Horseshoe Meadows Loop


2015.06.26. - 2015.06.28.

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CA395 and the Witney Crest from the Lone Pine visitor center

CA395 and the Witney Crest from the Lone Pine visitor center

Intro

Hiking with food poisoning is not fun. Hiking really tired and with food poisoning is even less fun. However, you make the best of it. Let me explain: in summer 2015, we learned that A16 came up with a "PCT Challenge". Hike any three 16+ miles section of the PCT by October 15. A trip taking care of one part was already planned, so we thought "why not?", and signed up for it.

Around the end of June, we had a free long weekend and decided to tie things together and take care of one of the segments. The destination was Horseshoe Meadows. Two days prior to leaving for the trip, a friend of ours invited us to real, homemade Chinese hotpot. It was unbelievably delicious, but one item (we suspect a fish) must have been a bit too ripe, because as good as it was, Em got sick as a dog. The day after, she went to work, was fine first, but in the afternoon she really came down with it.

Em in Horseshoe Meadows.

Em in Horseshoe Meadows. Note how dry it is.

I was marginally OK, but feeling weak. All through the day, I was packing and preparing for the trip, unsure whether we'll be leaving at all. When Em got home in the evening, the gear was ready to go, but we weren't. I felt miserable and Em felt really bad. However, she said it seems like it's getting better, and if this holds true by the morning, we should leave. She went to bed early and I finished prepping. I made her bag way lighter than usual, putting a lot of items she would normally carry into mine. I also decided not to take the Canon 20D to save weight and as we've seen parts of this trail before.

Day 1 – L.A. to Horseshoe Meadows and Chicken Spring Lake

I barely slept all night, then we woke up early, but Em said she's feeling much better, so let's go. We left around 6am, with Em sleeping in the back seat all the way. She's very lucky to be this way, she can sleep off illness easily.

By the time we got the permit in Lone Pine, drove up to Horseshoe and got our gear on, it was past 11am. Em was still feeling a bit sick and pretty weak, I was just weak and tired. However, we agreed we should try this, we'll be pretty close to exit points all the time, and this is a good way to try and see how much we can exert ourselves if we get a case of mild food poisoning in the backcountry.

Weather was a concern, too. The forecast was 20% chance of thunderstorms for the first day, increasing to 30-40% in the next 48 hours. From experience we knew that in this area, that can mean anything ranging from partly cloudy skies to a huge deluge.

Taking a short break and enjoying the views of Mulkey Meadows

Taking a short break and enjoying the views of Mulkey Meadows

Anyway, up we went. The destination for the day was the poetically named Chicken Spring Lake, which would have been much closer if approached by Cottonwood Pass, but the whole point was to maximize our distance on the PCT, so we went up Mulkey Pass, then turned north on the PCT. This is a pretty dry section of the trail, but with very nice views down into Mulkey Meadows, then later Big Whitney Meadows. We met a nice guy who was hiking a 500-mile section of the PCT, and he was very happy to be there, as he was finally getting past the water-scarce areas. After this part, there are lakes and streams galore.

Looking back towards Horseshoe Meadows from Cottonwood Pass

Looking back towards Horseshoe Meadows from Cottonwood Pass

We took a short photo-break on top of Cottonwood Pass, with a look of where we would have come from if taking the direct route, then we trudged up the short distance to Chicken Spring Lake. Side question: who the heck named this lake, and after what?

Other than that, holy cow, was it crowded. I don't think we've ever seen this many people in one place in the backcountry, not even at Guitar Lake. There were two big groups of scouts, another big group of college kids, a few parties of 2-3 strong PCT hikers, and a few more short-trip hikers like us. When we got to the main tent area, it looked like a gathering.

However, a scout leader was very helpful and pointed us to the far end of the lake, saying there's plenty more spots where, some with great privacy. He was right, in a few minutes we found the perfect spot in the shade of some trees, not far from the lake, but shielded from everybody's view.

Our campsite at Chicken Spring Lake

Our campsite at Chicken Spring Lake

The weather was becoming increasingly unstable, with huge clouds of every shape and hue racing around and the wind picking up. We pitched the tent quickly and prepared for rain, but nothing happened. Even the wind died down and while Em made soup, I even tried to fish, with no luck whatsoever.

We were both still weak. It felt like having hiked 15 miles, when it was only around 8, but we felt much better than in the morning.

Chicken Spring Lake, around 7 in the evening

Chicken Spring Lake, around 7 in the evening

By the evening, the sky cleared nicely and the wind subsided even more. We still didn't feel like eating very much, so after a small dinner while enjoying the lake views, we went to bed very early and were asleep not much after 9pm. We slept fast and deep until the alarm woke us at 6 in the morning to clear skies and still air. The sun was coming up, illuminating the unnamed peak above the lake, slowly warming the chilly air.

