Adventures in hiking…

Posts tagged “backcountry camping

Kearsarge Pass – A Thru Hiker Highway

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Ask any Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hiker about Kearsarge Pass and they will confirm that it is a main resupply route.  We would run across more PCT and JMT hikers than ever before.  Generally, they are the most laid back people you will meet.

After a restless nights’ sleep near Pothole Lake, we decided to leave our camp set up and venture out west of the pass.  A nice breakfast of bacon and eggs got us going.  The crytallized eggs are real and when mixed with water, scramble up perfectly.  The pre-cooked bacon is trail ready and is good to go.  We lightened our packs and carried enough supplies for our day hike.  The plan was to drop down into the Kearsarge Lakes area and grab lunch next to the water.

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Our camp was within sight of the pass so the last 400 ft of elevation gain was easy-peasy.  There was one other hiker taking a break and we dropped our packs to soak in the vista.  The views to the west were beautiful.   In the Sierras, one will run out of words to describe the scenery.  There were several lakes below;  one I recognized from the map as Bullfrog Lake.  We wanted to explore down below so we ate a snack and chatted with a thru-hiker going back to town for resupply.  Like so many other long distance hikers we’ve seen, he looked like he was in need of a bath and some good food.  We started down, the slope steady with what appeared to be pulverized granite rocks for the trailbed.

We ran into a few day hikers huffing their way up and stepped out-of-the-way.  Trail etiquette being what it is, the uphill hiker has the right of way.  We ran across a lonely stream making its’ way down to the lakes.  The source of water appeared to come out the side of the mountain.  A bullfrog could be heard croaking steadily.  We never saw it, but heard that sucker for the next 30 minutes.  We made our way down some switchbacks to a trail junction.

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Wishing that we had more time to hike to Charlotte and Rae Lakes area, we hiked another 1/2 mile or so to the Kearsarge Lakes area.  The trail is fairly well-defined and meandered down to the first lake.  It was warmer now, around 75 degrees and other than a few people fishing on the other shore, very quiet.  The only other sound were the streams emptying into the lake.   We took off our shoes and stepped in to the cold, clear water.  After a minute, the bones in my legs started aching.  Well, probably not but that’s what it felt like.  It was brisk and felt good on our hot feet.  The trout were jumping every few seconds.  The Golden Trout Wilderness is aptly named.  We discussed getting our fishing licenses and gear before our next hike into this area.  I can taste the fresh trout cooked in a pan with just a touch of lemon and garlic.

 

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After eating our lunch and filtering some water, we reluctantly started back up the trail.  The climb out was less strenuous than it would have been with a full pack.  We ran into a PCT hiker who had lost the cap to his water filtration chemical bottle.  It was tiny and we struck up a conversation and he eventually found it.    As I was taking a breather on a bend in a switchback, another hiker was coming up behind.  I usually ask hikers where they are coming from or where they are going out of curiosity.  She was a PCT hiker, who had recently gotten back on the trail.   She passed me and struck up a conversation with my wife who  (as always) is ahead of me.  They immediately hit it off and continued talking as we slowly made our way up to the pass.  Conversation is a good diversion when you are in a steep climb.  Of course it helps if you’re not out of breath.

The women continued to chat and it was a nice experience to meet a thru-hiker who took the time to relate their experience on the trail.  PCT hikers run the gambit from those that are on a sabbatical to modern-day hippies.  Sometimes I believe that long distance hikers are a sub-culture within our Americana.  Her trail-name was Pillsbury,  and she was quite the character.  Before long, we reached the pass where we hung out with Pillsbury and the other PCT hiker who went my the moniker Dances with Bacon.  He was a nice guy and we chatted for a bit.  Heck, with a trail-name like that, he couldn’t be bad.

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Pillsbury  wanted to take some fun pics, so she climbed an outcropping and asked me to take some pics with her camera.  She got up her nerve and did some hand-stands.  The blustery wind was a bit much and I was glad when she finished.  She was heading into town to resupply and had another 4-5 miles to go.  While it’s mostly downhill from here, the town of Independence is about 13 miles from the trailhead in the Onion Valley Campground.  We enjoyed our time with Pillsbury and parted ways when we reached the part of the trail where our camp was located.

