Copper Mine Pass Loop


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Em about to walk into Big Wet Meadow
Em about to walk into Big Wet Meadow


Yours truly looking into Deadman Canyon from the ledge leading to Big Bird Lake
Yours truly looking into Deadman Canyon from the ledge leading to Big Bird Lake

When we first laid eyes on Big Wet Meadow in Cloud Canyon (during our Trans Sierra trip in 2013), we knew we had to return there eventually. Despite its unimaginative (or funny?) name, that place is magical. I'd say it's one of the most scenic parts of the Sierra. Add to this nearby Colby Lake with its own beauty and the views of the Whaleback (plus the possibility to climb it), and it's a no-brainer.

When planning our long trip for 2018, we kept toying around with ideas for the Emigrant Wilderness, but the wildfires that year were so bad (Carr, Mendocino Complex) that the entire area was completely smoked in. We already had a plan B for Sequoia National Park. Like most of the time, the idea was to avoid "highways" like the PCT/JMT, even the HST, and find something remote. This is getting harder as the years go by. Cloud Canyon is still relatively low-traffic, and as we wanted to visit that place anyway, I was looking into making that happen.

Another goal was Deadman Canyon, one over to the west from Cloud Canyon, separated by the Glacier Ridge. On this ridge, there's a supposedly beautiful lake, Josephine, off-trail. Several people recommended visiting it, so I included that in the plan, too.

Having accessed this area via Lodgepole several times, I came up with an alternative: Rowell Meadow. It's a somewhat longer drive to the trailhead, but instead of a 3,000'+ climb from Lodgepole (via Siliman Pass) it's "only" a 1,200' gain before dropping into Sugarloaf Valley. The trip plan was relatively flexible and leisurely: about 70 miles in 7 nights. Rowell Meadow, Sugarloaf Valley, Roaring River, up Cloud Canyon, a possible side trip to Josephine Lake, then another such side trip to Colby Lake, down again into Cloud, turn south, cross-country over unmarked Copper Mine Pass, down into Deadman Canyon, another side trip to Big Bird Lake, down back to the Roaring River, back out via Sugarloaf and Rowell.

The one big question mark was Copper Mine Pass. This required 8-9 miles of cross-country hiking on terrain that could be very bushy, rocky, slippery, steep, etc. Most parts of the pass itself looked OK on the map and satellite, but according to some people, the west side can be a problem if you're not careful.

By August 2018, though there was no huge fire right next to Sequoia National Park, smoke from one of the big blazes filled the air. I think it might have come from as far away as the Carr Fire, but can't be sure. I inquired by phone two days before the trip, and the ranger told me there's still some smoke, but it's clearing.

We didn't have a permit yet. As we planned on Emigrant originally, we didn't reserve anything here and all spots were taken. However, the ranger told us we shouldn't have a problem getting a walk-up permit at Grant Grove.

Star Wars at the Hollywood Bowl
Star Wars at the Hollywood Bowl

The week leading up to the trip was a bit hectic, to say the least. Em had to work every day. I was busy, too. Then we had tickets to the Hollywood Bowl. They were doing three movie nights that week, Tuesday was Star Wars: A New Hope, Wednesday Pink Panther, Thursday Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. There was no way we were going to miss any of those, but it meant staying up late each evening and getting up early the next morning. We tried preparing some gear the weekend before and then I continued during the day.

The concerts where great, though. They project the movie with the dialogue and noise-tracks while the L.A. Phil performs the score live.

On CA 99 in the smoked-in San Joaquin Valley.
On CA 99 in the smoked-in San Joaquin Valley. On a clear day, the Sierra can be seen very well from here.
The road to Rowell Trailhead...
The road to Rowell Trailhead...

Day 1 – L.A. to Rowell Meadow Trailhead and Sugarloaf Valley

We tried to leave early, but being that tired, we only left the city at 5:30am. Em took a nap, I floored it as much as I dared. The San Joaquin Valley was full of smoke, of course. We got to Grant Grove just after 9am. A friendly ranger sat outside the visitor center, processing wilderness permits right there. There was a bit of a line, so it took some time, but we finally got our permit. The ranger was a great guy, gave us lots of good tips. One of those was to expect parking somewhat before the trailhead as the road is damaged.

