The Eastern Sierra.
I don't know if they are less well known, harder to get to, or I was just oblivious, but while I've driven past the majestic peaks numerous times - on my way to and from Death Valley - I've never really taken the time to explore the mountain range that boasts the tallest peak (Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet) in the contiguous United States.
But, over the last few years - as I've ventured into the Volcanic Tablelands, and here and there within the Owens Valley - I've reveled in the rocky faces and snowy peaks. Now, finally, we'd get a chance to explore - climbing to elevations of more than 12,000 feet - as we lake hop in the Eastern Sierra.
As always, the first day was a long drive down from Washington, and it was a little after 2:00am the following morning when we found our way to the end of a dirt road outside of Big Pine. Near our jumping off point to access Coyote Flat, we quickly pitched the tent and climbed into bed.
I just happened to wake up as the sun was coming over the horizon and popped out of the tent for a few minutes, since I knew I wouldn't get light like this once the fiery ball was fully above the horizon.
Even as the sun hadn't hit the Sierra to the north, the range to the south was glowing brilliantly.
Nestled into the rocks, and already with a bit of sun.
By the time we actually got up - I was quickly back to bed after these shots - we'd gotten about seven hours of sleep - not a full night, but also not bad for having covered so much ground the day before.
Already it was starting to warm up, and with afternoon temperatures forecast for the upper 90s °F in the area, we were glad to be headed for higher elevations; as it was, we were already breaking a sweat as the tent was stowed and the sun beamed down on the distant Owens Valley Radio Observatory.
The OVRO was bustling with activity - dishes spinning frequently - as we watched from afar.
Everything packed up, and breakfastless - we'd decided to try our trail-mix-for-breakfast-strategy again - we pointed the Tacoma west and began the climb from 4500' to more than 10,300' in just under eight miles. Needless to say it was steep, and I'd heard plenty of chatter about the road to Coyote Flat from Big Pine, so I let @mrs.turbodb know that there was a slight chance we'd be turning around and accessing the area via the "normal" route, from Bishop.
Up we go, lots of loose rocks and dirt made for slippery conditions without good line choice.
Along the way, several nice viewpoints presented themselves.
Steeper than it looks.
A first peek at the peaks that we seek.
I don't know exactly what to call the hills immediately west of Big Pine, but their composition seems to be significantly different than that of the Sierra just a bit further west. More like the composition of Alabama Hills or Buttermilk Boulders - a yellowish granite covered with high-desert shrubs - I really enjoyed the trail as it wound through the outcroppings, glancing back from time to time at the Inyos behind us.
This Golden Eagle had an amazing wingspan, and just seemed to float off of the rocky outcropping when we drove by.
Looking down to Big Pine, and a road stretching up into the Inyos and Death Valley.
As we gained elevation, the terrain began to change. Not in the Inyo Mountains, this was still the Inyo National Forest, and slowly trees began to dot the landscape. They were sparse to be sure, but their green needles were a nice contrast to the otherwise-very-dry-looking hillsides.
As we neared 8700', temperatures had dropped enough, and there was a bit more precipitation throughout the year; enough to support tree growth.
In the distance, a splash of yellow from fall aspen.
An F-35 roared by overhead. Too high for any real detail, but still plenty loud!
With all the stopping to admire views and take photos - something that my passenger is quite patient about, and had prepared for by bringing her Kindle loaded with Dune House of Harkonnen - our eight-mile, 6,000' ascent, took the better part of two hours. Of that, the trail seemed in reasonably good condition - though I recognize that difficulty is different for every driver - with only one section containing large enough rocks that some careful line choice was necessary.
For me, it was a fun little section, over too soon, the Tacoma handling it well.
I just kept wishing we were "one ridge over," so we'd get a better view of the Sierra. It wouldn't be long until that's exactly where we were!
Eventually of course, we crested the ridge. Rather than press forward towards the views that'd been so tantalizing for the last 30 minutes or so, we made nearly a complete u-turn towards an overlook I'd noted in my route planning, and a spot I'd thought might make a good camp area... had we arrived at a completely different time of day. Still, no matter what time of day one passes along this route, spending a few minutes to soak in the surroundings is time well spent.
As we approached the rocky outcropping that hung above Owens Valley, I knew I wanted a photo (or seven) of me perched on top, looking out.
Two. Starting to compress the background.
Don't worry, I'm not posting all seven. I really like how the Inyos in the background fill the entire frame.
With that, we finally dropped down into the Coyote Flat area. This high meadow - at almost exactly 10,000-feet - must be spectacular in spring, with green grass and wildflowers poking up through the last of the winter snow. And there, rising out of the far side of the meadow, the terrain began its transition from dusty desert to rainbow granite, as a few peaks seemed to rise out of the flats themselves!
We're the only ones here. (For now!)
In the distance, even more alluring views.
Having reached the namesake of our trip, we had several choices in how to proceed. I suppose the most boring thing to do would have been to continue along the loop, exiting Coyote Flat at Bishop, but with a ton of roads to investigate, there was no way we were going to bail just yet. Instead, I hoped we'd visit almost all the trails in the area, oscillating between 9,000 and 12,000 feet, wandering on foot from time to time.
Having come in from the southeast, that's where we'd start - exploring the ▮▮▮▮▮ Creek area - before heading further north and west.
We got our first close-up brilliant pop of yellow as we wound our way down to the creek.
Climbing back up from the creek, we followed one road after another - each one winding up into the valleys and folds of the ridges above - eventually discovering a perfectly shady spot for lunch and then stumbling upon the ▮▮▮▮▮▮ Cabin as we looked for an alternate route back to the main loop. Gotta love dumb luck!
