My first summer in the Sierra

BIODIVERSITY, TRAVEL

This year for the first time (in my life ?), I spent my summer holidays in the mountains. And I discovered the joys of it! I am usually a beach person, summer doesn’t mean summer if I’m not at the beach. Now that I live near the ocean, it was a good reason to go explore the famous « Eastern Sierra ».

sierras_walking_webOn the way to Gardner Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness

(Lire en français)

Our itinerary along the scenic highway 395, from South of Sequoia National Forest to Lake Tahoe, was a tribute to John Muir without us even knowing! During the summer of 1869 (that was 150 years ago), John Muir was 31. He joined a crew of shepherds in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The diary he kept while tending sheep formed the heart of this book and eventually lured thousands of Americans to visit Yosemite country. First published in 1911, « My First Summer in the Sierra » incorporates the lyrical accounts and sketches he produced during his four-month stay in the Yosemite River Valley and the High Sierra. He recorded everything around him: vistas, flora, fauna, natural wonders, cloud formations and geological formations…

sierra_bigpinelakesBig Pine Lakes, John Muir Wilderness

“Every morning, arising from the death of sleep, the happy plants and all our fellow animal creatures great and small, and even the rocks, seemed to be shouting, ‘Awake, awake, rejoice, rejoice, come love us and join in our song. Come! Come!’” – John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, 1911

Itinerary

Spoiler Alert ! : You don’t need to go to Yosemite to see amazing landscapes! 🙂 With Covid, now you must now day-pass for Yosemite in advance. Since we didn’t plan anything, we just went with the flow and explored the beautiful Sierra. Here’s our road-trip / camping / backpacking itinerary in the South, East and North of Yosemite. Easy travel and super cheap since you can camp almost everywhere for free.

  • BODFISH : small town South of Sequoia National Forest. We discovered « Silver City Ghost Town« : a dusty Westworld set. They preserved some houses from back in the days when the gold rush attracted many people in the area. You definitely get a feeling of being in a western movie. We arrived after they closed for the day, but it is open to visitors.
sierra_ghosttown_websierra_ghosttown2_webSilver City Ghost Town
  • SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST – KERN RIVER : They are two free hot springs along the Kern river: Remington hot springs and Miracle hot springs. You can camp for free in National Forests (no fire, pack all in and out, put your food in a bear box, or hang it in a tree). We found a sweet spot along the Kern River and enjoyed the company of birds, frogs and bats. You can also try camping by the hot springs!
  • LONE PINE : it’s the access point for hikers to Mt Whitney. We didn’t climb it this time, but went take a look to the Alabama Hills on the Movie road. A dirt road in a very dry, rocky and cinematic piece of landscape. You can also camp there because it’s BLM Land.
sierra_movieroad_webMovie road, Alabama Hills
  • INYO NATIONAL FOREST : The Inyo National Forest was the great find of this trip! It is huge and beautiful. It links Sequoia National Park with the Yosemite Valley. That’s where John Muir spent most of his time during his first summer in the Sierra. It’s a coniferous forest filled with edible greens and berries. Water is everywhere: lakes, rivers, waterfalls, glaciers, hot springs ❤ You can camp in it almost everywhere: with your car along the fire roads, or with your tent further in the wilderness.
  • BIG PINE LAKES : That’s a great and long hike of 16 miles in the John Muir Wilderness. The loop can be done in one day but you need to bring plenty of water (or a water filter) and food. We left around 10am and came back around 7pm. The way in is pretty steep and intense. We clearly felt the altitude sickness. At the bottom of the majestic Temple Cragg Glacier, 9 lakes like jewels of turquoise water. It’s the glacier’s flour that gives the water those incredible vivid colors. There’s a great campground right next to the beginning of the trail (Big Pine Creek Campground, around 20$/night), nice when you come back exhausted at the end of the day, and you don’t have to drive anywhere.
sierra_bigpinelakes2Big Pine Lakes, John Muir Wilderness
  • BISHOP : hikers and mountain lovers capital. The perfect stop if you need to buy some camping gear, or just want to eat and  chill in a coffee shop. For that matter, I strongly recommend the ricotta pancakes and chai latte from Looney Beans.
sierra_bishopMovie theatre in Bishop
  • MAMMOTH LAKES : There are plenty of free hot springs near Mammoth: Shepherd hot spring, Crab Cooker hot spring, Hilltop hot spring and Wild Willy’s hot spring. Most of them are located around Benton Road. There are many great hiking trails to explore from Mammoth. We camped on a fire road for one night, near Inyo Craters, in Inyo National Forest. Then we backpacked in Ansel Adams Wilderness to Shadow Lake and Gardner Lake (Parking and trail start are at Agnew Meadows).
sierra_gardnerlakeGardner Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness
  • DEVILS POSTPILE : I must admit I was attracted just by the name… I saw a postcard in Bishop and it looked like my kind of geological marvel. That’s how we decided to go. This basalt cliff is a National Monument. It was formed 100,000 years ago when a cooling lava flow cracked into multi-sided columns that cooled very slowly and evenly. Its’ columns tower up to 60 feet and display a striking symmetry.
sierra_devilspostpileDevils Postpile National Monument
  • LEE VINING : Small town located 7 miles from Yosemite on the South shore of Mono Lake. We did our grocery shopping there, and hang out in a super nice motel / café called « Latte da Coffee. » It has super beautiful permaculture gardens: fruits and flowers all around the bedrooms and the building. Highly recommend to have at least a coffee and a pastry, or even take a room.
sierra_motelLeeVining_webMotel sign in Lee Vining
  • MONO LAKE : It’s one of the oldest lakes in North America. Mono Lake’s water is two time saltier than ocean water. The lake and its basin are the habitats of many species of local and migratory birds. It is famous (and postcard bankable) for its vertical formations, columns of limestone rising above the surface called tufa towers. The most visible ones are at South Tufa Reserve. Free camping nearby in Inyo National Forest (near Mono Mills).
sierra_monolakeMono Lake
  • BRIDGEPORT : Charming little town where you can stop to eat an ice-cream or get a massage (the same place offers both!), buy fishing gear or have a tea in an old house. There are two free hot springs nearby: Buckeye hot springs and Travertine hot springs. You can camp for free in Toiyabe National Forest, right next to the super nice Buckeye hot springs!
  • LAKE TAHOE (South) : Desolation Wilderness is filled with beautiful hikes. We started south of Fallen Leaf Lake, parked the car in Glenn Alpine Falls and backpacked for 2 nights in Lake Aloha. To camp there, you need to pay for a wilderness permit online (around 10$/nuit). Emerald Bay is also a must-see!
sierra_alohalakeLake Aloha, Desolation Wilderness

