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Iva Bell Hot Springs

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

The idea to backpack to the Iva Bell Hot Springs and the Lost Keys Lakes was born around the campfire during the Yosemite Trail Ride. More specifically, I was examining a trail map of the wilderness around Mammoth Lakes in search of lakes with fish that could serve as a destination for a 4-day / 3-night backpacking trip. This search led me to the remote Lost Keys Lakes, and as a bonus, the Iva Bell Hot Springs were en route to the lakes (I’ve had yet to experience hot springs in the wilderness). As soon as Mark confirmed that the Iva Bell Hot Springs and the Lost Keys Lakes were some of his favorite destinations in the Sierra, the decision had been made: I would be booking a permit to the Lost Keys Lakes with three companions. Jimmy, Ben, and Darcy signed-up for a 4-day backpacking trip over Labor Day weekend.

Day 1:
With a big 13-mile day ahead of us, we left Reds Meadow as early as the shuttle service allowed so that we would have time to stake out a campsite at Iva Bell and soak in one of the seven pools. The hike was relatively easy since it was a gentle downslope to Fish Creek (apart from the switchbacks) followed by a gentle upslope to the Iva Bell Hot Springs. Reading Iva Bell trip reports on the Internet told us that the pools were located at different altitudes and that the pools at the top commanded a spectacular view of the Fish Creek valley. So, we headed to the top and found the pools we had sought. After soaking in the mineral water for hours, I can say that I have never felt better after a 13-mile hike! Also, sitting under the stars in a wilderness “hot tub” is remarkable.

Day 2:
The ultimate destination of this backpacking trip was the Lost Keys Lakes, and the hike to them from the Iva Bell Hot Springs involved a 2,000 ft. elevation gain over 4 miles. Upon sighting the first lake, there was no doubt that our hike was worth it – the calm waters nestled at the base of granite cliffs provided ample opportunity for fishing and relaxing. After picking out a campsite, fishing for a while, and cooking the keepers (delicious), we ventured to another lake in the Lost Keys group. The evening was spent around the fire eating smores and listening to some of our favorite backcountry music.

Day 3:
Apart from a group of forest rangers that were “renovating” the campsites around the lakes, Jimmy, Ben, Darcy, and myself were the only backpackers that had spent the previous night at the Lost Keys Lakes (a testament to the remoteness). Before beginning the hike back, Jimmy and I spent a few hours fishing and cooking the few additional keepers that we caught. The hike back went much faster than expected, and in no time we found ourselves back at Iva Bell. We spent a few hours soaking in my new favorite Iva Bell pool before continuing further down the trail so that we could make an early exit the next day.

Day 4:
Our early start made the shaded, uphill hike back to Reds Meadow very comfortable. Before finishing the hike at Reds Meadow, we made a quick stop at Rainbow Falls. Once we made it to Reds Meadow, Jimmy and I decided to treat ourselves to the famed chocolate milkshakes of the Mule House Cafe – it was a tasty end to an amazing summer in the Sierras. Until next summer, Happy Trails!

Two Harbors

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Ever since meeting Ray and enjoying an afternoon on his boat back in the summer of 2007, I’ve wanted to make the 5-hour sailing journey from Marina del Rey to the small town of Two Harbors on Catalina Island. That became a reality when Ray asked Maryann, Sonia, and myself to join him on a weekend sailing trip to Two Harbors in mid-August. It was a great weekend, filled with sailing, hiking, and laying in the sun.

Mineral King

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

Only a day after the completion of the Yosemite Trail Ride (now the end of July), it was back to the Sierras with Jimmy and Nick for a 4-day, 3-night backpacking trip to summit Black Kaweah. We began our journey at Mineral King in Sequoia National Park, and little did we know, it would be the most challenging backpacking trip to date.

Day 1:
The remoteness of Mineral King and our intended destination of Black Kaweah became clear after a few miles on the trail when there was no longer a trail to follow. Instead, we were scrambling over talus (steadied by our trekking poles) and constantly referring to the map to determine if we were on the correct path to Glacier Pass. Once we made it to the pass, we decided to take a small detour to summit the nearby Sawtooth Peak. After what seemed like a good decision and a fun hike, we soon found ourselves scrambling through the loose scree on the steep slope to the summit. We all eventually made it to the summit, and the view was amazing, but we couldn’t stay long since we still had to get back to Glacier Pass and down to Spring Lake, which was the planned camp for the night. So, we hurried back to Glacier Pass, and in doing so, we all descended at our different speeds and became separated. This was not good, since Nick and I found ourselves traversing a bit lower than Jimmy, and as it turns out, the lower you traverse Sawtooth Peak, the steeper the slope became. We all individually got ourselves into less than desirable climbing situations, and we unnecessarily turned a class 2 scramble into a class 3 climb. Needless to say, it was an unexpected surprise that we should have avoided.

After getting back to Glacier Pass, we vowed to not get so separated in the future and rapidly descended to Spring Lake and arrived just in time to witness a beautiful sunset on the surrounding mountains.

