Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Cottonwood Pass to Cottonwood Lakes Loop Hike - Inyo Nationa Forest & Sequoia National Park

We intended to be on a leisurely, lake inspired 7 day loop trip into the wilderness from Cottonwood Pass to Cottonwood Lakes, stopping at every lake along the way to float lazily on the water, bask in the sun, nap on rocks, pretend to fish when we're really just going to be watching the fish, camp and catch the Perseid Meteor Shower that was going to peak in the middle of the week. Theme of the trip: Less miles to walk, more time for soaks.

But due to unforeseen events it ended up being a 4 day trip, nixing any other layover and short mileage days, to ultimately cut out the "leisurely" part of the trip and capping it as a 4 day backpacking trip. But.. we still managed to complete our originally intended loop!

Trail Stats

  • Miles: 20 miles total loop; plus 1 mile to make the loop in full circle
  • Elevation gain/loss:
  • Type: Loop, adding the last 0.5 mile to walk between 2 trail head parking lots
  • Location: Inyo National Forest - Lone Pine, CA
  • Permit: Easter Sierra Interagency Visitor Center Hwy 395, Lone Pine, CA 93545
  • Notes: Bring bear proof containers to protect your food; Soldier Lake was the only spot we found that had bear proof lockers.
  • More notes: Though I've put here that this hike is a loop, the exit point does not take you directly to where you've parked your vehicle if you parked at your entry point. (More on the parking info below.)
  • Weather: General area of Cottonwood Lakes - NOAA


Walk-In Permits can be obtained for free at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center.

However during the peak Summer seasons, and if your dates are not flexible, permits can be reserved in advance via Recreation.gov with $5.00 per person and an additional one time fee of  $6.00 is added on your total for reservation processing.

To start your trip clockwise, pick Cottonwood Pass (PCT GT60) as your entry trail. To start your trip counter clockwise, pick Cottonwood Lakes (JM39) as your entry trail. The latter is also a popular entry trail for those hiking to summit Mount Langley and fills up the daily quota faster than Cottowood Pass. Exit points will be the opposite of between the two options, depending on the direction of your loop.

Once you've paid your dues online, an email will be sent to confirm your reservation with instructions to pick up your permit. Actual copy of the permit will be picked up at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center. Make sure you pick up your permit by 9:00 a.m. on the day of your entry.


The Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center is located a mile south of the town of Lone Pine, CA, on the corner of Highways 395 and SR136.

The visitor center is a 3 hour drive from Los Angeles, CA. And the trail heads are about 45 minutes more from there.

After picking up your permit, head back north on Hwy 395 and turn left on to Whitney Portal Road. Then about 3 miles up on the road, turn left on to Horseshoe Meadow Road.

Good to note in case you need some last minute stuff to do with your phone, the last reliable phone signal is just before you make this turn. After this, the drive up and the rest of your hike (except at New Army Pass), the cellphone signal is non-existent or at times sporadic.

As you get closer to your vehicle's destination, the road forks in two separate directions. Turning right will lead you to the parking area and walk-up camp sites by Cottonwood Lakes Trail Head. Staying on the left leads you to the parking area and walk-up camp sites by Cottonwood Pass Trail Head.


There is ample and paved parking area on either trail heads, parking spots are not scarce here.

If you have only one vehicle, and parked it at your entry point,  to close out the loop and get reunited with your vehicle, you'll walk an extra mile in between trail heads.

There is a pack trail that can connect both trail heads, passing by a horse pack station, but the walk from the the paved road that connects both trail head's parking lots seems a lot shorter, just a thought to note. And the road does not get busy.

The Hike, The Journey, and everything in between..

(**Photos were taken on trip dates August 9-12, 2015)

This backpacking trip was kind of different for me. I took on a different kind of challenge (non-trail related) and introduced a teen to multi-day backpacking.

I invited my partner, Kari's niece along on this trip. She was on her last week of her Summer break, we thought it'd be a good "last hurrah" before she enters 10th grade and maybe take a break from her daily life. Since Summer break started, she's been an awesome kid looking after her grandmother who was going through chemo. Not an easy task for a teen to take on, but she took it willingly and in stride. Her grandmother has been her "mother" since she was 4, when her real mother passed away. We had hoped to whisk her to a magical place to end her school break and nothing like mother nature to deliver just that.

Day Zero: From Lone Pine (3,727 ft) to acclimate at Horseshoe Meadow 9,960 feet

With any hiking trip that starts in the Eastern Sierra, it is highly recommended to allot at least a day to acclimate. Altitude sickness can cut anyone's trip short. Since most of the trail heads in this area starts at around and above 10,000 feet elevation, us low-land folks need to give enough time for our bodies to adjust to high altitude before taking on more elevation.

