Our summer 2021 went from Mammoth Lakes to woolly mammoths!
Hiking mostly new trails for training in Washington kept us motivated and fit, climaxing with superb backpacking for 9 days in California’s High Sierra. That breathtaking acclimatization helped tackle Chasm Lake Trail, an impressive alpine cirque on Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness, Colorado.
Continuing by RV to Indiana, we visited family then returned to Seattle via hypnotic Midwest cornfields. Along the way, Nebraska revealed some hidden gems: the SAC & Aerospace Museum, International Quilt Museum, Chimney Rock NHS, Agate Fossil Beds NM, and Fort Robinson SP. Sightseeing finished on a high note in South Dakota’s Black Hills region at “The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs” — an active paleontological site containing the world’s largest collection of in-situ mammoth remains!
This blog page describes summer highlights in 2021, where clicking any image loads Tom’s Portfolio site (where you can view a more extensive gallery, “2021 Aug 1-Sep 12: CA Sierras, CO, NE, SD“).
California: hiking in the Eastern Sierra Nevada
Backpack 4 days from Pine Creek to Granite Park, near Bishop
From August 16-19 in 2021, we backpacked to Honeymoon Lake, Granite Park, and Pine Creek Pass in John Muir Wilderness, in Inyo National Forest. Six months in advance, I was lucky to reserve the “Pine Creek JM11” entry near Bishop for a group of three.
- Day 1: Backpack from Pine Creek Pass Trailhead to Honeymoon Lake (6.2 miles with 2900 feet gain). We ascended a spectacular gorge overlooking the former Pine Creek Mine (1918-1990). Opened in 1918, Union Carbide’s Pine Creek Mine was once the largest tungsten producer in the United States, also yielding much molybdenum and silver. During World War II, the mine supplied tanks with tungsten armor plating and armor-piercing projectiles. Proceeding upwards, monumental scenery drew us ever upwards, with sparkling drinking water (sterilized with Steripen) regularly available from tributary streams, Pine Creek, Pine Lake, Upper Pine Lake, and camping at Honeymoon Lake.
- Day 2: Backpack 3.1 miles with 1300 ft gain to Granite Park, a rocky alpine route which felt tiring due to the high altitude and effort yesterday. A GPS map was helpful to find the cairns and boot track.
- Day 3: The golden sunrise on granite spires took our breath away, truly awesome. Then we descended 1300 feet with backpacks for 2.7 miles to Honeymoon Lake to set up tents; then day hiked 4.4 miles round trip with 900 ft gain to Pine Creek Pass, overlooking the broad head of French Canyon capped by Mount Humphreys.
- Day 4: Backpack 6.2 miles with 2900 ft descent to the trailhead.
Backstory: Captured in Granite Park in summer 1983, “Flourishing photographers” became my first published photo, appearing in February 1987 Modern Photography magazine. 38 years have passed since our group of seven family and friends backpacked to Royce Lakes, Royce Peak, Granite Park, and Italy Pass. Revisiting in 2021 enhanced the significance of both trips.
Day hike Devils Postpile to Rainbow Falls as a loop, near Mammoth Lakes
Above: Devils Postpile National Monument, in Ansel Adams Wilderness. These basaltic columns formed underground about 90,000 years ago when hot lava dammed behind a moraine. As the lava lake cooled and shrank, cracks extending from the top and bottom merged to form vertical columns which were hidden underground. Then 20,000 years ago, grinding glaciers scalped and polished the hexagonal tops.
A loop day hike to Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls (6 miles with 780 feet gain) helped demystify Mammoth’s complicated parking and Shuttle system. From a reserved campsite in Mammoth Lakes, we drove past Minaret Summit Entrance Station (before the 7am-7pm daily cutoff for private cars) to reach Devils Postpile’s limited parking. Five days later, this would be our second backpacking trip’s exit point via Reds Meadow Shuttle. By the way, Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls can be hiked with less effort from their separate parking lots connected by the Shuttle bus.
Above: Rainbow Falls, on the Middle Fork San Joaquin River, in Devils Postpile National Monument. The water plunges from a lip of hard volcanic andesite down 101 feet to hit the lower layer of more-easily eroded volcanic rhyodacite, which has undercut and moved the falls 500 feet upstream from its original location.
