Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

Ten Lakes Basin – a quick photographic pack trip

Earlier this week I spent a few days in the Ten Lakes Basin area of Yosemite National Park. Although I’ve backpacked widely in the high country of the park over the past years – OK, decades… – this was actually the very first time that I visited this popular backpacking destination. I think I had shied away from it for a couple reasons: it seems perhaps too popular and accessible, and I tend to prefer somewhat higher and more alpine terrain. But it was time, I visited, and I’m glad I did.

I managed to get to the park fairly early on a Monday morning and pick up a wilderness permit without problems. (Congratulations to ranger “Elizabeth” who issued her very first Yosemite wilderness permit to me… ;-) It was less difficult to get the permit than it might be under different circumstances: school has started for many and the midweek backcountry “traffic” begins to decline near the end of August. Although I had permit in hand by 9:00 a.m. or so, for a variety of reasons I did not hit the trail until about 1:30.

Although I carry a map and can do a fine job of finding my way around in the mountains with or without a trail, these days I sometimes don’t obsess over “knowing everything” (as if that were even possible!) about the route ahead of time. That was the case on this trip. I was familiar with the trailhead, having driving past it many times, and I had often looked up the valley into which it goes. But beyond that I initially had almost no idea of the actual terrain – in fact, I had long be under the mistaken impression that the Basin is on the south side of the ridge. Wrong.

Before I actually hit the trail I did consult the map more carefully and discover that the lakes are actually on the other side of the ridge… and a few hundred feet below the high point of the trail on a ridge that divides Mariposa and Tuolumne counties. I was starting to catch on that there might be a bit more climbing on this trip than I had really imagined – I sort of intentionally did not measure the climb… which turned out to be about 2000 feet. Now a 2000 foot climb is not a giant one, especially compared to some of 3000′ to 5000′ that I’ve done in the southern Sierra – but neither is it exactly a happy little afternoon walk. In the end, what with stops for photography and food and water along the way, it was close to 7:00 p.m. by the time I arrived at my campsite at “lake three,” the lake to the left of the trail when it arrives in the Basin. I basically set up camp, fixed dinner, did a bit of reading, and went to sleep.

Day 2 was fairly lazy. I did not get up early, so I missed some possible early morning photo opportunities, though I used the better part of the rest of the morning to scout out shooting locations for later. In the afternoon I wandered on up to the next lake and did a bit of photography, especially on the way back down when shadows from the cliff to the west were starting to create some interesting lighting conditions. I also visited the main lake (“lake two”) and found a couple scenes that I returned to photograph later in the evening.

By the end of this second day I was thinking more about the tremendous panorama I had seen as I crossed the high ridge above the lake on the way in. I was stunned by the wide open views, especially toward the peaks of the Sierra crest from Dana and Gibb past Conness to other high peaks far to the north, all set off against the rock-strewn summit of the ridge, tree covered ridges below, and below all of that the depths of the Tuolumne River canyon. I started to make a plan to do a “dry camp” on the ridge on the next night and try to photograph the evening and then the following morning.

On the third day I still had this plan in mind in the morning. But first I did more photography around lake three, including near the outlet stream where I had found some still-fresh vegetation and flowers. (By this time much of the summer plant life is starting to show signs of going dormant. Many flowers have blossomed and gone to seed and some very early hints of fall color are already starting to appear.) After this I decided to explore further up this creek and by a combination of use trails and cross-country scrambling I managed to get up to lake five. I returned to my camp by about 2:00 – hungry for lunch! – and soon packed up with the plan of doing that “dry camp” on the ridge for the photography.

Late in the afternoon I started up the trail and I reached the ridge by about 4:45 or so – but I was somewhat disappointed to find that a very large wildfire was burning to the west and sending quite a bit of smoke my way, and also generally adding a lot of brown haze to the scene that had been so clear two days earlier. I poked around a bit and found a potential camp spot for my bivy sack in a clump of trees on the ridge, but in the end I decided that the photographs I had in mind just weren’t going to happen in these conditions – and I decided to head out and drive home that night. (One often doesn’t know for sure whether such decisions are right or not – but I think this was the right decision given that the fire continued – continues, as I write this – to grow and shortly forced a closure of the Big Oak Flat road into the valley.)

