Mini Trans Sierra


2011.08.09. - 2011.08.13.

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Panorama of Gilbert Lake

Panorama of Gilbert Lake

Intro

Despite being really stupid with heavyweight gear the year before and suffering the consequesnces in the form of a bad back injury, we got back into the game pretty quickly, and after getting a lof of lightweight equipment, we went on a few short trips in the spring the early summer of 2011. For the late summer, we had lofty plans, something that seems easy considering it now, but back then, given our condition, it was a big deal.

After studying the map, I realized that crossing the Sierras from Onion Valley in the Inyo National Forest to Road's End in King's Canyon is only around 25 miles, and if done this way, it's mostly downhill. We drew up a very careful, three-night plan to do the trip and reserved a permit in spring for the Kearsarge Lakes trail and a reservation for the Onion Valley campground for a night of acclimatization.

Transportation was a big question, but I made a deal with a friend of ours to come with us to Onion Valley, then drive our car home and pick us up four days later in Kings Canyon, bringing his family on a day-trip.

We also bought a bear canister, unfortunately a Garcia, which is notoriously the heaviest, but cheapest, and then we rented a Bearikade from Wild Ideas. Back then, we didn't deal with dehydrated food, now one of our Bearikades would be easily enough for a trip like that. Anyway, we were loaded up pretty well, but this was still tons lighter than what we had a year ago.

As I mentioned in other posts, 2011 was year with lots of snow, we even had to cancel a trip to the Sequoias and went to San Jacinto instead. The trail reports for Kearsarge Pass did not sound good, even in the middle of July, the pass was supposedly covered in quite a bit of snow. However, it was melting fast, and a two days before we left, I found some photos from a few days before showing most of the snow gone. Everybody said the mosquitoes are really bad, though. Oh, boy, were they right.

Day 0 - L.A. to Onion Valley

The drive through Antelope Valley, then Red Rocks Canyon, then up to the Owens Valley on the 395 will always be a favorite of mine. We left the city around 10am and after picking up the permit in Lone Pine, we were up at the Onion Valley campground by 2pm. We ate a nice lunch, then our friend left, and Em and I pitched the tent. It's always a good idea to go a bit higher and then sleep lower, so in the late afternoon, we hiked up towards Robinson Lake. We did not go all the way to the lake, but turned around about halfway.

Em above Onion Valley on the Robinson Lake trail

Em above Onion Valley on the Robinson Lake trail

Back at camp, we had a big dinner, and went for a walk around the neighborhood in the night by moonlight. After going to bed, I really felt the altitude getting to me. Woke up all the time, was constantly thirsty, and felt weak. Em was much better, she was happily dreaming away next to me.

Day 1 - Onion Valley to Heart Lake

We got up around 7:30am, but we're always the worst slowpokes, and it was no different this time, we hit the trail by 10am. It didn't really matter, though, as our planned total for the day was a mere 2.5 miles. The Kearsarge Pass trail is one of the most scenic places I've ever been to, but of course it's steep, climbing out of Onion Valley very sharply. For the first 3/4 of a mile or so, there's a really good view of the parking lot and the campground. As we passed the turnoff to the Golden Trout Lakes trail, we both mentioned that we can't wait to go back there again sometime.

On the Kearsarge Pass trail

On the Kearsarge Pass trail

The trail gives you almost no respite, it goes up and up and up, and then it comes to Lower Pothole Lake, which is more like a pond, really, but looks pretty nice. From there, it climbs again and crosses a boulder field, coming to impossibly-scenic Gilbert Lake, then again higher a bit, to Flower Lake. We were planning to camp at the next lake above Flower, namely Heart Lake. I saw on the map that from Flower, the trail climbs a lot again, and does not touch the shores of Heart Lake, but avoids it and then it's way further up. We met a very friendly elderly couple camping in the forest next to Flower Lake, and when we told the guy we were going to Heart, he gave us the most helpful info: "Don't go on the trail, you'll have to climb down a lot. Go through the forest, right towards the headwall that separates the two lakes, find the lowest point, and climb it. There even used to be a trail there, but it's mostly gone."

So we listened to his advice, left the main trail, and started upward in the forest, following our noses. After leaving the lake, I could see the headwall's top in front of us, but the route was not obvious, and there was no trace of the trail. So I left Em and my backpack sitting on a log and went to explore. Keeping in the direction of what seemed the lowest point on the hill above me, I found the almost non-existent trail, and it climbed very steeply, but for only 40-50` yards, and what wonder, there I was on the shores of Heart Lake.

