Backpacking in the Eastern Sierra is one of the most therapeutic and reenergizing parts of my life. For the second year in a row, my son Tadeh was more than eager to join me on another adventure, especially after our long and arduous quarantine... It was just past 11am, a three-hundred-mile drive behind us, adventure ahead, as we lifted our heavy packs and began the slow ascent of the Hilton Lakes trail on our way to a weekend in the John Muir Wilderness. Father and son time… Time spent away from responsibilities, time spent not in forced isolation but one gladly rushed into.

The forecast of high temperatures had been thankfully wrong… Instead of the sweltering heat of a summer already baking Lone Pine and Bishop to a crisp, we hiked in the pleasant temperatures of a partly cloudy afternoon, acknowledging just how much more difficult the hike would have been in sunny weather.

The trail to our destination wasn’t difficult, short switchbacks followed by long traverses that seemed to negate any previous elevation gain but leaving the impression of always climbing up… We even joked that the hike back would be all downhill. What I look forward to the most during backcountry hikes is the detachment from the everyday noise we experience. Sure, for the first mile of our hike, paralleling Rock Creek Road, several very loud motorcycles intruded upon our solitude, but then, the forest itself absorbed all but the ambient sounds. We traveled through groves of aspen stunted by the high elevation, leaves rattling in the wind like a standing ovation heard from far away, passed fields of lupines sheltered under the forest canopy, and traversed meadows lined by evergreens and filled with birdsong. The howl of the wind through the tallest of the trees could easily be mistaken for that of rushing water, of distant waterfalls beckoning us on.

We had both been in better shape last summer, having the benefit of multiple hikes, hitting the gym, and a more outdoor-oriented life instead of the indoor prisons the whole world had been confined to for the last three months. Our choice of trail, and the ample time we had until sundown, was no accident. We took it easy, with frequent but brief rest breaks, and by the time we stopped for lunch, we had the first three miles of our trek under our belts. Now, a large granite boulder served as our picnic table, and we eagerly wolfed down sandwiches from the Mahogany Smoked Meats deli in Bishop. My sandwich, a triple decker turkey club, should really be consumed with at least a pint of beer, but alas, I deliberately abstained, especially midway during our first day’s hike.

Soon, after lunch, the trail began to descend, and our hike was only interrupted by the passage of a train of horses from the nearby pack station, the empty saddles of all but those of the guides a telltale sign that we may not be alone at our destination that evening. In less time than we thought, we reached the crossroads, with two lakes to the right, and three large and several smaller lakes to the left. We pressed on, walking by second lake and its ample camping areas, traversed the length of kidney-shaped Davis Lake, and arrived at the segment of Hilton Creek that detaches itself from Davis Lake and never looks back, rushing downvalley to empty its glacial bounty into Crowley Lake. Hiking an extra mile to this spot meant that we avoided the usual campsites and did not see anyone else till back at the crossroads the next morning. True solitude, accentuated only by the sounds of nature thriving at ten thousand feet.

We used to joke that the best part of a day spent skiing was taking your boots off at the end of the day!!! Well, to that I may add that the best part of a day spent backpacking is taking your boots off and wading into a refreshingly cold stream to watch the last light of the Sun on the distant peaks. Though we still had several hours of daylight, and Hilton Creek beckoned, the first order of business was pitching the tent and organizing our gear, making sure that all our food would fit into the bear canister, and purifying water to refill our dwindling supply.

At last, it was time to explore, camera in hand, feet aching to relax in the cold waters of the lake and the creek. The northern shore of the lake tapered to drain into Hilton Creek, and whether by design or by will of nature, the carcasses of several dozen trees, bleached white by the elements, formed a natural bridge upon which I now stood. One log, the broad hollow of the base of a tree, caught my attention for the white and orange striated patterns in the wood resembled a tortured face. Not a sound but the rush of water, the moans of a distant wind, and the occasional plop of a trout engorging itself on mosquitoes. I had longed for this stillness for months…

The clouds that had regulated the afternoon temperatures now stood proudly above, admiring their reflections in the lake, hugging the peaks to the south and west, and hurrying along to bathe the landscape in jigsaw shapes of shade and light. Wading into Hilton Creek, hiking boots long abandoned, I felt the eagerness of the water rushing around me. The creek had carved three paths down from the lake before merging in a flat section perfectly reflecting the surrounding trees and mountain tops. The middle fork of the creek and the conifers growing along the lakeshore framed Mt. Huntington in the distance, and a series of slick rapids punctuated the downward plunge of the lake outflow. It was time for dinner, though, and the light not yet perfect, so Tadeh and I set to preparing our favorite freeze-dried spaghetti with meat sauce, one full bag each, the perfect food after a first day’s long hike. From past experience, I’d packed a mixture of basil, garlic powder, and red pepper flakes, and generous amounts of parmesan cheese to elevate an otherwise bland but nutritious dinner. As the Sun began to set, I rushed back to the creek while Tadeh surprisingly had appetite for rehydrated dark chocolate cheesecake.

