Hiking on the west side of Mount Whitney gives an entirely different perspective on a popular region dominated by the lower 48’s highest mountain. Jagged 14,000 foot peaks, crystal clear lakes, sprawling alpine meadows, and beautiful mountain basins dot a vast landscape that is seldom visited by hikers outside of the narrow confines of the JMT.
Mileage: 50 Miles
Day(s) Hiked: 7/20/14 > 7/26/14
Trailhead Locations – Horseshoe Meadows Trailhead & Shepherd Pass Trailhead
Dog Friendly: No
(Off-trail routes are approximated)
This week in the Sierra was intended to be a family backpacking trip near Mammoth, but a few days before our vacation started, Callie had a medical emergency that sent her to the hospital (don’t worry, she’s fine now) and Riss had a snag with work that cancelled her vacation time. I was suddenly on my own with a week off from work and all of my old plans out the window.
Within the next couple of days, I had worked out a completely different trip through Sequoia National Park’s high country, an area that I’ve wanted to explore more but does not allow dogs – a perfect fit for the unfortunate hand we’d been dealt.
For this trip, a friend and I teamed up and did a car shuttle between Horseshoe Meadows and Shepherd Pass. We started out by both driving up the sketchy road up to the hikers trail head at Shepherd Pass. This is a rough road, and high clearance is recommended. My Subaru Outback was barely able to make it unscathed, and I was glad to be doing the shuttle with a friend with a truck as opposed to our Honda Fit at home which would have no chance at making it up the road.
We returned to the Horseshoe Meadows trail head where we spent a night in the campground to acclimate. That night and the following morning were a foreboding way to start a week in the backcountry, as we were hit with sporadic rain, hail, and lightning. Things calmed down by the time we hit the trail, but the cloud cover stuck around and occasionally drizzled down as we hiked through the forest on the first stretch of trail. We ran into a few groups of hikers sheepishly returning to their cars with wet gear, frazzled by the previous night’s storm.
After about five miles of pleasant but monotonous hiking through the trees, the trail reaches a meadow below the Cottonwood Lakes and views of the surrounding mountains immediately open up.
To the Northwest lies Mount Langley, an impressive fourteener that towers overs the rest of the mountains in the area.
As we made our way to the upper lakes, the clouds began to clear a bit to form some beautiful afternoon skies. We didn’t want to linger above treeline without shelter, especially after our experience in the morning, so we quickly made our way to the Fifth Cottonwood Lake and set up camp for the night.
By sunset, the clouds had almost completely vanished. The threat of a storm appeared to be gone, and as it turned out, we wouldn’t have to deal with any bad weather for the rest of the trip.
The following day started with an ascent of Old Army Pass. This trail looks pretty sketchy from a distance, and Old Army Pass can be dangerous if there is snow on it. This combination gives the pass a slightly sketchy reputation, but even though it is un-maintained, the trail is still in good shape with no particularly dangerous or exposed sections.
Plus, there is a nice view from the trail looking back to the Cottonwood Lakes where we started our day.
The Old Army Pass trail is about a mile long with 1000 feet of elevation gain, so it didn’t take us too long considering we hit it with fresh legs. We soon found ourselves at the top of the pass in Sequoia National Park, home of the largest tree on the planet, although that is not exactly the impression that is left here.
We continued up the trail across the flat moonscape towards Mount Langley.
Right before the Langley trail starts getting steeper, there is a use trail that cuts off to the left and heads down towards the Soldier Lakes. There is hardly a trail here, but it doesn’t matter much. The soft sandy landscape is very forgiving and easy to hike down.
As the trail descends, the upper Soldier Lake begins to come into view and we were treated to our first proper views of the Sequoia backcountry.
Our goal for our route to Miter Basin was to keep as much altitude as possible from the Soldier Lakes instead of descend all the way down to the bottom of the canyon and then back up towards Miter Basin. This worked out perfectly and we even happened upon a beautiful tarn overlooking the basin on our way.
Off-trail travel here is incredibly easy. Pretty much any way works without much effort, and it’s always beautiful.
Our destination for the second night was Sky Blue Lake, which fully lived up to its name. The lake is surrounded by enormous cliffs on three of its sides, which provides for an incredible experience that is hard to translate to a photo.
