Inyo National Forest
Well, we all know how 2020 changed everything, there’s not much point in talking about that for long. Obviously, what happened upended our plans as well, but not always in a bad way.
In most years, usually in the middle of June, we go for a week of relax camping in Northern California. We don’t do anything but sit around the lakeshore, catch some fish, read a lot, sleep a lot.
Then we go for a weeklong backpack, most of the time during the second week of August. Before, after, and in between, we try to squeeze in as many shorter backpacks as we can.
Of course, none of this worked in 2020. For starters, the place where we go relax-camping was closed. Then our work setup changed drastically, we had to adjust plans to accommodate our respective employer’s and client’s schedule – which we were very happy to do as at least we still had jobs.
Both of us had to work the entire month of August, no matter what, but we could take time off at the end of the June and again a month later.
Thus, the decision was made to do two weeklong backpacks. In many ways, we didn’t mind at all.
One problem was the permit and the snow situation. The first trip had to be the last week of June, and there was still lots of snow left in many parts of the Sierra. Also, by the time we finalized plans with our respective workplaces, it was late, and most permits were already taken.
My first idea was to go to recreation.gov and see what’s available for our entry date. Almost everything was full, but to my biggest delight, there were two open spots for Italy Pass with entry by the Rock Creek trailhead. Though we’ve never been there, I remembered the pass from the maps, it was included in several different trip plans I played around with over the years, but none were from Rock Creek. I knew almost nothing about that place, other than that it’s at low elevation.
To be safe, I reserved the permit and only then started planning the trip.
OK, so we have seven nights with entry via Pine Creek and then we have to go over Italy Pass. This trailhead is also the entry point for French Canyon via Pine Creek Pass. That quota was full, but we can come out that way.
After several versions, the route started to crystallize: up to Italy Pass, cross-country to the Bear Lakes Basin, over to the Seven Gables, somehow get to their far side, spend some time in the Three Island Lake neighborhood, then over to Marie Lake, a bit of PCT/JMT over Selden Pass till the Piute Creek Junction, up Piute Creek and Piute Canyon, cross-country again to Desolation Lake, over to Moon Lake, pick up the trail again, back via French Canyon.
The milage looked very doable, but several aspects were in question because of all that cross-country, the snow levels and the creek crossings. It tried to come up with an alternative version for each possible problem point, and kept checking recent satellite images to see how the snow was melting. It was coming along nicely, but of course most creek reports came in high.
Finally, the time arrived, and we were ready.
Day 1 – L.A. to Pine Creek Trailhead and Honeymoon Lake
It was Saturday, June 20, the day of the summer solstice, the first day of summer! The weather forecast was very summery for that day and the next, with a small possibility for showers at the beginning of the next week.
We left early, but the drive is long and it took a while. Pine Creek is off the 395 just north of Bishop. A fully paved road snakes up to the base of the mountain, approaching seemingly impenetrable granite walls. The trailhead is at a mere 7,440’. The day’s destination, Honeymoon Lake, is only 6.5 miles away, but with 3,000’ of elevation gain.
It was past 10am. We parked the car in the cool shade of huge pine trees, ate a big lunch, packed the bags. We left not much before noon, first walking through the closed pack station and climbing in the dense forest for about half a mile. Then the trail breaks out of the trees and starts climbing in earnest on the side of the mountain, following the old mining road for a while. It was hot, dusty, and it would have been miserable if not four our cheery mood. After all that uncertainty, we were finally out and about.
The old mining road is not terribly steep and because of this, it gains elevation via several long switchbacks. We’re talking loooong. Down below, the view is somewhat spoiled by the tungsten mine’s building and equipment, but it also gives you perspective: from a few hundred feet higher up, a huge mining truck looks like a toy car.
On the other side, the trail to Morgan Pass is clearly visible, climbing in an even more unforgiving environment.
Further into the canyon, a huge waterfall on Pine Creek roared relentlessly, fed by all the fresh snowmelt.
However, we got some good news: after a quick chat with some folks coming down, we learned that all stream crossings are safe and the snow level is manageable.
We kept going, past the remnants of the Brownstone Mine, climbing and climbing with every step. The old road peters out and it becomes a proper trail. There was no shade whatsoever and it was hot, but not unbearably so. We kept well hydrated and took a few breather breaks.
Then, around 2:30pm, we sat down for a longer snack break by one of the small creeks flowing over the trail. We filtered some fresh water, ate two energy bars, and at exactly 2:43pm, we celebrated the summer solstice. The longest day of the year, official start of summer.
The hardest part of the climb was behind us. The vegetation grew a bit denser, some parts of the trail were even in the shade. Pine Creek is right next to the trail here, resplendent with cascades and rapids. About another hour later, we had to cross said creek, an easy affair on sculpted log.
Then, gorgeous Pine Lake (lower) came into view, the trail skirting the north shore, going right by the water. On the other side, we had to sit down and enjoy the scenery for a bit. A few other people were around, but it wasn’t terribly crowded.
Next was Upper Pine Lake, much smaller and boggier. Also very scenic, of course. Past the outflow, the trail crosses the creek again in an amazing meadow, with a rock walkway leading across the wide water. Everything was green and wet, the shooting stars in full bloom. We were tired, but having a great time.
