Thursday, July 23, 2009

Northern Sierra: June/July, 2009

For our 2009 big summer trip (almost four weeks long), we decided to do something we've never done: just take off for the northern Sierra, without any reservations or even any solid plans. (Four weeks!? Lots of pictures and text -- feel free to skim. Remember -- click on a photo to enlarge, and then click "back.") The big idea was to plunk ourselves down in an interesting area, explore it thoroughly, and then move on to somewhere else. We figured that since we can boondock in most parts of the the national forests, we didn't really need campground reservations.

Our first campsite was on Buckeye Creek, west of Bridgeport, in the Toiyabe National Forest. Getting to this campground required a trip of several miles over a rough dirt road, which kept the crowds down considerably (especially the folks with big rigs and loud generators). The campground was at around 7000 feet, warm during the day but cool at night. On our first evening, we were greeted by a thunderstorm rumbling over the valley to the east:

Since we were going to be gone for almost a month, we wanted to stay in some sort of contact with the world, instead of just disappearing into the wilderness. So we subscribed to a cell-phone based "data card" service, hoping to be able to check e-mail from time to time. It didn't work out very owell because the coverage was so poor in remote areas. For example, at Buckeye, we had to drive 10 miles out of the campground, into a cow pasture, before we could get reception -- it makes for a funny picture, but it was a hassle:

We took several very pleasant hikes in the Buckeye area; the best was a mountain bike ride up Buckeye Canyon, along the stream. The trail cut through a working cattle ranch and up into the backcountry:

This is a Mariposa lily along the trail:

Parts of the trail were very technical and difficult (sandy, rocky, and steep); other parts were gently rolling and pleasant. We were the only people in this entire valley -- we saw no one else for several hours:

As we would ride along, we saw a few coyotes in the far distance, catching mice in the meadows. It was a hot day and we decided to take a dip in the creek, which was swollen with snowmelt. When Felice stepped into the freezing water, she started to yell -- imagine the Tarzan call a couple of octaves higher, but slightly off- key. When she paused to catch her breath, all of the coyotes responded, howling back at their new Queen!

We also took a day trip to Sonora Pass, hiking to Secret Lake and then to Sardine Falls. There was still quite a bit of snow at the higher elevations in late June. And we were glad that we hadn't towed the trailer into the Pass. It was very steep, and the campgrounds were crowded and noisy.

We stayed at Buckeye for several nights and then moved on to the Markleeville area, over Highway 89 and Monitor Pass. I had thought that we were going to camp somewhere just south of Lake Tahoe. But as we were rolling down the west side of Monitor Pass, Felice realized that since the July 4 holiday was approaching, we would be better off in a more remote area. So on a whim, we headed away from Tahoe on Highway 4 toward Ebbetts Pass, with no idea where we were going to camp. (We knew that we couldn't tow the trailer over Ebbetts Pass -- too steep and too twisty.)

The topo program on my laptop showed that there was a creek paralleling the highway; and sure enough, we could see from the road that there were boondocking sites along the creek, not too far from Silver Creek Campground, at around 7000 feet. After some scouting, we found a very secluded site down a rough dirt road, right next to the river. This was the view out the front door of the trailer:

We spent the next several days exploring the Pacific Crest Trail, which crossed Highway 4 at Ebbetts Pass. When we first arrived, the wildflowers were just coming into bloom, and the display got better and better every day. One of the most spectacular hikes was out toward Reynolds Peak:

The terrain in this part of the Sierra was very different from the southern Sierra. Instead of huge rounded gray granite domes, the mountains were sharp reddish-brown volcanic crags. This particular peak (which I think is called "IXL," for some unknown reason) displays several layers of volcanic ash, which have been been tilted upward:

By coincidence, we happened upon a book sale at the library in Markleeville, and there was a book on Sierra wildflowers (with pictures). I did my best to try to identify all the flowers we saw. These pink flowers are "checkermallow," I think:

There was still a fair amount of snow at the higher elevations. We had to kick steps across the snowfields, being careful not to slide down the avalanche chutes:

The tops of the volcanic mountains had been eroded into "hoodoos;" this is near Raymond Peak:

