Monday, October 6, 2014

Cottonwood Lakes - October 2014

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We got horses!

The Lady got her way. It was right at dark as we got the truck and camper leveled out, well as much as we do with leveling, and we set up camp. It was Thursday night, we had left home after work, headed south down highway 395. With the waning light, we pulled off 395 at Conway Summit for a quick overnight on this extended weekend trip. We had spent last Saturday night here at "Ted's Camp" but this time, as I said, the Lady got her way. We camped at road's end with its overlook of Mono Lake. This is the spot the Lady prefers.

Up before the sun, we watched first light build in the east, and then sunrise over Mono Lake.

This was to be a work weekend. We were part of a team of instructors at a planned multi-course outdoor skills workshop for women. Unfortunately the event was canceled. The Lady had already booked a reliable substitute teacher, a young mother who could use the work, so she decided to "play hookey" and we were off.

With last weekend's storm, we didn't know how high we could get. As we neared Lone Pine and Mount Whitney it was evident our part of the Sierra had received more snow then down here. Our plans were fairly loose. We wanted to drive up Horseshoe Meadows Road to the trailheads for the Golden Trout and John Muir Wildernesses and also Sequoia Kings Canyon National Parks. This was new territory for us and part of our continuing exploration of the Sierra Nevada close to home.

This place must be packed during the summer, one of the reasons we have avoided it. This early fall Friday, it was quiet up here. There are two trailheads, one for Cottonwood Pass and one for New Army Pass. Each trailhead has a small walk in campground for tents. There is a ten site equestrian campground at the New Army Pass trailhead. There is also a large overflow parking lot. It was empty and we would of felt comfortable just popping the camper top and setting up in a distant corner but we checked out the empty equestrian campground. It was clean with bear resistant storage boxes and trash bins. The sign read, "Equestrians have priority. All other campers use walk in sites." That was vague enough for us and site 8 suited us fine. About an hour later a large pickup with a fifth wheel combination horse hauler and camper pulled into site 7 next door. I walked over to ask if they had stayed here before, if they knew what fall use was like, and if they thought the campground would fill and would we be in the way? The couple with a young daughter were already busy unloading their horses. I did not interrupt.

When she saw an opportunity, the Lady walked over to the couple and asked our questions. This was their first time up here camping with horses but the young man said he had hiked often in the area. "I don't think it will fill this late in the season," he said. "We have a couple more people showing up. You two have no worries though, you're okay." He pointed to the nearby pen. "Those two horses are yours in pen 8. You are with us. You're family." Two more horse rigs pulled in the next hour. That was it for Friday night. 

Fall mornings before the switch to standard time are unsettling, especially with the extra month now tacked on to daylight time. The sun comes up so late. We have to wait for it. It doesn't seem right.

We were at the first meadow of Cottonwood Creek as the sun began to warm the land. Small golden trout scooted into hiding as we explored the meadow. 

We were going to hike this Saturday, just see where the trail would take us. Cottonwood Lakes are the first place golden trout were planted outside their home waters. I had always wanted to visit here. California Fish & Game had used this stock for egg collection for decades for planting goldens throughout California. Unfortunately it was discovered too late that rainbows had moved into and hybridized this population and the goldens planted throughout California are actually mutts.

The Golden Trout Wilderness butts up against the southern edge of the John Muir Wilderness. We headed north again "Into the Johnny Muir!"

We passed the trail up to the main Cottonwood Lakes. We would do a circle and come out that way. We continued on to New Army Pass.

The trail climbs and enters Cottonwood Basin at Cottonwood Lake #1. We were awe stuck with the High Sierra grandeur before us.

A codgery of coots was on the lake. They were having a great time playing king of the hill on a rock.

The trail drew us onward and higher.

We passed Long Lake and continued climbing.

High Lake sits in a small basin above timber line. We stopped for a snack and refilled the water bottles.

The powerful blue of the autumn high country sky and the soaring granite held our eyes like a spell had been cast upon us.


New Army Pass over the Sierra crest replaces Army Pass just to the north. Although a bit higher it is laid out with long switchbacks keeping to a comfortable grade. If you are hauling a pack, you'd want to come this way. It was an easy climb up from High Lake.

The vistas are incredible at the top and 12,400 feet.

In the above photo, the high point right of center on the sky line  is Death Valley National Park's Telescope Peak.

The High Sierra crest stretched out to the north.

We dropped down to Army Pass. The sign no longer says Army Pass.

The wind was strong over the crest. We moved to the west about a quarter mile and took refuge on the lee side of a large rock. It was a great place to sit and relax on top of the world.

Descending Army Pass would take us down to the upper Cottonwood Lakes.

The remains of the trail descends into a cirque with near vertical walls.

It is easy to see why this route has been replaced. It is plagued with rock fall crossing dangerous ground.

We reached the west end of Cottonwood Lake #4.

The Lady calls the wonderful Foxtail Pines "Old Soldiers."

Fishing for golden trout with special regulations is allowed at Cottonwood Lakes. Ralph Cutter is a noted fly fisherman and author.  Ralph's website offers information on flyfishing here.

We took a long break at Cottonwood Lake #5.

It was time to start heading back.

The incredible sky, trees, and rock continually stopped us.

Even if they are mutts, the goldens here are beautiful.

It had been a wonderful day. We were tired and I guess we deserved to be. When I ran our route out on the map, we had hiked eighteen miles along with a bit of elevation gain and loss. The clouds gave us some color as we enjoyed our dinner back with our horses.

I hoped we may run into the family during our hike. We did not. I had commented to the Mom that I bet her daughter was completely at home and gorgeous on horseback. Mom answered with a big smile. 

We walked the roads in the dark after dinner, a couple of miles, as the Lady says, "To keep the joints oiled."

Reaching these trailheads is via Horseshoe Meadows Road, an airy route that switchbacks up the Sierra's eastern escarpment. We had it all to ourselves Sunday morning as we waited for that late rising sun.

We stopped occasionally for the fall colors and vistas as we traveled north to home. We were so blessed to visit the high country and air, as Mark Twain says, "the angels breathe."

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