5-day traverse: High Trail to Thousand Island, Garnet, Ediza, Iceberg, Cecile, & Minaret Lakes
For many years I’ve wanted to return to Thousand Island Lake, where as a child in 1967 and 1968, I horse packed with family, friends, and a folding double kayak. This year, six months in advance, I luckily reserved the “High Trail / PCT AA09” entry point for our backpacking group of three in Ansel Adams Wilderness. In this popular area, Inyo National Forest requires securing food in an approved bear canister (2.5 pounds). More spectacular than we had imagined, the trip gave us majestic mountains and perfect golden sunrises every day. (Direct sunset light tended to be blocked by high mountains to the west.) Trip log for August 22-26, 2021:
- Day 1: Starting with the earliest reserved ride on Reds Meadow Shuttle bus from Mammoth Adventure Center to Agnew Meadows Trailhead, we backpacked the High Trail for 9 long miles with 2000 feet gain to Thousand Island Lake, on probably the dustiest trail I’ve ever hiked, albeit scenic. Hikers should use the Shuttle, otherwise trailhead parking is quite limited and most vehicle entries are blocked from 7am to 7pm. Multi-night parking is allowed in the Shuttle lot at Mammoth Adventure Center.
- Day 2: Backpack from Thousand Island Lake to Garnet Lake (3.1 miles, 650 ft down, 500 ft up).
- Day 3: Backpack from Garnet Lake to Ediza Lake (7 miles / 1400 ft down / 1000 ft up).
- Day 4: Tom and Rebecca backpacked an exciting use-trail via Iceberg and Cecile Lakes to Minaret Lake (3.1 miles, 1130 ft up, 630 feet down) on steep scree and boulder rock-hopping, where a GPS trail map helped find the safest path to avoid cliffs. Older paper maps don’t mark this use-trail (a beaten boot track). (Earlier in the season, steep snow and ice can make the route unsafe for the unprepared; but our intentional pick of late August was snow-free.) To regain RV comforts, as planned, Carol returned on the attractive and familiar Shadow Creek (day hiked last year) to Agnew Meadows shuttle bus (8 miles, 400 ft up, 2700 ft down), back to Mammoth Lakes.
- Day 5: Exit with backpacks from Minaret Lake to Devils Postpile Ranger Station (7.1 miles, 135 ft up, 2240 ft down), where we caught the frequent Shuttle (backpackers can return using Day 1’s round trip ticket).
Comfortable yet lightweight overnight backpacking gear
- 1.8-pound TarpTent Stratospire Li double-wall tent for two: saves weight by using two hiking poles for support.
- 2.5-pound Enlightened Equipment “Accomplice” Quilt covers two people, rated 10 degrees F, includes pad straps.
- Big Agnes Insulated QCore SLX sleeping pads 20×66″, 3.5″ thick, comfy, 18 oz each
- Food: freeze-dried dinners. Calorie-dense lunches and breakfasts. For the Pine Creek Trail, tying bear bags onto tree trunks away from camp at night protected our food (and protected bears from the falling risks of pursuing a higher-hung cache). We encountered no bears this summer, as most hikers seem now better-trained to protect food. In Mammoth Lakes area, we stored food in mandatory hard canisters.
- Luxury items: one Helinox 1.1-pound chair, carried by “chairpa” Tom; Kindle E-reader; Samsung Note9 Smartphone for GPS maps; battery bank charger 10,000 mAh
- Carrying the pocket-sized Sony RX100M6 camera saved several pounds compared to my RX10M4 system.
Sierra acclimatization day hikes done August 7-19, 2021
Off of Highway 50, popular Wrights Lake Campground was full, so we found free dispersed camping nearby in Eldorado National Forest. Sadly, heavy smoke crept in that night, aborting the next day’s hike on Grouse Lake Trail into Desolation Wilderness. Acclimatizing our lungs would have to start higher than at the locally moderate elevation of 7000 feet. Darn. We had to drive 4 hours southwards to find healthier smoke conditions. Turning west of Highway 395 at Toms Place reached the wonderful retreat of Little Lakes Valley.
On August 7, from Rock Creek Lake (at a gasping 9700 feet elevation) we puffed upwards to reach Dorothy Lake at 10,560 feet elevation (6 miles round trip with 960 feet total cumulative gain and loss). Despite our destination lake being a little smoky and 80% shriveled by drought, the quiet trail and surrounding scenery refreshed us. Whew, not bad. Little did we know — the following day’s popular hike to Gem Lakes featured stunning pyramidal peaks reflected in multiple lakes and streams, with beauty around every corner (7.9 miles round trip with 1040 ft gain). Having been here once 6 years ago, we knew to avoid the extra grunt to humdrum Morgan Pass.
For the next three nights, we car camped at Willows Campground, out of Bishop. From Bishop Pass Trailhead at South Lake, we day hiked 7.2 miles round trip with 2040 feet gain to a third lake above the first two Treasure Lakes. Wow, it’s another impressive hike surrounded by pyramidal granite peaks reflected in pristine alpine lakes.
