Backpacking Big Pine Lakes: Part II

Distance: 9.2 Miles  |  Elevation Gain: 3000 Ft

The next morning, Hoku was the first wake up to the sound of unfamiliar birds chirping outside of our tent. (Cue the head tilts.) I climbed down the ladder with the pup over my shoulder, started a pot of coffee and gave him some breakfast. He must have known something exciting was happening because he only took a few nibbles and he's not one to ever say no to food. 

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Breakfast was a simple spread of bagels and hardboiled eggs. We had boiled about a dozen eggs at home before we left to save time the morning of our trek. Washing it all down with hot coffee, we laughed about the Gaston song from Beauty and the Beast where he sing-brags about eating 5 dozen eggs a day. I mean, seems a little eggsessive...

After packing up, we said goodbye to our little campsite and drove up to the trailhead.

The internet is full of stories of bears breaking into cars for things like an empty candy bar wrapper/water bottle/a dried up french fry from 3 years ago, we were thankful to see bear bins at the trailhead. (Fun fact: Bears supposedly have the best olfactory senses of any animal on the planet. About 2100 times better than our own human noses.) So needless to say, we stuffed all the food, toiletries and other scented items that we wouldn't be carrying on us into a plastic bag, labeled it with our names + date of exit, and placed it all in the bin. 

With our things secured, we buckled in, made final adjustments to our monstrous packs and hit the trail. It could have been the high of the moment or the relatively flat portion at the beginning of the trail, but I was relieved to find that it wasn't nearly as difficult or painful as I thought it would be. Before long, we were gaining elevation and following the creek up the mountain.

"Light as a feather, stiff as a board," I repeated to myself, as if reciting a line from "The Craft" would give me magical powers to levitate the weight off my back. 


As we trekked up a series of unrelenting switchbacks leading up to First Falls, we thanked the clouds and the cool breeze for making one of the toughest sections of the hike so much more tolerable. 

Once at the top, the sight of a large, familiar rock and the John Muir Wilderness sign was met with cheers. We marveled at the clear view of the valley below and trail we had just traversed, not envying the next set of hikers who would have to make the same ascent. With perfect timing, the sun decided to break through the clouds just then and we settled into a shaded spot next to First Falls to rest and recharge after powering through the switchbacks without a single break. We were almost halfway to the lakes and rewarded ourselves by taking our packs off for the first time since starting the day's trek. I felt like I could jump 6 feet in the air. 


We began noticing snow on the ground at Second Falls and Hoku took every chance to cool off on all the dirty snow mounds he could find. Snow-blocked passages also posed no problem for his sprightly legs. As for us with two legs and 35-lbs of weight on our backs, we treaded extra carefully across slushy sections like the one below. Microspikes weren't needed, but having our poles for stability proved to be incredibly helpful. 

About a mile from First Lake began a series of three stream crossings. Two were small and easily passable by stepping over fallen logs, but the stream below was a bit more of a challenge. (You may remember the same stream from our hike up here last November when it was completely frozen over.) Some of the stepping stones that were intended for passage were covered in as much as 6 inches of water, so it was impossible not to get your shoes wet unless you removed them. (Thank you Gortex and ankle-high boots.) I let Hoku off-leash to cross on his own and he jumped from rock to rock like a pro even with the water reaching his belly at some parts. I couldn't have been prouder of my water-aversed pup and regret not capturing it on video!

Arriving at First Lake, we immediately began scoping out potential campsites. Though we had initially planned to camp at Second Lake, we were told by several others that there were fewer quality sites there due to snow cover. David checked our GPS and wanted to explore a potential flat area he noticed on the topo. We mustered up the last of our energy to hike up a steep, rocky hill, a little skeptical of what could possibly be so off the beaten path, but lo and behold, it was like Paradise Found. We pushed through the foliage (Indiana Jones style, I like to imagine) and an expansive, flat grassy overlook with an incredible view of Temple Crag and First Lake came into view. It had a little section surrounded by boulders and bushes that could offer wind protection for our tents and was near a reliable water source for us to filter. It was textbook perfect and we knew we had found our camp home for the night. 

With our tents set up and securely tied down with rocks (David and I didn't bring stakes to save pack weight), we set up our camp chairs to relax and take it all in while Hoku happily ran around and did some exploring of his own. 

Getting ready for dinner, we used our Katadyn water filter to refill our Nalgenes at a nearby basin of water fed by the surrounding snow melt. The highly-recommended Jetboil did not disappoint. In seconds, we were pouring boiling water into our Mountain House dehydrated food bags and dinner was served. It doesn't get any better than chowing down on beef stew, beef stroganoff, chili mac and cheese and spaghetti out of a bag at an elevation of 10,000 ft. With great company and a million dollar view to boot. 

Once the sun disappeared behind the mountains, the temperature dropped quickly and the wind picked up. We piled on the layers, thankful for the warm meal. It was predicted to drop to about 35 degrees in the wee hours. Still above freezing. NBD. 

After dinner, we started preparing our bear canister for storage and realized that we had underestimated there being enough space inside for all our food and toiletries. So we scoped out an area downwind from our tents and found an excellent branch for hanging up all our extra items. As David pulled the bear sack high up into the tree and tied it off, I felt like a childhood camping goal had finally come to fruition. I grew up camping on a bear-less island, yet having this romanticized notion of what setting up camp was supposed to look like from books and movies. It seemed like bears were always a big of part of those stories. (So I know it sounds kind of silly, but hanging up a bear bag in a tree is something I've always wanted to do.) 

