Tuesday, October 15, 2019

High Country of the Eastern Sierra: September 2019

(Click on the photos to see a slideshow, and hit "escape" to get back to the text.  Both of us took these photos, and then I edit them.)

After a difficult summer (for many reasons), we just wanted to unwind and relax.  No epic adventures.  The camping equivalent of "comfort food:" something familiar, pleasant, and restorative.  The choice was obvious: the high country of the Eastern Sierra.

September 21:   We spent the first night at Horton Creek Campground, northwest of Bishop, a BLM facility.  It was surprisingly busy, but we managed to snag a campsite on the uphill edge of the campground, with the entire Bishop Creek drainage as our background:

 Even though we were within a few miles of Bishop, the Tungsten Hills blocked the lights of town; the stars were excellent.  That's Jupiter on the right side of the Milky Way:

 In this shot, I tried to "paint" with an old incandescent flashlight (which has a better color temperature than an LED light does), in an attempt to create some foreground interest.  The experiment was semi-successful.  The technique needs a little work:

September 22:   The early morning sunlight picked out the colors and the texture of the mountain range.  That's Mt. Tom on the right side:

That morning,  the forecast was for mild weather all week; so we took a chance and headed up Tioga Pass to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, to see if we could snag a first-come-first-served campsite.  Much to our surprise, there were plenty of campsites available.  This was the last week that the campground would be open, and apparently demand drops off at the tail end of the season.

The campsite was very pleasant, as campgrounds go.  (It ain't boondocking!)  But it was quiet, most of the time, and relatively uncrowded.  Plus, the campground is very well-located, saving us from having to make a long "commute" up from Lee Vining to the high country trailheads.

After getting the campsite set up, we went for a leisurely hike along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, as far as the footbridge.  The lighting was unusual.  Although the late-afternoon sky to the west was cloudy (and we were in open shade), the sky to the south was not; thus, the reflection in the stream was a particularly intense peacock blue, not washed out by direct sunlight.  I took this shot at 1/10 of a second in order to smooth out the reflections:

September 23:   We took the Cathedral Lakes trail, about 9 1/2 miles with about 1700 feet of gain.  The views of the Cathedral Range kept changing as we circled the base of the mountains.  The peak was reflected in the stream leading to Lower Cathedral Lake:

The rim of the lower lake is composed of glacially-polished granite:

After stopping off at the lower lake, we made it up to Cathedral Pass.  That's Upper Cathedral Lake on the left, with the peaks of the Hoover Wilderness in the background:

September 24:  We took the North Dome trail which is also about 9 1/2 miles with about 1700 feet of elevation gain and loss.  Most of the trail is unremarkable, but there is one very short pitch with poor footing and a sheer granite face.  We went down (and up) that part of the trail while sitting down.  It's only about a 5 foot span, but one would think that the Park Service would create a couple of steps in the middle for folks who are not expert rock-climbers.

But of course, it was worth the effort.  North Dome sits right across Yosemite Valley from Half Dome:

September 25:  We packed up and moved to a boondocking site north of Lee Vining, in search of silence and isolation.  We spent some time positioning the trailer, in an effort to maximize the view from the front window.  Mono Lake is on the left in the distance, and that's Boundary Peak (about 13,000 feet) on the horizon:

That evening, it was warm enough to sit outside and watch the mountain shadows race across the desert, far below us:

It is impossible to capture the wonderful sensation of being all alone in a very small trailer at the edge of a silent forest at 9500 feet on a cold dark starry night.  This shot is yet another attempt to bottle that feeling:  

September 26:  Soon after leaving the Lundy Canyon trailhead, we came across a fairly recent debris field.  I'm not sure if this qualifies as a rockslide or flash flood debris, but it was a mess.  The flow originated in the orange-colored ravine in the middle of the shot:

For the space of about a hundred yards, the aspens had been completely wiped out.  On either side of the main flow, there was a lot of talus and gravel choking the trunks of the remaining aspens.  After a little Googling, it looks like this took place in July of 2018 as the result of heavy monsoonal flow.