Flower Lake from Heart Lake with Owens Valley down below

Flower Lake from Heart Lake with Owens Valley down below

I fetched Em and my backpack, and we were at the lake 20 minutes later. With all the rest stops and exploration, it took us almost three hours to get here. There are no good camping spots on the actual lake shore, but there's a huge rock on the east side with very nice spots on top. It's about 15 feet higher than the water, with amazing views down into the Owens Valley and up towards Kearsarge Pass, with University Peak and all.

Unsurprisingly, we weren't tired, so I caught some fish, this time Em cleaned them, we ate well, and sat around in the moonlight and the mild evening, with the warm air rising from the valley making it very pleasant. When I checked my phone, I mistakenly turned off the airplane mode, and to my biggest surprise, I had a signal. Well, there was a direct line of sight into the valley below, but still. Back in Europe, my dad saw me coming online on Skype, thought somehing was wrong, and called me. It worked perfectly, it was a weird feeling sitting in the moonlight at 11,000', skypeing with Europe.

Heart Lake before sunset. Our camp was on the boulder left of center

Heart Lake before sunset. Our camp was on the boulder left of center

Not much before dawn, we heard some other poeple, maybe looking for a campsite, but they didn't stop and we never figured out which way they went. I have no idea why they were around in the middle of the night, but Em and I keep talking about going up to Kearsarge Pass on a full moon night, which we haven't done yet, but maybe that's what these people were up to. Regardless of the commotion, I slept much better, with no signs of altitude sickness.

Day 2 - Heart Lake to Charlotte Lake

Now, we were to climb our first real Sierra pass. We got up at 7, trying to hit the trail early, but of course it didn't work out, we left the camp after 9. The first task was to get back to the main trail. We saw people above us the day before, so we knew it's about 200' higher than the lake, up a steep face with boulders. However, it didn't look like scrambling will be needed, and with the help of the hiking poles, we climbed it without any problems. The trail has some really cool views of the lake, and the heart shape is very obvious from that vantage point.

Below Kearsarge Pass. The pass is the notch on the right side of the rocks left of center

Below Kearsarge Pass. The pass is the notch on the right side of the rocks left of center

Not much past this, the trail leaves the treeline and bypassing Big Pothole Lake (which looks like a pretty forbidding place) climbs towards Kearsarge Pass. The grade is very gentle and no wonder some people call this pass one of the easiest in the Sierras.

They say you'll never forget the first time you got up to Sierra Crest and laid eyes upon the interior of the mountain range. I'm pretty sure I'll never forget it. The view from the top of Kearsarge Pass is something to behold. Mountains and mountains as far as the eye can see. Right in front of you, Kearsarge Lakes, Bullfrog LAke and the Kearsarge Pinnacles, with the beginning of Kings Canyon visible in the distance. "Magnificent" is not a grand enough word.

Looking down from Kearsarge Pass. Kearsarge Lakes on the left, Bullfrog Lake in the distance.

Looking down from Kearsarge Pass. Kearsarge Lakes on the left, Bullfrog Lake in the distance.

We took a pretty long break at the pass to have a snack, chat with some fellow hikers and snap many pictures. Fromt he pass, the trail swtichbaks down into the Kearsarge Basin. I let Em go ahead a bit so I can take a picture of her on said swtichbacks from a distance. That's when I saw a couple coming up the trail from the far side with what looked like a very small child. I thought I'm imagining things, but a few minutes later, as I caught up with Em, we met them, and it was a young ranger lady and her husband, plus their 3-year-old son, happily trudging up the steep trail. The little guy had a grand old time. They mentioned that the mosquitoes are really, really bad, they even met a couple who said they're cutting their trip short because of them.

On the high trail in Kearsarge Basin, Bullfrog Lake below us

On the high trail in Kearsarge Basin, Bullfrog Lake below us

If you're headed straight towards Vidette Meadow, there's a trail that goes down to Kearsarge Lakes and then down to Vidette. However, if you're headed towards Charlotte Lake (like we we were) or Glenn Pass, then the high trail on the side of the mountain is the way to go. The view of the lakes and the pinnacles is amazing, and the trail descends at a nice angle towards the PCT/JMT junction. Em's shoulders starting hurting like crazy, so we stopped a for a bit and I realized that her hip belt was buckled, but it was very loose and doing anything. This just shows how little attention we paid to these things then. I looked at some videos about how to adjust you pack, and even told Em about it, but we didn't really heed the advice. Mine was much better, though, and after adjusting her belt to fit snugly and take the weight off, her shoulders were much better after only a few steps. Soon, we were at the juction.