These mountains were not composed of solid lava flows; instead, they were mostly volcanic ash and rock that had been cemented into blocks and layers. Here, you can see a block that has broken off the cliff, and you can see the different types of ash that have been layered on top of each other. I think that this type of volcanic conglomerate is called "breccia":

One of the key players on this trip was my new Magellan GPS, which enabled us to carry electronic topo maps and waypoints and then to find our way off-trail to points of interest that would have been otherwise inaccessible. (Felice commented that this was a new high-tech way to get seriously lost, much more efficiently.) On this hike, we were able to "bushwhack" through the forest to Dorothy Lake, at nearly 9000 feet. Here I am celebrating my GPS triumph in front of a huge snowbank:

The photos make the lake look lovely. In reality, it was infested with voracious mosquitos, who viewed me as their last best hope for a decent lunch. But the reflections in the lake were worth the suffering:

Our campsite during this part of the trip, on Silver Creek, was a delight -- the creek burbled busily in the background, the breeze blew down the canyon ruffling the cottonwoods, and the pine trees surrounding the trailer provided us with shade most of the day:

Almost every afternoon, we sat in our camp chairs overlooking the stream, sipping our small gin-and-tonics. Sitting in the semi-wilderness, with a few real ice cubes made in our own little freezer, was a huge luxury.

The next day we hiked along Wolf Creek. The trail was sandy and hot; but as a reward, we found a great place for lunch, right on the stream, with shade and a cool breeze and a cold wading pool. Given the heat, we decided to stay up at the higher elevations. We headed back to the Pacific Crest Trail and passed by Asa Lake:

The flowers were really starting to come out in full force by early July -- these are blue flax, according to my guidebook:

And these are "pretty face":

Velvety stickseed:

On this particular hike, we reached cool and breezy Tryon Saddle (overlooking Noble Lake to the north and Sonora Pass to the south) at about 9400 feet:

On our way back down through the meadow, we came across a pool full of tadpoles:

We took a few hikes on the west side of Ebbetts Pass over the next few days. These are penstemon, probably my favorite -- they are neon purple, and they grow in very harsh and dry places, seemingly undaunted by the difficult conditions:

We reached a high ridge above Wheeler Lake in the Woodchuck Basin area -- the knob was covered in flowers, all busily explored by tiger swallowtail butterflies. These are (I think) scarlet gilia:

Indian paintbrush was everywhere:

Later that afternoon, we tried to ride our bikes around Lake Alpine. The trail was impassable -- full of large boulders. The next day, we decided to try a different route to the Raymond Meadows area, using the GPS to cut across country and reach the Pacific Crest Trail by contouring across a mountainside. It was fun to plot a safe and workable trail on the topo and to leave "waypoints" on the GPS, so that we could find our way back. We quickly reached the volcanic hoodoos:

This is another view of Reynolds Peak:

We noticed these odd worm-like mounds everywhere. I did a little reading and discovered that these are gopher castings -- they deposit dirt from their tunnels under the snowbanks during the winter. When the snow melts, these "negative tunnels" are left on the surface:

After July 4, we decided to move to the Carson Pass area, south of Tahoe and northwest of Markleeville. I located several possible boondocking areas on my topo; we cruised past them, but nothing looked right. We turned onto a dirt road leading east of Highway 88, near the north end of Red Lake, just before Carson Pass. Some ATV folks were hanging out near the road. We asked them about boondocking, and they were very helpful -- they told us about a big meadow two miles down the dirt road where there were some other trailers.

We headed off down this road -- perhaps the roughest forest road we had ever driven, with rocks the size of pumpkins and potholes the size of a kitchen sink. At 5 mph, we trundled down this road, half expecting that the trailer would bottom out and that the plumbing fixtures would be torn off. But nice and easy does it. A long while later, sure enough, we came to the meadow. We could see that other folks had camped there in the past, but there was no one else around.

Hoping for complete solitude, we parked the car and hopped on our bikes to explore the area. Not far away we found what looked like a perfect campsite -- secluded, away from the road, next to a stream, fully shaded. This area was at about 8000 feet, so it was surprisingly cool, even though it was early afternoon.

