Thursday, August 9

Dorothy & Tamarack Lakes - Sierra Nevada Backpacking


When checking NOAA & noticing a 20% chance of scattered rain over the Sierra Neveda mountains, it's not out of the ordinary. Some 300 miles drive from LA later, standing in the White Mountain Ranger Station (no where near a mountain), new Ranger friend John is telling us a definite 40% chance on day 2 of our trip. We'd committed & no one hesitated walking back out into the 106 degree Bishop Valley heat.

Alas, getting to Bishop was going to be an adventure in of itself, our crew of three was determined. Heading out Thursday up the 14, noting Indian Wells Brewery for the trip back, then connecting with the 395 north. Stopping for sandwiches & a back road turn out at Whitney Portal.



A few miles north on the 395 is Manzanar, a Japanese Interment Camp. A sober experience, that could not have been more meaningful while walking in the 105 degree heat.


With one more stop before making it to our fateful Ranger meeting, we wandered way off the beaten path... well almost. The road is paved the entire way to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, but it was a serious 50 minute drive up a desert gully, into elevations that changed to sprawling aline, then to a grassland of fields above the tree line.


The main visitor center was under construction, looking to be quite nice when completely, there was two young Rangers manning a porta-trailer that served as the narrow visitor center. No matter the long drive, the trailer was packed with visitors (maybe 8)... and more in the parking lot.


Due to time & our need to pick up permits, we took to several of the switchbacks into the forest till we knew our time was growing short. Really trying to imagine these being some of the oldest trees in the entire world. It was also nice to look far across the valley from the White Mountains into the Sierra's that we would be calling home in the days to come.


Quite possibly the most popular word of mounth place I have ever been, Erick Schat's Bakery. Visited this place twice while on this trip & packed some of their bread for our journey.


That eve we shared a room, a few drinks & repackaged all our food to fit in the mornings packs. Good ol' Ace Ventura kept us all laughing in the background on the last eve of digital interaction.


The next morning we had a hearty breakfast in Bishop & headed out for our trailhead at Rock Creek Lake. The Tamarack Lakes area (off Little Lakes Valley) seeing little traffic & has only 8 permits aloud for overnight trips. We had the only 3 for the whole weekend.


My Dad said it best before our trip, "You'll be sucking air." Plain. Simple. After some time hiking, straight up from the parking lot, we all recognized & genuinely felt the change from our standard roaming grounds of the San Gabriels, usually topping out between 6,000 & 9,000 ft. 


Taking our time on the way hiking in, all three of us could not believe the grandeur that was slowly unfolding before our feet. The weather forecast played a role in our plans & while hiking in we all discussed what we thought would be the best approach. Plan A was to camp at Francis Lake & summit Mt. Morgan, 31st tallest peak in the Sierra's. However, with lightning & thunder forecast at 30%, a summit bid was not a smart choice.


What eventually sealed the deal was at Kenneth Lake there was little water & it's only feeder lake was Francis. Not wanted to lug more than a mile to a lake that might have no water & a possible chance for no summit... we turned left.


Our new goal was Dorothy Lake, another few miles up the trail towards Tamarack Lakes. We had met only 2 others day hiking to Dorothy & were curious if they would turn up. Sure enough, around one corner came the couple with the best news we had heard all day... well the picture below says it all.



After another marked junction, we were off towards Dorothy on a use trail that led over a fantastic meadow that sang "Sierrrrrra Neveda!!!" Spilling out onto a grassy plain we caught our first glimpse of our new home. A wonderful, tree lined lake, warm as the dickens & ready to be enjoyed.


Setting up camp on the far side from the outlet, there is a small hidden gem of a spot if campers wander far enough along the shore (hint hint). After a cool dip & truly jaw dropping views as the sun reseeded into the West, we feasted on all types of foods; satisfied that all three of us had taken the time to walked here.


Day 2, would it rain? The goals included a day hike above tree line to Tamarack Lakes for lunch. Did I mention this was our first time in the Sierra backcountry? Setting out from Dorothy Lake we made an annoying end-round some slopes due to lack of cross-country skills (meaning we followed trail). Knowing full well how to avoid such foolishness on the way back.


The trail to Tamarack Lakes has two elements I feel, there is the wonderful lower section up the valley. Full with wildflowers & small ponds even in the hot August summer.


Our troupe moved through this lower section with easy, similar to our home terrain, but constantly higher in elevation than we had hiked before. More of Dad's words floating up in my mind about, "Sucking air."

The photo above is where our hike changed from a nice day one, to a quiet internal battle each one of us was having. The elevation was just a noticeable hindrance in the form of fatigue, never any cause for alarm, but different than the years hiking at home in LA. If you click the upper image to enlarge, you can see Georgette, a tiny dot in the circle, then the arrow point where the trail will eventually curl & crumble up to... also being a false summit. Bah hum bug.


Reaching the large granite shelf that held the alpine basin that is Tamarack & Buck lake was another experience all in itself. A grassy wasteland of rock, surrounded by Broken Finger Peak & it's supporting circular rock structures.


Small grassy patches were a welcome home for lunch & a fine chat to revitalize everyones spirits. Staring hypnotized at this high alpine lake, I couldn't help but whisper to myself, "I finally made it, I'm not looking at this in a picture."


You'll notice in the photos, that as lunch progressed so did the clouds & the wind. The growing threat of that 40% prediction of rain was slowly coming to fruition. Gathering our things we began to slowly fight the wind that had picked up across the upper basin, begging for the switchbacks down to the next lower section of valley.


At this point we were all glancing back over our shoulders as we made our way down the Tamarack Lakes trail, hoping the rain would hold off just long enough to get back to camp. Within a mile there was small drop hitting our hard shells, but nothing serious.


Continuing across our new saving grace of a cross country route, we were in our camp 45 minutes before the drops began to really fall. Gathering together in my Cooper Spur 3 Person (amazing ultralight tent, cant sing enough prasies!!), several games of Uno were fought under the dark skies that struggle above so furiously. Thunder would crack & shake the  very ground we sat on in the tent. Lighting flashed constantly, illuminating the tent frame while we all smiled nervously in excitement, intently burned from the days wind.


The afternoon storm settled & we emerged to a beautiful clearing of the clouds with hope that our "40%" just passed over. More chatting & some newly tested backcountry meals proved to be the best yet of any trip. As the sun lowered & the clock struck 8:30pm, the rain came again. More ferocious than before, lighting flashing three & four times a minute. Thunder would roll for 15 seconds throughout the valley we called home that weekend. None of use had experienced such events, let alone laying in a sleeping bag under a thin membrane of wateproof material. The Sierra's were living up to their fame.


On Monday I would learn that this storm started in the S. Santa Barbara area & lighting struck the ground, causing 13 different fires. Then rolling north stretching across the entire Sierra's, raining down upon all those in the backcountry. That 8:30pm storm would not be the last. Coming again around 2am, thunder & lighting kept all three of us awake, pondering the day's hike out of the John Muir Wilderness.


Slowly drifting back to sleep, hoping for clear skies in the morning. The dawn hour broke with spotted clouds & a sparkle like only Mother Nature could deliver after a mountain storm.


We donned our packs, that felt a bit better after a few days of food had been ingested & walked off towards the car, a few knolls, a couple valleys, a mountain ridge & a rock staircase away. We each took a smooth individual approach, feeling extra strong by day 3, hiking almost the entire way out separately, taking all that we had experienced in just a few days.



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