The drive from Grant Grove to the trailhead is only 20 miles, but takes a while. First, it's 8-9 miles on Hwy 180, the beautiful "Highway Between the Parks". Then there's the turnoff to FS 14S11 with another 11-12 miles to Rowell Meadow Trailhead. FS 14S11 in great shape for the most part, it nicely paved, meandering past several campgrounds, then reaching Horse Corral, a sophisticated-looking pack station. Here the road turns to dirt, with some big potholes, making for slow going. Our low-clearance car could easily handle them, but with everything, it took well over an hour from Grant Grove to the temporary parking lot ahead of the road closure. About 20 cars were parked here, and a sign closed the road ahead. The good news was, according to the odometer, we were at most a third of a mile from the trailhead.

We had to eat, ready the packs – slowly, like always. We finally departed at 11:20am, walking up the dirt road to the trailhead which turned out to be only about a quarter mile away.

From there, we entered the proper trail, climbing in the forest towards Rowell Gap. It's a very well graded, easy trail, gaining elevation slowly. The air was somewhat smoky, but not too bad, and according to all forecasts, it should be clearing. There was even a mild front in the forecast with the possibility of rain.

The gap itself is an unremarkable place in the middle of the forest, and from there, the descent begins, gently at first. Around 1pm found us at Rowell Meadow, a beautiful expanse with Mt. Siliman in the background. The creek was not flowing very well, but there was some water. Lots of campsites were visible, but nobody around.

...and Rowell Meadow itself with Mt. Siliman in the distance.
...and Rowell Meadow itself with Mt. Siliman in the distance.
The Sugarloaf
The Sugarloaf

There's a small climb (well, 400') out of the meadow, then it's downhill again. Another hour later we passed the sign marking the boundary of Sequoia National Park. There the descent begins in earnest, with a 2,000' loss in a few miles. The surroundings are amazing, though, thick forest alternates with small clearings and meadows, all teeming with wildflowers.

Not much before we got to the first junction (to Marvin Pass and Williams Meadow), we met an elderly gentleman laboring up the trail, obviously having a hard time. He was not in good shape. We asked if he's OK and whether he needs help, but he declined, only complaining that he packed too much stuff, mostly food. Then he kept slowly creeping up the grade. Around the junction, obviously left by him, there was a family-size bag of M&M's, and a big bag of banana chips, both almost full. We ate as much as we could of each, but it was a lot, and it was heavy. We almost resigned ourselves to having to carry this, but then some other guys came up the trail and happily took it. Regardless, folks, please don't leave food in the wilderness!

Just past the junction is Comanche Meadow, a campsite in the forest by a well-flowing creek and a bear box.

After another steep but short drop, we entered Sugarloaf Valley. Love this place. The trail follows the creek, going very gently downhill. The cone-shaped rock the place is named after comes into view and the trail passes it quite closely. There's another camp here, complete with a bear box, but there was no water this time. The tiny creek flowing by was almost dry and Sugarloaf Creek is very hard to access here. It was hot, dusty and windless. We had to keep a respectable distance not to swallow each other's dust.

Sugarloaf Rock looks like doable climb, at least part way, we'd love to try sometime. That day, though it wasn't even 4pm, we were super tired and couldn't wait to find a suitable campsite.

About half a mile past the Sugarloaf, the trail crosses the creek and enters the forest. Right at this spot there's a "village", an area with dozens of possible campsites and several fire rings. Surprisingly, nobody was there. We happily dropped the packs and relaxed, eating a snack. Then we took a shower, it felt great to wash all that dust off. The weather was very pleasant and there were no mosquitoes around.

Our camp in Sugarloaf Valley
Our camp in Sugarloaf Valley

This was also the lowest point of our trip as far as elevation goes – cca. 7,100'. If all goes to plan, the highest point should be Copper Mine Pass at 11,860'.

Unsurprisingly, we went to bed early and slept as if knocked out. The night was warm, it never dipped close to 50°F.

Day 2 – Sugarloaf Valley to Cloud Canyon

We got up at the usual 6am. Some smoke was still in the air. After breaking camp, we left at 8. There was a possibility of rain the in forecast, especially for the afternoon.

The trail slowly gains elevation in the forest, then soon the trees thin out, and there's a small, manzanita-covered hill to climb, offering beautiful views of the Roaring River's valley, Moraine Ridge and the Great Western Divide beyond. The smoke was more evident here, but mostly because of the backlight. It was definitely clearer than the day before.

On the hill between Sugarloaf Valley and the Roaring River
On the hill between Sugarloaf Valley and the Roaring River
Following the Roaring River
Following the Roaring River

A 400-foot descent follows, the forest becoming thicker again, much more so than on the other side. Finally, there's the Roaring River, still living up to its name despite the relatively dry season. The trail starts climbing again, following the riverbank at first, then via a few short but steep switchbacks in the trees, before passing the administrative camp and arriving at the Roaring River Ranger Station.