We had time to enjoy our camp this time.  It was nice at the site and we didn’t rush through dinner.  The Black Bart Chili tasted great.  It’s one of our favorites.    As we settled in for the night, the wind was not as strong so the water from the lake was not lapping the rocks as loud as the previous night.  Did I mention that the first night, the sound of the water was like footsteps? We were sure that someone (or some thing) was walking around our tent.   Freaked us out for a few minutes until I stuck my head out of the tent around 2 a.m. and discovered it was the sound of wind-driven water against the shore of the lake.

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No AMS symptoms tonight, we were fully acclimated.  Slept soundly and awoke to a crisp Sierra morning.  Not wanting to cook breakfast, we had some snacks and departed our hidden campsite on Pothole Lake.  We took a different route out and had to do some boulder scrambling.  Not sure that it was a wise choice.  A fall here would have hurt.

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Our walk down was fairly quick and the scenery nice.  The coolness of the air as we went in and out of the forest was refreshing.   The lakes that we had passed going up looked so different.  Still lots of jumping trout though.  We took a break near a cascading creek, the breeze and sound of rushing water enough for one to desire a nap.

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This hike was a good one for many reasons, but it turns out to be our best way in for our JMT section hike next year.   The JMT is a short trek from Kearsarge Pass.  Mt. Whitney, here we come.

Some lessons learned on this trip:

– We experienced mild Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms on our first night.  Our symptoms were headaches, nausea and a bad nights’ rest.  While we have camped around 10,000 ft. before, on this trip, we left San Diego in the morning from an altitude of 500 ft.  Ten hours later, we were at 11,400 ft.  Our bodies didn’t have a chance to acclimate.  Recommendation:  When hiking at high altitude, camp at a lower altitude on the first night to give your body a chance to adjust.

– Dehydrated foods take longer to cook at high altitude.  In our case, the normal 12-15 minutes of rehydration took almost 30 minutes.

– If given the opportunity, start a conversation with fellow hikers.  You will meet the most amazing people from all walks of life.  Many have funny, interesting stories from the trail.  You won’t find many creeps out here – they’re mostly back in the cities.

– Take the time to kick your shoes off and enjoy a dip in the water.  Next time, I’m up for a swim. 🙂

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Kearsarge Pass – Mind Over Matter

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Big Pothole Lake, Kearsarge Pass

 

Ask any hiker that ventures into the backcountry what the hardest part of the experience is and many will say “the mental part.”   Up until we logged hundreds of miles on the trail, I’m not sure if this would have made any sense.   Our recent journey off the path reiterated the mental part.  The fun began after we arrived at the Onion Valley Campground parking lot, fifteen miles or so from the tiny town of Independence.

The drive up from the town is an experience.  The road starts with a gradual climb out of the valley and the 180 degree switchbacks made it an exciting ride in our old BMW.   We saw mule deer along the way.  Be careful of the occasional rock in the road, especially at night.  The campground isn’t much in itself.  It’s pretty much a tent-only camp tucked away in the small valley where summertime temps creep into the 80’s.  At over 9,100 ft.   Independence Creek flows nearby.  We would park in the hiker’s lot and noticed a few hikers finishing their trek.  It was mid-late afternoon and some were looking for rides into Independence or Bishop.

The parking lot has a double vault toilet and cool creek water through a spigot.  In the summer, there is always someone coming or going here.  We started up the path sans hiking poles and my wife found a nice wooden hiking stick that another kind soul left near the trail-head.

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Little Pothole Lake

 

The Kearsarge Pass trail is a steady climb, averaging approximately 600-700 ft. per mile.  Well maintained, it gets a lot of traffic during the summer.  About half are day-hikers and those fishing.  The mild winter was kind to the trail and it was in good shape.  Since this was a 3 day hike, we packed extra food and enough clothing to change out.  Our packs were light compared to our previous JMT hike, but I might as well have been carrying a couch on my back-that’s how it felt after a couple of miles.

For me, hiking is one of those activities that demands everything you’ve got.  Unless you are a thru hiker or able to do this every week, it pushes you.  That’s part of the reason we do this – it is a mental and physical challenge.  Do this, and you can handle anything life throws at you.  My takeaway is “mind over matter”.

This hike starts out with typical scrub and manzanita.  Expect a warm one in the summer unless you start early.  Around 1.5 miles, you’ll pass next to a nice cascade fed from the lakes above.  Within another mile, we passed a couple of lakes, teeming with trout.  Experienced our first mosquitoes around 10,000 ft., but not too bad.

