Mojave Desert to See The Stars

It’s been a while since my partner took out the telescope and helped me see some celestial places up close. This weekend the moon was a late-rising crescent and the forecast called for clear skies and no wind so a last minute trip was floated this week and Saturday morning we headed out. No waking up early, just a leisurely drive to the desert, a northwestern part of the Mojave just west of Death Valley, where I knew it was remote (few people) and high elevation (5,500 feet) and open views for all but the lowest horizons.

I figured we’d break up the long summer day by stopping at a few places along the way I’d “discovered” in my exploration off the familiar roads these past couple years. First we had to get out of SoCal, fairly easy and event free (normal traffic stressors) and onto my beloved 395, gateway to the eastern Sierra Nevada. A few breaks here and there, it was nice late morning car ride – except the temperatures were climbing!

Veering north at Red Mountain, we eventually made it to Trona Pinnacles – remnant tufa towers from when the place was underwater ages ago. We mostly drove, getting out of the car into an oppressive 104F only to read a few signs, for a bathroom break, and to get close to one tufa to examine the interesting geology. I like the views from here, too, rolling mountains all around the Searles Lake basin – a big flat area.

Trona Pinnacles tufa spires as we drive around.
Trona Pinnacles tufa spires landscape view.

We continued north, over a lovely pass providing excellent views of Panamint Valley before descending into it and visited the Ballarat “ghost town” where my guy got to see one of the wild burros walking around in the now 116F heat (why? I figured they’d all be up higher in the nearby mountains already). We did not exit the car because I thought I’d die in temps this high so I only drove close to building remnants and we read signs from the car. The Panamint Mountains to the east, which break off the valley we were in from Death Valley proper, are very eye catching with bands of color. There are great mountains to summit in there: Telescope and Wildrose – this last I have done (in winter and in some snow) and it’s absolutely stunning atop its wide top with excellent views.

The southwest Death Valley National Park sign along Panamint Valley Road with bands of color visible on the Panamint Mountains behind.
View from Father Crowley Overlook back down at Panamint Valley and the winding road that we just drove up.

We pass a park sign and turned left, west, onto the 190 away from Death Valley proper and gain elevation, happy to watch the temperature drop below 100F. A break at Father Crowley Overlook into the canyon where top gun pilots train at low elevation in the tight space and more valley and mountain views – plus a lot of sign reading and a bathroom break, of course. We continued our drive west and past another Death Valley National Park sign before reaching my goal: a flat, if very bumpy, dirt road into Saline Valley – specifically Lee Flat. We found a turnout, parked out of the way, set up camp, and waited for the sun to set (hours away still). It was 91F, mostly calm, with vague clouds, just as the forecast predicted.

There are so many joshua trees here – the cover the high desert (5,500′ elevation) and all the surrounding mountains – they do not seem to end and some are giant.
Car, tent, telescope, sunset: not one other car or person at all the entire time.

My partner set up the telescope as the sun set the small storm cloud we were pondering to the west didn’t move but just dissipated. A few coyotes howled. Some squeaks were heard. There were signs of wild burro. Maybe a small bird flew. Then nothing – except for a few small insects, it was utterly silent and we were alone in this place. Nap time! Around 11pm my car made weird noises so I had to get up to start it and “fix” it, whatever “it” was. It was time to wake up anyhow: the stars were OUT!

The Milky Way was so bright and streaked over head, west to east and curving a bit south. It was awe-inspiring. My astronomer queued up Saturn with clear rings and rain shade. Magical! Then the Andromeda galaxy. Neat! Some nebular. Baby stars! Jupiter finally rose, very bright, and we looked at some of its moons. Cool! It was now in the high 60sF and I was kinda chilly. We didn’t bring warm clothes or much of anything for a single night. I kept returning to the tent and a light bag between viewings. Anyhow, it was rad and I fell asleep dreaming of Saturn’s rings.

