Saturday, July 9, 2016

Cottonwood Lakes: Everyone Knows This is Nowhere

Cottonwood Lakes Basin
Maybe I don’t really wanna know
How your garden grows cos I just want to fly
Lately, did you ever feel the pain?
In the morning as its soaks you to the bone

Maybe I just want to fly
I want to live, I don’t want to die
Maybe I just want to breathe
Maybe I just don’t believe
Maybe you’re the same as me
We see things they’ll never see

You and I we’re gonna live forever.
-Live Forever, Oasis

The long weekend was on and the call of the wild was loud so what else could I do? The Cottonwood Lakes area has always had a magnetism to it that I could not resist, so on Saturday afternoon my daughter, a friend, and I all dutifully obeyed the Law of Attraction and made the three hour drive to Lone Pine in search of a high altitude fix. The plan was...well, we didn't really have a plan per se other than to hike into the Cottonwood Lakes. We figured we'd figure out the rest as we went. That lack of planning had always worked out in the past for these types of trips and this one proved to be no exception, despite the fact that it was a holiday weekend.

The temps were uncommonly comfortable and the road surprisingly empty as we made our way north across the barren desertscape. As we passed through the assemblage of odd little roadstops that dot the 395, places like Pearsonville, Coso Junction, Dunmovin, and Cartago all bleached and withering away in the blast furnace heat and wind of the Mojave Desert, we speculated about their origins and laughed out loud about the stories we conjured up, particularly those about Dunmovin. Somewhere Neil Young was singing Everyone Knows This is Nowhere.

In no time it seemed, we arrived on the outskirts of Lone Pine. We hadn't really taken notice of the miles as they passed because we were too engaged in solving the world's problems. With that small task accomplished, we turned our attention to finding accommodations for the night and headed for Tuttle Creek. If that failed us, we'd just find a blank spot to hunker down on somewhere within the sandstone labyrinth that is the the Alabama Hills. Fortunately, there was an open spot at the Tuttle Creek inn, so we grabbed it and set up for the night. There's nothing fancy about Tuttle Creek--a gravelly spot for a tent, a concrete picnic table, a fire ring, and bathroom, all set out under the blistering sun of the Owens River Valley--but it suited our limited purposes. And we were beggars anyway.

After we got situated, we made the short drive to Lone Pine in search of the fabled Los Hermanos taco truck. We found it parked on the north end of town in a dusty lot adjacent to Carl's Jr. and directly across the street from the only other taco truck for miles. As I waited for our order, Chris disappeared across the street to the gas station-cum-convenience store and then returned with a brown bag brimming with brown bottles. Back at Tuttle Creek, we enjoyed tacos and craft beer under an inky black sky splattered with a billion blinking stars and the spilled-milk of the Milky Way.

Alabama Hills
Tuttle Creek Tent Site
Afternoon Clouds
Inyo Mountains
Last Light Along the Eastern Sierra
Under a Blood Red Sky
The next morning, we arose to brilliant alpenglow painting the eastern escarpment of the Sierra. The site is such a commonplace occurrence in these parts that its beauty was almost boring. Deciding that we should probably put some energy into the main purpose of our trip, we quickly tore down camp before the heat index rose too high, and then made our way back to Lone Pine for caffeine and morning vitals to see us through the start of our planned hike.

We ended up at the Lone Star Bistro located along Main Street. I'd been to this place before and vowed never to return because the guy behind the counter was such a horse's ass on my last visit. But time was of the essence (which meant the Alabama Hills Cafe was not on the menu) so I put aside my convictions and gave the place another shot.

A collection of locals, mostly gray-haired and bearded men, was assembled at table chatting and drinking coffee as we entered. The Lone Pine coffee-klatch. Down the street where we parked, a Confederate Flag fluttered in the slight breeze. A friendly chap that I perceived to be the owner greeted us as we entered. Good start. We stood there for a moment looking at the ample offerings displayed out on a chalk-board over the counter and then stepped up to order. There, a stoney-faced woman awaited us oozing rudeness and negativity.

We wanted coffee. And we wanted breakfast sandwiches. But the Medusa behind the counter wouldn't allow us to order them at the same time. She insisted that we order our breakfast sandwiches first, and then our coffee. Ostensibly, this was a time-management thing intended to allow the other poor girl behind the counter to start our order while Ms. Grumpy Gills got our coffee. But getting our coffee consisted of simply handing us a cup so that we could pour our own. Yeah, big time saver that.