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The terrain gradually changes into a sub-alpine with a mix of pine and deciduous trees.   There is ample shade as you pass the 2-3 mile mark and the climb gets a bit harder with stepping-stones that test your endurance.  The wind picked up and it started to feel cool.  As long as we kept moving, it was ok.  Stop too long and it got cold.

We pushed through and around 6:30, began looking for a campsite.  The trail map showed a couple of more lakes within two hundred yards of the trail.  Nice, or so I thought.  The first one – Heart Lake was a disappointing 5-600 ft. descent so we passed it up.   My goal is to almost always camp near a water source.   Only one more lake on the map before the “summit” so this was it.  I took a GPS reading and compared it to my Tom Harrison map.  I confirmed there was a lake below when I asked a passing hiker.  He was young and had his earphones in so, I asked a couple of times – “Hey is there a lake down there?”  He nodded yes, so we began to look for a way in.

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Looking down on Big Pothole Lake.

It was after 7 p.m, and getting colder so we began our way down crossing through a talus field of assorted boulders.  About two hundred feet in, I spotted a primo campsite.  Flat, sandy and large enough for our little Eureka tent.  We settled in quickly and had dinner going within 20 minutes.  At 11,400 ft.,  the air chilled as the sun settled behind Kearsarge Pass.  I scrambled 200-300 ft. down the slopes of Big Pothole Lake to filter some much-needed water.  Six liters later, I slowly climbed back to camp.  Much of this water was for our base camp. We try to “tank-up” before hitting the trail because water is so heavy.

There was a strange phenomenon up here.  Moths, thousands of them inhabited the little pines.  At dusk, there were bats.  They would swoop in, emitting their sonar like squeaks.  It was quite the feast for them.  Never knew there were bats this high.

It was a chilly night, windy with temps in the 40’s.   Not bad, but the wind chill made it seem cooler.  This close to the pass, a stiff breeze was inevitable.  We snuggled into our sleeping bags, each of us with persistent headaches.  The thought of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) was at the front of my mind.  We were camping at the highest we’ve camped yet.  A couple of motrin helped to knock the edge off.  If the headaches persisted or other symptoms like nausea and dizziness occurred, we would have to descend.  Neither of us slept well.

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Sunset. Our talus backyard in the foreground of the eastern sky.

 

Next:  Pillsbury Does a Handstand at Kearsarge Pass.

 


Kearsarge Pass – Trip Planning

Matlock Lake, Kearsarge Pass Trail

 

When I asked my wife of 32 years what she wanted to do for our anniversary, she said “a backcountry trip.”  Men,  I know many wives will want to be pampered on this special day, and rightfully so.  Rare is the woman who will endure a trip into the wilderness to endure calf burning,  boulder scrambling, fending off mosquitoes and chilly nights to celebrate a wedding anniversary with her husband.

Even with a 3 day trip, there is a lot of preparation.  I pulled out the gear and checked  everything out.   The cats love it when I set up the tent in the living room.  Five tough miles from your car is not the time to find out your water filter pump doesn’t work.  Checklists are always great, but as you will see – not foolproof.

The eastern Sierras offer miles and miles of trails, most with ample supplies of water – even in the terrible drought that California is going through.  I’ve heard of Onion Valley, one of the more popular entry/exit routes by PCT thru-hikers.  Many will go through Kearsarge Pass to the Onion Valley Campground and hitch a ride into the little town of Independence to pick up a resupply, or catch a ride into Bishop.

The drive from San Diego County is around 4-5 hours through the pain-in-the-butt Riverside/San Bernardino area.  Mostly a pain because of the weird road patterns and traffic congestion.  Going up, we missed the Hwy 395 turnoff and kept going to take Hwy 58-E to Bakersfield.  It was actually better; while longer in mileage, we missed the 395 construction and endless traffic lights in/around Victorville.

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Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center

Oh, before I forget I’ve learned some tips on getting permits for your trail of choice.  Many trails in the California wilderness require backcountry permits issued by the state or feds who manage the areas.  After researching the general area you want to hike, you can go to www.recreation.gov and register for an account.  Most decent trails have a quota system for overnight stays to minimize the environmental impact.  Typically, the recreation.gov website will issue 60% of the permits online, the other 40% for walk-ins at one of many locations-depending on where you want to enter.  Here’s the rub:  If you reserve online, there is a $5 per person and $6 processing fee.  If you do a walk-in it is free.  Reserve early, the popular trails fill up quickly.  I actually wanted to reserve Kearsarge Pass, but all the permits were issued so I applied for a nearby trail – Golden Trout.  Once I paid the $16 fee, I confirmed the day prior and locked in the reservation.  On the day of our arrival, I checked in at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center and asked if I could obtain a walk-in for Kearsarge Pass.  Sure enough, there were permits available and the Forest Service ranger changed our permit-free of charge.

