The day had finally arrived to start the one “big” trip that we’d managed to salvage from the (seemingly on-going) wreckage of 2020. Having been on several rafting trips, we wanted to try something new to us: hiking supported by pack stock. A friend of ours had alerted us to the Rock Creek Pack Station which runs a variety of mule-supported hiking trips along the Eastern Sierra. After some back and forth, we settled on a six-day introductory trip from Virginia Lake to Twin Lakes through the Hoover Wilderness, the northern part of Yosemite National Park, and the Yosemite Wilderness. For a variety of reasons, this trip would bring out the best and the worst of what it means to go deep into a wilderness area. It would not be, by any means, a simple walk in the park.
The trip started from the Virginia Lakes Pack Outfit near Virginia Lakes, not far south of Bridgeport, California. We spent two nights in Bridgeport so we could do an acclimatization hike to Green Lake. The night before the trip was to start, we were subjected to a heavy smoking from the Slink Fire. We worried about what the morning would bring. Fortunately, as we were driving to the pack outfit, it became apparent that, while it was still smoky, it wasn’t as thick as it had been the night before. Up at the station, at around 9,000 feet (2,745 m), it seemed almost clear.
We had breakfast at the station, met the rest of our 11 hiker group, were trucked a mile up to the trailhead, given bag lunches, and set out on the trail. The general routine was for us to hike on our own (no guide accompanied us) with just our daypacks and at our own pace and meet-up with the pack stock at a designated campsite several miles ahead. Our pack stock would (ideally) depart camp after us, pass us on the trail, and be in camp ahead of us. In short, with this particular packer, clients on the trail had to be as self-sufficient and as self-actualizing as if they were doing their own backpacking trip (except that a mule is carrying most of the load). For us this trip was not “introductory” other than for the presence of pack stock.
So off we went, under a smokey haze that imparted a pink hue to everything and messed around with the exposure and color balance of my photos. Despite this, the 1,300 -foot climb from Virginia Lakes to the ridge above Summit Lake is through some of the most picturesque scenery in the High Sierra. The trail passes several lakes before leaving the tree line and entering wildly colored rocky terrain – with the colors accentuated by the visual effects of the smoke.
From the ridge, Summit Lake looked like it was right there but, of course, it wasn’t. There was a long descent and then a short ascent before we reached a lunch spot at the lake. It was still Labor Day weekend so we had the chance to stop and chat briefly (at a distance) with several backpackers and day hikers.
At the west end of Summit Lake, we passed out of the Hoover Wilderness and into Yosemite National Park and the Yosemite Wilderness. Ahead of us lay a descent to Virginia Canyon and then a descent of that canyon to our camp at Avalanche Camp (the packer’s name for it). By now a day that had started reasonably clear was being replaced by one made dim and opalescent by smoke moving in from the west. I kept trying to take off the sunglasses I wasn’t wearing. 🙄
Unfortunately, going to Avalanche Camp was a last minute change in the trip’s itinerary, one that was not clearly communicated to everyone. It added two miles to the hike, along with a lack of clarity as to where camp was actually located. The LovedOne and I were up front this day and – fortuitously – she spotted a pile of bags of feed that had been packed in earlier (there was no open grazing at this camp and food for the pack stock had to be provided). We figured this had to be our camp and simply waited to see if the pack train would arrive. It did, not too long after we did.
And so endeth the first day, after 9.4 miles of hiking and 1,300 feet of gain.
We had hamburgers for dinner, watched the sky change colors, and then turned in for the night. Unlike on raft trips, were the guides on kitchen duty typically arise at 0500, here the packers turn-out at 0400 to gather and saddle the stock. So no one was up for partying into the night…