On a hiking trip via our VW Eurovan camper July 5-23, 2015, we rediscovered the beauty of the Eastern Sierras, and for the first time hiked spectacular Castle Crags State Park in Northern California. Below, I share our itinerary and my favorite images in day-by-day trip order.
Photo gallery: “2015 Jul 5-23: all: Sierra Nevada + Castle Crags, California”
Tips and notes for our July 5-23, 2015 California itinerary, in order of visit:
- Off Highway 88 near Carson Pass (near South Lake Tahoe), hike a varied loop through lush wildflower fields from Woods Lake Campground to Winnnemucca Lake then Round Top Lake, in Mokelumne Wilderness, Eldorado National Forest. The excellent loop trail is 5.3 miles with 1250 feet gain (or 6.4 miles with 2170 feet gain if adding the scramble up Round Top).
- McGee Creek Canyon makes an excellent moderate day hike through fields of summer wildflowers in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Sierra Nevada, near Mammoth Lakes. Swirling patterns of fractured red and gray metamorphic rocks rise impressively above this hike of 6 miles round trip with 1200 feet gain to the beaver pond on McGee Creek.
- View Indian baskets and history, plus outdoor machinery used in the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct 1908-1913, at the Eastern California Museum, 155 N. Grant Street, Independence, California, 93526. The Museum was founded in 1928 and has been operated by the County of Inyo since 1968. Its mission is to collect, preserve, and interpret objects, photos and information related to the cultural and natural history of Inyo County and the Eastern Sierra, from Death Valley to Mono Lake.
- See Mobius Arch and other curious rock formations in BLM Alabama Hills Recreation Area, in the Owens Valley, west of Lone Pine in Inyo County. The Sierras tower 10,000+ feet above you to the west, and Inyo Mountains rise to the east. At a certain angle, Mobius Arch frames Mount Whitney (14,505 feet or 4421 m elevation), the highest summit in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada. The Alabama Hills are a popular filming location for television and movie productions (such as Gunga Din, Gladiator, Iron Man, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), especially Westerns (Tom Mix films, Hopalong Cassidy films, The Gene Autry Show, The Lone Ranger, Bonanza, How the West Was Won, and Joe Kidd). Two main types of rock are exposed at Alabama Hills: 1) orange, drab weathered metamorphosed volcanic rock 150-200 million years old; and 2) 82- to 85-million-year-old biotite monzogranite which weathers to potato-shaped large boulders.
- We were enthralled at the Museum of Western Film History, at 701 S. Main Street, Lone Pine. Fans of movies and television shouldn’t miss this trove of memories, including their good video presentation. Scenes of actor Russell Crow riding through “Spain” in Gladiator (2000) were filmed in nearby Alabama Hills Recreation Area with looming Sierra Nevada peaks as backdrop. See the actual car from the film High Sierra (1941) – in the climactic movie sequence, “Mad Dog” Earle, played by Humphrey Bogart, flees from police by accelerating this 1937 Plymouth Coupe automobile up the old Whitney Portal Road. See the exploding head graboid puppet from the film Tremors (1990), starring Kevin Bacon.
- Along the Cabin Trail, see an historic mining cabin built of old-growth bristlecone and limber pine logs, in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Schulman Grove, Inyo National Forest, in the White Mountains, near Big Pine. In terms of its ancient logs, you can think of this as one of the world’s oldest cabins. The Mexican Mine for extracting lead and zinc ore was first established in 1863 as the Reed Mine, but it suffered various weather and supply problems at 10,000 feet elevation and was abandoned in the early 1950s. The world’s oldest known living non-clonal organism was found near here in 2013 — a Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) 5064 years old, germinated in 3051 BC. It beat the previous record set by the famous nearby 4847-year-old Methuselah Tree sampled around 1957. Starting from the visitor center at 9846 feet, we hiked the Cabin Trail loop, returning along Methuselah Grove Trail (highly recommended, to visit the world’s oldest living trees), with views eastward over Nevada’s basin-and-range region. An important dendrochronology, based on these trees and dead bristlecone pine samples, extends back to about 9000 BC (with a single gap of about 500 years).
- My favorite hike in the Bishop Creek watershed goes from South Lake to Long Lake and Saddlerock Lake, looping back via a steeper, poorly marked route to Ruwau Lake, Chocolate Lakes, and Bull Lake, in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest. The rewarding semi-loop is 9 miles with 2220 feet cumulative gain. (An easier walk is 7.2 miles round trip with 1500 feet gain to Saddlerock Lake, out and back via beautiful Long Lake.) One of my favorite shots of the trip is cirrus clouds streaking over Mount Goode (13,085 feet) and Hurd Peak (12,237 ft, center) in a panorama stitched from 12 overlapping photos.
- Also in the Bishop Creek watershed, enjoy a scenic hike from Lake Sabrina to beautiful Blue Lake, Emerald Lakes, and Dingleberry Lake. The good trail is 8.5 miles round trip with 1850 feet cumulative gain. (Beyond Dingleberry Lake, the trail splits to Midnight Lake and Hungry Packer Lake.) A memorable image is Mt Thompson (13,494 feet) and Thompson Ridge rising above beautiful Blue Lake in John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest.