There was only one little problem with our possible campsite -- it was down a steep hill, with a narrow entrance, and some big rocks on either side, and a narrow steep exit. (Yes, that's more than one problem, but never mind -- these problems will come back to haunt us later, as you will see.) After some very serious scrutiny, we decided we could handle it. Back to the car. Put it in 4x4 low gear. Creep down the twisting entrance. The car and the trailer start to slide sideways into the creek. But luckily, the sliding stopped, and we were tucked into a great little spot, very cool and breezy, right next to our new beach:

These were the little "rapids" we could see from the front door:

"Shooting stars" lined the edge of our little beach:

On our first expedition from our new campsite, we took a mountain bike ride up to Burnside Lake. It was almost too steep, but not quite. There was evidence of a fairly recent forest fire in the area. The next day was very windy. We took an ambitious hike from Carson Pass toward Round Top, a peak of over 10,000 feet. These mountains were only a mile and a half from our campsite, as the crow flies, if a crow flew straight up:

The wind was exhilarating -- but as we tried to climb Round Top, the wind kept increasing. A couple of guys coming down from the peak told us that they had gotten literally blown off of their feet by the gusts. We made it most of the way up:

From high on the mountainside, we could see a wide swath of the northern Sierra, including the Desolation Wilderness and Lake Tahoe:

The next day, we decided to try something a little less ambitious, a hike to Lake Margaret. The lake was pleasant, but the flowers were outstanding. This is Sierra columbine:

These are "mountain pride," a variety of penstemon:

I think these are polemonium:

These are Lewis monkey flower:

There were a lot of turquoise dragonflies at the lake, darting around the grass at the shore:

Our next hike was to Meiss Lake, also near Carson Pass. This might have been the most flowery hike of all. These are lupine:

There was a lot of iris blooming in the meadows -- Round Top and the Sisters, on the east side of Carson Pass, are in the background:

The Meiss Lake area was spectacular -- the trail drops down through a beautiful meadow, past a defunct "cowboy camp." The meadow is ringed by snowy hills. We got a little bit of cloud cover, for a change -- I liked the way that the striations in the clouds seemed to echo the strata in the layers of volcanic ash:

These are cinquefoil in a wet meadow:

What with the cold breeze and the views and the flowers and the altitude, we got a little carried away, but no permanent harm was done:

The yellow flowers are "mule's ears." They are all over the place in the higher altitudes:

That afternoon, returning to our campsite, I backed down our little "exit road" toward the trailer. I thought that Felice was guiding me, but I misunderstood her signal and got the car stuck in some bushes (which rudely poked through the open window into the car). No problem. I shifted into drive and gently gave it some gas. The right rear wheel promptly sunk up to the axle. I hopped out. The front left wheel was three feet in the air. Uh-oh.

We figured out that the "exit road" was not really dirt -- it was loosely compacted leaves, i.e., "duff." I was able to dig out the back wheel, put it in reverse, and get back onto the dirt, with no harm done. But we realized that it would be very hard to get the trailer out of its wonderful parking space.

That night, I had trouble sleeping -- what to do? The exit road was not only very soft -- it was steep and narrow and rimmed with big rocks. I realized that we would have to gently re-engineer the road -- removing some of the rocks, filling in the ruts, and actually paving the soft part with rocks and gravel.

The next morning, that is exactly what we did -- first gathering big flat rocks as a base and then filling in with gravel. I used my shovel to fill in the ruts and level the roadway. There were some small trees in the way, but we could not bear to cut them down -- I used ropes to pull them aside, temporarily. We planned our "escape" carefully, measuring the exit area with sticks and string. We hitched up, put the car into low gear, and carefully pulled the trailer up and out of the campsite. We set up our new camp just a few feet away -- not quite as secluded, but not on soft ground, either.