A couple of bird tweets as the sun light started but not yet over the mountains woke me early (also, natured called strongly) so we quickly packed up before it was hot. When the light was direct the temps rose quickly. A long, bumpy ride out was broken only by a quick detour to Boxcar Cabin, weird place (as most desert “stuff” seems to me to be). We noticed some small birds that landed atop the spines on a joshua tree and worried about running over some sizable lizards. Eventually we were on the paved 190 again, who-hoo, and continued west.

Morning sun at Lee Flat with brush and joshua trees casting long shadows.
Boxcar Cabin

Two more stops I wanted to share with my man. One was the U2 album plant, “THE Joshua Tree” which is dead and covered with noted of love. I think you actually get emotional in places these even if I don’t really care about the band too much because all the fans that did visit seem to imprint the strong emotions there. Also, the views from away, instead of right underneath, of the southeastern Sierra Nevada are lovely. A different perspective is always welcome.

Note of “One Love” in rocks
Plaque asking “Have you found what you are looking for?”
The now dead tree with the Sierra Nevada west across the sandy place.

The second stop was a quick one: Dirty Socks Springs. It’s a couple pools of vaguely warm water (about 90F) lightly bubbling and smelling of sulfur – which was not bad this day, on a prior visit it was rather awful. I guess some people get into the dark, algae covered water, but not us! Used to be some sort of organized park but now in a bit of ruin. Well, that’s it then, time to get back onto the 395 and drive a few hours to get home. We made it alive, no thanks to a lot of poor drivers. Put gear away, rest, eat, muck about, shower, home stuff!

Dirty Socks Sprints views.
Dirty Socks Spring bubbles a bit with the Sierra Nevada to the west.

Day 5: No Hiking, Just A Giant Pancake

Instead of the hike out from a campsite near Baxter Pass per my original backpacking plans, I had been having the absolute best time day hiking. After a rough night trying to sleep in the car in Alabama Hills I knew what I needed. I needed Doug at the Whitney Portal Store to cook me a great breakfast.

I was at portal pretty early. The drive up was lovely with clear views over the burn area into the Meysan drainage and of Mt. Whitney towering above before the winding road. The parking lots were fairly crowded but it was near empty of people: Whitney hikers were long gone and the campsites were barely showing signs of waking up.

I walked around enjoying the waterfall and cool morning air as the sun began to warm the quiet place. I had a long conversation with a man that had quit the PCT near mile 500 because it felt like a chore and was instead doing something I agreed was much more fun: driving all over the state hiking the places he wanted to visit and the sections he’d been looking forward to. He’d already taken the year off work and was spending the rest having a great time roaming. I was jealous! We talked about having nothing left to prove and just wanting to enjoy time in the mountains. He’d certainly knocked off some more technical stuff than I: the AT through hike, summit of Denali, a bunch of other crazy stories. We talked gear for a bit then I took my leave because food time!

The eggs were perfect, the bacon was yummy, and the pancake was too big as ever and I wasted the vast majority of it, much to the dismay of the blue jays that harassed me and the other group (who were about to head up to overnight before a summit, they had infectious high spirits). Now well fed after a few wonderful days hiking the eastern Sierra Nevada, it was time to head home and get a hug from my partner and sleep in a comfy bed and, for goodness sake, take a shower.

Alabama Hills looks nice in the morning light.
I added Tapatio to the eggs and lots of butter to the giant pancake (which is also over an inch thick – it’s impossible) and bathed in the warm sun under trees by a running creek.


The days of debating were over: I decided I was going to day hike to a view of Rae Lakes, where I was supposed to be backpacking if the first two days weren’t horribly windy, if it killed me. The shortest, and I think easiest, way there is out of Onion Valley, where I had debated a shorter overnight trip Saturday evening before bailing due to winds again before bailing and heading up to Bishop Creek instead. Based on the prior day’s hike, which was also mild elevation gain, I wasn’t sure if I could make it down to the lakes and have daylight on the way back nor that I wanted to do 24 miles in a day and included coming back up Glen Pass from that side. I set my sights on just getting atop Glen Pass for the views, settling on just under 20 miles.