Day 2:
After breakfast and re-packing the backpacks, we spent some time fishing Spring Lake before continuing on to the foreboding Black Rock Pass. This wilderness Sierra fishing experience was the first for Jimmy and Nick, and they seemed surprised at how easy it was to catch trout in the mountain lakes. Nearly all of the trout we caught were too small to eat, though, so the fishing on this trip consisted of catch and release.

Once we completed the 1000 foot vertical hike up Black Rock Pass, we saw Black Kaweah for the second time on the trip (the first was from Sawtooth Peak). Unfortunately it looked like there was too much snow to summit Black Kaweah, so we changed the goal of the trip to now summit Red Kaweah, which was the peak next to Black Kaweah that had less snow. We then continued the hike to the base of the Kaweahs by descending into the Big Arroyo and climbing to a spot just below the fire line (the elevation above which fires are not allowed). We went to bed early for the big day that awaited us.

Day 3:
The climb to Red Kaweah began at 6am with a scramble up some steep talus to a picturesque basin with a bright blue tarn. Upon reaching what felt like the base of Red Kaweah, I realized my limits and decided to bow out of the remainder of the class 3 climb – I was too tired to safely continue, especially given the imposing view of Red Kaweah and the large distance that still remained. Jimmy and Nick continued the climb and returned a number of hours later, reporting that they had successfully signed the summit register from 1936. We hurried back down the mountain, grabbed our bags, and made it to an incredible campsite at one of the Little Five Lakes. The lake here was filled with fish, and I spent the evening catching Rainbow and Golden trout before relaxing around the campfire.

Day 4:
From here on out we simply had to retrace our steps back to the car, which involved climbing Black Rock Pass and Glacier Pass. We made good time, though, and we soon found ourselves enjoying the obligatory meal at In-N-Out, which was definitely deserved after our first trip to Mineral King. Next time, we plan to go later in the season and summit Black Kaweah via a different route, so stay tuned!

Yosemite Trail Ride – Part II

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Day 6 (continued) – Reds Meadow to Gladys Lake
The second half of the Yosemite Trail Ride began at Reds Meadow, and three new people joined the group for the ride to Tuolumne. Rob joined the crew, and Jim and Pam joined as guests. After the mules were re-stocked we were on the trail again since we still had many miles to go until we made it to our campsite. On the way to Gladys Lake, which would serve as camp for the night, we rode past Devils Postpile National Monument and through a large thicket of mosquitoes. Like virtually any mountain lake in the Sierras, Gladys Lake was a beautiful resting spot for the night. And the lakes only got better as we continued to ride…

Day 7 – Gladys Lake to Rush Creek Meadow
This day of riding presented some amazing scenery in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, namely Garnet and Thousand Island Lakes. Additionally, our streak of dry weather and sunny skies ended this day, and the afternoon brought with it some heavy showers. Luckily everyone had rain jackets and the horses didn’t seem to mind continuing on towards camp at Rush Creek Meadow, which was the last meadow before crossing Donohue Pass into Yosemite.

Day 8 – Rush Creek Meadow to Lyell Canyon
Donohue Pass was a short two-mile ride from camp, and Mark and Rob left earlier than the guests to scope out the situation with the snow. As we neared the crest, we noticed that Mark and Rob were shoveling a path through the snow for the horses and the mules. When they were finished, Mark called over Mike, and Mike led us up the pass through the snow and down the other side. Fortunately there were no accidents, but there were definitely some questionable spots that presented some of the more difficult terrain thus far in the trail ride.

It was all downhill (literally) from Donohue Pass. We rode down into a valley called Lyell Canyon and setup camp for two nights at a stock campsite. The rain early in the evening was enunciated by the excellent ghost stories around the fire at night.

Day 9 – Day trip to Ireland Lake Junction
With nearly all of our riding done and only a few miles left to Tuolumne, this was a day for rest. After the previous evening’s downpour, the sun had returned and it was easy to enjoy the beauty of Lyell Canyon. I spent the morning fishing the small creek near camp, and during the afternoon we rode the horses to the Ireland Lake Trail Junction. The last evening of the trip brought with it an especially memorable sunset on the mountains and me trying my hand at taking photos of the stars.

Day 10 – Lyell Canyon to Tuolumne Meadows
As we rode into Tuolumne Meadows, it was clear that every step was bringing us closer to civilization, and the longest trip into the wilderness for me to date was coming to an end. Eventually we reached Hwy 120, which is the main road through the northern part of Yosemite. After crossing it and briefly stopping traffic, we reached the pack station in the park where we gathered our belongings, took some last photos with the horses, and caught the shuttle back to Rock Creek. With a final group photo in hand and promises to share our pictures, we all said our goodbyes and began our journeys home. Another trip to the Sierras was a great success.

Yosemite Trail Ride – Part I

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

Some of my favorite trips in California have been on horseback with Rock Creek Pack Station – you can go further into the wilderness for a longer time in much more comfort than conventional backpacking trips. Therefore, this past summer in mid-July I decided to join the 10-day, 93-mile Yosemite Trail Ride from Rock Creek Lake to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. The trip was split into two parts, divided by a 3-hour stop in Reds Meadow to restock the supplies. This post covers the first part – the second part will be coming shortly.