Since there was a huge bike race on the highway the next day, we decided to go exploring toward Blue Lake, using the dirt road that ran from our campsite on Forestdale Creek over something the map called "Forestdale Divide" at 9000 feet. When we drove to the top over an incredibly rough road, we hit an impassable snowbank:

So instead of making it to Blue Lake, we parked at the top and started our hike right there, using the GPS to connect up with the Pacific Crest Trail. We bushwhacked up the side of a mountain for some amazing views:

As it turned out, Felice's family was at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, near Yosemite, so we decided to pull up stakes and surprise them. We stopped for the night at Calaveras Big Trees and took an evening hike in the South Grove area. These are Washington lillies:

This is our obligatory "Felice next to a Sequoia" shot:

The campground at Calaveras, Oak Hollow, was lovely, but the grove was nothing special, compared to those in Sequoia to the south. The next day, after an easy drive, we pulled into Tuolumne and had one of the staffers tell Roz that she had to come down to the office to clear up some paperwork. It took her a while to come down the hill, but the surprise was perfect:

The next day, we all went for a hike in Tuolumne Grove -- this is at 6000 feet, with a steep one mile hike down and back up again. But Roz was determined -- we took it slow on the way down and slower on the way up, with me pushing from the back and Felice pulling the walker from the front with a rope. Quite a courageous journey for both Roz and Eddie:

Zach, Felice's nephew, was deeply devoted to fly fishing:

The next day, Felice and I decided to hike in the Glacier Point area of Yosemite. From the top of Sentinel Dome, we could almost touch Half Dome:

On the trail (hot and steep) down to Illilouette Falls, we could see both Vernal and Nevada Falls:

The hike down to Illilouette was redeemed by a very lovely and secluded swimming hole, upstream on Illilouette Creek. The next day, we drove over Tioga Pass to the Mammoth Lakes area and found a pretty (but buggy) campsite at Coldwater Campground, at 9000 feet. We took a sunset walk around Lake Mary, with a volcanic ridge in the background:

Since we had done a month of high-altitude and (for us) high-mileage hiking, we felt we were ready for a bit of a challenge -- the Mammoth Crest, a long and steep and high route. We passed Crystal Crag on the way up:

Using the GPS, we went beyond (and above) the trail, reaching the 11,400 foot level. The trail took us past a cinder cone, over some pumice flats, and onto the edge of the Crest itself, overlooking the Mammoth Creek drainage:

The 360 degree views from the top were indescribable, ranging from the Mt. Whitney area in the south, to the Sequoia and Kings Canyon area in the west, to Yosemite in the northwest. These peaks are Mt. Ritter and Mt. Banner, along with the Minarets:

We were above Mammoth Mountain -- Felice is pointing down to the top of the gondola and the backside of the Cornice, the highest point on Mammoth:

That afternoon, after 10 miles of hiking. the monsoonal thunderstorms tried to chase us off the mountain:

We next revisited the Duck Pass area -- in June of 2008, we were forced to slog through snowbanks to get up to the pass. This trip was a lot easier. The flowers were out in full force; these are Alpine Columbine:

The thunderstorms started in the early afternoon:

The rain wet the rocks and made the flowers look even more luminous:

Note that those rocks are metamorphic. We were at around 11,000 feet, and I think that these are remnants of the original "country rock" that was uplifted by the Sierra granite. We did not see any metamorphic rock at the lower elevations. During the day, the rain squalls would come and go, and our ponchos came on and off:

The rain (and hail!) sweeping across the lake was very dramatic. This day, July 18, happened to be the 35th anniversary of our first date:

On our way back, we climbed a cirque overlooking Mammoth Lakes, while lightning flickered over the mountains south of Duck Lake. The thunder echoed around us in a circular pattern, reflected by the cliffs -- very exciting! That Duck Pass/Duck Lake hike was quite strenuous -- almost 10 miles, with almost 2400 feet of climbing.

On our last day in the Mammoth area, we hiked up to Emerald Lake and Sky Meadows. These are columbine on Coldwater Creek:

At Emerald Lake, Felice pointed out the cliff that we climbed (from the back!) up on the Mammoth Crest:

At Sky Meadow, we found a pretty waterfall, not described in any of the guidebooks:

We then cut across country (using the GPS) to the Mammoth Creek area, to Felice's favorite cascade above Arrowhead Lake:

On the last day of our trip, we stopped over in Lone Pine and drove up to the Cottonwood area, up Horseshoe Meadow Road. The road was spectacular, but the hiking was nothing special -- the forest was kind of sparse, and the mountains were not very dramatic. (We had gotten spoiled by all of the classic High Sierra scenery.) A thunderhead covered the sun as we left: