Playing, that’s where. Much as we’ve done every Thanksgiving since moving to California, we piled the truck full of gear and supplies for a week in the desert and hit the road the Friday before Thanksgiving, hoping to get away from the holiday crowds and traffic before they’d even started. Over the next nine days we climbed eight peaks, hiked in four different parks, camped out under the clear desert sky, saw gobs and gobs of petroglyphs, watched the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas while gnawing on an excellent steak au poivre, and shared a no-less-than incredible Thanksgiving feast with friends.
Rather than write 50 long posts detailing each and every hike, I’ll just write one, and point you towards the photos which already have a lot of details in the captions. If you want more info here’s what you can read (and see) all about:
Another summer weekend, another whirlwind trip to the Eastern Sierra. This time my destination was the peaks of the Inconsolable Range, a sharp ridge on the eastern edge of the Sierra just north of the Palisades and Bishop Pass. Rather than use the traditional Bishop Pass trail approach, we decided to access the ridge from the east via Coyote Flat, an open plateau at an altitude of about 10,000 ft that sits between the Inconsolables and the town of Bishop.
Although it is only about 20 miles outside of Bishop, Coyote Flat is a relatively quiet and empty place, especially when compared to the nearby Sierra access points of South Lake and Lake Sabrina. The reason? The only road that goes into Coyote Flat is a class II/III 4×4 road that switchbacks steeply and rocky from 5000 ft to 10,000 ft. The road was rough but fun, bouncing us around quite a bit as we drove the 22 miles from Manor Market along 168, through Coyote Flat, to the end of the road at the wilderness boundary along Baker Creek.
California is experiencing a seriously dry winter right now. I believe we had 3% of our normal December precip in San Jose. January has been completely dry. The mountain passes are still open (record setting dates) and there are only pitiful patches of snow from earlier small storms in the high country. Ski resorts aren’t able to make enough snow and businesses are suffering.
While everyone frets about water resources and reschedules ski vacations, we decided to embrace the dry and try something I didn’t think I’d ever do: climb a 14er in January. California has fifteen peaks above 14,000 ft (summitpost page) of which I have climbed four. I’m planning on increasing that number this summer, but for this January adventure we decided to revisit arguably the easiest of them, White Mountain.
When there is no snow you can drive to the White Mountain trailhead at approximately 11,600 ft. That we did, taking the 4×4 Silver Canyon route from outside of Bishop. On Saturday morning at 8:30 am we met a group of friends at the trailhead and started off towards the peak. It is a 14 mile round trip to the 14,246 ft summit on an old road. The lack of route finding and gradual grades makes it an easy hike by sea level standards, but of course the altitude makes it more difficult.
The day started off sunny and beautiful, and the 27 degree air temperature was reasonable for hiking. In fact, although we were cold at the trailhead it was a short distance of hiking before I removed layers and felt quite comfortable. That lasted for two miles. As we passed the Barcroft research facility (all boarded up and empty for the winter) the wind picked up. As we crested the ridge behind the facility I stopped and put my layers back on, plus additional wind layers. I pulled out my Buff to cover my face.
We kept going and took a break behind a wind-blocking pile of rocks. Everyone was a bit frustrated by the cold and wind but was still in good spirits. We continued on.
At mile five and a half we reached the saddle below the summit. One and a half miles of switchbacks left. I could see the building on the top. But the wind, by this point, had sapped all of my energy. David was far ahead and I knew he’d make the summit. Everyone else caught up together and decided to turn around except for Greg who would try and catch up with David.
With the wind at our backs we hiked back to the cars. While it was a bummer not to reach the summit it was the right decision. Frostbite was a very real possibility – fortunately everyone took care of themselves and made correct decisions. David and Greg returned to the cars about half an hour after we got back and warmed up, David having successfully reached the summit.
David had his Kestrel weather station along and reported that he measured the air temp as 10 degrees, windchill as -19.4 degrees, and sustained winds at 40mph. Very different than the conditions under which I first hiked this peak in July of 2002!
I’m really glad we got out and tried this hike in January. It was a good reminder that winter is more than snow and you have to be prepared for cold and wind even when it is dry. It’s easy to look at the sunny skies and dry terrain and think it will be easy, but this hike was anything but. Still, it’s an adventure that I’ll remember for a long time – longer than many of my successful climbs.
