Tuesday, October 31, 2017

From Tunnel Meadow to the Natural Bridge at the Golden Trout Wilderness

Date: August 1, 2017
Place: Golden Trout Wilderness, Lone Pine, California
Coordinates (of where I had camped for the first night): 36.383837, -118.251805
Length: About 8.5 miles
Level: Strenuous

On the morning of the second day of my backpacking trip to the Golden Trout Wilderness I got out of my tent as soon as there was enough light to see the shapes of the trees and fallen logs near my tent. I don't say woke up because I didn't really sleep - a combination of uneven surface, stuffiness and heat, and the loneliness had rendered my night a sleepless torment. I was glad to see the light of dawn and was up and all packed well before the actual sunrise.
My first night campsite
I was eager to get going so i just had a cu of protein shake for breakfast and hit the trail. I was hoping to cover that day most of the distance to the Kern Canyon and I chose the shortest route - the Golden Trout Creek Trail.
My second day hike as captured by my GPS
I walked at a quick pace along the Tunnel Creek, but in less than 5 minutes I stopped and gaped: there was the most perfect of places to set camp. Had I just pushed on a little bit further last night I'd have a much better night.
Tunnel Creek
Oh, well. I convinced myself that I learned the lesson and moved on. Meanwhile the sun had risen and lit the forest with the bright greens and reds that the pine trees were blessed with. Despite my lack of sleep and my poor appetite I was in high spirit.

I haven't seen many mushrooms on this trip, and most of those I have seen were bracket mushrooms on dead trees. I did come across this cluster of bolete mushrooms and smiled, because pine boletes are \the only wild mushrooms I can identify to the assurance of harvesting and consuming. I didn't harvest these, however. They didn't look all that appealing, and I wasn't ready to go through the ordeal of cleaning and cooking them just then.
Bolete Mushrooms
As was walking for less than an hour before the canyon opened up and I looked upon the long and flat Tunnel Meadow. Like the other meadows I have passed yesterday this too was lush and green. At the far end of it was a buttress of rocks that looked like an old castle's ruins.
Tunnel Meadow
As I approached the meadow I could see the wildflowers blooming between the green rabbit brush bushes. Common were the yellow buckwheat shrubs.
Sulphur Buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum
Also common though less conspicuous were small lupine shrubs that hid under the rabbit brush.
Brewer's Lupine, Lupinus breweri
The trail stretched at the edge of the forest just outside the meadow. Every now and then I came across human remains, mainly old corrals. Some of them looked like they were still being used but most were far decayed  and had no signs of any recent use, not even as a backpacker's campsite.I was dismayed to see long wires hanging from the trees. It didn't look like they had any particular current use, just leftovers from previous users.

Occasionally the trail emerged from the trees and I could have a clearer view of the meadow and of the plants that bloomed there. I was on the lookout for deer and other wildlife, but didn't see any. Nothing except mosquitoes. I had to stop there and put on the bug repellent.
Tunnel Meadow
When I approached the 'castle' I knew I had to stop there for a while and explore it closely.

I deserted the trail and approached the rock mound. The first thing I noticed when up close were the little plants that grew in the cracks, some of which were blooming.
Arnica sp.
A nice pile of rocks like that calls for climbing. I dropped my pack at the foot of the hill and, reconnecting with my primate roots I started up the buttress. It has been a while though since last time I flexed my climbing muscles, so I went up slowly, careful to take the easiest, least risky path. I also paused at any convenient ledge to look around and take in the view.

What grabbed my attention immediately was the brightness of the meadow and the shine of the narrow creek below. It was so bright that it hurt my eyes after a while.

Looking back to the northeast where I had come from I could see the entire Tunnel Meadow stretching below me, long, beautiful, and vacant. Empty of people, empty of any visible wildlife. For the first time I noticed how eerily quiet this place was.                                  

Quiet, and gorgeous. I kept climbing up, inspired by every rock face and every crack plant. I think maybe a quarter of the photos I took that day were there. It was a difficult task to select the few posted here.

As I descended back (slowly too) I came down the other side of the mound. I run into more little plants in the cracks between the big granite slabs.
Granite Prickly Phlox, Linanthus pungens
Down on the ground again I went around the big granite buttress to where I had left my pack. There I sat down for a little snack before moving on.

It looked as if the granite mound was out of place, sticking out like that in the meadow. But the mountains around the meadow were all granite. There was a peak once where the meadow is now . Eroded over time, this rock pile is what's left, rising from the meadow ground as a relic of a taller past.
The mountain northwest of Tunnel Meadow.
I got back on the trail and continued my hike. the time moved slowly and I was making very good progress. As I approached the southwest end of Tunnel Meadow I stopped short. It looked as if someone spilled a large amount of pink paint into the meadow. It wasn't paint though. Not of human source. This intense pink mat was made entirely of tiny monkeyflowers.

