Trip Report: one night car camp, southeastern Sierra Nevada

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I woke up before my alarm and was out the door by 5, arriving at Lower Gray’s Meadow Campground outside of Independence a bit after 9 for my quick Eastern Sierra trip. It looked full, but around a corner two spots were open. It was private so peeing and changing clothes were easy for me. The road was very near, but there were few cars and the sound of a tumbling Independence Creek filled the air.

The day was already getting warm… I decided not to ignore the ‘road closed’ sign going up to Onion Valley (it will void your car insurance, even if you think you know better that the road conditions are fine) and instead drove back south to Lone Pine and up Whitney Portal Road a bit. A lot of people were parked at that ‘road closed’ sign (were they walking the road? weird), so I went back to Lone Pine Campground to day hike. I was glad I didn’t stay there – it’s wide open and was terribly hot and there were bugs. The moon was setting behind the peaks with white clinging here and there to crevasses.

Day 1 Hike

Anyhow, 11:36 I started. I kept my short sleeved shirt and left behind a warm layer, and I knew my dark cargo pants and hiking shoes were a bit much… I brought many winter layers and gear and needed none of it! Then I threw on sun sleeves, slapped on my hat, and started up the Whitney Portal National Recreational Trail, which I’d not yet done other than small walks from the top. Starts at 5900′ and heads up for 4 miles to Whitney Portal at 8400′ – quite the climb! It was really lovely, actually, despite the high desert heat and punishing sun to start. Many tortured plants (I felt their pain) and a few wee butterflies (one was iridescent green), the trail went from sandy to packed dirt, some ups and some flats. I could see why some crazies run it.

Eventually a pine forest builds as the switchbacks head up the hillside opposite the road across Lone Pine Creek and Mount Whitney is and and out of view, standing watch over all. There is a rock-damaged crossing at Meysan Creek, right at the confluence with Lone Pine Creek, and the entire area is a wreck of broken trees and fallen boulders. I could see some falls but I didn’t venture in. The climb intensifies, and there are stone steps in a few places, but now there was more shade from trees and the music of Lone Pine Creek falling and tumbling on my right. I couldn’t believe the number of cars stretched along the road: they passed the ‘closed’ sign and started parking at the gate, I guess. I didn’t see so many people around, so the wilderness is big enough to hide many.

A few icy patches, nothing my over-kill studded shoes couldn’t handle, and the path wound through the campground and passed a few cabins. I knew in my heart that the trail was probably supposed to be closed and was preparing to encounter the remains of last year’s devastating rock fall at Portal (earthquake started). The trail was mostly clear nearly to the end: the last 1/8 mile or so was destroyed. The official bridge does still stand on the other side. The rocks and broken trees allowed a crossing over Lone Pine Creek (running low anyhow) and POOF I was in the backpacker camp staring at the giant rock leaning against a tree basically right near my old favorite campsite, and a big hole where it bounced in the spot nearby. RIP campsite!

Whitney’s Siren Song

I knew I didn’t have time to make it to Lone Pine Lake, but after looking at a frozen Portal Pond (so weird to see in the heat) and a the Lone Pine Creek falls also frozen (neat!) I did hit the Whitney Trail – it’s pull is so hard to resist! She calls to you – but it’s a siren song and I think she’s trying to kill people, and sometimes it works but mostly she kicks the crap out of hikers. I told myself to turn around at 3pm but that’s basically when I started up, (I sighed at myself and shook my head and went up anyhow).

By 3:35pm I was about 1/2 mile or so from the lake (2 miles in), but I stopped and snacked while looking at the expansive views across the desert floor to the Inyo Mountains, over the tops of trees, then headed back down. I saw a bunch of dummies (so I thought) still going up, some with very little clothes and others with kids… but I didn’t have a headlamp and I didn’t have a warm layer and I wanted dinner before dark. I turned around just below 9600′ at 6.37 miles on the day and came back down the 6.15 – this time heading down the road and cutting back to the trail at the campground, thankful during the last two miles that the shade of these tall peaks spared me the sun.

And, Done!

It was nearly dark by the time I drove back to camp. I downed a salad (nice in the heat) while I changed, then tried a new low-carb backpacker food in the dark after boiling some water (it was tasty!). It dawned on me that I hadn’t pee’d in 8.5 hours – man, the sun really did me in – plus the dry air and elevation. I felt okay, but that’s… wrong. So I drank a lot of water. I relaxed with a book and fell asleep, warm in my bag and staring at so many stars you can hardly believe it.

After midnight, the winds started absolutely roaring down the mountains. My tent is nearly all net, so without the fly it was silent and I was unbothered and managed sleep despite the noise. The trees were still bare so not much debris was falling in the mayhem. Sometimes the moon was in my face and I had to cover my eyes, but otherwise I slept until 7am when my skin was warning me to get out of the sun which was already warming the campsite.

Day 2

Some more water, energy drink, packed up and in Independence about 7:45. I stopped at the rail junk yard (museum) to admire a car and a loco I hadn’t see on the tracks before. A guy arrived and yelled ‘good morning’ after hopping out of his truck. He invited me in and I sat in the locomotive engine, fun! His group of train lovers had been taking it apart and putting it together and winched it out of the big garage bunker recently. Tomorrow it’s off to Colorado. Neat! He said they realized at some point that it was still able to run if they wanted to fix it that far. I got a flyer and he took a photo and I was off back south on my beloved, dangerous 395.

I decided to stop at Alabama Hills to walk out to the arch for some morning photos, the sky again bright blue. It remained windy, but warm. There were more people camping out there than I’d ever seen before. Anyhow, that’s it! The drive was warm and slow and stressful, as ever, but I made it home safe and am busy planning my next trip to the mountains… especially because the last of my new gear came so I’m dying to try it out.

Second Time Out with New Gear

The new shoes (Merrell, Zion) are pretty good – a bit low on comfort, but stud-like tread and leather top have proved great on snow. With the large fanny pack (Osprey, Tempest 6) I can access everything without taking it off and I love the hip pockets and water bottle holders. Has been a blast to use – it still has more space than I need and no sweaty back.

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