11 August 2012

Sierra: Cottonwood Lakes

Inyo National Forest



Locate the trail head.

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6 | DAY 7 | DAY 8 | DAY 9

I have a chance to go into the high Sierras for a bit over a week, and although I'm feeling a mite irresponsible to take it, well, I have a chance to go into the Sierras for a bit over a week. The trip is set for nine days and goes from Horseshoe Meadows around the back of Whitney to Wallace Lake by a route including cross country sections. The original plan continued out via Shepherds Pass, but there was some mumbling about that particular pass, so it was decided to return to the Meadow by the trails to make a loop out of it and forgo the car shuttle. Permits to go into the "Whitney zone" were long gone when the permit was reserved, so Hitchcock Lakes and the mountain were out for legal reasons, but I went there back when we didn't need anything more than to fit into the quota of some trail head and the resources to hike from there to the mountain. I've been to the top twice, and though they were both half my life ago, I don't really feel much need to go again, yet.

I'm battling the heavies with some of my rather old stuff, so on the way down from the Lassen area, I stopped in Reno for some shopping. REI didn't have the bear barrel I wanted (the Bear Vault in large size so I have the best chance of getting nine days of food inside and with slightly fewer ounces) nor the light bivy sack I felt like trying. I should have gone ahead and picked up one of the Garcias, but didn't. I got some lithium batteries at another stop and then checked out Sierra Trading Post for the first time. Not sure what the fuss is about, but I did pick up a 14 ounce bivy that was open at the top, but otherwise waterproof. You can just cover the open part with your coat or something, I had been told in REI. They did have a shirt similar to my current favorite at almost as little as I paid for it, but it had a zippered pocket placed along the buttons which just makes the shirt look funny. They had no bear canisters.

I got into Bishop far too late to get a canister from the Inyo ranger station there and couldn't find a map to locate the closest ranger station to my destination for getting a canister for $5 a week in the morning. I found a spot for the night and in the morning headed to the Lone Pine ranger station, which I drove right past and ended up at an Interagency Visitor Center instead. When they finally open at 8AM when I needed to be at the trail head, I find that here, they rent canisters for $2.50 per day, not $5 per week, and won't let me have one unless I can produce a permit number. I don't have the permit number, but they do manage to mention that I could get one in town from the sports or hardware stores. I do manage to find the ranger station on the way back into town, but it has been converted to an administrative unit only now. I end up finding a Garcia for slightly less at the hardware store, everyone else is either sorry they missed me and promising to be back half an hour ago or trying to rent me something smaller.

Taking off up the road, I manage to navigate all the hairpin turns and the last bit with a low speed limit in just over half an hour, making me about 1 hour late to meeting the rest. The clouds are out already and they've been hearing rumors of rain that came in by lunch time and settled in for the remainder of the day the day before. It was a howling storm when they came up the hairpins the night before. They're worried about all this weather and have decided to get camp settled quickly. I ask a couple stretching at the trail who described the group perfectly... I'd missed them by about 20 minutes. I pack up the food quickly deciding I've gotten too much lunch, and get all the food and smelly, especially a bottle of conditioner that is exploding a little more each day, into the bear boxes by the lot. I add the tent footprint and two stakes to my bivy shelter. I can't seem to locate my GPS as I start, shoulder the pack, still a bit heavy but feeling like something I can handle, and start off up the trail knowing only that today we camp at "Cottonwood Lakes" and tomorrow we go over New Army Pass as a means of finding the group.

Cottonwood Creek
Not too far down the trail, I come to the side of some water that is Cottonwood Creek.

The trail makes its way pleasantly through trees. It comes to Cottonwood Creek and crosses. There are meadows along the way, most of which are roped off. There is a lot of traffic, so perhaps they feel the need to discourage those up for picnics from overusing these areas. Breaks through the trees show a bit of granite here and there, but it is mostly forest. Gradually, as I climb, the forest changes character.

granite poking out of the trees
A granite cliff face emerging from the trees. The forest at the top is distinctly different from the trees around me. And the clouds are threatening.


forest and meadows in the foreground, mountains in the background
Climbing higher, the trees are changing. Below, meadows and trees. Beyond, bare granite mountains.

I briefly decide to go directly toward New Army Pass instead of Cottonwood Lakes and cross the creek to find the other side has a sign saying "trail" and pointing opposite of the trail I've just come from. After a few hundred feet and a chat with a day hiker with a map showing a route between the two routes further up, I decided to take a tour of the lakes after all. I would be much happier about the day if it turns out to be a heavy day hike if I've taken advantage of being up here and checked out the lakes. I turn around and ignore the "trail" sign and continue up to Cottonwood Lakes.

junction between lakes
Trail junction with Muir Lake to the right and Cottonwood Lakes 1-6 to the left. The sign needs a little help and mileages would be nice.

Coming to the junction with Muir Lake, I decided not to go too far off my path and kept going up to Cottonwood Lakes. Coming to lake 1, I say a tent on either side of the lake and a couple guys out fishing from a rock on the south side. The trail back leaves the route to the lakes to go back to the route to the new pass shortly before this lake at an unsigned junction. Coming to lakes 3 and 4, I found an old cabin across the meadow to the left. The trail heads up between the two lakes.

route back to New Army Pass trail
The route back to the trail over New Army Pass crosses the outflow for Cottonwood Lake 1.

grey metal cabin at the edge of the meadow
A cabin along the trail in the John Muir Wilderness.

Cottonwood Lake #3
Cottonwood Lake #3, the view from the cabin.

Coming around lake 4, I came upon a couple people I had thought were in the group, but it turned out they'd been out for the previous week hanging out and climbing Langley. They were just getting camp packed up to see if they could find the group as well to hang out one more night before going out. They went down the trail to connect with the route to New Army Pass while I took the last bit of trail on the way to lakes 5 and 6 and Army Pass. There were many people camping up at these couple lakes.

Cottonwood Lake #4
Cottonwood Lake #4 from the trail to lakes 5 and 6, looking south.

people coming down Army Pass
People coming down the unmaintained trail over Army Pass.

Cottonwood Lake #6
Cottonwood Lake #6, the second to last lake before Army Pass.

I find myself out of water, so pump some from lake 6 while the weather decides to start dropping those rain drops everyone else is worried about. The rain doesn't worry me so much, my new pack should be pretty good at keeping the stuff inside it dry, but the rumbles worry me some while hanging out near the tree line and hiking through open meadow space. I look around a little, then make my way back to the trail up New Army Pass. Lake 4 is full of day hiking fishermen as I come back past it. The rain isn't very hard and clears up again quickly.

Cottonwood Lake #5
Cottonwood Lake #5, the last lake before Army Pass.

yellow flowers
Some of the flowers that decorate the alpine environment.

Coming back to lake 1, I am not entirely sure where the junction I am looking for is, or even if there is good trail for it. I thought it would go on the far side of the lake, and the land would support it but as I go there, I only find trails to campsites. I follow them back to the main trail and follow the one clear, though unsigned, junction back and quickly come to a signed junction on the trail that I want to be on in the end. No one is camped at lake 1 now. As I pass lake 2, the last of the Cottonwood Lakes before the new pass, I see a few camping. I pass a couple strings of pack animals as I go and find the trail after they pass to be quite churned up.

Cottonwood Lake #1
Cottonwood Lake #1, the first along either trail where people were camped and fishing as I first came past, but are gone now.

Cottonwood Lake #2
Cottonwood Lake #2, the last along the trail to New Army Pass, where a couple people are camped.

more yellow flowers like daisies with well spaced petals
Another few flowers along the trail.

The trail passes near one of the South Fork Lakes where I see a large group camped. I sit to look at the lake and rest and feed my tummy that's claiming it is hungry again and quickly notice that this group, with chairs and tarp roofs, probably are not my group. In fact, the churned up dirt of the trail leads right down to their site and hints that this is where the pack animals came from. A Meet-Up group came past and I chatted with them asking if there were more lakes above because I was getting a little tired and kind of like a spot right over there around the lake. They said there was one, probably two more lakes, so I followed them up to Long Lake where I found my group at the last lake before the trees end.

granite talus slope
A hillside of granite talus on the way.

Long Lake
A view of Long Lake, the last before the trees end.

Long Lake
Long Lake from our campsite.

We enjoy ourselves for the last of the afternoon as the clouds close in again. I learn more details about the weather the day before and worry a little about the weather still to come today. I set myself up between a few trees to have good protection from wind, first putting down my tent footprint then setting out my bag in my bivy. After dinner, we get rain starting again and, with the very last light of the day, a rainbow.

rainbow at sunset
The sun has set for us, but it is still up on the hillside and making rainbows as the rain starts.

I settle down into my bivy for the night as it gets dark and the rain starts. My rain coat keeps me dry for a bit, but the very light breathable fabrics aren't as good and I need a bit of space to breath. Water coming down the bivy and water from my breath both work to seal my jacket to the bivy, which is great for keeping out water but too stuffy. I keep having to reopen a spot to breathe, and at one point got a stream of water onto my shoulder for my trouble. I decide that a roof is more important than a floor and pull on my rain coat. I try to find my lamp and can't, so grope for my pants and pull them on. Standing on my tent footprint, my socks are now soaked so I pull them off as I stick my feet into my shoes. I find my lamp and as it plays down to my feet, I find I haven't even gotten my shoes on the right way, but it doesn't matter without my thick socks on. I pull out the footprint and put it over the bivy, then fish out some line that's been part of my emergency kit for a while and the stakes. I stake the corners, find a rock for the center, and tie it up into the trees before slipping back out of my rain suit and shoes and into my sleeping bag. I quickly drop off to sleep once set up under my little roof.

Continue reading: day 2




©2012 Valerie Norton
Posted 24 Aug 2012

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