I came to the edge of the meadow and entered the woods once again. Also the trail started ascending in a mild slope. I thought about taking a break when I'd reach the trail leading to Little Whitney meadow but then I came across a corral that held a few horses. There was no human in sight. One of the horses was lying on the ground. She looked very big and was heaving audibly and I was sure she was about to give birth any minute. Curious, I sat down and looked at the horses for some time. After a few minutes the lying horse got up on her feet and that was it. Suddenly I saw behind the corral a figure of a man getting up on his feet and hoisting something large on his back. Not wishing to interact I quickly got my own pack on and continued up the trail.

The forest looked different than the one I started my day at. The trees were smaller, thinner and farther apart, indicative of a dryer area. The sun washed the forest floor in abundance but very little grew underneath these pines.

Suddenly I saw the ruins of a human settlement. Behind them, a still standing cabin. I got curious and went closer to inspect the cabin. Being all alone all day I was much surprise so see a woman in the cabin. If she was surprised to see me she didn't show it. She was very nice and soon we had an easy conversation going. She told me she and her husband were volunteers for the National Forest and were station ed there for the summer, doing work clearing and maintaining the trails. She told me that the ruins at that place were the remains of the Tunnel Ranger Station which had burned down a few years back.
I shared my hike plan with her and she gave me information about my upcoming path.She also told me that the horses I saw were the national Forest's horses for their use and that the fat horse on the ground wasn't pregnant. She just does that, said the volunteer.
As we were talking a man approached us - the same man I saw behind the corral. The woman introduced him to me - he was her husband. he was very nice too and added some more information about the trails in my plan. I felt embarrassed for my haste to get away when I first saw him. But then again, being a woman alone in the woods, that was understandable.
The remains of the Tunnel Ranger Station
After saying goodby to the nice volunteer couple I moved on and came upon Groundhog Meadow where I saw for the first time the Golden Trout Creek and where I also had to ford it for the first time. I took my shoes off and replaced them with sandals. The water was very cold and the current much stronger than I had expected but it was shallow enough and I made it across without problems.
Golden Trout Creek
The problem started after the crossing when I had to figure out which of the numerous trails that branched off into the willow thicket was the one I needed to follow. I actually had to pull out my map and compass to find that out.

I also had to put on a new layer of bug repellent. Thankfully, mosquitoes weren't the only bugs there. I watched the bees going between flowers, fascinated.
When I eventually found which trail I needed to take I moved on. Very soon I felt lost once more. Even in the forest there were countless bootleg trails, some of them quite prominent. I moved slow, unsure of my choices, occasionally backtracking to see if I haven't missed any trail sign. Eventually I sat down on a fallen log and pulled out my compass. Just as I was about to align my map I saw someone coming down the trail from the same direction I have. It was another backpacker and she was moving fast. Within a minute she was upon me, nodded briefly without slowing down, and was about to continue when I halted her asking about the trail.
The forest between groundhog Meadow and Little Whitney Meadow
Hearing my voice the other backpacker stopped and turned to me. She too was not a 100% sure but she seemed resolute about the one that we were on. While she talked I looked her over quickly. Her pack was smaller than mine and looked lighter. She looked like someone who backpacks the wilderness on a regular basis, someone who feels completely at easy on her own in the wilderness.
After that brief exchange of words the other hiker moved on, and in what seemed to me a terrifying speed. I sighed and got up too, hoisted my backpack (that now seemed extra heavy), and continued in her wake.

Inspired (and somewhat annoyed) by the super speed of the other backpacker I tried at first to go at a quick pace. It didn't take long, however, before I slowed back down to my usual gait. I reminded myself that I was there to enjoy the wilderness and not to to any race. That there was nothing I needed to prove to anyone. I was also feeling suddenly very fatigued. I remembered that I didn't have any proper meal yet that day and so I found a place to sit and stopped for a lunch break.
The problem was that I didn't feel hungry, and that despite drinking constantly my mouth felt dry. Nothing in my food pack seemed appealing, but I needed the nourishment so I forced down some trail mix.
My lunch break was cut short when I was discovered by ants who came in multitudes to get their share of the trail mix. I tucked the food away, shook the ants off and plugged on.

