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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.

The Great Golden Trout Wilderness

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Over the fourth of July, I returned to the Golden Trout Wilderness for a four day backpacking trip with Bob and Jimmy. There were three goals for this trip:

    1) catch some Golden Trout
    2) summit kern peak
    3) relax by the fire each night

I’m happy to report that all of those goals were accomplished, and our 37-mile itinerary was as follows:

Day 1:
We joined the trailhead to Trail Pass in Horseshoe Meadow, and from there we continued through Mulkey Meadows (very sandy, flat, and long). Camp on the first and second nights was near the Tunnel Guard station at the end of Tunnel Meadow. The end of the first day brought with it some beautiful — albeit small — golden trout, which I caught in the Golden Trout Creek.

Day 2:
The entirety of the second day consisted of Jimmy and myself climbing Kern Peak. (Bob decided to stay back and rest at camp.) We were the fourth and fifth people to summit the 11,510 ft peak in 2010! It was certainly a beautiful day, and some very majestic views were to be had at the summit. There used to be a fire lookout at the summit, but today it stands in ruin.

Day 3:
We packed up camp and hiked to Big Whitney Meadow. My beta on a great campsite served us well, and it was here that we spent the night of the fourth.

Day 4:
We hiked over Cottonwood Pass through a large number of mosquitoes and down lots of switchbacks to Horseshoe Meadow. Of note, the conventional end to our backpacking trips has just been stepped up a notch – the regular Double Double order at In-N-Out has been replaced with a very tasty 3×3!

Coyote Gulch

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

It’s been a busy summer, and I’ve finally found the time to update the blog. Over Memorial Day Weekend this year, a number of friends made the trek to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for one purpose: to celebrate Greg’s Bachelor Party by backpacking 22 miles through Coyote Gulch over 3 days.

Coyote Gulch is a very remote, semi-narrow canyon – just to get to the trailhead involved 2 hours of off-roading with the dune buggies. The first day involved hiking across the dry slick rock to the canyon where we descended through a very narrow “Crack-in-the-Wall.” The views from this point were especially majestic. After everyone made it through the crack, we descended into the canyon and began our hike up Coyote Gulch.

Over the next two days, we followed a very shallow creek up the canyon, stopping often to enjoy the views, take photos, and contemplate how we were going to navigate the next obstacle. As we continued to march towards the exit, the walls of the canyon grew shallower and we eventually entered a mosquito-filled marsh / cow pasture. Fortunately that part was short, and we were back to the car before we knew it. Next stop: Vegas!


Friday, January 29th, 2010

Back in November, Eli, Dave, and I went to Catalina for a weekend to camp at Two Harbors, hike the Trans-Catalina trail, and camp at Parson’s Landing.  I took a similar trip to Parson’s during the summer of 2007, but this was my first trip to Catalina in the fall, and I was surprised to find what seemed like a nearly deserted island. We attributed it to the time change. 😕

So on a nearly deserted island there isn’t too much else to do besides sit back, relax, read books, and play some horseshoes, and that’s how we occupied our time in Two Harbors and at Parson’s. The 5 mile hike on the Trans-Catalina gave us an intro to the majestic views that could be had on a clear day, but the fog and clouds we encountered made it a unique and windy experience.

Kearsarge Pass

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

Back in mid-October an opportunity arose to return to the Sierras, so Jimmy and I joined Paul for what promised to be a relaxing time camping and hiking near Lone Pine. After stocking up on groceries and firewood we made camp at the Tuttle Creek Campground near Alabama Hills and Paul prepared a meal of salad with spaghetti and meatballs. (The menu was courtesy of Paul’s wife Lindsey.) While we ate and enjoyed the views of the night sky we made plans to stop by the Mt. Whitney Ranger Station in the morning to ask about hiking recommendations.

The rangers were extremely helpful, and after a number of recommendations for possible hiking trails, we knew that we would be hiking the trail from Onion Valley to Kearsarge Pass as soon as it was mentioned.

The 5 mile trail took us from an elevation of approximately 9,200 feet to 11,760 feet, past five lakes, and across many ridges with majestic views. What made the hike even better was the fact that the weather was a sunny 70° with fresh snow at the higher elevations from a storm a few days before.

The next morning Paul and I trekked to Alabama Hills to photograph the sunrise on the Sierras. It was a fitting end to an incredible trip. Be sure to check out Paul’s blog for his posts on Kearsarge Pass and Alabama Hills.

Star trails over Lone Pine from the Tuttle Creek campground.

Gilbert Lake.

Paul, Jimmy, and Flower Lake.

Kearsarge Pass and the border of Kings Canyon National Park.

Paul getting ready to take some photos at the pass.

Jimmy puts the finishing touches on the mustache of our snowman.

Sunrise on Mt. Whitney from Alabama Hills.