Trip Report: Cottonwood Trails of the Eastern Sierra

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Smoke from the Dixie fire filled the high desert. When I was driving up early Saturday the Inyo Mountains were not visible at all and the Sierra was faint from the 395. I was not optimistic about hiking. The winding, steep Horseshoe Meadows Road felt like being in a void: nothing could be seen over the edges, little going forward… then the last turn and decent to the Cottonwood trailheads proved nearly clear. It was still slightly hazy, but became less so as the day went on. Only a couple breezes smelled of smoke, though the first day I admit my mouth felt dry and I did cough a few times. So, despite nearly everywhere else in Sierra Nevada, this area proved the most clear and by Sunday almost totally – couldn’t say that for anywhere else! 🤗

I took the 5 to the 14 to the 395 both ways this time rather than just the return drive. The morning sun hitting the colored, columned cliffs in Red Rock State Park proved too difficult to resist and I stopped in a lovely place with nearly no one else to worship at an awe-inspiring cathedral of red and gold and white structures – gazing overhead and from afar I decided it was more beautiful than any stained glass windows. 🤩 It wasn’t hot yet, so my hopes for the weekend were high! RIP me.

I made it to the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead about 10 and got started at 10:30. It’s a very mild climb with limited mountain views, lots of pine trees, and, eventually, a bunch of lakes spread throughout the large upper drainage – Mount Langley nearly always in view, though this was not a summit trip this time. Lake 3 was lovely, 4 and 5 fairly similar, and I walked to the base of Old Army Pass and did consider an ascent… but it didn’t look like fun and it was already 1:30, a terrible time to start a climb (best be off peaks by 2 even in fair weather). So, time for something new and I headed south, around Lake 1, to South Fork Lakes. Cottonwood trails are very crowded, but now I was alone and it was lovely. Mountains, lakes rippling in the occasional large breeze and by ducks making dives and lined with flowers, twisted pines growing out of the rocks which were everywhere and mostly tan but sometimes a bit of peach or pink and maybe some white quartz… 🥰

So… I wasn’t paying attention, having much fun on the trial, and passed where I should have turned, I guess, though I never saw a junction, and ended up at Cirque Lake where the trail ended. Whoops. 😉 Don’t tell anyone, but I went off trail here – it was mellow (no real chance of being cliffed out) and the drainage was dry so I just set off cross country, saying “sorrrryyyyy” to some of the plants I stepped on (ala Thor from his visit to Dr. Strange). I walked on some paths, but they weren’t from people, they were from years of marmot use and were covered in generations of poo and led to holes under rocks and disappeared. When the drainage when a bit steeps, I stuck to the very soft sand / pine needle ground by the pines and many a critter were very angry about it: birds and a marmot where dismayed by my unexpected presence. Sorrrryyyy. 😬 After a rather steep bit down I found what looked suspiciously like a couple switchbacks… I was debating if it was a bear path, if those where large paw prints, when I spotted at cairn (stack of rocks). I don’t know where the “trail” was before, nor after, but I sure was on something for a few feet there.

Anyhow, I was in another drainage meadow and the actual trail should have been to my north, but I couldn’t see anything and crossing soft mud wasn’t my idea of fun so I just stayed south and the going was pretty okay, still on soft ground under pines for the most part, sometimes grasses in the dry marshes. Eventually I crossed the mostly dry creek and looked for the trail proper… I thought it would be kinda light and use-y but, nope, lol, it was really proper and quite the luxury after 2 miles without a clear path! It immediately crossed a meadow and this was the BEST PART of my entire trip. It was after 4pm, silent save some insects and birds in the pines, and small stones crossed a long, narrow, wet field. It was absolutely full of flowers floating atop a sea of green grass. 😭 A deer pondered me nearby, wee butterflies were about, the sound of a creek… total paradise. 😍 I should have stayed longer. I might return and do just that. ❤

After that, the watershed actually had water and was sweetly tumbling nearby, covered in green and bordered with some flowering corn lilies. There was a squat structure someone built of wood – no idea what it was about, but the area was so serene it didn’t seem scary but, rather, made total sense to me to want to build here. *sigh* After that it was back to dry trails and I met back up with the way I’d come in for a very hot, very tired 1.5-felt-like-4 mile trek out. 10k start, 11.2k top a couple different times (ups and downs), so pretty easy and I ended just shy of 15 miles on the day. A good trainer for elevation itself, not so much for elevation change. But it was a nice day and only slightly too warm, but overall pleasant with a breeze. https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/7270808546

I drove to Whitney Portal as I debated what to do the next day, but it was still kinda icky air there despite the joyful yells of those returning from successful summits. I decided I wouldn’t be hiking here and drove all the way back down – taking a moment to study the extensive recent fire damage (wow, brutal and complete, still areas with pink fos drops) – and ate some pulled pork with a soda for a late dinner in town where it was 92F at 7:30pm. Then I tried to check out a BLM campground in the dark – it was okay but it was still so hot so I just wasn’t interested… I made long drive back up to Cottonwood and cheated by sleeping in my car (I was too exhausted to figure something else out). Shhhh, no telling anyone. 🤫

I had a fitful but fairly full sleep and took a couple photos of the incredibly clear skies: the Milky Way was easily visible and I swear there wasn’t a black spot, totally full of stars. Just lovely… but too lazy to try for better images, I just enjoyed it out the window and for each bathroom break. It was downright cold overnight. I swear it was sub 40 when I finally got up at 6:30, having cuddled in while ignoring the sun. I had no warm gear, so just stayed huddled in my bag as I prepped for the day.

I was on the trail to Cottonwood Pass by 7:20am with my arms wrapped around myself for warmth… an hour later it was mid 70s with a brutal sun, and by the time my hike was done it was in 84F… at 10k feet elevation. SUUUUCCCKKKKED. It was actually nice a bit after the start – the second 2 miles where the trail actually climbed and the pass was windy and full of vistas. I was going to revisit Chicken Spring Lake and the views off the PCT just above it which look at so many dramatic mountains, but decided to do the loop instead just because it was new. It was too flat, which hurts me for whatever reason, and long, sandy, and terribly hot. The PCT stays pretty level turning this way and that around the range, mostly with views of large meadows (some with cows 🙃) eventually meeting up with Trail Pass for an 11 mile loop. I was really mad: nothing seems direct, but rather the trail meandered seeming to prefer no shade and the most gentle slopes possible. 🥵 Boring, hot, bothered to tears, I am left with some heat rashes including one around inside of my legs near sock line that I’ve had before recently that I can’t figure out (rest are bumps from sweat, no big deal, but this stings). But… it’s done and it’s always worth doing something new. Just below 10k to just above 11k elevation -nothing hard, only thin air and with all the training this wasn’t an issue for me today. https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/7270808568

The drive home was often in 104F heat, sometimes higher, so taking a stop wasn’t interesting to me. Traffic was meh… worse once finally on the 5 and I decided a stress / potty / food break was in order. Haven’t had fast food often, but Wendy’s fries hit the spot, as did a chocolate shake. Burbank was only mid 80s, so it felt nice, haha. Much cursing and exasperated sighs ensued, but we all seemed to survive and then I was home and enjoyed a shower – what a blessed thing to have whenever I want! Onto planning the next punishing adventure as I limp about the house. 😄

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