Other then a short segment, the trail continued along the Golden Trout Creek that gained breadth and speed as it collected tributaries along the way. I was wearing my sandals still so I didn't worry about wetting my feet crossing the tributaries. Apparently neither did the backpacker who had passed me because I could see her still wet footprints for a few yards past each crossing. Soon I could recognize her footprints even when dry. They were the newest on this trail - it seemed as if no one else had walked there that day.

The alternative (and longer) trail I could have taken to get to Little Whitney meadow was the Volcano Trail. Indeed on my map that was marked 'Volcano' on one of the buttes outlined by the topographic contours. I could even glimpse said volcano here and there through the trees. But is was along the Golden trout Creek trail that I could clearly see the volcanic rubble that was pushed right to the water's edge.
Volcano rubble
The last crossing of the Golden Trout Creek was also the deepest and where the current was strongest. I thought I would stop for a lunch break right after the crossing but when I saw what laid ahead I went on. 
Golden Trout Creek
On the other side of the creek behind a small grove of pine trees was the Little Whitney Meadow, a pretty and completely green wetland with w rich smell and many wildflowers.
Little Whitney Meadow
It also had many mosquitoes and I needed a new layer of the bug repellent. The trail turned muddy and I carefully trod the fine line between the mud and the vegetation, trying not to trample any of the delicate plants hat grew along the trail.
Primrose Monkeyflower, Mimulus primuloides 
Just ahead of me, under a wide juniper tree sat the backpacker who had passed me earlier that day. She was eating her lunch and as I passed I wished her a happy hike. I too wanted to stop for lunch but I refrained from joining her feeling that she might not appreciate my intrusion on her seclusion.
Painted Lady butterfly and aster flowers.
I found the perfect spot at the other edge of the meadow, right where the trail reconnected with the Golden Trout Creek, now much wider and more powerful. There I washed my feet and sandals and changed back to my shoes, refilled on water, and sat down to eat.
My appetite still hasn't kicked in so I was satisfied with a protein bar and a few nuts. Meanwhile the other backpacker came along, looking all energized and cheerful. She was also much more talkative this time. She paused near me and we had the friendliest chat yet. She told me that she had backpacked the Golden Trout Wilderness several times before, and that the current summer was really unusual. August is the dry season hear, she proclaimed. You can go for miles and miles not seeing any surface water. This summer, which followed the wettest winter in a very long while, all the streams were high and ponds full, and all the vegetation was green still and not likely to dry out at all until the turn of fall.
Golden Trout Creek
That made sense to me. I felt very fortunate for not having to carry too much water on my back because surface water was so abundant. The backpacker told me she was heading down to the Kern River, which is where I was headed too. I was planing to just go down and come back up on the same trail but she did not know where she'd go after. But I'm sure to see you again, she told me. We wished each other a good hike and then she went on and soon disappeared behind the curve. And that was my last encounter with another human being until almost three days later when I was already going up the Cottonwood Pass Trail on my way out of the Wilderness.
Narrow-leaved Wire Lettuce, Stephanomeria tenuifolia 
My tentative trip plan had Little Whitney Meadow as a possible campsite for my second night. Having arrived there only somewhat after lunchtime meant that I could go on for a good distance yet before setting camp. I didn't want to get stuck at an unsuitable location as I did on the previous night so I studied my map, and relying on information I got form the couple of volunteers back at the old Tunnel Ranger Station I decided to go on to the Natural Bridge creek crossing and then see what's next.
The Golden Trout Creek Trail
The distance from Little Whitney Meadow to the Kern Canyon was,according to my map, about 4.3 miles and the Natural Bridge was roughly at the mid point, distance-wise. The trail segment to the Natural Bridge was more or less level (actually on a mild descent), but beyond it it dropped into a steep grade, losing about 2000 feet in elevation. 2000 feet I'd have to gain when going back up.
In my head I was debating whether I should make it all the way down to the Kern that day or should I stay the for the night at the Natural Bridge. I had no idea what will I find in terms of camping convenience on either site.
An odd looking tree caught my eye. It was dead, or almost dead. Its trunk hd numerous holes drilled into it, some of which were oozing sap. I've seen previously trees that fell victim to the bark beetle but this one seemed a bit excessive, especially when other trees in the vicinity didn't seem to be under such an attach. I wonder if the drilling was what killed the tree or were they done because the tree was already dead/dying.

