All summer long I had been craving a real High Sierra backpack trip. With things busy at work, and with the heavy snow year, I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen or not. Finally, I was able to schedule five days in mid-August, and the hike was on. A friend had recommended the Pine Creek area, which is off of highway 395 just a few miles north of Bishop. Fortunately, it’s not a super busy trailhead, and I was able to reserve a last-minute wilderness permit without any problem.
It’s my usual practice, when doing a Eastern Sierra backpack trip, to drive through Yosemite and do some day hiking and spend a night camped out above 8000′. It’s great for acclimatization, and heck, it’s Yosemite. I managed to snag a campsite at White Wolf, which is a beautiful spot between the Tioga Road and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. There’s a terrific loop hike of about eight miles which starts right at the campground. It starts out on the old Great Sierra wagon road out to Harden Lake, then drops down and runs on the rim of the GCotT, and then back up towards Lukens Lake and White Wolf. There was a large fire here last year, and most of this hike was through the burned area. But nature heals quickly, and wildflowers abounded through the entire hike. Back at the campground a yummy dinner and ice cold brew capped off a great first day.
I wanted to make sure that I made it to Bishop in time to pick up my wilderness permit the next day, but also wanted to squeeze in a little more hiking before leaving Yosemite. I decided to do a part of the Mono Pass trail, which is a great acclimatization hike since it pushes up towards 10,000′, and allowed myself three hours, which meant I wouldn’t be able to do all of the ten miles of this hike, but it was a still great walk with gorgeous scenery.
I drove down through Lee Vining Canyon, and made the requisite stop at the famous Woah Nellie Deli, a gourmet gnosh-pit cleverly disguised as a Mobil gas station. If you haven’t experienced this place, you should add it to your “must-do” list. Suffice it to say, you would never expect to find food like this at a gas station. I made good time to Bishop, picked up my wilderness permit, and then headed over to the home of my friends Wayne, Kim, and Robin to crash for the night.
The Pine Creek trail has a reputation for being hot, dry, and uncomfortable for the first few miles, so I wanted to get an early start to beat the heat. I managed to get out and on the trail by 7:30 am, so was happy about that. One of the interesting things in this area, is the Pine Creek tungsten mine/mill. During the second world war, this was the largest tungsten mining operation in the country. Now, with the coming demise of incandescent light bulbs, the place has shut down, and it appears that it is being dismantled.
The hardest part of this trail is actually an old mining road. It’s very rocky and is sometimes akin to walking on ball bearings. Once in a while you get a little shade from a Sierra Juniper or two, but for the most part it’s pretty warm. In this section there are the remnants of an old abandoned brownstone mining operation. After a couple of miles, the route leaves the road and hits a real trail. The trail walks next to Pine Creek falls, which was really spectacular with the heavier than usual snow melt this year. With the late snow melt also came mosquitos, and they were out in droves.
After four-and-a-half miles of hiking with 2500 vertical feet gain, one arrives at Pine Lake, a gorgeous spot surrounded by granite cliffs and peaks, fed by two spectacular waterfalls. I decided that this would be a great place to spend a couple of days, so spent an hour or so searching for a good campsite. I found an sweet site on top of a rocky bluff jutting out into the lake, and claimed it for my own. I spent the rest of the day lounging around and listening to music, and generally doing nothing. It was a perfect mountain day. I would have Pine Lake to myself for my entire time there.
I had decided to stay at Pine Lake, but thought I’d day-hike further up the Pine Creek drainage to Honeymoon Lake. I hit the trail with nothing more than a water bottle, some snacks, and a hiking pole, and went for a walk. I arrived at Upper Pine Lake, which is a bit smaller than the lower lake. I noticed as I got past 10,000′ that the mosquitoes were becoming thicker and thicker. And the fact that I had DEET all over me didn’t seem to concern them at all. But the time I got to Honeymoon Lake, they were so thick I had to stop taking photos and just keep moving! I would love to explore this area further when I have more time. It was really stunningly beautiful, and not really as crowded as many areas of the Eastern Sierra I’ve visited. I returned to spend the rest of the day being lazy and generally doing nothing.
Another quiet, cool evening, and next morning I hiked back down to the trailhead in the heat of the morning sun, and headed back to Bishop for a shower and cold brew.
All in all, a great trip, and I’ll return to Pine Creek another time for more exploring.
Gear list, for all you gearheads out there:
Osprey Aether 60 backpack
Marmot Mesh Bivy tent
MontBell UL Super-stretch down sleeping bag
Big Agnes insulated Air Core mattress
Z-rest sit pad
Feathered Friends Geoduck down pillow
Bear Vault food storage canister
MSR Superfly stove/primus kettle
Black Diamond Alpine carbon fiber poles
Vasque Breeze LT GTX boots
Ibex merino wool t-shirt
Smartwool l/s zip-T
Mountain Hardwear hiking shorts
ArcTeryx Rampart pants
Cloudveil wind shell
MontBell UL Down Inner Jacket
Cloudveil Four Shadow beanie
Outdoor Research Helios hat
Point 6 mid-cut hiking socks
Smartwool merino-blend lightweight gloves