Day 1: Cottonwood Lakes to Soldier Lake

I hiked from the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead in Horseshoe Meadows, enjoyed the beauty of the Cottonwood Lakes Basin, climbed up and over the Sierra Crest at Old Army Pass, then continued downhill to set up camp at Soldier Lake.

This was the first day of a four day solo backpacking trek, with the main goal being the exploration of Miter Basin (which would happen on the second day).  Originally, this trip was planned to be a week-long adventure with my son and his friend (summiting Whitney along the way) but a sudden illness hit, and our big trip got cancelled.  For the second year in a row!  I vowed that we would succeed next year, in 2022, but meanwhile, there I was with a hiking permit and nothing else to do.  I did some quick scrambling, and came up with a plan to visit the Miter Basin, which had long been on my short list of out-of-the-way Sierra locations to visit.

I drove north from San Diego, got my permit in Lone Pine, and took a side trip to Whitney Portal for lunch.  This was about as close as I was going to get to Whitney this year, I said to myself, as I drowned my sorrows with a tasty Portal Burger and beer.  There were certainly worse places to be!  Then I headed to Horseshoe Meadows and spent the night acclimating to elevation in the back of the car.  I woke up early the next morning, well rested and ready to hike.

The Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead at dawn - I'm ready to start my four day trek to Miter Basin and beyond
The Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead at dawn – I was eager to start my four day trek to Miter Basin and beyond

I have hiked this trail before, several times, and there were no new surprises.  Just the same, the frosty meadow was quite beautiful in the early morning sunshine, as the light sparkled off the frozen dew drops clinging to the heavy, bowed-over grass stems.  The air was crisp and felt good as I breathed it in deeply, hiking fast and hard, uphill along Cottonwood Creek.  There wasn’t much water in the creek, not in this extra-dry year of 2021, but there was enough to keep the wildlife happy.

Close-up of frozen droplets on grass stems, shining in the sun, on a frosty early morning in the meadow
Close-up of frozen droplets on grass stems, shining in the sun, on a frosty early morning in the meadow
Selfie at the John Muir Wilderness sign on the Cottonwood Lakes Trail (plus, I'm wearing my John Muir Trail shirt)
Selfie at the John Muir Wilderness sign on the Cottonwood Lakes Trail (plus, I’m wearing my John Muir Trail shirt)

After about five miles of hiking, and a climb of a thousand feet, I arrived at the level of the Cottonwood Lakes Basin.  I was able to really stretch out my legs for the next two miles as the basin is relatively flat.  It is also exceptionally beautiful.  The nearly full gibbous moon was setting in the west, beyond the Sierra Crest, and the basin was ringed by granite peaks.  Mount Langley, California’s southernmost fourteener, looked down on the basin from the north.

As I hiked, I discovered that one of the shallow lakes was looking quite dry; it didn’t have any input sources with snowmelt.  But the main set of lakes were still relatively full, and there was water flowing in the interconnecting creeks.  The Winter season had been very dry, but a few weeks before, in early July, there had been quite a bit of monsoonal rain delivered to the southern Sierra.  I know, because I was present for some of it!  The big wildfires of 2021 were all up in NorCal, not down here.

I made it into the Cottonwood Lakes Basin and saw Cirque Peak (12900 ft), left, and Army Pass Point (12369 ft), right
I made it into the Cottonwood Lakes Basin and saw Cirque Peak (12900 ft), left, and Army Pass Point (12369 ft), right
Wide angle panorama of the unnamed lake east of Cottonwood Lake Number Three from the Cottonwood Lakes Trail
Wide angle panorama of the (almost dry) unnamed lake on the east side of the basin
Panorama shot of Cottonwood Lake Number Three from the Cottonwood Lakes Trail
Panorama shot of Cottonwood Lake Number Three

I hiked up to Cottonwood Lake Number Four, and Old Army Pass came into view.  It was at an elevation just below 12,000 feet, so I still had another 800 feet to climb.  I took a short break and ate a bit of lunch, enjoying the view before the final ascent.  I had heard three weeks ago that the snow was almost completely melted, and those reports were correct.  There was only one tiny patch remaining in a cleft below the pass.  On a big snow year, this pass can stay icy and dangerous all Summer long, so that safety-minded hikers have to climb an extra 400 feet over New Army Pass.  No thanks!  Plus, the views of the lakes were much better from here.

