Mountain Weather

Sierra crest from Tioga Pass

Before I forget the important details, herewith is an account of our recent trip to the mountains. Our strategy was to take advantage of the drought crisis and get in an early backpacking trip with the mid-summer-like conditions in the Sierra. If we waited until our usual time, late summer, it’s doubtful there would be much water left, or wildfires might cause some areas to be off limits. We aimed for the Emigrant Wilderness in the central Sierra, with its easy access to great trails, little lakes, and undemanding distances to good camping sites. In the days prior to the trip I watched the weather reports closely, and there were low-probability forecasts of some rain. Not to worry: we had ponchos.

We drove up HWY 108, and at the Summit USFS station, we described our trip plan to the rangers. They listened patiently, and asked “have you seen the weather report”? Apparently the forecast changed that day, and cold nights and snow were now pretty certain for the next two days. We were still interested in keeping to our plan, and the ranger said, “we can’t tell you not to do it.”, although I sensed she did want to tell us that. Resident Expert said the rangers were already figuring they’d have to go rescue us. Undeterred, we penciled in a new plan of car-camping if the weather didn’t cooperate, and headed down to Long Barn for the night. I would classify us as intermediate greenhorns without a lot of experience backpacking in conditions other than optimal, but we are aware of the hazards of being outside from reading the survival stories in Backpacker Magazine. Cold is OK. Getting wet is OK. But if you get cold and wet, you will almost certainly die.

Although we’ve been through Sonora Pass a number of times, we’d never stopped at Pinecrest Lake. The rangers recommended the trail around the lake, and it’s definitely worth doing. This is the off-season, so there was very little activity on the lake, the campground, and the trail. Even the cabins around the lake all appeared to be empty. But there were plenty of birds, and you can connect to another trail that follows the Stanislaus River upstream from the lake. Here’s a picture of the Stan as it flows into the lake, and one of the Resident Expert on one of the more interesting sections of trail.

Stanislaus River

Pinecrest Lake Trail

The next morning dawned cold, with thunder rumbling. Maybe the forecast was right after all. Back to the ranger station, where the same rangers were there (“Yes, we remember you.”, she said), and encouraged us to check out the Clark Fork area of the Stanislaus for car-camping instead. Got ourselves a map of the Carson/Iceberg Wilderness, and headed out to explore. Heading up 108, the snow started falling. It didn’t look like much at first, but then snow started accumulating on the road, and snow plows started going by – in the other direction, down the hill. We didn’t even get to the Clark Fork junction before we had to turn around. I stopped to take a video of the late-season snow before heading back down the hill.

We stopped at Pinecrest on the way back to see the snow on the mountains around the lake, but it was obscured by clouds. We thought we might then try the Crabtree Trailhead, our planned departure point for the backpack trip, as I recalled it being at a lower elevation. Actually, it’s a higher elevation, with plenty of snow on the road. Back to Long Barn. At least we could do some hiking down at that level, right? No. Snow was coming down here as well. We hunkered down for the afternoon. We soon realized that if we ever lived in the mountains during winter we would need to find indoor activities other than eating snack foods. Resident Expert led me on a hike around the Long Barn Lodge grounds, but otherwise it was me, a bowl of Annie’s Homegrown Organic Snack Mix, and a lot of staring out the window.

Long Barn Lodge

By late afternoon the snow had let up enough that we drove a short way from Long Barn to the North Fork of the Tuolumne River, where the first Snow Cat made her appearance. There was a fisherman there, and his dog Banjo ran up to investigate.

Snow Cat

After another night in Long Barn, I checked to see if we might get over Sonora Pass. No sir ree bob. It was going to be closed for a while (over a week, as it turned out). The closest open pass was Carson, almost all the way up to Tahoe. As we were packing up the Forester, I met a fellow with a cup of coffee who was working on restoring a cabin across the street. He told me that when he arrived that morning a mountain lion ran out from under the cabin. “I guess it was trying to get out of the snow”, he said. You and me both, man. The Long Barn Bear had other ideas.

Long Barn Bear

We planned our retreat back to Sonora, from where we could head north on 49 to Route 88 and Carson Pass. But real life had another surprise for us. The Check Engine light came on in the Forester. Then the Cruise light. We tried the “gas cap trick” known to Subaru owners, but that didn’t fix it. Resident Expert found the location for Subaru of Sonora and we rolled in. But this was just a dealership, not a place for service. They weren’t open yet, but a friendly person helped us out with a map and directions to the service location. “Do you know where the fairgrounds are?” No, we’re just traveling through. “You turn just before the black locomotive.” OK. This is where street names and numbers can be really useful. But we did find the service location, and within three hours they fixed our problem (oil pressure sensors) and relieved us of that extra $300 we didn’t know what to do with.

Things are just not working out. Should we just admit defeat and head home? Hell no. It’s especially motivating, when you feel like you’re facing insurmountable obstacles, to have an actual high mountain pass to summit. The Carson Pass route did take some time, but it was spectacular (except for the few miles in Nevada). The next must-do thing on our trip plan was to have lunch at Rhino’s in Bridgeport, where they have Rhinoburgers. It took until 4:30 to have our lunch there, but those Rhinoburgers were worth the wait. We couldn’t linger though, as another supercell was fast on our heels, rolling down HWY 395. We could see it in the rear view mirror. We reached Lee Vining, and checked in to Murphey’s Motel just ahead of the approaching storm.

