12 October 2014

McGee Creek: Red Slate Mountain

Inyo National Forest

Locate the trailhead.

DAY 1 | DAY 2

(Day 2 of 2) It seems like it should be colder than this in October at 10,000 feet. There is not the slightest sign of frost anywhere. Today, we can day hike up the last of the mountain, then grab the rest of our stuff on the way down and coast the rest of the way out. First, we have to get started and it is quite a late start. Ah, but the sun is upon us as we do. The night warmer than expected does not translate into a very warm day.

sun on the mountain and in the reflection of the lake
Red and White Mountain with sun long before it gets to us on the other side of Big McGee Lake.

pyramid of rock beside the trail ahead
Starting out in the still cool, but now sunny, fall air.

The trail crosses above Big McGee Lake passing a well worn use trail that drops down to the west side of it. The map has me worried a bit as it shows the trail taking an easy diagonal across a vertical cliff face of at least 400 feet at the edge. Since the other side of the edge is in meters, it is not as simple as it should be to compare the two for all except the misplaced range line on that northern map. Before that climb is the 200 foot climb up to Little McGee Lake.

Big McGee Lake vanishing
Another viewpoint on Big McGee Lake.

onion gone to seed
There is wild Sierra onion up here, but in this season it is spreading seed to produce the next generation.

Little McGee
The first view of Little McGee Lake.

We met a woman the day before who day hiked to Little McGee Lake and was quite insistent that we should come up to here and camp in a delightful meadow next to it. She would enunciate "little" as though correcting our poor pronunciation of where we were going, which did not even have the right amount of syllables. The meadow turns out to be a tiny space of brown grass next to an area with a rock wind break and other signs of camping. It is a fair climb above the water and barely off the trail which proceeds flatly far above the edge. The rocks here seem to ring under my feet although my poles seem to elicit dull thuds. Above, we get our first look at Red Slate Mountain as things take a turn for ugly.

Red Slate Mountain
The rounded grey top of Red Slate Mountain at the top of a valley of scree.

Little McGee Lake from the north
Looking back on Little McGee Lake. The trail passes to the left.

There is one more unnamed pothole of a lake above Little McGee Lake. Scree fall and low water are beginning to divide it into two. Things are not so bad looking around the lake. It is a progression from lovely structured rock walls to unattractive scree slope.

one last small lake among the scree slopes
The water is noticeably lower than usual in the unnamed lake.

pothole lake nearly split in two
Looking back over the unnamed pothole.

trail to McGee Pass
The trail climbs up the left side to McGee Pass near Red Slate Mountain.

The cliff at the far end of the unnamed lake never materializes. Above it is a large bowl and the trail switchbacks up the western side to McGee Pass. The view into Cascade Valley at the top is grand. Somewhere below, the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail share a tread that this trail eventually finds and ends at. Our concern is not that. Our concern is the mountain to the northwest and still a little more than a thousand feet up.

Cascade Valley from McGee Pass
Cascade Valley from McGee Pass. There is also a panorama.

The summitpost page says to drop down a little to climb the southwest face, but does not mention if they mean back the way we came or further along the trail. Back the way we came makes the most sense looking at it and forward makes the most sense from the language. While pondering what is really the best way, we cannot help but notice the well established use trail that follows exactly where we "should not" go directly up from the pass. From the pass, it looks like such a route will have a bit of extra climbing, but the trail is well established. We go for it. This part is not the most worrying section as we examine the mountain from the pass anyway.

blue separating where we are from where we were
The area of the mine is somewhere past the ridge and our route in is past the next, small ridge.

Our former neighbor comes along carrying a large camera on a tripod. He is finishing at the pass and we try to convince him of the splendor of the peak just a little further, but he is having none of it. He takes quite a long time playing with his camera at the pass as we climb. As it turns out, the use trail does not climb extra elevation except for about eight feet that can be avoided by taking one of the trails that split off to the left just before the climb. The use trail fades out when the mountain is flat and gets very clear when things get steep. Choose the correct bit of use trail in the area where things looked worrisome, just before the rocks turn grey, and it is a walk up. Surprisingly with all the scree, it is a walk where my feet stay where I put them. I do manage to choose the wrong route once and have to climb a few feet with no real exposure instead of walking the whole way. At the top, mountains and lakes open up to all sides.

bodies of blue above Convict Lake
Constance, Dorothy, Mildred, and Bright Dot Lakes that sit in the drainage above Convict Lake.

more lakes
Cecil and Lee Lakes above Cascade Valley and a slew of other lakes. (2 photo panorama, far more extensive panorama here)

back the way I came
Looking back down the trail, Big McGee Lake is just visible. The far peaks above it are Vagabond and Cloudripper although I cannot find Tom.

red and white peak
Red and White Peak actually has a more imposing looking peak behind the banded portion that is most visible from Big McGee Lake.

more lakes
Dorothy, Mildred, and Bright Dot Lakes with Mono Lake almost lost in the distant haze. (2 photo panorama)

Looking for monuments is a bust. There is a post where a disk was once cemented onto the rock, but the disk is missing. There are two chiseled exes, one with an empty hole in the middle and the second with a washer stamped "USGS BM" on it. The register shows probably a few hundred climb the peak each year between May and September or October, depending on the first snow. There are not a lot of silly zig-zags with a number under them although this is listed in the Sierra Peaks Section. We head down and Bernard manages to keep me to the better path so I can just walk the whole way back to the trail. We meet another former neighbor who was a just down the creek the night before and is poking around before having another night at the lake. He is more easily convinced of the splendor of the peak, but since he does not have a light, I arm him with sunset and moonrise times before letting him head off. Actually, he only has a notebook and ditty sack full of something, so Bernard tries to give him some water too, but he insists cameling up at the lake was enough.

coming down the mountain looking at the lakes
Big McGee and Little McGee Lakes and the unnamed pothole while we are still a bit above the trail.

Big McGee Lake
Closing in on Big McGee Lake.

We meet one more day hiking up from the lake as we go down. She had wanted to go to the mine, but went down the cutoff trail and continued along it so is now headed to the pass. We tell her to stick to the road and about the camping opportunities and water available and even about the climb up the local mountains. The data provided may get a little more iffy as we move away from our recent personal experience, but we help as well as we can before continuing on.

brown pond in brown grass
A little pond is in the large flat just above Big McGee Lake.

We poke a little way down the use trail west of the lake, then continue on our way, zooming along in the waning light. Some spots make me wonder if we were actually there the night before or in the morning and it starts to feel like the lake has grown quite a bit before finally realizing we have overshot our camping stuff by something like a mile. It is a mile with little elevation change, but we really needed that time and energy for getting down as quickly as possible. We climb back wondering how we could both miss what had seemed like such an obvious spot along the trail on the way up. Once properly packed up, we start down again.

granite and brown grass meadow
Sun on the meadow as we have just barely gone too far.

red and blue/white rocks
The sun is getting low already.

We end up paying for our two hour late start and absurd overshooting by having to do about four miles in the dark. We do manage to get through the steep part before it is too dark, but everything after that is a dark blur. I get disoriented upon finding water flowing on my left although I can remember that I will cross water coming down from the right, but I will do so after going upstream a short way. This puts the water on my left, but somehow my tired brain cannot figure this out. A little further, and there is the second crossing on the broken bridge. A little past that, and we are to the last mile of the trail that we still have not seen in the daylight. I knew it was possible when we started in the dark, but hoped it would not be. Coming back, we do not even have to moon to light it. Once we get to the car, we have finished off 31 miles for the weekend and feel quite done, but there is a long drive home waiting.

©2014 Valerie Norton
Posted 18 October 2014

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