So, at about 6:00 p.m. I started down from the ridge, having resolved to make a beeline for the trailhead. Most of the trail is conducive to fast downhill walking, with the exception of a few steep and rocky sections near the beginning and end of the descent, and I made good time. I arrived at my car before 8:00 p.m. – still enough light to see well, but fading fast – and was soon on the road back to the Bay Area.


August 28, 2009 Posted by | Trips, Yosemite | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ten Lakes Basin – a quick photographic pack trip

A few day hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows area

In an online discussion group I read and post to someone asked about hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows region of Yosemite. They were going to be there for only one day, and wondered what some of the options might be. Since I wrote up a reply and posted it to that discussion group, I figured I might as well share it here as well. Here goes…

You’re talking about MY country now! ;-)

There are, of course, a ton of interesting day hikes in the Tioga/Tuolumne region. Which one is right for you depends a lot on how much time you’ll have, your preferences for terrain and other features, what time of day you are there, and so forth. I’ll just mention a few to get you started.

1. If you are only there for a very brief time, a minimal hike is simply to hike out across the meadow to the Soda Springs area. You’ll enjoy this more if you do it in the morning or late in the day. This is an easy and essentially flat walk – and there are several alternate routes – that takes you across the meadow and the river and into the edge of the forested areas.

2. Another short walk can take you to the the bridge across the Tuolumne on the John Muir Trail as it starts up Lyell Canyon. You can start this at any of the parking areas along the spur road to Tuolumne Lodge, though I think the route from the main campground is more scenic.

3. To get just a _bit_ more flavor of the backcountry, you could hike the one mile trail to May Lake and its high sierra camp set beneath Mt. Hoffman. (This is not all the way up to Tuolumne – e.g. it is further west along the Tioga Pass road.

4. The relatively short hike from the back of the Tuolumne Campground to Elizabeth Lake is scenic and gets you to a wonderful, meadow-surrounded sub-alpine lake. There is plenty to explore there.

5. If you want to get to a high place with great panoramic views of Tuolumne and the surrounding peaks (especially the Cathedral range) the hike to the top of Lembert Dome is a classic. Some find sections at the top a bit exposed for comfort, but it is not really dangerous at all – hundreds of people climb it every day. I prefer to start this hike from the “dog lake trail” parking lot between the wilderness permit station and Tuolumne Lodge.

6. To quickly get to true high sierra terrain, the hike from the Tioga Pass entrance station to the Gaylor Lake Basin can’t be beat. The route is short but steep. There are tremendous views of 13,000+ Mt. Dana across the meadow, and the basin itself has plenty to explore. You can even visit the remains of the old mining site at the head of the basin.

7. If you have a good half day, the hike out to Mono Pass is spectacular. You’ll get all the way to the Sierra crest on foot, you’ll travel through wonderful alpine terrain, you’ll get to see more historic remnants of log cabins near the pass. If you are a very aggressive hiker you can work nearby Parker Pass and/or Spillway Lake into your hike as well.

8. Another classic day hike – of roughly the same length at the Mono Pass hike but at somewhat lower elevation – takes you from T-Meadow to Cathedral Lakes.

There are more… many more.


August 3, 2009 Posted by | Commentary | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A few day hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows area

Yosemite Spring Progress Report

Several thing define the progress from winter to summer in Yosemite, both in the Valley and in the high country. Edie Howe (of The Little Red Tent) posted two indicators this evening. First, she reports that the recent warm weather may have jump-started the dogwood blossoms – it will be interesting to follow this since some had speculated that the bloom would be delayed this season. Maybe not. She also posts a web cam photo of the Tioga Pass entrance kiosk… showing that plows have made it to that point from the east.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | Commentary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Yosemite Spring Progress Report

A Car Story

Since my outdoor adventures involve a significant amount of travel, and since the price of gas and environmental concerns make it more and more necessary to think about the impacts of such travel, I thought I’d write something about the car we bought last year. Yes, a Prius. Continue reading

July 29, 2008 Posted by | Commentary, Environment, Equipment | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A Car Story

Could It Be That I Have All The Gear I Need?

