Why am I starting off a story about backpacking with a nearly nude picture of myself? Because when you’re in the middle of the wild with no one else around, skinny dipping in an alpine lake is something you have to check off the list at least once, if not every time. It is, quite indescribably, one of the highest peaks of life!
A few weeks ago we went on our first backpacking trip of the year, a three-day jaunt through the John Muir Wilderness in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. I used to tell friends that if they wanted to witness the beauty, majesty and solitude of the Sierra, they had to work for it — hiking for miles to escape the crowds and reach the solace of stunning places they normally only saw in the movies. And for the most part, this is still true; the full experience of the mountains can only be found with a pack on your back and a little huffing and puffing to get there.
Just off Highway 395 from one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of towns, you can reach one of the most marvelous wildernesses the High Sierra has to offer in less than a mile with very little elevation gain. In fact, it’s almost a sin how easily you can access the alpine grandeur of this area.
Little Lakes Valley has always been one of my favorite getaways in the Central California backcountry. It has some of the most well traveled and well loved trails in the Sierra but at the same time, I’m always surprised by how secluded it is. In winter, we often stop for a cross-country ski tour along Rock Creek on a groomed trail flanked with Jeffrey and lodgepole pines.
In summer, the snow is cleared away to reveal a narrow road that winds up the canyon for 10 miles. Rock Creek Road starts in Crowley Lake at Tom’s Place (elevation 7,090 feet) and ends at Mosquito Flat trailhead (elevation 10,250 feet, the highest trailhead in the Sierra). That means you gain an astounding 3,210 feet in elevation as you drive!
From Mosquito Flat, a system of trails snakes through Little Lakes Valley and beyond. The gems of the valley are a string of scenic lakes carved by glaciers and fed by snowmelt. The sights are especially popular with fishermen and day hikers in the summer, but many of them never wander too far off the trail.
The most strenuous section was the first quarter-mile up the hill from the trailhead, but the views soon appeared before we could even catch our breath.
In the first three miles alone, we passed Rock Creek and its cascades several times, high country meadows filled with wildflowers, and 180-degree views of snow-capped high thirteeners. Mack Lake came into view, followed by Marsh Lake, Heart Lake, Box Lake, and Long Lake, each about 20 to 30 minutes apart from one another, and each being beautiful and special in its own right.
We took a quick detour off Little Lakes Valley Trail and ended up at the next lake in the chain, Chickenfoot, which was just far enough in to be isolated from the throngs of day trippers.
Despite low snowfall in the Sierra this past winter, there were still mounds of snow to be found that late in the season. Snow that all melted into the very lakes we would be swimming in!
Surrounded by a cirque of granite peaks, Chickenfoot Lake (elevation 10,761 feet) is a large, crystal clear lake with a mile of mostly rocky shoreline. Though we were just three-and-a-half miles in on a nearly flat trail, only one other camper had made it that far. The rest of the lake was ours to relish.
I always feel so at home in a backcountry camp. I love the process of picking out the perfect campsite, aligning the tent for the perfect view, finding the perfect rock to cook on and hang out next to. No matter how fleeting the moments are, they always seem to move in slow-mo when I’m out in the backcountry. It’s out there, in the heart of the mountains, where I don’t think about anything else “at home” — because out there, I am home.
Morning brought beautiful reflections of granite on the glassy lake. I’m usually not a morning person, but there are times when I’ll wake up at dawn, take in the sunrise, then crawl back in my sleeping bag until the first rays of light start streaming through the tent.
We ventured out in search of more lakes, and we weren’t disappointed. Impressive views of the Sierra Crest, including Mount Dade, Mount Mills, and Mount Abbot, loomed in the distance. Swimming holes appeared along meandering streams. We hiked cross country through alpine meadows, up the drainage, across the boulders and past potential climbing walls as we made our way toward Gem Lakes, the next set of lakes at the end of the valley.
We were temped to spend the afternoon at Lower Gem Lake, a small, shallow lake that was so clear, you could clearly see the beautiful mosaic of stones underwater.
But we pushed up and ahead atop a granite bench and found Upper Gem Lake, the larger of the two. The Gem Lakes are so called because of their brilliant color, especially the upper lake. Its piercing aqua blue comes from the high mineral content in the water, and its smaller size (compared to Chickenfoot Lake) meant it was also a few degrees warmer… if you can call 50°F water warm. (And that’s a conservative estimate.)
Looking at these two — my hubby Will and my frequent backpack buddy Clint — you’d think we were in the tropics though. (But not tropical enough to repeat our previous alpine lake adventure in Yosemite!)
We swam and we snoozed on the hot slabs of granite, taking in the silence. And the bouts of laughter. And the cannonballs into the lake. It was a quintessential summer day in the Sierra, sunny and slightly breezy with the occasional cheeseburger bird singing from the trees. In fact, not only was it my first backpack of the season, it was also my first cheeseburger bird of the season!
Since we’d hiked cross country to Gem Lakes, we decided to take the trail back to camp and see what other treasures we’d missed the first time. There were many.
That evening, we found two more lakes near our campsite, smaller and shallower ones that were just a tad warmer and more suitable for a backcountry bath. And by bath, I mean splashing around in the water and getting out while I could still feel my toes.
Packing up the next day felt all too soon, but I was satisfied with our little adventure. The physical challenge of a good hike and the breathtaking beauty of the granite skyline had me stoked for the rest of the season, as our summer definitely got off to a good start.