Day 2 – Chicken Spring Lake to Guyot Creek and back to Heart Lake

We had a decision to make: go back via Cottonwood Pass and abandon the trip, or press on? Em said she still feels far away from peak performance, but she had another good night's sleep, so let's go. I was still feeling somewhat off, but voted for the same. It took us even longer than usual to break camp, and left the lake around 8:30am. What the hell were we doing for 2 and a half hours? I can't really say. Slow breakfast, slow packing, slow everything.

Em and Big Whitney Meadows behind her

Em and Big Whitney Meadows behind her

The trail climbs to a point above Chicken Spring Lake then follows the side of the mountain, offering great views of the Sierra's interior, descending somewhat to the junction with the Siberian Pass trail (with Mt. Langley looming high above the other way), and later dropping sharply into Rock Creek. This was nice, pretty easy, monotonous hiking for around 8 miles. Our pace was somewhat slower than usual, but we wanted to take it easy any because this was to be a long day. As expected, small clouds started to appear around 10am, and an hour or two later, it was pretty cloudy, with a promise of rain hanging in the air.

On the PCT towards Rock Creek

On the PCT towards Rock Creek

It was almost 1pm by the time we got to the Rock Creek crossing. Most of the time this is like a village, too, but now there was only one tent, plus some through-hikers filling up on water. We took a really long break and rested, ate soup, filtered water, etc. Em still didn't eat enough for me to be happy with her calorie intake.

There was a short patter of rain for half a minute, but then it stopped, and we didn't know it at that time, but that was it for the day.

In order to fulfill the requirements for the A16 hike, we had to do 16+ miles of PCT one way. From Mulkey Pass, where we entered the PCT, 16 miles was somewhere between Guyot Creek and Guyot Pass, another two miles or so north of us. It would have been nice to continue going all the way to Crabtree, maybe exit Whitney, but we did not have the time for that, so the plan was something much more contrived and crazy.

Break at Rock Creek crossing

Break at Rock Creek crossing

We left our bags in the bearproof locker at the junction, then took only a bit of water and snacks, and hiked up towards Guyot. I expected this to be a pleasant stroll, with no bags, and no big exertion. The trail climbs circa 1,000' in a mile, then evens out and there's a mile-long, relatively even stretch before another short climb to Guyot Pass. Em started feeling really sick and weak on the uphill part. She kept running out of breath and generally looked like she's about to faint. I offered to turn around, but she declined, saying if we have come this far, we should do this final stretch and be done with one 16-mile segment. With frequent stops, it took us an hour to get up there, but we did, passing by the beloved spot at Guyot Creek where we camped on the Mt. Whitney trip. It was sad to see that the creek had almost no water, despite being the end of June. Back in 2012, it was flowing strong in August.

Em trying to catch her breath on the uphill between Rock and Guyot Creeks

Em trying to catch her breath on the uphill between Rock and Guyot Creeks

Finally, we made it to our turnaround point, took the obligatory photos with the A16 flag in our hand and Mt. Guyot in the background, then headed back. Em was much better going down, but even so, it took another hour to get to Rock Creek and our bags. It was almost 4 o'clock, it kept looking like rain, and we were done. The tent sites of the crossing looked very inviting.

It wasn't as simple, though. there was an important choice to make: we could camp here, meaning no more hiking for today. We were at around mile 12 or 13, and it felt like 20. However, the next day, we had to hike out over New Army Pass, and the weather was supposed to get worse. As thunderstorms here are more likely to develop later in the day, it's much safer dealing with the pass early in the morning, and if we camp here, it will take much longer to get up there. The original plan was to keep hiking today and camp at Heart Lake, just where we did on the Trans Sierra trip of 2013 (and caught the hailstorm of a lifetime).

Rock Creek

Rock Creek

As Em was feeling miserable, this was pretty much her decision, and she wisely chose to press on. Given her condition, it was very tough going, though. The trail in the Rock Creek drainage is very scenic and very easy, by the way. It follows the drainage, always pretty close to the water, gaining elevation slowly, with small "steps" between really some pretty, small meadows. I took as much weight from Em's pack as possible, but that was not much help, she was simply weak, mostly from not eating enough.

We left the crossing before 4:30 and it was after 6:30 that we arrived at Heart Lake. At least there was plenty of daylight left, being so close to the summer solstice.

Almost at Heart Lake. Whitney Crest in the background.

Almost at Heart Lake. Whitney Crest in the background.

There's a big campground at the south end of the meadow with a bear box and quite a few great spots. Of course it was occupied, this time by a gang of nice guys in their seventies who were in a very cheerful mood, just having returned from a cool day hike in the Solider Lake basin. They said there's nobody at the other, small campsite on the far side of the lake, though they couldn't remember for sure whether there's water. That's what I was concerned about, remembering that the little creek flowing there had not much left last time we were there. The guys were very friendly and offered us to camp there with them, but Em told me she'd rather do this last half mile so we can be by ourselves (and closer to the pass).

Em approaching the northern end of Heart Lake's meadow.

