The summer of Sierra continued with a four day trip to the Mono Creek area out of Rock Creek. Callie and I ended up offtrail in a remote basin in the center of the Sierra, where I suspect few dogs have traveled before.
Mileage: 35 miles
Day(s) Hiked: 6/30/12 > 7/3/12
Dog Friendly: Yes
Red Tape: Overnight camping requires a permit from Inyo NF
Only a few days after returning from a successful Mount Whitney dayhike, I found myself gathering up my gear again for another trip to the Sierra backcountry. When it rains, it pours. I am not one to complain about a continual stream of Sierra trips, but the general fatigue of playing hard on the weekends while keeping up with work at home was starting to take its toll. Instead of hitting the road before dawn, I “slept in” and got on the road out of LA on Saturday around 7:15AM, which set me up for an afternoon arrival at the trailhead. This time, Callie was in tow. After a few weeks of being left left on the sidelines, her tail immediately perked up when she saw her pack and gear get hauled into the car.
The trip’s destination was Mono Creek, accessed by hiking over Mono Pass from the Mosquito Flats trailhead near Rock Creek. Mono Creek runs west across the Sierra all the way from the Eastern Crest, creating a rare valley that intersects the entire range. There are numerous recesses and basins that come out of the valley on both the North and South sides which provides an array of locations to explore in this area.
By the time we reached the trailhead, it was already 1PM. The summer sun was beating overhead, and the parking lot was completely full. Even the overflow parking a few hundred yards down the road was full. We circled the lot a few times, and with competing cars showing up and no signs of anyone leaving, we parked nearly a half mile from the trailhead in a dirt lot and started the hike around 1:20PM. Upon arriving to the trailhead about 10 minutes later, we were greeted with a couple of open parking spaces. Good times.
The popularity of the trailhead is understandable though, this is a great place for a dayhike. With a starting elevation of 10,000 feet and access to some scenic lakes after only a couple of miles, the trail attracts people of all kinds looking for a taste of the High Sierra.
Our path began straying away from the majority of the crowds after about a half mile, when we split off to begin hiking up to Mono Pass. The trail quickly begins ascending up a series of switchbacks, and soon there is an excellent view of Little Lakes Valley as you hike along.
After a few miles, we reached the junction to Ruby Lake. I chose to skip the lake but filtered some water from the outlet stream. This is the last source of water until Summit Lake on the other side of the pass, so make sure you have some water to get you up the last couple miles of dry, exposed trail.
The trail continues to carve its way up the mountain, and before you know it you are at the tree line looking down at Ruby Lake. From this vantage point, the lake looked like a fine destination for a day hike, or a first night campsite before heading over Mono Pass.
The trail becomes arid, rocky, and frankly not very scenic when looking forward for the rest of the stretch to Mono Pass. We charged up the pass under the hot afternoon sun, invigorated by our excitement of returning to the High Sierra once again.
Upon reaching the crest of the pass, Summit Lake pops into view and you begin to start getting a peek of what is to come.
We took a short break at the lake to allow Callie to cool her paws, and then it was back to the trail. As I descended a hill on the other side of the lake, I stubbed my boot on a rock and immediately felt a number of rocks pressing up against my toes. I took my boot off and surveyed the damage.
The sole was split at the toe. Fortunately, there is a waterproof liner in the boot which blocked the gravel that filled the area from going into the shoe. I rummaged out as much of the gravel as I could, and then I superglued the hole shut and duct taped the shoe together to help the super glue set. It sure helps to be prepared.
I was initially concerned about the prospect of marching further into the wilderness on a busted boot, but as I hiked down the path I felt a restored faith that everything would be okay. My boot felt fine. Plus, I finally started getting views of the glorious backcountry I was about to enter. Going over the crest the entirety of Pioneer Basin quickly comes into view.
We quickly descended down from Mono Pass in an effort to make camp before dusk. Between the late start and broken boot delay, there was precious little daylight left so we hustled as fast as we could. The trail near Mono Creek quickly shifted into a very woodsy environment and it was a very welcome change of pace from the dry trail we had experienced for the majority of the day up to that point.
The obvious destination for the night was Fourth Recess Lake, which is the first side trail you hit upon descending into the Mono Creek valley. It’s less than a half mile from the main trail, which makes it the easiest lake to visit in the area. We arrived around 7PM and I quickly made camp next to the lake. Shortly afterwards, I rushed out to shoot sunset at the head of the lake. It’s hard to show the sheer magnitude of the lake in a small photograph. On the opposite side of the lake, a gigantic waterfall pours into the lake from a tall cliff. It is pretty amazing.
The mosquitoes made themselves well known around dusk so we retired into the tent for the evening.
