Our trip to Mineral King in 2009 emboldened us. Despite idiotically heavy packs, we survived and had lots of fun, so in spring 2010, we already started talking about going on another backpacking trip in the summer. We reserved a permit for Mineral King, wanting to try the same place again, this time for two nights.
Then in May, we went for a long weekend to Convict Lake and stayed in cabin. While crossing the town of Independence, I saw a sign for Onion Valley, and reminded myself to look up the place. We never heard of it before, but somehow I had a feeling we'll like it. Well, it became our favorite gateway to the Sierras, no doubt.
Onion Valley is a small campground at 9.200', by the end of a steep road winding its way up from Independence, gaining more than 6,000' in 16 miles. All sites can be reserved, and very often, they fill up months in advance, especially weekends.
The place is very popular with backcountry people, as it sits 5 trail miles from Kearsarge Pass, and only 8 trail miles from the PCT/JMT, making it an obvious resupply point. There are two more trails leaving from here, both dead-ends: to the south a 1.5-mile trail up to Robinson Lake, a scenic, small lake about 1,200' higher. To the north-west there's the Golden Tour Lakes trail, around 3.5 miles, gaining cca. 2,200'.
As soon as we found out about all these exciting possibilities, we decided to check it out and embark on another two-nighter three weeks before the Mineral King trip. Robinson was too close, but we didn't want to go very far, either, and the Kearsarge Trail was supposedly very crowded. That left the Golden Trout Lakes, which looked like a very scenic and non-crowded option. I knew the trail is going to be steep, even steeper then Eagle Lake the year before, but as I said, we were bold. At least we found a lightweight tent, and almost last minute, I bought our hiking poles. Turned out they saved our butts big time.
We had a reservation for the campground, so we didn't have to leave early. It was past noon by the time we got to Lone Pine, and stopped at the the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center to pick up our permits. This is a fantastic place, with great resources for all aspects of the Sierras and Death Valley. Of course, it can be crowded in the summer with all the tourists and the Whitney climbers picking up their wag bags and rented bear canisters, but the rangers are generally very knowledgeable and very patient.
After picking up the permit, we drove to Independence, then up to Onion Valley. This road is a destination in itself with amazing views of Owens Valley. The hot air from the valley floor loses it's heat quickly, and when you get out of the car at the end, a cool, pine-scented breeze greets you. On the right, the waterfall of Golden Trout Creek can be seen, almost 1,000' higher than the valley floor. That's where we'll be going next day.
The campground is past a relatively big parking lot for the dayhikers and backcountry people. The campground itself is pretty small, only 29 sites, but very well organized, save for a few walk-up sites that can be too small for a family tent. If you don't have backcountry gear, don't reserve one of those.
The host was a very nice guy in his seventies with a big black dog. He told us the hike up to Golden Trout is very tough, with the section up to the waterfall being the toughest, especially as the trail is faint or almost non-existent and very lose on the steepest parts. His suggestion was to take the opportunity and explore the area this afternoon. After setting up camp, we took his advice and took a short hike up towards the waterfall.
We headed up Kearsarge Pass trail, and after around a quarter mile or so, there's a well-marked turnoff for Golden Trout Lakes. The trail first climbs within the trees, then in the bushes, which became thicker and thicker, and after a while, we couldn't follow it anymore. This was a high snow year, so the plentiful water made sure everything grew very well. Also, despite that we were approaching the end of June, almost nobody came this way yet to make the trail a bit clearer. We knew it was there, but decided to try going up the boulder field next day.
We got up at 6 in the morning, which is early for us, and saw many serious hikers already heading up towards Kearsarge. It took us forever to get ready, and the was past 9 when we finally secured the car at the main parking lot and left. In many ways, our gear was improving, but was also even more ridiculous than last time. First the good things: we got rid of the big tent, and bought a $20 "backcountry" tent at Big Five. It's a single-walled, non-freestanding tent pitched with a hiking pole, and it has a few good points, like being very light (just over 2 lbs.) and relatively roomy. The seams looked so bad, however, that I got a tube of silicone sealer and went though the whole tent with it a week before the trip. Thank goodness in the few nights we ever used it, we never got any rain, as I think it would be disastrous.
Heading the advice of more experienced people, we bought two really good Leki hiking poles (I think these were the first truly pro pieces of our gear) and even had the time to practice with them a bit. Both Em and I though we are not going to like them, but we got used to them very quick even during practice, and after this trip, we were completely blown away by how useful they are.
Then, I found two small synthetic-filled and not very lightweight sleeping bags reasonable in price, and they could be zippered together. They are ridiculous compared to a real backcountry bag, but they are much smaller and lighter than the stupidly big and heavy two-person bag with had with us last time.
This is where the nice things on our back ended. We still had the two huge and heavy packs, and I brought the Mamiya again, now two with backs, and a tripod! At least, it was a very flimsy and light tripod, barely enough to hold the weight of that big camera, but still...