Day 1 – Rock Creek to Third Recess
The adventure began at Rock Creek Pack Station near Rock Creek Lake. This was my first time to the pack station, which ran like a well-oiled machine – packers in the corral were preparing mule trains for multiple departing trips while guests greeted their new traveling companions. Our group was relatively small, with only two packers and four guests for the first part of the trail ride. Mark, the primary packer, was well-versed in the Sierras – he knew more about and has seen more of the area than anyone I know. Mike was our cook and secondary packer. As for the guests, Jan and Carol were accountants from Louisiana, and Claudia was a firefighter from the Bay Area.

Craig, the pack station owner, gave everyone a brief introduction of what to expect. One item in particular caught my attention: we would have to ride the horses across snow at the higher elevations. This would be my first time doing this, and admittedly, I was skeptical of the ability of a 1000 pound animal carrying a person to walk on four relatively skinny legs through snow…

Soon our pack train was ready to go and Craig wished us farewell with a statement to look alive and keep the horses moving: “This is a trail ride, not a death march!” As we climbed the approach to Mono Pass, we were awarded with the beginning of what would prove to be 10 days of incredible sights and vistas. And much sooner than I had expected (within two hours of Rock Creek), we encountered snow.

At first the snow seemed like it would be no problems at all – it was hard packed and the horses simply walked right on top of it. But just as we had all become comfortable with the snow, we hit a soft patch and Mark’s mules began to sink, and when they sank, they spooked and started to thrash in order to get out of the snow. Almost instantaneously, Claudia’s horse (which was right behind the mules) also started to sink and thrash. Unfortunately, it thrashed so hard to get out of the snow that as Claudia was moving to get off the horse it bucked her forward into a giant boulder. Luckily for Claudia, she was wearing a helmet and her head barely missed a head-on collision with rock. Unluckily for the horse, it got out of the snow and on top of the boulder, but the boulder was at such a steep pitch that it slid and somersaulted into a small ditch filled with snow. It was unbelievable to watch.

Mark and Mike quickly went to action to make sure everyone was safe and that no further accidents would happen, and fortunately Claudia (apart from a sprained thumb) and the horse (apart from a few scratches) turned out fine. Claudia and the injured horse ended up going back to Rock Creek with a pack train that was returning from the wilderness. She got her thumb checked-out and returned the next day to meet us at camp.

As for the remainder of the pack train (Mark, Mike, Jan, Carol, and myself), we continued on to cross Mono Pass and made camp at Third Recess. Day 2 would be much more relaxing as an impromptu layover day to wait for Claudia’s return.

Day 2 – Day trip to Pioneer Basin
When posed with the option to stay at camp, hike, or ride the horses to the nearby lakes of Pioneer Basin, Jan, Carol, and I chose the latter. Here Mark and I spent a few hours over lunch fishing one of the lakes while Jan and Carol relaxed enjoying the views and reading books. This was my first experience fishing mountain lakes, and it was a very good one at that – my first cast yielded a brook trout, and I was officially hooked on fishing wilderness lakes. As Mark and I made our way around the lake, we caught a number of fish, but only a few that were large enough to filet.

Claudia had returned to camp while we were out – her thumb was bandaged, but she was still just as excited as ever to continue the trail ride. She was quite the trooper!

Day 3 – Third Recess to Silver Pass Meadow
After the layover, it was time to start making up some time. As such, this was a big day of riding – we rode down into a canyon before meeting up with the John Muir Trail (JMT) and climbing out of the canyon to Silver Pass Meadow. It was a very steep climb (some of the steepest terrain up that I have ridden on a horse) mixed with some deep river crossings. Fortunately my horse, Washoe, was sure-footed and had huge hooves. Upon joining the JMT (the interstate of the Sierras), we encountered many friendly hikers that would make conversation as we rode by; it seemed everyone was ultimately trying to make it to Mt. Whitney.

Day 4 – Silver Pass Meadow to Minnow Creek
This was another big day that was highlighted with incredible views from Silver Pass. At Silver Pass we met up with another pack train from Rock Creek and navigated around the snow. This presented some of the steepest terrain down that I have ridden on a horse. The mules wrecked twice this day (packs slid off), but fortunately it was on dry ground and relatively easy for the packers to fix.

Day 5 – Minnow Creek to Deer Creek
The ride to Deer Creek led us out of the canyon we were following and along the dusty rim. Upon arriving to Deer Creek, the regular ritual ensued. We would dismount our horses, collect our belongings after they were unpacked from the mules, set up our tents, gather water and wood, and sit by the fire enjoying snacks while Mike prepared dinner and Mark fed the horses. Dinner each night was delicious and plentiful, and it varied from steak to pork chops with salad, a side, and desert.

Day 6 – Deer Creek to Reds Meadow
Reds Meadow marked the end of the first part of the trail ride and a chance to enjoy the conveniences of modern life. Here we were able to wash up and enjoy ice cold malts at the Mule House Cafe.