Cottonwood Lake Number Four lies below Old Army Pass - the trail heads along the right side then crosses left up high
Cottonwood Lake Number Four lies below Old Army Pass – the trail heads along the right side then crosses left up high
I got one quick peek at Cottonwood Lake Number Five before the Old Army Pass Trail continued west
I got one quick peek at Cottonwood Lake Number Five before the Old Army Pass Trail continued west

The trail over Old Army Pass (originally just called Army Pass) has been removed from the USGS Topographic Maps.  The authorities created New Army Pass (and now want to call it Army Pass) to ameliorate the danger of the icy, north-facing slopes of Old Army Pass.  But the trail is still there.  It is no longer maintained by the National Forest Service, so now it also suffers from a few areas of excessive erosion and some fairly major rockfall up near the top.  But it was still a great trail, and much shorter and easier than the new one (provided that the snow was all melted).  Naturally, being me, I preferred to show my rebellious nature and take the Forbidden Path.  And I enjoyed it!

Zoomed-in view of the tiny residual snow patch on Old Army Pass in late July 2021
Zoomed-in view of the tiny residual snow patch on Old Army Pass in late July 2021

GoPro panorama video from the Old Army Pass Trail as I climbed closer to the pass

View from near the top of Old Army Pass, looking down at Cottonwood Lake Number Four
View from near the top of the pass, looking down at Cottonwood Lake Number Four
The Old Army Pass Trail is no longer maintained, and this rock slide won't be removed, so everyone climbs over it
The Old Army Pass Trail is no longer maintained, and this rock slide won’t be removed, so everyone climbs over it

It was a steady climb in the hot sun, but I made it up to the top, where there was a solid breeze blowing in from the west.  This was the Sierra Crest itself, and the point where I crossed into Sequoia National Park.  I took some more photos and videos, and headed down the trail a bit, then took a break out of the wind in the shelter of a tall boulder.  I sat and ate my snack, then read my book for a while.  The rest of my hike was downhill, and only a few more miles.  I had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the views.  Being up at 12,000 feet is almost always worth while, view-wise.

One last GoPro view down to Cottonwood Lake Number Four from the summit of Old Army Pass
One last GoPro view down to Cottonwood Lake Number Four from the summit of Old Army Pass
"Entering Sequoia National Park" Sign on the summit of Old Army Pass
“Entering Sequoia National Park” sign on top of Old Army Pass

After that, it was time to head west, down the New Army Pass Trail toward Rock Creek and the Soldier Lakes.  There was a bit of a militaristic naming theme going on in this region of the Sierra.  Army Pass, Soldier Lake, and The Major General (a prominence on the southwest ridge of Mount Langley).  Meanwhile, the views into Sequoia Park were crisp and clear.  I knew many of the peaks without even consulting my phone app, thanks to our trek last year on the High Sierra Trail.

View over Sequoia National Park with Mount Anna Mills, center, and the Kern Trench, right, from the New Army Pass Trail
View over Sequoia National Park with Mount Anna Mills, center, and the Kern Trench, right
Nearing the bottom of the New Army Pass Trail, with Mount Anna Mills, left, and Mount Guyot (12300 ft), right
Nearing the bottom of the New Army Pass Trail, with Mount Anna Mills, left, and Mount Guyot (12300 ft), right

I left the trail when it arrived at Soldier Lake.  It was still early afternoon, so I headed further north this time, around an outcropping, and camped right next to the lake on a protruding granite peninsula.  Perfection!  I was the first one there, so I got the best spot.  I hoped that no one else would hike that extra distance, but of course it didn’t happen.  Soon enough, there were a dozen or more people setting up their tents nearby.  Oh well.  It was all good.  And as a solo hiker, it was actually nice to meet some new people and be sociable for a while.

I met someone who took my photo in front of the meadow just below Soldier Lake
A fellow backpacker took my photo in front of the meadow just below Soldier Lake
My tent and campsite at Soldier Lake
My tent and campsite at Soldier Lake
Panorama view over Soldier Lake from my campsite, with the Major General on the right
View of Soldier Lake and the Major General – I would be heading over the ridge (left of center) to get to Miter Basin

I filtered water from the lake, then cooked and ate my dinner of ramen noodles.  Very simple, but nice and salty.  I got out my map and studied my plan for tomorrow.  I had a lot of miles to cover, and many of them would be on a “Route” and not a trail.  This meant that I would be spending much more time deciding precisely where to walk, and possibly taking even more time backtracking when I chose poorly.  I was a bit nervous, as this would be my first cross-country solo hike into the backcountry, with no “Buddy” to help me out if I got in trouble.  My InReach satellite transponder would have to do.  Plus a healthy dose of caution.  I also knew it was going to be a very long day, so I headed to bed before sunset, and set my alarm for 3am.  I planned to already be hiking at first light.

 

 

For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page

For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page

 

Onward to Day 2 >>   

 

 

Up to “Sierra Nevada”