That night was perfectly calm, and we awoke with the pleasant surprise of finding Sky Blue Lake nearly still in the morning light.
Day three had us heading off-trail over Crabtree Pass to the Crabtree Lakes. The terrain here quickly became quite different from what we experienced in the lower Miter Basin, and proper navigation and route finding skills became necessary. Fortunately, my partner had researched the route a good deal, since I had only decided to tag along at the last second, but I found it to be pretty intuitive for the most part, and we eventually just ended up forging our own path.
For some reason, I had expected the upper part of Miter Basin to be an uninviting, barren stretch of Sierra, but I was consistently in awe of each crystal clear tarn or lake that I passed.
This is a strange, fantastic place that defies expectations.
The view from the top of Crabtree Pass shows the stark contrast between the two basins. Crabtree Basin is dominated by three huge lakes that dwarf any of the lakes in Miter Basin.
At the pass we ran into the only people we’d see for the day, who happened to be a married couple of backcountry rangers that had each hiked up from separate sides of the pass so that they could meet up on their day off. How cool is that?
They saw me scouting the terrain looking down to the right from the pass, which is the route that had been recommended to my partner in his research. They offered up some advice to head left down a chute that was had a loose but safe use trail. It’s not often that you have a backcountry ranger giving you on location navigation advice, so we took it without any hesitation.
I think that our originally planned route could potentially be better if you were ascending Crabtree Pass from this side, but going down the chute was quick and pretty easy.
Soon enough we were traversing along the use trail that goes around the north side of the lake. Looking back, Crabtree Pass looked far more imposing than what we had just gone down. It’s remarkable how the scope of the mountains can warp your perspective. Some routes that look dangerous from a distance turn out to the completely benign, while other routes that look perfectly doable can reveal nasty surprises once you get closer in.
On the other side of the upper Crabtree Lake, off trail travel becomes much easier and we were able to follow smooth granite slabs adjacent to small trickling streams on our way to the second lake. This section was particularly nice.
The highlight of this basin is the big sandy beach on the northern shore of Second Crabtree Lake. A sprawling beach like this is a rare treat in the Sierra, and combined with a view towards the towering cliffs on the southern side of the lake, it doesn’t get much better.
A trail emerges on the way down to the first Crabtree Lake, which is a short walk away from the second lake.
The lake is right at treeline, and we enjoyed a night of sleeping under the trees for a change of pace.
There is a use trail that heads down from the lake down towards the PCT from the first lake. We ended up just going off trail through the forest towards Crabtree Meadow, though I’m not sure it made much difference. It’s a pretty short route, and the terrain makes for easy off trail travel.
Crabtree Meadow is a pretty beautiful spot that is directly on the PCT, so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to find an encampment of tents set up among the multitude of established sites. Returning to the trail felt like a premature return to civilization in this case, following our near complete solitude over the past couple of days.
A half mile up the PCT, we connected with the John Muir Trail where it breaks off the PCT and heads up towards Mount Whitney. We continued on north and began to get the full JMT experience.
I don’t want to disparage the JMT too much, but after our experience in Miter and Crabtree Basin, the contrast of the trail experience was too stark to go unnoticed. In the short 3 and a half mile stretch we walked towards Wallace Creek, we saw more people than the rest of the week long trip combined. We were also greeted with a horse train at least 20 horses long, and all of the dust and horse shit on the trail that comes with that type of use.
Normally it would be easier for me to ignore these types of distractions, but this is a pretty boring stretch of trail than ranks up as one the most forgettable parts of the JMT. For a trail that is known for its breathtaking views, you won’t find many here. The vast majority of the gap traverses through a forest thick enough to block any views of the surrounding area, which is unfortunate, because there are some beautiful mountains surrounding the trail in every direction.
There are a couple of spots where the view opens up to the west to give a glimpse of what the forest is obscuring, but for the most part, the view remains consistently entrenched in the trees.
Fortunately, we weren’t bound to the trail for long, and once we reached Wallace Creek, we began heading up towards Wales Lake. There is a faint use trail that meanders up the basin, which we chose to follow out of convenience.
Midway up the basin, the trail traverses next to an interesting part of the creek, where it forms a deep ravine surrounded by cliffs of fractured rock that slightly resemble the rock seen at Devil’s Postpile. In the background, the Kaweah Peaks provided a stunning backdrop that we would become accustomed to over the next couple of days.
