Exploring some day hike trails in the Eastern Sierra

Over the years we've explored a few roads - dirt and paved - from Hwy 395 to the east, i.e. towards Death Valley. Now it was time to explore some foot trails in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. For this first trip we stuck to day hikes.

The photo galleries for this report can be found here: August 2011 galleries

Movie of/from lunch spot at Cloud's Rest; includes a glimpse of Half-Dome and Yosemite Valley. Lunch Break Movie (35Mb, WMV Format)

Day 1: August 7th, 2011

We left home around 8:20 am for a straight drive to Lone Pine, arrived at Interagency visitor center around 3 pm where we got some info from ranger and bought some books for day hikes in the Sierra Nevada ("Best Short Hikes in California's Sierra Nevada"). Lunch was at Subway in Independence where we also got ice at the gas station before heading out to Onion Valley campground 15 miles east if Independence. We found a nice camp spot and took a short walk around the valley. During the walk I decided that there was enough time for the short hike to Robinson Lake. The steep 1.7m/1300ft elevation gain hike took about 45min. I arrived at the lake just when the sun was about to go behind the mountain. The lake was very clear with small trout swimming around. Mosquitoes were everywhere and I could not stay in one place without getting covered by them. I walked around the lake and encountered some little snowfields. After about half an hour at the lake it was time to head back to camp. On the way down I ended up on a different trail. It was less steep and in a wooded area. However, it took me more to the eastern end of the valley than I wanted so I traversed to the west to get back to the trail I had used on the way up.

Robinson Lake Hike Stats:

When I walked towards camp I saw Srisuda and a visitor chatting at out picnic table. While I was gone she had explored some more in the valley and picked up some wild onions and a visitor. Spencer was looking for a place to camp and Srisuda had offered him our tent spot since we were not using it as we sleep in the truck. He was an interesting character, a young kid originally out for a 9 day hike he had to cut short due to a hurt ankle. He came to Onion Valley to drop a car for his hiking buddy who had continued without him and wanted to exit the wilderness through Kearsarge Pass. After a nice dinner of chicken vegetable stir-fry with the foraged onions we had a nice campfire chat.

Day 2: August 8th, 2011

After an oatmeal breakfast we said good-bye to Spencer who was going to wait for his ride and started our hike to Kearsage Lakes over Kearsarge pass. This is a very popular trail since it's one of the gateways to the hikes in King's Canyon National Park. Numerous lakes are passed during the first two miles and large sections have some shade since they lead through a "forest". From Flower Lake on the trail becomes rocky and there is no more shade. The grade up to the pass is quite moderate. The climb to the pass is rewarded with great views into King's Canyon National Park. Just below to the west are Kearsage Lakes, a popular camping area for backpackers, and Bullfrog lake. After a little snack and a short rest we headed down towards Kearsarge Lakes where we arrived around noon. The last overnighter's had just left and we had the lakes to ourselves. We found a nice shady spot and prepared some lunch. On this trip we were testing our new backpacking stove and trying out some freeze-dried backpacking meals. After lunch we took a little nap. Then it was time to cool the feet in the water and replenish our water supply by filtering some lake water. When we were just about done the first backpackers looking for a camp spot for the night showed up. On our way out we encountered 6 more groups. Quite a popular spot indeed! The 800ft climb up the gentle slope to the pass was quite quick and easy. On top we had another break to enjoy the view one more time. Then it was time to head back down to Onion valley.

Kearsarge Lakes Hike Stats:

After arriving at camp we unloaded our gear, got out of the boots and into sandals and headed for the creek (Independence Creek runs through the valley) where we iced our legs and knees in the cold water. This is something we like to do after longer hikes, in particular if there was a lot of downhill, which stresses the knees. Refreshed we ended a great day with dinner and campfire.

Day 3: August 9th, 2011

Srisuda was ready for a rest day after the previous day's hike and decided to take it slow while I hiked up to unnamed lakes below Dragon Peak. The first 2 miles of this trail are the same as the hike to Golden Trout Lake.

