Some gear notes below, but for now let’s start at the beginning: I drove up Hwy 395 last Thursday, enjoying mountain views now that the wind changed direction and the area was more hazy than filled with brown smoke. By the time I made it to the June Lake Loop and skies were blue and views were clear… Always watch forecasts for not just weather but also the wind ones are pretty accurate for a good 48 hours and it’s important to do in late summer if you don’t want the backcountry to smell like campfire for your trip (not to mention the lung irritation).
I was on the trail up Rush Creek at noon. The bathroom is closed – they are going to demolish it, just FYI. The first half mile was over two creeks (one dry) and under a canopy of aspen that were changing color for fall – those cute, round leaves in green and gold waving in any tiny breeze. After that it was warm and it’s a dusty, exposed slog that gains about 1200′ in 1.5 miles. Good thing it’s an interesting walk: it’s cut into a steep ridgeline, Silver Lake views below, some brush and flowers when it’s not sheer rock, the crazy rail line to carry equipment up to the dams, the falling water of Rush Creek, mountain views, an nearly all hikers seemed in a great mood (the entire trip, actually) so smiles all around. Still, despite a light-ish pack weight (22.5 w/liter of water but before camera and a few other doo-dads) it is a bit harder to climb mountains backpacking than day hiking due to carrying your house on your back added to jumping out of the car after driving all morning living at sea level and little sleep and not being in any kind of hurry = 1.25 miles per hour. Whew, that’s slow! haha.
At just over 2 miles from the parking lot I turned off onto another trail and took the crossing before Agnew Lake and dam. The water being let out was a nice cascade and there was some dense plants here for shade so after a small climb (about 1/4 mile) I sat for a break and snack overlooking the lake and looked out at the mountains and listened to the birds. Now the trail got “real” and it’s honestly shocking that my path was going to somehow get over the near sheer mountain – intimidating, really. I had one more quarter mile along the lush edge a bit above the lake before the trail cut a straight line across the rocky slope for 1/3 mile and 300′ gain. It reached a pine grove crowded around a drainage at the south side of the lake and made a *lot* of switchbacks for another 300′ in another 1/3 mile. It continued the unrelenting climb up and around Spooky Meadow (unsure about the name, to me it was just a super steep wash covered in dense pine forest with a good size clearing once the first ridge was gained. I sat on a rock and ate a bit more overlooking this sloped meadow and looked at the trees and plants clinging to every rock until the rocks were basically just walls – have I said the word ‘steep’ enough?
The punishing climb continued but I did cross another dry drainage and stopped to take some photos of lovely flowers, some of which I hadn’t seen before. While I did this a day hiker came down – first person I’d seen in almost 2 hours! A final push to gain the pass I could finally see (it’s nice to have a visual goal) – it was about 4.25 miles and I was at around 10,050 feet elevation – so about 2800′ gain, some bits easy, some bits very hard. Up here the terrain changed – the pines were different and twisted and stunted, the rocks seemed as pumice and were dark in composition like old lava, the views opened up and Gem Lake lay below ringed with lovely peaks and autumn colors in a streak up the far north side.
As I came down the pass the trees started again, but the entrance to the forest was a gate of dead trees. Now *that* was spooky. The rest were healthy and after a bit I turned a corner and the forest stopped and there was a grass-rimed lake sitting in a half bowl of sheer rock. There were trailside flowers and also end-of-season plants in seed, many of which were very scratchy and loud in a breeze and downright obnoxious if touched on accident, which I did as I bent for a picture, which made me jump. I was at the start of Clark Lakes, around a cliff corner was a larger one, and they were gentle, quiet bodies of water. The mountains were drama, but it was slow along the shores, and quiet. I passed a pack camp and left the softness behind for Summit Lake: the forest crowded it’s north shore, and the low water revealed a black sand beach of sorts, while the rocky south shore ended at a pass and it was steep on the other side – but that’s where I was going!
Yeah, real steep going down – and rocky enough that a lot of steps were careful. 9840′ to 9510′ in 1/3 mile. My knees! But it was over quick, and the next three miles were up and down but basically nothing major all the way to Thousand Island Lake. I was loosing light at this point and needed to find a camp, so I totally skipped by other lakes I really wanted to visit. My original plan had been to camp at Summit Lake for the night, but I didn’t for a lot of reasons, one of which was being scared of water filtering. I can’t explain how unusually dry it is in California right now – the winter was real bad (not much snow) and the summer didn’t have the constant afternoon rain. *Every single lake was stale* and nothing was draining and all creeks and drainages were dry outside of the dams / Rush Creek. Toxic algae is confirmed not too far south of my location, so I was hoping the larger lakes were safer to drink. I highly prefer, and almost exclusively do, filter water from falling and moving creeks – but there are none. Sadface.