Ah, this place... How nice it would be to spend a season here, working. The main building for the rangers looks especially cozy. However, we just signed the register and moved on. This is also an important junction, with trail from Deadman Canyon (and Elizabeth Pass) meeting the Sugarloaf Trail coming from the north-west and the Avalanche Pass Trail coming from the north-east, plus the Cloud Canyon Trail going south.

Between the station and the river there's a large backcountry campground with at least one bearbox. It's in a beautiful setting, but also one of those typical overused places we go to great lengths to avoid. Three or four sites were taken this time, one by a larger group.

Just past the campground, there's a sturdy steel and wood bridge over the river and then the trail splits, left to Avalanche Pass, right to Cloud Canyon – our route. The weather was still nice, but clouds started moving in.

Cloud Canyon is relatively narrow here, the trail starts climbing relentlessly, but not very steeply. The vegetation is the "usual" jungle one can expect in such a place. Thick groves of aspens, pine trees, dense undergrowth with lots of fern. Amazing. There are several small streams flowing from the east (left) into the main river, but crossing them was not a problem. The sun came out a few times, but it was mostly cloudy and it looked like rain. Somewhat past noon we got to the point where we would have to decide on the side trip to Josephine Lake.

We stopped for a snack and evaluated the situation. Crossing the river looked OK, climbing the face also looked doable, but the weather kept getting worse. It was not raining hard, but there was a steady drizzle, and we could hear thunder nearby. These were not the conditions where we wanted to spend at least an hour or two on an exposed rock face. There was not much of a choice, we continued south on the trail.

Big Wet Meadow and the Whaleback
Big Wet Meadow and the Whaleback

The drizzle kept on, but it never turned into an actual downpour – we didn't have to put any rain gear on.

An hour later, the Whaleback came into view, rearing its head above the grove of aspens. Then we entered the lower part of Big Wet Meadow. It looked way less scenic with all the drizzle in the air, but it was still beautiful. Like last time, I went off-trail a bit to take a picture of with the Whaleback's reflection in the river.

On the far side, there's a very nice campsite, but we decided to keep going. On the upper end of the meadow, the trail enters the forest and crosses the river, just below the confluence with Colby Creek. The level was just enough to make it a rock-hop with a few well-planned steps. Even with a bit more water, it would have been shoes-off.

Then it gets steeper. A few short switchbacks and a 200' climb later there's another river crossing. The trail turns sharply east, climbing past the Whaleback, over Colby Pass and down into the Kern Basin. The truly steep part begins past this crossing, and we wanted to go up to Colby Lake, but only the next day. It was past 3pm and we were still tired from those last few days.

I left Em at the junction and started looking around. Just past the crossing, there was an obvious spur trail leading up into Cloud Canyon. Following this, less than a quarter mile further south, I found an amazing campsite, safely nestled among the trees, but with great access to water. I went back for Em and she loved the spot as soon as she saw it. We settled down, pitched the tent, cooked soup. I tried fishing in the creek, but no luck. It drizzled on and off a bit, but the sun also came out a few times.

By the late afternoon, the sky was almost clear. It turned into a beautiful evening. We walked around the meadow a bit, scouting up-canyon, eyeing our possible future route to Copper Mine Pass a few days later.

We could have gone up the following day, but as we had to cancel the Josephine Lake side trip, we wanted to visit Colby Lake as we had such a great time there in 2013.

The night was very pleasant again, a bit cooler, but calm and quiet. We still set the alarm for 6 in the morning. We only had a few miles to go, but with lots of elevation gain and there was another chance of rain in the afternoon.

Looking back to Cloud Canyon and Big Wet Meadow
Looking back to Cloud Canyon and Big Wet Meadow
On the trail to Colby Lake
On the trail to Colby Lake

Day 3 – Cloud Canyon to Colby Lake

We woke to a clear morning, not a cloud in the sky yet. By 8am, we left camp, going back to the proper trail and turning east, climbing out of Cloud Canyon. This part is steep, but well done, and it offers amazing views of Big Wet Meadow. A few tiny clouds appeared, a sign of the typical Sierra monsoon season. If they're this early, some rain later is almost a given.

About 1,000' up, the trail enters a narrow gorge that widens into a small, meadow-ish canyon, following Colby Creek's drainage. This is a wet, green, fragrant, colorful area – wild and beautiful. Small cascades, slides, and surprisingly calm ponds alternate on the creek. There are even a few tiny waterfalls. The Whaleback looms large on the right, completing the picture.

We found a friendly garter snake, sunning himself by the trail, patient enough for me to take a few closeups.

