Eastern Sierra

Mt. Whitney Trail to Lone Pine Lake, 5.8 miles RT, 10,032' Max elevation, 1,824' +/-, August 20, 2018

Mt. Whitney Trail to Lone Pine Lake, 5.8 miles RT, 10,032' Max elevation, 1,824' +/-, August 20, 2018

We only had two short days to spend in the Eastern Sierra, so on the second day after having hiked to Kearsarge Pass the day before, we decided upon something shorter since we’d be heading back to Los Angeles on this day.  I knew the hike to Lone Pine Lake on the Mount Whitney Trail was only about 5.8 miles round trip, and although I am not always keen on hiking busy trails (this one probably being the most popular trail in all of California) I decided to suck it up and give it a go. 

On Saturday the day we arrived, we actually drove up to the Whitney Portal just to check it out.  I have to admit I was pretty starstruck knowing that every year about 30,000 people try for the summit of the tallest peak in the lower 48.  Just for fun, we weighed our backpacks at the weigh station, and my day pack weighed in at 15 pounds.  

On this Monday morning as we began the hike to Lone Pine Lake, the first section of the Mount Whitney Trail reminded me very much of a typical Southern California hiking trail.  The grade was steady and not too strenuous as we ascended through pine trees, passed by wildflowers, a grazing doe and crossed over a few streams.  We were surrounded by the towering walls of majestic granite cliffs that opened up to views down into the Owens Valley, Alabama Hills and White Mountains off in the distance.  At about 2.8 miles we reached the junction for Lone Pine Lake and followed the trail to the shores of the lake’s stunningly beautiful cobalt blue waters.  After spending some time exploring the lake, we hiked a little further on the Mount Whitney Trail to the posted sign for the permit only Mount Whitney Zone even though we knew we would not be going any further today.  As we looked longingly up trail towards Outpost Camp, several groups of hikers passed us crossing over into the zone with their permits hanging from their backpacks like little battle flags.  I could not help feeling a bit jealous wishing I were one of them, but also knowing I would not want to attempt hiking Mount Whitney in just one day.  On this trail, my husband and I made a pact that we would start collecting the gear and learning how to backpack.  It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a while now, but seeing this mountain in person for the first time seemed to inspire us to get the ball rolling.  Perhaps someday we too would be one of the many hikers who journey to the top of this peak, but for today we would just take it all in before it was time to head back home leaving the Sierra until next time.

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Onion Valley to Kearsarge Pass, 11 miles RT, Max elevation 11,835', 2,972' +/- August 19, 2018

Onion Valley to Kearsarge Pass, 11 miles RT, Max elevation 11,835', 2,972' +/- August 19, 2018

The trek from Onion Valley to the top of Kearsarge Pass was a spectacular day hike! The Kearsarge Pass Trail heads west from the trailhead at Onion Valley entering the John Muir Wilderness at approximately .7 miles. On this 11 mile round trip journey, we passed through foxtail pine forests, crossed over boulder fields, hiked alongside waterfalls and aquamarine colored lakes filled with golden trout. A final rigorous high altitude ascent up a barren, rocky slope lead us to Kearsarge Pass where the trail crests the Sierra at an altitude of 11,835 breathtaking feet! We were rewarded with the most sublime views I have ever seen; the glaciated Sierra peaks, sparkling turquoise pools of water and views into Kings Canyon National Park. Here are some photos with captions below each to describe our incredible journey.

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Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Methuselah Walk, 4.5 miles RT, 10,183' max elevation, 1,000' +/-, July 11, 2018

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Methuselah Walk, 4.5 miles RT, 10,183' max elevation, 1,000' +/-, July 11, 2018

On Wednesday morning we drove up to the White Mountains/Big Pine area to spend a day exploring the land of the ancients at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest where a 4.5 mile hike journeys through the oldest living trees in the world. This is a high altitude hike starting out at over 10,000’ feet where the gnarled and twisted trees that look like something out of a Tim Burton movie cling to steep, arid, rocky slopes. The trees thrive in this severe environment and usually survive for over 2,000 years. Incredible! The trail makes its way down a canyon and into a grove of the ancient trees. As you hike down the south facing slope, you’ll note a dramatic transition where there is a wider variety of plants including sagebrush and mountain mahogany. Eventually you will enter the Methuselah Grove. This is where Edmund Schulman in 1957 discovered the Methuselah Tree which is over 4,600 years old. How amazing is that?!

Methuselah’s exact location is not disclosed to keep the tree protected from vandalism, but if you ask the rangers they’ll tell you that the best place to hide something is right in plain sight so you will walk right by the Methuselah Tree along the trek, but you may never figure out exactly which one he is. After the hike we stopped into the Schulman Grove Visitor Center to get some souvenirs and check out the interpretive exhibits. Ranger Dave gave us an informative talk about the Ancient Bristlecone Pines and I am pretty sure I learned more about trees in that 30 minute chat then I ever did when I was in school! I highly recommend stopping in if you want to learn more about these magnificent ancient trees.