The following morning we slept in a bit and enjoyed the morning calm at the lake. Thankfully, the mosquitoes weren’t thick and we enjoyed the ideal conditions. After a leisurely start to the day, we hit the trail around 9:30AM and began making our way back to the main trail. Our destination for the day was Hopkins Basin, a few miles down trail. The main trail here is a nice wooded stretch that frequently travels near Mono Creek, creating many opportunities to stop and enjoy the water.
Heading further down, the landscape begins to transition between different ecosystems. There are meadows intermixed with the forest. I was amazed at how dry some of these meadows appeared to be in early July.
At this point I felt like a kid in a candy store. We were hiking down vast remote valley in the Sierra without a care in the world. The trail was easy, and the setting couldn’t be better. Hiking down an open stretch of trail, a view of Hopkins Basin emerged with Red and White Mountain popping up in the distance. I got goosebumps from the anticipation.
Continuing down the idyllic canyon, we next reached an expansive meadow which opened up views of the surrounding ridges. At this point we were fully immersed in the Sierra, with granite walls blocking our view at all angles.
Flowers bloomed all around the trail on the lush meadow floor, with their miniature intricacies juxtaposed against the grand splendor of the Sierra backdrop.
The panoramic views afforded from the valley also helped reorient our location. Somehow, we had hiked past Hopkins Basin by about a half mile. Whoops! I have no idea how I missed the turn off, but I am known to get distracted as I amble down a beautiful forest path. Like I said, kid in a candy store. Besides, our detour allowed us to visit this pristine mountain meadow and there were no regrets at all.
We retraced our steps up the trail and ran into a few day hikers hiking from Lake Edison to Mosquito Flats. This is one of the few places in the Sierra where you can hike East/West across the range in a day, which I’ve always thought would be a fun thing to do. This couple from Bishop used it as a way to go to the West side to visit family. Brilliant! We quickly reached the trail junction I had mindlessly walked right by, and I bid farewell to the day hikers, who turned out to be the last people we’d see for the next 2 days.
The trail up the hill immediately becomes more rugged as it carves up the forested slope into Hopkins Basin.
After about a mile of uphill walking, we reached a trail junction. To the left was lower Hopkins Lake, which from the quality of the two trails seemed like the more popular destination. Callie and I continued to the right towards the upper basin. The trail quickly opened up as the trees thinned out. This area did not seem as adversely affected by the dry year. The meadows were a lush green, wild flowers were blooming, and the bugs were out in full force. I stopped and took a few pictures of the vibrant trail, but never lingered for too long as the mosquitoes were swarming fiercely.
About a mile before reaching the Upper Hopkins lakes, the trail suddenly stopped in the middle of a meadow next to Hopkins Creek. My Tom Harrison map showed a trail going all the way to the first lake in the Upper Basin, but I never saw any evidence of one. I was hesitant to take Callie offtrail when we were over 15 miles from our car, but there was no way I was setting up camp in this buggy marsh, so we continued to head up to the hill to hopefully less green pastures. The offtrail hiking wasn’t technical, but large boulders and patches of shrubs made our route a serpentine zigzag up the mountain.
Upon reaching the upper Hopkins lakes, we were still being assaulted by bugs, so we continued to scale a granite ridge next to the uppermost lake in search of any respite we could find. A couple hundred feet higher, we reached a small flat slab with an expansive view of the entire basin. Small breezes of wind passed through which would temporarily scatter the bugs that had continued to follow us up the dry granite. Escaping the bugs wasn’t in cards, but we had at least thinned them out and had been rewarded with an exquisite view. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging around camp, enjoying the spectacular home that we had found for ourselves on this day. It was a great feeling to sit atop the basin, knowing that we were the only people in the entire area.
At sunset, the ridgelines on the opposite side of Mono Creek caught the last light of the day. It was a beautiful sunset despite the dramatic clouds from earlier in the day dissipating shortly beforehand.
The next morning I got up and shot sunrise at upper most lake in the basin. I was hoping that Red and White mountain would light up and reflect off the lake. It didn’t quite work out like that, but it was nice to see Red and White mountain actually glow red to start out my day.
We packed up our things, enjoyed one last view from the most scenic campsite of all time, and made our way back down the way we had come. When we reached the lower lake in upper basin, Callie refused to go down the ravine that we had used to ascend up the lake. Looking down the ravine, I didn’t blame her. Did we really go up this way? It was hard to believe that Callie had done this with her pack on after a long couple days of hiking. I love my mountain dog.