A little bit higher up, there’s the junction to Pine Creek Pass or Italy Pass and Honeymoon Lake. We turned right, and after a few hundred yards, arrived at Honeymoon Lake. Medium-sized, ringed by rocks and meadows, the inflow a small, but loud waterfall. Beautiful.
Close to the outflow, quite a few people have already set up camp, so we decided to look around a bit. The outflowing creek was relatively deep and swift, but it looked like it can be negotiated without taking the shoes off, and the far side seemed to have additional camp spots, but no people were visible.
We crossed the creek and found our hunch was right: there was nobody around, and we had a choice of several amazing campsites. It was late, past 5pm. It took us over five hours to hike the 6.5 miles. No wonder with all that elevation gain, first-day heavy packs and being up since dawn.
After selecting a great spot, shielded from wind and view, we made soup, and while that was steeping, we went down to the lake to wash up. It was a bit too windy for a proper swim, but we both rinsed the dust off and then showered quickly in camp.
The rest of the evening went by quickly. We took a short walk to the far side of the lake, then pitched the tent, ate dinner, and went to bed. Like often on a first day at high elevation, I had some trouble sleeping, but it wasn’t too bad.
Day 2 – Honeymoon Lake to Vee Lake
We got up at our usual 6am to clear skies and chilly, crisp air. The sun hit the camp soon after and of course we futzed around for a long time, only leaving at 8am.
Rock-hopping the outflow back to the trail, we continued up towards Italy Pass, going around the lake, gaining elevation quickly. The trail crosses the creek again, then traverses a green, wet meadow and climbs another “step” to the next meadow, even more gorgeous than the previous one.
It was uphill all the time past tarns, more greenery and some rock-hops over water and even stepping over a few small snow patches. The going was slow, mostly because of the time we took to enjoy all that beauty.
After leaving the treeline, the trail enters Granite Park, a wonderland of rocks and ice. The trail undulates among all sorts of crazy granite formations, dropping a few dozen feet in one spot where we stopped for a snack- and water break after crossing a snow field and finding a nice rivulet flowing. It was perfectly calm, sun blazing, a few birds flitting around. Three hikers on a daytrip from Honeymoon Lake overtook us, but other than them, we haven’t seen anybody since leaving the lake.
One way to get to the Bear Lakes Basin from Granite Park is an unmarked cross-country pass called Granite-Bear Pass. It was right there, to the south-west of us, but as I suspected, there was way too much snow to even consider it. We decided to keep to the original plan and go up to Italy Pass.
From this point, the trail to the pass disappeared, or at least we lost it. However, the route was very clear, the pass an obvious point in the ridgeline. The tiny valley leading up to it has a gully in the middle, most of it still filled with snow this time. We decided to stay on the north side, among the rocks. The terrain is not the easiest, but we tried to find the route of least resistance and kept climbing. The three day-hikers came down in the middle, glissading on the snow, whooping with joy.
The last few hundred feet below the pass has many trodden routes, some steeper, some less so, any of which takes you to the top.
We reached the pass a few minutes after 1pm. The view is not the best in the Sierra, but it’s still gorgeous, with all the peaks halfway covered in snow. Only a part of Jumble lake and a tiny sliver of Lake Italy can be seen from the pass, both still partially frozen.
A gentleman came up the pass from the far side, and while we all had dinner, we discussed our respective routes, of course. Turns out he came from some of the areas we wanted to visit and gave us invaluable information.
First of all, Dancing Bear Pass, the cross-country pass just off to our left, our destination: there were a few snow fields to cross, and he advised us to don our microspikes, but according to him, the far side was mostly clear and easy going.
Next, Seven Gables Pass (or Gemini Pass). I had this crazy idea to contour around Seven Gables from the south, climbing a sort-of-pass from Seven Gables Lakes north of Gemini Peak and then dropping down to Three Island Lake. Reports from earlier years and recent satellite images made this route very unlikely, but I kept the idea open. Our new friend dissuaded us in a jiffy, he said he came exactly from there. The pass still had a huge, dangerous cornice, he barely managed to climb down with all his mountaineering gear. One time he even got stuck in the snow up to the armpits and it took him a long time to dig himself out. OK, so that’s a no-go, but not a problem.
We kept on bantering about this and other trips, and before we knew it, almost an hour flew by. It was time to press on.
From the pass, we dropped a bit on the trail, but then left it and started contouring over to Dancing Bear Pass. We knew some elevation loss and then gain was inevitable, but we tried to minimize it. Our friend’s cramponed boot tracks were easily visible in the snow, but already melting quickly. We put on our microspikes and found our own route, taking it slow. It was easy and not scary at all. Caution was needed in only a few spots where a slide down would not have been fun.
The traverse took almost an hour, with about 200’ of elevation lost that had to be climbed again. Not too bad.
The pass itself had a nice little tarn and then on the far side, we entered Bear Lakes Basin. Magnificent Seven Gables we beckoning in the distance.
(Quick side note: Bear Lakes Basin has 10+ bodies of water, most with some bear-themed name. Look at a map.)
First, we had to negotiate the drop to White Bear Lake. The drop itself is less than 300’, but it needed some scouting. The most obvious route, where the use trail went, was on a steep hillside, fully covered in deep snow. On its right side, part of the downclimb seemed doable, but the middle section looked like we’ll be cliffed out. To our left (south-east), it looked way easier, but we couldn’t see for sure whether we’ll be able to go along the lakeshore back to the north-west side, where our route continued.
