horror movie.  We ignored the omen, however, because we couldn't imagine precipitation during California's worst drought in history.  A few minutes later, lightning flashed and a drizzle started.  We quickly scrambled to set up the tent.  It rained lightly on and off all night.


Day 2:  Lady Lake to Breeze Lake

We set out in the morning under partly cloudy skies.  By the time we got to Lillian Lake, the clouds were dark and low.  The trail turned east and headed downhill for a bit before turning north and back up towards the Rainbow Lake and Rutherford Lake spurs.  It soon started drizzling, then raining in earnest.  Our climb up the switchbacks to Fernandez Pass was soaking wet -- but nice and cool!  Lunch at the top was dry, but rather chilly, and we didn't linger.

Heading down the other side of the pass, the sky began to clear.  By the time we got to Breeze Lake, it was only partly cloudy, and we were able to enjoy a lovely afternoon.  Breeze Lake was really a treat, and not at all breezy.  The swimming was excellent, as was our campsite.  As the sun set, the sky turned cloudless and the cliffs lit up with alpenglow.

Day 3:  Breeze Lake to Lower Ottoway Lake

The clear night brought low temperatures, and we woke to frosty bear cans and frozen water bottles.  The day warmed quickly and became quite pleasant as we meandered our way through glacial moraines down to cross the South Fork of the Merced River.  From here our trail traversed across Moraine Meadows.  We then turned north to begin the short climb to Merced Pass, which was wide and flat and not very scenic.  We stopped for lunch on the north side, at the (dry) exit creek from Upper Merced Pass Lake.

After lunch, we traversed, climbing gently, to Ottoway Creek, from which the trailed climbed more steeply over polished granite.  Eventually we arrived at Lower Ottoway Lake and went about seeking a campsite.  We found an unbelievable, perfectly flat sandy patch at the end of the smaller peninsula and gleefully pitched a tent.  The swimming was incredible here:  great access, warm water, and scattered islands.  To top it off, there was out-of-this-world aplenglow that evening, accentuated by the towering and aptly-named Red Peak.

Day 4:  Lower Ottoway Lake to Red Devil Lake

The day started out with a swim.  Two, I think.  We then packed up and headed out up the trail, which climbed moderately, then steeply towards Upper Ottoway Lake.  The trail didn't actually go to the lake, but passed near it's smaller sister.  From there, the trail got brutal:  endless switchbacks up a steep gully, getting more and more narrow.  The last few were only about 10 feet long!  Finally, we emerged at the crest of Red Peak Pass, the highest in all of Yosemite.

The view to the north was exactly what I was hoping for:  a panorama of the Yosemite high country, from the Cathedral Range on the left all the way to Mount Ritter on the right.  Well, it would've been.  In fact it was so smokey that we could barely make out some of the mountains in front of us.  Oh well.  Still a nice place for lunch.

After lunch, we made our way down the scraped and shattered landscape north of the pass to a bench overlooking Red Devil Lake.  Heading off-trail, we strolled easily down the hill to the lake, our goal for the day.  Red Devil Lake is a wonderland of tiny islands, shallow bays, and connecting isthmuses.  We explored the shoreline counter-clockwise, heading towards the main peninsula, where we hoped to find camping.  Weirdly, there were no developed camp sites anywhere around this lake, nor signs of trails or ducks at all.  This really freaked us out since this was an amazing lake not very far off the trail.

We found an nice site on the peninsula and unpacked.  The hike had been short that day, so we had many hours to bask in the sun.  We had a particularly good time exploring many of the islands on a swim/walk excursion.

Day 5:  Red Devil Lake to Turner Lake

In the morning, we were loathe to leave what we now considered the best lake in the entire Sierras.  More swimming ensued, including an explore of an awesome cracked rock at the waterline.  Eventually, though, we realized we must move on, so we packed up and climbed up the ridge to the southeast to meet the trail again.

Our trail from here was mostly a gentle downhill, across one valley and then down to the Triple Peak Fork of the Merced River (barely running).  Crossing the river, we turned south and climbed gently to the point where the trail switched back in deep forest.  Here we decided to head cross-country to Turner Lake rather than continue up to the large, unnamed lake on the bench halfway up the hill.  We thought that lake might be too muddy and shallow for swimming, and Turner Lake looked much more dramatic on the map.  Our route cross-country was tough, mostly because we were setting ducks every 50' so we'd be able to find our way back to the tiny, forested target that was the trail switchback.  We finally made it, and once again were astounded to find no evidence of developed campsites.  We settled in near the lake's egress and Alex went exploring while I sat, watched the view, and read (Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon).  The smokey sky blurred the views but enhanced the color of the sunset spectacularly.

