Thursday, July 09, 2015

Sonora Pass: June 2015

(You can click on the photos to see a slideshow, and then hit "escape" to get back to the text.  Also, a note on the photo credits: as always, both Felice and I took these shots, and many of my shots resulted from her suggestions.  I do the photo editing using Lightroom.)

We had 10 days in late June, and we knew that the weather would be hot almost everywhere.  Where to go?  Colorado sounded good, but heavy thunderstorms were predicted.  (And as it turned out, Colorado was very rainy – good call!)  How about Sonora Pass in Northern California?  We both had recently read "Wild," and we knew that the Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT) crossed the pass.  The whole area is very high and cool.  But there's one problem: the road involves a 26% grade with hairpin curves, and there is a sign at the bottom of the hill sternly warning that trailers are not recommended. 

Just on the off chance that the warning did not really apply to us, I talked at length with a California Highway Patrol officer familiar with the area.  After some discussion, she said that with our rig (a competent truck with a 6000 lb. capacity and a very short 2500 lb. trailer), we should be fine.  So that's what we did!  Better yet, since this was a drought year, we were able to get into the high country, which would ordinarily be under a lot of snow at this time of year.

June 21:  We drove to Lee Vining, which took less than eight hours.

June 22:  In the morning, we unhitched the trailer and left it at the base of Sonora Pass.  We started scouting with the truck, looking for boondocking sites on the dirt roads in the high country.  The roads were covered with very sharp volcanic rock, much more difficult than the granite rock in the southern and central Sierra.  Around midday, the tire inflation warning light came on – a flat tire!  Fortunately, it had happened in the best possible place – we were in the shade, the air was cool and dry, and there were no mosquitoes.  But we were many miles from anyone else, with absolutely no cell coverage, so it was up to us to change it ourselves.

As I assembled the tools, Felice took a short walk nearby, still looking for campsites.  She found an amazing campsite (see below).  So if it hadn't been for the flat tire, we might never have found this terrific campsite.

First, though, we chocked the wheels with the biggest rocks we could handle.  I crawled under the truck to get the spare and set up the jack.  In order to break the lug nuts free, we had to use additional leverage on the torque wrench.  We then removed the flat tire, installed the spare (rather heavy!), and re-torqued the lug nuts.  ("You might be a boondocker if . . . your wife knows how to use a torque wrench.”)

When we had re-packed the truck, Felice showed me her wonderful campsite, and we left some chairs to claim the site.  We drove down to Bridgeport, 45 minutes away, only to find that there was no one in town who could fix a flat.  They sent us 30 miles north to Walker, to Ted's Automotive.  They patched the gash in the tire, which was right in the middle of the tread and not on the sidewall. (I had thought these tires were tough enough for our purposes, but I am now replacing them with even tougher all-terrain tires.)  Thanks to the good folks at Ted’s (whose prices were astonishingly low), we were back on the road much sooner than we had thought.  We hitched up the trailer and towed it up the pass; the 26% grade and the hairpin turns were no problem at all.  I would not try this with a long trailer, however!

Up at the top of the pass, we towed the trailer slowly and carefully over the rough, rocky, narrow dirt road to the campsite at around 9000 feet.  This site had some of the best views of any campsite we've ever found – it was across the valley from Sardine Falls on McKay Creek, with the entire Leavitt Peak ridge spread out in front of us.  We could hear the roar of the waterfall echoing across the valley. (But it was not a perfect site – when motorcycles would occasionally pass by us on the highway below, the noise would bounce off the canyon walls, and we could hear it.  Not too loud, but not utterly silent, either.)  Felice celebrated our successful arrival at the campsite:

As soon as we got set up, we established our cocktail-and-snacks area overlooking the waterfall and the creek:

That night, just before the crescent moon had set in the west, I got up to take some star shots – I really liked the way that the snowy mountains to the east reflected the faint moonlight, without drowning out the Milky Way -- this picture might be worth clicking on (to see a larger version):

(This was at an ISO of 3200 for 25 seconds, with noise-reduction settings.  The moonlight slightly changed the color temperature of the Milky Way.  If you click on this shot, notice the faint meteor trail in the upper right corner --  I did not even see that until I re-edited the shot, four years later!)

