Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Wandering the Mono Basin - October 2017 - Part Two

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Mono Pass

The Lady decided on hiking Mono Pass for her birthday present. We had been to Mono Pass before, taken the easy 3.5 mile trail on the west side from Dana Meadows in Yosemite National Park. That route would not qualify as a birthday present long hike. Birthday present day called for a hike up from the bottom on the east side and ascend Bloody Canyon to Mono Pass. Then, of course, turn around and hike back down to the bottom.

Mono Pass is the historic pathway through the Sierra crest south of Tioga Pass. Tioga is a new modern highway pass and not a route used in the early days.

Mono Pass was used by the Native American tribes - long before white intrusion - as a trade route and path to cooler summer terrain. The east side tribes had an important trade good that spread throughout the west, obsidian for points and tools, a product of the volcanism in the Mono Basin.

The east end - bottom - of the trail starts at Walker Lake -

a natural impoundment of water trapped by a recessional moraine of the glacial era's Bloody Glacier.

Walker Lake is hard to get to. Public access via the road into the lake is not allowed. Private cabins and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power lands result in a locked gate. Public access is now provided to the west (upper) end of Walker Lake via a steep rough dirt road to the top of the huge lateral moraine south of the lake. A trail head sits at the top and a steep trail switchbacks and drops hundreds of vertical feet down to Walker Lake. There were three vehicles at the trailhead when we arrived, all were there for angler access to Walker Lake. The trail up Bloody Canyon to Mono Pass is another of the Sierra's forgotten trails and gets little use - just the kind of route we love to experience, especially seeped in so much history and so many stories.

Where the trail crosses the inflow into Walker Lake - Walker Creek - we had a wonderful surprise. Non - native brown trout, planted long ago in Walker Lake and fall spawners, had moved up into the gravels of Walker Creek for their yearly reproductive rituals. 

We love it when a large trout's dorsal fin sticks out of the water.

This diversion could have delayed us all day as could wandering through the remaining aspen color in the broad meadows above the lake.

But our quest was for a birthday present long hike, and our fate was to climb, and climb we did.

The exact reason for the name Bloody Canyon is lost to time. Some say it was because of all the cut legs on work horses and mules made bloody by the unforgiving grade and sharp rocks. Others say it is because of the red colors of the metamorphic roof pennant rocks overlaying the younger classic Sierra granite.

It was spectacular and glorious. The weather cool and perfect. The skies washed clear by the recent storm.

I will add here that Walker Lake and Walker Creek are named after my favorite mountain man - Joseph R. Walker. In 1833, working for Benjamin Bonneville, Walker was tasked with finding an overland route to California. Everyone who came after - Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, the gold rush and the California Trail, followed Joseph Walker's lead.

The early Mono Basin settlers believed Mono Pass was where Walker made one of the earliest Sierra crossings and they named Walker Lake and Walker Creek in his honor. But it's probably a mistake. The majority of historians believe Walker crossed the Sierra Nevada much farther north.

Our climb was just beginning.

This is an old Sierra trail with a steep grade. It wasted no time gaining elevation.

We took our first break at Lower Sardine Lake and consulted the map.

We figured an hour more to Mono Pass. The map showed the route was straight up the cleft in the upper right of the above photo. We'd leave Lower Sardine at 12:30 pm, be at the top at 1:30, and give ourselves a turnaround time of two pm. It would be three hours back down traveling at a little over two miles an hour - the same as our upward pace.

Fall in the high country foretelling the coming of winter is absolutely stunning.

The trail traverses around and climbs above Upper Sardine Lake.

Around every bend now, the Lady was convinced we'd be at Mono Pass. "We should be there," the Lady said beginning this grade. "I can almost touch the sky!"

And yet, the trail continued, but we knew we were there with the familiar vistas around us.

The surface of Summit Lake behind the Lady was frozen, a sheet of ice.

Lt. Tredwell Moore crossed over Mono Pass in 1852 in pursuit of the Yosemite Miwoks Indians. The Miwoks attempted to escape to the Sierra east side but the U.S. Army doggedly pursued them across this ancient route. Moore reported the discovery of a large lake - Mono Lake - and returned to the west with mineral samples that began the flow of prospectors and settlers to the Mono Basin.

It's ruggedness saved Mono Pass. It would not become a wagon route. The Sonora Mono Toll Road took its place as a route for wagons and commerce.

Mono Pass remains unchanged. Almost forgotten, it is a quiet beautiful place. A place where birthdays can be celebrated.

"Do you think you'll be able to do a hike like this when you're sixty one?" I asked the Lady as we relaxed in the sun, packs off, legs stretched out, our backs against rocks, munching away from our bags of snacks.

"You mean tomorrow?" she asked. "Yeah, I could do this again tomorrow." She slowly looked all round and nodded her head in the affirmative. "This is a good birthday present!"

We left Mono Pass at 2:15 pm. It never hurts - with good weather - to linger in the Sierra high country.

The steep, some might even consider treacherous, descent back to Lower Sardine Lake makes its naming easy to understand - a load of sardines went into the lake.

We propose it would have been more fun if the lake had been named in honor of the mule that went in with its cargo of sardines, maybe Zeke Lake or Anna Belle Lake? 

The route continued down, down, down with us surrounded by bloody colored rocks.

The canyon was in deep shade when we reentered the timber lower in the canyon. Cold bit into our faces with the wind.

The long climb up from Walker Lake to the trailhead felt good. We changed into fresh clothes at the truck, felt refreshed and started our drive down to Lee Vining around quarter to six. Early in the day we had agreed we'd have dinner at the famous Whoa Nellie Deli.

Note: More information on Mono Pass and the early days of settlement in Mono Lake Basin can be found here -

Yes, it was busy at Nellie's even on a Sunday evening. With the cold wind, no one ate outside. A woman, Vicky, invited us to share her table. Vicky has worked for the concessionaire in Yosemite Valley, all seasons, for years and has housing there. Vicky loves to dance and, when Tioga Pass is open in the summer, she drives over on Thursdays because Whoa Nellie Deli has a dance band on Thursday evenings. Dinner and dancing makes the two hour drive well worth it for Vicky. This Sunday was for a last fall walk in Lee Vining Canyon before Tioga Pass closes for the winter.  

After a great dinner and pleasant time spent with Vicky, we needed north on 395 as dusk gave way to night. We pulled into our favorite dispersed camp spot at Mono Diggings.

We slept well. A great horned owl's deep vocalizations echoed among the granite boulders. It had warmed so much from the start of our trip, we now slept with the windows open. The cold feels so good with us snuggled in our warm bedding. The crisp smell of sage added to the night.

We wandered at dawn on the Lady's birthday.

It was Monday morning. We took our time heading home. We were surprised so many were still out looking for fall colors up Lundy Canyon. I couldn't resist probably the most photographed fall scene up Lundy.

A quick lunch at the Mono County Park in Walker and then up and over Monitor Pass ended our trip and wanderings in Mono Basin, an adventure complete with a special birthday present and paths through history.


  1. Lovely area!! Thanks once again for letting us tag along!

  2. Breathtaking -- especially the outside shower in high wind at 30 degrees!

    For a long time, I have wondered about the trail up to Mono Pass from the east side -- thanks for showing us the way.

  3. What a great birthday! Absolutely wonderful!