The area was supposedly under water only a few weeks ago, with even the signpost being almost completely submerged. There was still some moinsture left in the soil, it was as dry as it may seem from the picutre. From the junction, the trail enters the forest and descends towards Charlotte Lake.

Em taking a break just above Charlotte Lake.

Em taking a break just above Charlotte Lake. The best camp spots are on the far right side of the lake.

This place will always be a huge favorite of mine in the Sierras. The lake is pretty secluded, it's very scenic, and the trout fishing is amazing. As soon as the trail hits the shore, there's a sign by the ranger saying you're supposed to cmap only two nights, that he'll confiscate any chached food, and otherwise, had a nice time. The ranger station is off to the right not much farther, and then the nice campspot begin. We chose one close to the far end of the lake. There's a bear box nearby and some other campers were around, but not in our immediate vicinity.

As soon as we dropped the gear and set up camp, we went fishing, and even Em got into it a bit (she loves eating fish, but usually she doesn't like to fish). Around sunset, the mosquitoes came out in huge clouds, and they were biting, but this was nothing yet compared to what was to come. Around sunset, we had a perfect view of the setting sun and the almost full moon rising, and then is got cold pretty quickly, driving the mosquitoes off.

Charlotte Lake and Mt. Bago

Charlotte Lake and Mt. Bago

After dinner, we went on a nice long walk to the far side of the lake. This is something we try to do pretty much every time we're out in the backcountry, it's a great idea to have a walk before going to sleep, it warms your body temperature a bit, and by the time it starts cooling off, you nice and toasty in the sleeping bag.

Day 3 - Charlotte Lake to campsite along Bubbs Creek

Em on the shores of Charlotte Lake

Em on the shores of Charlotte Lake

Finally, I had a decent night's sleep. We woke up at 7, then went back to sleep a bit, but finally dragged ourselves out of the tent and went to talk to the Ranger. I saw on the map that Charlotte Lake's outlet flows into Bubbs Creek a few miles down the canyon, and if we could go that way, we wouldn't have to climb back to the junction, then go down to Vidette Meadoes and so on, shaving a few miles off. But the last section before Bubbs looked really steep, so I wanted to pick the range's brain about this. He was a very burly and very friendly man, typical mountain backcountry ranger type in the best sense. He confirmed my suspicion, saying it's not worth going that way, it won't save us any time, it's pretty much bushwhacking all the way and very steep indeed.

We left camp late, just before 11, amnd headed back up the hill, then down the steep mountainside to Vidette Meadows.

Above Vidette Meadows

Above Vidette Meadows

This is again one of those lush, wet, sub-apline meadows with lots of vegetation that looks like heaven, if not for the bugs. We stopped at the main campground just off the trail to eat a snack and chat with some fellow hikers. At this point, the mosquitoes were horrible. I've been to mosquito-infested places, but this was way worse than anything I've ever seen. It felt like in a tropical forest. You were breating moquitoes, eating mosquitoes, blinking mosquitoes if you weren't careful. The repellent was working only for a limited time. We cut the break short and left, heading down the trail. It's very hard to describe how pretty the view of the canyon is. We kept stopping for photos, no matter how bad the bugs were. In the more forested areas, I could see a huge cloud around Em's head as she was walking ahead me. It looked like she has some weird halo.

Then we met four young guys who came up all the way from Road's End, leaving not very early in the morning. It was only 2pm! They were practically running up the trail. Oh, how I'd like to be able to do that... Well, it's your own hike and all that.

Overlooking Bubbs Canyon

Overlooking Bubbs Canyon

Lunch spot on the rocks with Granite Monument in the background

Lunch spot on the rocks with Granite Monument in the background

We kept going at our own slow place, and a few miles past Junction Meadow (where the side trail goes up to East Lake), we stopped for a very late lunch in the forest where for some reason, there was way less underbrush, so it was a bit drier and the mosquitoes were fewer. A boulder the size of a small truck sat right next to the trail, with a level and smooth top, offering a perfect rest spot. The lunch took a long time, I even almost dozed off afterwards, but then were're on our way again. It was 5:30pm.

The plan was to go until 7-7:30 and find a campspot next to the trail, avoiding crowds. I read that at the inflow of Charlotte Creek there's a pretty big and popular campground where many people stop for the night, especially if coming up. Sure enough, it was full with tents, one of those backcountry "villages" we don't care much for. Looking up to where Charlotte Creek was coming from, I understood why the ranger said we shouldn't go that way. However, given the time, I'd love to try that route, it looks very cool.