Then there's another climb, again about 1,000 feet, to a ledge just west of Colby Lake's outlet. Some parts of this climb are very exposed – a not a place to be in a lightning storm. Heavy clouds kept gathering and racing each other back and forth, but no thunder could be heard yet.

There's one last creek crossing, a short walk among the trees, and Colby Lake presents itself with all its charms and wonders. It was a bit past 10:30am and the cloud cover grew to almost 100%.

However, the temperature was very pleasant and it wasn't windy (yet). We set up camp quickly, close to the spot where we were all those years ago. Then we went down to the water. The last bit just before the outlet is a narrow, shallow area with comparatively warm water. Em wanted to wash her hair, so she wetted in the lake and then I helped her wash it properly up by the campsite.

There was no time for me to take a shower, as by this time, a storm was obviously brewing. I dug a trench around the tent while Em took care of the other items, and we retreated inside. Just in time - 10 minutes later it started raining. It was medium-heavy, but only for a little while. Then it drizzled some more and stopped. We were dozing in the tent, having a great time.

All of a sudden somebody walked up to our campsite and a female voice identified herself as a ranger, asking for our permit. We got out and chatted with her, a very cool lady on a long patrol from Road's End over Avalanche Pass, then eventually over Forester Pass and back down via Bubb's Creek. We've been to some of these places and had all the respect for doing this route in such a short time. By the way, she said she got caught by the storm further down and had hunker down for a while. Then off she was, wanting to get way past Colby Pass by the end of the day.

On the shore of Colby Lake
On the shore of Colby Lake

An hour later, the sun was out. Many clouds were still around, and we were prepared to take shelter again, but nothing happened. Briefly, we caught a glimpse of our ranger taking a quick break on the pass, then disappearing on the far side.

We did laundry using the usual technique: I carried water from the lake and Em did the actual washing farther inland. By 3pm, it the sky was almost clear, and we just sat on the rocks, eating soup.

I set out to fish and quickly ended up with enough to have a nice dinner.

Then it was time for my shower. I took a quick swim in the lake, then a real shower up by the campsite. It was an amazing afternoon with lots of sunshine, the air still clear from the rain.

On this trip, we brought our Nook e-readers. This was a first for us, we never backpacked with them before, but because of the shorter total mileage, we were anticipating some downtime, so it made sense. Now we made good use of them, each finding a comfortable rock and indulging in a bit of reading.

Panorama from the rocks above Colby Lake
Panorama from the rocks above Colby Lake with Centennial Peak left of center

An hour before sunset, we took a nice walk to enjoy the view, then I cleaned the fish and we had them for dinner.

After dark, we watched for meteors, this night being the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. We saw a few, but not too many. Then we got up at 3am for a potty break and stood around for a few more minutes, catching another half a dozen or so. The shower was not very strong this year.

Creek in the high country above Colby Lake
Creek in the high country above Colby Lake

Day 4 – Colby Lake to unnamed lake and back

No alarm was set, but the sun woke us around 7:30am. It was a perfect morning, no wind, no clouds.

We decided to stay in the same place for another night and relax some more. After a leisurely breakfast, we left most of the non-food gear in the tent, prepped for rain. This means everything was on top of the mattresses in case water got in.

We packed lunch and rain gear, then left camp for a nice day hike.

First, we followed the trail on the shore, but a few hundred yards up, we started climbing the side of the lake's cirque.

When planing this trip and discussing the possibility of spending two nights here, we looked at the satellite images and saw a few tarns, lakes and other interesting features up on the north-west side of Colby Lake.

The place we started climbing was just before the trail crosses the creek coming from there. The part to look for is a very obvious ledge, and from there one has to turn sharply left, over a pretty steep section, getting closer (but not too close) to the creek. With a bit of foresight, there's almost no exposure and it's all class 2. There's a very cool little waterfall on the creek and of course great views of the main lake.

We found a great route, leading away from the creek, up another, almost dry drainage, that took us to this great mini-plateau with the vista to the east opening up. The bigger lake we were looking for was obviously the source of the main creek here, and we kept following that, arriving at the lake not much later.

This is a stark place with little vegetation and almost sterile-looking water. Very beautiful in its own right.

It was only 11am, but we felt like lunch, so we sat down and ate well. It started drizzling a bit, but stopped soon.

Em enjoying her lunch.
Em enjoying her lunch.

To the south-east, we could see the top end of Cloud Canyon, our destination for the following day. I pointed out Copper Pass to Em. It looked, well, a bit forbidding, but not super scary. In the picture above, find the left-most snow field on the range in the back. The pass is the notch to the right of it.