Diary

We left with a huge cooler filled with farm products, « farm to camping » style. In the cooler: home-made yogurt from our goat milk, grape fruit leathers (Brandon learned how to make those at his Master Food Preserver class, soooo good!), 24 hard boiled eggs, greens, home-made tortillas, fresh chèvre and roasted coffee to feed us along the river.

sierra_ontheroad

Our first hike was my favorite: Big Pine Lakes. I couldn’t believe the colors of the lakes, as beautiful as Banff. We got a little knocked-out by the altitude but hanging on, it’s worth it! Swimming in deep green water. Picnic, meditation.

sierra_hiking-together

We are learning from the forest. We try to identify all the plants and trees around us (Brandon knows more on the subject than I do, he uses a great app iNaturalist). We get so close to the Jeffrey Pines that we discover their incredible smell: a mix of vanilla, chocolate, caramel, cinnamon and hot bread. Another very good reason to hug them! We dream about recreating their smell into a tribute pastry that we could serve in our future coffee in the garden.

sierra_treekisserFrom tree hugger to tree kisser !
Summer nights are warm. We sleep under the stars with no roof on the tent. The milky way is insane, so many layers of depth and stars to chase. We try to guess where east, west, north ad south are, or guess what time it is.

sierra_hiking-with-dave

I am so grateful that my phone decided to die right before going on holidays. I have eyes that don’t take pictures and I go back to my notebooks (I used Brandon’s phone to take those pictures though). We read, we make « forest art », we play Ecologies (a card game to learn about biomes and food web, it’s awesome!), we play raquettes and pétanque.

sierra_forest-art

On campe quasiment une semaine d’affilée dans Inyo National Forest, les accès sont faciles et les camping spots toujours au top. On ne croise aucun ours, que des ninjas chipmunks.

sierra_postpile-us_web

What I love the most when we camp is to chose a spot and visit it as if it was a house.I usually try to imagine where will be the bedroom, the kitchen, the living room and the bathroom depending on which natural elements are there and the orientation. It’s all about finding a soft and comfy mattress, good rocks to make tables and chairs, the right tree on which to hang food from. Have everything you need in one backpack.

sierra_brandon-and-dave

 

When we were in Mono Lake, we saw a fire starting right in front of us. The afternoon had been really hot and lightnings started to cross the sky. One of them fell on the ground next to the lake and fired up all the dry vegetation and brushes. It was terrifying and fascinating. Fire have a hypnotic beauty. We couldn’t help but stay there and stare at the flames, how the move, how the column of smoke whirled in the sky, the crackling noise of everything dancing in the flames.

We got very (very) lucky this time, because we had decided earlier in the afternoon that we will wait until sunset to go to the Lake and enjoy the pretty colors on a pretty landscape. We could have gone in the afternoon and go to bed without knowing that there was a fire right next to us… Phew (!!)

sierra_monolakefire
sierra_monolakefire2_web
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Our last backpacking stop is in Desolation Wilderness, south of Lake Tahoe. We hike to the Lake Aloha : a pale blue body of water in which islands of polished granite look like whales’ backs. We spend two nights at the lake. The second morning, we wake up surrounded by the smoke and the smell of fire. We know California is burning everywhere right now. We decide to leave around 6am to go back to the car and make sure we’re are not near a fire, just in case… The sun is a glowing ball in a cotton sky.
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sierra_camping-lake-aloha
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DAY 11 without showering, I’m actually feeling awesome, light and restored. We stay 2 days in Donner Lake. I try wake boarding for the very first time of my life (thanks to our rad and super friendly neighbors). I can’t believe the sensation I’m experiencing surfing on this flat empty lake, it’s exhilarating. I’ll be really really sore after (I had never felt my shoulders and back that much) but it’s definitely worth it.
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sierra-tahoe-wakeboard
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I read two great books this summer:
« Barbarian Days, a surfing life« , the autobiography of an American surfer who travels the whole world searching for dream waves, and riding them. I’m still impressed by the extent of vocabulary he uses to describe waves, swells, currents, a world has opened up…
And « Ecotopia« , a science fiction (or anticipation?) novel in which the states of California, Oregon and Washington separate from the rest of the US to create a new country based on ecological, egalitarian and environmental values. They reinvent everything: from laws for the use of natural resources, to schools and rituals.
I recommend both!

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