Day 6:  Turner Lake to Madera Creek

In the morning we decided that, rather than pick our way back through the forest to the switchback, we'd follow Turner Lake up the valley and head cross-country straight up towards the trail on the bench.  Alex had explored this way the previous afternoon and thought it looked do-able.  Sadly, this plan meant our effort placing ducks the day before had been for naught.

We set off around the east side of the lake, then crossed the meadow at the far end.  We decided to avoid the forest and instead went all the way to the base of the cliff before turning left.  We picked our way between the rock falls and the brush, and after a short climb we emerged onto less steep terrain.  From there it was an easy saunter across broken rock to the trail at the edge of the bench.  All in all, a very easy cross-country, and much shorter than the trail would've been.

 The one disadvantage of this route was that we didn't get a chance to check out the unnamed lake on the bench.  From our vantage as we climbed up towards the passes, it looked surprisingly deep, so maybe it would've been good swimming after all.  Halfway up the hill, the trail to Isberg Pass split off to the left, and we went right towards Post Peak Pass.  The trail climbed moderately before emerging on a desolate ridge with sweeping views in all directions -- weirdly, this was not the pass, though.  We sat here for lunch, admiring the views down into the Merced River Basin, north all the way to Mount Hoffmann, south all the way to Kings Canyon, and an impressive close-up of Mount Ritter and the Minerets.  We lingered a long time up there, thinking we had not much longer to go that day.

Eventually, we kept climbing the last little bit to the actual Post Peak Pass (with far less impressive views).  This was one of the worst-maintained trails we've ever encountered.  The trail barely improved on the descent:  it was like somebody had dumped a pile of rubble on the ground and called it a trail.  This was very demanding, and we were fatigued by the time we reached Porphyry Lake.  This was a lovely little lake, bound by some of the weirdest rock around:  granite porphyry with huge numbers of rounded inclusions the size of beach balls.

Alex wanted to start the drive home early the next day and there were no lakes sufficiently close to the trailhead for this, so we planned to camp at a stream.  We knew all the streams would be dry, so we pumped every container full at Porphyry Lake:  10 liters to last the rest of the trip.  Our packs heavy with water, we continued down the trail.  The map showed a trail that followed Post Creek directly to Madera Creek, but it soon became clear that this trail either didn't exist or we'd missed the junction.  This meant we had to climb back up towards the Fernandez Lakes, adding 2 miles to our day.

On the way up, we passed two lakes on the map that were nothing more than mud holes in real life.  Our route then retraced part of Day 2's route, back down past the trail to Rainbow Lake.  We toyed with the idea of camping at Twin Lakes, but there was evidence that other campers were already there and we didn't relish the idea of cross-country hiking after such a long day.  As we came down the trail towards Madera Creek it was getting quite late and I began to get very fatigued.  All of our attempts to find camp sites along the trail were unsuccessful, though.  I was getting very discouraged and the sun was beginning to set.  It finally occurred to me to check the guidebook (duh), which said there was good camping on the banks of Madera Creek.  Re-invigorated, we strode quickly down the trail another mile, found a nice flat patch of dirt in the forest near the trail, and laid out our tarps in the last fading glimmer of light.  It was dark; we were tired; we ate the next day's lunch for dinner and climbed into our bags.  I lay awake for an hour worrying about bears.

Day 7:  Madera Creek to Fernandez Trailhead

The morning revealed our camp to be fairly nice, though not more than 10' from the trail.  We were also in the shadow of a huge olivine plug -- the second weird geology of the trip.  Our hike this last day was a fairly easy meander across the hills to the parking lot, with occasional glimpses of Mount Ritter through the trees.  There was nobody at the trailhead when we got there, but soon a guy rode by on an ATV:  the first other human we'd seen since a group of UCSC students on Day 2!

We threw our stuff in the van and drove to pick up Alex's car.  The drive down seemed a whole lot longer than the way up, weirdly.  We had a huge, meaty lunch at Todd's CookHouse Bar.B.Que, then went our separate ways.  I staved off a meat coma with a delicious espresso from the Cool Bean Cafe, then drove home.

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