Looking down at Independence, Ca. through a talus field.

So, if you want to lock in a trail permit, do it online for a fee.  Otherwise, if your plans are flexible, pick out a few trails ahead of time and do a walk-in.  The visitor center in Lone Pine handles most of the permits for the Hwy 395 corridor.  It is the busiest on Fridays during the summer.    Arrive early to get your trail of choice.  It’s a nice facility with tons of information and a nice touristy shop.  They have decent trail maps, so stock up!

A little more on trip planning.  Be prepared for a variety of weather when camping.  In our 5th year of hiking, we’ve experienced snow in June.  The puffy jacket, knit cap and gloves are worth the extra pack weight.  Rain gear is good and will ward off hypothermia while hiking in the wilderness.  Bear canisters are often mandatory in much of the Sierras.  Sure, you can still hit the trail without one, but I’ve talked to many who have had their campsite visited by the wandering Yogi.   You can try hanging your food bag from a tree, but it’s known that mother ursines teach their young how to knock down the yummy treats at an early age.  Besides, the trees above 10,000 feet are pretty short.

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Kearsarge Pass

So, preparation and some common sense backcountry lessons learned are key to an enjoyable trip.  Oh, even using a checklist the hiking poles were hanging in the garage where I left them.  My knees hate me.

Next: Kearsarge Pass – Mind Over Matter

 

 

 


One Foot in Front of the Other

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We were thirty miles away from civilization.  The lightning was getting closer and it started to rain.   We were climbing out of Thousand Island Lakes, in the middle of the Ansel Adams Wilderness.  Our 65 mile section hike of the John Muir Trail had been uneventful and amazing thus far.   Looking for a level spot to put our rain gear on I could hear the water rushing close by.  Leveling out, I noticed a good place to drop our packs on the other side of a cascading creek.  The only way across the watery chasm was on a 6 inch wide log.

There must have been a downpour upstream because the creek was running fast with a lot of sediment mixed in.    This wasn’t our first water crossing on a log, but the logs seemed to be shrinking in width.  It brought back memories as a kid crossing logs in the woods.  The first one to fall off would be eaten by “gators”.  Only now, we had 40lb. packs and the gator was a rushing current of frothy liquid.

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The backcountry is where ones’ phobias can emerge.  Acrophobia, aquaphobia, most of the phobias seem to start with “A”.  The wilderness is where you go to deal with those fears.   So, combining two of those fears – height and water is met by crossing streams on a log.  The loud rushing water underneath you, the distance to the water and the dead weight on your back can be a recipe for disaster.

Enough of the melodrama, if you are really afraid of your shadow, then car camping may be a starting point.  If all else fails, you can just lock yourself in the car.

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In reality, the challenge really becomes mind over matter.  The amazing scenery coupled with the experience of accomplishing something you’ve never done before makes it worthwhile.  Sure, at the end of the day you will ache in places you didn’t know existed.  You may even get wetter than Saturday’s laundry from a cloud burst, but chances are you will emerge unscathed.  What I lacked in experience from my early wilderness trips was remedied by common sense.  Barring any traumatic experiences of being swept away in a rushing torrent of ice water, you may come away with a love of the outdoors and a desire to share it with someone else.

Thinking back several years ago on my first backcountry trip, I estimated the nearly 25,000 steps I took one day.  Picking my way over, under and around obstacles, I was really just putting one foot in front of the other.

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Encounter With a Mountain Lion on the Pacific Crest Trail

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Mountain Lions hunting while we sleep..