After grubbing lunch at the Pizza Factory in town, we arrived at a near empty campground at Cottonwood Pass TH. The drive is a beautiful uphill with a few twists and turns. You'll notice how quickly you're gaining elevation when you start seeing Owen's Valley in a bird's eye view.

We arrived at semi-bustling parking lot of Horseshoe Meadow, parked our vehicles and walked up to several unoccupied camp sites before deciding on one closest to a shared bear proof locker and a picnic table, there are several of these dotted around.

All sites are walk-up, so get ready to haul your belongings to your site if you're car camping and brought everything but the kitchen sink. Camping fees are paid by dropping an envelope in a box located by the interpretative display next to the restroom. The yellow envelopes are provided and can be found next to the box, just fill up the envelope with the necessary information, insert cash or check then drop in the slot.

You can find more information on this camp area via the Inyo National Forest website by clicking here.

For the rest of the afternoon, some of us spent it taking naps, some going over their week's food provisions and some of us went exploring the first section of the trail that we're going to be taking the following day. Then after dinner and a campfire, we all settled in for the night.

Campfires are allowed at this campground but not wood gathering. If you weren't able to pick up firewood in town, there's a lone house close to the foothill that sells a box-full for $5.00 via an honesty box.

Day 1: Cottonwood Pass TH (9,960 ft) to Chicken Spring Lake (11,242 ft) - 4.2 miles

We awoke the following morning with the sierra's welcome gift of frost everywhere. It had been a chilly night. We dreaded sleeping at a higher elevation later on that day since today's hiking destination will be taking us above 11,000 feet. Even in the Summer season, nights can get cold in the mountains and it is always good to remember that it gets around 20 degrees cooler than at the valley floor.

After packing up the stuff we won't be taking with us back in the car and any scented items stuffed in the large bear-proof lockers provided at the trailhead (bags and cooler labeled with name and exit date), we entered the trail into the Golden Trout Wilderness in high spirits.

The beginning of the trail was a stretch of flat terrain, the only challenge were the sandy sections and they weren't even the devouring kind of sand, hence, the "entering of the trail high-spirits". But after about a mile and a half, that feeling was slowly starting to fade and fill with wonder instead.

Aren't we trying to get to 11K here? Why hasn't the trail started really going up?

There was a gradual slope up at first. So gradual you can hardly notice it. And then... like a slap in the face, the switchbacks to climb was now right smack in front of us! The thousand foot gain will be climbed the rest of the miles remaining.. all the way to Cottonwood Pass. We trudged on.

At about mile 2, the trail started climbing up and above of Horseshoe Meadow. And like all ascending hike scenarios for us, there was now less chatter and more of sucking-the-life-of-our-platypus, panting, and eating. Yes, eating. We pack a lot of trail snacks to nom on these situations. Seems like a good enough thing to do when you stop and catch your breath.

The trail is exposed with an occasional shade that offers respite from the beating heat of the high noon Sun. It also doesn't seem to be an overly used trail. We only met a group of scouts on their way out by Horseshoe Meadow and an all women hiking group out for a day hike.

After trekking the switchback for about a mile or so, we arrived at 11, 160 feet Cottonwood Pass.

We are also at the trail junction where the Cottonwood Pass Trail meets the Pacific Crest Trail. To head south on the PCT is to take the trail heading to the left. And to head north was to our right, which was the direction of Chicken Spring Lake.

We snapped a few photos and carried on, the sun was at her peak and my feet were looking forward for a soak in a cold water!

We jumped on the trail heading north. We're just about a mile away till we can sit back and kick our feet and call it a day.

To get to Chicken Spring Lake, there is a spur trail that veers to the right from the main trail. Watch
for a sign tacked on a tree trunk warning everyone that there are no campfires allowed.

We arrived at the lake obvious that the on going California drought did not spare this place. The water level receded so low that it was currently split into two, one a lake size and the other the size of a pond. But like all alpine lakes, it was still a pretty sight to see.

We scouted for space big enough to have 3 tents but cozy enough that we're not far apart and found one just before the north shore.

We spent the rest of the day with camp chores, eating and just basking in our surrounding, with the teen on the hunt for the "perfect tanning rock" turned "napping rock".

Day 2: Chicken Spring Lake Layover - 0 miles

We had another Sierra first timer in the group. However, he did not have the same resiliency of a younger buck, like our teen in the group. At a request to stay another day at Chicken Spring Lake to recuperate and regroup, nobody argued. This was agreed from the get-go to be a chill trip, after all. A 20 mile total trip stretched out in 7 days? Impromptu tweaks of plans were not only expected but embraced.