Regardless, we decided to go to the left, and a few minutes later, we were by the water. There was one contentious spot, but it all worked out, and we got back on track. From a distance, the next drop (from White Bear Lake’s outflow) looked even scarier, but it turned out to be easy. It was a relatively steep descent, but on very navigable terrain and even the use trail was visible for most of the time.
Next up (well, down), was Big Bear Lake and Little Bear Lake. The former came into view to our left, irregularly shaped, broken up by peninsulas. This lake drains into Little Bear Lake, a much smaller, elongated body of water. The drain channel is about 200 yards long with a 70’ drop, the water raging wildly among huge boulders. Our destination was on the far side. Over there, we briefly saw another couple negotiating the boulders and disappearing in the general direction of Vee Lake.
We were headed in the same direction, but which way to go? To circumnavigate Big Bear Lake’s far side would have been possible, but very time consuming, so trying for the drain channel made sense. We climbed the big rock between the two lakes, right above the channel, and tried to make out how to get across.
After some deliberation we climbed down to the inlet of Little Bear Lake as this spot looked the most likely to work. It wasn’t the easiest, but we managed to hop the rocks to the far side, landing on a snow field at the base of a small wall. We had to be aware of collapsing the soft snow and falling into the lake (the water was shallow, but nobody wanted to get wet), but eventually we edged over to a point where we could climb up on the rocks. On the last move, Em’s left leg postholed as she was climbing up and she hit her right knee on the rock. She was swearing, but she wasn’t seriously hurt.
Vee Lake, our destination, was on the far side of a small ridge. The satellite imagery I perused while preparing showed a gully leading to a small plateau, followed by a comparatively mellow drop to the lake.
We found the gully and went up, not steep at all. Sure, we were a bit tired, it’s been another long day, not so far as mileage, but because of the terrain and the required effort.
The gully ended in a scenic little high meadow, with most plants still just coming out. On the far side, as expected, Vee Lake presented itself it all its V-shaped splendor, about 150’ below us, with Seven Gables in the back. The high vantage point also afforded us a great position to look for possible campsites.
The choice was easy enough: there were several perfect spots next to big boulders, legally close to the water, right in front of us. We glimpsed that previous couple again, but thankfully, they moved down to the west and out of view.
We dropped down the hillside, selected our camp, then while still warm from the hike, we stripped down to cleanse ourselves a bit. It was somewhat windy and the water was ice cold, but I didn’t care and went in for a brief swim. I’ll admit I was howling like a crazy dog when I hit the water, but boy did it feel good.
The sun was out and the wind died down a bit, so drying went quickly and it wasn’t too unpleasant. We rinsed of with some soap and water from the shower by the campsite, then cooked soup and pitched the tent.
Turns out our camp was right in the territory of a fierce male marmot who took offense at our visit. He climbed a small boulder not 20 feet from us, and screamed from the top of his lungs. After realizing we’re not intimidated, he switched gears and came even closer, begging for food. This place looked like a surprisingly high-use area for its remoteness, and I’m sure several idiots fed the wildlife here in the past.
We did no such thing, and eventually His Furriness calmed down, retreating to his den.
I fished for a little bit, but there was no movement in the lake at all. I started to think it might be fishless, but several sources suggested otherwise so I suspected the trout might still be slow because the lake only thawed recently.
The temperature dropped, but the wind stopped and though a few mosquitoes appeared, it was not bad at all. After a big dinner in the beautiful evening, we were happy to retreat to the tent and fell asleep quickly.
Day 3 – Vee Lake to Three Island Lake
As bad as I slept the first night, this second one was much better. Also, because we were tired and thought we’ll have a relatively short day (heh!), we got up an hour later than usual, at 7am.
Our marmot friend appeared right away, resorting to his old tactic of first screaming bloody murder and then asking for a handout. He came so close to our gear, we had to shoo him away a few times.
We left camp around 9am, following Vee Lake’s shore west towards the outlet. Then we spotted several trout in the water, swimming around lazily.
If we had wanted to go towards Seven Gables Lake, we would have had to cross the outlet and head south-west. However, based on what we heard from the man on Italy Pass and just by looking at the spot from there, it was obvious there’s no way we can try that remote pass. This was always meant as a plan B anyway. Plan A was to drop down to East Fork Bear Creek (the outflow of Seven Gables Lakes), then get to the Tree Island Lake area from the north. If possible, we didn’t’ want to drop as far as the PCT, it looked like some contouring in the forest would save us lots of elevation loss and gain.
First, there was the outflow of Vee Lake. It flows in a steep, narrow gully. This time, most of the gully still had lots of snow and thankfully almost no flowing water. We took it slow and eased our way down, alternating between the snow and rocks, whichever seemed more stable. The gully ended in a tiny meadow, green and fragrant from all the flowering plants. The use trail came into view again and we dropped some more into the drainage of Bear Creek. This was an amazingly beautiful area, the creek alternating between languid, deep pools and swift sections featuring small cascades, with Seven Gables always looming in the background. It was a bit boggy, but the first bit was easy. Then we had to take our shoes off to cross a side creek coming from the east.
Somewhat further down, we ran into a bit of a problem: the creek enters a narrow gorge, tiny by nature’s standards, but there was way too much water to go down it. Crossing to the other side would have meant wading through waist-deep water. Instead, we climbed the rock on the near side, detouring a bit to the east. There was some concern that we’ll be cliffed out on the other side, but eventually, we managed to find a way down into the next meadow.
