We awoke early Friday morning and prepared to start our camping journey (for real, this time). With the wind at our backs, we loaded up Archie with our duffels and dog, set our heading toward the Alabama Hills, and were off. But not without a stop at Four Paws coffee shop in Palm Springs, the same spot we stopped at on our way out of town two years prior.
The whole wind thing? Turns out we were not nearly finished with it. Pulling out of Palm Springs towards San Bernardino, the gusts blasted us, bucking the roof top tent and forcing me to keep the needle no higher than 60mph. The wind turbines were thrilled, spinning gleefully as their lifeblood whipped through the valley floor. Wind advisories flashed on the highway all along I-10 and up US-395 a we began the trip northward along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada.
As we approached Lone Pine we could make out the Alabama Hills, a massive outcropping of bizarre granite and volcanic rock. From there we took in the distant storm looming over the Eastern Sierra. Seemingly only miles away in the craggy horizon, it was dumping snow in an aggressive fashion. Though to us, near the floor of Owens Valley, it was a slow motion procession.
And it was cold down in the valley. And windy, still. Do we camp? Or concede again and find lodging. No. It’s time to dig in and get to it. We found a wild camp spot, and realized we were one of hundreds of rigs looking for a spot for the weekend. The hills were dotted with campers, tents, camper vans, and any other sleeping setup you could imagine. It was beautiful and diverse.
Our decision to endure the night paid off. The storm gave up, after hours of blustering, and the sun prevailed. An incredible sunset was our reward, and a calm night’s sleep. We sautéed a couple chicken breasts on the camp stove, made some pasta and salad. After dinner and dishes, it was a quick campfire (since the wind had ceased) and bedtime. Our first night testing out Nancy the Nest (our roof top tent) went well. It was warm, comfortable. Charley loved it too, and got situated real quickly.
Saturday morning we got up around 530. Jamie and I wanted to catch the sunrise as it met the Eastern Sierra. It was around 35F. It was well worth it. It’s never easy get out of your warm tent when camping, but there’s no better cup of coffee than a blast of fresh cold nature when you get outside.
After embracing sunrise and snapping some photos, I made egg and cheese sandwiches on the stove, with instant coffee as its compliment, of course. I changed into some running clothes and went for a short jaunt along the dirt road running parallel to the Sierra ridge. All along the way, I could see Mt Whitney, the lower 48’s tallest peak at nearly 14,500ft. It’s set back a bit from the front range, and thus doesn’t look as prominent as you may expect. Still incredible, though.
We packed up our things for the day, leaving tables and chairs at the site as a sort of reservation for the following evening, and made the drive to Independence, north on US 395 about 30 minutes. Archie was thirsty, so we stopped at a gas station in town before making the climb into the mountains. The boy can drink! And with California gas around $4.50/gallon, it adds up.
Driving up to about 9000 feet, the temperature dropped from 55F to the mid-thirties. Flurries showed up, but not in any significant manner. It was just a gentle reminder that it was, in fact, cold. We strapped Charley’s sweater and jacket on and started the 5 mile out-and-back hike to a few alpine lakes. I’ve made a habit of splitting pine needles and sage and whatnot, enjoying the aroma as we walk. The outing took a few hours, and got us stretching our legs for hikes to come.
Sunday morning we woke up later but got a quicker start, packing up all our camp gear and took US 395 north again, this time to Big Pine. We then cut in toward the mountains to a trailhead leading to another basin, home to seven different alpine lakes. We’d visit just two of them. It was a 10 mile hike, and Charley was thoroughly impressive for the whole thing. She’d just turned 6 years old a week or so ago, so we weren’t sure how she’d hold up. But she crushed it!
We enjoyed lunch at Second Lake, atop some boulders. I wish I could bottle up the views there and hold them with me forever. We made sure to take mental snapshots along with real photos. The hike itself was breathtaking, all 10 miles. It had several different stages- up from the trailhead parallel along a hillside, following Big Pine Creek. When we nearly reached the first massive basin, we made a right and followed the North Fork of Big Pine Creek, then up along exposed switchbacks and into an alpine forest. We passed a high elevation ranger station continued on and crossed several streams before finally reaching the lakes basin. The whole thing was tough to process; it was surreal.
When we arrived back at the trailhead, it was decided that we’d use a campground about a mile down the road. No facilities other than pit toilets, but a fire ring and picnic table made out setup a bit easier. The campground was almost completely vacant, so we enjoyed the peace along Big Pine Creek, the steady running stream as our night’s soundtrack. I strung up our rope lights and we made a fire, cooked some sesame chicken with pasta, and relaxed for a slow evening. The camp host stopped by. “I’ve got a bear nearby, just be sure to put your food in the bear box.” We had already done so, not wanting to attract any wildlife. We pulled out the fridge and portable battery, too, and placed them in the box.
We turned in for bed around 9pm, and slept til 630 or so.
We got a slow start Monday morning, made scrambled eggs and English muffins, cut up some fruit, drank coffee and OJ. We coasted back down the mountain highway to Big Pine, made a left on 395, drove to Mammoth Lakes area.
Before getting to Mammoth, we stopped off at Convict Lake beneath Mt Morrison. The lake had many day use spots, beaches and shoreline for fishing and whatnot. We rented a tandem kayak from the marina and slapped Charley’s life jacket on. A couple hours out in the sun on the breezy lake did us good. I laced up my running shoes after a paddling my girls around the lake, and did a loop around the shoreline. It felt good to sweat.
Mammoth Lakes is a ski town of about 7,000 people, and sits around 7,500 feet above sea level. Mammoth mountain looms several thousand feet above. It was time for laundry and grocery shopping. We found a Von’s grocery store and laundromat around the corner, and made quick work of both errands. We grabbed a beer at Distant Brewing Company while the clothes dried.
June Lake was the next stop, about 30 minutes up the road. Jamie had found a wild camp spot on iOverlander (a useful app for finding both established and dispersed camping). It was perched atop a bald notch on the North side of the lake. The views were stunning- like something I thought only existed in magazines. Jamie prepped spaghetti and meat sauce and I had a beer. Charley took a nap. It was a perfect evening. Just slightly breezy.
But the breeze turned into a wind which had its gusty moments. Then the gusts became the norm. It was going to be a long night. The wind howled and rattled Nancy as we huddled inside. I’d say we got a few hours of bad sleep that night and it was decided that, although beautiful, the spot would not be our home the following night. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: exposed camp areas are mostly not practical…just too windy.
On the 25th of May, we packed up our camp quickly as the wind was still our guest in the morning. Driving down to the June Lake shoreside, we made breakfast of oatmeal, fruit and coffee. Charley walked the rocky beach. After our bellies were full, it was about 35 minutes or so back south on 395 to a hot springs area Jamie had found. I swear, she’s the best at planning these trips. Always the best spots and the best memories.
The hot spring was empty- all ours. Perfect. Charley laid down for a nap in the sun as Jamie and I enjoyed nature’s warm bath. After about an hour, we decided it was time to find showers back in Mammoth. To no avail. So instead we popped back over to June Lake, this time booking a camp site at a campground in the cute lakeside town. I prepped a shower after boiling some water and we both cleaned off with our portable shower. We stopped into town and had a beer and nachos at June Lake Brewing, enjoying the social interaction that can sometimes be hard to find when you’re wild camping. I made hot dogs on the fire and we ate and sat at camp planning our next moves that evening.
We had already planned to have the next few days at Yosemite, so we were prepping for that. Charley would be staying at Big Creek Boarding, the same spot she stayed at last time we went to Yosemite. The waterfalls should be swollen, so we’re really looking forward to that.
We’ll check in again in a few days.