Also, we needed a bear canister in this area, and considering we decided to do this more often, we bought one. Of course, the cheapest, but heaviest Backpacker's Cache, which is almost 3 pounds. Then we had all the other heavy stuff from last time, like the big gas burner, one Gear Guide pad and non-pro clothing.
I have no idea how much everything weighed, but try carrying a baby elephant on your back... that's how it felt.
After not more than a third mile, in the trees below the waterfall, we already sat down for a break and took our packs off. Then, after getting to the thick bushes again, we left the trail and started climbing on the boulder field. It was very, very slow going, but at least clear of bushes, and the hiking poles came in very handy. This is where we both started truly appreciating how useful they are.
We got to the top of the waterfall at noon. Of course we were exhausted, so we took a long snack break and enjoyed the view. From the meadow, the trail kept climbing and climbing, going up the creek's drainage, and we even lost it briefly at a point. There were two small snow fields, but nothing serious, and from the tracks, we could see that most likely only one single person has been up here since winter, more than a week ago.
Then came the boulders. As we later learned, the trail crosses the creek and goes up on the north side, but this time, that whole area was covered in snow, and cairns marked the way on the west side, on huge boulders. By huge I mean fridge- and car-sized. We had to take the packs off and heave them up, then climb, repeat. It was very exhausting, but fun. It took almost an hour to get past those 100 yards of "trail".
Our biggest concern, however, was snow. As much as we like it, we did not know for sure what awaits us, and though it would not have been impossible for us to camp on snow, we definitely did not have the gear to spend two nights in a complete winter wonderland. Right past the boulders, there was another snowfield, which looked pretty big, and we couldn't see the end of it, but I knew we had to be right below the meadow. It was pretty obvious: if this snow continues on and on, we could be in a bit of trouble.
Things turned out very well, though. After taking a few steps, the most wonderful landscape opened up before us: a true alpine meadow with the creek in the middle, lots of green grass, beautiful wildflowers and essentially no snow.
It was almost 4:30! With all the breaks, it took us over 5 hours to walk (climb and crawl) less than 3 miles. We were ecstatic, however. This was not Golden Trout Lakes, those were another few hundred feet higher and around a mile further, but it was heavenly nonetheless, and there was not much discussion about spending the night right there.
After resting a bit, we set up camp among the trees, reasonably close to the water, and I set out to fish, catching a few small trouts for dinner.
The just-past-full moon rose after sundown right in the notch looking down towards Owens Valley, creating a very cool spectacle on the rocks and the water. We spent the night pretty comfortably in our new bags - they were small, and not very warm, but the temperature was pleasant, we didn't even have to layer up.
After breakfast, we considered moving camp up to the lake, but first we went for a walk. Originally, we didn't want to go far, but we ended climbing and climbing, and finally, we got to the lake. To say it's very pretty is an understatement. There was very little snow, and as we got this far, we decided to explore the area for possible camp locations. In a few minutes, we found a sheltered and level spot not far from the water.
We returned to the meadow, packed up everything, and hauled our tonnage up the hill. Compared to the day before, it was somewhat less bad, most because of the ease of the terrain. Clouds were gathering, so we set up camp quickly and prepared for rain, but luckily, nothing came.
The main from my pants button fell off, and we realized we forgot the sewing kit (never since). I took a piece of rope, and fashioned a "belt" out of it. I looked ridiculous, but it held. Of course, Em had a blast making fun of me.
The afternoon was spent on the lake shore, walking around, fishing (no luck this time), trying to get used to the altitude. This was at 11,300', higher than any of us has ever been, and we really felt it. Nobody got sick, but we were both out of breath after taking a few steps. We knew there's another lake a little bit higher and farther, but this time, we didn't go as far as exploring that.
Next morning, we awoke early, but there was no rush, so we breakfasted slowly, then broke camp and left. Since leaving Onion Valley more than 48 hours earlier, we haven't seen another human being.
Going down was of course much, much easier, but we still had to take the packs off on big boulders below the meadow, and we had to take several other breaks to rest a bit.
At the waterfall, we didn't take the boulder field, but found the faint trail and descended there. It was very steep and very loose, but going downwards with the poles made it a much better alternative than the boulders. When we came to the thick bushes, we fought our way through them, and it turned out the worst part was only a few dozen feet long. I'm was glad, however, that going up we chose the boulders. (Note: we've been there many times since then, the the trail is in better condition. Though still loose and steep, forget about the boulder field and just take the trail up and down.)
After arriving to the car a few minutes past 1pm, we both had this sense of total serenity and calmness. No matter how hard it was, we had a great time, ate well, slept well, and spent two days in an amazing place without seeing anybody else. On the way down to Independence, we listened to Philip Glass' Symphony No 1. "Low", and everything was just... perfect.
Turns out, this was a bit too perfect, we got way too bold for the next trip only three weeks later, and that one almost ended in disaster. Carrying this much weight is, simply put, dangerous. Regardless, I still remember this as one of the best trips I've ever been on.
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