Backpacking McGee Pass to the Lee Lake and Cotton Lakes region

We ate wild onions and hiked short bits of cross country. We swatted mosquitoes and swam under cloudy skies. We talked and relaxed and explored.

Two years ago we backpacked Lewis Lake in Emigrant Wilderness. This weekend my uncle and I drove out to McGee Creek Trailhead on the east side for another summer trip. I’d been here before, with a broken shoulder, on a trip with Charlie in 2009. He carried most of my stuff to Iva Bell and Devil’s Postpile.

It was a quick turnaround from last week. Five days at work and then a Friday afternoon drive back to Inyo National Forest. Bill and I got started early and made it up and over McGee Pass our first day. I utterly crashed, sleep deprived, once we made camp. I sleep so well outside. I can nap before dinner then go back to sleep once the first star comes out. It’s glorious.

McGee Pass

I love this view. It’s pretty much the reason that I wanted to do McGee Pass again. Traveling back to the car it started to rain while we were on these switchbacks. The rocks were even more amazing when wet.

Sunday, we hiked from Lee to Cecil Lake then back to pack up camp. I found some obsidian tools.

Dropping down into the Fish Creek drainage, we walked another one of those scarcely traveled Sierra trails. From Tully Lake we explored for a short while up in the Cotton Lakes area. We took a dip in the biggest of the lakes, then packed up with clouds overhead to boot it back up and over the pass.

It was my vote to position ourselves closer to the car so that I’d get home a bit earlier on Monday. Crossing back over McGee Pass it started to rain. Low clouds were gathering further down the Silver Divide. Rain gear on, a nip of bourbon, we walked slowly, savoring it, down to Big McGee Lake. We pitched tents and I fished.

One of the dozen or so lakelets in the Cotton Lakes area.

One of the dozen or so lakelets in the Cotton Lakes area.

On the drive home I picked up four hitchhikers. Three were PCTers and the fourth was a local. Two of them rode with me from Lee Vinning to South Lake Tahoe. Darn good people.

Darn good trip. Darn good time with Uncle Bill.

Uncle Bill likes to think that he's slow but he's really not.

Uncle Bill likes to think that he’s slow but he’s really not.

Backpacking Italy Pass, Bear Lakes, Seven Gables Lakes, Three Island Lake and Hillgard Branch – John Muir Wilderness

I’ve been dreaming of this trip for a decade or more. And planning it for two or three years. It was as good as I hoped it’d be.

We spent six days in the backcountry, walked 42 miles, did 10,000 feet of gain and generally slept above 11,000 feet. We saw forty lakes, few people (except on the PCT), walked cross country and scarcely-there trails, swam, took photos and fished.

The forecast when we were heading out was bad – 60% chance of thunderstorms. We lucked out for the first four days, then got slammed as we were exiting back over Italy Pass. Around 2pm, I paused the group for a snack and to assess the dark slate clouds. My vote was to wait and see what developed. After a while, we walked on. We ended up sheltering amongst boulders, in lightning position, three times as the sky flashed and hail rained down. The weather had turned and mostly stayed wet all the way to the car the next day. For the last hour, I took my rain jacket off and walked in the storm like I was in the tropics. What a way to feel connected.

Charlie looking down at Bear Lake and Ursa Lake. Seven Gables and Gemini are in the background.

Charlie looking down at Bear Lake and Ursa Lake. Seven Gables and Gemini are in the background.

The other weather worth mentioning was that I saw the start of a tornado. Directly above our heads at Seven Gables Lakes a thunderhead had a spot that started swirling. It was a tight little whirl. Beautiful and stunning. But oh, thank goodness that it dissipated and never dropped a twister. Don’t know what I would have done if it had.

It was darn nice to have plenty of time in the high alpine basins. Without mileage goals, we explored the area more fully than I otherwise would have. Depending on how I count it, we walked in nine distinct areas.

Dani catching a fish at one of our favorite lakes with tenkara fishing gear.

Dani caught a fish at one of our favorite lakes with tenkara gear.

We camped at lakes most nights, but there was one on our route that was truly special and on the list to return to. It’s swimming heaven and I want to carry in floaty toys next trip.

Other things of note:

  • My food was good because I used my dehydrator a lot. Most meals had 10+ ingredients.
  • The Sierra High Route passes through the area we played in. I haven’t hiked that section of the SHR yet (I’ve been most places on it and completed ~60% of the route) but again, I’ve confirmed for myself that it’s a path that is ridiculously hard work. I don’t think most people realize how much effort the SHR is.
  • All three buddies take really fantastic photos. I bought a new point-and-shoot camera before this trip and my pictures are pretty nice too. I tend to take more people and documentation pictures and fewer landscapes.
  •  My previous trip in the area (to upper French canyon and Royce Lakes in 2009) was done solo, with a broken shoulder and only a fanny pack to carry overnight gear. That was wacky.
  • Tenkara fishing was fun, but only moderately successful. I caught one small fish and hooked a few others.
  • The July storm dropped a surprising amount of hail and snow. It even closed Tioga Pass for a bit.
  • Charlie hiked in Vibram Five Finger shoes again. Like last trip. He’s crazy.
Snapping a photo with fresh hail on the ground. I was in lightning position again about ten minutes after this picture was taken. Photo: Jack Haskel

Snapping a photo with fresh hail on the ground. I was in lightning position again about ten minutes after this picture was taken.

Backpacking the Red Peak Stock Trail, Lake Schmidell and Rockbound Pass in Desolation Wilderness

I might be too tired to be writing. Lindsey and I just got home from a loop up in Desolation Wilderness.