The first 4.4 miles up to Kearsarge Pass are so familiar as to nearly be boring – except it’s always stunning. I had woken up very, very early as birds were pretty loud at the first hint of sun. I cuddled in my bag in the cold, again, but wanted to have all the advantages summer daylight hours provided so sucked it up and finally got moving at 6:40am. Facing east, the first switchbacks were in the sun and I dropped my outer puffy at Little Pothole Lake just 1.5 miles in. I like this body of water, often passed up by hikers: the steep surrounding mountains includes up to 3 waterfalls (more like tall drainage tumbles) feeding the bowl. It’s green and a nice mix of sweetness and gentle times under rocky and brutal looking mountains.

Little Pothole Lake

At the pass is where I learned there were Dutch stories and a German documentary on the PCT which explained the unusually high percentage of them through-hiking this year. I had driven a sweet German couple up here a day and a half ago but we had just talked trail stuffs and I completely neglected to inquire why they decided to travel here for this. I left quickly worried for time, but was happy thus far. The new insoles I’d bought the night before were really making a difference: my feet felt way better!

5 miles in I stayed on the high road, officially still the Kearsarge Pass Trail, and enjoyed the stunning views of lakes and mountains all around. I’d been here last winter when all the lakes were frozen, but melting and making loud PING sounds. It is always nice to revisit a familiar place in a different season. Another 2.2 miles and I was at a junction: down to meet the PCT and head south, which I had done in winter a bit, or west to Charlotte Lake, or straight which was new to me! Woo-hoo! A bit later is the second cut off, the official PCT, and I was at 7.5 miles and 3:50 in.

Views south over Bullfrog Lake are astounding – so many mountains and valleys between to visit!

Actually, despite amazing views above Charlotte Lake and into Kings Canyon, the path is exposed in a sparse pine forest on a sandy, dry mountainside. Some pauses to catch my break and a snack and water break halfway – supposedly the mild climb is 0.9 miles but it felt 3x that both directions. Once up to a pass of lakes and very steep rocky mountains all around, it was supposedly less than 3 miles all the way over and down to Rae Lakes but the effort felt twice that. It’s not even terribly steep – maybe a sunny, dry day and long miles were taking a toll.

All along the trail, especially as the day worn on, I was surrounded by through-hikers and had many chats or, at least, hellos and well-wishing. I walked past little melt lakes that were shallow in the sand and filled with rocks which strongly reminded me of an early scene in Return to Oz where Dorothy and the chicken watched the river they thought they were on dry into the Deadly Desert and had to stay on the rocks to exit to safety.

It was maybe 1.2 miles all said to the top of the pass – a ridiculous fact that doesn’t match up with perception in the slightest. On the way I passed a melt lake of incredible blue that was mostly frozen and a PCTer from Alabama who’d never seen a frozen lake before (look, he should have by now but it’s a warm, dry year) and he had tried to walk on it but it was thin and he was drying his shoe now. It was very warm and there was a little bit of water draining and filterable from the upper lake so a few pairs of hikers were resting and enjoying the day with each other after various switchbacks near it.

The upper lake is very lovely and it was certainly nicer to look at then whatever the hell Glen Pass is. If you want the surprise, as a hiker on top reminded is nice to have hiking, stop reading. I have never seen a pass like this before. I immediately starting thinking “Glen Not-A-Pass” and looked around wondering why the trail went that way as it seemed crazy. Kearsarge is a classic pass. Others are almost like wide saddles. The Mono Pass I was on out of rock creek you’d call a ‘pass’ without thinking about it – it passed between two steeps mountains. Not Glen. No. This “pass” was a ridge, and not even the lowest or most accessible point in view. WTH? Actually, on a topo map it does look basic and a bit of a dent in the ridge – once again, a map that just does reality no justice to the place. Once up there, though, it made sense why some of the other paths couldn’t be taken, but this was really something and I have to imagine rockslides destroy the trail on both sides from time to time. I had some excellent conversations on top with a fun, talkative man that was waiting for the Alabama man mentioned earlier plus another couple.