Morning on the Eastside
Light and Shadows
Some Might Say...
Maddie Capturing the Moment
Back on the road, we retraced our drive past Tuttle Creek and began the steep zig-zag up to Horeshoe Meadows and the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead. This is one of the more dramatic mountain roads to pierce the eastern flanks of the Sierra ascending approximately 5,000 feet from the valley floor to an elevation of 10,040 feet at its terminus. Given the fact it was a holiday weekend, the parking area was predictably and completely packed with backpackers and hikers save for one spot right up front that was awaiting us. We obligingly took that one remaining spot, put the cooler in the bear box, and off we went.

The trail here is easy and beautiful and there were a bunch of folks coming out as we went in.
Green, gold, and shade dominate as the path wends its way through a forest of Jeffrey Pine and high altitude meadows. Both South Fork Creek and Cottonwood Creek were flowing nicely and Chris was compelled to stop and get water. Not because he necessarily needed it, but because of the novelty of it all. Living in a state of perpetual drought, we weren't accustomed to seeing running water and felt the need to just drink it all in. Near the water's edge, a few enterprising mosquitoes followed our lead and had a drink of their own.  

Past Golden Trout Camp, where I imagine folks don't sleep on closed-cell foam pads or dine on dehydrated meals, the trail splits. Here, we veered left, crossed Cottonwood Creek, and made the slow climb to the basin. This is the only part of the trail where there is really any gain to speak of, unless of course you continue past the basin to the top of New Army Pass. Wildflowers were still popping and water spilled down the rocky canyon from Lake #1 above.

Golden Trout Wilderness Boundary
South Fork Creek
Chris Tanking Up Along South Fork Creek
Mountain Gargoyle
Maddie Crossing Cottonwood Creek
Cottonwood Creek Spilling Out of Lake 1
Padres Shooting Stars
A short distance later, the trail crests a low rise and Bam!, you're in the basin. I'm always taken by this sudden and arresting change in scenery which compelled us to stop again to admire the stark, mountain tableau which is dominated by 14,000' Mt. Langley.

The blueprint for the day had us exploring all six Cottonwood Lakes. Once in the basin,, however, we decided to investigate Long Lake instead which sits in a shallow bowl just below New Army Pass at an elevation of  11,143 feet. To get there, we stayed on the south side of Lake #1 and followed the well-worn and level path that angles in the direction of Cirque Peak. Along the way, we stopped at scenic Lake #2 where California Golden Trout were literally leaping from the sapphire surface. Just beyond that, the path took us through a massive, treeless rock-pile before re-entering the thin forest. At a lush meadow fed by Long Lake, we followed the main trail which veered left (an obvious use path to the right goes to the north shore of Long Lake) and then crests a small bump. And suddenly we were there.

As a destination to just hang out and absorb the high country, the south side of Long Lake is not optimal. It's a bit marshy and spongy and is better suited for fishing (which a couple of anglers were doing). The north side of the lake it turns out appears superior for those types of lazy activities. But that didn't deter us. We'd come too far to be stymied. So we lolly-gagged along the shore for a spell in the bright Sierra sun and ate our lunches. We had pretty much talked ourselves out on the way in, so we sat in silence now, each of us lost for awhile in our own thoughts and world.

A far too short of a time later, it was time to go. But we were reluctant. We wanted to stay because, well we wanted to be in this place, this moment, forever. And besides, we were feeling the sluggish effects of a lunch-induced food coma. But it was time to go so we went. On the way out, we stopped again along the shore of lovely Lake #2 so I could play Golden Trout in the icy waters in my skivvies to the great embarrassment of my trail companions, I'm sure. Suitably refreshed, it was then just an easy, but long walk back to the trailhead so that we could make the hard and long drive back to reality.

Cottonwood Lakes Basin with Mt. Langley in Rearground
Cottonwood Lake #2
Cottonwood Lake #2
Rock Field at 11,000'
Chris Ascending to Long Lake
Beautiful Wood
Meadow Below Long Lake
Maddie at Long Lake
Long Lake


  1. Cool photos as usual. I feel more relaxed just reading your post. I heard Langley calling out to you.

    1. Thanks teke. I've actually never been to Langley. It would be a long day if you didn't stay a night in the basin. But yeah, I'd like to go.

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  3. Sounds like you finally achieved Nirvana. Beautiful pictures!

    1. Thank you kind Sir. It's hard to take a bad pic in the Sierra. They kind of just take themselves as you well know.