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.
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.
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.
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.
Next: Pillsbury Does a Handstand at Kearsarge Pass.
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.
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.
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.
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
Days 2-3 on the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail…
Waking up the next morning, I noticed the condensation on the tent. The rainfall last night raised the humidity a bit and these single wall tents can build up moisture if not ventilated. I had closed the side flaps to keep the rain from bouncing into the tent.
As I went to the creek to filter some water, it was noticeable that the color was slightly turquoise and a bit cloudy. Earlier this year I replaced my sturdy 2-bag Sawyer filter and picked up a Katadyn model. We used it on the JMT and it is fast and effective. Later, I would find out why the water was this color.
After breakfast, I tried to dry the tent out by wiping it down but ended up packing it up wet. The forecast was for cooler temps and a lower chance of thunderstorms. Breaking camp, I noticed several hikers had already passed. Many of the day hikers stay in the campgrounds below and hit the trail early. Labor Day weekend would prove to be a busy time in this area.
The aspens and Jeffrey Pines gave way to firs and lodgepole pines mostly clustered near the north fork of Big Pine Creek. The creek has magnificent cascades and areas of slower, lazy currents as the terrain flattens out. Fishing looks good down there.
The trail enters an area where the vegetation comes up to the edge of the trail and you cross several brooks and streams that drain into the creek. I imagine that in late spring, early summer the water is fairly high through here. I took a break about 10 ft. off the trail and about fifteen day hikers passed by. Not that I was hiding, but none of them ever saw me. I’ve finally learned how to become one with the environment. Also learned that when hikers are exerting themselves, they can only see about three feet-straight ahead.
Around the three-mile mark, I reached a junction by a stream. The trail to the left was more popular and provided a more gradual climb. I watched a small pack-train and eight horseback riders take that trail. Most others were going that way too. I chose the path to Black Lake and began an immediate climb on an exposed slope, but was rewarded with some neat views of the turquoise glacier fed lakes below.
Passing 9,000 ft the chaparral gave way to conifers and the slope levels out as it approaches Black Lake. Appropriately named, the water was darker than the glacier fed lakes below. This area isn’t as popular as lakes 1-5, so if you are seeking solitude, it’s a great location. Finding a flat area for a tent far enough from the trail is a bit of a challenge, but I noticed several spots. I pressed on to 5th Lake for a late lunch.
I climbed a large granite rock and was rewarded with clouds passing nearby. Around 10,000 ft., the air was crisp and noticeably cooler. The trail passes by a small 6th Lake, as you make your way through tall grasses near the shore.
Eventually, I arrived at a junction. Bear right and you can go to 5th Lake, a popular lunch gathering for the day hikers. I found a nice sunny spot on an outcropping where I watched the anglers pull in rainbow trout. After a while, I felt like a lizard sunning itself on the rocks.
I met some people from the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club. They were probably in their 70’s and slowly made their way down the trail. It’s usually humbling for me to meet older people in the backcountry, especially when the trail is tough.
Making my way down, I came up on a junction where some people were taking a break. For some reason, I took a right and within 15 minutes knew that it was the wrong way. I was heading up to the glacier. While this would be a nice day hike, my full pack convinced me to turn around. This time, when I reached the junction, I noticed the trail sign indicating the Glacier Trail.
The trail starts dropping quickly with multiple short switchbacks. Much of the trail is exposed and it was warm. Descending, the turquoise lake came into view. The bank is steep but there are paths to the water. Most of the day hikers come here in the summer to take a dip in the milky-blue-green water.
I started looking for a campsite near the lake and/or creek but the trail for the most part is a hundred feet above the shore. Most of the choice campsites were taken so I trudged on. Almost picked a spot on top of a flat granite boulder, but the sheer drop into the creek convinced me otherwise. Yeah, I imagined getting up in the middle of the night when nature called…..
I ended up near the stream where the pack-train came through and filtered some water. A couple of ladies came by and one, with a Swedish accent said that she had been drinking unfiltered stream water for many years. She dunked her Nalgene in there and took a big swig. I went upstream a bit since I watched the mules pee in the same stream the day before. I’ll stick with the filtered water thank you. The Swedish woman told me the reason for the turquoise color in the lake was glacial ice. She was partially correct, the glacier creates the color as it grinds its’ way over the rock and makes the silty, glacial milk. During early spring, the melting snow dilutes the water and the color is not as distinct.
I backtracked and found a fairly flat area that appeared to be a vernal pond. Unpacking the wet tent, I placed it in the sun and opened it up to dry it out.
I would later see a picture of my last campsite under water. Seems that it is a vernal pond during the spring melt.
Making camp early gave me plenty of time to get some housekeeping done and explore the area. The chipmunks were having a field day in the surrounding trees. Kerplunk, kerplunk! as the green pine cones hit the ground. Their incessant chattering made me want to throw rocks at them but I resisted. After all, this is their neighborhood.
Sunset is amazing up here as the shadows on the craggy peaks provide a different perspective. The breeze picked up and I closed the flaps on the tent. Just after sunset, it started raining and I drug my belongings into the foyer of the tent. It was a steady rain. The distant waterfalls on Second Lake and the rain pushed me into an early sleep.
Dawn brought a nice Sierra sunrise, partially obscured by clouds and the surrounding peaks. I was on the trail before long, only 5 miles from the trailhead. The walk down was peaceful, coming across two fishermen and an early morning pack-train. This area has it all – moderate hiking, water, fishing, and enough scenery to satisfy the most avid photographer. I highly recommend this trail – just don’t do it on holiday weekends.
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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
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)