Nah. Not possible. But…

I am going on a rather substantial pack trip later this summer, as I do every summer with a group of my friends. (The basic idea is a west-to-east transit of the Sierra Nevada that climaxes at the summit of Mt. Whitney.) I’ve been backpacking for decades, but it seems like before every trip there is some piece of gear that I just must have – a replacement for something that has worn out, a better version of something I already own, or a new item that I haven’t used in the past.

During the weeks before a relatively long trip like the one mentioned above I begin to consider the packing process. It isn’t an all-consuming thing at this stage (that doesn’t happen until 10:00 p.m. the night before I leave. ;-) but I begin going over my mental list and considering changes to my equipment. I’m somewhat disappointed that so far the most substantial new equipment need I can come up with is… well, nothing.

But I think I’ll survive… :-)

July 29, 2008 Posted by | Commentary | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Take on 'Sleeping Systems'

Having just read a post at the Mt. Whitney and Eastern Sierra Hiking Blog (see “On Backpacking…Sleep System“) I thought I’d add my two cents on this topic.

To my way of thinking, a backpacking “sleeping” system includes several components: sleeping bag, pad, ground sheet, shelter, clothing – and for some, a pillow.

Sleeping Bag – My current first-string sleeping bag is the Marmot Helium that I purchased a few years ago. This is a really fine sleeping bag with 800+ high-fill down, great design features, and a weight of around 2 pounds. The high-fill down decreases the weight and allows the bag to stuff smaller, taking up less space in a smaller pack. The version that I use has only a half zipper – this decreases the weight and cost a tiny bit and isn’t a significant drawback for me. The 15 degree rating is sufficient for me into the colder October season in the Sierra and is more than warm enough for typical summer conditions.

I have also used a lighter 30 degree bag, Continue reading

May 31, 2008 Posted by | Commentary, Equipment, Technique | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Take on 'Sleeping Systems'

Access to Mt. Whitney – a List of Passes

The Mt. Whitney and Eastern Sierra Hiking blog covers almost all things related to hiking/climbing Mt. Whitney. A post (“Mt. Whitney From Horseshoe Meadows“) covers some alternate approaches for those who either can’t or don’t want to use the usual Whitney Portal approach.

I’ve been over almost all of the passes mentioned, including Army Pass, New Army Pass, Kearsarge/Forester Passes and I’ve approached from the west over Kaweah Gap and up the Kern River.* The only pass that the article mentions that I haven’t done is Cottonwood Pass. If I’m not mistaken, this is a more southerly route and doesn’t go quite as high. Here is a quick summary of some of my experiences on these passes:

  • Army Pass is an old route out of the Cottonwood Lakes area that ascends to the Sierra Crest near Mt. Langley. It is really quite a wonderful and direct route, but it has not been officially maintained for decades. The last time I travelled this way – a couple times over a several day period – most of the trail was in good shape, but a few key spots had been obliterated by rock slides. I recall at least one that made me nervous about the exposure. So, doable, but not for the faint of heart or the newbie.
  • New Army Pass more or less replaced Army Pass and now seems to be more heavily used than the older, unmaintained trail. The ascent of New Army Pass from the east side is one of the most steady and “gradual” of any east side pass I’ve been on. Despite the fact that it crosses the crest (in sight of Cirque Peak) at over 12,000′, it really isn’t a very hard route at all, and you are rewarded by some incredible and open panoramas at the top.
  • Kearsarge Pass and Forester Pass afford a route to the west side of Whitney that starts at Onion Valley. This isn’t an easy route, nor is it a short one, but it travels through some very scenic and alpine country. The trail ascends from the Onion Valley trailhead to cross Kearsarge Pass (just below 12,000′) and then descends to Kearsarge Lakes, a popular first night destination. From here you drop into the Bubb Creek drainage and then ascend to Forester Pass (over 13,000′) on a route that wouldn’t be overly difficult save for the very high elevation. The trail drops quickly from Forester and then travels a number of miles above timberline before finally encountering trees again near Tyndall Creek.