But some aspens are lucky enough to grow in well-protected areas.  The oldest aspens in parts of Lundy Canyon are almost four feet in diameter:

The light was just perfect --  crisp, clear, autumnal:

We hiked up to the cascades:

This shot looks riskier than it was:

There was an odd berry bush near the cascades:

You'd have to be of a certain age, but doesn't that look like Barney Google?

September 27:  We took a leisurely hike up to Green Lake.  At the lower elevations (but not the upper??), the aspens were at peak color:

We came across some freshly-cut aspen.  The tip of the pole shows that these trees were at least a foot thick.  Maybe someday, we will see a beaver in action:

Up at the lake, it was windy and cold.  Green Lake was not green; it was a vivid mix of slate blue and aquamarine:

September 28:  It had been a very windy night.  The forecast was for gusts up to 60 mph, and there might have been a few of those.  Every so often, the trailer would shake as though a 5.0 earthquake had just hit nearby, even though we had the stabilizers deployed.  The wind was howling and moaning.

We peeked out at the sunrise -- there was a big dust storm on the other side of the lake:

This is a zoomed-in view of the dust cloud:

Back to bed, and we slept till 8:30 (!), a rare treat.  Instead of hiking, we spent the morning getting ready for the predicted change in the weather:  a dusting of snow, with more high winds.  All of our equipment was covered with tarps, anchored with big rocks.  To eliminate the midnight earthquakes, we also set up the truck as a windbreak for the trailer, parking it very close to the trailer and across the path of the wind.  (Spoiler alert -- it worked!)

In the afternoon, we hiked around on the nearby forest roads, checking out other potential boondocking sites.  One site, on a high ridge, overlooked our campsite from a couple of miles away.  The trailer is the small square white object in the center of the shot.  The storm clouds were visible to the far north:

The late afternoon was very cold (below freezing) and windy.  The trailer's doorframe is on the left side of this photo:

That evening, we rigged up our DIY hot water recycling tube (which shunts hot water into the fill port of the fresh water tank), along with our new Ultra Heat cable.  The heat cable wraps around the drain tube at the bottom of the water tank, which is the most vulnerable point in the water system.

This was our first time using the heat cable -- success!  Despite night-time temperatures below 20 degrees, the water system did not freeze.  And the current draw (about two amps for about ten hours) was well within the reserve capacity of the battery.

The night was as windy as predicted, but the truck protected us from the heavier gusts.  There were snow flurries all night long.  Unlike rain (which makes a gentle tinkling sound on the roof), snow is almost silent.  But the trailer was so quiet that we could sometimes hear the snow hitting the roof and walls.  Indescribably pleasant. 

September 29:  The temperature inside the trailer was just slightly above freezing when we awoke.  We were perfectly comfortable with a down comforter and four blankets, so it was almost impossible to get out of that nice warm bed to watch the sunrise on the fresh snow.  We did it anyway:

The clouds over the mountain were reflecting the dawn:

The truck, patient, humble, and sturdy, is entitled to credit for protecting the trailer from the brunt of the storm.  Note the wipers pulled away from the glass so that they would not freeze to the windshield.  Please do not ask how I learned that trick:

(By the way, not to worry:  although we watched the sun come up over the snowy landscape before 7:00, we forced ourselves to go back to sleep till after 8:00, an extraordinary luxury.)

This next photo may be my favorite shot of the trip, not because it is so lovely but because it means that we were warm and dry at the breakfast table, drinking our fresh-brewed Starbucks, looking out at several inches of new snow:

After yet another uncharacteristically leisurely morning, we headed up the Virginia Lakes trail, mostly to see the familiar canyon with a fresh dusting (something we rarely get to see).  We stopped at the old miner's cabin:

This is Cooney Lake:

This is Teapot Lake, I think.  The new snow really accentuated the strata in the metamorphic "roof pendant" above the granite:

The wind sweeping down the canyon had whipped freezing spray off the lake, creating a display of dagger-shaped icicles:

September 30:  We left the Lee Vining area and looked for a campsite further south, closer to the Rock Creek trailhead.  We first checked out McGee Creek campground, which seemed kind of bleak -- no shade, fully exposed to the wind.