June 23:  After a leisurely breakfast, we hiked up McKay Creek to Sardine Falls.  (Why not "McKay Falls," since there is another Sardine Falls further up the valley?)  The trail was pleasant and shady, near the creek but not actually next to it.  There were fields of iris in the meadow:

We approached the base of the falls on the west side of the creek:

We then crossed over to the east side of the creek, which enabled us to scramble carefully up to the main section of the waterfall -- Felice really enjoyed the cold spray:

On the way back down, we spotted the trailer on the ridge overlooking the creek – the tip of my pole is pointing to it -- it's the little white box at the center, and you might be able to see a red chair to the right of the trailer:

Later, we headed back down the creek to do a little "swimming," which was really wading in the cold snowmelt.  Very refreshing!

That afternoon, we drove over Sonora Pass to Kennedy Meadows, looking for a convenient place to dump our trash.  (We also got some delicious coconut “paletas,” or Mexican ice cream bars.)  We discovered that our campsite was 45 minutes from the nearest trashcan; for the rest of the week, we had to put our trash into a hefty bag and hang it high in a tree, so that the bears could not reach it.

Up at the pass, there were quite a few PCT hikers who were trying to hitchhike down the hill because the northbound trail was temporarily closed due to a fire near Markleeville, in the Ebbetts Pass  area.

On our way back from Kennedy Meadows, we came across a traffic accident in which a very large tractor-trailer had crossed over the center line on a hairpin curve and had badly damaged an oncoming car – nobody was hurt, but the roadway was blocked for quite a while.  We were shocked to see how many big rigs were attempting to use Sonora Pass, despite the very steep, twisty, and narrow roadway.  Bad idea! 

Back at the trailer, I had to get a shot of our new 120 watt solar panels in action – as advertised, they kept the batteries fully charged.  For most of the day, the panels were in the sun, but not in the late afternoon:

Late that afternoon, I had to get the requisite “view from inside:”

And late that night, I grabbed another shot of the Milky Way over Leavitt Peak.  As always, it did not really look like this in real life (although it was very beautiful) – the long exposure captures the colors that the eye can’t see:

June 24:  I was up with the sunrise to get the early morning light on the surrounding peaks.  If it seems like there are a lot of shots of the view from the trailer, that’s because we were mesmerized by it – the colors and shadows were constantly changing, depending on the time of day and the weather:

After another relaxed morning, we took the PCT north from Sonora Pass; the trail contoured around Sonora Peak, over 11,000 feet high.  In this shot, Felice is on the trail, far ahead of me, with the peak in the background:

We were surprised by all of the wildflowers – apparently, they didn't they get the memo that this is a drought year:

These are ground-hugging lupine, only about three inches high:

From a high ledge on the south side of the peak, we got some great views of the High Sierra southward toward Yosemite:

A few stretches of the trail were narrow, cliffy, and exposed, difficult for Felice due to her mild vertigo, but she persevered.  When the trail curved around the north side of the peak, we could see a plume of smoke from the Markleeville fire, far to the north.  We ventured out onto the eastern ridge at the 10,600 level for lunch, overlooking Wolf Creek Lake.

On the way back down, more flowers had opened in the afternoon sun – this steep hillside was carpeted with color:

Back at the trailhead, Felice took a photo of the PCT trail badge to memorialize our "epic" PCT hike:

That afternoon, we soaked our tired feet in Sardine Creek – the icy water was therapeutic.  On this entire trip, my plantar fasciitis was not an issue at all, despite the tough terrain – what a relief!

Late that night, I was up again taking my star shots -- I just can't resist the "sky candy."  The Big Dipper hovered over the trailer -- it's not easy to see the constellation because there are so many stars:

The bright galactic center of the Milky Way was in the southeastern portion of the sky:

In this shot toward the north, Cassiopeia is on the left, pointing to the Andromeda Galaxy, which is the slanting smudge on the center right:

Here is a detail from that shot, showing a little more of the disk shape of Andromeda:

Every time I manage to see Andromeda (which requires a very dark sky), I can't get over the fact that Andromeda is an entire galaxy, as big as our Milky Way, 2.5 million light-years away from us.  That means that the oval smudge in that picture was emitted when humans were first evolving.  The Milky Way would look much the same, seen edge-on from Andromeda.

June 25: We headed south on the PCT from the pass, toward the Leavitt Peak area.  The morning was pretty warm, so Felice bravely soaked her head in a stream of newly-minted snowmelt:

We ran into quite a few rugged “through hikers,” doggedly marching up from Mexico toward Canada, a distance of 2500 miles.  Felice and I decided that we are “through hikers,” too:  every afternoon, we are through hiking, and it is time for cocktails, snacks, a hot shower, an excellent dinner, and a comfortable bed! 

