We did this hike around August of 2013. The Sierra Nevada’s are a Mecca for backpackers, and for good reason. The scenery is absolutely stunning and you really don’t know what you are going to find around each bend in the trail. There are countless trails you can take to vary your mileage. We ended up taking the Cottonwood Lakes Trail and went up and over New Army Pass into Sequoia National Park. We ended up doing part of the John Muir Trail and part of the PCT. The whole trip was about 21 miles. The area we hiked is a little South of Mt. Whitney and West of the city of Lone Pine.
We drove to Horseshoe Meadow campground, in the Golden Trout Wilderness, for our first night. Its right by the trail head parking lot so we figured it couldn’t hurt to spent the night there and acclimate to the altitude. It’s a nice little campground with area for both tent campers and horses. We had picked up a pizza in Lone Pine, which was actually genius because we didn’t have to cook dinner. The pizza and couple bottles of wine made that first night quite enjoyable.
We talked to a lady who told us about a woman who had attempted to do Mt. Whitney recently and quite apparently got severe altitude sickness. She became disoriented, had hallucinations, and lost her way. She had to be rescued. We were definitely glad we decided to spend the night at altitude before the hike. I think it really made a difference to how we felt the next day. Do recommend.
The next morning, we were off. This being everyone’s first trip, we had a few struggles for the first mile or so. Boots were too loose, backpack straps weren’t right, etc. We got it together quickly though. After we discovered that the weight of our packs should really be on our hips and not our backs/shoulders (how novel!), we hit cruising speed.
The scenery on that first day around the Cottonwood Lakes area is spectacular. Seriously one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. There is a series of crystal clear alpine lakes set between patches of both meadows and forest. We stopped for lunch at one of these lakes. We ate homemade beef jerky and trail mix (along with a dreaded cliff bar), lounged on some huge boulders and took in the view of the lake with the towering white cliffs behind it. There were some little marmots around our lunch area so Nicole and I tried (unsuccessfully) to get a picture of them.
After that, we were on our way again, past more lakes, fields of tumbled rock, and streams lined with delicate moss. All the while, the imposing New Army Pass loomed closer. We came to a point where we had to decide if we wanted to brave the pass that afternoon or wait until the next morning. If we were smart, we probably would have listened to my dad and spent the night at the last lake and done the pass the next day. However, my bossiness won out and we forged ahead. I really just did not want to start my morning with a brutal uphill. And brutal it was. It’s seemingly never-ending switchbacks. You have to either tackle it in chunks, or be a slave driver and keep putting one foot in front of the other. I think “just keep swimming” was on a loop in my head the entire time. Eventually, we did make it. Sitting at the top, eating gummy bears, we felt like we were on top of the world. I think I might have shed a tear, I was so happy we made it. All the endorphin’s hit as we sat up there and looked at the pass we had conquered. That moment was the one in which I fell in love with backpacking.
After our moment of triumph, we headed down the back part of the pass. It’s above the tree line, so we passed through mostly bare rock. There were a TON of marmots in this area which was cool.
Once we hit the tree line we found a sheltered little spot across from a meadow with a stream running through it. We made our camp there. We had some freeze dried rice dish (maybe Jambalaya?) and Fireball (of course), and then dropped into our beds before it was even fully dark.
When we woke up, we warmed ourselves by standing in the meadow to catch the first rays of sun coming over the pass. We had freeze dried eggs for breakfast (DO NOT RECOMMEND, DO NOT LIKE), broke down camp, and after some minor gear adjustments to accommodate sore spots, were on our way.
We hiked off the main trail a little to stop for a little rest (Read: Sprawling in the sun on rocks and eating peanut butter) by Lower Soldier Lake. We also filled up on water at this lake. After our little R&R, we headed back onto the main trail and onward. We passed a little group with a dog. He was carrying a little pack with his water in it. Our lunch on this second day was more beef jerky and cliff bars. We had a pretty consistent uphill climb the whole day, but it was more gradual, so not too bad.
Around late afternoon we made it to our next camping area next to Chicken Lake. It’s a little lake and a pretty popular place to camp, as some people (who shall remain nameless) found out when they flashed certain other campers. Nicole and I walked around the lake and sat on a little beach to watch the sun start to set. We headed back and lounged around camp and ate dinner. I can’t remember what we had… some freeze dried nonsense I’m sure. After that we called it a night.
The next day was our last day. We woke up and had more horrible eggs and some smashed doughnut holes. After breaking down camp we headed back down the mountain into the Horseshoe Meadow area. It was only about 4 miles back to the car, all downhill and flat. Unfortunately we ended up at the wrong side of the camping area where our car was so just when we were about to fall to our knees in joy that we had made it, we realized that we had another half mile or so to go. Eventually, we did make it to the car. We celebrated our accomplishments in Lone Pine with burgers and milkshakes.
That hike was a perfect combination of beautiful and challenging. I highly recommend it.
-Flora– Varied and beautiful.
-Fauna- Marmots galore. Birds. Deer. Sadly, no bears were seen.
-Difficulty- 6/10 There’s a few difficult portions, but overall a good amount of both uphill and downhill.
-You do have to get a permit from the ranger station in Lone Pine. They also give you a big bear canister that you have to use, so leave room in your pack.
**Full Disclosure: I stole a lot of these pictures from my mom.