But there were nicer things to see in that forest too. Wildflowers, for example. Clusters of scarlet gilia  flowers added nice color to the rest floor.
Scarlet Gilia, Ipomopsis aggregata 
Among the red gilia was a single plant sporting faded pink flowers. A mutant?
Scarlet Gilia, Ipomopsis aggregata, a white form. 
Clouds have been gathering all throughout the afternoon. They were massing on the west - the direction I was heading to. I wondered if it'll rain later on.
Something happened to me. I was tired, which wasn't very surprising, considering that I was walking for two days now after two sleepless nights and had eaten very little during that time. But it was more than just fatigue. All of a sudden I started feeling woozy and nauseous. I found that I was relying more on my hiking poles to keep me steady, and that was on a fairly level trail. I had to stop and breathe.
The thought of altitude sickness crossed my mind but I dismissed it. Perhaps I shouldn't have, but the treatment for that was going to a lower elevation and I was heading that way anyway. All that day I was basically going downhill.

I entered a small forest clearing that was full of wildflowers and that helped diverting my mind and cheer me up a bit. The pretty meadow that grew in the clearing flanked the Malpais Creek - a tributary of the Golden trout Creek which I had left some time ago.
Cobwebby Hedge Nettle, Stachys albens 
I remembered that two years ago my younger chika had felt the same way on the long descent from Franklin Lake during which she had barely eaten, and that her feeling improved after I insisted she'd eat a fruit snack loaded with sugar. It occurred to me that similarly my own sickness also resulted from lack of nourishment. My appetite usually attenuate on hikes but this time it seemed to be non-existent. I didn't feel even slightly hungry, yet I had to eat. I therefore sat down, opened my bear canister and stared balefully into it. I had packed it with food items enough for a single person for 7 days. I was now nearing the end of my second backpacking day and the canister was still full to the brim. It was all food I eat normally at home, food that I like. Now I couldn't think of getting any of it in my mouth.
Eventually I settled for the most moist item I had there, which was a small packet of peanut butter. I squeezed the entire thing in my mouth and spent a few long minutes chewing in with long sips of water.
Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja sp. 
I felt better almost immediately. Not A-okay but well enough to continue on with more assurance. I made up my mind to stay for the night at the Natural Bridge and not push any further that day. I also resolved to eat a hearty meal once I got there. And I didn't have much longer to go.
Biglow's Sneezeweed, Helenium biglovii 
The gathered clouds had also sailed away and the bright sunshine cheered me up some more. I loved to see the tall meadow flowers glisten in the afternoon light.

The trail neared the Malpais Creek again and was now going distinctly downhill, although still in a mild slope. I quickened my pace, eager to get to my destination.

I came upon it almost by surprise - the Natural Bridge is an arch of volcanic rock that the creek had tunneled under. The trail goes right over it.

I walked across the bridge and looked around. Straight ahead to the west there was at all mountain that had no name on my map. Between me and that mountain was the Kern Canyon.

To the north was another prominent peak made of smooth granite and prickled with pine trees. Between me and that peak run the Golden Trout Creek.

I crossed the Natural Bride back to the north side and walked down the rock ledges to look for a campsite place. Just as the volunteers had told me there were some already established campsites in that area. I half expected to see other people there but there was no one but me. I went all the way down to the lowest ledge that was most hidden from the trail above, and from which it was also the easiest access to the creek to get water. I dropped my pack, stretched myself on the ground, and closed my eyes.
An hour later I got up, brushed the pine needles off and pitched my tent. I took the time to verify that the place was completely level and that there were no stones or pinecones underneath.

True to my resolution I hydrated a pack of guacamole and wrapped it in a tortilla. I ate slowly without  enthusiasm but with great determination. When I finished I had to breathe deeply to stifle my nausea. I focused my mind on the pretty trees that would be my only companions fro the rest of the day and the night that was to come.

I arrived at the Natural Bridge before 4 pm and even after resting, pitching my tent, and eating, there were still a couple of daylight hours left. There was only so long I could sit at the ledge and stare at the running water so I walked back up to the bridge and looked at it again.
The Natural Bridge over the Malpais Creek
Eventually I came down again to my campsite, got everything ready for the night and sat outside, waiting for the sun to set.
Last sun rays on the trees above my campsite 
It felt like forever but eventually the sun did set. A few minutes after, and I was tucked inside my tent.
I was very tired but it took a while before I fell asleep. here too it was very, very quiet. Not even a bird or a squirrel. Only the sound of the water roaring down the gulch below the Natural Bridge.
I felt very lonely.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!

A link to the next day blog post


  1. The "rock castle" is very interesting and so is the natural bridge. Your feeling there is worrying... God to know you made it :-)

    1. Aw, just wait until the next day ... I actually figured out what was giving me that difficulty. I took care of it as much as I could at the time and definitely will prepare better for the next backpacking trip.