Mono Lake and a storm

Mono Lake is right across the street, and after getting settled in our room we went over to watch the storm cross the lake. At that late hour we were the only visitors, except for the Cliff Swallows that were swooping in from all over, settling back into their nests under the eaves of the Visitor Center. There are good trails down to the lake, which we explored the following morning, which dawned clear, cold, and glorious.

Mono Lake morning

After birding we stopped by the Visitor Center to ask about any nearby tent camping options. Just one Forest Service campground had opened, a short way up Lee Vining Creek. Undaunted, we aimed to investigate that. I also picked up a biography of the legendary mountaineer Norman Clyde at the bookstore. We know about him from the excellent book, Missing in the Minarets, where he appears as a mysterious and nearly heroic figure. This new book about Clyde was well researched and included a lot of good information about his life, but it seemed to be missing something. Resident Expert, who is a good little reader, read a couple of pages and commented on the book’s just-the-facts style. She also said that the writer “didn’t understand human behavior”. That must have been what I’d found missing in my reading of the book.

Mono Lake is a very birdy area, it was immediately apparent. We saw a Green-tailed Towhee attempting to gain entrance to the Murphey’s Motel office when we were checking in. We had only seen this bird once before, on a hike in the Emigrant a couple of years ago. I don’t know if it was an unusual breakout of these birds in the area, but we saw them pretty much everywhere we went. Which was great, because they are good-looking birds. We have their cousins, the California and Spotted Towhees back home. Here’s the Green-tailed, at Mono Lake.

Green-tailed Towhee

Always on the lookout for new birds, we did pick up a couple on this trip. New birds are very hard to come by these days. However, there were numerous sightings of birds we had only seen once before. I like seeing the mountain versions of our local birds; like the towhee, you can find variations of the bluebird, chickadee, and other familiar birds that only live up here.

We ventured up HWY 120, the Tioga Pass road (the pass was closed) to see about tent camping at lower Lee Vining Creek. There wasn’t much snow left in Lee Vining, but just a few hundred feet up from there it remained quite deep. There was a foot or more on the ground in the campground. Here’s a situation where a truck with a camping rig would have worked out for us. Have to get me one of them. There’s a road that parallels 120 and follows the creek way back towards the wall of the Sierra Nevada range. We investigated that, and it ended at a hydroelectric power plant, operated by So Cal Edison. I had no idea this was back here, but it’s been there for about 100 years. There’s a small group of dams and hydro plants in this area, all constructed in the early 20th century. Here’s the Resident Expert next to a giant piece of machinery outside the Poole Power Plant.

Poole Power Plant

The noise from the generator is pretty loud right at the plant, but on the road out there you’ll find some good camping opportunities. The Big Bend campground looks particularly good. It’s right on the creek, with aspen, fir, and pine trees all around. We stopped along the road for some impromptu birding. You can bird anywhere, at any time.

Day use birding

Later that day we drove down to Bishop to visit with a chum from my bookstore days. The scenery along the drive was truly fantastic. The mountains vault up dramatically, and the mantle of snow made them even more spectacular. By the time we reached Bishop, we’d been mesmerized into something like a trance state. Resident Expert had us very well prepared for any eventuality, and we used almost all of our camping foodstuffs in our rooms in Long Barn and Lee Vining (each had little kitchens). Still, it was nice to have dinner prepared by someone else. The dinner conversation with our friends was lively, and it was fun to be out and about in Bishop, which includes a lot of outdoorsy types among its citizenry. It would be good to spend a little more time exploring that area in our next eastern Sierra trip.

With one more full day on the east side, we aimed for the Mammoth area to see if we might get a look at the Minarets. We’ve only seen them at a distance from the highway. However, the snow once again defeated us, as the road beyond the Mammoth ski area was closed. We had noticed a sign for Inyo Craters on the road out to Mammoth. Never heard of it. But we needed an alternate to our failed Minarets adventure, so this would do. There was a trailhead not too far off the road, and we headed out, not knowing how long the trail would be, or what the Inyo Craters were. But the snow wasn’t too deep, and there were birds, so we proceeded. As was the case at many of the other places we visited, we saw no other people. Eventually we reached the Inyo Craters.

Inyo Crater

These craters are very recent, geologically speaking. The were formed just a few hundred years ago. The whole area is still actively doing geology, and you can find expressions of that all around. We saw some good birds on this trail, including a List bird (Cassin’s Finch), and a Black-backed Woodpecker, which is considered a rarity this far south in the Sierra Nevada. Snow Cat made another appearance as well.

Snow Cat at Inyo Craters

We thought about extending our trip by another day, but we saw that Tioga Pass reopened earlier than expected, which gave us a straight shot from Lee Vining over the mountains. We bid the east side a fond farewell, and took off the following morning.

Here’s the scene at Tioga Pass, just before the entrance to Yosemite NP.

Tioga Pass

Since we’d gotten such an early start, we had time for a hike in Yosemite. One of our favorite places on this planet is Lyell Canyon, near Tuolumne Meadows. It’s a popular place, but on this day we saw just a couple of people. There was some snow around, but by this point we were used to hiking in it. We just walked out to the bridges over the Tuolumne, where we watched the river flow. Here we said goodbye to Snow Cat for the season. We will meet again.

Snow Cat on the Tuolumne

Our goal of backpacking in the Emigrant Wilderness will have to wait until later on this summer. Experienced backpackers might have attempted a snow camping adventure when the conditions changed, but we’re not quite at that level. In the Norman Clyde book, the man himself offered this bit of sage advice:

The mountain will always be there tomorrow. Aim to be able to say the same of yourself.

Mellowcat and Resident Expert in Tuolumne Meadows

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