Thursday, October 26, 2017

To Boldly Go Where I Never Gone Before: Alone at the Golden Trout Wilderness

Mulkey Meadow

Date: July 31, 2017
Place: Golden Trout Wilderness, Lone Pine, California
Coordinates:  36.448389, -118.170800
Length: about 8 miles
Level: Strenuous

On the first week of August my chikas go to their week long 4-H camp. Last year I took that time to go on an amazing backpacking with a friend to Mineral King. I wanted to go there again this summer. My friend, however, had to withdraw from the plan just three days before and I was unable to find someone else to join me on such a short notice. After only little consideration I resolved to go on my own.
The weather forecast for Mineral King was of daily thunderstorms for the week I was to go there so at the last moment I changed direction and decided to go east to the Whitney Portal area, where the forecast was for much less rain. And so, after kissing my chikas goodbye at the camp pick up place I hit the road and headed southeast to Lone Pine.
I arrived Lone Pine well after dark and probably should have checked into a hotel room. But I was eager to be outdoors and I also wanted try my new single person tent so I went to Portagee Joe Campground by the Alabama Hills where there were I found a vacant campsite and pitched my new tent there.
I had almost no sleep that night. It was sweltering hot and miserable. I tossed and turned without rest, drenched in sweat. When I got out at the crack of dawn I forgot the night's misery because on the west Mount Whitney was lighting up with the early sun.
Mount Whitney at the Break of Dawn
Optimally I should have gone to the trailhead right away but having changed my plans just before heading out I needed to go first to the Interagency Visitor Center and get a wilderness permit. And so, although I was packed and ready to go before sunrise I still had more than two hours to kill before the visitor center opened. I used that time to get breakfast and to chat with other permit seekers that crowded the locked doors of the visitor center.
When the center finally opened I already knew which trailhead I wanted to go on. I was issued a permit to the Trail Pass Trailhead and drove up Cottonwood Springs Rd up the sheer slope of teh Eastern Sierra up to the Golden Trout Wilderness, where I would be the next 5 days.
The view east from Cottonwood Springs Road
I found parking right by the trailhead, secured my excess food inside the available bear boxes, hoisted my backpack and set out into the wilderness. On my own.
Day 1 hike as captured by my GPS
The trail stated flat, in a thin forest of pine trees. The air was clear and fresh and the weather was perfect. A few people were coming out of the wilderness as I was going in. They seemed tired, yet happy. I felt my spirit rise with each step forward.
Into the Wilderness
Soon the trickle of hikers leaving the wilderness stopped. I emerged from the forest into Horseshoe Meadow and stopped, gaping. The entire rubble field stretching between the forest and the greenery was purple with bloom.

I stooped low: theses were tiny little monkeyflower blossoms, of a species I was not able to identify for sure.
Monkeyflower, Mimulus sp.
Every meadow has a creek that runs through it, . The greenery that flanked the creek of Horseshoe Meadow was dotted with ever so many wildflowers and my smile grew even wider.
Horseshoe Meadow

It was also the first creek I had to cross and I needed to go barefoot in order to keep my shoes dry. The trail near the creek was damp and tiny tree frogs leaped from under my feet as I moved on it. I had to be very careful not to step on any of these miniature frogs.

A short distance after crossing the creek and I was back in the woods again, making my way up to Trail Pass.
At first the slope was mild, easy to walk. I run into a few backpacks that were coming down the trail. They were exiting the wilderness after two weeks on the pacific Crest Trail. We stopped and chatted a bit before moving on, and those were the last people I interacted with on that day.
After that the trail became steeper and I slowed down my pace. Not much - I was still running on my excitement to be out there.
On the way to Trail Pass
I came upon a little trickle of a brook and paused momentarily to admire the wildflowers that bloomed at that pretty corner of the woods.
Scarlet Paintbrush, Castilleja miniata
Earlier that morning I had photographed a close-up of something on my macro setting and had forgotten to reset the camera back to normal. It was only when I reached the Pass when I realized that all my photos up until then were completely dark. There was no way for me to tel how well they turned out. Not until I got back home and was able to adjust the levels on these photos.
I guess the outcome wasn't too bad :-)
Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa 
At the Trail Pass I crossed the Pacific Crest Trail, then stopped to rest a bit. The view west was promising. There were clouds in the sky, but mostly to the north. Everything below looked green and beautiful. I was looking down on Mulkey Meadow, and fair in the distance I saw the cone of Templeton Peak. The air was clear and clean and I breathed with ease. At that point I was sorry that there was no one with me there to share this beautiful view with.

I snacked and rested for some time, then I got antsy, hoisted my backpack, and headed down the trail, westward.
Still in the woods, but the trees were more distant, wider gaps and clearings. Still mostly pines, but also sierra junipers between them. And I am always a sucker for weird-looking trees.
Sierra Juniper, Juniperus grandis
Going down is almost always easier. I descended fast through the thin forest of thick pines and junipers. The ground was more bare and dry on the west-facing slope, though every now and then I did see some bloom.
Little-leaf Creambush, Holodiscus discolor 
Gaps between trees were frequent enough to give me a glimpse of the surrounding range, sheer cliffs or steep slopes of rubble with a mantle of prickly-looking conifers.