On August 10, we walked Tyee Lakes Trail, next to Willows Campground (6.4 miles, 2000 feet gain). Rebecca continued upwards from Tyee Lakes on a traverse over to Sabrina Lake (8.6 miles with 2530 ft gain), where we drove to pick her up, then return to Willows Campground.
On August 15 we tackled a harder hike, from Big Pine Creek South Fork to Brainerd Lake (aka Brainard Lake), 9.2 miles round trip with 2800 feet gain from the day hikers parking lot (which would have been 10.7 miles round trip from the overnight hikers lot).
Brainerd Lake Trail gives striking views of the Palisades around Mile 3.6, in John Muir Wilderness. From left to right are Middle Palisade Peak and Glacier, Norman Clyde Peak, Firebird Peak (aka “Peak 3862,” rising most prominently in the center foreground), Palisade Crest, and Mount Sill (14,153 ft). The Palisades group runs for 6 miles along the Sierra Crest, dividing the Owens Valley watershed (here) from the Central Valley, on the boundary between John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park on the other side.
For final acclimatization before the two backpacking trips (described at top), we drove high into the White Mountains to find free dispersed camping in Inyo National Forest east of Bishop. Since last visiting six years ago, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest was well worth repeating, for the Methuselah Walk (4.1-mile loop with 705 feet gain) amongst the world’s oldest living trees, more than 4000 years old. Nice Visitor Center!
Colorado: Chasm Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness
We hiked 8.5 miles round trip with 2500 feet gain to Chasm Lake, nestled under a majestic cirque of Longs Peak, in the northern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, near Estes Park, Colorado.
After a family visit in Indiana, we pointed our RV back to Seattle. Bonus sights in Nebraska included the following:
Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum in Ashland, NE
Well worth a visit, the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum’s ominous aircraft and missiles are a sobering reminder of the Cold War, when the SAC served from 1965–1992 as nuclear air defense. In 1992, SAC was disbanded and reorganized into other units.
Above: The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is a long-range, high-altitude strategic reconnaissance aircraft that was operated by both the United States Air Force (USAF) and NASA (from 1966-99). During aerial reconnaissance missions, the SR-71 could outrace threats using high speeds and altitudes (85,000 feet). As of 2021, the SR-71 continues to hold the official world record it set in 1976 for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft: 2,190 miles per hour or Mach 3.3.
Below: A Vajen-Bader smoke helmet for firefighters. Its round eyes have mica for fireproof viewing and even wipers to clear condensation! Made in Indiana in the 1890s, the helmet let firemen carry their own oxygen supply in an attached compression tank and protected them from smoke and falling debris. The technology would later be applied to high-altitude flight.
International Quilt Museum, Lincoln, NE
Although the International Quilt Museum has the world’s largest publicly held quilt collection, our timing was off, arriving between shifting exhibits. In a later year we’ll return to this attractive building, operated by the University of Nebraska.
Chimney Rock National Historic Site, NE
Acclaimed in the mid-1800s diaries of pioneer emigrants, Chimney Rock is worth a stop. Its Museum concisely reveals the travails of westward prairie emigrants who passed this 325-foot-high natural rock landmark along the Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Mormon Trail. Modern travelers can see it along U.S. Route 26 and Nebraska Highway 92. At 4228 feet above sea level, the distinctive formation towers 480 feet above the adjacent North Platte River Valley. Its layers of volcanic ash and brule clay date to the Oligocene Age (34 million to 23 million years ago).
Below: Prairie emigrants used covered farm wagons like this (instead of heavy boat-shaped Conestoga wagons), displayed at Chimney Rock National Historic Site.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, NE
Agate Fossil Beds boasts the most well-preserved Miocene fossils in the world. Exhibits also elucidated local native American history and culture.
Below, a skeleton diorama of the Agate waterhole of 20 million years ago (Miocene epoch) shows two entelodont mammals and a small beardog scavenging a chalicothere carcass (related to horse and rhino). The entelodont (Dinohyus hollandi) was a hoofed mammal 6-8 feet tall at the shoulder, with powerful jaws and teeth for eating both carrion and plants. The smaller skeleton in the foreground is a beardog (Daphoenodon superbus, the most common carnivore at the Agate waterhole site), which preyed upon juvenile rhinos, camels, and oreodonts. Notice that someone with a sense of humor put a blue mask on the beardog during the pandemic! The chalicothere (Moropus elatus) was related to the horse and rhino, standing 6 feet tall at the shoulder and having 3-toed, claw-like hooves.