We then toured the East Fork campground on Rock Creek, but it was poorly laid out -- tight roads, too many campsites shoehorned into one small area.  With so many sites in such close proximity, there would be no escape from the inevitable early-evening generator concert.

We finally chose Big Meadows campground, not far downhill from East Fork.  Because we were using the heat cable every night to keep the water lines from freezing, we needed somewhat more juice than usual.  Each morning, we would take the depleted battery out into the nearby sunny meadow where we had deployed our solar panel.  By the end of each day, the battery was back to full strength.  (Note -- "depleted" does not mean "dead."  The battery never got below 12.1 volts while resting, i.e., a 50 percent state of charge.) 

October 1:  The main reason we stayed in Rock Creek Canyon was to get an earlier start than we usually do when we have to "commute" to Rock Creek from Bishop.  Did we?  Nope.  Slept late again.  No excuse, other than CDTS ("Cold Dark Trailer Syndrome").

Because the trailhead is at 10,200 feet, the two-day-old dusting of snow was still largely intact on the surrounding peaks:

The views kept improving as we approached the Gem Lakes area at around 11,000 feet:

I think the beige stripes in the cliff face in the upper right might be quartz veins.  I doubt that they are metamorphic strata because they are not even remotely parallel. 

Gem Lake was sparkling in the afternoon sunlight. The stripes in this particular headwall do look metamorphic, unlike the chaotic veins in the prior shot.  Note the large snowfield in the lower left, a stubborn remnant of the heavy winter:

This is one of those lucky shots -- the lighting and composition arranged themselves.  It really captures the feeling of this magical valley on a chilly, breezy late afternoon in early autumn:

October 2:  We have taken the McGee Creek trail several times, but it always seems too hot and shadeless.  This was an exception, cool and windy.  The fall color began about two miles up the trail from the trailhead:

There were icicles in the streams -- this ice-encrusted branch looks like a Henry Moore sculpture, or maybe one of Modigliani's ladies:

Geology fans (and aren't we all??) will recognize this as an intricately-layered metamorphic sequence, vertically tilted a full 90 degrees:

We didn't get as far as we'd hoped, because the bridge at the three mile mark was still out.  (We assumed, incorrectly, that it had been repaired.)  Next time, we will have to ask the Ranger in advance.

But we did get within sight of a familiar flat ridge, high atop the range.  This is what it looked like in dry weather:

And this is what we saw a few years ago, during a snowshoeing trip.  This is the same ridge, covered in deep concave cornices:

Overall, the trip was exactly what we needed:  relaxing and unpressured.  Lots of "unstructured" time, long leisurely meals, quiet evenings reading, hot chocolate with Kahlua, recreational carbohydrates.  Not exactly a Spartan existence.  At the same time, the trip was physically demanding, not only because of the hiking but also because we were camping in freezing weather.


Ski3pin said...

Yes, exactly what you needed! And you had Barney Google along. It was refreshing to see country so familiar to us through your eyes, narrative, and photos. You arrived just after we left and then left right before we returned. Thank you for sharing your travels with us.

Codeburner said...

Great blog post and fantastic scenery. If only it wasn't inside the People's Republic. But at least it isn't deep inside. I'm adding this blog to my read list. I like the geological comments especially.

Busskipper said...


As always your Images make Us all just Dream! - We watched the Grands for a week while Son and DIL spent a week in Cali with a permitted Hike/Camping in Yosemite - They Did Not Have images like Yours:)

What a perfect time to be there - just you, no other People - Heaven.

Thanks again for sharing and keeping alive the Dream so many have but so few DO!


Dan Schechter said...

Thanks to all of you for your kind words!

Anonymous said...

Sherry in MT says

I am glad this was the restoration you needed and I can see why! As always I love the photos and combos ned with the narrative really expresses the joy of “getting out there”!