Since I was no longer backpacking out of Baxter Pass to Rae Lakes due to intolerably high winds, I decided to hit some trails I’ve been meaning to do. I drove north, pondering heading all the way to Tahoe, but instead turned at Tom’s Place, just north of Bishop, to Rock Creek. The drive is excellent for autumn colors, when not filled with fire smoke last last year, and the last time I was here was in winter for a snowshoe test where I stayed overnight at the Little Lakes Valley trailhead all alone as temps dropped to 12F. It was fun and I learned about some gear issues and fixed them for those conditions. So I returned to finally hike this popular place and parked at Mosquito Flats, this time free of snow, and stayed the night in a crowded parking lot.
The next morning was chilly so I stayed cuddled up as I awaited the sun to make its way over the steep mountains around this valley. Then I loaded up and headed out, having decided to head out of the valley and up Mono Pass – unusually a duplicate named place. Usually, it’s just mountains (so many Iron, Table, and Sugarloaf’s) and lakes (lots of Ruby, Emerald, and Grass’s). Even more annoying, the other one is nearby in Yosemite.
Anyhow, I headed out at 7:24 am into one of the prettiest places in the Sierra: the popular trail into Little Lakes Valley follows a winding, tumbling, picturesque Rock Creek lined with flowered, grassy fields and leafy trees between dramatic ridges east and west and only climbs slightly south. The trailhead is already in high elevation and the air is “thin” at 10,230 feet above sea level. At only 1/2 mile in, the junction for the trail up to the pass and/or Ruby Lake arrives and I climb a bit more than staying south to the many lakes.
I could write a book on all that is seen on the way up. I was truly floored at the beauty. Instead, a short summary:
- Nearing the cutoff to Ruby Lake is a beautiful, peaceful drainage of fields and winding waterways.
- After a set of switchbacks, looking down at Ruby Lake and Little Lakes Valley from above surrounded by dramatic peaks is just about the most stunning thing I’ve ever seen. There is no version of heaven man can invent that could be more beautiful than that view.
- The trail curves around the Mt Starr’s southern slopes to make a u-turn and steadily climbs to Mono Pass along a rocky path with a steep drop-off to a bare drainage below before the impossibly steep mountains across west.
- There was a bit of snow, all avoidable, and I knew in advance hiking up would be no problem because there were signs of a recent stock train (horseshoe marks and road apples) – but there was a kind of false summit which revealed a tad more climbing afterward to actually get to the top of the pass which was rather gentle compared to others.
- The top was more of a saddle between peaks and just below, or a part of, was a sandy valley with Summit Lake sporting ice in the middle but a beach-like shore line around teal waters – lovely little gem and I stopped for a break there on the return and watched a bird peck at ice and generally be cute with pitter-patter steps in and around the water.
- There is another small ridge after coming down the pass near another drainage sporting some green grass and I paused to watch a 2-part horse and mule train come down, one free of load, and listened to the two riders speak words of encouragement to a couple animals that didn’t like a certain path or a small walk atop snow – it was very cute. They mentioned it was very cold the night before, and certainly any breeze was rather frigid (I was bundled in a few layers).
- I only descended a bit and decided I wasn’t going to descend further – it was only 200 down to nice looking Trail Lakes (nearby Needle Lake above looked half frozen under amazingly steep peaks), but another 1,000 into the top of the very green valley below and a climb to Pioneer Basin plus all the miles. Instead, I just walked to a cliff edge in the flat spot and admired the absolutely amazing view of rocky peaks, granite slopes, red and black colored mountaintops, lake strewn basin and Mono Creek somewhere in the green below. Now that I have studied a map, I want to go back and do a bit more here, there’s so much!
It was a tad more windy on the return, but mostly in sets: 5 minutes calm in the sun, 5 with a cold breeze. Nothing like the winds in the south, though, so I enjoyed it and stopped when it was calm to take it all in. The mountains seem to stretch on forever and it’s difficult to peel my eyes away and keep them on the trail ahead. I look again at Little Lakes Valley, each body of water twinkling in reflected sunlight, and ponder a return trip through there and up Morgan Pass instead.
GPS unit says just shy of 10 miles round trip, 5:19 moving and 7:18 overall (lots of nice breaks), with a mild gain of 1,780 feet to the pass, though I managed 2,800 overall since I dropped and came back up, though I’d call it 2,500 actual climbing ignoring the small up and downs. It wasn’t the hike I had planned on, but it was an absolute banger. No regrets on this choice.