I set off thinking that this 6 mile hike would be a nice quick excursion, but it turns out that some errant cairns misled me in two places which added distance and time since the routes I took were much rougher than the trail. The first 'mistake' occured when I missed the creek crossing and ended up in a rough boulder field. Realizing that I should be on the other side of the creek by now I tried to traverse over and find a creek crossing, but the vegetation was too thick around the creek and I had to go down some ways to find a spot where I could cross. Once on the other side I found the trail and headed up to the top of the prominent waterfall that dominates that little valley. From the top of the fall the trail climbs up a ridge in a wooded area. It was well marked by cairns and I made good progress. At some point the cairns led me out of the woods up a very rocky slope. After I had gained quite a bit of elevation the cairns stopped and I continued finding my own route. Along the climb I could see a trail way below me in the valley next to the creek. I arrived at the little swampy meadow where the trails split about 150ft too high and had to work my way down. There is no well-marked trail from here through the swampy area and I just aimed for the area where I expected the route to leave the valley to climb up to the lakes. After crossing the swamp I ran into some people who had camped up at the lakes and they confirmed that I was on the right track. In fact shortly after meeting them I found some cairns and a use trail that led me right up to the lakes. (I did not meet anyone else until I was back down at the falls on the return trip.) Stopping to take pictures was somewhat hazardous since the mosquitoes where quite hungry up there. Along the way I also saw the first marmot of the trip.

Dragon Lakes Hike Stats:

After I arrived at the first lake I followed the left side of it to the stream connecting it with the second lake and climbed up to the smaller of the two lakes. I watched some trout feeding on insects for a while before heading back to the first lake. The banks of the upper lake are quite desolate and I decided to take my break at the lower lake where there were some small trees along the edge. I picked a nice rock and iced my feet and knees in the lake for a while. Too soon it was time to head back down.

On the way down I found the 'right' trail and also a possible explanation for the upper route I had taken. In the narrowest part of the valley the correct route requires some climbing through some very rough boulders, larger and bigger than what I had encountered above and more importantly, it crossed a snowfield. I think it's possible that the upper route was marked when the snowfield was bigger and more dangerous to cross. From here on it was a quick trip down to camp.

Srisuda had actually started up the trail during her exploring and she had had no problem finding the correct crossing. We packed our stuff and left Onion Valley to head further north. In Bishop we stopped at the Public Lands Information Center to get some more information. With the new information and after studying our other material we decided to hike the Clouds Rest trail from Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park the next day. Since we had no camping reservations we didn't even consider going into the park for camping and opted for the commercial campground Mono Vista in Lee Vining. After our first shower in days we walked to town and ended up having dinner in the local BBQ place.

Day 4: August 10th, 2011

We left the campground around 6:30, stopped at the local gas station for some coffee and headed up Tioga Pass into Yosemite. The drive up was uneventful and we passed the unmanned entry station before 7am. Once we got into the park we got to see how crowded this place gets during high season. There were cars parked along the road around any possible trailhead. When we arrived at our trailhead (Sunrise) there were not many parking opportunities. I found a spot I thought I could squeeze in by parallel parking. It was tight and so I opened the window to stick my head out to make sure I didn't hit anything. That's when I heard a loud hissing sound from the front tire on the driver side of our truck. Not a good sign! Once in the spot we inspected the tire and immediately found a hole in the tread through which the air was gushing out. This would not take long to completely deflate the tire. It must have happened right in the parking area. Clearly this tire had to be changed since we didn't carry a tire plugging/repair kit. (Don't ask why we were unprepared, but the puncture looked like something that could have been plugged in minutes. I will not get caught like this again!) So we had the choice to change the tire now or enjoy the cool morning air for hiking. We opted for the later and set off on our hike like planned. The tire would not go anywhere.

Cloud's Rest Trail Stats:

The air was cool up here at 8000ft and the trail lead us through a forested area with a number of streams and springs. With all the water came plenty of fresh green growth. The large leaves of the California corn lilies really brightened up the forest in particular. There were also plenty of small and colorful flowers. As we gained altitude the forest became drier and less dense. After about 7 miles we reached the barren granite rocks that lead to the top. The last few hundred feet to the peak require negotiating a fairly narrow ridge with drop-offs on both sides. Srisuda decided that this part was to scary and stayed back while I continued.

