The Sierra Nevada

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“the mountains are calling and I must go”  

This quote by John Muir about the Sierra Nevada mountains in California is a siren song for us hikers.  What other range in the contiguous United States can provide non-stop adventures in Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Sequoia, and Devil’s Postpile?  Where else can you climb the highest summit in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney?  Rugged, jagged peaks; cascading waterfalls; lush, peaceful valleys; the sacred hush of a grove of sequoias,…. is it possible for one mountain range to contain all this?   Yes, yes, a resounding yes!  Having visited Yosemite, on the western side of the Sierras, we were challenged by our son to take a trip to the eastern side.  He assured us we would not be disappointed and he was right!

We crossed California’s Central Valley and caught the 395, that glorious stretch of highway that is a neverending feast for the eyes as it follows the valley to the east of the Sierra range.  Thanks to Nina at Wheelingit, we decided to camp at Tuttle Creek, a BLM campground, 4.5 miles outside Lone Pine.  Tuttle Creek is a primitive campground; vault toilets, no water, no electric, and sadly, when we arrived on October 29th, the dump station was closed for the season.  The campground is on the valley floor with no shade.  Not bad for October, but it would be terribly hot in mid-summer.   Each site has a picnic table and a fire ring.  Since it was the end of October, only one loop was open.  And since it was Halloween weekend, the remaining loop soon filled up!  We were fortunate to have arrived on Thursday of that week, ensuring us a spot.  HOWEVER, the only sites available for a rig our size were positioned with our nose pointed toward the west.  Not usually an issue, but the first night we were there, winds were blowing from the north at 25-35 mph, hitting us broadside.  We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were NOT in a boat at sea!  Tuttle Creek provided an ideal base camp for our weekend activities. To our west, we enjoyed uninterrupted views of Mt. Whitney, Mt. Williamson, and Lone Pine Peak and to our east lay the wild and wonderful Alabama Hills.

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The Alabama Hills Recreation Area, established as BLM land in 1969, is nearly 30,000 acres of the craziest jumble of rocks we’d ever seen!  It was as if, in some century past, a group of giants played with building blocks, piled them up, then knocked some down.  Every bend in the road presented new formations, some taking on the shapes of animals, humans, or creepy creatures.  Though we had never heard of the Alabama Hills, we had certainly seen it before.  Where, you may ask?  Perhaps you have heard of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, or Bonanza?  Yep, the Alabama Hills provided the backdrop for all those Westerns.  More recently, films such as Iron Man, Transformers, and Gladiator, also found the Alabama Hills an ideal setting.

The Movie Flats Road takes you right into the heart of the Alabama Hills and the brochure we picked up at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center south of Lone Pine on 395 highlights filming locations for many movies and TV shows.  There are many hiking trails throughout, as well as dirt roads for car touring.  Dispersed FREE camping is allowed in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area and many people were taking full advantage of this location, setting up camp in every nook and cranny they could find.  We walked the Mobius Arch Loop Trail, getting to the arch and viewing Mt. Whitney with just enough daylight to see the peak.  Hiking through and over and around all the crazy rock formations was like walking on the surface of another planet.  It was wild!

The next morning, we planned to drive up to Whitney Portal and do some hiking.  Whitney Portal is the eastern trailhead for the Mt. Whitney Trail to the summit.  Mountains are such deceptive landforms.  Here we were, camped at Tuttle Creek with Mt. Whitney looming over us.  It was so grand, so big, so near,……but in reality, it took us over 13 miles of driving closer and closer, higher and higher up a sometimes harrowing, hair-pin curvy road just to reach the trailhead.  Alas, we had forgotten the higher you go, the colder it gets.  We reached the end of the road, stepped out of the truck and began putting on every available article of clothing we had with us.  Brrrr!  Whitney Portal is the jumping off point for those wishing to hike the Mt. Whitney Trail.  Several parking areas for dayhikers and overnight hikers are tucked in between the towering pines and the tumbling waterfalls of Lone Pine Creek.  The Whitney Portal store is surprisingly well-stocked, with a range of items from gloves and hats to bear spray and sunscreen.  The store also has a lunch counter with reasonably priced items and wonderfully delicious HOT coffee.  They do NOT, however, issue permits which are REQUIRED for everyone hiking on the Mt. Whitney trail—even dayhikers not planning to summit.  Permits are issued online by lottery or you can take your chances as a walk in at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center.

