Friday, December 4, 2009
Just before dark with a big moon on the rise, I drove through Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows to reach 10,000 foot Tioga Pass and then dropped down the steep eastern slope of the Sierras to Lee Vining, a high desert town on U.S. 395.
I had driven 5 1/2 hours from the Pacific coast town of Santa Cruz to cross the mighty Southern Sierra Nevada and meet friends for a long, sunny week of exploration. Our targets included natural hot springs, ancient pictograph sites, mountain lakes bursting with fall color, day hikes to spectacular High Sierra passes, and a Paiute Indian powwow on the 875-acre Bishop Reservation. We settled in early as a shirtsleeve warm September night fell over the camp. The last late night sound I heard was the soft rustle of aspen leaves as warm air from Mono Lake and the valley below rose gently past us.
The next morning we had breakfast, pulled out the topo maps, and drove to the San Joaquin Ridge Trailhead near Mammoth Lakes. We started up a 2 mile, 1400 foot climb that would culminate in 345 degree views east to the Sierra escarpment, west to the Panamint range and finally to the White Mountains and Owens Valley in the distant south. Our playground for the next week was laid out before us. Hiking down under a clear sky we feasted on views of nearby Mts. Ritter and Banner, at around 12,000 feet, among the tallest peaks in this section of Sierra.
We finished up the day with a late afternoon view from the 102 degree warmth of Wild Willy's, a natural hot spring on the valley floor east of U.S. 395.