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.
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.
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.
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)
Trail Identifier: Monument Trail, Arroyo Seco Trail
Type of trail: Out and back or loop, sand, decomposed granite, rocks.
Distance as hiked: 7 miles
Approximate elevation: Trailhead-3,900 ft., Top of trail 5,000-ft.
Temps: 80-90 degrees
Difficulty: moderate (heat)
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is a “local” favorite of mine. Located approximately 45 minutes east of San Diego it is part of the Cleveland National Forest. Sadly, the 2003 Cedar Fire burned more than 95% of this area. I’ve hiked a significant number of the trails and the destruction is slowly fading as the native chaparral species recover. Reforestation efforts are helping and young conifers are slowly making a comeback.
We would start our hike on the Monument Trail near the Sweetwater River Bridge. The parking area across from the trailhead is a popular area for equestrians. Many of the trails in this area are shared use for hikers-bikers-horses. We tend to go later in the day on these shared trails as many people go early in the morning before it gets hot. Much of the trail is exposed, so be prepared. There are still many oaks and sycamore trees as you skirt the creek. During this hike, part of the trail was being encroached by some thickets. You have to push some of the brush back to make your way to the airplane monument. I love history and this monument was from a military DeHaviland biplane that crashed in 1922. Be careful around this engine, it was infested with bees. I was actually stung on my neck and my wife got one in her hair. We hightailed it out of there; thankfully they are not Africanized bees.
On this hike, I would also see the dreaded “Poodle-Dog Bush”, a deceptively poisonous flora that tends to appear after wildfires. The trail meanders through a wooded area with tall grasses all around. It is mostly single-track but merges with a fire road near a horse camp.
On the return leg, we descended down a dusty track and the view opened up to a valley below. A steady breeze felt refreshing. We came across the state bird, actually a male and female. California quail. They were unusually docile and not spooked by our presence. We also came a bit too close to a skunk family. They crossed about twenty feet in front of me. I stopped and gave them plenty of room. There is evidence of abundant small wildlife in this area.
This is a nice hike in an area diverse with wildlife. Best hiked from Sep-May as it gets hot!