Please, Glen is not a pass it’s just a thin, black, rocky ridgeline – a lake bowl of scree that I guess was easier than the rest of it but still seemed a bit crazy.
The views north from atop Glen Pass over Rae Lakes were astounding. The Sierra Nevada seems to go on forever and the long miles paid off on a day with excellent weather.

The return trip followed the exact same path but it was all lovely and new again with the different position of the sun in the afternoon. There were much more PCTers around, borderline crowded, as I came down and many didn’t speak and seemed grumpy with full packs and feeling the afternoon heat. I ate half a sandwich (the joys of day hiking include real, bulky food) back at the junction, chatted about fire damage on a long stretch of trail up north, then headed back for the 7.5 mile return.

After some rest breaks, I made it back over Kearsarge Pass and didn’t stop in the slightest. I walked down the long, exposed stretch and waited until quite a few switchbacks down the other side before a break to eat the rest of my sandwich with a lovely view of Heart Lake. Actually, I had stopped earlier and an overnighter reminded me the view of the lake was so good further down and she was correct. I remembered I had brought Reese’s Pieces and enjoyed those a bit as I drank the last of my filtered water. Time to get moving and finish the day up! Between the non-visible Flower Lake and Gilbert Lake there is a tumbling, shaded drainage and I grabbed some water and some mosquitos found me, though they were not yet biting much.

There were still some late arrivals heading back onto the PCT nearly the entire way, and a few coming down late. When I got to the last slog of switchbacks where you can see your car but still have to lose a lot of elevation to get there, I was just pushing through as best I could and noticing when I was just plodding and pushed myself a bit to move. There was a treasure, though! I heard a grouse (males make a sound like blowing on the top of a bottle) and it seemed close. I never see these dang birds, that finally changed. Around a corner, there he was! He paused and considered me, then made quite the show. A few more deep blowy sounds, puffed out his cheek things to show the yellow behind, flared his tail feathers and did a slow spin: it was all very dramatic and I could have watched longer but I was ready to be done, haha. I whispered a ‘thanks and good luck with the ladies’ and continued.

It felt good to finally be off the trail. It was a 20 mile day but I was happy with the time and my speed: less than 12 hours out which is nearly the same as the prior day’s less mileage hike. The trailhead is about 9,200′ and the highest I got was just below 12k atop Glen Pass, but coming up and down both led to a day’s gain of 5300′ overall. I was also happy that I felt so good. Health is a great commodity and being able to do this long hikes is deeply appreciated by me. Chats at the parking lot as I grab my stuff out of a bear box. Bathroom breaks and beverages, stretches and packing up. It was end of day and it was time to find dinner a place to stay the night before heading home the next day.

Day 3: Finally I hike out of Lake Sabrina

I drove down from Rock Creek thinking I might still use my overnight permit to get to where I wanted (Rae Lakes and Sixty Lake Basin) so I headed south and thought to stay the night at Onion Valley. I got a sub sandwich for dinner and picked up two PCT through-hikers on the way up. They were from Germany and we chatted about trail stuff like food and their heavy, newly-loaded packs, and their hike thus far. Later I was told that there were a lot of Germans on the trail this year due to a documentary a countryman made, and there were a good amount of Dutch due to a book or something.

It was still windy. Really bad and not just gusts – the area was still in the grip of high, loud, sustained winds and here it was very cold. I ate food and started thinking about the next day’s hike. The forecast for wind was supposed to clear up, and I think it did, but I didn’t see it because I decided to leave. I drove back north and decided on another day hike I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time but haven’t had the chance.