Ponds were drying up on the lake approach and I didn’t bother any side trails to other small lakes which I assume were just as low. Some fish were stuck in the small ponds which was weird, and it was over 6 hours and 7.5 miles in, and it was 6pm with dying light when I got to the Thousand Island Lake dry outlet. I walked a over a mile on the north shore pining for a campsite. Despite only a few people here and there on the trails, the obvious places were all taken here. I was also looking for a pack trail that cut up the pass so I didn’t have to walk back the text day plus campsites higher up from research I’d done, but I didn’t find what I was looking for and wandered around for too long until I was so tired I just gave up and dropped pack in the next patch of dirt I found. It was basically dark as I put up the tent and settled in for the night. Oh, great, I forgot my fuel can. I eat so little while hiking (exercise and elevation) that I just ate a lunch instead (crackers, dried cheese, tuna in coconut oil) and passed out. I did wake up for a couple night shots, but I just stuck the camera on a small tripod outside the tent and didn’t even leave it: it was getting cold. For a bit there was a frog croaking, and a couple chipmunk squeaks, then it was silent. Overnight, the full moon was so dang bright, so that was annoying, and condensation froze on the tent walls…Day 1, 9/23, about 9 miles: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/7560460622
I tried to ignore the sun, plus I was so cold I just wanted to stay cuddled, but I knew I’d be sad if I didn’t take some early morning photos when lake surfaces are usually calm and mirror-like. I wander out in some warm layers, small plants were frozen and crunchy underfoot, until I got onto a peninsula. Whoops, someone’s tent, sorry… The lake level was really low and I didn’t find it as amazing as most people seem to, but Banner Peak is dramatically prominent and sported a nice reflection at 7am as sun finally made it over the western ridge and lit it’s top.
There would be no morning trek to North Glacier Pass: the winds did as expected and the pass looked full of fire smoke brought up from the south now, just an hour after a clear morning. Smoke was all around west and south – but north looked clear, so I figured staying down here instead of Summit Lake worked out as I got to enjoy the area without haze for a bit. Packed up and off to try to find this pack trail to Island Pass after 8:30am – I did finally find the campsite I was thinking of, doh! But I turned right at the drainage when I think I should have headed left – I never saw any definite trail. It was just woods, though, so I kinda just followed the dry creek all the way up until I hit the PCT a bit east of where I thought the trail should have been, though I also never saw it: rangers have done a bang up job making that old trail disappear. I know leave-no-trace methods and ranger preference hate it when I go off trail, but it’s just so much more fun that slogging on a dusty, exposed, common trail that always seems to take the long way around. *shrug* If everything wasn’t so dang dry, it might not be as boring normally…
Island Pass is quite the wide open mound – a boring pass itself, but astounding views all around. The lakes up here were drying up fast, the sandy edges dotted with rocks reminded me of the movie Return to Oz when Dorothy and the chicken arrive and the water just disappears: the deadly desert! I had planned on staying only 2 nights, for smoke inhalation reasons, but knew I could push food to 3 if it was favorable, unfortunately that failed because, you know, no fuel can so no dehydrated meals which meant a lot less food. So did followed through on the original plan to leave the trail and cross-country hike east and find a path to Weber Lake. The worst that could happen is getting cliffed out and having to come back, and that would suck because I’d have to head down the pass and around Waugh Lake – I could manage the mileage but why bother? Plus, I did really want to check out Weber, which was my original 1st night plan before I switched to clockwise last minute.
Sorry, plants, I tried to walk on rocks and did find a patch of animal trail here and there – in fact, stacked rocks and flattened grasses and paths through brush seemed more people-y than expected, so I cannot be the only person to do this. A drying lake with a duck family with a muddy shore containing deer, critter, and cat (?) footprints. A steep pile of rocks to get over or around. A drainage meadow overlooks Waugh Lake which, drained, looked like the dead mashes or maybe the desolation of Smaug (Lord of the Rings references) – seriously, it looks terrible. Hydroelectric and dams aren’t “green” energy to me: they destroy natural habitat of meadows and flood zones. Now it was stumps and dead land, though I’m sure lovely looking when full – the mountains all around sure are. Eventually I reach the hard part – how to get around and over the ridge that borders the lake’s southwest shores. Elevation maps are often 40 foot intervals, and in real life this isn’t helpful – a guide only but a 40′ line could turn out to be a 60′ cliff with no path (I do not climb, only walk). I tried to walk further down, but this was definitely a steep cliff and I walked back up a bit and found a natural path up and over – this happened twice. It worked out in the end as if I’d stayed farther up I might have come back down to the lake too south and there was a block of granite on the shore that I couldn’t have walked around. On these sloped it was all pines and domes of rock and shelves of shale so natural switchbacks down to the lake shore. Good news, I didn’t die or injury myself! Much more exciting than a dusty trail, but not for most people, I don’t advocate for off trail, it can go very, very badly and you hurt delicate alpine plants. But I’m a selfish human so here we are.
Weber Lake is really lovely and, for me, the highlight of natural lakes for this trip. Ringed with cliffs, brush in fall color, no other people – the use trail heads back around east, passed nice and well-used campsites, over a ridge, back to trail proper, then down to the east side. All lovely, seriously, except that it was absolutely not draining, just like everything else, and there was stringy growth on the surface on the north side which was likely toxic algae – yikes. I walked around, almost tried to reach Lake Sullivan lower down but it was so overgrown, so I came back and sat at an peninsula and ate lunch in silence while a big, blue dragonfly paced the shore endlessly.