In all three of these cases, once you cross the Sierra crest you typically make your way by one or another route to the standard west side approach to Mt. Whitney, though variations are possible, especially if you come over one of the Army Passes.

I notice that the authors of the post don’t mention some other approaches. For one thing, they don’t consider the starting on the west side of the Sierra. It is possible to come in over Kaweah Gap and then go up the Kern River before ascending to the Muir Trail. This is a long route, but not that much longer than coming from Kearsarge/Forester.

More interestingly, there is no mention of Shepard Pass. Maybe this is a good thing. I’ve been over Shepard once, traveling from west to east at the end of a trip, and I am well aware of why this pass has a fearsome reputation. It starts virtually in the desert of Owens Valley, almost literally at the base of the Sierra, and then it climbs and climbs and climbs, with the depressing exception of a several hundred foot elevation loss midway along the route followed by additional unmitigated climbing. The climbing is often rather steep, and the terrain becomes quite rough in the upper reaches of the pass. Oddly, once you complete this brutal climb and cross the crest near a small stagnant lake, the remaining hike down to the JMT is a lovely little cakewalk through nearly flat and wide open alpine meadow with stupendous panoramic views.

* I’m doing yet another Whitney trip later this summer – despite my “decision” a year or so ago to not “do Whitney” again. I’m still not that enthusiastic about ascending Whitney – “been there, done that” – but the rest of the trip retraces a pack trip I took many years ago from Sequoia across the Kaweahs, and I do look forward to covering some of that terrain that I haven’t seen in many years.

May 28, 2008 Posted by | Commentary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Brand New State Park…

… to me anyway. This morning I visited Pacheco State Park at the summit of Pacheco Pass between Los Banos and Gilroy. I’ve driven past here for years on my way to/from the Sierra, Death Valley, Los Angeles, but only turned off the road here briefly once a few years ago. This past week I read a post about wildflowers at this park, and I decided to check it out.

I was on the road early enough this morning that I arrived at the park before the sun was up – so I decided to first take a quick trip down to the shoreline of San Luis Reservoir to check out a photo I’ve had in mind. Didn’t work, so I headed back up to the pass and turned off to the park. A short distance up the road from Hiway 152 I took the turn-off onto the short dirt road to the parking lot at the start of the trail to Spikes Peak and many other places. There was only one other car there when I arrived!. This trailhead is – at this time of year – in a beautiful green meadow area with wildflowers just coming up.

Because I was carrying my camera equipment my hike was rather slow since I needed to stop frequently to unload and set up my tripod and camera and various lenses. Before I topped the small saddle at the far end of the meadow I had already stopped two or three times to photograph oak trees catching the first morning light.

Two Oak Trees, Morning. Pacheco State Park, California. March 16, 2008. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Although the hills and grasslands of central California have been starting to turn green for a few weeks now, the impossibly green season is now underway, with grasses coming up like crazy along with all sorts of other vegetation and many wildflowers. I stopped frequently to check out loads of flowers, though it wasn’t easy to photograph them due to extreme winds.

Eventually I wound my way up onto a high ridge along the crest of this portion of the Diablo Range, with extensive views in all directions. To the south there was a bit of snow on somewhat higher peaks; to the west I could see a few clouds forming under the marine air influence; to the north the burned areas of Coe Park were visible with Mt. Hamilton beyond. But the real treat was to the east – green, folded, oak covered ridges in front of me, the San Luis Reservoir beyond them, and then across the wide Central Valley almost the whole Sierra Nevada range was visible on the horizon.

From Pacheco to the Sierra. Pacheco State Park, California. March 16, 2008. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

I continued on along the ridge – in astonishingly strong winds – until I finally reached the “summit” of Spikes Peak. It is the tallest spot on this ridge, and it affords quite a view – but there were higher peaks in several directions. After a quick jaunt back along the ridge and then down to the parking lot the way I had come, I was back at my car by noon.

March 16, 2008 Posted by | Places, Trails | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


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