In between the trees, here and there I saw a small blooming shrub. A different one each time, never in a large patch of color.
Mountain Monardella, Monardella odoratissima
As I descended Mulkey Meadow below became bigger and clearer. I could make out large carpets of wildflowers framed with greenery.

And then, all of a sudden, I cleared the trees and was out in the open. I arrived at a trail crossing and had to figure which one to take. That was a hard choice for two reasons. The first, because there were more than two trails crisscrossing the meadow below. Only two of those were actual hiking trails, all the rest used by cattle drivers. I needed to figure out which one's which before taking the right one. The second was that up until then I was not completely decided on which loop I wanted to hike - they all looked very enticing. What eventually tilted the scale for me was my desire to see the Kern Canyon. So with that thought, I turned right on to the Tunnel Trail that would take me on the shortest path to the Kern.

Here too there was a ruble field that sloped gently down from the woods to the meadow. Here too that field was covered with wildflowers, only these were yellow. 

Getting a close up of these yellow beauties turned to be quite a challenge. Of the numerous shots I took, very few turned out sort of ok. None really good.
Mountain Pincushion, Orochaenactis thysanocarpha 
There were other flowers there too. I could've stayed there a long time just looking at them.
Pumice Alpinegold, Pumice hulcea 
And why not, really? my original thought was to stay the night in that general area anyhow. On my past backpacking trips in the mountains I never covered much distance. But then again, I was never alone before. I arrived at the Mulkey Meadow much sooner than I expected - it was somewhat past the time I had expected. I pressed on to the meadow because I wished to stop by fresh water to rehydrate my lunch ingredients. I was sure there would be a creek in the middle of all that greenery. There was only one problem: the meadow was already taken by a heat of cattle. Moreover - the bovine were not roaming free but driven by a coupe of horse-mounted herders - a cowboy and a cowgirl.
I stood there transfixed for some time. I had never before seen a cattle drive and I was mesmerized by the too cow people moving the large beasts here and there.
Cattle Drive
As fascinated as I was with the cattle drive, I was not about to go down to the creek where they were. As a matter of fact, I felt aversion at the thought of interacting with the cow people. Besides I didn't with to use water so recently mucked up by cattle. So I tuned back to the trail and pushed on.
Lupine, Lupinus (Lepidus or breweri) 
The trail kept off the meadow, running parallel to it on the rubble field. I could see a thick band of greenery stretching from the woods to my right all the way to the meadow to my left, indicating the presence of a stream, and my trail would cross it soon.
Sierra Ivesia, Ivesia santolinoides 
The vegetation grew greener and denser as I approached the little stream. Here too there were hundreds of tiny frogs hopping everywhere I stepped.
California Tree Frog
 The tributary stream seemed farther than I expected. My pace was slow, as I was trying to avoid stepping on the tiny frogs that hopped left and right from under my feet. Also, I was ready for a break. The surrounding scenery was beautiful, and very different than what I've seen on the west side of the Sierra Nevada range on previous trips. It gave the impression of a normally arid place despite all the current greenery.

I arrived at the title side stream and it was time to stop for lunch. To my dismay I found that cattle had mucked up that place as well. I walked a little upstream to find a spot less disturbed and dropped my backpack. Almost immediately I had to pull out the bug repellent - the place was swarming with mosquitos. Then I went about collecting and purifying water.

Being off trail I had to take good care not to trample the delicate vegetation near the water. It was a bit ironic, considering the recent damage done there by the cattle, but I didn't want to add to it.
Western Mountain Aster, Symphyotrichum spathulatum 
There were many flowers there, many of them very small and delicate, what made me feel bad even for sitting in that place.
Harsh Popcorn Flower, Harsh allocarya

The main reason why I insisted on stopping by a water source for lunch was because I craved guacamole. I had found the backpackers dehydrated guacamole and was so excited that I bought a pack for each day of my planned trip. I did try it at home first and thought it was delicious. It was delicious on the trail too but I had difficulties finishing it. I had to force the last few bites as to not be stuck with heavy, moist waste to carry. Once again I found that my appetite is attenuated on wilderness trips. I mention this here because this loss of appetite will eventually have a big impact on the rest of this trip.
Field Mousetail, Field ivesia

After I felt I was rested enough I finished filling my water container, hoisted my backpack and moved on. Whilst I was resting the clouds had gathered in the sky and I could see rain just ahead of me. So much for the forecast.

The wind picked up too, but it came from behind me, driving the rain away. Still, heavy clouds moved across the sky, darkening the day. I kept walking on, pausing here and there to look and photograph wildflowers. Most of the flowers looked very familiar and although I much enjoyed their spring display (in August!) i didn't get overly excited about any of them. It would be later, as I would go through the images at the convenience of my home, that I'd realize that many of them were new species for me, some as good as endemic to that area. That goes to teach me to give closer attention to the flora :-)
Dwarf Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja nana
I was surprised at how little wildlife I had encountered so far. Other than the frogs, an occasional bird, and a cloud of mosquitos I haven't really seen any animals. No deer or even squirrels. Walking down the trail I did get to see this large, colorful caterpillar. The only one I saw the entire trip.

