Months before we (finally) decided to move to Minnesota, we had made plans to do two big trips in California’s Sierra Nevada with our friends Wayne and Diane. In August, we completed the first of these – a passel of dayhikes from a basecamp at June Lake, CA.
This month we went back to complete the second – a mule-supported hike on the John Muir Trail between Red’s Meadow and Tuolumne Meadows. As an acclimatization prelude to this trip, we did a couple of dayhikes in the vicinity of Mammoth Lakes.
The area between June Lake and Mammoth Lakes has been volcanically active for a long, long time (and still is). Just 672 years ago (in 1350 CE to be exact), screaming hot magma intruded into much colder groundwater to set off phreatic (steam) explosions just south of today’s June Lake. These blasts formed three domes: Obsidian, Glass Creek, and Deadman Creek. Obsidian Dome is the best known (it has its own sign along Highway 395) and most accessible of these. This dome is neither a volcanic cone nor one giant rock but rather a huge pile of obsidian boulders, most of which sport beautiful striations of different consistencies of obsidian and pumice.
June Lake, Gull Lake, Silver Lake, and Grant Lake form a curved line of waterbodies that drain melting snow from the Sierra Nevada into nearby Mono Lake. Rush Creek connects the High Sierra lakes of Waugh, Gem, and Agnew and funnels their waters into Silver Lake. The Rush Creek drainage, and its lakes, hasn’t been fully “natural” since the early 1900s, when dams, penstocks, and a power house were built to channel it’s water and hydroelectricity to Los Angeles.
The popular Rush Creek Trailhead is located at the north end of Silver Lake, tucked in between an RV park and a pack station. An early start gave us the trail mostly to ourselves on the way up; it was considerably busier as we were coming down.
The trail climbs gradually, but steadily, from the trailhead to where it crosses the cable tram tracks at about 8,000 feet (2,438 m). Not much of this trail is shaded, so going up in the cool of the morning was a plus. 😊 Along the way, we had a good view of anglers maneuvering their boats on mist-shrouded Silver Lake.
This cable tramway was built in 1915 to haul all the materials and supplies needed to build the three arch dams in the Rush Creek drainage. With an 18% grade in some places – and no way to stop if the cable broke – this looks like the scariest roller coaster ride you can imagine. 🥺 It was more than amazing that they hauled tons and tons of heavy stuff up this grade one little carload at a time. The system was supposed to be upgraded to a self-contained diesel-powered tram but, since the cable was still there, we couldn’t tell if that actually happened.
Past this first crossing of the tram rails, the trail steepens as it surmounts granite buttresses. It crosses the tram again, then levels out a bit before finally reaching Agnew Lake.
We rested in the shade of an ancient, twisted old juniper to gather our strength for the final push up to Gem Lake. Getting there was one of those illusory situations where we could see our goal which, despite heavy breathing and much sweat, never seemed to get any closer. 🙄
Part of the trail between Agnew and Gem runs on top of the penstocks that feed water from Gem Lake to the power house below near Silver Lake. As we plodded upward, it was hard not to think about the effort expended, 100 years ago, to dig a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) long ditch in solid rock up a steep slope at altitude – then haul up sections of large diameter pipe to stuff in that ditch. 😲 Not exactly a wilderness experience, but an amazing piece of history nonetheless.
Illusions aside, we did soon reach Gem Lake and the eastern boundary of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. We took a lengthy snack break on a rocky ridge overlooking the lake, marveling at the stunning scenery before us. Yesterday all of this had been shrouded in mists and (welcome) rain; today it was full bluebird for as far as the eye could see. 😎😍 We counted ourselves fortunate that today there were no wildfires nearby (as had been the case in past years) befouling the skies with smoke.
The third dam in this system is at Waugh Lake, about three miles (4.2 km) farther along. Since going there would have made today’s hike a lot longer than we wanted, we passed on visiting yet another dam. So, as other runners, hikers, and backpackers started arriving, we decided it was time for us to head down – an activity which gave our knees a good workout.