We took our time, but then left to go back to camp. This time, we kept on the north side of the plateau to get a view of the other tarns below.

The view south-west
The view south-west

Going back down, we didn't take the ledge, but another, bit steeper route that put us back on the trail somewhat farther up. Still easy terrain, though.

The clouds looked very much like rain, and at 1pm, we heard thunder and saw some heavy rain on the far side of the pass, but we only got a 10-minute light sprinkling.

After another snack, we took a long nap, and by the time we emerged from the tent, it was another gorgeous, sunny afternoon. We just lounged no the rocks around the campsite, reading, soaking up sunshine, deeply inhaling clean air in the pleasant temperature.

After dinner, we went to bed early, wanting to get an early start in the morning.

Colby Lake in the afternoon
Colby Lake in the afternoon
Headed south in Cloud Canyon
Headed south in Cloud Canyon

Day 5 – Colby Lake to Deadman Canyon

The alarm rang out at 5am. The morning was crisp, around 35°F, not a cloud in sight yet. In almost record time for us – 80 minutes – we were off, walking back towards Cloud Canyon. By 8am, we were back at the same spot we camped on night #2. We stopped for a snack break, then – utilizing some of the information we gleaned during scouting that afternoon three days ago – we started our ascent to Copper Mine Pass. As the crow flies, the distance from here to the pass would be just over 3 miles. The old use trail took (I'm guessing) 5-6 miles with all the switchbacks. However, actually finding or using any of that looked questionable at best. We knew our route will be relatively straight, but painfully slow as the terrain will be difficult and the elevation gain is around 3,300'.

As there was no sign of the old trail, our strategy was to gain elevation as quickly as possible and walk on the side of the mountain. It looked like the following the creek closely would not make much sense as the immediate creek bank was either scree or overgrown with bushes. Also, many vertical "steps" break up the flow, and most of these steps are a few dozen feet each. Having to climb 20 or 30 of them is not much fun.

First, we crossed the creek and entered the first of two inevitable aspen and manzanita groves on the hillside. There were a few sort-of-animal-tracks, and other than a few tight spots, we fought our way through with relative ease. We were not even half a mile up, and it took over half an hour. Then, past a small boulder field, we thought we could make out some traces of the old trail, but nothing that could be followed for more than a few dozen yards at a time. As soon as we hit the second grove, it disappeared altogether. Here the thicket was a bit worse, but after a few minutes of effort we emerged on the far side.

Past this, the vegetation thins out considerably, and we kept climbing. It was amazingly beautiful, the view down canyon, the mountains in front, wildflowers all around. We kept stopping for pictures, of course.

Another reason for constantly stopping was to scout the route ahead. Obviously, we didn't want to get cliffed out.

By about 9:30am, we were on a big boulder field, well above the treeline. The broken-up boulders gave way to huge slabs. When they were sloping too steeply, we kept walking upwards in the cracks. At least we were above the scree.

Quick break on the slabs...
Quick break on the slabs...
...then walkin
...then walkin' the cracks.

We packed very little water, so when we found a tiny trickling stream, Em sat down for a few minutes and I climbed up to the source to get some water.

Clouds blanketed the sky, getting thicker by the minute. We were making contingency plans where to hide if a storm hits us.

Lunch was on the steep slope in a place with comfortable steps and access to water. We took our time, getting used to the elevation. It was almost noon, we weren't even halfway to the pass, and the hardest part was yet to come.

The slope kept getting steeper and we almost got cliffed out a few times, but we always managed to find a way, always climbing higher, never losing more than a few feet in altitude.

We found a very comfortable ledge system, taking us a few hundred feet into the side canyon/drainage that's before the pass and the small peak (unnamed?) peak north of it.

There was a disheartening moment where we realized this drainage is much deeper than it looked on the maps and we have to downclimb over 300 feet and then across a bad talus field. However, in the end, we contoured around, going deeper into the canyon and cutting across at the last possible moment, losing only a hundred feet.

Then, in front of us, something small and bright blue on the rocks, standing out like a sore thumb: the remnants of a party balloon. People who buy helium-inflated balloons don't realize how far they travel when they get away and how much they're polluting the mountains. I can't even count how many of these we found over the years in the middle of nowhere. This one was plastic, not mylar, so most of the body was already shredded, but the string was still attached. We stashed it in the side pocket of our backpack.

Looking back down-canyon. Note how low the Whaleback is from here.
Looking back down-canyon. Note how low the Whaleback is from here.