I came across a large puddle on the trail and had to hop over it. I did get the soles of my shoes muddy, but I also got to see the next generation of frogs swimming to and fro in the shallow water.
Tadpoles in a Puddle
The trail receded from the meadow and I was now walking along the borderline of the woods. The clouds gathered over my head and I wondered if it'll rain soon and weather I should just find a spot for the night and pitch my tent. I had planned however, to get at least as far as the Bullfrog Meadow and that was only a short distance away, so I used on.
A splash of bright red color on the yellowish-gray gravel slope attracted my eyes - scarlet bugler
Scarlet Gilia, Ipomopsis aggregata
Once stopped for the colorful flowers I also took notice of the shyer plants and find little gems among these. Some had already done blooming but were still pretty to look at.
Pygmy Mountain Parsley, Oreonana clementis
I made it across the rubble field and descended into Bullfrog Meadow which was my tentative stopping place for the night. The place looked beautiful and there was no human (or bovine) in sight. I didn't know where the creek was, but I figured it was somewhere in the depth of the meadow.
Bullfrog Meadow
The only thing was that it was only about 4 pm - fairly early still, and I didn't feel like stopping right there. I figured I'll continue walking until about one more hour, then camp someplace near the creek. A nice, round hill loomed to the south on the other side of the meadow. I thought I'd go past that hill and call it the day.

The trail stretched along the fine line between the trees and the meadow, with the two realms occasionally invading one-another and their distinct flora communities blending. The terrain turned sandy and porous. I saw little bicolor monkeyflowers blooming in small patches between the trees.
Mountain Monkeyflower, Mimulus montioides

Every now and then a big cloud swept across the sun, darkening the day. As the sun was westerning this happened more and more frequently, as the clouds were massing up in the west.

Meanwhile the trail got farther from the meadow and the sand was drier. For a time the sky cleared and the sun shone down, and I went on without worry. According to the map I was due to meet the upper tip of the South Fork Kern in less than a mile.

When the clouds gathered again I found myself going up a sandy slope along the dry end of the Milky Creek tributary that sloped down to Bullfrog Meadow, now far behind me. I was getting tired and was ready to stop any time. All I wanted now was to get over the crest and find the South Fork Kern.

The sound of running water heralded the presence of the creek, and I hastened my pace, glad that soon I could set camp and rest for the night. The soil became damp again. Greenery and wildflowers covered the ground between the trees.
Larkspur and Company
Then I saw the South Fork Kern. At this point of the Tunnel Trail the creel is at its origins and narrow still. But the water was running high and noisy. The creek nestled at the bottom of a steep ravine and lined up with large boulders on both sides.
South Fork Kern River

I was glad to see the creek but there was no suitable place to camp there. I had to move on. At least it was downhill now and the trail was lined with beautiful wildflowers.

American Bistort, Bistorta bistortoides 
Deep in a forested canyon the sun was already hidden and the day was now waning fast. Still, there was no suitable camping spot in sight. Not even remotely suitable. I had no choice but to continue down along the creek.
My path was marked by throngs of fireweed. True to their name, these flowers lit up my trail.
Fireweed, Chamerion angustifolium  
The light was fading and the trail kept going on and on with no end in sight. I begun to worry. I started eyeing potential nooks that might fit my tiny tent (that seemed so huge now). I even thought I might resort to pitching my tent on the trail itself - a big no-no. But the alternative - walking through darkness - scared me too much.
I wasted some time checking out a spot that might have been a tight one had I no choice, but it wasn't dark just yet and I opted to keep going.
Kelley's Lily, Lilium kelleyanum 

It did become too dark to get any decent photos, however, so I have no more from that day. Eventually I did make it to the point where the canyon opened up. It wasn't quite flat yet, but not too steep, and there was plenty of space. And it was still within reach of the creek. I didn't waste any more time. I veered to the side and found a quasi- flat spot behind a pine tree a good distance from the trail and pitched my tent there. There was just enough daylight left for me to fetch water and cook a quick dinner. Not having my normal appetite I ate without pleasure, forcing spoonfuls down one after another. I finished my rehydrated meal but couldn't eat any more of my 1st day's measure. The rest I couldn't fit into my small bear canister, so I had to put the sealed items into a bag and hang it on a tree away from my little camp.
When I went into my tent I found out what quasi flat meant. It meant *not* flat. I fixed the situation as much as I could, Pushing articles of clothing under the lower side of the mat to level it better. I was alone in the wilderness, and night has descended. I could hear no birds at all, but the sound of the rushing creek roared in my ears. I shut my eyes and tried to sleep.
Thus ended the first day of my solo backpacking trip.

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. Wow! going on a solo backpack hike for 5 days in the wilderness sounds exciting but also frightening...

    The flowers and views are wonderful

    1. Indeed! It was a very educational experience :-) I learned much about myself. It was good too, I'm glad I did it. But some things I would change before my next backpacking trip, especially if I find myself alone again.