Unfortunately the views were obscured by smoke from a large fire burning on the western edge of Yosemite. The bottom of Yosemite Valley and anything beyond Half Dome was hard to make out through the haze.

We cooked up another backpacker lunch and rested enjoying the view. A marmot came very close to check if he could get some food from us, but he had no such luck and we kept our rest spot clean.

The return hike along the same trail was uneventful and we arrived back at the truck around 4:30pm. The weather conditions had changed so that we now could smell the smoke from the fire and even see some haze in the forest. Once back at the truck it was time to change the tire, which we accomplished without problems. After a long day we headed back to Lee Vining to stay at the same campground where we had spent the night before.

Day 5: August 11th, 2011

Today was a rest day. For breakfast we walked over to the little coffee shop up the street and sat on the porch sipping latte's and browsing the internet (the camp ground didn't have internet and everybody charged quite a bit for it, here it came with the coffee). We evaluated our plans for the rest of the week and decided to start heading south canceling our initial plan for another hike in Yosemite because of all the smoke in the air. We also opted not to do back road exploration on unpaved roads since we were without a spare tire now. So after breakfast we drove south on Hwy 395 taking a side trip on Hwy 158 past Grant and June Lakes since we had never been in that area. June Lake is a nice area and maybe worth a return trip. Next we checked out Mammoth, another place we had not been before. At the 'Adventure Center' we considered taking the shuttle and doing a couple of short walks to the Devel's Post Pile and Rainbow falls, but then decided against it looking at the lines and crowds. So we drove down to the city and then up to the lakes above. Here we found a nice picnic spot at Horseshoe Lake and cooked up an early lunch. After this break we left the Mammoth area and continued south to Lone Pine with a brief gas stop in Bishop. Along the way we reviewed our forest information and discovered that we could not proceed with our plan to camp at Horseshoe Meadow as planned since the camp sites there are all walk-in, i.e., sleeping in the vehicle is not allowed. So we looked for an alternative which we found in the Lone Pine camp ground along Whitney Portal road about 6 miles west of Lone Pine. We arrived there mid-afternoon and for some reason were very tired. The afternoon was then spent resting and exploring a little around the creek running past the campground. In the evening we had a little campfire with our left over wood and then retired early to our sleeping bags.

Day 6: August 12th, 2011

We got up with sunrise and had a great view from camp of the early sunrays hitting Mt. Whitney. After a quick, simple breakfast we went up to Horseshoe Meadow road to the trailhead for the Cottonwood Pass Loop trail. At the parking lot we hard some strange noise from the car parked next to us while we were getting ready. It sounded like some rodent was busy under the hood there and sure enough some chipmunk appeared moments later running away with something in its mouth. We continued our preparations and that little guy returned for more. So I decided to leave a note on the vehicle to make the owner aware that something might me missing under the hood of his car. Most likely just some insulation, but one never knows what else gets gnawed on. While I was writing the note the chipmunk came back a third time. That's when I decided to move the truck to the other end of the parking lot in case this guy was working the cars in the order parked.

Cottonwood Pass Loop Hike Stats:

The hike to Cottonwood pass started out along the rather dry meadow and then climbed up to the pass. Once at the pass we continued west for about 0.8 miles to Chicken Spring Lake where we found a shady spot for a lunch break and nap. Temperatures in the shade where almost chilly up here at 11,000ft and we alternated our time in the shade with some tome in the sun. After almost 2 hours at the lake we started our return trip. Rather than going back down the same trial from Cottonwood pass we hiked south and then east to Trail pass. This hike led us past and through some nice meadows. From Trail pass we descended to Horseshow meadow to close the loop just before getting back to the parking area. The hike covered quite a few miles but did not include much elevation gain.

Back at the truck we cleaned up a little, had a snack and pondered our options for a place to spend the night. We really felt like having a shower, so we decided to look for a motel room in Lone Pine, of course this was a long shot this time of year late in the afternoon. So it came as no surprise that there were no rooms available. With our minds set on a shower we determined that our best option was to just head home. The 4.5h drive from Lone Pine gave us an ETA of 11:30pm.