The following half mile was comparatively easy walking, we crossed a few more small side creeks, then turned west, following the bend of the main creek.
The next mile was brutal, or at least brutally annoying. The use trail is almost invisible, the hillside covered with either thick manzanita growth or huge boulders. It was slow, tedious progress. Then, as the forest grows denser, the use trail appears again for a hundred yards at a time, only to be swallowed by the rocky jungle again. At one point there’s a class-3, 100-foot climb over a huge rock to circumnavigate a cascade. This short section took us well over an hour.
Finally, the going got a bit easier and we were approaching the ideal contour point, at least as far as I could make it out on the map. The PCT was less than two miles in front of us, lower. If we went all the way there, we would have lost lots of elevation, then had to cross the combined Bear Creek (a notoriously problematic spot by all accounts), and finally, had to climb back up via the trail to Lou Beverly Lake. Contouring from this general neighborhood made sense in every way.
Here the trail ran a few hundred feet from the creek, so we left, it and trudged through the woods to start following the bank closely. No luck first, most parts were too swift and deep. We kept looking for an ideal spot, and we found a short stretch were the water looked about knee deep and not too fast. However, this was in an area with lots of thick underbrush, and the mosquitoes were swarming. Stopping for shoes on/off would have been very unpleasant.
Regardless, we almost did this when Em spied something a bit downstream and we went to investigate.
It was unbelievable. A natural bridge spanned the creek! There was a logjam, and one log, about as thick as someone’s thigh, laid across the creek close to the water level. Parallelly and higher, there was another log, making for a perfect handhold. The water below was very fast and over knee-deep, but the setup made the crossing so easy, we couldn’t believe it. We were over in a second.
We were already hungry and running low on water, ready for lunch, but decided to contour some more, find the West Fork Bear Creek, and eat somewhere there. At least the terrain here made for very easy going and about 15 minutes later, we heard the roar of the other creek and then found it, rushing downhill in a deep gorge, completely inaccessible. The “normal” trail to Lou Beverly Lake should be somewhere on the other side, but regardless of the gorge, there was no point crossing to it. We kept going cross-country uphill in the forest.
Our patience paid off, a bit higher up we found the perfect lunch spot: some nice flat rocks in the sun, almost no mosquitoes, and an easily accessible braid of the creek less than 20 yards away. We were only a few hundred feet lower and about a mile away from Lou Beverly Lake. The forbidding terrain sapped us of our energy, so we took our time, ate lunch slowly and enjoyed a caffeinated energy goo after.
Continuing in the forest, we even found traces of an old trail. I’m sure the trail ran here originally or there was an official route contouring over to the side we came from.
The creek was unbelievable, with many cascades and pools, fresh green grass sprouting on the banks.
Soon we got to Lou Beverly Lake, emerging on the northeast shore by the outlet. The lake itself is not very big, but as scenic as it gets. A use trail took us by some amazing campsites, high use by the looks of them. Then on the south end, by the inlet, we ran into the proper trail, going down to the PCT or up to Sandpiper Lake and the Three Island Lake basin. First, a quick detour was in order to take a look at the trail crossing by the inlet. Turns out it would have been a shoes-off crossing. Then we turned around and walked up towards the lakes.
Right before Sandpiper Lake, there’s a big “step” of about 300’. Bear Creek tumbles down this step in a very cool combination of a waterfall and cascades. After taking some pictures, we followed the trail climbing the step and soon we were in paradise, or at least the Sierra equivalent of it. Sandpiper Lake is simply amazing, framed by huge peaks, bordered by greenery. Some campsites were strewn about on the eastern shore, but they were far too exposed and we wanted to go to Three Island Lake anyway.
Almost exactly corresponding with the map, the trail faded away here, but the direction was no question. Following the lakeshore was not possible, it was way too broken up. There’s a small valley on the east side, running south. That’s what we followed, climbing a little bit, then dropping a few dozen feet into an expansive, gorgeous meadow. Several creeks ran into it from the east.
On the far side of the meadow, a big hump of rock obscured Three Island Lake from view. Like before, we kept to the east, climbing out of the meadow in the continuation of the former valley. Here it was much steeper, the terrain becoming very hard to navigate. Several small tarns made it impossible to get closer to the lakeshore unless we backtracked. We decided to press on, and it was my mistake, I kept too much to the left and we ended up climbing way too high. There were some snow fields, more tarns, huge boulders, fallen trees. It was very slow and hard going, already being tired from what came before.
Most of Three Island Lake’s shore is not good for camping, but on the satellite imagery, I saw what looked like a beautiful meadow on this side, almost all the way at the southern end. Getting there was hard, though.
We had to follow the terrain, and it took us way too high, putting us well over 400’ above the water. Down below, we could see the meadow, but it looked like a very tough downclimb. Also, we thought eventually we’ll continue on the south shore of the lake, circumnavigating it, but now we saw that a huge snow bank blocked the way. Even from a distance it was obvious that if we climb down here, we’d have to come back up this way.
The decision was made to turn around. Going back down wasn’t easy, but we made it work and soon we were back in that big meadow below Three Island Lake. Here we turned west and dropped into the basin, following the creek. According to the map, there were several lakes here, one called Medley Lake, some unnamed. We couldn’t see much of them beforehand, even from our high vantage point, though I I spied a possible area where we could camp.
