June Lake to Mammoth
As soon as we got back from our 8-day Yosemite trip, we were already contemplating the next outing. One consideration was the Adventure 16 challenge we took on – to hike three, 16+ mile sections of the PCT by October 15. One was done in June, the second during the Yosemite trek, and though it was only the end of August, Em said she wanted to take care of it, just in case. So the idea was to include at least 16 miles of PCT.
During the last 6 years, we went to June Lake twice, both times for Thanksgiving, and stayed in a cabin at a very nice place called Reverse Creek Lodge. There's hardly anybody there during Thanksgiving and we had a great stay. It's also my birthday that time of the year, so it was an extra added bonus. We went hiking on different trails in the vicinity, but never spent a night in the backcountry there.
This time, we decided to do a multi-day trip in this general area, maybe visit Mammoth Lakes, too. We've never been there, either, other than driving up to the Mammoth Mountain parking lot briefly one time we were in June Lake. Smoke was a concern, the Rough Fire was (and still is, at the time of this writing) spewing huge amounts of smoke into the air on the other side of the Sierra, most of which was being carried all the way over there. The trip I had in mind was to leave the car at Mammoth, shuttle to June Lake (more about this soon), then take the long way back to Mammoth, two or three nights out. I called the rangers about a week before the trip and they told me the smoke is worst around the Kearsarge Pass area and somewhat north of that, but Mammoth is pretty clear. They were saying the same thing a day before our departure date, so we left L.A. on an early Thursday morning.
Day 1 – L.A. – Mammoth Lakes – June Lake – Billy Lake
We left around 6am and drove to Lone Pine. It takes about three hours from our place to the visitor center, and they open at 8. However, there's always a huge rush to get last minute permits for Mt. Whitney, meaning there's no real point in getting there very early. As planned, we arrived at 9, the crowds were almost gone. We got a permit for the Rush Creek trail in June Lake, then drove on to Mammoth.
There was a bit of smoke in the Owens Valley, but it wasn't very bad. It got somewhat thicker around Bishop, and when we got out of the car in Mammoth, there was some smell of smoke in the air. Not so bad as to cancel the trip, but cause for concern.
This is where we met our shuttle. I was looking at several options regarding transportation to June Lake, and found this very nice gentleman, Robert, who operates Sierra Shuttle Service. I called him two days before the trip and he agreed to take us for a very reasonable price.
He was already waiting for us, we loaded our gear into his Toyota 4Runner, and off we were. Robert is a cool guy, he's also an avid backcountry hiker and skier, so there was plenty to talk about. We arrived at June Lake in no time.
The Rush Creek trailhead is past the main June Lake area, close to the shores of Silver Lake. The trailhead itself is not very interesting, but in a few hundred yards, it crosses a beautiful grove of aspen and starts climbing parallel with the road and the lake towards Horsetail Falls. It was almost 1pm, we had only 6 miles to go, but with a gain of at least 2,000'. Having been on this trail before, we knew what to expect and took it easy.
Pretty much every step is uphill, first with great views of Silver Lake and the June Lake village, then crossing the rail tracks (they used to haul equipment with it while constructing the dam) and climbing some more to small but beautiful Agnew Lake.
The shortest way from here to Mammoth would be over Agnew Pass, then down to the PCT and to Agnew Meadows, around 12.5 miles alltogether. We decided to take a much longer road.
Keeping on the right of Agnew Lake, we trudged up towards Gem Lake. On the other side of Agnew Lake, the trail going up to Agnew Pass is visible, and it looks awfully steep. I'm sure we'll do it sooner or later, though.
After about another mile and a few hundred feet gain we got to Gem Lake – which truly is a gem, though it's much less nice with most of the water gone. It was windy, but less than last time when we were here around Thanksgiving. I remember Em nearly being blown away on the hump next to the dam.
The trail contours the lake, offering great views of the shoreline and the mountains in the distance, including Mt. Davis and Mt. Rodgers. After passing by the junction to Gem Pass, it climbs a little hill, then drops to Billy Lake, which is more like a pond with a boggy meadow. This general area was where we wanted to camp, but we had no idea where. We also considered pressing on to Waugh Lake, but looking at the map, I wasn't sure how many good camping spots one can find there.
Just past Billy Lake (and the junction with the other trail that goes up to Agnew Pass), on the bank of Rush Creek, we found a huge designated stock camp, occupied by a party of mule pack people. At least 15 big tents were pitched, but only four people lingered around, obviously the cowboys who set up the whole deal. The clients were either on a day hike or have not arrived yet.
