This year’s long summer Sierra trip was a return to an area I sped through when I hiked the middle stretch of the John Muir Trail in 2006. At that time we came over Pinchot Pass, camped at Lake Marjorie, and then hike through Upper Basin and over Mather Pass the next day. I felt a bit rushed through Upper Basin, mainly because we were trying to outrun a horde of mosquitoes. But it still remained one of my favorite scenic stretches of the JMT and I was looking forward to a day where I could go back and explore.
That day came this summer. Sooz and I planned a nine day outing that would take us over Taboose Pass and down the old John Muir Trail to Cartridge Pass, eventually leading into Lake Basin where we would explore, fish, climb some peaks, and enjoy some Sierra solitude. Depending on the time we spent there we also tried to wedge in a couple of days to do Arrow Peak from Bench Lake and Split Mountain from Upper Basin. With this year’s late snow melt we went in with a flexible itinerary and the ability to change it around depending on how fast we moved and conditions we encountered. It turns out that this was a good plan – snow kept us from getting into Lake Basin and we were able to change plans mid-week.
Trip Report: Days 1 and 2, Taboose Pass Trailhead to Bench Lake
On the night of Friday, August 5 the three of us (me, Sooz, and David) met up at a pullout campsite in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine. We arrived after dark and as we drove north through Olancha and eventually Lone Pine all we smelled was smoke from a fire to the east and I was worried about how it would affect our trip. Our permit needed to be picked up on Saturday morning when the visitor’s center opened at 8, and we discovered that the Alabama Hills cafe opened at 7. We were there when they unlocked the doors. Because this is what you need sitting in your stomach when you’re about to climb 6000 ft to a pass.
After a relatively painless permit pick-up (pulled #6 from the lottery and were out in 20 mins) we headed north to the Taboose Pass Trailhead. This pass is in between Independence and Big Pine and is kind of a rite of passage for any Sierra backpacker. I was feeling a bit left out, never having done it before. I’ve heard horror stories of this pass told around many a campfire, and I just needed to experience it for myself. Here’s what I knew: it starts low, at 5500 ft in the desert conditions of Owen’s Valley. It is an interminable climb up ankle-twisting rocks where there is no shade and very few places to camp. It is a 6000 foot climb to the Pass which is desolate and windy. Sounds lovely. What I learned: yes, it starts low and hot. Yes, there is little shade. But the views are great, there are lovely places to take breaks and soak the feet, there are few campsites but we found a nice one just below the pass, and the grade of the climb was perfect enough to keep chugging along. I really enjoyed it far more than I expected. I’d do it again.
So, we finally got on the trail about 10 am in the mid-morning heat. Most people recommend starting very early but we simply weren’t able to since we had to pick up a permit in Lone Pine at 8. Just when the heat was starting to get to me we reached the first water crossing at 8000 ft. It was frigid and shaded so we spent a while cooling down. After that the ecology turns more High Sierra and less desert and I started to feel ‘at home’.
We climbed to about 10,500 ft, camping at the last campsite I knew of below the pass, tucked away behind some trees and a bit off trail. A steady breeze was blowing so we had no mosquito issues. Unfortunately the smoke we had smelled the previous night had put a damper on things and the whole day had been a bit hazy. It made for a nice sunset glow, however. 5000 ft of climbing in a little over six miles was definitely good enough for the first day and we zonked out early.
The next morning we packed up to clear un-smokey skies and we finished the climb to Taboose. Along the way we spied lots of sheep poop but never any bighorns. We did see several grouse (or mountain chickens, as I like to call them) and a few marmots. There were more snow fields as we climbed higher but never enough to lose the trail. At the pass we ended up crossing paths with Laura, our favorite Mountain Moose. She was heading out after a few days of playing in the mountains and it was great to chat and get some beta from her.
It was an easy hike along trail from the Pass to Bench Lake and we arrived there around 2:30 pm. After a bit of searching we chose a campsite on a small rise on the north side of the lake. It was slightly breezy which kept the mosquitoes at bay. Unfortunately as the day went on the breeze died and the mosquitoes came out in force. Still, it was a gorgeous spot with incredible views. David caught us some brown trout for dinner and we went to bed happy, dreaming about tomorrow’s hike of Arrow Peak.