I shined my headlamp in the direction of the rustling sound.  What I saw made the hair rise up on the back of my neck.  Forty feet away, two yellow eyes were staring right at me.  I yelled at the eyes but they only blinked and did not shift.  This was now a chess game and it was my move…

It was late spring in southern California and I was hiking another 100 mile section of the PCT.  I couldn’t take the five or six months off of work to hike it in its’ entirety;  well that and my wife wouldn’t appreciate my extended absence.  Thru-hikers that trek the entire 2600+ miles are special in the sense that they are driven to spend days of solitude, pain and hunger to accomplish the task.  Me, I was content to eak out another section of this glorious trail. Emerging from the Mojave Desert, I felt like a beat up fender in an auto body shop.  The sandblasting effectively removed one or two layers of skin.  My tent survived the 50mph gusts, the ground-hog stakes worth every dime.    Hiking at night, my encounters with scorpions were frequent and uneventful.  The tent was zipped up tight to keep out those critters.

Eventually, crossing Hwy 58 in the early morning, I realized that I was technically entering the Sierras.  It still looked like a desert, but with foothills.  Eventually, there were some trees and shade.  Taking a break near a stream that I had almost missed, I thought about not having seen anyone since the highway.  Sometimes on the PCT, you can go all day without seeing another human.   Not one to use a headset while hiking, I began to hum and sing to myself.  Those good ol’ gospel tunes that were stuck in my head since childhood.   As I was filtering some water, I sensed that something else was around but didn’t think much of it.  If you hike solo long enough, you tend to not worry about the boogeyman.  Besides, I often carry a “stinger” when in the backcountry.  While the likelihood of being accosted out here is slim, my little pistol provided me with peace of mind.

Around the 12 mile mark, I started looking for a suitable campsite.  Something near the trees, no widowmakers (big dead trees) and not in a gulley where a flash flood would wash me away.  The wind had died down and it was quiet and calm.  One of the first things to do is pitch the tent and get my bedding situated. I  prepared my food about 50 ft away from my tent and the Ramien noodles cooked quickly.  This is a great meal when you just don’t have an appetite, but need to eat.  Add a little pita and it fills you up.  As my daughter recently explained to me – Ramien means noodle in Korean.  Why would we call it Noodle noodles?  Hearing a branch snap got my attention and I thought that maybe another hiker was coming through.  Most of the PCT thru hikers had passed through last week, but there were some stragglers that were taking advantage of the famous hospitality and trail magic in this area.  After a few minutes and no hikers, I didn’t think anything of it and went about my camp chores.

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The last bit of sun in the southern Sierras.

Sunset was coming quickly; the colors from the desert would gradually change the cumulus clouds various hues of purple and pink as the horizon turned a darker shade of blue.  I think that sunsets are more enjoyable – maybe because I’m awake.  It’s hard for me to enjoy the beauty of a sunrise until I’ve had that first cup of coffee.  No campfires tonight, most of this area is under a fire ban.  Many of the wildfires around here are caused by campers and hunters who are careless with their fires.  I carry two lights, one a portable LED lantern that hangs from the tent and my headlamp for when nature calls.  At my age, nature calls often – especially when you drink several liters of water each day.  Since I was entering into the Sequoia National Forest, I carried a bear canister for my food and stowed it 50 ft. away from camp.

When camping alone, I often hit the sack early.  At home, seven hours of sleep is good.  Here, eight or nine broken hours of sleep is ok.  As I switched off the lantern, I heard a shuffling sound out in front of the tent.  I listened intently.  It was quiet, the crickets were the only other sound.  I counted the cricket chirps for 14 seconds , ok 10 chirps, add 40 – that’s 50 degrees out.  It’s an old trick that I read about, count a cricket’s chirp for 14 seconds, add 40 and you can estimate the temperature within a few degrees.  I discounted the shuffling for some skunks or racoon and was almost asleep when I heard it again.  Ok, have to see what this is.  I put on my headlamp and unzipped the door on the tent.  Not wanting to tick off a skunk, I stayed in the door of the tent and scanned the area nearby.  I was in a small clearing, near some scrub brush.  As my lamp scanned the forest, I froze when a pair of yellow eyes appeared about 40 ft. away.  The eyes were about two feet off the ground.  The first thing I did was to yell, like “Hey, get outta here!”  It didn’t move.  I grabbed my whistle from within the tent and blew on it.  No good.  Whatever it was didn’t move.  I was thinking should I leave the relative safety of the tent to scare this away or should I stay here and make some noise?