We got back to the trailhead around noon. This was good as the cool of the early morning had given way to a warm (but not too hot) day. We passed a number of hikers and backpackers – including a troop of Boy Scouts on an 8-day outing – all laboring up the trail in the sunshine and rising heat. 😅
So, at 6.3 miles (10.1 km) with 1,900 feet (580 m) of gain, another great hike on a wonderful day for one! Not exactly a pure wilderness experience, but nonetheless a good walk past some classic pieces of Sierra Nevada history. And the Rush Creek power house? Well, it continues to pump out 5 megawatts of carbon-free hydroelectric power, as it has for almost 100 years. 😁
Months ago, well before we decided to move to Minnesota, we made some plans with our long-time friends, Wayne and Diane. One of those plans was to share a cabin in June Lake, California and do some hikes in that area. Reaching June Lake was easier to do when we lived in Southern Oregon. It became a more convoluted journey once we settled in Minneapolis. But friendship out-weighs distance, so we did the plane-run thru the airport-car thing to join them at June Lake – just in time to be moistened by a furious thunderstorm-driven downpour. 🌩🌧☂🙄
Up until 2008, our past endeavors were retained only as memories and on 35mm slides. While our memories may have faded (just a bit), the slides haven’t – and we have a lot of them. So we’re digitizing a select few to bring a bit of our past into the 21st Century. The photos below are from a few of those old slides.
In the early 1990s, when we were living in Denver, I went ice climbing with a couple of sportsmen who had a different take on what “sport” entailed. In the summer months, they played golf. No hiking, rock climbing, mountaineering, etc. – just golf. In the winter months, they did extreme ice climbing. No skiing, snowshoeing, mountaineering, etc. – just ice climbing. I went along on one of their milder winter excursions. We started with a simple “warm-up” climb (literally and figuratively) of a 30-foot frozen cascade in Rocky Mountain National Park, then moved on to a 75-foot frozen waterfall. This was an essentially freestanding frozen column of water – anchored at the bottom by gravity and at the top by ice entwined in some tree roots at the lip of the fall.
This stack of ice seemed precarious to the point that even these ice wizards decided to top-rope it lest it collapse beneath us. Or on us. I was admonished to climb carefully, using only the tips – if at all possible – of my crampons and ice tools. No heroic axe swings or crampon kicks. Every time I moved up – no matter how carefully – this column of solid water vibrated ever so slightly. Hit it just a little harder and it twanged. My chance to ever reach geezer-hood was hanging by an ice crystal. Oh rapacious joy! This was a long, long 75-foot climb, top rope or not. While topping-out, I noticed the ice enmeshed in the roots had cracked…ever…so…slightly. This was the last time I ever went ice climbing. Never developed much interest in golf either…
A few years before my Colorado cavalcade on ice, John, Alan, and I had gone ice climbing at two locations in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada – Rush Creek (June Lake) and Lee Vining Canyon. Unlike the extreme ice climbers, the three of us were climbing ice primarily to hone our skills in case we needed to climb a little ice on a mountaineering trip. The ice in both these locations is the result of leakage from Southern California Edison (SCE) penstocks running across the cliffs above. As a result of this source, the ice flows and cascades in sheets down the cliffs at angles between 45° and near vertical. Rush Creek was a good place to practice, while Lee Vining was the place to try your axe at 2-3 pitches of real ice climbing.
After spending most of the day on the sheet of ice, Alan and I did a short climb of a frozen creek just to the north of it. After that it was back to our small, but warm, rented room in June Lake – a room suspiciously close to the nearby restaurant and bar. 🙂
Early the next morning we drove north into Lee Vining Canyon, parked, and then walked up to where ice coated the cliffs. While sun graced the peaks above, the deep canyon with its wall of ice stayed in perpetual shade.
We had a lot of fun in these two places. Both are still hugely popular locations in California for ice climbing but one can’t help but think that the consistency and longevity of the ice has declined somewhat as the climate has warmed. And the routes at Lee Vining now have names (e.g., Zippo’s Frozen Booger) and ratings, features that hadn’t yet come into being (at least formally) back in our days of yore. 😉
After The LovedOne tweaked a disc in her cervical spine our ability to do multi-day backpacks pretty much came to an end (this was before we discovered ME-2 Packs). I despaired at ever being able to share with her the High Sierra – where I had spent almost all of the 1980s backpacking and climbing. Then it dawned on me (duh!) that the Yosemite High Sierra Camps offered us another chance. With these, you carry just your personal gear – which I can do for both of us – and the camps supply tents and food. There are a total of five camps and the ideal trip is to hike them in a continuous loop. But access is limited by a lottery (which this year had 3900 applications for 900 spaces), so we weren’t able to score a loop but did score the highest (Vogelsang), lowest (Merced Lake), and most remote (both) of the five camps.