We were approaching the most exposed part of the journey, when - of course – the rain started. At least it was not hailing and we could hear thunder only once, from very far away. The ponchos, like most of the time, were in easy reach. We put them on, kept walking for a few minutes, when – another "of course" - the rain stopped. Even the sun came out! Then it rained again, only very briefly, but we kept the ponchos on because it looked like it can start again any minute. It didn't. There was a decent-size cell to the north and another one to the south of us, but they were both moving away.

Laboring up the slope was hard work, it was above 11,000' with terrain alternating between big rocks, small rocks, and scree. The last mile to the pass, from the side canyon to the top, took well over an hour, especially with the rain-gear stops (we finally stashed the ponchos after a while).

Below Copper Mine Pass. Tripple Divide Peak right of center.
Below Copper Mine Pass. Tripple Divide Peak right of center.

It was gorgeous, though. We took it slow and had a great time. The scenery was very dramatic with all the clouds and open vistas.

Though there was no sign of the use trail, finding the pass was easy. There was the big snowfield we spotted the day before from the unnamed lake above Colby, and the notch was where it should have been, to the right of it. The last few dozen feet were on lose, but navigable scree.

At exactly 2:41pm, Em crested the pass, me following behind. According to the picture timestamp, we left the snack break (and former campsite) at 8:20am. It took us over six hours to get there! Granted, we had a few long breaks, but still. This is how much longer it takes when there's no trail.

Panorama from Copper Mine Pass with Deadman Canyon in the back.
Panorama from Copper Mine Pass with Deadman Canyon in the back.
On the west side of the pass. This was the easy part.
On the west side of the pass. This was the easy part.

The view from the pass is incredible. Deadman Canyon on the west side, Cloud Canyon on the east side, and the innumerable peaks and ranges all around. Even the Kaweahs can be seen. I thought I can see Elizabeth Pass, but that turned out not to the true. The obvious-looking notch with all the scree is not the Pass, that's way farther on the middle of the row of sub-peaks. I had no idea that time, I was convinced the pass is the notch, I thought I can even see a sinngost (it's a lean rock). Another note: if you look directly west, the big lake in that direction is Moose Lake in the Tablelands.

We took the packs off and ate heartily. It was late, we were tired, and we knew we still have a lot to go.

Ten minutes later we started descending on the loose scree. It was very, very steep, but the first few dozen feet were OK. Then we got cliffed out. There was one big drop, about 15 feet in height, where an upclimb might have been possible, even for us (especially without a pack), but going down there was out of the question. However, I failed to see an alternative.

Big consternation ensued. I took the pack off to see if we could somehow get down there and then maybe lower the packs. It looked awfully dangerous. Em started to get nervous.

Then I checked another possible route, to the left, but there was one impossible move that would have had me fall down ten feet, landing on my back (and breaking it for sure). As tired as I was, I almost attempted it, but thankfully pulled back in the last second. Em was really upset by this time, bordering on panicking.

The impossible section in front of me
The impossible section in front of me

It was all my fault, I was too tired and too oxygen-deprived to think clearly. I kept wanting to try solutions that – in hindsight – were madness. The good thing was I always stopped before actually doing anything stupid.

Time flew. Em was almost crying. She was truly scared. I told her in worst case scenario, we'll simply go back to Cloud Canyon. However, as I kept telling her, there should be several not-so-bad routes down from here. We're just too worn out to find them.

Em started to calm down, and while I was exploring an alternate route to the north, she went a bit back up and then to the south. She came back with great news: behind an impossible-looking rock, there's a very nice step that leads straight to the scree below the pass. It was a no-brainer compared to the other choices and I was bummed we didn't find it before.

I put the pack back on and we went that way. We had to sit on our butts and then slide a off that step, but it was a not even close to dangerous. Half a minute later, we were officially in the clear.

Em stopped and almost started crying again, this time from relief. She was genuinely scared that I'll hurt myself trying something.

...and here's this: from the time we left the top of the pass, until we stopped for a breather "in the clear", almost a full hour went by. That's how time flies when you're in even minor trouble.

We were elated, though. It was steep going down and we were very tired, but the weather looked in our favor (the storm kept moving away) and we were well fed and watered.

Quick break around the remnants of the old mine
Quick break around the remnants of the old mine

The pass is named after a copper mine that used to be on the side of the mountain. We found some remnants, pieces of equipment and faint evidence of an encampment.

Some people said the old trail should be obvious on this side, too, but we didn't find much. There were some traces, but mainly we just kept going down the easiest route possible. Soon, the rocks gave way to grass, shrubs and an amazing array of wildflowers, everything braided by several small creeks.

Deadman Canyon
Deadman Canyon's upper reaches
...and the wildflowers.
...and the wildflowers.

