Trekking on Hallowed Ground ~ John Muir Wildnerness

“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.

Lon Chaney cabin
Lon Chaney cabin

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.

First Lake
First Lake
Second Lake
Second Lake
Third Lake with Temple Crag looming overhead
Third Lake with Temple Crag looming overhead

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

Hiking High ~ Eastern Sierras, CA

View from the summit at Virginia Lakes

Hiking high (as in elevation, not in how fuzzy my brain feels), is inevitable if you are in the Eastern Sierras. The Oh! Ridge NFS Campground where we are hangin’ out sits at roughly 7600 feet so it’s pretty much a given that you will be movin’ on up from there! Since altitude and I are not on the best of terms, I can be plagued with vertigo, headaches and nausea if I’m not careful.  Acclimatizing to this altitude has made all the difference in my hiking enjoyment, and we do love our hiking.

Eastern Sierra sunset

The Eastern Sierras are particularly special: 360º mountain views, crisp sunny days, deepest azure skies, striking fall colors, gorgeous alpine lakes, breathtaking sunsets. Hiking doesn’t get much better than this.

We did a couple of hikes early on to get us in the mood and get me acclimatized.  Parker Lake, with its golden quaking aspens along the trail and crystal-clear blue lake and Lundy Canyon Trail, with a great overlook sporting golden meadows, aspens, and a lovely waterfall were great starter hikes.

So, I think I’m prepared to stretch myself a bit further, to experience the true grandeur of the Sierras.  To ensure a safe hike and stave off altitude sickness, we have called upon our buddy Paul to call forth the Paiute “Great Spirit”, to guide  us on our journey.  Ok, I’m being a little silly but I love how Paul was captured in this photo so I just had to add it.

Paul calling forth the “Great Spirit” at Lundy Canyon Overlook

On a quest to further prepare myself, our next hike was Yost Lake.  With an elevation gain of 1800 feet and ~ 3.2 miles each way, it was fairly grueling from the time we set boots on the trail.  The alpine lake at the top was the prize and a great place to enjoy a picnic lunch, basking in the sun.

Yost Lake
Balancing act

Yosemite was calling us back so we decided a short hike in the park was not to be missed.  The recommendation given us by a couple of friends was Gaylor Lakes.  Located just inside the eastern entrance to the park, Gaylor Lakes trailhead sits at roughly 10,000 feet, with only a 500 foot elevation gain – easy, right?  Once again straight up we go and then straight down to the lakes.  Terry even said it was a b@!ch of a little hike, and when I caught my breath, I had to agree.

Gaylor Lake

For me, the granddaddy of our hikes in this area was to be Virginia Lakes.  Our traveling buddies Nina and Paul had already tackled it so I knew what to expect. Beginning at an elevation of ~ 9800 feet, it tops out on Summit Pass at 11,140 feet and is roughly 8 miles round-trip.

One of the many splendid Virginia Lakes

Nina and Paul agreed to come along for their second hike to the lakes (oh the beauty of youth!).  With a little trepidation (wondering if my body would remember it does not like these altitudes), we hit the trail.  Winding through aromatic pine forest and past five of the loveliest little alpine lakes, I decided to go for the summit.  Although a little windy and a lot colder at the top, I could not have been happier.  The views from the top were breathtaking!

Nina & Polly at Virginia Lakes
Terry & I on the summit

The Eastern Sierras have given us some of the best hiking we have done.  If you come, be prepared for a hiking high that will challenge and inspire you.  The beauty here is nothing short of heavenly.  But all good things must come to an end, and with temps dipping into the 20’s at night, it’s time to head south to Bishop.

Miner’s camp on Virginia Lakes trail

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