Dayhiking the Eastern Sierra

Wilderness Hiking at its Finest

As the Bishop Pass summit neared, the sky blackened and the wind blew icy droplets from a distant cloudburst. We hurried onward, slipping across a cratered snowfield, anxious to reach Dusy Basin before the opening heavens turned us back. We passed into Kings Canyon and rounded the slope blocking the horizon. A strange planet strewn with bouldered sculpture appeared ahead, undulating forward to meet a jagged wall extending thousands of feet into the sky and stretching across the full panorama. Sleet sharp as razors began pelting downward.

A crack of lightning jolted a distant mountain. Its thunder thankfully took seconds to reach us, but we knew the next volt could jar us in our tracks. Our soaked bodies were already splattered with mud. With a slippery slog of six miles back to the trailhead, neither of us wanted these arrows of the Gods to land any closer.

We descended safely, struck by nothing worse than a bone-numbing chill. At day's end, that scene of the Sierra Crest more than compensated for the rain and mud. We could after all spend the evening huddled around a roaring fireplace. This was wilderness hiking at its finest, without the freeze-dried meals and sore muscles from a 40-pound backpack.

For years perusing topo maps, my wife, Diane, and I had admired the huge expanse of Sierra wilderness that lies in central California. But we had never managed to find the weeks we needed to traverse the Pacific Crest Trail that winds along the spine. This year would be no different. Yet we were determined not to let another August pass without these mountain wonders bathing us in their beauty and serenity. If we could not lose ourselves for weeks in the canyons, we would dayhike this backcountry, seeing how many isolated lakes and secluded basins we could reach within a few hours walk of the eastern boundary.

John Muir and Ansel Adams, early pioneers inspired by the land and light of the majestic Sierras, lend their names to the largest pieces of this vast tract. Combined with the wildernesses of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, and the smaller national forest preserves of Dinkey Lakes, Monarch, and Golden Trout, these areas form a contiguous mass of 4000 square miles without roads, mechanical devices, even bicycles. This area"where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man," stretches almost 200 miles north to south, from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite to the edge of the Mojave Desert. Highway 395, running through the Owens Valley that separates the Sierras from the White Mountains along the California-Nevada border, offers easy entrance along the full length. We would exploit these accesses to immerse ourselves in wilderness solitude.

After setting up base camp at Mammoth Lakes, we chose our first hike following in the footsteps of William Brewer. Brewer had pioneered the route up Rock Creek and over Mono Pass in 1864. Serving as botanist with the Whitney Survey, he and his party were out to disprove John Muir's theory of glaciation as the key to understanding the Sierra terrain. Brewer had already scaled several 13,000 foot peaks so he no doubt found the ascent up 12,000 foot Mono Pass easy going. Not so for ourselves, who persevered through the thin mountain air with bursting lungs.

Four miles along and two thousand feet up, we crossed several small snowfields to reach Summit Lake. To our rear, Mts. Mills, Abbott and Dade pierced a cloudless sky beyond Ruby Lake. Catching my breath, I focused my lens on this beautiful crest. Capturing the scene was sufficient reward for me, though I knew Brewer would insist that only science warranted the effort. He had marveled that his young colleague Carleton Watkins bothered with his camera and photographic plates.

A jagged ridge looms on the western horizon behind Mammoth Lakes. This dramatic backdrop beckoned us next. Its fractal profile resembles the terrain of a mysterious orb, invented in a science fiction fantasy and given form in vibrant computer animation. From Lake George in the basin that names the town, we climbed through woods and red volcanic cinders to the Mammoth Crest, a ridge affording 360-degree views across the Muir Wilderness. Appropriately, we entered a moonscape of sandy gravel and pale stones, an eerie environment which looked as if it could nurture extra-terrestrial life forms. The Minarets, which make up the Mammoth skyline, stared at us from miles away in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, a cluster of thin spires far more glorious than any man-made tower for calling the faithful. Ritter and Banner Peak rose alongside.

With our appetite for soaring peaks temporarily sated, we headed north to find another terrain. The Yosemite backcountry, designated wilderness two hundred feet off the Tioga Pass road that bisects the park, features granite domes amidst rolling woods and meadows. These massive hemispheres, reknowned in climbing lore with names like Half-Dome and El Capitan, instigated the rancorous debate in the nineteenth century over the forces that carved the Sierras. The official state geological survey proclaimed the mounds had bubbled up as fluid granite during some early geologic convulsion. A young upstart, declared an "ignoramus" by the leading state scientist Josiah Whitney, argued that flowing ice had slowly chiseled this sculpture over thousands of years. Today John Muir provides us not only with insight into how these magnificent creations arose but also the inspiration to leave nature's work pristine.

We intended to climb one such dome, Cloud's Rest. The 16-mile round trip from Tenaya Lake would be pushing our daily limit, but the mound would provide a bird's eye view of the magnificent Valley without the crowds that were clogging its floor.

After three hours of up and down, a wedge of beige rock slanted ahead at 45 degrees. Several yards wide at the base, it narrowed to only a few feet half way up, with a seemingly endless drop down each side. Farther ahead at the apex, the land fell away into a huge chasm on three sides, plunging several thousand feet to the Yosemite River on the right and its lesser sibling the Little Yosemite on the left.

As we edged upward, Diane's eyes glazed over in a vacant, nauseous stare. Sensing the acrophobia that was destroying her balance, she opted to admire the scene from lower down. I trudged ahead. With my lense framed around Half Dome, I felt blessed that no clouds were resting atop today. But my luck was illusory. Clicking my last shot, I knew I would have the pleasure of another scramble up that harrowing ldege, after retrieving the film I had lodged at the base.