We only had 24 hours to spend in Arches National Park and I wanted to make the best of it. The first half of the day was spend exploring the southern half of the park, where we strolled Park Boulevard, 4×4′d to some dinosaur tracks, and wandered some enormous arches in the Windows Section.
After a brief stop at the Visitor Center to pick up our pre-reserved Fiery Furnace tickets for an afternoon tour, we headed to the Park Boulevard area for a short and scenic stroll among the towering red rock formations. The clouds were rolling in (forecasted rain later in the day) making for some nice contrast in the blue sky against the red rock.
The scenery wasn’t just in macro format. The patterns and erosion in the rock beneath our feet were just as fascinating.
Just outside the park boundary are some dinosaur tracks. The Willow Flats road is rough dirt and rock but the Tundra had no problems. It’s neat to see the footprints as the critter ran across the land 165 million years ago. This side trip was definitely worth it, even though it was mostly just hopping out of the car to take some pictures. A nice place to get away from the typical national park crowds.
The Windows Section: Double Arch, Window Arches, Turret Arch
Back in the main part of the park we joined the crowds again in the Windows Section. This is an area with trails winding through clusters of rock formations and arches. We wandered and scrambled through them snapping photos and enjoying the beautiful day. As we hiked around the backside of Window Arches I noticed some neat smooth rock in the distance. Later, a close inspection of the photo I took revealed a distant Delicate Arch, our sunset destination that night. Cool!
With our longer Sierra trip coming up soon, we wanted to head out last weekend and get in some hiking and sleeping at altitude. I always feel better when I get some time above 10k before hauling a heavy pack up there. Our intended trip was to head out to Laurel Lakes (just south of Mammoth), climb Laurel and Bloody Mountains, followed by camping and fishing at Laurel Lakes. Sunday would be another ~10k peak with a short hike. It sounded perfect, at least until we looked at the weather forecast.
The thing about the Eastern Sierra is that even if your original plans fall through there is always something else equally fun to do. So we headed out despite the forecast, figuring that we’d find something to do no matter what.
As we drove out on Friday night we watched the enormous storm clouds hovering over the mountains. They were beautiful as the sun set and they glowed bright pink. By the time we made it through the mountains the clouds had cleared and we pulled into a dispersed campsite outside of June Lake where we slept under the stars in the back of the truck.
While gearing up for the summer backpacking season I realized I’d never posted about an early season visit to the Bodie Hills. I’ve visited Bodie State Park many times in the past, but I’ve never really explored beyond the park boundaries. Given the snow conditions this year, on a mid-June weekend that would typically be spent backpacking in the Sierra mid-country we instead decided to play around the Bodie Hills between Bridgeport and Lee Vining.
Starting out from Bridgeport on Saturday morning, we headed out through the Northern part of the Bodie Hills to the ruins of the old mining towns of Chemung and Masonic. The roads through here are pretty good at the start but to get anywhere you’ll need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle and the ability to use it. There is a maze of old mining roads through the hills and it’s easy to get in trouble if you turn down one without the proper equipment or map.
On Thanksgiving Day we decided to play around the Argus Range on the western side of Panamint Valley. Much of this range sits within the boundary of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center but the northern end is free for recreation so we packed the day full of some fun 4×4 and two desert peaks. We needed to burn some energy before that big Thanksgiving dinner in camp.
Darwin is an old mining town and though there are still a few residents it is on the verge of becoming a ghost town. It is accessible via any vehicle using the paved road that exits 190 about 17 miles west of Panamint Valley. It is also accessible via an older route that winds through the Argus range. This ‘Back Road’ approach is dirt and the first mile and a half has been badly washboarded by Death Valley visitors heading to the trailhead for Darwin Falls. After the Darwin Falls trailhead the road becomes heavily degraded in places, requiring high clearance and the occasional dip into 4WD. Of course this is where the fun is.
We followed the road up as it climbed steeply into the northern Argus Range, moving quite slowly and engaging the 4WD. Near the top the road conditions improved greatly and we found a nice place to pull out and park the trucks for our hike up Zinc Hill. Zinc Hill is the prominent peak of the northern end of the Range and it was the target of the day’s first hike.