We left on Friday after post-work barbeques and camped by the side of the road not too far from the trailhead.

In the morning, we chatted up some Forest Service staff who were out repairing the Barrett Jeep Trail. While they were intimately familiar with the area, they didn’t know where the Red Peak Stock Trailhead was. It’s that obscure and rarely traveled. Not totally confident that we’d find our trail, we hiked up the jeep trail to find it anyways. Anyone that’s a competent navigator should be able to find and follow the Red Peak Stock Trail. Sometimes faint, sometimes only cairned, we had little problem following it and I found it to be fun and beautiful. It’s really neat to be so high on the crest that dominates over the central valley.

Wildflowers were diverse and plentiful. Probably at their peek.

Wildflowers were diverse and plentiful. Probably at their peek.

Camp at Lake Schmidell was made somewhat early and I took advantage of it by napping the day away. Beyond drooling on my pad, we swam, ate and talked science. We’d planned on going for a larger loop, but neither of us really wanted to do all of that walking.

Today’s start was late and leisurely. A welcome cloud cover made hiking all the more enjoyable past Lake Lois and Doris. At lunch (tabouli again – delicious) it started to rain. Being a multi-year drought, that’s really damn nice.

Day hiking the Pacific Crest Trail south from Echo Summit

Yesterday, some coworkers, volunteers and friends hiked the PCT south from Echo Summit. It’s always nice to get on the trail and out of the office. We met a few thru-hikers and more than a few section hikers. It sure is early to have so many thru-hikers this far north.

Day hiking the PCT south from Echo Summit

Day hiking the PCT south from Echo Summit.

Backpacking the north rim traverse of Yosemite Valley

We took Friday off work and went backpacking along the north rim of Yosemite Valley. This was one of the trips that we’d planned back in January. While climbing up from the trailhead at Big Oak Flat Road, I realized that this summer marks 25 years backpacking. It’s a hobby that’s here to stay.

We did the drive Thursday night and had an extended dinner at Priest Station. Camp at Crane Flat is remembered because a thunderstorm had clearly unleashed a torrent not long before we arrived.

After permit pickup at the wilderness office in the valley, and the rigamarole of coffee, bathroom, parking, packing and shuttle, we hitch hiked very easily with a brother and sister. He was heading to work outdoor education in Marin.

We split our hike into three perfectly even days. Night one on El Capitan. Night two on North Dome. Backpacking the north rim is all about the iconic, epic, views of the cliffs of Yosemite.

The trip felt marked by Half Dome. We were always walking closer to it. I also felt a strong sense that Yosemite was a bit smaller than I’d thought it to be. I could see a good bit of the park. Places I’d been. And they didn’t look far away.

At both campsites, I felt encroached upon by foreign tourists. An Italian and a German choosing to camp forty feet away the first night. A troop of Chinese photographers that night hiked in and set up tripods the same distance from my sleep spot the second night. Sure, these are famous places. But there was plenty of space and they were needlessly close. American wilderness ethics, and LNT, are not widely engrained.

Hanging out at my sleep spot on the summit of El Capitan.

Hanging out at my sleep spot on the summit of El Capitan.

We saw a bear. A small, light colored yearling running away. We summited Eagle Peak and I detoured to Yosemite Falls. Between the famous locales, the trail was mostly quiet. For being the north rim traverse of Yosemite’s famous valley, it seemed like it was a hike that’s somewhat rarely done.

The stream before North Dome wasn’t running and since we were dry camping, I walked back twenty minutes to gather two gallons from the creek before it.

After the big descent down the rim along Snow Creek, we lunched at Curry Village and swam in the Merced. All in all, a wonderful trip.

Stand up paddle boarding at upper Lake Clementine near Auburn, CA

Lake Clementine felt more like a river without a current at the upper parking lot. It was beautifully crystal clear, calm and narrow. It is, after all, just a flooded portion of the American River. We paddled for a few hours. First up, then down stream to the boat-in camping area. No rush, just a nice casual day on the water together.

I especially enjoyed looking into the deep pools and seeing very large fish swimming below.

By the time we were back at the parking area, a dark cumulonimbus sent us scurrying to tie the boards on my car and get inside.

We’ll be back.

Hiking Maggie’s Peak, Azure Lake and looping down Cascade Creek in Desolation Wilderness

This turned out to be difficult.

The trail up toward Azure Lake from Bayview Campground is steep. The vast majority of people leave the trailhead going towards Cascade Falls. On Sunday we did the climb and spent a few minutes on the summit of Maggie’s Peak. There’s still a lot of snow at the higher elevations of Desolation Wilderness.

After returning to trail from the summit, we saw the side trail to Azure Lake and we wrongly decided that it wasn’t what we were looking for. By the time we reached the Eagle Lake trail, we’d gone too far. I really don’t recommend just cutting over from there to Azure Lake. But that’s what we did and it kicked off our afternoon of difficult cross country travel.

The view from Maggie's Peak towards the west. Snow Lake and Azure Lake, peaks of Desolation Wilderness and the route we took lay below. Lake Tahoe is behind my back.

The view from Maggie’s Peak towards the west. Snow Lake and Azure Lake, peaks of Desolation Wilderness and the route we took lay below. Lake Tahoe is behind my back.

My legs are scratched, abraded and they still sting. That’s what it was like. Very steep, thick brush. Steep granite and cliffs. Steep water courses. I doubt that we took the best route at all times but that’s just sort of how these things go. You push through. When trail appeared, it disappeared quickly and was of pretty scarce quality.

All in all it was a fantastic hike. And arduous.