- Also in the Bishop Creek watershed, enjoy a scenic hike from North Lake to Lamarck Lakes. The moderate trail to Upper Lamarck Lake is 5.5 miles round trip with 1550 feet cumulative gain, which we day hiked along with other family members who were backpacking onwards.
- Enjoy an easy, very rewarding hike from Mosquito Flat through Little Lakes Valley to Chickenfoot Lake and Gem Lakes. An impressive array of pyramidal peaks reflect in the creeks and lakes in spectacular Little Lakes Valley. To reach the trailhead, turn off Highway 395 at Toms Place (15 miles south of Mammoth Junction) onto paved Rock Creek Road, and drive 10.5 miles to the end. We hiked the moderate trail to Morgan Pass, 7.5 miles round trip with 1250 feet cumulative gain; but you should skip the left turn to redundant Morgan Pass and instead turn right to visit the pretty Gem Lakes.
- At Mono Lake, intriguing towers of calcium-carbonate decorate the South Tufa Area and reflect photogenically in the lake, in Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. Don’t miss the Visitor Center in Lee Vining along Highway 395. The Reserve protects wetlands that support millions of birds, and preserves Mono Lake’s distinctive tufa towers — calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. Mono Lake has no outlet and is one of the oldest lakes in North America. Over the past million years, salts and minerals have washed into the lake from Eastern Sierra streams and evaporation has made the water 2.5 times saltier than the ocean. This desert lake has an unusually productive ecosystem based on brine shrimp, and provides critical nesting habitat for two million annual migratory birds that feed on the shrimp and blackflies. Since 1941, diversion of lake water tributary streams by the city of Los Angeles lowered the lake level, which imperiled the migratory birds. In response, the Mono Lake Committee won a legal battle that forced Los Angeles to partially restore the lake level.
- Bodie is California’s official state gold rush ghost town – Bodie State Historic Park lies in the Bodie Hills east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Mono County, near Bridgeport. Bodie fascinated me for 4 hours photographing reflections in glass, dilapidated historic buildings, mining equipment, doors, interiors, and more. Afternoon thunderstorm clouds loomed over my panoramas of historic Bodie and the Standard Stamp Mill. After W. S. Bodey’s original gold discovery in 1859, profitable gold ore discoveries in 1876 and 1878 transformed “Bodie” from an isolated mining camp to a Wild West boomtown. By 1879, Bodie had a population of 5000-7000 people with 2000 buildings. At its peak, 65 saloons lined Main Street, which was a mile long. Bodie declined rapidly 1912-1917 and the last mine closed in 1942. Bodie became a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and Bodie State Historic Park in 1962. .
- Peaks of Desolation Wilderness rise above a popular lake in Wrights Lake Recreation Area, in Eldorado National Forest, near South Lake Tahoe. In summer, reservations are required to get one of the crowded campsites. Arrive early before 9am or mid week to get a parking spot for great hikes; or park as we did in the day use area for a nice walk around the lake (which connects to excellent Twin Lakes Trail and Grouse Lake Trail). Directions to Wrights Lake Campground: 23 miles east of Placerville on Highway 50, 11 miles north on Ice House Road (Forest Road 3), 9 miles east on Forest Road 32 (Wrights Lake Tie Road), and 2 miles north on Forest Road 4 (Wrights Lake Rd).
- On our way back to Seattle, in Castle Crags State Park in Northern California, granite pinnacles soared majestically above krumholtz-formation trees atop Castle Dome Trail, just west of Interstate 5, between the towns of Castella and Dunsmuir. One of my favorite hikes in the state is to Castle Dome, an excellent trail 5.8 miles round trip with 2100 feet gain. Geology: although the mountains of Northern California consist largely of volcanic and sedimentary rocks, granite plutons intruded in many areas during the Jurassic period. Heavy Pleistocene glaciation eroded much of the softer surrounding rock leaving soaring crags and spires exposed. Exfoliation of huge, convex slabs of granite made some impressive, rounded towers (California’s look-alike for Huangshan, the Yellow Mountains, in China).
See the above photo gallery for the following Sierra flower photos:
- Giant blazingstar or smoothstem blazingstar (Mentzelia laevicaulis)
- Opuntia fragilis (brittle pricklypear)
- white Datura flower flower blossoms
- Coville’s columbine or Sierra columbine (Aquilegia pubescens)
- Alpine Penstemon (Penstemon davidsonii)
- Iris missouriensis (or Iris montana)
- tiger lily or Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum)
- prickly poppy (Argemone Genus)
- Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush or Prairie-fire).
Previous California trips:
In 2015, we were overdue to return to the Eastern Sierras, having last visited 15 years earlier, when we saw Mono Lake & Bodie and backpacked the scenic Virginia Lakes – Summit Lake – Green Lake loop. More recently in 2011, we enjoyed camping in Yosemite Valley (see gallery) in November, a time highly recommended to avoid the overwhelming crowds of summer. A separate article covers all my images from California (and integrates all photos seen above).