“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” ~ John Muir
Some of the finest alpine hiking in this county can be found in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. Looking up at the peaks I am drawn to discover her secrets whispered on the wind; smell her intoxicating scents of pine and sage; listen to the thundering of crystal clear streams cascading down her slopes; walk on these hallowed grounds named in honor of the father of American environmental consciousness, naturalist John Muir. To immerse yourself in these many wonders means your mind and body must embrace high altitude hiking, something in the past that has been a little challenging for me. But my desire to embrace all this wilderness has to offer surpasses my concerns.
We were planning on two hikes while in the Independence and Big Pine areas, but the forecast wasn’t looking good, with snowstorms predicted in the mountains and rain in the valley. We decided to camp outside Independence, up at the 6000′ level and get an early start on a hike that began at Onion Valley, the Kearsarge Pass Trail. We arrived at the trailhead the next morning to a chilly 38º at an elevation of 9200′. We layered-up and hit the trail. Unless you have hiked in the mountains, you cannot imagine how breathtaking the alpine lakes can be and there were five that we encountered on our way up to the pass, some still frozen over, awaiting the spring thaw.
Once we cleared the tree line, the howling wind was our lone companion on the barren, windswept trail that switchbacked the remaining 1.5 miles to the pass. Snowflakes swirled around us as we continued our upward trek, but quite frankly, I did not notice their beauty until I stepped onto the pass. The view down into Kings Canyon National Park, dotted with alpine lakes, was breathtaking. And the sign indicating that we had arrived at an altitude of 11,760′ put a smile on my face that seemed frozen in place until we began our descent. Snowflakes danced around us as if to the pulse of Nature’s heartbeat.
Our hike back down seemed colder than earlier in the day, as the winds picked up speed, bringing in a storm that would dump a foot of fresh snow in the mountains that night. It was a beautiful 10-mile hike, albeit a bit frigid.
We sat out the storm and luckily the days following were warm, so after checking with the rangers and a couple of locals we decided to head out to Big Pine to hike the North Fork Trail. Originally we thought we would hike to Black Lake to get a view of the Palisade Glacier, the largest in the Sierras and the southernmost in the U.S. When we came to the fork in the road, we opted for Third Lake, which is fed by the glacier, and was reported to be a milky turquoise color. The hike was the same distance and the lure of several more alpine lakes was too much to pass by.
This hike begins at 7700′ and unlike the many switchbacks on the Kearsarge Pass Trail, it has a grueling long stretch of upward climbing. You can almost forget about how tiring this first section is by looking at the beauty around you. You catch a glimpse of the Middle Palisade Glacier on this stretch, and some lovely waterfalls. Once beyond the uphill slog the trail begins to zigzag through a slope of sagebrush, manzanita, and Jeffrey pine, before reaching Second Falls. And once again you are bewitched by the tantalizing smells and sounds enveloping you.
At the 3-mile mark you come upon a cabin built by movie actor Lon Chaney, now used as a wilderness ranger camp, a beautiful setting along a lovely stream.
Continue upward and you arrive at First Lake, a lovely blue-green oasis sitting in a bowl, then on to Second Lake a short distance later.
Third Lake, where we planned to stop and have lunch, was a bit of a disappointment, but still a handsome gal with Tempe Crag looming over her. Given the lack of snowfall these past four years, glacial runoff has not been occurring at the normal rate so her coloring was, shall we say, less than spectacular. It was still “lunch with a view” as John and Pam would say, and at 10,400′, the air was crisp and the sun was shining. Once we lightened our load by consuming a few calories we headed back down the trail, making for an exhilarating, but bone-weary 11-mile trek.
There is another storm predicted but we are hopeful to do a few more hikes before we leave the Sierras. To quote John Muir, there is nothing like hiking in the mountains to “wash your spirit clean”.
Next Stop: Bishop, CA