Em approaching the northern end of Heart Lake's meadow. The lake is behind her in the center, but it's so low you can't see it from the grass.

She trudged on slowly and I practically ran ahead to see whether there's water. You have no idea how elated I felt when I saw that there was plenty. I dropped my pack and went back to meet Em, telling her with a poker face: "Well, there's water, but a huge group of scouts is camping there." Tired as she was, she didn't get the joke and almost started crying before I told her I was kidding. Then, of course, she had the strength to almost kill me.

We were very exhausted, especially Em, after having done around 15 or 16 miles that day with all that handicap. Everything was OK, though. We set up the tent quickly and prepared for rain, but none came, and we just sat around, ate, drank lots of water and didn't talk very much. That's how tired we were. Again, at 9, we were in the tent, asleep.

The meadow at the Soldier Lake junction

The meadow at the Soldier Lake junction

Day 3 – Heart Lake to Horseshoe Meadows and back to L.A.

We set the alarm to 6am, but when it went off, I accidently turned it off completely instead of just snoozing it, and next thing I knew, it was almost 7 o'clock. The weather didn't look great, there was a thick layer of light gray clouds, but at least it didn't seem like a thunderstorm is imminent.

We gathered our gear as fast as we could and started up towards New Army Pass. Em felt much, much better, but we still went a bit slower than usual. The first part of the trail is almost jungle-like, right next to the creek, climbing amongst ferns and other thick vegetation which thins out quickly after the Soldier Lake junction. Then it leaves the tree line and the ascent to the pass begins in earnest with Mt. Langley on one side and cool views of the Kern valley to the west. We really love this place, even after having been here a few times I always feel like it never gets old.

Slowly ascending towards New Army Pass

Slowly ascending towards New Army Pass

The clouds broke up a bit, but also started moving faster. However, it still didn't look like thunder and lightning can happen soon, so we kept going. With our slow pace, we crested New Army Pass at exactly 11am.

I have to confess something: this was our fourth time on this pass, but it took this long to realize you can see Mt. Whitney from here. Even now, I would not have noticed if another hiker we met had not pointed it out. As seen from this vantage point, Mt. McAdie is right in front of Whitney, but it's not obscuring the very peak at all, so that's no excuse. Anyway, better late than never.

Mt. Whitney as seen from New Army Pass

Mt. Whitney as seen from New Army Pass

Originally, we planned on exiting Old Army Pass. We've never been there, and it seemed like a good idea. However, when picking up the permit, the ranger told us there's still a lot of snow and ice on the east side of the pass. Because of its orientation and being in the shadow of the mountain, supposedly this is one of the last passes to lose snow in all the Sierra. Very often, rangers are way too cautious, and it happened quite a few times that conditions were far less dangerous than they predicted, but this time, I didn't think twice about heeding the advice. Even I knew that Old Army Pass is notorious for icy conditions and people die there all the time. So long story short, that's why we took New Army Pass.

High Lake and one of the South Fork Lakes way in the back

High Lake and one of the South Fork Lakes way in the back

Getting down from here was very familiar territory. We took it pretty slow, first stopping for another long lunch break with soup at Long Lake. Then, taking the usual shortcut around South Fork lake (see about this here) we shaved a mile off compared to the main trail. There was even a minute of light drizzle, and it seemed like soon it will come down hard, but eventually nothing happened.

Lunch at Long Lake

Lunch at Long Lake

We arrived back at the car around 3:30, a very slow time compared to our usual pace. However, considering how this stupid food poisoning episode weakened us, it was still pretty good. Em was feeling much better, and was ravenous for food. We stopped at Totem Café in Lone Pine, ate a hamburger (big mistake from my part), then drove home tired, but happy.

It was a nice trip, with lots of lessons learned, and one A16 segment down, two to go.

Em and Cirque Peak

Em and Cirque Peak

Notes

What should be obvious, but we learned to hard way: if you have even mild food poisoning, make sure you're still eating you calories if you want to hike. Of course, the real problem begins when you can't hold down anything, but thank goodness neither of us had this problem.

By the way, Em was over it, but as I didn't get sick at the beginning, that hamburger in Lone Pine did it, and I was "driving the porcelain bus" all day next day at home. Well, that's my luck.

Another note: when hiking up to New Army Pass and looking back west, we saw what looked like a pretty small, but obvious wildfire way over on the other side of the Kern drainage. We considered reporting it via the inReach, but then decided it was too far away and we can't give the exact location. We took photos, though, and later stopped by the visitor center in Lone Pine to show them. They knew about the fire, it was in the Sequoia National Park, only 6 acres and not spreading. However, they said it was good we reported it and should always do it like this, never assuming that somebody else already did.

Don't forget to take a look at the full gallery.

On Horseshoe Meadows Road down towards Alabama Hills and Lone Pine

On Horseshoe Meadows Road down towards Alabama Hills and Lone Pine