After a long socializing feast over breakfast, everyone picked out something to do, from naps, to reading a book, to exploring the area, to circumnavigating the now two-part lakes, to taking a dip in the water, floating tube and all!

There are lots of places to pitch a tent scattered about without having to crowd another camper. The day before we only had one other group camped, pitched by the south shore. But on our second day, more backpackers started trickling in; an organized big group complete with matching bright pink tees, couples, pairs, small groups and soloists. It got busy, but it was good to meet other hikers and listen to stories.

At dinner, it got resolved that a couple in our group are not going to be moving on. It's was sad that they won't be able to finish the trip but best to err on the side of caution, rather than have someone be miserable or become more fatigued or get injured. At the end of the day, it was a good call.

Day 3: Chicken Spring Lake (11,242 ft) to Soldier Lakes (10,720 ft) - 4.6 miles

Lazily, one by one, we crawled out of our respective dwellings. For three of us, we don't have much miles to cover and we're looking forward to an elevation loss today. While two from our group will be heading back to town and salvage the rest of their off days with an impromptu road trip to Utah via Las Vegas.

We broke camp after breakfast and said our goodbyes at the Chicken Spring Lake spur trail.

Czarina and Andrew hopped on the south bound trail to get back to the trail head. Joe, Sarai (our teen!) and I jumped back on the PCT heading north. And as expected, the trail headed up before we started going down to lower elevation.

I didn't realize it but I was eager to get back to walking again. The original intent was this was to be a very passive backpacking trip.. and it was making my feet itchy to keep on moving though!

As our trail started climbing out of the basin, it wasn't long before we were below looking at our previous campsite We're not high above Chicken Spring Lake and we just barely left camp!

The trail still trekked on up.

The next thing we knew, wind was whipping our faces and we have a bird's eye view of Big Whitney Meadow to our left.

We hiked along a relatively flat trail and still within view of Big Whitney Meadow. Then we started to approach an area with even less trees, making the trail more exposed and practically shadeless. Cirque Peak started to loom at us as we continued along hiking next to a mounds of scree.

 The trail curves like a horseshoe along side a small meadow and dips a little before climbing up again towards the boundary of Inyo National Forest and crossing on towards Sequoia National Park.

At 11,320 feet above sea level, we took a photo break by the sign at the boundary.

We took advantage of the shade that was given to us at that moment. The sun was not too kind to be out in the open with her, but I'll take it over a lightning storm on that part of the trail!

We didn't stay long, we were not that far away from our intended lunch break spot.

One mile after crossing the park boundaries, we arrived at a 4-way trail junction: from where we came from was Cottonwood Pass Trail, up ahead of us was to Rock Creek Crossing (if you're headed to Whitney, this is your way!), to the left of us was to Siberian Pass and the trail to our right was to connect with Rock Creek Trail, which is where we were headed to get to Soldier Lakes.

We picked out a shaded spot and had our lunch and watched a big cloud of smoke from a distance, north of us. A passing horse packer informed us that it might seem to be a wildfire in the Mineral King area. I checked out online when we got home later on the week and only found the Rough Fire that was active in that area at that time. I read it had been burning from a lightning strike on July 31st, just over a week ago that day.

We had a leisurely nap after lunch, longer than we had intended, summer breeze never fails to lull you to deep naps! We got back on the trail and after a mile reached the trail junction to Soldier Lake/ Rock Creek Trail and to New Army Pass (NAP). We left the turn to NAP, we're not tackling that yet.

At this point, we already know our fate on the trail has been shortened, one of us (defintiely not Joe! Haha) was surprised by "Aunt Flo" one week too early. Sigh. Oh womanhood! There were provisions packed for a "just in case" it comes early, but it wasn't expected to be that much early. Supplies were very limited. We needed to get back to town the sooner, the better.

As we approached the spur trail to Soldier Lake, it became more apparent that the rest of the day will be spent with less movement as possible due to Aunt Flo, so we nixed the day trip to the Miter Basin on top of shortening the trip. At least, we have another goal to look forward to on a revisit!

We found the sign leading to Soldier Lake and followed the spur trail, passed by one small bear proof locker but it was too far from the lake to make camp and if this was our last night, having a view was going to be a must.

We continued on along the trail as it climbs down to the lake's basin and settled in at a clearing above the lake. We realized with excitement that we had the place all to ourselves!

By nightfall, with still no other campers by the lake but us, it was a magical spot to look up and watch the Perseid Meteor Shower light up the sky. We counted a few fireball sized ones that night!

