The Eastern Sierras
Before breakfast on July 21 we all hopped in The Tank 2.0 and set off for our long awaited trip to the Eastern Sierras. Well, the Tacoma in camping mode is a far cry from The Tank, but I did outfit it with two double beds, a water tank with pressure, a fridge, shade awning and handful of electronics for the trip. Lots of driving on day one as we made for Yosemite, hoping to snag one of the many first-come-first-served campsites in the Park. It wasn’t to be, even at noon on a Thursday every single one of the 550 first-come-first-served campsites were already full. Yes, every single one. Welcome to camping in California. Things actually worked out for the best and we ended up spending the night on the banks of the Tuolumne River in the Stanislaus National Forest just outside the National Park boundary. We had a beautiful swimming hole just in front of our site and started our trip with the best camping dinner known to man: lamb chops and jacket potatoes cooked in the coals.
We entered Yosemite National Park with the throngs of other visitors early on Friday, crosshairs on the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls. It’d been a while since either of us had been to Yosemite, but we’ve both visited many times over the years and neither one of us could remember the place being such a zoo. Thousands of people with languages from across the globe packed the Valley, the place was like Disneyland! All the people didn’t detract from the natural splendor, however, no matter how many times I visit, Yosemite is one of the most awe inspiring places I’ve ever been… We started off on the Mist Trail in the cool morning weather, Wild Man on my back and Lilia hiking next to Lisa. I thought we were only hiking to the Vernal Falls bridge at the base of the falls, but Lilia told us in no uncertain terms that she wanted to conquer the trail – and its more than 600 steps – to the top. Very proud parents to see her make it to the top, amazing views from up there, such a torrent of water cascading over the rocks. By the end of it, from the truck and back the Mist Trail was 4.5 miles (7.2 kilometers) with 1000 vertical feet of climbing. Not bad for a five year old!
After the hike we made the drive up toward Tuolumne Meadows for a well-earned swim at Tenaya Lake. Tenaya is another one of those spots that, no matter how many times you see it, it always stops you in your tracks. We could have swam and relaxed all day in the cool water surrounded by towering granite peaks… As the afternoon wore on we figured we’d better find a place to sleep. All the Inyo National Forest campgrounds to the east of Yosemite were full, so we cruised south to the mouth of Horseshoe Canyon and bush camped on the shore of Grant Lake. A cold night out there in the desert at 7135 feet, but the almost full moon was a sight to behold and everyone slept like babies after such a full day!
We continued through Horseshoe Canyon early on Saturday, scoring a secluded campsite – where we stayed for a couple of nights – on the shore of Silver Lake. On arriving at Silver Lake it was quickly evident that trout fishing is religion in the Eastern Sierras: the lake was dotted with small boats, fishermen flicking everything from spinners to worms to plastics into the 60 foot deep body of water. We spent Saturday on a hike up to Fern Lake on the rim of Horseshoe Canyon, about halfway up we realized we’d bitten off more than we could chew, the 1500 vertical feet of climbing over a mere 1.5 miles was absolutely crushing. Especially when starting at 7300 feet. Especially when you’re five, or have a two-year-old strapped to your back. Anyway, after a hissy fit or two from the children and the parents on the way up, we conquered the climb and spent our lunchtime on the shore of Fern Lake at 8885 feet with towering Carson Peak (elevation 10909 feet) looking down on us. A few nibbles on the Panther Martins from the high country trout, but no luck reeling one in on this day…
Max and I came down with a bit of a cold on Sunday, so after a morning swim at June Lake – the most southerly of the four lakes in Horseshoe Canyon – we took a drive toward Mammoth Lakes and the Long Valley Caldera so the kids could have a bit of a nap in the air conditioned car. It’s amazing how quickly the high elevation coupled with blazing sun and high temperatures can sap the water out of you. I drank more water each day on our trip than I usually do in three or four at sea level… After a cruise through Mammoth Lakes with two sleeping kids in the back we followed our backcountry map and found some of the desert hot springs dotted through the Long Valley Caldera. Locals have piped a few of the hot springs into makeshift concrete tubs, a beautiful spot to sit and take in the mountains on the western side of the caldera. We stopped off at two of the hot springs, both of which were a little tricky to find along dirt roads through the desert and both of which were too hot to soak in for more than a few minutes. I couldn’t get in deeper than my waist and Lilia was game to soak her feet for a few minutes, the water was a touch above 112F (44C).