Along the trail, we passed over several large snowbanks, but they were not too difficult – we just kicked steps into the snow and traipsed slowly across:

According to the guidebooks, in a normal year these steep snowbanks can be lethal, requiring hikers to carry ice axes to “self-arrest” in case of a fall.   Yikes!

The southbound trail popped up over a ridge, providing excellent views into the Emigrant Wilderness:

As we moved eastward along the backside of Leavitt Peak, we could see a nameless lake, still dotted with icebergs calved by the snowfields on the north side of the mountain:

From the ridge on the northwest side of Leavitt Peak, we could see the trailer far across the valley, almost three miles from the ridgeline and a thousand feet below us.  We figured out that we were standing above the headwaters of McKay Creek and above "our" waterfall.  To make it easier to see the trailer, I have surrounded it with a patch of light:

Although there were fewer wildflowers on the south side of Sonora Pass than on the north, we felt obligated to take their portraits.  I think these are cinquefoil:

And this is penstemon -- not exactly subtle:

On our way back down, we perched on a windy lava outcropping:

That night, I took a wide-angle vertical shot of the Milky Way, hoping to capture more of its ropy structure:

June 26:  We drove a long way over rough forest roads to get to the Wolf Creek trailhead.  Along the way, we saw some really terrific boondocking sites, right on the creek.  The problem, though, is that the Wolf Creek area was so remote that it would take an hour to “commute” to any of the other trailheads in Sonora Pass -- not worth the trouble, except for avid fisherfolk.  (Lots of big trout!)  The trail to the lake started out well but soon petered out.  We bushwhacked up the creek for quite a while but eventually had to turn around, after getting a shot of some Sierra columbine:

The yellow flowers with the lupine are called “mule’s ears” because of the long fuzzy leaves:

This is a closeup of the mule's ear flower:

Back at the trailhead, we were rewarded with some great “swimming” (wading) in the cold water.  On the drive back, we managed to snag a distant cell signal at a high point along the road. While Felice was checking in with the family on her phone, I focused on the Indian paintbrush set off against the snowy mountains:

This shot was an effort to capture the profoundly relaxed feeling of the “snacking circle,” where we just hang out and watch the light change over the valley below us:

June 27:  Our plan was to drive up the Leavitt Lake road and hike among the lakes – but surprise!  The road was closed.  So, a change of plans – we parked at the closure and hiked up the road, which is 2.5 miles with a 1200 foot gain.  The road was a mess – big rocks, potholes, and gullies.  It looked as though it had been trashed by off-road vehicles with big tires, which is probably why it was closed; many of the big rocks in the roadbed had been deeply scratched by the "pumpkins" (the rear differentials) hanging beneath the trucks.

The walk was long, hot, and steep.  Along the way, we saw a lot of evidence that people had driven off the roadway and into the brush, tearing up the soil and killing the vegetation.  And we also saw a lot of brass bullet casings, plastic shotgun shells, and (strangely) many empty cans of chewing tobacco – depressing.  Not too much ordinary trash, but it is almost as if the chewing tobacco aficionados had deliberately left the cans with the bullet casings as a calling-card.

Every time the wind would blow, we saw a fog of yellow pollen streaming from the pine trees – both of us were feeling a little allergic:

But on the other hand, we had the entire lake basin to ourselves!  We stopped at Leavitt Lake for lunch:

Although we don’t fish, the fishing looked great, probably because the trout have been largely undisturbed as a result of the road closure.  There were a lot of very big trout; some of them looked to be almost eighteen inches long.  We then hiked over to nearby Koenig Lake, which was nice but not remarkable, and returned to Leavitt Lake for more swimming/wading.  We had brought our neoprene surf socks (easy to carry!) to protect our feet from the rocks in the lake, so they got to participate in the “bootie shot” ritual:

That evening, we were treated to another vivid sunset:

June 28:  Regretfully, we left our amazing campsite and headed south, since we had taken all of the high-altitude (i.e., cooler) day hikes in the Sonora Pass area. I took one last shot of the valley, to see how much snow had melted during our stay:

Compare that to this shot taken on June 22, just six days earlier -- a noticeable difference:

Turning the trailer around in the tight campsite took us a while, involving a lot of jockeying with the truck.  But with patience and teamwork, we got it done.  This shot shows the rough “two track” leading to and from our campsite – not exactly a superhighway: 

I had been a little concerned about towing the trailer down the 26% grade on Highway 108; but as things turned out, it was absolutely no problem at all.  I just put it in low gear and cruised down the hill at 20 mph, and I hardly had to touch the brakes.  I have programmed my Scangauge to monitor the temperature of the transmission fluid – I was pleased and relieved to see that it barely budged during the long descent, staying in the 170 degree range.  Once or twice, I had to pull over to let a faster vehicle go by, but that’s standard operating procedure when towing in the mountains.