I decided to confront whatever it was to show who was in charge here.  Grabbing my hiking poles and cooking pot, I went out the front of my tent and banged the pot, raised the poles over my head and walked a few steps toward the creature.   Adrenaline must have been surging through my body because my ears started ringing.  I kept my distance, continuing to make noise and that’s when it became apparent who my visitor was.  My headlamp illuminated the body of a mountain lion!   It slid away in the brush with its’ long tail twitching on the end.   This creature didn’t run from me, it just walked away.  I had almost forgotten about the small pistol tucked within my waistband.  Not in the mood for hunting a cougar, I retreated to my tent and turned on the lamp.

Within 10-15 minutes, there was shuffling outside the tent.  This time it was to the left.  Oh boy, this was going to be a long night.   I banged on my pot and blew the whistle for a bit and waited.  Now, the crunching sound was behind my tent.  This critter was circling my tent trying to reconnoiter its’ prey.  Knowing that I couldn’t go to sleep with a predator stalking me and the thin-walled tent would not provide protection, I decided to go on the offensive.  I got my camera with the flash ready and in the other hand my pistol.  I really didn’t want to shoot the big cat but needed to scare it away.  Emerging from my tent, I turned my headlamp on to the brightest setting.  The light caught the yellow eyes and I pointed my camera in the general direction and started taking a few night pics.  After a few flashes, it took off and I could hear the shuffling grow fainter.  Here’s what I saw:

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It was a long night after that.  Like a little kid, I left the light on and laid there listening.  Chirp, chirp, chirp……   At one point, I remember thinking about my GPS locator.  Normally, it’s used to send my position with an OK message to my family and friends.  However, underneath a protective flap is the SOS button.  If I was in dire straits or hurt then I would press it.  I can hear it now:  “You pressed the SOS button for a big kitty?  Come on man!!!”  The thought did cross my mind though.

Not really being able to sleep, I would cat-nap until sunrise.  After eating some oatmeal, I checked out the area and must have flushed out some quail which scared me more than the mountain lion.  I ended up going back to my tent to catch a few hours rest.  I was awakened by the scream of a wild cat ripping into my tent.  Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I struggled to unzip it to reach for my gun.

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Mountain Lion in woods. Photo credit – Darren Smith

Within a few seconds, I realized that I had been dreaming.  My tent was intact and there was no cougar attacking me.  I decided to pack up and hit the trail.  After all, there was 53 miles of trail to cover. 🙂

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If you haven’t figured out by now, this is one of my fictional blogs.  While there are mountain lions in the western most sixteen states and Florida, encounters with humans are rare.  However, this past summer an Australian PCT thru-hiker was harassed by a mountain lion all night in the Sierras.  She actually did a video of her incident and pressed the SOS button on her SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger – Orange messenger.  The cat never attacked, but it took over six hours for rescuers to show up.   While it is unusual for these big cats to stalk humans, they are predators and can view us as prey.  In daylight, your best defense is to appear as large as possible and raise hiking poles or sticks over your head and make a lot of noise.  Never run or crouch down as this may trigger their instinct to attack.  When hiking with children in mountain lion country, it’s best to keep them close by. To my knowledge, mountain lions have never attacked humans in a tent.

I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it.  It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures.  It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips.  Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle


Big Pine Creek North Fork – Palisade Glacier – Day 1

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2nd Lake, Big Pine Creek – North Fork

Tucked away on a mountain road near the eastern Sierra town of Big Pine is the entrance to one of the most amazing getaways.  The Big Pine Creek collection of campgrounds, lakes and trails are magnificent.

This trip was a last-minute adventure.  My wife was back east helping out with a new grandchild and I knew that I didn’t want to sit around over the long Labor Day weekend.  The Sierras are only 4-5 hours away from San Diego, so I packed up my gear and headed toward the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center in Lone Pine to get my backcountry permit.  I researched a few areas to hike and was prepared to “settle” for whatever was available.  Normally, this holiday weekend is one of the busiest up here.  You should especially avoid Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne unless your plans are very flexible.  One could write a blog on the best ways to get backcountry permits.  The trails in the various areas are under the jurisdiction of the USFS or National Parks and traffic is controlled through the use of permits.  About 40% of permits are reserved for walk-ins, the rest can be reserved through recreation.gov for a small fee.

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The visitor center was actually not that busy and I was able to easily obtain the permit for the Pine Creek North Fork trail.  Another 40 minutes and I was in Big Pine.  The sign on the road that takes you to the trail is fairly obscure and starts out as Crocker Rd.  The road passes through a neighborhood and gradually climbs several thousand feet.  The rocky, desert landscape starts to change as you approach the sub-alpine area where the campgrounds are.  The aspen and Jeffrey Pines are abundant in the lower elevations and I imagine that this is even more beautiful as the deciduous trees change in the fall.