Eventually, I left and it was time to be back on the trail proper and it suuuuucked. It was warmer today, as expected, and I was getting grumpy in the heat as I walked yet another dusty trail, dodging road apples, on a bunch of switchbacks down to the dams and Rush Creek again: 600′ foot loss in a painful 3/4 mile. But the next 2.5 miles, despite being even warmer, were mostly gentle and sometimes the sound of water or birds cheered me up. I rested at a junction before a small climb – but took wee breaks to enjoy the drying but grassy ponds, including Billy Lake, eventually cresting and coming down to the north shore of Gem Lake, which was lovely. Here, it was wooded, Crest Creek was actually running to my complete shock, and the aspens, running like veins through dense pines in the watersheds, were gold and orange. Nice! I walked passed the drainage and eventually down a peninsula between two sandy beaches looking very vacationy with blue waters lapping at their shores (though also odd as lines of water lines ran in 2 foot intervals, sometimes marked with tiny plants). I set up and enjoyed the sights but I was also WIPED for whatever reason and basically started sleeping before sunset – so kind of a 14 hour session, haha. The water from Gem Lake tasted the best, honestly, and though some gusts picked up at the end of the day and some waves were heard, it was once again quiet all night except the full moon which was, again, so bright it was loud. (-: I could hear some people on the trail for as long as there was sunlight, but nothing after that until daybreak. Day 2, 9/24, about 7.6 miles: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/7560460645
I still technically had a salmon packet, outside of my useless dehydrated meals, but I ate some other snacks as I packed up for the “short” hike out. Some haze was on the mountainside I had come up the first day, but not bad and I hoped as the trail turned that way it stayed high up (it did). I felt really good in the morning despite not eating, I’m sure, enough calories at all. Eventually the sun warmed camp but still shaded the first trail section so I headed off a bit late (8am) to try to beat the sun and it was nice under the changing color of aspens. It didn’t last long and it was real hot real quick – I did still have my puffy on, though everything was unzipped. I didn’t want to drop pack yet and was hoping for shade but that never arrived. The danger of being comfortable off trail, and hiking alone, is that sometimes you get off it on accident on those wee use trails that sometimes are near turns and switchbacks and it takes you longer than it should to realize it and turn around. LOL Anyhow, I got some interesting images from that short “why is this trail so steep?” accident and was back on the normal, easy trail soon enough. Okay, it was too hot and there isn’t shade, drop pack to remove layers, snack, drink the last of my water (it’s less than 2 miles left where my car and trailhead bear box has much to drink). Everyone heading up is in such a damned good mood. Probably because it’s gorgeous and fairly clear of smoke. I did stop to chat (me, the person annoyed when I have to say ‘good morning’ constantly) and had a nice conversation – I did take the opportunity to warn of dangerous, stale water – unsure if day hikers even filter (a ranger at the car said they often don’t, this is terrible idea, IMO, in these conditions). I didn’t get sick, though, but I did only drink like a liter or two a day (I know, I’m weird, but I felt great so… that’s just me). Hot and dirty and done I was at the car drinking chocolate protein, electrolyte water, and a small energy drink. Chatted up the ranger, talked about water quality and the ‘new normal’ of extended, dry conditions and the dangers it can have if it continues too long – fires aside. Silver Lake was full of people: RVs, kayaks on the water, etc. Time to drive home. I wished for another night, this was too short in too lovely an area. I’ll be back – in better conditions. Sure, no bugs, but sketchy water isn’t nice, either. Day 3, 9/25, about 4.7 miles: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/7560460668
I had packed a month ago for a trip that never happened farther south in the Sierra. This included a tent instead of a hammock because it was likely to be on a moonscape down there and I just wasn’t sure there would be large enough, or any, trees in the planned campsites. I did have a single freestanding tent that probably would have worked better anyhow (you know, cause the ground is rocks) but I bought one of single-walled tents the kids like nowadays that use trekking poles and require staking out (Gossamer Gear’s The One) out of a misplaced need to save weight. I never use trekking poles, but thought what the heck – but ours were old and not really functioning so I also bought two new pairs (why?) one aluminum and one lighter carbon. The gusts would be occasional on this trip and otherwise winds were still, so I opted to bring the lighter ones. I used the poles the first day and I think they slowed me down: just another thing to be mucking with. Also, there were trees here so I could have hung (my hammock system is warmer and, including poles and sleeping pad, the same weight). I *hate* sleeping on the ground. Man, it hurts. So I re-learned to never do that unless absolutely necessary (ie. need a tent for sleeping on rocky passes). Also, the Sierra is all rocks so… stakes don’t really work. It is a lovely tent, though, with nice space inside and good headroom, but a bit fussy to set up – hammocks are, too, but only two points of contact whereas this tent has 6. Both need a good spot, so hunting is needed, and both need proper contact to be well set up. I swear these pole tents are for back east and, obviously, pretty great if you actually use trekking poles – on it’s own it weighs NOTHING near as I can tell. I have to bring a substantial pad, though (inflatable), and I’m still uncomfortable all night long. My hips! My back! Ouchy!