Finally, we saw where the real Elizabeth Pass lies - way over to the west of the originally suspected location.

The weather held nicely, and late or not – it was past 5pm – we had to stop ofthen to take pictures.

Around 5:30pm, we crossed the main creek and hit the Elizabeth Pass trail, turning right (north). Now the going was much easier. Originally, when we hoped we'll get over the pass quicker, we wanted to go all the way to Big Bird Lake. That was out of the question now. The agreement was to find the first possible campsite with decent access to water.

The trail crossed the creek again, the vegetation keept getting denser, and there was a big drop, next to a small cascade. The grass and flowers and were so thick, we almost lost the trail for a while.

Finally, we decided to settle down. Between the trail and the creek, there was a big, sandy flood plain. A very dangerous place during big storms and snowmelt, but safe enough now. We pitched the tent on the soft sand and I went for water. It wasn't easy, the bank was protected by an almost impenetrable phalanx of thick bushes, but in the end, going around a bit, I found a somewhat OK access spot.

The stress of the descent was gone, the evening was beautiful, pleasant, with the three-day-old moon setting not much behind the sun. All around our campsite, at least 20 picas were running around, vocalizing their usual chirps.

Unsurprisingly, we went to bed early and fell asleep right away.

In the morning, looking back up Deadman Canyon
In the morning, looking back up Deadman Canyon
Climbing towards Big Bird Lake
Climbing towards Big Bird Lake

Day 5 – Deadman Canyon to Big Bird Lake

We tried to sleep in, but the sun hit our tent at 7:15am and we got up. Curious hummingbirds were buzzing around our campsite, one hovered a foot in front of Em's face for several seconds, sizing her up.

We got going, following the trail down canyon. Before the next drop, there's another "village" location where the trees start, with some very nice camp spots in the shade. There were no humans around, but we were happy we didn't take the extra hour to hike down here the previous evening.

Big Bird Lake is about a mile off trail and 600' higher from here. We crossed the main creek and stared climbing on the slabs. There was no obvious trail, but the route was clear. We had to cross the lake's creek, too, and finding the right spot took a little bit, but it was easy. The use trail became visible in a few places, then it disappeared again. Needless to say, the view is stunning in all directions. I took a bit of a side trip to take some pictures of a cascade and a waterfall, then we kept going up.

As soon as the terrtain levels out, there's a small tarn, then among the trees, a campsite with a fireplace, and less than a hundred yards away, the main lake begins.

We walked to the lake, scouting for other possible campsites, but didn't find anything, so we returned to the main spot and settled there, hoping nobody will join us. It was a bit windy and somewhat cloudy, but otherwise very pleasant. It was only 11am.

Even by Sierra standards, where almost everything is beautiful, this entire neighborhood is extremely cool. Groves of pines, little tarns, the big lake with all the rocks and peaks behind it, cotton-candy clouds in the sky.

The camp at Big Bird Lake
The camp at Big Bird Lake

The big argument started while we were setting up the tent. It was about whether to extend the trip by a day and spend two nights here (plus one getting out) or to leave the next day and be home in two days. Em wanted to go, I wanted to stay. She thought it was obvious we planned it like this, I thought it was obvious we planned it like that. Some unkind words were exchanged. We rarely fight, but when we do, it's with gusto. Almost like Italians. It's never physical, but it's loud. Thank goodness, nobody was within earshot.

Of course, we made up quickly and we agreed to leave the next day. I helped Em do laundry, then I set out to fish. It was a bit windy and the fish were not terribly active (being the middle of the day), but it worked out. Rain skirted us a few times, but it didn't even drizzle.

We took a nice swim in the lake, the water was very pleasant, then the usual full shower by the campsite.

Fires are legal here, so Em prepared some hot coals while I cleaned the victims and we had a tasty afternoon snack of fresh trout. A few deer visited, not minding us, grazing around the campsite.

We kept the fire going until the evening and sat around, eating soup for dinner.

Big Bird Lake. No further comment.
Big Bird Lake. No further comment.

Day 6 – Big Bird Lake to Sugarloaf Valley

We got up at daybreak, and to our biggest surprise, at 6:45am we were off, making on our way on the faint use trail going back to the canyon. It was an easy descent, half an hour later we were back on the main trail. While walking by those campsites we saw earlier, Em found a copper coin of 5 Hong Kong Dollars. It's big, heavy, but I guess somebody brought it as a good luck charm and lost it.

Ranger Meadow, looking south-west. Big Bird Lake is up in the cirque to the right.
Ranger Meadow, looking south-west. Big Bird Lake is up in the cirque to the right.