We quickly resupplied in Bishop on Monday morning before heading up Bishop Creek Canyon, a 5000 vertical foot slog for the Tacoma up a very steep road. We explored the upper lakes of the canyon before securing a beautiful campsite next to the north fork of Bishop Creek. And when I say next to, I mean within a few feet. Undoubtedly the most picturesque of our camping spots – and definitely the highest at 9300 feet – the kids had a ball frolicking in the icy water under the blazing high country sun. We hiked up to Grass Lake from our campground, a more reasonable 500 vertical feet over three quarters of a mile (1.2 milometers), it was a beautiful setting but we quickly discovered that the marshy surrounds were an absolute hive of mosquitos. Once they cottoned onto the fact that there was blood in their midst they swarmed like nothing I’ve ever experienced. We had to grab our things in a panic and literally run from the lake’s shore to the confines of the surrounding granite boulders. Before the mosquitoes found us we did manage a stroll along the crystal clear water of the brook running into Grass Lake, it was absolutely full of trout, so full it was almost unfair. I pulled in six fish in the span of five minutes, Max was on my back in the Ergo Pack and loved being able to touch each fish after it was reeled in.
This vid is a clip of Max after quite the tantrum. I think it was his only time out for the whole trip. As you can see, it didn’t quite go as planned…
Bishop Creek Canyon was as far south as our journey took us, we stopped off at the famous Erick Schat’s Bakkerÿ in Bishop on our way back to the highway and then bee lined it north to Mammoth with the hope of locking in a campsite in the popular resort area. As luck would have it, we managed to score probably the best campsite in the Mammoth Lakes area, an awesome spacious spot alongside a creek just above Lake Mary in the Coldwater Campground. When we ran into the campground host later in the day he noted that he and his wife had a bet as to how long our campsite would stay open that day! Looking back, it was a very nice campsite, even had flush toilets (and double ply toilet paper [oh so nice!]). Our campsite was an open campsite, meaning that it was one of the 14 in the campground that could not be reserved. On the day we left, the campground host told us that he had had 90 people over the past 24 hours inquiring whether they could occupy our campsite when we left. Like I said: welcome to camping in California!
Max and I were still not 100% so it was another low key day for Family Valtenbergs on Tuesday, we relaxed on the shore of Horseshoe Lake (elevation 8955 feet), a definite favorite with the kids due to the sandy shore/bottom and the fact that it was waist deep (on them) for a good chunk of its area. I’m going to sound like a broken record by now, but another very picturesque spot with the Mammoth Crest escarpment and the southern flank of Mammoth Mountain as backdrop. I’ve never been anywhere with signs warning of carbon dioxide poisoning outside: the area around Horseshoe was littered with signs warning to stay out of certain areas due to high concentrations of the gas. You’ll note in the photos here that there are a bunch of dead tress around the lake, a result of carbon dioxide from cooling magma seeping through the soil after a swarm of small earthquakes hit in 1989/1990.
Lisa really wanted to paddle board on one of the high country lakes, so on our second day in Mammoth Lakes we rented a paddle board from the dock on Lake Mary in front of our campground. It was a lot of fun, beautiful calm weather and the morning sun helped offset the iciness of the water. Lilia would have stayed out there all day if she could have! Max even gave it a crack.