I’ve hiked all around the absolutely stunning Bishop Creek area and never been disappointed, but have been shut out of the middle ground, Lake Sabrina, for a long time. My first try, years ago, there was too much snow for my comfort and experience level at that time so I had turned around. Next couple times I just never made it early in the morning enough for the lack of parking and found it ridiculously crowded – typical for summer and colorful autumn. This time was a success! I was so excited to be at the trail head a bit after sunrise, though I sat in my car cuddled in my sleeping bag while I awaiting for the sun to make its way over the high ranges on either side of the valley to warm the temps above 30F – yeah, it was cold overnight!

Since I had a long day planned, I finally got myself moving, all bundled up, at 7:40am. I dropped my trash bag and small food bag and tiny cooler off in the bear box and started moving on the trail which first heads south around the east side of the dammed Lake Sabrina which was lovely in the morning light. Some boats were just starting to head out for a day of fishing.

Just before 3 miles, which felt longer both in and out, I was at Blue Lake at long last! It is a lovely location at 10,400′ elevation surrounded by dramatically jagged ridges high above and the lake is worth a visit as it’s a pretty one. It does have the most people, day hikers and backpackers, but it’s a big place and a long western shore to search for solitude. After one area of steeper switchbacks climbing from Sabrina to Blue to gain 1,400′ everything else on the trail is very mild. Between tall mountains it’s a winding kind of basin with lots of lakes hidden around corners of granite slabs so it’s less a climb now and more just walking to get to whatever lake strikes your fancy.

I was going to the furthest on the established trail: Hungry Packer Lake. It was very large and dramatic with Picture Peak behind absolutely dominating the scene, but when I arrived what really floored me was the drainage basin below it. The series of waterways coming out of two lakes tumbles and falls down granite slabs into green and flower-lined creeks and fills a bunch of pools. This looks absolutely regular on the map, labeled Sailor Lakes, but it was a special place.

There are places on this Earth where the air is thin and it seems that another world bleeds into this one. I turned a corner and found myself walking into one of these wonderous breakthroughs and realized I was being given a rare gift: a mortal entering a slice of Valhalla. I stopped and cried and barely kept myself from falling to my knees.

The absolute magic of the place was healing. Did my feet still hurt? Was I tired any more? Where my knees still complaining? I tell you it all melted away. I hopped over boulder fields for fun and didn’t feel my fingers get raw on the rough granite (they did peel 2 days later). I nearly skipped up large slabs for a better view of things. I followed some use path up a bit too far before coming back down and adoring the teal color of Moonlight Lake during a small lunch break at its shores, thinking an inflatable kayak would be useful to get to that island around the corner. I nearly ran down large rocks to get up close to Moonlight Falls and admired the ice sculptures from it’s light spray. I paused at gentle waterways and turned in circles above small, flower-filled fields to take it in from all angles. I have looked at pictures and it is lovely but maybe it was more the feel of the area, something in the air, something intangible.


This basin of waterfalls, winding water ways, lakes, and peaks was like walking into Valhalla. Also Hungry Packer Lake. #hiking #sierranevada

♬ original sound – Terra’s Adventures

It was sometimes cold in the wind, but otherwise warm in the sun, though I was still wearing all my layers. There were mosquitos in the boulder fields, but they seemed new and non-biting and stayed out of the breezy open places. It was difficult to leave, but I eventually did. I paused for a better view lovely, jewel-colored Topsy Turvy Lake on the return. I was still feeling rejuvenated so added a mile to head up to Midnight Lake. That turned out to be just okay, and I think some people there were not my favorite and it was a long day (over 9 miles) so I left quickly, but the way up is in the drainage and it is sweet and peaceful and has a small waterfall.

Looking at a map does the place no justice at all. You just can’t know until you’re there. #whyihike
Mountains and waterfalls and tumbling creeks and lakes nestled all around. <3

The rest of the way felt a bit like a slog, being so level, but I wasn’t up for other side trips: I was tired and couldn’t imagine any place being nicer. The last 3 miles down from now empty and quite Blue Lake were not my favorite despite still being lovely. I was done! Tumbling creeks to cross, long, dusty paths to walk, flowers to admire, views of the dam and down across the high desert and across to the White Mountains now lit nicely in late afternoon light… still, tired and anxious to be done for the day now.