We were very tired and hungry by this time, but I promised Em we’ll be settled in ten minutes. Thank goodness, I was right. We found an amazing spot, hidden in a sheltered little cove, close to the shore of one of those unnamed lakes. There was a level spot for the tent and great rocks to sit on.
A non-moving day was planned in the trip anyway, so we both agreed readily that this just might be our home for the next two days.
It was almost 6pm, but this being late June, the sun was still way up. We ate some snacks, cooked soup, I took a swim and then we both showered. The fish looked active, so I summoned the energy to catch a few of them and they made a great first course for dinner.
We were spent, but having a great time, our spirits lifted by the amazing spot we found, the great food and the perfect weather. The mosquitoes were bad, but not even close to what we experienced the year before in the Emigrant Wilderness.
The night was calm, cool, but warmer than the previous.
Day 4 – In the Three Island Lake basin
We slept in, then had a slow breakfast. The day’s schedule was to explore the area, maybe fish some more, have fun. The only serious order of business was to find a crossing to the other side of the basin so we can contour over to Marie Lake the following day. The weather forecast called for 30% chance of thunderstorms, so the tent was prepared for rain.
We decided on fish again, this time for lunch. The next lake, a little bit further down from us, was bigger, deeper, and looked like it had larger trout. I think this is the one names Medley Lake on some maps. We settled on the shore, Em resting, me fishing. The morning active period of the fish was over, so it took me a while, but eventually I caught a few sizable ones. We went back to camp and had them for lunch.
Then we retreated to the tent and had a nice nap. Dark clouds were gathering all around, and we could see rain to the north and the east of us. Around 4pm, it drizzled a little bit, but never turned into proper rain.
The weather started clearing a bit and we went to look for the crossing. This was harder than it seemed. This basin is not cleanly cut in half by a creek. It’s a jumble of broken and scoured slabs, some hundreds of feet wide dozens of feet deep. The water flows from one bowl to the next, sometimes via very narrow and fast channels, sometimes via deep troughs. For example, one narrow point close to us was only about 15 feet wide, but it was at least eight feet deep. Either end was a non-negotiable cascade.
We kept going downstream, but walking in a straight line was impossible. Because of the broken landscape, we had divert constantly, often hundreds of yards. Walking between two points that were a quarter mile apart and at the same elevation, it easily took a mile, with lots of small up- and downclimbs. It was all fun, though, we actually enjoyed this very much. It was like solving a maze or a puzzle. At the outset, Em remarked there’s no way she could find her way back to camp, but I showed her how: there’s Seven Gables, this gives you the direction for the little valley we came in. That’s easy to get to. You can follow that to the meadow, and then going down the creek will take you to the familiar neighborhood where our camp is. This route is out of the way, but it gets you there for sure. She got the idea.
We kept scouting, going every which way. One spot where the creek looked crossable turned out to be a no-go as the far side was a vertical 50-foot rock face. Another candidate was way too deep upon closer inspection.
After about half an hour of searching, we lucked out. Just above Sandpiper Lake, there’s a narrow gorge, about 300’ long and a few dozen feet deep in most places. The creek running through it is mostly uncrossable pools, but at one point, there was a spot with the water flowing over some rocks. The near side was only approachable by a very steep (though doable downclimb), but the far side looked fairly easy. We went down all the way to the water to make sure we’ll be OK in the morning. It was obvious we’ll need to take our shoes off, but compared to all the other options, this was nothing.
After returning to camp for a snack, we went on the last stroll of the day, this time upstream, circumnavigating the high meadow, but approaching the outflow of Three Island Lake. We climbed the rocks next to the outflow and made our way all the way to the lake. The mosquitoes were just hatching here, they were horrendous, but we were well protected and the view made up for all that.
For a few minutes, we explored the jumble of rocks around the outflow of the lake, marveling in the sights. Beautiful, big trout swam in the icy water, making me wish we could stay another day and do some more fishing.
On the way back to camp, the setting sun colored Seven Gables in impossibly vibrant colors, accentuated by the dark clouds around. It looked like north of us it’s still raining, but that was far away.
I took dozens of pictures, not knowing it was all for nothing. Read on and you’ll see.
We spent another evening in our little corner of perfection, eating a big dinner and enjoying some dessert after.
Day 5 – Three Island Lake Basin to Piute Creek Crossing
We awoke to a cloudy morning, and for a while, it looked like it could rain anytime. By the time we got going, the sky was clearing a bit, and at least it didn’t seem like there’s imminent danger of lightning.
As planned, we walked to the gorge, took our shoes off and carefully crossed the creek. The current was fairly powerful and the rocks somewhat slippery, but all together, it was no big deal.
On the far side, the going was much easier. It was still impossible to keep a straight course for more than a hundred feet at a time, but that didn’t bother us much. For a while, we kept hiking in our watershoes, anticipating another possible wet crossing. However, we soon could see that it’s only a rock-hop, so we sat down and put our hiking boots back on.
Then it was about contouring over to Marie Lake. The hump in front of us (west) should be the only real obstacle. I made a small mistake: instead of climbing the small chute almost at the northern end, I led Em too much to the north, choosing what looked like a less steep route. We ended up on the apron and had to climb a bit higher than necessary, but it was all good, the view north compensated for the effort and every scenario of being cliffed out was avoided by carefully choosing the next bit of the route.
