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.