Why go anywhere in a straight line when a few turns will lengthen your enjoyment?
We - as must many others - nearly missed this cabin nestled into the treeline.
Extremely well-kept inside, this cabin is still actively used.
I thought these two notices were awesome - both in their clarity, as well as their willingness to share and trust those who might find themselves in this special place. I've obviously heavily redacted them, so if you find it, please leave it nicer than you found it.
Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the cabin and set our sights on one of the more well-known destinations that Coyote Flat has to offer: Funnel Lake. I'd chatted with a few folks - who I thought might have pointers on the area - prior to our departure, and without fail they all recommended staying as far away from Funnel Lake as possible. Largely this recommendation seemed to boil down to overcrowding, and I hoped that our Thursday arrival would significantly reduce the chances of running into a dozen bro-verlanders with their light bars a-blazing.
What I didn't realize from my conversations was that overpopulation isn't the only thing that makes Funnel Lake underwhelming.
The road to Funnel Lake - several miles of volleyball-sized rocks - is one of the least enjoyable roads we've driven. Ever.
Even our arrival was disappointing - the lake is small, boring (there are no views), and half full.
Not wanting to have wasted the entire route, we walked three-quarters of the way around the lake, hoping for - perhaps - a better angle. This turned out to be an exercise in "avoiding fire rings," that lined the circumference every 10 feet or so, this place unexplainedly mobbed most of the time.
As you can imagine, we didn't linger long before mentally preparing ourselves to rattle several more teeth from our mouths on the drive out. It was time to make a beeline for something a little less... sterile.
Nearly toothless - it was a real shame that the tooth fairy wasn't real, at least we could have been rich - we finally got back on the main road and turned toward the second lake of the day. This one - Rocky Bottom Lake - would be observed from above, hopefully affording us views - both on the way to the lake as well as once we got there.
As we arrived back at the Flat, happy for whatever teeth were left in our mouths, the Inyos reminded us that no matter which way we looked, there was magic.
Up we go again, a new landscape to explore.
As we climbed, magnificent looking Bristlecone Pine were sprinkled throughout the mostly-Pinyon Pine Forest.
Rocky Bottom Lake would have been a little bland as well if we'd been down in the bowl, but the view from 500' above was a great place to relax for a few moments.
I'd wondered a bit if we would camp at Rocky Bottom Lake, but it was quite clear when we arrived that it wasn't somewhere to call home for the night. A complete lack of flat ground - and no views of the Sierra - meant we'd need to find somewhere else to set up the tent. We certainly weren't going to come all this way to camp viewless.
Luckily, I had just the spot in mind - one that would not only give us a view, but that would also afford us a short hike to one of the tallest peaks around - should we so desire - the next morning. And so, it was back down one canyon, and back up another. We were headed to The Huntchback.
Mostly in shadow at 4:30pm, I hoped that the sharp Sierra ranges rising up to the west would be breathtaking in the morning.
Nature's Bonsai. Up here, wind is not a friend of the Bristlecone Pine.
Our trail, snaking into the distance, to the base of The Huntchback.
It was just after 5:00pm when we arrived at the overlook that would serve as our perch for the night. At the foot of The Huntchback, and high above the aptly-named Green Lake, it was perfect. For a while, we just stood there - looking out over the lake from various vantage points, letting our eyes wander to the 12,000+ foot peaks all around.
Those more ambitious than us might have decided to hike down to the lake. It was the trek back up that got us.
Even this late in the afternoon, the sky still thundered. (F-18)
As we stood there admiring, the moon rose from behind The Huntchback.
Dinner was - surprise, surprise - tacorittoes, which were prepared quickly once the Tacoma was maneuvered as close to the edge as we could muster. My hope in the positioning was to score a dramatic star trail photo once the moon set just after 2:30am, but unlike some recent long exposures on our recent Passages trip to the Olympic Peninsula that turned out to be stunning, these would be boring at best.
For the moment however - with temperatures in the mid-60s °F, a light breeze, and the sky threatening to fade through the most beautiful purple hues above us - we were both ready to eat dinner, enjoy the sunset light show, and then catch up on some of the sleep we'd missed the previous night.
All alone near the top of the world. Or at least, this part of our round rock.
The view from the kitchen.
Admiring the after-dinner entertainment.
For a long time, I always looked forward to those last few minutes before the sun dropped to the horizon. Oranges, reds, and yellows juxtaposed against a blue sky, once gray clouds now fiery with delight.
It wasn't until - as I recall - a trip with Mike @Digiratus (and Monte @Blackdawg) to Alstrom Point that I realized an even better time is the five-minute window about 20 minutes after the sun has dropped below the horizon. Mike called it the magic hour - which I'd heard before - and went on to verbalize the fact that there was still enough light (usually in amazing hues to boot) to photograph, but that one could do so without those pesky contrasting shadows, making for some fantastic compositions.
Since then, this has been the time I look forward to. (And it turns out there is a similar time before sunrise.)
Green Lake, more purple than green.
Getting on a bit in the fall, it was still early as the light faded to our west, so we sat for an hour or so - knitting and reading and copying photos from the camera to laptop - before climbing up into the tent for the sleep we'd missed out on the night before.
The moon - extremely bright - lit up the landscape for most of the night.
We'd covered a lot of ground on this first day, and I wondered if we had enough to keep us busy for the rest of the time. We did - of course - soon discovering that we may have bitten off a bit more than we could chew.