By the time we were done bear-proofing our campsite, the wind had picked up so much that Hoku could barely keep his eyes open. We stayed out as long as we could, watching the stars appear one by one before finally retreating to the warmth of our tents. Hoku curled up in the Rumpl and didn't open his eyes again until morning. Despite strong wind rattling the walls of our tent and the nagging thought that there was a honey-scented Burt's Bees lip balm still sitting at the bottom of my pack, sleep came swiftly the moment we rested our heads on the air-inflated pillows. Bears, schmears. 

Backpacking Big Pine Lakes: Part I

Somewhere along the drive north on the 395, LA's top 40's radio station turned into static and right on cue, we popped in our go-to roadtrip soundtrack: Jason Mraz's "Yes!" album. It's one of two CDs we keep in the car and we've listened to it and Sara Bareilles' "Blessed Unrest" so many times that we practically know every song by heart. With our rooftop tent strapped to the top of the Outback and a snoozing pup in the backseat, we zoomed past large RVs and discussed the features of the dream CJ7 Jeep we'd buy one day. Two-door, soft-top, khaki interior, and of course it'd need one of those black and yellow California license plates.

Before long, we were passing the sign that welcomed visitors to the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada range came into view. Finally, vacation had begun. 

First stop was the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor's Center to pick up our overnight permits for the Big Pine North Fork trail. It was a warm but breezy 90 degrees in Lone Pine and Hoku waited outside with the other pups since no dogs were allowed inside. A friendly ranger refilled the water bowl by the picnic table and all the dogs took turns cooling off. I chatted with a fit, tattooed stranger who had just picked up a permit for Mt. Whitney. "Good luck!" I tell him. "I'm gonna need it," he chuckled, giving Hoku a pet on the head.

Inside, we picked up our permits and asked a ranger about trail conditions. It sounded like there was heavy snow cover on the trails past second lake so our plan to hike to Palisade Glacier was probably not going to happen without ice axes, which we didn't bring. "Regarding bears," he concluded, "They're waking up and they're hungry."

We weren't sure if he was joking.

Next stop was a little burger joint in town called Frosty Chalet. It could have been the heat, but anything with the word "frosty" in it was more than ok by me. We grabbed a seat at one of the tables outside on their perfectly manicured lawn and joked about it being our last civilized meal for the next few days. 

With full bellies, we drove north for another hour, stopping for gas and firewood in Big Pine before heading up a windy mountain road and blissfully losing all cell reception. Bye emails. Bye Instagram.

Our campsite at Upper Sage Flat was picturesque and relaxing. It was a little site at the far end of the campground right next to a rushing creek fed by the snow melt up in the mountains. We watched our camp neighbors fish for trout and did a little bit of exploring and gathering of fallen branches and pinecones for the fire pit before pitching our tents and unwinding from the long drive. 


We set up the stove and dinnerware on the picnic table and our little camp kitchen was complete. On the menu for dinner was hot chili with corn and rice accompanied by ice cold beers. We ate around the campfire as the sunset behind the mountains darkened the silhouettes of the tall pines surrounding us. The temperature was just right and the sound of rushing water and a crackling fire made the evening even more perfect. 

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After dinner, our group shared a chocolate chip cookie and gazed at the stars and full moon before locking our food and other bear-attracting items inside the metal bins provided at the campsite. We climbed the ladder up into our rooftop tent and tried to get some rest, filled with a nervous excitement for our first ever overnight trip into the backcountry. I prayed that I wouldn't crumble under the weight of my 35-lb pack (which I had only practiced carrying around at home a day earlier) and thought about hungry bears before drifting to sleep, comforted by the pup at my feet who had not a care in the world. 

Finding Fossils In The Desert

For the second year in a row, we've had the pleasure of joining our friends and a wonderful group of paleontology enthusiasts on a trip into the desert to collect fossils for a museum in our community. With the record rainy Winter we've had here in Southern California, it turned out to be an excellent year for fossil hunting!

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The "documents of life" in this area include the ancient remains of horses and peccaries dating approximately 15 million years old. My attempts to train Hoku to sniff out these fossils were largely unsuccessful.

↑ This is a museum quality horse toe fossil.

One of the most exciting finds of the day was an extremely rare, almost perfectly intact tip of a mammoth or mastodon tusk!  

By lunchtime, the dogs were already all tired out. Chili took a nap under the truck and Hoku curled up into a ball on the floor of the Outback after chasing desert flies for a good hour, too pooped to even jump onto the seat.

↑ The dogs hanging out in our rooftop tent back at the campsite. 

After a BBQ dinner, our group gathered around the bonfire to announce the day's best finds and for a raffle prize drawing. To everyone's amusement, Chili and Hoku's names were pulled for a whiskey glass!   

After a gusty night, we woke up to a brisk 39° F and took Hoku on a little hike exploring the hills around our campsite before breakfast. We couldn't have asked for a better way to end a fun weekend of meeting new friends than with a mug of hot coffee and a plate of bacon and eggs cooked over the campfire!