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Cottonwood Lakes, 14 miles RT, Max elevation 11,384', 1,660 +/-, Inyo National Forest, Eastern Sierra Trip, July 10, 2018

Cottonwood Lakes, 14 miles RT, Max elevation 11,384', 1,660 +/-, Inyo National Forest, Eastern Sierra Trip, July 10, 2018

I woke up at 4:30 am excited to get started on our new adventure. We had a hearty breakfast and soon were on our way up Horseshoe Meadow Road to the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead at 10,000’. I took my compass bearings, geared up and we were on our way by about 7 am. The trail enters the Golden Trout Wilderness and starts off on a leisurely stroll through the big pine trees. As we went along we started to gently descend. We followed along side a beautiful creek and made a few water crossings. The mosquitos were out in full force, so I was sure to break out the bug spray before becoming their early morning breakfast. We passed by lush green meadows dotted with wildflowers, corn lily and incredible views of large granite cliffs. Soon we entered the John Muir Wilderness. There was another creek crossing and more lovely meadows to enjoy before we came to the switchbacks. As we began to ascend our pace was slower than usual due to the high altitude. I did not mind stopping to take a few breaks so I could enjoy the views from above and take my photos. As we approached the top of the switchbacks, we could see some peaks coming into view. We passed a junction for Muir Lake and started to see the playful marmots poking their heads out waiting to see if we were going to give them hand out. The trail gently meandered through the meadow with a flowing stream and had incredible views of Cirque Peak and Mount Langley. It wasn’t long before the Cottonwood Lakes came into view. They were stunningly beautiful. We took a moment and sat in the shade to take a break, have a snack and enjoy the scenery, peace and quiet. We made our way to lake #3 and followed along its shore to a short climb up some switchbacks. On the other side we reached lakes 4 and 5. We felt a light breeze and could see the summer storm clouds rolling in closer, but I didn’t hear any thunder. We thought it was a good time to start heading back. We had quite a ways to go before reaching the end of our journey. As we made our way down the switchbacks we enjoyed another marvelous view of lake #3 from above. We passed a man with his two sons who were fishing, but he said they hadn’t had any luck. As we made our way back to the trailhead, I could feel some light precipitation. The cool raindrops on my skin felt refreshing after a long day and the smell of summer rain mixed with the pine was intoxicating. We got back to the trailhead around 3:30 pm and clocked about 14 miles. It was my first time hiking for that long at such a high altitude and I was both tired and exhilarated at the same time. It was an incredible experience. The Eastern Sierra has so much to offer. I have fallen in love.

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Alabama Hills, Georges Fire, Horseshoe Meadow, Mobius Arch, Eastern Sierra, July 9, 2018

Alabama Hills, Georges Fire, Horseshoe Meadow, Mobius Arch, Eastern Sierra, July 9, 2018

Our original plan for our trip was to hike the Mount Whitney Trail to Lone Pine Lake, but I learned the night before a fire which was caused by lightening strike had closed Whitney Portal Road at Hogsback and there was no access to the Whitney Portal Trailhead.  Upon arrival, we stopped at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center to talk to the rangers, pick up some additional maps and decide on our best "plan b" options which we gathered the night before.  I had several ideas in mind, of them being a nice, long day hike to Cottonwood Lakes which was then recommended to us by the rangers.  So Cottonwood Lakes it was!  We already had the maps for that, so I picked up a visitor's guide and a whole slew of other maps for future trips and we were on our way to do a little sight-seeing before the next day's trek.  Our first stop was the Alabama Hills where the rock outcrops frame incredible views of Mount Whitney.  From here we could see the Georges Fire burning, and the smoke was pluming towards the north so the air quality seemed to be okay at our location.  I took some photos and then we headed off to check out the trailhead for where we'd be hiking the next day.  From Whitney Portal Road before the closure, we turned onto Horseshoe Meadow Road which is an adventure unto itself.  The paved road switchbacks up the mountain 6,000 feet from Lone Pine's desert floor, all the way to an elevation of 10,000 feet with its terminus at Horseshoe Meadow.  We drove around to scope out the area, make note of where our trailhead would be and then stopped off at the day use area to have a picnic lunch before heading back to check into our hotel.  It was later in the afternoon by now and we could see the gray clouds forming and hear the soft sound of rolling thunder off in the distance.  The threat of storms are very common in summer.  If there's one thing I know about mountains at this high an elevation, they make their own weather so you have to be prepared for anything and know when to descend.  It was very peaceful up there as we listened to the soft booms that were farther off in the distance.  I pulled the maps out of the car to check out the terrain so we could get an idea of what to expect along our destination the next day.  Later that evening after stopping in Lone Pine for a bite to eat, we head back to the Alabama Hills for a quick little stroll to Mobius Arch, a natural arch that is formed in the rock formations.  A lot of people like to take photos through the arch because it frames Lone Pine Peak quite nicely.  I didn't make take the classic shot at the arch since there was another photographer there who had his equipment set up and I didn't want to disturb him.  Instead I walked just around the side of Mobius and found Lathe Arch and took my shot there.  As the sun was setting we could see the embers from the fire burning.  It was a lovely sunset, but we needed to get back to the hotel so we would be well rested for our hike to Cottonwood Lakes the next day.

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