Marie Lake came into view, and in the distance: Selden Pass. The PCT’s path was visible even from this distance.
The lake itself was way lower, and we had no business on the shore. The idea was to contour around as much as possible and then make our way up to the pass. Well, good luck with that. Finding a way down from the apron proved no problem, an easy route always presented itself behind the next bunch of trees. We kept moving sideways while also descending.
Marie Lake is gorgeous. The geology is very similar to that in the previous basin, but it’s more of a one-bowl setup with the lake filling most of it. The body of water is huge and very irregularly shaped with countless sections, islands and peninsulas. We couldn’t make out any tents on the shore, but saw a few people NOBO on the trail.
We made good time, less than half an hour later we were almost parallel with the southern end of the lake, somewhat higher and to the east. Of course, there was no straight route and quite a few diversions were needed, but there were no real obstacles.
After sitting down for a quick snack break, we crossed the creek above the lake’s inlet and a little bit past it, we hit the PCT, the first real trail since Italy Pass.
Selden Pass was another five minutes higher up with Heart Lake visible on the other side. The pass itself looked like a very busy place with hundreds of footprints, but thankfully no trash and no actual people.
On the sheltered south side of the pass, a big snow bank obscured the trail, but it was easily navigable, especially with all the boot tracks.
Down and down we went, past Heart Lake, where we met our first person in three days, a PCT-er going north.
The vista opens up with great views south, Sallie Keyes Lakes coming into view soon. Before we even knew it, we were down by the shores. By looking at the map, it seems like there a land bridge at the top of one big lake, but in reality, it’s two distinct lakes, very similar in size, the north-west one a few feet higher up. The trail runs on the western shore of the other one. On the far side, we sat down on a large log for a snack, breathing the fragrant air.
More downhill followed, mostly in the thick forest, then a lunch break at Selden Creek in the middle of the trees. We took our shoes off, soaking them in the creek, then laid on a large flat rock to relax. A use trail led off upstream, supposedly to a large campsite, but we couldn’t see or hear anybody.
The biggest descent came after this, almost 2,000 feet of downhill, mostly switchbacks, down towards the Florence Lake trail (and Muir Trail Ranch, the ever-so-popular resupply spot). In many places, the trail clears the trees, affording great views west. It was somewhat overcast, but mostly high clouds, thunderheads only visible in the far distance.
Around 4pm, between the two MTR cutoff trails, I made a huge mistake, though I had no idea at the time. My camera is set to save RAW files, not JPGs. I take tons and tons of pictures every day (as you can see from most of the galleries on this site). This means the 64-gig cards I have usually fill up on day five or six of such a trip. This is expected and I have a fresh card ready to go in the front zippered pocket of the camera holder hanging from my chest. The same pocket also has a fresh battery.
Often, I change the card before it’s completely full, during a break. Then I don’t put in the chest pocket, but rather stash it more securely in the backpack. This time, I forgot. The card filled up at this spot, and I changed it on the fly, stopping for a few seconds. The full card went back into the chest pocket, and though I zippered it up again. Apparently I neglected to fully close it because eventually, the battery nudged the zipper all the way open and the card fell out. I had no idea, of course.
We kept going, bottoming out in the valley, then climbing a little bit to the day’s destination, the junction with the Piute Canyon trail. Here, at the confluence of Piute Creek and the South Fork San Joaqin River, the PCT crosses the river on a big, sturdy metal/wood bridge and then starts climbing to Aspen Meadow and then eventually to the Evolution area. This is also the border to the Sequoia National Park.
The other trail, our route, branches off before the bridge, going up into Piute Canyon and further up into French Canyon. First, we crossed the creek to explore the bridge and the neighborhood.
At least 50 people were around here, most of them in the “village” (or rather “zoo” as we call these now) on the far side of the bridge. Most of them were obviously thru-hikers. This in a year when everybody was discouraged from doing exactly that. One guy was bathing in the creek with soap, not giving a damn about polluting the water. The place was a huge turnoff to say the least.
We returned to our trail and went up. From the map, it looked like the canyon is very narrow for the first few miles with not many possible camp spots, but we decided to try. Right past the junction, the trail climbs sharply, then drops to the creek again. It’s gorgeous, but exactly as it seemed from the map, with the trail either in the bushes on the side or close to the water.
A single campsite was right there, but still in view of the others, so we kept going. The trail climbs another small hill, and about a quarter mile from the junction, by a bend in the creek, we hit the jackpot: a tiny, but level campsite with great access to the water. It was right next to the trail, but traffic should be way less here than on the freeway back down.
We settled, cooked soup and took a nice shower. I was running around naked to dry off, unfazed, and then a large group appeared from up-trail, just after I got dressed. Em kept teasing me about who got lucky in this situation.
The night was great, we always like sleeping next to a loud creek. It does wonders for sleep quality, with the only downside being that noise of animals might be muffled, too.
Day 6 - Piute Creek Crossing to Piute Creek Crossing
The updated weather forecast called for a realistic chance of rain, and we planned on walking to the upper reaches of Piute Canyon, possibly camping at one of the Golden Trout Lakes. However, it was not to be.
We left camp around the usual 8am, gaining elevation on the trail in the narrow canyon, still in the shade for the most part. It was gorgeous, but just as we suspected, there were no suitable campsites for quite a while.