We talked to one of the cowboys, and he suggested we find camping somewhere around here, as Waugh Lake's shore is pretty rocky with few campsites. After searching around a bit, we crossed Rush Creek and settled down in an amazing little spot, right across from the stock camp, but out of view.
Em made soup, and I caught a few fish in the creek, but they were too small, I threw them back and we had a "regular" dinner. The night was warm with calm winds, and as we got up early that morning, we had no trouble sleeping.
Day 2 – Billy Lake to Badger Lake
We only had around 9-10 miles to go that day, so we dragged ourselves out of the tent at 7am and left around 9am. The air was clear, with no sign of smoke. In less than an hour, we got a point below Waugh Lake's damn with at least two or three decent campsites (in full view of the trail, though). Then there were some more on the shore.
Waugh Lake is huge, but of course, lots of water was missing. The shoreline is rocky on the east end, becoming more forested as the trail heads west.
Side note: Take a look at this trip report when Waught Lake had to be drained because there was too much water.
There are some more possible campsites, a beautiful meadow, two easy (now, with the drought) creek crossings, and before you know it, you're at the PCT.
The junction is right in the thick of the forest, about a mile below Island Pass. We met two ladies having a rest at the creek, and they warned us of high winds on the other side. The good news: no smoke.
The trail leading up to Island Pass is not steep at all, and two or three times you think you're at the pass, only to figure out that there's another small hump. Just before the actual pass, the top of Banner Peak appears and the view becomes more and more dramatic with each step.
Just as predicted, the wind picked up significantly, but that didn't take away from the beauty of the place. Somewhat surprisingly, there's a tarn almost right on top of the pass, and with the pines trees and Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter in the distance, it's an unbelievably cool place. Em even said she'd love to camp here if not for the wind.
As we headed down towards Thousand Island Lake, almost everybody coming up complained of the wind. It was sharp and chilly, with gusts up to at least 35mph.
The lake is amazing, though, with all those tiny islands, wind-whipped waters and the huge mass of the mountain behind it. Camping is not allowed around the outlet, but we did see quite a few people moving along the shore further away to the legal campsites. I'd sure love to spend a few days here sometime, but possibly when it's less windy and crowded.
After climbing a little past the lake, we entered the forest again and started looking for Badger Lake. According to the map, it's off the trail by a bit and we were hoping there will be fewer people there. There are many trail junctions in this immediate area, first (down at the outlet) the JMT going down to Emerald Lake, then two trails going up to Agnew Pass, another down to the River Trail, and so on.
There were two small ponds right next to the PCT, and for a second I thought I misread the map and this could be Badger Lake, but then we checked again and figured it's impossible, so we just kept looking for a sign or a trail to the right. It was there where it was supposed to be, no sign though, just a spur trail leading into the woods.
The lake is pretty small, but very scenic. There are a few campsites high up from the water, pretty much next to the trail. Then there are two more sites of questionable legality right on the shore. After leaving Em there, I hiked along the shore for circa a hundred yards, and found the perfect site, about 120' from the water, in a small depression somewhat sheltered from the wind. If there would have been any chance of precipitation in the forecast, we would never have camped there, as it was obvious that it becomes a bathtub as soon as it rains. However, rain for the next 24 hours looked almost impossible, the only annoyance was the wind.
It was early, not even 2pm. We sat up camp and endured the wind. Built a shelter for the stove, cooked soup, endured the wind some more. Tried to fish, casting with the wind, but no luck (we never saw any movement in the water, I don't think there are fish). Compared to most mountain lakes the water was very warm, and we would have loved to go for a swim, but not with that wind. You get out of the water and freeze to death before you can dry yourself off.
It just kept blowing and blowing, but it was tolerable just lying on the sunlit rocks, so we enjoyed the afternoon and didn't do much of anything.
Around sundown, the wind died down a bit, and we went for a short hike to the hill on the south side, looking down towards Mammoth. The colors were unbelievable.
Dinner was great, it was chilly, but relatively calm and we had a great time. Em has the habit of getting pretty grumpy if the weather is windy, and this day was no exception, but the nice views of the sunset and then later the warm meal cheered her up and we had a great time.
The wind woke me up a few times during the night, but generally it wasn't bad.
Day 3 – Badger Lake to Mammoth, then L.A.
We got up at 6:30 in the morning to thankfully no wind and temperatures somewhat below freezing. I just love our sleeping bag, we were both in short underwear and no socks and it was nice and toasty.