Day 4: Soldier Lake (10,720 ft) up New Army Pass (12,310 ft) to Horseshoe Meadow (9,960ft) via Cottonwood Lakes Trail - 12 miles

Waking up with having the entire area all to yourself, with no other people but your group, was bliss! We didn't want to leave at all.. well at least not yet. But we'll be tackling the highest point of the trip, as well as taking on the biggest drop of elevation on the trip and longest mileage. Lots of first for our teen just for one day.

 We got up early and had a big breakfast, savoring the quiet morning.

Fueled up, we broke camp and headed out, subconsciously unwilling.

We met a our first group of Whitney-bound backpackers headed to Soldier Lake by the bear proof locker. And it wasn't long after we left the the trail junction of Rock Creek/New Army Pass that we met a couple more separate groups heading out to the same lake.Guess Soldier Lake was the day's prime destination!

For the rest of the morning, all the way atop New Army Pass, we were the only ones headed toward that direction.

We quickly left the shaded relief of the trees and started hiking on pebbly, scree filled trail with the morning Sun already glaring down at us. This part made me seriously wish I brought along an umbrella.

The trail seemed to never ever end! Every time I'd look up to a curve on a mountain, I'd swear that we were there, only to get there and find more scree and more trail. Haha to me! The marmots that make this arid environment their home, make for good entertainment to watch though.

We finally reached the top of the pass just in time for lunch. There were a few folks there already resting up.  They were also headed in the direction from where we came from, all the way down to Soldier Lake. The pass also marks that we will now be leaving Sequoia National Park and will enter the John Muir Wilderness area.

We caught a wavering cellphone signal atop 12,310 feet New Army Pass and took advantage to call Kari and update her of our current situation with the arrival of "Aunt Flo"and our shortened trip. The teen took the opportunity to get in touch with her Abuela for a moment.

At lunch, we fortified the idea to spend one more night in Cottonwood Lake 5 while we considered doing rationing of supplies we have for "Aunt Flo". We'll catch the trail at the junction we found on the map between Cottonwood Lakes 1 and 2.

The trek up the pass was pretty gradual, though there were really steep grades on some spots but after coming down on the other side of the mountain, we were glad we climbed up that pass from the west side than the east. The steep, numerous switchbacks on the other slope seemed to never end and the face of the mountain seem so ominous towering almost vertically above the trail.

After getting down from the pass, the trail passes alongside the first lake, High Lake. And continues on along the exposed terrain climbing down to another lake, Long Lake.

There's a small clearing right next to the lake that can make for a good camp. Coming down, you won't miss this clearing, flat spots evenly spaced in between pines. It was almost as if they were strategically planted to make this the designated camping area.

The trail skirts along this aptly named Long Lake and walks thru in between sparsely growing pines.

After about a mile after leaving Long Lake, with views of the South Fork Lakes to our right, we arrived at the first of the Cottonwood Lakes.

We walked by a couple of tents pitched alongside the trail (not much for privacy) and completely missed the connecting trail that could take us to Cottonwood Lakes 3, 4 and eventually 5. We calculated our options to backtrack and catch the trail again given that we had plenty of daylight still or just abandon that idea and head back out to town tossing the task of doing rations of "Aunt Flo's" supplies and get more supplies then regroup ourselves. We opted for the latter.

It was a quick decision and the group was up for it. Flexibility and dynamics of everyone goes along way when the universe throws a monkey wrench on your plans.

After a quarter of a mile, we whizzed pass the junction to the South Fork Lakes and Cirque Lake and quickly found ourselves shaded within the forest.

A mile in the forest at 10,475 feet elevation, we stopped at the signed trail junction to the other trail that also leads to Cottonwood Lakes 3, 4, 5 and the trail to Muir Lake when coming from Horseshoe Meadow.

We are now about 3.5 miles away from our parked vehicle!

The trail continues on through the forest, crosses a creek via a single log bridge. Around a mile and a half from the last trail junction, the trail leaves the John Muir Wilderness and we're now back to the Golden Trout Wilderness we started at.

We passed by a trail junction that is used by the Golden Trout Camp, a historical camp with log and tent cabins for lodging that offers horse riding exploration of the area. Dug around the internet and found their website, for more information: http://www.goldentroutworkshops.org/

We made it to the Cottonwood Lakes trail head with still lots of daylight left. Joe dumped his pack with us and jumped back on his feet to walk over to the other parking lot to grab his car then drove back to pick us up.

We gave a ride to a climber until Whitney Portal Road then drove straight to Lone Pine to catch the last available room at the Dow Villa Hotel. Then to the Bi-Rite Market the supplies savior, just before it closes. And eventually dinner, just before that one closes, too! Phew, made it! Everything closes early around here. I keep forgetting.