Objective: Explore the Eastern Sierra region, gather beta for future climbing/mountaineering
Date: 5/21/15 – 5/24/15
Location: Eastern Sierra, Big Pine Creek, CA
We’ve been talking about getting to the Eastern Sierra ever since we moved to California, but have been intimidated by the long drive from the bay area. The opportunity arose to extend our Memorial Day weekend by an extra day, so we jumped at the chance to get our feet wet in the region. After getting recommendations from a few friends, we decided to head to the Big Pine Creek Trailhead since this is an entry point to the Palisades, an awesome area of high peaks and alpine lakes. Given a crazy weather forecast of snow and rain throughout the weekend (a rare thing in our CA experience), we packed for a weekend of car-camping and/or backpacking TBD upon arrival.
As we drove toward the mountains late Thursday evening, we got word that they were closing Sonora and Tioga passes due to snow accumulation. Winter has finally arrived!? Although we were confused and disappointed in California’s poor ability to manage snow on their roads, we would not give up easily. We made a long drive even longer by heading for Ebbett’s pass, Hwy 4, which was rumored to still be open. This was definitely the most remote mountain pass we had ever taken. The road is very narrow and windy, so it took a while to navigate, but we made through successfully, and we could tell even in the dark that this was likely a really scenic area. We decided to stop at Chris Flat campground, about 20 minutes north of Bridgeport on 395 and were able to set up camp by about midnight. This campground served its purpose by giving us a place to land for the night, but it’s right next to the highway and loud – only recommend staying there if you need a place to crash. Regardless, it felt like a real accomplishment to have made it across the pass given the weather.
We got to the ranger station in Lee Vining early on Friday (technically called the Mono Basin National Forest Visitor Center), hoping for detailed information about weather forecast and trail conditions. These guys were super nice but not helpful. They basically told us there would be too much snow everywhere and wearily issued us a backcountry camping permit for Big Pine Creek anyway. We cruised down to the ranger station in Bishop where we found a much more informative crew.
It was predicted to snow and rain all weekend, with highs hovering right around a comfortable 35 F. With that news plus Connor still being early in his recovery from surgery, we decided to car camp at the Big Pine Creek campground and see what we could see via day hikes.
The campground was decent, most sites lacked privacy but there were a few nice ones as well. Friday afternoon we hit the South Fork trail to see how far we could get. Most of the trail was in great shape but a few spots were covered in snow and ice which made for slow going. But we made it all the way to Willow Lake and were rewarded with some beautiful scenery! The high surrounding peaks floated in and out of the cloud layer, so we didn’t get a clear view of many, but what we could see was amazing.
On Saturday, we took off early to do the North Fork of Big Pine Creek, making a loop around Lakes 1-4 and Black Lake before turning around. Probably a total of ~13 miles or so but pretty easy to cover with light day packs on. This was a gorgeous area with lots of great backcountry camping options around the lakes. The weather was variable again but we caught views of the surrounding peaks throughout the day, and we are already stoked to come back to do some climbing later in the summer (and some backcountry skiing next winter).
Tioga Pass had reopened by the time we headed for home on Sunday (wanted to beat the Memorial Day traffic crowd on Monday), and we got to drive through Yosemite and see the high peaks covered in a fresh layer of snow. The area was ripe for a good spring tour and left us wishing we would have brought the boards! Until next time…