The little water we left in the shower was frozen, but not rock solid. For the morning wash-up, I dumped the ice and filled the shower with fresh water from the lake that was much warmer.
The light was amazing, gradually illuminating the mountains, then the lake, then our campsite. We had flexible plans for the day, and were unsure about the mileage and exact destination, so we tried to leave early, which didn't work out of course and it became 8:30am. It looks like unless we take extreme measures, there's no way we can get on the trail sooner than 2 hours after first alarm. That's just us.
We went back to the PCT and continued south. There was a bit more of an incline, and the forest thinned out, providing great views of the valley ahead, the different mountain ranges all around, and Shadow Lake on the other side. Somebody on a forum mentioned that the PCT here feels like being in a sightseeing plane. There's some truth to that.
From the highest point on this section at circa 9,900', we had about 1,500' to descend to Agnew Meadows. Mammoth Mountain, which was seemingly below us in the morning, soon towered way above.
One plan was to hike to Mammoth and spend another night in that area before driving home the next day. However, we were aware that the area down there would be very crowded and very close to civilization, so we kept open the possibility of hiking out.
We arrived at Agnew Meadows just past noon. We could have taken the shuttle out from here, but then we would not have had the 16 miles of PCT we needed. Plus, we wanted to look at Devil's Postpile. There was a bit of confusion for a minute as to where exactly the PCT continues, but we found the trail eventually and dropped a few hundred feet more into the valley next to the creek.
It was perfect hiking. Shade, no strong wind, great trail gently descending. Em took the lead, and she turned on what I call "the hyperdrive". She completely forgets herself and keeps speeding up, finally settling at an almost-jogging speed. No wonder her trail name is Speedy Gonzales.
We stopped for a long lunch break at a bridge (I think across Upper Soda Springs), then we took to the trail again, and relying on Em's hyperdrive some more, we got to Soda Springs at 3:30pm. We had our 16 miles of PCT and though the place looked beautiful, there were way too many people for our taste and the wind was picking up again, so we decided not to stay another night.
First, though, Devil's Postpile. This place is less than half a mile from the Red's Meadow ranger station (+ bus stop/parking lot) and it's a must see. A long time ago a lava lake solidified here and vertical cracks developed in the cooling basalt to let off the heat, resulting in mostly hexagonal columns. It's a very "touristy" destination, but worth visiting.
Then we walked to the bus stop to shuttle back to the Mammoth Mountain parking lot. We bought the tickets when we left the car, so that was taken care of.
A bus was right at the stop, and the sign said it was headed to Red's Meadow. There was a volunteer posted at the bus stop to orient the new arrivals, and when I asked him how often the busses run, he said every 10 minutes and we should wait for the one that goes to Mammoth Mountain parking lot, because this one goes to Red's Meadow first, and we'll just lose some time. Soon, another bus headed to Red's showed up, but no sign of any to Mammoth. Finally, after more than 20 minutes, it arrived, but stopped short, let a few people off, then drove on without acknowledging us. I was yelling, whistling, and practically running after the damn bus, but I could see that the driver was avoiding my gaze on purpose and simply drove off. Man, was I pissed. I would not have minded not to be able to board, but at least she could have told me what's going on.
A really nice ranger lady came out and explained that the shuttles are really full and they can't take on any more people, so we should get on the next one to Red's and go all around. Well, we could have used that information half an hour ago. The guy who directed us first was really embarrassed and I could see that he'll get a telling-off from the ranger.
Finally, after 45 minutes at the bus stop, we got on, drove around Red's Meadows resort and then back all the way to Agnew Meadows and out to Mammoth. By the way, this driver was really nice, some guys who hiked out at Agnew Meadows stopped him and he said he's full, but he'll take them. Not like that other one.
By the time we got back to the car and left, it was almost 6pm and we were starving. On the way up, we saw a barbeque place next to the 395 in Big Pine, and we thought about trying to reach that, but we weren't sure whether it would be still open.
Driving down the Sherman Grade towards Bishop, we could see the smoke coming over the mountain. It was awful. The strong winds carried it over the ridgeline, keeping the valley floor relatively clear, but the huge cloud looked like something out of a disaster movie. It stretched all the way to Lone Pine.
We ended up eating in Bishop at a Mexican place called "El Ranchito". It was the best restaurant food I had in a while. Fresh, great taste, affordable, quick.
So, the Adventure16 PCT challenge is done, what's next? Turns out, our idea of luxury camping: three nights at Eagle Lake off Mineral King with minimal hiking and a lunar eclipse. Trail report here.
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