The trail eventually petered out for us on the way to Wales Lake, but by then the trees had thinned out and it didn’t matter that much. Wallace Creek is a consistent navigation point, and it provides some nice views as well.
We continued up some granite slabs to the right of the creek to the outlet of Wales Lake, and after a brief stint of easy off trail travel, found ourselves at the lake.
Wales Lake is an impressive sight to take in. It is only a few miles away from Mount Whitney, although the majority of Whitney is blocked by Mount Morgenson on the southeastern side of the lake. Mount Hale and an imposing, surprisingly unnamed peak take up the rest of the shoreline for the enormous lake.
The lake has a gentle outlet stream which lets out into a cascade with a clear view across the Kern Valley to the Kaweahs.
Since the lake is close to 12,000 feet high, and the surrounding peaks top out near 14,000 feet, the evening light lasts well past sunset as everything around here seems to catch the last light of the day,
and when the light does finally fade, the stars come out in full force as expected.
The only downside of Wales Lake is that it is fishless, if you are into that type of thing. The upside is that nearby Wallace Lake features some of the best fishing you’ll find in the High Sierra. We spent a day off from the trail fishing the lake and caught trout 12 inches and bigger with ease.
We retraced our steps back down the Wallace Basin towards the JMT, and shortly after reaching it, diverted off towards the Wright Lakes Basin. The lower part of the basin has a sprawling flat meadow which is one of the largest that I’ve ever seen. It reminded me a lot of Tuolumne Meadows, just without the people and trails. There is nothing particularly awe inspiring about this area, at least in comparison to the terrain that we had seen over the past few days, but hiking through the lower basin proved to be a very relaxing experience.
The upper part of the Wright Lake Basin is pretty barren. It wouldn’t normally be the type of place I’d be inspired to stop for the night, but it has an excellent location for a quick exit over Shepherd Pass, and the fishing is good too.
We were rewarded with a tremendous sunset for our final night, and our view from the top of Wright Basin looking down towards the heart of the Sequoia backcountry was a fitting place to take it in.
We got an early start the next day and headed up over Rockwell Col as the morning light slowly crept its way into the upper part of the basin.
From the top of the Col, Shepherd Pass comes into view and is only a short mile away. The downside is that you have to lose most of your elevation and then climb back up a couple hundred feet to the pass.
From the pass, the views towards the west and the east vary wildly, and showcase the incredible diversity of the Sierra.
Which way would you rather go? Looking at this view, and knowing that we had 6,000 feet of descent into the heat of Owen’s Valley to look forward to made leaving Sequoia that much more difficult, but the thought of a burger, cold beer, and shower can have a powerful pull on you after enough time out here.
Shepherd Pass is one of the four monster passes in the Eastern Sierra that have over 6,000 feet of elevation gain from trailhead to pass. These passes are all notorious, not only for the sheer amount of climbing involved, but also because they tend to be less maintained and they bottom out close to the valley floor where temperatures regularly rise above 100 degrees during the daytime in the summer.
Now that we’ve established that this trail is no joke, Shepherd Pass also has a reputation for being the easiest of the four monster passes, and I found the trail to be pretty easy to hike and quite scenic too. The first stretch is very steep and loose, and it features a snowfield that was still persisting at the end of July in a heavy drought year.
After that first steep hill right at the pass, things begin to smooth out and for the most part, it’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other a few thousand times.
That is, until you reach the washed out section of the trail. This washout occurred last summer, coincidentally while Callie and I were getting drenched near Pine Creek to be exact. The damage to the trail here was severe, and there is now a washed out gorge that is about thirty feet deep that cuts right across the trail. There is no established way across at this point, and we chose one of the routes that some hikers have been using which cuts across the washout about 50 feet above the trail. The rocks in this area are still very unstable, so tread cautiously.
After the washout, things were mostly smooth sailing back down to the car, except for one stretch of trail that deceivingly heads back UP about 700 feet before dropping back down into the Symmes Creek watershed. Normally, the small stretch of uphill wouldn’t be of much concern, but in the hot afternoon sun in Owen’s Valley, in the middle of a long day finishing a long week, it sapped most of what energy I had left in the tank.
At last we reached one of the most beautiful sights of the entire trip. The promise of cold drinks and the weight off my back.