I was outside for 11 hours and 30 minutes, but the ~14.6 miles (that felt like 17) had a moving time of about 7:40 to get only 2,000 ft gain – that is a lot of breaks for me. Maybe time in that lovely place stopped having meaning. It’s happened in a few precious places and they are all fond memories. Other than health, time is incredibly special and finding a way to feel every second is a treasured space to exist in. Maybe, because I have felt it before, it’s what I am chasing out here in the mountains of the vast Sierra Nevada. An endless quest to feel at peace and whole for just a few moments.

Day 2: We Are Already In Heaven

Since I was no longer backpacking out of Baxter Pass to Rae Lakes due to intolerably high winds, I decided to hit some trails I’ve been meaning to do. I drove north, pondering heading all the way to Tahoe, but instead turned at Tom’s Place, just north of Bishop, to Rock Creek. The drive is excellent for autumn colors, when not filled with fire smoke last last year, and the last time I was here was in winter for a snowshoe test where I stayed overnight at the Little Lakes Valley trailhead all alone as temps dropped to 12F. It was fun and I learned about some gear issues and fixed them for those conditions. So I returned to finally hike this popular place and parked at Mosquito Flats, this time free of snow, and stayed the night in a crowded parking lot.

The next morning was chilly so I stayed cuddled up as I awaited the sun to make its way over the steep mountains around this valley. Then I loaded up and headed out, having decided to head out of the valley and up Mono Pass – unusually a duplicate named place. Usually, it’s just mountains (so many Iron, Table, and Sugarloaf’s) and lakes (lots of Ruby, Emerald, and Grass’s). Even more annoying, the other one is nearby in Yosemite.

Anyhow, I headed out at 7:24 am into one of the prettiest places in the Sierra: the popular trail into Little Lakes Valley follows a winding, tumbling, picturesque Rock Creek lined with flowered, grassy fields and leafy trees between dramatic ridges east and west and only climbs slightly south. The trailhead is already in high elevation and the air is “thin” at 10,230 feet above sea level. At only 1/2 mile in, the junction for the trail up to the pass and/or Ruby Lake arrives and I climb a bit more than staying south to the many lakes.

I could write a book on all that is seen on the way up. I was truly floored at the beauty. Instead, a short summary:

  • Nearing the cutoff to Ruby Lake is a beautiful, peaceful drainage of fields and winding waterways.
  • After a set of switchbacks, looking down at Ruby Lake and Little Lakes Valley from above surrounded by dramatic peaks is just about the most stunning thing I’ve ever seen. There is no version of heaven man can invent that could be more beautiful than that view.
  • The trail curves around the Mt Starr’s southern slopes to make a u-turn and steadily climbs to Mono Pass along a rocky path with a steep drop-off to a bare drainage below before the impossibly steep mountains across west.
  • There was a bit of snow, all avoidable, and I knew in advance hiking up would be no problem because there were signs of a recent stock train (horseshoe marks and road apples) – but there was a kind of false summit which revealed a tad more climbing afterward to actually get to the top of the pass which was rather gentle compared to others.
  • The top was more of a saddle between peaks and just below, or a part of, was a sandy valley with Summit Lake sporting ice in the middle but a beach-like shore line around teal waters – lovely little gem and I stopped for a break there on the return and watched a bird peck at ice and generally be cute with pitter-patter steps in and around the water.
  • There is another small ridge after coming down the pass near another drainage sporting some green grass and I paused to watch a 2-part horse and mule train come down, one free of load, and listened to the two riders speak words of encouragement to a couple animals that didn’t like a certain path or a small walk atop snow – it was very cute. They mentioned it was very cold the night before, and certainly any breeze was rather frigid (I was bundled in a few layers).
  • I only descended a bit and decided I wasn’t going to descend further – it was only 200 down to nice looking Trail Lakes (nearby Needle Lake above looked half frozen under amazingly steep peaks), but another 1,000 into the top of the very green valley below and a climb to Pioneer Basin plus all the miles. Instead, I just walked to a cliff edge in the flat spot and admired the absolutely amazing view of rocky peaks, granite slopes, red and black colored mountaintops, lake strewn basin and Mono Creek somewhere in the green below. Now that I have studied a map, I want to go back and do a bit more here, there’s so much!