Fort Robinson State Park, NE
Continuing north towards Crawford on the edge of the High Plains, Fort Robinson State Park provides large campgrounds with attractive bluff scenery in the Pine Ridge region of northwest Nebraska (resembling the Black Hills 50 miles to the north). Fort Robinson was a US Army base (1874-1947) which played a major role in the Sioux Wars from 1876 to 1890.
The Mammoth Site, Hot Springs, South Dakota
Here is the largest collection of in-situ mammoth remains in the world. Although the Black Hills of South Dakota offer many other great sights, don’t miss this fascinating museum and active paleontological site. Sheltered under the Mammoth Site’s roof is an ongoing excavation of a prehistoric sinkhole filled with the remains of animals and plants preserved by entrapment and burial around 140,000 years ago, in the Late Pleistocene. Since mammoth bones were found here accidentally in 1974, the remains of 61 mammoths have been recovered (including 58 North American Columbian and 3 woolly mammoths as of 2021). The Pleistocene, often referred to as the Ice Age, is the geological epoch that lasted from about 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago, spanning the earth’s most recent period of repeated glaciations. The most recent glaciation period reached peak conditions some 18,000 years ago before yielding to the interglacial Holocene epoch 11,700 years ago.
Above: A replica of Dima, a mummified baby woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) who died 41,000 years ago and was discovered in 1977 in Eastern Siberia. The skin color and hair presence on this replica was modified to match the original’s appearance at the time of discovery.
Above are highlights. For a more extensive gallery of The Mammoth Site, see Tom’s Portfolio site.
Washington hikes in summer 2021
Before going to California’s Sierra Nevada, we trained on the following trails that were mostly new to us and easily drivable as day trips from Seattle:
- June 16: Soaring Eagle Regional Park (Sammamish): pleasing loops
- June 18 & 29: Oyster Dome Trail, and North Butte Loop, in Blanchard State Forest: impressive forest and views
- Redmond Watershed Preserve: several nice loops on non-muddy trail
- July 1: Chuckanut Mountain: good exercise through forest, if you’re passing through the area
- Issaquah Alps: Margaret’s Way in Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park; and Wilderness Peak on Squak Mountain
- July 12-13: Mount Rainier National Park: Sunrise: Skyscraper Pass on the Wonderland Trail; and the Palisades Trail to Hidden Lake
- Little Si including Boulder Loop (North Bend): a rewarding loop, familiar
- Lord Hill Regional Park (Snohomish): walk a multi-use loop through disturbed land (slowly rewilding)
- July 19: Ira Spring Trail to Mason Lake (I-90): steep and rewarding, hiked regularly in past years; avoid doing on weekends due to crowds
- July 21: Pratt Lake Trail (I-90): nicely graded and forested, crossing pretty streams
- and the following adventurous loop hike to Grand Valley on July 27…
Olympic National Park: loop hike from Obstruction Point to Grand and Badger Valleys
Reached by turning left just before the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, Obstruction Point Road provides Olympic National Park’s best views of shy Mount Olympus from a vehicle (open from about July 4 through October 15 depending on weather and snow on the steep, narrow gravel surface).
July 27, 2021 hiking report: Starting from Obstruction Point Trailhead, we day hiked a vigorous loop over Lillian Ridge to Grand Lake, with short side trip to Moose Lake, then returned the longer way along Grand Creek via Badger Valley Trail (9 miles with 2740 feet gain). Despite numerous backpackers and fellow day hikers along this popular National Park entry point, the wilderness feels refreshingly remote. For relaxation, allow two or more days round trip from Seattle to explore the Olympic Peninsula.
Above: See majestic Mount Olympus (7963 ft elevation) from Lillian Ridge, near Obstruction Point, in Olympic National Park. I fondly recall climbing to the False Summit on May 30, 1982, just 80 feet short of the highest peak of Mount Olympus (45 miles round trip over 3 days with 7400 ft total gain and loss).
Hiking Chain Lakes loop, Mount Baker Wilderness in autumn
Our summer’s mammoth momentum continued through fall. On October 19, we enjoyed one of our favorite hikes in Washington:
- Galena Chain Lakes loop, for 7.3 miles with 1800 feet gain and loss, starting from Bagley Lakes Trailhead (Ski Area parking lot). Start early in the morning and hike counterclockwise for better photographic lighting on the peaks.
- When the road to Artist Point is open (from July until the first snowfall, by early October), the circuit can be shortened to 6 miles starting from Heather Meadows Visitor Center, in Mount Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest.
Above are the day’s highlights, where clicking any image loads Tom’s Portfolio site, showing a more extensive gallery, “2021 Oct 19: Chain Lakes loop, Mt Baker Wilderness”.