Ramblings in the Sierra Nevada 02-Aug-2016

Earlier this year, my brother-in-law (Russ), nephew (Bart), and myself planned a multi-day backpack through California’s John Muir Wilderness and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  I jumped through the permitting hoops for this and we all wrangled with what constituted a bear cannister acceptable to both the Forest Service and the National Park Service.  Sadly, neither bureaucracy has officially recognized the UrSack (my preferred food storage container), so we were stuck with those unwieldy and hard-to-pack plastic barrels.  But there are good reasons for the permits and the cannisters, so we worked through it all and were ready to go by late July.  I spent the night before their arrival (they were flying out from the East Coast) in Bridgeport, California and, early the next morning, drove down to the Virginia Lakes trailhead – one of the gateways to the Hoover Wilderness (details) – to get in a short warmup hike before going on to meet them in Bishop.

Hoover Wilderness (Virginia Lakes)

The Virginia Lakes trailhead is 13.2 miles south of Bridgeport on Highway 395, then right (west) for 6.1 miles on the Virginia Creek Road to the parking lot at the end of the road.  It was early enough that there were only a half-dozen cars at the trailhead (there were many more when I got back only a couple of hours later).

Hoover Wilderness California

Sunrise at the Virginia Lakes trailhead

The day broke crisp and clear as I headed up the trail toward Burro Pass and Summit Lake. The early morning light really accented the colors in the peaks overlooking Red Lake.

Hoover Wilderness California

Red Lake

Hoover Wilderness California

Reflections on a pond near Red Lake

I continued on past Blue Lake,

Hoover Wilderness California

Blue Lake

to where the stream that comes down from Moat Lake crosses the trail and there found a good use trail that follows up the west side of the creek to the lake. My original plan was to hike up Dunderberg Peak, partially for the purported views from the summit and partially because it’s on the Sierra Peak Section’s list (SPS List). I still think lists such as this (and there are many more and different lists of peaks, hikes, etc. out there) are a good place to get ideas for hikes and adventures. But, as I picked my way up the boulder field that constitutes the southwest side of Dunderberg, I realized that actually finishing any of these lists – just to “finish” the list – was no longer of interest to me. I just couldn’t gather the enthusiasm to climb what was obviously just a dirt pile with a view. So about 200 feet above Moat Lake, I decided to explore the Frog Lakes instead.

Hoover Wilderness California

Moat Lake

This is pretty open country and it was no trouble working my way cross-country from Moat Lake to the bench that holds the Frog Lakes. The flower displays in the meadows around the lakes were probably just a little past their prime but still plentiful.

Hoover Wilderness California

A meadow in the Frog Lakes area

The Frog Lakes themselves were a stunning sight in the morning’s light. I’ve climbed the Matterhorn, Whorl Mountain, and Virginia Peak a little farthur to the northwest but have not otherwise explored the area beyond Burro Pass.  It looked so inviting I almost wished we’d planned our trip for here rather than further south.  Maybe another time…

Hoover Wilderness California

Frog Lakes, looking toward Burro Pass

After overcoming the urge to hike to the pass, I headed back past Cooney Lake,

Hoover Wilderness California

Cooney Lake

and the old miner’s cabin that sits next to the trail between Cooney and Blue Lakes. I’d managed to pass it on the way up without even seeing it!

Hoover Wilderness California

Deluxe accommodations for old miners

After getting back to the trailhead (which was rapidly filling-up with fisherpeople and kayakers), I went south to Bishop to pick-up our permit, do some final packing, and meet-up with Russ and Bart who were driving up from the airport in Los Angeles.  I guess we’ve been living out in the provinces long enough now that the herds of people I encountered between Lee Vining and Bishop were a bit overwhelming – it felt like half of LA (and probably San Francisco too) was in the Eastern Sierra for the weekend.  But by late Sunday afternoon the herds had almost all vanished, either southward or over Hwy 120 to the Bay area.  Whew!