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We stored our sack lunches in the bear boxes near the parking areas and began hiking down the trail that follows Lone Pine Creek to Lone Pine Creek Campground.  It was a fairly easy descent along a well-marked trail which wound around huge boulders and towering pines.  Every so often we could catch a glimpse of the white granite jagged peaks of the surrounding mountains.  Spending time in a forest is my time for communion, restoration, and revival with the Creator.  When life’s pressures drag my spirit down, I need only to lose myself among the trees to be rejuvenated.   We passed through the Whitney Portal Campground, a wonderful CG, mainly suited for tent campers and then began our hike back up to the parking area where we had lunch at one of the many picnic tables scattered around.  I’m sure during the peak summer hiking season, Whitney Portal is a busy, busy place, but on Halloween, it was calm and serene.  We finished the day huddled together in the camper with our Tough Buddy heater keeping us warm, watching the full moon rise over the Inyo Mountain Range to the east.  It was simply incredible and will forever be one of those “stand still” moments that we will remember the rest of our lives.

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Sunrise on the Sierras
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Here comes the sunrise

Upon the recommendation of our son, the next day we set out on a hike to Cottonwood Lakes.  If we thought Whitney Portal Road was a nail-biter, Horseshoe Meadows Road surpassed that.  Switchbacks, hair pin curves, drop offs,…..yikes!  But the scenery was spectacular!!!  We parked at the Cottonwood Lake Trailhead very large parking area and headed up the trail.  We knew we wouldn’t be hiking the entire way to Cottonwood Lake, our son and his roommate had done that a couple of weeks before.  You can view highlights of their trip on David Tavenner‘s youtube channel.

We enjoyed a leisurely hike through high alpine meadows, sparse and dense forests, open rock fields, and we even crossed a small mountain stream.  We passed a few backpackers who were either returning from an overnight trip or just starting out.  After a couple of miles, we stopped for lunch, reveling in the peace, solitude, and beauty of the mountains.  We are always astounded by the deep blue of the sky out west.  Whenever our friends back east see one of our western sky pictures, they always ask if we used some kind of filter to achieve that color.  Nope, the sky really IS that blue out west!

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Owens Lake. Notice the white alkali

Heading back down the mountain, we stopped at several pull offs to look at the Owens Valley below us.  Owens Valley stretches 75 miles north to south, with the Sierra Nevada range to the west and the White Mountains and Inyo Mountains to the east.  The Owens River meanders down the valley and feeds into Owens Lake on the southern end.  As we scanned the valley floor we had to wonder,…where is Owens Lake?  All we could see was an alkali flat with some water trickling through.  We were looking at the scene of California’s greatest water wars, one that is still going on.  In the early 20th century, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power saw Owens Lake and its seemingly abundant supply of mountain-fed water and built the 223-mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct, which diverted water from the Owens Valley and transported it to the LA area where it supplies half the drinking water for that region.  Local farmers and ranchers objected to what they considered big government stepping in and snatching up resources that they needed for their crops and livestock.  Protests turned violent.  As the years went by, Los Angeles bought up more and more of the land, further draining Owens Lake.  In 1970, a second aqueduct was constructed because of the high demand of the LA population.  Groundwater was also pumped out and sent south, resulting in springs and smaller creeks drying up.  Because of the dryness of the Owens Valley, huge dust storms occur, sending alkali, and other poisonous chemicals into the air, causing health problems for those in its path.  The city of Los Angeles has agreed to use some of the water it normally would send south to spray down the lake bed to help reduce the amount of dust in the air.  But the water wars continue.  One can hardly fault the government of the early 1900’s, I don’t believe they had any idea of the explosion of population growth in LA, nor of the amount of water each person in 2016 uses/wastes each day.  They probably thought the water supply was constant—-didn’t the mountains receive snowfall every year that could replenish the rivers and water tables?  But, on the other hand, these resources are for us to use to sustain the citizens of the region.  It’s a tough balancing act, but one that needs to be addressed, not swept under the rug.

Our time here was drawing to a close.  Our tanks were showing “full,” the battery was showing “low,” and the forecast was showing “freezing.”  We needed to hitch up and go.  Next time we want to keep going north to Mono Lake, Bishop, and Big Pine, but for now, it was back to sunshine and warmth.

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