The overnight parking lot for the hikers comes up on the right.  There is plenty of room, but I found out that the trailhead is almost a mile away.  Oh well, I needed to loosen up a bit.  I passed the pack-train corral and noticed signs for the various campgrounds and Glacier Lodge.  It was fairly busy in the camps as people were getting in their last bit of summer vacation.  The trailhead is well marked at the end of the road.  There is limited day use parking at the end and I recommend to drop off your gear if there are two or more hikers.

The trail wastes no time in elevation change as the steep, short switchbacks get the heart beating.  You cross the first footbridge and the creek is rapidly descending through cascades and waterfalls.  Normally, this time of year many of the creeks in the Sierras are dry.  Not here, the Palisade Glacier ensures a year-round flow.  The trail meanders through the forest but stays close to the creek.  The rushing water provides the assurance that you can follow it all the way up to its’ source.

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View from Black Lake trail

After the second footbridge, the trail gradually climbs the canyon and then flattens out for a bit.  The riparian environment changes to a desert landscape with some cactus hiding under the chaparral.  The trail diverges from the creek, but never far enough to lose sight or sound.  Occasionally, the sound of the cascading water is an indicator that you will be climbing again.  The louder the water, the steeper the incline.  I’m a simple guy, so I tend to associate simple things you know.

One of the things I love about hiking in the Sierras is the change in eco-systems as you ascend the trails.  You can start out in an arid desert and pass through riparian areas to sub-alpine forests with deciduous trees, followed by alpine forests and end up in snow-covered peaks above the tree line.  It’s so cool to see the flora change while you hike.  This trail appears to dead-end in a canyon and one knows there is only one way out – and that is up.  The path diverges from the creek and the long switchbacks quickly take you above 8,500 ft. Evidence of the pack trains litters the trail where their path emerges from the corral.  Fortunately, the trail is wide enough to step around the mule doodles.  The trail is well maintained with many man-made steps carved from the granite.  You round the corner near a significant cascade and the view is impressive.  Temple Crag comes into sight and the trail rises above the creek.  During the afternoon, the wildlife was missing but imagine that this is a place where deer would hang out.

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Big Pine Creek – North Fork – First Fall

Due to my late start and occasional thunder, I started looking for a campsite.  100 ft. from water and trail, that makes it a bit harder.  Well, that and a flat spot for the tent that isn’t in a wash or drainage area.  I found a suitable spot under some fir trees and set up the tent quickly.  The two-person Eureka tent has been a good one.  Lightweight and easy to set up.  The bugs were almost non-existent.  Mosquitoes are bad here in early summer, but this was perfect.  Dinner was a Mountain Home chicken and noodle- too much for one person.  The housekeeping routine when you camp solo is a bit different.  Normally, you split chores like setting up the tent, getting water and cooking but tonight it was all mine.  Within 45 minutes, it started sprinkling and by 7 p.m. a steady rain ensued.  Fortunately, the lightning was distant and the trees seemed to reduce the impact of the rain.

Combined with the drive and a couple of hours of hiking, the rain was a natural sleep machine.  The pitter-patter on the tent was peaceful and the rushing creek was a great combination.  I was asleep by 8:30.

Next: This place has it all

We use the Nikon 3300 series for most of our pics.  An easy to use camera a step up from the entry-level model. Nikon D3300 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR with AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II Zoom Lens (Black)


Planning for a Section Hike of the John Muir Trail

jmt-logo3.5x3.5-11-08-07After much preparation, our section hike of the JMT commenced.  Our plan was to do a 60+ mile section from south-north.  We would start around Devils Postpile and finish in Yosemite Valley.  There are a lot of logistics that go into an extended backcountry trip.  From clothing, food, transportation – the options are numerous.

How much will it cost?  It will vary widely depending on your choices for transportation, gear and food.  Don’t go cheap on essential hiking gear.  You get what you pay for.  The $25 tent is not a good idea for a High Sierra backcountry trip.