I found a few other sections that seemed more reasonable, but each time I tried to descend Callie would get nervous and would retreat back up the hill. I told her we had to get down somehow but she just wouldn’t listen to reason. So, I put her on leash and dragged her down. When we reached a tough gap, I would pick her up and carry her over. Each time I put her down she would immediately become happy again and would begin prancing around until we got to the next hairy section, where she would repeat her nervous dance and we would go through the same steps again. All in all, it wasn’t too sketchy and we made it down in one piece.
On the way back to the trail, we hiked mainly right next to Hopkins Creek. Every sightline felt like a gift.
The creek was filled with clusters of tiny fish. As we walked by they would scatter, which eventually drew Callie’s attention.
Before long, Callie had tunnel vision on the creek and became entranced by swimming fish. She sat on rocks in the middle of the creek waiting for a sign of movement, at which point she would bound through the water and pounce on her target. She didn’t catch anything, but her enthusiasm for the new found hobby never flinched.
We reunited with the trail where we had lost it the previous day. The wildflowers in this area were truly stunning. If it weren’t for the bugs, I would have wanted to stick around for awhile and soak up the sun in this pristine setting.
As it were, the only soaking going on was the bugs soaking up my blood at any possible opportunity. Even though I was thoroughly covered by clothing with some DEET applied, the constant swarming wore me down psychologically so I tried to not linger anywhere for too long. It’s easier to ignore the bugs when you are on the move. We quickly were back on the main trail by Mono Creek, and it was time to begin ascending back up the way we had come.
Shortly up the trail, we were passing by Mono Rock which stands tall above the valley floor. Fortunately, there was a meadow here which allowed for an unobstructed view of the monolith towering overhead.
Further ahead, the trail goes along a particularly wide and steep section of Mono Creek. The water here becomes very shallow as it jets down the smooth valley floor, resembling a giant waterslide.
Soon, we reached the junction to Pioneer Basin, which I fortunately noticed on my first pass by. The initial plan was to go up to the upper area of Pioneer Basin and explore the general area. However, upon reaching the first lake in the area I suddenly had no urge to go on. Callie was beginning to act fatigued, and once we stopped at the lake she suddenly showed great happiness in the fact that she was able to stop and relax for a bit.
Additionally, the area here seemed a little dried out and bugs weren’t swarming us, so I figured we would have better luck camping here than moving further up the basin where I assumed the bugs would be worse. That’s not to say they were non-existant though. After setting up camp, we were greeted by a swarm of mosquitoes who were gracious enough to keep us company for the rest of the day. Most of that time was spent reading at camp, while Callie got a much needed nap. There were some amazing cloud banks over the surrounding mountains, which provided some nice conditions for late afternoon photography.
Sunset was a disappointment, but at this point I was just trying to enjoy my vacation and stay sane amongst the constant buzzing of skeeters. I set an early alarm for the following morning so that we could hit the trail before the trail heated up and filled with bugs.
The next day, we were on the trail shortly after 7AM. I was looking forward to getting back home, so I set a goal to get up and over Mono Pass as quickly as I could. The first part of the trail was all downhill as we returned to Mono Creek. The morning light splintered through the forest onto the trail. The world was completely still and the only sound I heard was my breath in rhythm with each step I took down the mountain. Sometimes hiking can help me achieve a completely zen state. This was one of those times.
After descending down to the main trail, we began our 2,000 foot ascent up to Mono Pass. As we left the river valley, we were given a great view of the area, providing a window looking through the Sierra. On a clear day, you could see all the way through central valley, but that is only hypothetical at this point I guess.
We soon passed the treeline and returned to the high altitude moonscape. The sun was beating down and reflecting heat up off the trail, and we warmed up quickly.
Callie was really starting to show the toll that 4 days of continual hiking had taken on her. She stopped and took breaks at any slightly shaded spot that she could find. I found it funny that the tired version of Callie still leaves me in the dust but shows her reduced energy by laying down when she waits for me instead of impatiently standing there while waving her tail.
After only a couple of hours of hiking, we made it to the top of Mono Pass. I was very happy to have made the ascent in such short time, and Callie was very happy to have a big field of snow to play in. This was probably the last snow she’d see until winter, so I took a break and allowed her to let loose in the snow one last time for the season. Her tired demeanor temporarily vanished, for some unknown reason.
On the other side of the pass, our stretch of solitude ended and we began running into a succession of day hikers going up to the Pass. It felt like we re-entered civilization prematurely. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the view from the pass wasn’t very impressive and that you need to hike at least an additional extra mile to get a good view of the Mono Creek Valley. Keep that in mind if you are planning on taking a day hike up to the pass.
Once again, the views into Little Lakes Valley were extremely impressive from the lower sections of the trail.
We arrived at the trailhead after hiking for only about 4.5 hours. A solid pace to finish the trip. Callie passed out next to the car as I was loading it up. I think 4 days was enough to exorcise the devil out of the dog, this time.