About a mile up, the trail leaves the creek bed and climbs sharply on a big rock to circumnavigate a small, but scenic gorge. The route on the cliffside is simply spectacular. The vista opens up greatly, offering views in both directions.
Then the trail contours around a large hillside covered in manzanita bushes, crossing two small streams before returning to the main creek, now flowing wider over beautiful flat rocks and slides. Not far from here, we stopped for a break, and that’s when my heart sank: I realized I lost the full memory card. Of course, we looked around right there, clinging to the hope that it just fell out, but of course there was nothing to be found.
Em suggested we go back and try to find it, but I refused. I was so bummed out, I couldn’t think clearly. First, we continued up the trail, all the time racking my brain to decide what to do, considering all the adjustment that would have to be made. Em kept insisting on turning around. After a half a mile or so, I finally admitted she was right. We did an about-face and started going back down. From the point where we stopped before, we kept our eyes on the ground all the time, hoping. A party of four guys came up the trail, we even asked them if they found the card by any chance. No luck.
The plan was to go back to the same campsite, scour it, then pitch the tent and go back all the way to the place where I changed cards. Spend the night at the same spot, then come up again tomorrow, but skip upper Piute Canyon, go directly into French Canyon.
Despite looking at every inch of the ground, we made good time and soon we were back where we started. No card anywhere despite a thorough search. The weather looked worse by the minute, it seemed like it’s already raining up where we were supposed to go and it’s coming our way. We pitched the tent and prepared it for rain, then ate a big meal. In preparation, I wrote a “missing” note on a piece of paper before leaving back down to the PCT. The village on the far side of the bridge was almost empty, only one guy loitered around, and of course I pestered him about the card. He was very friendly, he understood the problem and said he’ll ask other thru-hikers as well. We exchanged contact info.
The clouds kept getting worse, and though the sun was out now and then, it looked assured we’ll get some showers soon.
We went all the way back to the spot where the card change happened. This was somewhere around mile 858 of the PCT, between the two MTR connector trails. From memory and the first picture on the new card, I could pinpoint the location down to a few feet. We looked and looked, but nothing, of course.
On the way back I taped my little message to the sign pointing to MTR, this being the most highly-trafficked spot on the route. A few minutes later, it started haling, then raining. It was medium-heavy, and funny enough, it elevated our mood. It was a welcome distraction, with beautiful light of the ever-changing clouds and patches of fog and rain. We even met two rangers coming up from behind us. They already saw our note and promised to keep an eye out as well.
The rain looked heavier up canyon, but it lost some of its ferocity as it quickly moved over us. The entire downpour could not have lasted more than half an hour.
A funny note: when packing for the trip, the weather forecast looked so good, we considered not taking our ponchos. Then last minute, as some chance of rain appeared, we packed them. This one time we would have needed them, we left both in the tent, draping them over the other clothing on top of the mattresses should any water seep through the rainfly.
During this rain, we had our hardshell jackets on, but of course of our pants got soaked. It wasn’t that bad, by the time we were back at camp, the rain had stopped, the sun came out and there was ample time for everything to dry.
I started to accept the loss of all those great photos and my mood improved even further, especially after changing into dry clothes and eating some soup. We sat down and went over the modified route, deciding to go up to the Moon Lake neighborhood the next day.
Spending another night in this place was not ideal, but we made it work and still had a nice evening.
Day 7 – Piute Creek Crossing to L Lake
“Well, this looks familiar” was the theme of the morning for the first few miles. At least we knew exactly what to expect and paced ourselves accordingly. This time, about two miles up-canyon, we got treated to a great show: a mother grouse and three of the chicks! We’ve seen adolescent and grown grouse many times before, but to see three tiny chicks was a special treat. We tried hard to stay out of their way and only follow them with the lenses of our cameras. The little ones kept exploring in all directions, with the mom calling them back them every few minutes if they got too far.
Eventually, we continued up, and in no time, we walked past the yesterday’s turnaround spot. Here, the canyon widens even more, the walls becoming less steep. A few campsites could be seen among the trees, the first “real” ones since the bottom.
It was easy going in great weather. Some clouds were about, but no thunderheads. The forecast looked way better, too.
Around 11am, the vegetation grew thicker and soon we entered a sparse pine forest dappled with tiny clearings: the western end of Hutchinson Meadow. Huge, gorgeous, sprinkled with wildflowers. The creeks and creeklets running from the side were somewhat overflowing their normal banks, but all crossings could be managed by hopping.
The canyon splits in two here, making a giant Y. To our right, east-southeast, Piute Canyon continued, our original planned route. We kept left, north-east, climbing from the junction into French Canyon.
After a brief uphill section, the trail enters this wonderland, a green, wide canyon with amazing views in all directions, including several waterfalls running in from the side.
It was soon time for lunch. In this part, the trail runs on the side of the canyon in the trees, a few hundred yards from the creek. We abandoned the trail and cut across the meadow to the creek. Here we saw that the trail used to run right in the meadow, but (I guess) to protect the resources, it’s been rerouted a bit further up on the hillside.
Anyway, we walked over to the creek and took a break. I will remember this as one of the most perfect and most scenic lunch spots ever. Beautiful views, amazing weather, cool water in the creek cooling our feet, delicious food. We took a long time, really enjoying ourselves.
The it was time to go, back to the trail, slowly gaining elevation. Everything was green, blooming, and wet. One waterfall on the north side was particularly amazing with great spring flow in a curved path, which I understand is highly unusual.