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It started with choosing a time of year to do it.  In the Sierras, the previous winter has a lot of impact on trail conditions.  This year was a low snow year, so the streams were not very high.  Since there was less snow, that usually means less standing water so mosquitos should not be as bad.  Well, that’s debatable.  To some, any mosquitos are bad.  Ensure that you don’t have problems fording streams or walking across logs over rushing water.  Late June/early July worked for us.  I hear late August/early September is a good time.

Next choice was the distance to hike.  This is where you need to know what your limits are.  Can you hike 8-10 miles per day with a full pack at high altitude in 80 degree temps?  I can tell you as an avid day hiker, there is a lot of difference between hiking 10 miles with a daypack and with a 40 lb. pack.  It’s not pleasant to do a forced march just to make your mileage.

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Clothing was another choice.  What to wear?  Best advice I can give is to check blogs and user groups to see what others are doing.  Yahoo has a great JMT user group with relevant info.  Due to a forecast of high temps, we would take synthetic short and long sleeve shirts, convertible pants and rain/wind jackets.  Still, conditions in the Sierras vary widely, so an extra layer or two is a good idea.  Those light weight hiking shoes may not provide enough support on a multi-day hike with a full pack.  Test it out first.

Food was next.  Dehydrated meals are the easiest and they’ve come a long way.  Test some out ahead of time and read the reviews for each.  There is some amazing innovation in the area of crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon.  Ensure they you have plenty of snacks like energy bars, trail mix, beef sticks and fruits like apples.  My wife found healthy alternatives in the form of grass fed beef sticks and even some gluten free snacks.  It’s amazing how many calories you can burn in 6-8 hours of hiking, so do the math.  Bear canisters are mandatory in most areas on the JMT, so plan to rent or bring your own.

Transportation.  Since we were doing a section hike, we chose to leave our car in Mammoth Lakes, catch a shuttle to the trail and for the return leg, catch public transportation (YARTS) back to Mammoth.  It ended up working out great.  Have a backup plan in case you miss your ride.

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Research and planning was everything on this trip which helped make it successful.  I learned so much reading others’ blogs and experiences.

NEXT:  John Muir Trail Section Hike – Day 0

I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it.  It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures.  It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips.  Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle


Packing a Bear Canister, Unpacking a Bear Canister

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Yes honey, it will all fit.

As we prepare for our section hike of the JMT,  I am enjoying watching my wife pack, unpack the bear canister.  Her frustration mounting, I assure her that it will all fit or we will hang the non-essentials from a tree.  Hopefully, by the time we hit Yosemite where bears come to feast, we will have mostly empty bear cans.   Whoever created the saying it’s like packing 10 pounds of “stuff” in a 5 pound bag must have invented the bear canister.

The logistics of a section hike in the backcountry are significant.  Permits, transportation, food, clothing, checklists, on and on….  Watching her pack, it’s obvious that organized people can get more in their canisters than the rest of us.  If you’ve ever crammed a bear canister into an ultralight backpack, you realize that you may be wearing the same clothing all week because it’s either food or clothing.

Keep in mind the pack-it-in, pack-it-out rule.  While I agree that we should be good stewards and not leave our trash in the wilderness, it literally stinks to carry your garbage around for a week.  I would advise that you rinse out those foil tuna packs after you empty them or your apples will smell like Chicken-of-the-Sea by day three.

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This is why you need a bear can in Yosemite.

Should you pack your bear can with each day’s meals?  Like day 5 on the bottom, day 4 above that and so on.  I guess if you are OCD then yes.  Otherwise, it’s fun finding your food, kind of like the treat in the bottom of a Crackerjack box.

When I got our bear cans, by the way I picked two different types, a Garcia and a Bearvault, I got some reflective tape and made smiley face designs on them.  That way, if we need to find a bear can in the dark after Yogi rolls it away,  it will be smiling back at us.  Along with my phone number, I added a little graffiti like “eat me” and “sorry Yogi” on the reflective tape with a Sharpie.  If I have to use those darn things, I will make the best of it.

The old standby canister used by the Park Service: Backpackers’ Cache – Bear Proof Container

BearVault BV500 Bear Proof Container Bear Vault  – This one is my favorite, roomy and you can see your stuff.

Always stow your bear canisters between 50-100 ft. away from your tent and wedge them between rocks or trees.  Never place them around a cliff or near water unless you plan on fasting for a few days.  Enjoy packing them, practice or watch others pack a bear can for cheap entertainment.  It’s better than watching Duck Dynasty.