The other spot we’d been told was worth a look whilst in the Mammoth area was Devil’s Postpile National Monument. I won’t bore you with the details of the Postpile here, but if you’re interested to read up on them it’s quite fascinating, Wiki link is here. The bus to and from the Postpile leaves from the base of Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort. In summer the resort transforms into the biggest downhill mountain bike park I’ve ever seen, we’re going to have to go back sometime to try it all out, the place was super busy when we visited. I’ve never been anywhere like Mammoth, the place is completely setup for outdoor fun and breeding champion extreme athletes (both winter and summer!). We dined at Mammoth Brewing on our last night in town, great beers and fantastic food with an ideal outdoor patio with games for the kids. Definitely worth a stop if you ever find yourself in Mammoth Lakes…
On our way out of Mammoth we ventured east into the desert to find the ghost town of Bodie. Bodie was a booming gold mining establishment in the late 1800s, though after the majority of gold deposits were mined inhabitants began relocating to greener pastures. A handful of residents held on until the 1940s, and in 1962 in became a state historic park. Californa State Parks has done a brilliant job of maintaining the town’s 110 structures dotted across the desert landscape. The place really is frozen in time, in almost all of the remaining structures one can peer through the windows and see remains of furniture and household goods that were simply left behind when the Bodie residents packed up and left. It was like walking through a real life Wild West movie set. Max and Lilia were all over it, in spite of the scorching midday desert sun they traipsed through the entire town and were full of questions the entire time. Definitely a worthwhile side trip, a very fun little history lesson for all of us…
It wasn’t part of our original route, but while we were on the other side of the Sierras we decided we really should drop in on Great Grandma Gladys in Carson City. So instead of heading over 108 and through Sonora on our route home, we shuttled north along 395 and over Monitor Pass on Highway 89. It was a super steep climb over the pass but boasted some amazing views and beautiful Sierra landscapes, lots of fire roads with good places to camp, if only we’d had more time… We made it to the quaint mountain settlement of Markleville mid-afternoon and headed for Grover Hot Springs State Park for the night. A nice spot (I will say it was the most I’ve ever paid for a campsite in my life [and you had to pay extra for a shower!]) and I’m pretty sure the mineral springs that are part of the park were a highlight of the trip for the kids. Unlike the hot springs in Long Valley Caldera – which are generally left to bubble into the desert undisturbed, except for a few of them which are piped into makeshift tubs – the springs at Grover Hot Spring State Park are fed into a commercial-style pool and cooled to a pleasant temperature of between 102F and 104 F (39C to 40C). There’s also an adjacent regular pool that’s fed with chlorinated well water. There were quite a few fellow bathers when we soaked, the kids could have spent all day warming up in the hot mineral springs then cooling down in the adjacent pool.
It’s rare to be far enough from civilization to take good shots of the night sky, even up in northern Sonoma County the light pollution from nearby towns results in too much of a glow to take good shots of the stars. The clear sky above our campground in Grover Hot Springs State Park was an exception, however. After a few too many beers and scared that I was going to get swiped by a bear, I walked out into the meadow next to our campsite at around 11:00PM and managed to snag some good shots of the Milky Way. Still have some learning to do when it comes to camera settings for astrophotography, but great to get some snaps of the heavens on our second to last night under the stars.
I warned Lisa that she’d better not give Great Grandma Gladys a heart attack by surprising her on our last full day on the road. I think we were close: she did brace herself against the wall and hold onto her chest when we walked in on her on Friday. Kids loved exploring her little one bedroom abode, especially all the stuffed animals she likes to keep for company. I think we made her month!
From Carson City we were back in civilization as we traversed the southern section of Lake Tahoe. We thought it’d be nice to have a swim in Tahoe on our way through, but every single one of the thousands of parking spots along the roughly 10 mile stretch of South Lake Tahoe was full. Ridiculous. So we trudged on and on our way out of the mountains secured a nice little spot alongside the Silver Fork of the American River for the night. A great swimming spot, more like the Sierras we’re used to: big rivers and deep gorges. I made damper in the fire for our last bush meal – camping isn’t camping without damper – and the kids were in heaven with macaroni and cheese for dinner (we were getting lazy after 10 days!). We ended up camping next to Napoleon Dynamite’s uncle for our last night, reliving his prom king youth in the forest and listening to a progressively louder infinite loop of Bon Jovi’s greatest hits for five hours straight. Fortunately his battery ran out around 9:00PM. We were also fortunate to have only one experience like this during our whole trip!
And that’s it. To be honest, the trip wasn’t completely what I expected: I figured that being on the other side of the mountains we’d be able to enjoy the great outdoors without scrambling for campsites and dealing with throngs of tourists. In reality, that’s tricky when you share the state with 39 million other people. Looking back, though, in spite of the masses of other summer campers, we did get to experience some of the most stunning natural beauty California has to offer and the week was filled with lots of fantastic memories. From Lilia hiking to the top of Vernal Falls, Max christening many of our campsites by literally rolling in the dirt, paddle boarding on high Sierras lakes and fishing for trout above 10000 feet with nothing but Max and the birds keeping me company, it was quite the week. And most importantly, the kids embraced camping and being outside for so long better than we could have ever imagined. I’ve never seen them be so content to just play together and explore every new spot, no iPads or toys needed for 10 days straight. They had an absolute ball. Where to next time?!