Pioneer Basin & Mono Creek drainage, near Mono Pass on a sandy beach at teal Summit Lake, stunning Ruby Lake & Little Lakes Valley. #hiking #mountains

♬ original sound – Terra’s Adventures

It was a tad more windy on the return, but mostly in sets: 5 minutes calm in the sun, 5 with a cold breeze. Nothing like the winds in the south, though, so I enjoyed it and stopped when it was calm to take it all in. The mountains seem to stretch on forever and it’s difficult to peel my eyes away and keep them on the trail ahead. I look again at Little Lakes Valley, each body of water twinkling in reflected sunlight, and ponder a return trip through there and up Morgan Pass instead.

GPS unit says just shy of 10 miles round trip, 5:19 moving and 7:18 overall (lots of nice breaks), with a mild gain of 1,780 feet to the pass, though I managed 2,800 overall since I dropped and came back up, though I’d call it 2,500 actual climbing ignoring the small up and downs. It wasn’t the hike I had planned on, but it was an absolute banger. No regrets on this choice.

Day 1: Baxter Pass Fail

The best laid plans can fall to ruin so fast! I was going to head into some light backcountry, still on at least marginally maintained trails, in my home-away-from-home eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. My well-thought-out and researched plan was to finally get to Rae Lakes and into Sixty Lake Basin but do it the hard way by going over Baxter Pass. Permits are easier to get and it’s a trail I had not done before. Sounded like a win to start in an area with far less people despite the over 6,000 feet of elevation gain in 7+/- miles to the top of the pass (yikes!).

The idea was 4 nights, 5 days, so my pack was a tad heavier than normal due to a larger bear can and more food (just under 29lbs with 1 liter of water to start – that’s winter-type weight for me, so… ouch). The morning drive from basically sea level to the high desert was thankfully uneventful then just lovely as mountains came into view heading north on highway 395. There were some interesting clouds and I pondered their meaning. I missed the Lone Pine Visitor’s Center so stopped at depressing Manzanar (horrible incarceration camp for innocent people with Japanese descent) for an emergency restroom break.

I could barely open the door for the wind. The few people about were similarly leaning sideways against the gale-force sustained winds that was roaring through the desert brush. It was actually nice to wear a mask because I could breathe with it on. When winds are very high, as were the conditions when I was hiking 5 days prior at San Gorgonio, it feels terribly like you can’t even breathe as air is rushed past your face too fast and can even feel like it’s being pulled out of you. I definitely had that wild-haired, wide-eyed shocked look that imagine quite comical – but none of us were laughing.

I made a few random signs in hopes that the wind wasn’t this bad where I was going. LOL, not as bad in the mountains? I was clearly in denial. But at the trailhead it was only breezy, hurray!! I finished gearing up, which includes covering head-to-toe for sun coverage (bonus: using a neck gaiter, eg. Buff, up to the cheeks helps prevent wind chapping) and headed out. The pack felt good, actually, and I thought I was moving okay… high desert plants were in flower, a mild creek crossing was lovely and lush, the missing trees from a fire years ago was okay because it wasn’t too hot. My GPS told a different story and it was slow. Oh, well, I had all day to get up and over the pass – and summer days are long.

I think we can spot where the forecast claimed it was “mostly sunny” and it wasn’t in the Sierra where I stood nor Inyo mountains across the way.