The trail drops another 400' or so, then crosses Ranger Meadow. It's the "usual": green, lush, full of wildflowers, the creek meandering in the middle. I remember seeing this meadow mentioned in a National Park brochure many years ago and thinking how great it would be to make it there. It seemed impossible back then.

We kept going down, down, in this amazing canyon full of water slides, pine groves, fern thickets, and all the other wonders you can expect.

Heading downhill in Deadman Canyon
Heading downhill in Deadman Canyon
Alfred Moniere
Alfred Moniere's marker

The canyon is named after a man who died here in the 19th century, and there's a marker with the barely visible writing stating: "Here Reposes Alfred Moniere, Sheepherder, Mountain Man, 18** to 1887". An actual grave is not visible.

The last creek crossing, about 1.5 miles up from the ranger station, was no big deal this time, but later I read that just three weeks prior, this was a place of raging water and several people had a hard time. The advice was to look for an alternative crossing in the bushes somewhat upriver.

We got to the ranger station 11am-ish and took an almost hour-long break. There were obvious signs of activity. Gear was lined up by the building and several horses and mules were in the corral, but we couldn't see any humans.

After having eaten and watered properly, we continued toward Sugarloaf Valley. It was hot and dusty, but we kept a good pace. The plan was to try and camp at the same spot where we did on our first night, the "village" by the crossing.

No luck this time, the village lived up to its name. When we got there at 2pm, a huge group of over ten people was already occupying the place, with tents set up. There would have been space for us, too, but we didn't want to be around them, so we crossed the creek and then scouted the other side to find something suitable. The aspens and bushes were very thick and it took some effort, but finally, we found a suitable place. It was a small, sandy clearing between the trail and the creek, very private, but funny enough with a perfect view of the Sugarloaf.

Our private little spot in Sugarloaf Valley
Our private little spot in Sugarloaf Valley

The sand needed some rearranging to make it level and we also made sure to trench it properly, expecting rain later. It was one of those days where was alternating between sunny and cloudy every few minutes.

We went down to the creek, took a very pleasant dip and then showered. Em climbed on the horizontal trunk of a huge fallen tree and found herself a perfect position to recline and sun herself.

However, the wind kicked up and the clouds closed in. Loud thunder could be heard nearby, and it looked like the direction we came from is getting some serious downpour. We made sure the tent and the gear are as ready as possible, then went about our business.

For a while, it looked like the storm is headed straight for us, the thunder grew louder and louder, and a wall of rain obscured the mountain. The wind blew a few sprinkles on us, but just when we were ready to get hit with the serious part, the wind changed direction and the storm moved away.

Relishing in our luck, the afternoon was spent laying in the soft sand, reading and listening to the thunder growing weaker.

The wind kept up until sunset, but then died off completely and we had a great dinner. Now and then, we could hear hooting from the big camp downriver and we were extra happy we didn't set up there. They quieted down not much later. After some dessert, we retreated to the tent, wanting to get up for an early start.

Almost back at Rowell Trailhead.
Almost back at Rowell Trailhead. Note how much cleaner the air is than in the first pictures.
Wild man raiding the wild currants
Wild man raiding the wild currants

Day 7 – Sugarloaf Valley to Rowell Meadow Trailhead and back to L.A.

Early is always relative for us, this time we got going by 7:30am. The car was about 10 miles and a 2,000' elevation gain away. Though it was still early in the morning, it was already hot and dusty, but bearable. At least there was no more wildfire smoke.

Almost two hours later, we walked by Commanche Meadow and began the major part of the climb. It sure is steep in a few places, but a steady pace gets you through it in no time. An early lunch break and another two hours later we were in Rowell Meadow.

Here we lost some time as the wild currants were at their peak and many bushes, full of ripe fruit, were right by the trail. Before this, I don't think we ever got to eat more than a handful at a time. Now, we must have eaten well over half a pound total, and the bushes still looked sprinkled with red all over, like they haven't been touched.

It was easy from there, in another hour we were by the car. Everything looked like we left it, just dustier. Here we saw our only bear of the trip: a polar bear, believe it or not! It was a white teddy, sitting on the center console of the car parked next to ours.

We cleaned up a bit, put on fresh clothes, ate some more food, and then we were out of there. I don't think we'll ever forget the ascent to and especially the descent from Copper Mine Pass. It was harrowing, sure, but we learned a lot about time, terrain and ourselves and we we'd go back there in a heartbeat.

Make sure to check out all the pictures in the full gallery.

Another view of Deadman Canyon from Ranger Meadow
Another view of Deadman Canyon from Ranger Meadow