John Muir Wilderness (Bishop Creek)

John Muir Wilderness California
That night we got ourselves organized, sampled some local fermentation products in downtown Bishop, and, early the next morning, went up to the trailhead at South Lake, one of the gateways to the John Muir Wilderness (details). This was my first time back to South Lake in four years but my history with this particular piece of the Sierra Nevada extends back to my very first backpacking trip which was to Marie Louise Lakes. John Muir Wilderness CaliforniaA Trapper Nelson packframe, kapok sleeping bag, no tent (too heavy), few clothes, no insect repellant, and questionable food (catching fish proving much harder than anticipated) made for a somewhat painful but otherwise very memorable experience. But it started an enthusiasm for hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and the outdoors in general that has endured for 48 years – and one that (despite occassional mentions of golf) doesn’t seem to be diminishing.  So, after fooling around with our respective cars, we got an early start from the trailhead at South Lake,

Hoover Wilderness California

South Lake

and made good progress up to Long Lake,

Hoover Wilderness California

Hurd Peak reflected in Long Lake

with its view of the Sierra Crest to the west.

Hoover Wilderness California

Sierra Crest from Long Lake

Along the way, we passed a pika guarding the trail. Usually these little guys let out a “neeep” and run away but this one stood his/her ground long enough for a photo. Pikas live in high mountain ecosystems that are typically cool and moist. However, higher temperatures associated with global climate change are expected cause pikas to overheat. Unlike other mountain species that can move to higher altitudes in warming climates, pikas live so high on the mountain that there is no where for them to go. Pikas have already disappeared from more than one-third of their previously known habitat in Oregon and Nevada. The situation is so dire that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering the pika for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Hoover Wilderness California

Guard pika along the Bishop Pass trail

We were still making good progress as we came in sight of Bishop Pass at the head of the valley,

Hoover Wilderness California

Bishop Pass comes into view

and seemed to be still be doing so as we picked our way up the steep, rocky trail just below the pass, with its view of Bishop Lake below.

Hoover Wilderness California

Bishop Lake from high on the Bishop Pass trail

But then, no joy. To loosely paraphrase old von Moltke, no plan survives contact with the trail. For a number of reasons, we just weren’t going to be able to pull this one off. Not so bad for me since I’d spent a lot of my life in the Sierras but a tough call for Russ and Bart as this was their first time here. But nothing to do but head back down. As we started back, clouds started rolling in (the weather forecasts had said nothing about this).

Hoover Wilderness California

Clouds gather over Bishop Lake

Figuring that one night in the Sierras is way better than no night in the Sierras, we set up camp overlooking Long Lake, just in time to avoid getting dampened by a passing shower.

Hoover Wilderness California

Camp at Long Lake with Chocolate Peak in the background

By sunset, the clouds were starting to dissipate,

Hoover Wilderness California

Sunset on the Sierra Crest

and by the following morning, clear, blue skies were back,

Hoover Wilderness California

Sunrise over Long Lake

for our hike out past Hurd Peak,

Hoover Wilderness California

Early morning on Hurd Peak

back to South Lake.

Hoover Wilderness California

South Lake

We made the right decision in turning back but it was still a tough one to make at the time. But it would have been much worse if we’d pushed on into the backcountry in the hope that the problem would magically disappear rather than just rear up to bite us badly. I have a PLB but I’m not hankering to use it. Hopefully, we can arrange a rematch for Russ and Bart so they can get to experience the wonder of the Sierra Nevada as I have been able to do so for so many years.  Russ and Bart headed south for some sightseeing (Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Joshua Tree National Park), while I headed north to Reno, where I would meet-up with the LovedOne for some hikes in the northern Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe.  On the way north, I consoled myself with a high-cholesterol treat from the Jolly Kone in Bridgeport. I have no idea how long it’s been here but I do remember eating one of its delicious double cheeseburgers after a particularly cold climb of the Matterhorn some 30+ years ago…

Hoover Wilderness California

A palace of usually forbidden treats

After consuming yet another still delicious cheeseburger, I drove up to Reno to meet the LovedOne, who was flying in from the State of Jefferson. We then spent the next few days hiking up four peaks near to, or just north of, Lake Tahoe. And then we hiked a fifth peak as we were driving home via Susanville, California. All of these peaks are on one list or another, or figure prominently in tourist brochures, but each is interesting in its own way and each provided us with an excuse (as if one were needed) to visit parts of the Sierra Nevada that we had previously missed.


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