I took a snack break at 2 hours and 10 minutes into the day, a very slow 2.14 miles with 1,768 foot gain. Maybe less sleep or the heavier pack was weighing on my mind, but, oof. I was generally going about 1.5 mph but was taking a LOT of breaks to catch my breath – er – I mean – admire and take photos of flowers. I had started at 10:50am after waking up by 5am to get out the door and make the 4 hour drive so finally eating lunch (eggs, bread, cheese – first day of backpacking is yummy perishables!) at 1pm was nice. I was sitting at a corner where the trail curved around a hillside and the view of North Fork Oak Creek was lovely: it was tumbling loudly fairly steeply, like a long, stepped waterfall. It was sunny and my mood was brightening. Then it started and everything sucked.


Extreme winds that had me clinging to rocks made me turn around before Baxter Pass. I swear during every video it calmed down. #hiking #fail

♬ original sound – Terra’s Adventures

The winds did arrive and all at once. I was sitting on rock on the trail and warm one second and freezing the next. I scooted a bit thinking to get around the corner would offer protection so I could finish my last boiled egg. That only lasted minutes before the roar of an incoming gust could be heard. Ug! I got up and moved and not a moment too soon as I could hear rocks tumbling down the steep hill just 40 feet or so back. Like the dummy I am, I stopped to watch. It was a couple good sized rocks down and over the edge and a bit of fat branch that is now just part of the trail edge. Okay… I pushed on, holding my hat on my head, as the gusts became somewhat sustained and the new gusts got stronger. I took a small break behind a little boulder field as shelter and judged the next creek crossing.

It wasn’t too hard to cross, just the issue of the wind pushing me and my pack over when I had only one foot down. I hated it, but after some log and rock balancing I was across and the path was soft and sheltered by dense greenery, including giant patches of thorny wild roses in a lovely pink. I could still hear the wind, but felt a bit protected. Things were looking up, maybe!

Nope. I turned the corner and headed up the hill to sparse pines over dense, low-lying brush in a place that would otherwise be rather lovely, I think. But the dramatic peaks I was looking forward to in the start of a meadow were lost to me as the clouds descended and hid them. The temperature dropped and winds just got worse. Some flakes blew softly before the roaring wind started blowing the clouds like sleet. I added a warmth later and hid behind a tree debating what to do for a rather long time as everything got wet but only on one side, including myself. I had not planned on needing more than a tarp against wet weather and I have jettisoned several prior backpacking trips for less wind (I find it to be “the worst”).

I tried to push on. I realized I wasn’t having fun. I stood behind another tree for a while then decided to give it up. I was alone and was probably relying on a forecast for known unpredictable high-altitude mountains a bit too much in my gear plan. There were plenty of places to enjoy, this wasn’t one of them for me today. I turned around. ~2.94 miles (less than half way), ~2480 foot gain (more than a third) to 8,526 elevation, took a sad 3 hours and 36 minutes total but the moving time was 2:10 which shows the breaks for breathing and eating and debating.

Is that a bit of blue I see? And the mountain peaks almost visible again as I descend? It’s not obvious why I quit the mission based on this picture since you cannot see how extreme the wind was nor feel the wet chill.

The return trip didn’t save much time: 6:10 total elapsed on the day. My knees hate steep downhill, but I also had to stop and grunt just to keep my feet on the ground in the high winds. Several times, as the incredibly loud roar of wind approached, I had to lean over or squat and hang onto a rock with both hands for dear life. Once I was down in the canyon the wind was tolerable and it was once again quite warm for the last bit to the car. Looking back, of course, the fallen cloud cover was lifted – though the winds up there were no less. I was now driving north debating what to do instead…

But did you die?

I learned on later hikes that the temperature was very cold overnight and a bit of snow did fall in the high places and everyone on the trails suffered the wind. Some though-hikers (PCT) exited as they didn’t have cold gear or their tents were a ruin, others were luckily off trail and took another day until the wind cleared. Not every adventure is some tale of glory. In fact, the most talked about adventures are split in equal measure between the beautiful places that were perfect and them mishaps and failures we survived.