As soon as passed this place, we started looking for a campsite. What we almost stepped into first was a huge pile of steaming-fresh bear scat in the middle of the trail. Going further, around 7pm, we found a nice spot right between the trail and the river, but even offering some privacy. This was somewhere below Granite Monument. We couldn't see too much of that from our vantage point, but we could see the mountain on the other side of the river. Talk about the river, or more like shout. All that gorgeous whitewater next to us was so loud, there was little point in talking too much.

The site even had a fireplace, but we had no desire to build a fire and smoke up all our gear. That has become a custom of ourse since, we almost never make a fire in the backcountry, even if it's allowed — and then I won't even say what I think of those jerks who make one where it's not allowed. Signs of that are all over the place in the high country.

So we showered (we even heated up a bit of water as we still had plenty of fuel), ate dinner, took some moonlight photos, and went to bed happy. We did 9 miles that day, a first for us with that much weight on our backs. It was mostly downhill, and looking back now it's a joke of a distance, we could have hike all the way out to Road's End if necesary, but it was big deal.

Bubbs Creek by moonlight

Bubbs Creek by moonlight

Day 4 - Bubbs Creek to Road's End

We set the alarm to 7am, but of course, despite our best efforts, we left only at 9. Our friends were supposed to leave L.A. early in the morning to pick us up, but there was no point to rush, they weren't going to get there early. Even so, we walked at a pretty brisk clip (compared to ourselves). At the Sphynx Creek bridge (the trail junction to Avalanche Pass), there was another village with around a dozen tents, and then the switchbacks begin the descent into Kings Canyon. The view from the top is impossibly cool, and though I knew the parking lot has to be somewhere at the far end, it still felt like we're in the wild, becuase no sign of civilization could be glimpsed. The switchbacks are, for course, murderous, but very well built. We haven't done there the uphill way yet, but I have a trip in mind involving Avalanche Pass, so sooner or later, we'll have to.

Looking down into Kings Canyon from top of the switchbacks

Looking down into Kings Canyon from top of the switchbacks

By 12:15 we were at Road's End, feeling ecstatic. Last July, I was sleeping on the hard floor and I could barely get up, my bad was so back. Only 13 months later here we are, having done a small trip by most measures, but a huge one for us.

There was no sign of our friends yet, so we hung around the ranger kiosk, talked to other hikers going up and coming down, and took a nice refreshing bath in the river. Being the weekend, the area was full of people on day trip, enjoying the water. We were in a very relaxed mood, something I came to cherish a lot since. There's nothing compared to chill out a bit at the end of a trip and relax.

Bridge near Road's End.

Bridge near Road's End. I'm behind the tree, running towards Em,trying to beat the timer.

All of a sudden, things got complicated. Just after the ranger kiosk closed, an older guy our of breath appeard from the trail. He was frantically looking for rangers, he said one of his hiking companions broke her foot on the Paradise Valley trail around Mist Falls, and it look very bad, she needs help right away. Only minutes before, there were several rangers chatting right there, but of course, they were gone now.

As we tried to commandeer an RV to take this guy, I saw our car pull up with our friend, his wife and their daughter. The girls got out, and then my friend and this guy went to look for rangers. It took almost an hour by the time they got back, but then rangers started pulling up as well, and the response was very swift and organized. A few of them filled their water bottle quickly, donner their pre-packed backpackes and ran up the trail. The others stated organizing things down there, from what I could make out it seemed like they were considering an airlift. The original hiker who came for help told us they've been hiking for over thirty years, and nothing ever happened. Now his friend went out onto the slippery rocks next to the fall (ignoring the signs not to do it), slipped, and he said her foot was so badly broken it was barely hanging on. We left not much after, and never learned what happened. Hope she's OK.

After an early dinner at Grant Grove, we took the scenic drive home, going on the 180 to Lodgepole and then down to Three Rivers. Around Lodgepole, on "Bear Highway", we had our next ursine sighting, a huge male. It was getting dark and he was in the forerst, meaning taking any decent picutres was impossible, so we just watched for minutes, along with two dozen other people, as he tore a log apart and ate the termites. It was almost midnight by the time we got back to L.A., but we were happy as clams.

Here's the full gallery.

Em on the shores of Heart Lake

Em on the shores of Heart Lake