About an hour and a half of wonderful hiking later, we left the main trail and turned south, crossing the creek and climbing towards the high lakes above the canyon. The trail was in great shape and easy to follow among the bushes. First, we walked past Elba Lake. Beautiful, but infested with mosquitoes and quite a few people. A little bit higher up came Moon Lake. Way fewer people, but the vegetation was almost as thick, which again meant mosquitoes.
We decided to go one higher, to L Lake, apparently named so because its shape somewhat resembles a mirrored, uppercase L (though it’s called Little Lake on some maps). The outlet of L Lake looked densely vegetated, so we cut across to the longer leg of the L. This plateau, at about 11,100’, was much more barren, but beautiful in its own right, with sparse vegetation and huge boulders strewn around. No other humas were present and we found several perfect camp spots on the sandy soil. A few mosquitoes attacked us right away, but far less then only a few hundred yards away by the bushes. Also, to our biggest delight, it looked like the lake sports nice, big fish. It was relatively early, around 4pm.
After settling down, we went to the lake to bathe and then for a shower in a wind-sheltered cove far enough from the water. Em agreed to cook soup while I set out to fish. It was great, the trout were of perfect size and biting well.
After I caught enough for ourselves, I took a break and we went for a walk north, scouting a route down the hillside. Going back on the trail would have been out of the way, but not by much. Mostly to explore something new, we wanted to bushwhack over towards Pine Creek Pass. Reaching the edge of the plateau and looking down into French Canyon, with the pass on the other side, the route looked obvious and easy.
Back at camp, we decided to try something we kept planning for a while: some dear friends of ours are huge fans of fresh fish, but they can’t go on extended hiking trips in the mountains. We kept promising them that one day, we’ll treat them to fresh Sierra trout. This was the perfect opportunity: last night, abundant trout, and crucially, there was a small snow bank right on the shore, supplying much-needed coolant.
After I cleaned our fish and Em started cooking them, I fished some more, catching another few and keeping them alive in our fish net (which is the cooking pot’s holding net, by the way).
The evening was amazingly beautiful, the sun, clouds and mountains all coming together for a perfect show and shapes and light. The lost memory card still weighted on me, but we had a great time.
Of course, like always, we were a bit sad that this is the last night, the adventure is almost over.
Day 8 – L Lake to Pine Creek Trailhead and L.A.
The night was cool and calm. When we got up for a potty break at 3am, I couldn’t resist but take a few long-exposure shots of the night sky. Then it was back to sleep until 6am.
We quickly ate breakfast, then emptied one of the bear canisters completely, and put a few inches of snow on the bottom. The fish, net and all, went in there, and we filled up the rest with cold- and waterproof items. It was still less heavy than full of food on day one.
Knowing which was to go, we crossed the plateau in the blazing morning light, then dropped into the upper reaches of French Canyon. The vegetation was relatively thick, but an easy route was always to be found, and soon we crossed the creek, then started climbing on the other side. Exactly where we expected it to be, we found the trail.
The approach to the pass is very easy and – at the risk of repeating myself – gorgeous to a fault with all the vistas in all directions and the wildflowers. We reached the pass around 9:30am. It’s a wide, non-obvious point, at least from the south side, with no official markers we could see. There are a few small, beautiful tarns right on top. From here, our car was only about 8.2 miles away, but almost 4,000’ lower!
True to this fact, on the north side, the drop is much steeper right away, passing some more small tarns, cascades and waterfalls. The weather was warming rapidly, a harbinger of what was to come.
After a quick snack break in the shade, we passed the turnoff to Honeymoon Lake, thus entering the final leg our journey, the handle of the lollipop loop.
It was downhill, downhill on familiar, yet still amazing territory. Of course, we started encountering way more people here. Em was blazing downhill at an astonishing speed, but even so a large group of 60-somethings overtook us. All my respect.
The air was getting hotter and hotter, and we decided to press on without lunch, only an additional snack break. The hillside was sweltering in the heat, but at least it was all downhill. Entering the lowermost part of the trail brought some welcome relief in the shade, and at 1pm we were back by the car.
It goes without saying, I was still mad about losing the photos, but the trip itself was great, we trekked in some amazing places and saw unbelievably beautiful scenery.
On the way home we stopped at our favorite little Mexican restaurant in Bishop (El Ranchito). They were open for dine-in with reduced capacity (and a mask mandate while not sitting or eating). Only one other party was eating there at the time, so we decided to risk it and ate lunch quickly. We took the fish-holding bear canister with us into the restaurant as it was much cooler there than in the car.
Then, after a fast drive back to L.A., we delivered the prize to our friends on our way home. There was still snow left on the bottom which I dumped in their front yard. I’m not sure when was the last time that the San Fernando Valley saw fresh Sierra snow.
This concluded the first of our two 2020 week-long backpacking trips, and even as we were unpacking, we were discussing the next one, only a month in the future.
Don’t lose your pictures. If you do, don’t lose your head.
Another topic: while researching conditions, a friendly ranger directed me to this website: https://apps.sentinel-hub.com/sentinel-playground/
It has up-to date satellite images of most of the planet, with most areas getting a fresh image every 3-5 days. The resolution is not as good as in Google Earth, but as it’s close to real time, it’s extremely helpful in evaluating snow conditions.
Make sure to check out all the pictures in the full gallery.