Our original plan for the day was to go to a campground in Mammoth Lakes and do some of the high elevation hikes in that area.  But without even discussing it, both Felice and I independently decided that we did not want to be among the teeming masses after enjoying a week of luxurious silence and solitude in Sonora Pass.  So, after fifteen seconds of consultation in Bridgeport, we had yet another spontaneous “yoink the steering wheel” moment – we took a sharp right turn and headed up into the Toiyabe National Forest for more boondocking!

We found a great shady spot up at the 9500 foot level and got set up.  It was looking like rain, but we went for a hike along the moraine bordering the Green Creek drainage.  The road was very rough, too rough for anything but an ATV.  We hiked up past the ruins of the Dunderberg Mill.  As promised, the rainstorm arrived with lightning, thunder, cold hard rain, and violent wind, so we headed back down. (Lest it sound like I am complaining, far from it.  When we are properly prepared, hiking in rough weather can be exciting – a spurious sense of adventure.)

June 29:  We hiked to the pass above the Virginia Lakes area – some maps call this “Burro Pass,” and others call it “Virginia Pass.”  It took us just two hours to get to the pass from the trailhead, a little quicker than our usual pace. (Much easier than in deep soft snow, which slowed us down the last time we were here.)  There were many brave clumps of penstemon on the rocky slopes near the summit, at 11,000 feet:

We could see far into the remote back-country of Yosemite, north of Tioga Pass – that is Summit Lake below Felice, who is actually standing on the summit: 

Soon after we got to the top, the afternoon monsoon arrived, and we slipped into our stylish wind-whipped ponchos, with craggy Black Mountain looming behind us:

After dinner, I tried once again to capture the unique feeling of boondocking in a little trailer, many miles from anyone else, tucked under tall dark trees at the edge of a sagebrush meadow on a breezy evening.  The moon illuminated the clouds -- this shot might be worth clicking on:

June 30:  We drove up to Tioga Pass and took the Gaylor Lakes trail.  The trailhead is at 9900 feet, so it was pleasantly cool.  When we got to the saddle (after a steep one-mile climb), we decided not to descend immediately into the lakes basin but instead climbed the south flank of Gaylor Peak, up to the 10,900 foot level.  Perhaps “climb” is a bit of a stretch; “walk carefully up the semi-steep loose talus slope” is probably more accurate.  The views from the peak (almost at the top) were astounding – 12,000 foot peaks to our south, Tuolumne Meadows to the southwest, and the Cathedral Range to the west.  The boots were very pleased to be in such good company:

This is a quick video panorama from the peak:

After a breezy lunch, we dropped into the lakes basin, 500 feet below us.  Middle Gaylor Lake has this odd “infinity pool” illusion, because the top of the Cathedral Range is almost at the same level as the lake -- it would be great to get up early and catch the reflection of the sunrise in the calm water, except for the "getting up early" part:

From there, we headed overland to the Granite Lakes – there is no trail across the boulder field:

A well-fed marmot popped out of the rocks nearby and ran through his full repertoire of formal poses for us (Standing, Three-Quarters, and Full Regal Profile):

Because of the broad, flat shape of the Gaylor Lakes basin, the Cathedral Range seemed to hover just over the ridge at the west end of the valley:

Felice spotted a thunderhead boiling up over the lakes:

A little later, driving back to the trailer, Felice captured an approaching thunderstorm – this shot was taken with an iPhone 6 from the open window of the truck as we drove downhill.  If you look carefully, you can see individual raindrops in the upper-right corner of the photo:

It rained like a runaway car wash all the way back to the trailer -- the wipers could hardly keep up.  But back inside the trailer, safe and dry, we enjoyed a leisurely cocktail hour, while a vigorous thunderstorm roared outside – very pleasant!

And the next day, July 1, we drove home.