Halfway back in mid-afternoon, the sun flashed in our faces, glinting off a shiny antler. The buck carrying the impressive rack ambled up the hillside, grazing slowly and seemingly unconcerned with our intrusion into his home. In the park, the wildlife shows little fear from quiet hikers observing them in their habitat, unlike in the national forest lands where hunting has made close sightings less frequent. Farther along, a brood of grouse pecking alongside the path grew flustered by our presence. The hen scratched away, only to find her chicks had wandered in the opposite direction. She jumped up on a rock, cawing axiously. We hurried on, hoping the calls would reunite the family.

Wilderness is not the only type of preserve that local conservationists have battled to protect. Mono Basin, east of Yosemite, provides a diversion of another sort, one of the great bird sanctuaries of North America. In his western travels, Mark Twain marveled at how California Gulls fly hundreds of miles across two mountain ranges and intervening desert to raise their young in the huge salty lake. Phalaropes stop on their flight from the Arctic to South America to refuel on the alkali flies that infest the area (though thankfully avoid human contact). As a break from several days of intense hiking, we strolled through a state park on the north shore and the Tufa area along the south to see how many of the 50 avian species that frequent the lake we could spy.

At Mono, the fragility of the land smacks one in the face. With its waters siphoned for Los Angeles, the shore of the lake has shrunk more than a mile in recent decades. Marshy scrub has colonized the exposed land. The lake's islands have bridged to the shore, creating a path for predators to attack their rookeries. The sad story urges one to enjoy the wilderness while it lasts. Hopefully it also inspires wilderness soldiers to man the ramparts in defense of a treasure that can never be regained once lost. Fortunately, the battle for Mono has turned. The lake is now refilling and will reach a stable level early in the next century.

With the Muir and Yosemite wildernesses under our belt, we turned to the Ansel Adams and a walk for a closer look at Mt. Ritter. Renamed in 1984 to honor the great photographer of the Range of Light, this wilderness would lead us along the headwaters of the San Joaquin River to Ediza Lake. From Agnew Meadows above the Devil's Postpile, we descended sharply to the river's middle fork. Fishermen cast their lines along its banks, hoping to hook one of the 2100 elusive trout that live in each mile. This enormous density has earned this stretch a designation as a national wild trout stream, a tremedous draw for fly-fishing aficionados.

Six miles later, we waded across an icy creek. Our ford was only yards from one of the river's sources yet the current felt it was trying everything in its power to sweep any weak creatures into its freezing torrent. With carefully placed steps, we kept our footing. A few minutes further, we saw that the waters would be rising even higher for the return journey. The fourteeners Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter, towering up from Ediza Lake's western shore, remained blanketed with vast snowfields, and the August sun was feeding a steady melt downward into our path. The giants smirked as if amused at their treachery.

With our hiking now halfway done, we packed up and moved to Bishop. On the desert floor of the Owens Valley with the afternoon temperature soaring near 100 degrees, Bishop seemed like another world from the alpine environment of Mammoth. The tri-county fair and rodeo getting underway added to the cow town charm. But the massive range on the western horizon reminded us that the John Muir Wilderness was still no more than a half hour away and that the Muir would serve as a gateway to another preserve, the backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park.

Several years earlier on a visit to Cedar Grove on the west side of Kings Canyon, we had taken a short stroll up Paradise Valley. Since hearing tales of its breathtaking beauty, we had dreamed of treking the 60 mile loop that extends out of the valley and circles back through the Rae Lakes Basin and along Bubbs Creek. Now we had an opportunity to penetrate this area on only a 10 mile hike, out of Onion Valley on the east.

When one sees the gnarled trunk of a pinon protruding from a crack in the rocks, its contorted shape testament to the driving winds and blinding blizzards that batter it relentllessly, the survival of its species seems assured, having withstood such harsh conditions for hundreds of years. But when one passes a mile and a half upward from the desert floor to the Sierra crest, one witnesses the true fragility of wilderness life, each piece able to prosper only so long as its narrow niche remains unaltered.

In the dry valley, the sparse low-lying plants of the shadscale scrub eke out a foothold. But the scrub dies out as the rising altitude brings cooler temperatures and greater moisture, giving way first to pinon-junipers, then the mountain mahogany and sage dominant below the Onion Valley Trailhead. As the path winds into the Muir Wilderness around 9,000 feet, the lushness of evergreen forest evokes abundance and prosperity, but even this must yield to the Alpine tundra where only lichens and fungi cling to the rocks.
Up to Kearsarge Pass, we harbored doubts that the effort to rise through this final barren wasteland would pay off. As we stepped by the sign notifying us that we were entering Kings Canyon, our skepticism evaporated. The Kearsarge Pinnacles build a stockade to the left, fortifying the treasures of Vidette Canyon jutting south behind them. To the north, Mts. Gould and Rixford stand guard over Bullfrog and the Rae Lakes, ready to defend their own jewels in a coming clash of titans. One can almost see the minions of these opposing camps marching into a giant geologic cataclysm.

Subsequent days showed us more of the wilderness's countless faces: the anger of a stormy Dusy Basin, the serene beatitude of the Sabrina Lakes. We rated as a resounding success our attempt to find wilderness experience within a day's walk. But the glimpses of Kings Canyon, and the altogether missed Sequoia National Park, only whetted the appetite. Dayhiking provided an hors doeuvre, but we still yearn for the full meal. The land that inspired John Muir to pursue a lifetime of walking and Ansel Adams to turn his artisitic talents to the emerging photographic medium continues to demand a search for those weeks of leisure that will permit an uninterrupted trek through its heart.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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