And then, night fell… no, this was not the sudden change of an on/off switch, but the slow descent of a blanket of increasing darkness spurred on by the flight of the last golden sliver of light from the tallest peaks surrounding us. I look forward to nights in the backcountry, where our home galaxy, The Milky Way, is visible to the naked eye… I’m transported to ancient times, when the explanations for this band of ephemeral light was steeped in mythology… Milk from Hera’s breast… Akash Ganga, the flowing river in the sky… The trail of the straw thief, none other than the mighty Vahagn of Armenian myths… We know better now… We’ve known for four hundred years that this is the heart of the galaxy we call home… And so, I look forward to every night that I can see our galaxy with my own two eyes, unaided by camera or telescope… A quarter moon hung in the western sky, and anywhere else the Milky Way and many of the stars now visible to us would have been obliterated by its luminescence. This far from civilization, the Moon’s contribution was to light the landscape below and the clouds stretched into thin streamers, only adding to the awe I felt standing on the shores of Davis Lake.

Sleep came easily, and even a pre-sunrise alarm wasn’t too early to stir from the tent. During the night, high-altitude winds had finally cleansed the palette of the sky of clouds, leaving the first rays of the Sun on the western peaks unrivalled. Tadeh was fast asleep, so I walked downstream along the creek, marveling at the silence of the morning, at the golden light captured within the calm waters and scattered about in the rapids. The glassy surface of the lake was a juxtaposition of grasses, reeds, the odd boulder, and magnificent reflections of peaks afire with the first light of morning. It was time for my first, and second, coffee of the day… After a breakfast of granola with blueberries, we took our time, welcoming the Sun into our campsite and slowly preparing for the hike to third lake, all uphill after we leaving behind the valley containing second and Davis lakes.

In no time, we were at “third lake,” the third in the series of Hilton Creek lakes that begins downstream at Davis Lake and counts upstream and higher in altitude toward Mt. Hamilton and Mt. Stanford. Though the lake is much smaller than those downstream and is hemmed in by peaks on every side, there were plenty of good campsites along its northern shore.

We chose one that was both in shade and relatively sheltered from the wind, though by late afternoon, there was no such thing as being sheltered from the wind anywhere on the eastern slopes of the Sierra. Our plan was to rest and relax, then hike up to fourth lake and have lunch there before returning to our campsite. It was a much hotter day, and there was nary a cloud in the sky. Tadeh retreated into the tent to read, and after trying without success to find a comfortable and shady spot on the rocks near our campsite, I finally gave up, inflated my sleeping pad, and over the next several hours finished reading Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. By 2pm, hunger and the need to explore stirred us from our comfortable perches and we were off to fourth lake. As the crow flies, the lakes are less than half a mile apart, but to reach the fourth lake from the third, we first had to descend into a valley and up again, losing and then gaining back about a hundred feet of elevation.

Our lunch of Babybel cheese, salami and crackers began to be interrupted by stronger and stronger gusts of wind that blew across the lake and would accompany us back to our campsite at third lake. For the rest of the afternoon I walked around third lake in a daze… The forecast had called for gusts of wind in the afternoon up to 30mph, but for a “breezy” evening. After each gust passed, I hoped that it would be the last, but that was simply not meant to be. In fact, as the afternoon wore on, high clouds came in from downvalley, seemingly against the wind buffeting us.

A particularly insistent bank of dark clouds obliterated the Sun, unmoving despite wind gusts that were far stronger than forecast, robbing us of the golden light that brushes away the harshness of day, easing the landscape into the evening and night. I must have checked the lighting on Mt. Hamilton a hundred times that afternoon... The clouds above were simply oblivious to the storm raging below, and the landscape was a dull gray. But then, the Sun won its chase with the clouds to the horizon, broke through, and set fire to the sky... It lasted but a minute… First, the golden blanket of reflections on the choppy waters of the lake gathered itself and withdrew, and soon after the light was gone from the clouds above, leaving us in a slowly fading twilight.

The incessant howl of the wind blowing through the Sierran passes was punctuated by gusts roaring with the power of fighter jets overflying our tent at extremely low altitude... Each hour as we lay in the darkness of our tent, we expected the gusts to diminish, for the storm to pass. But, each hour, the wind only grew stronger, the gusts so frequent that the howl of the next gust could be heard even before the previous one had finished buffeting our tent. We didn't sleep all night, and for the hour before sunrise, the wind grew so strong as to bend the poles of our tent, pushing one side down onto our sleeping bags. I have spent many a windy night in the Sierra, but none like this.

When my alarm sounded 20 minutes before sunrise, I fully expected the wind to have obliterated any sign of clouds in the sky above. But no, brilliant red light, filtered through layers of clouds lining the eastern horizon, filled our tent and bathed the landscape in light that would vanish the moment the Sun peeked above the horizon. The wind was gusting up to 50 mph, with lulls of perhaps one or two seconds, so that each photo of the blazing landscape had to be immediately followed by hanging on to my tripod and shielding my camera from the spray carried by each gust of wind.

After a quick breakfast and two cups of coffee, we tackled the task of folding and packing our tent between wind gusts and barely managed to fit the tent, rain fly, and ground cloth into the bag. Then, it was time to head back, and it took no time to reach the crossroads again. Our expectation was that after about half a mile of hiking uphill, we’d cruise down to our car and be headed home in no time. Though the slope was gentle, it again felt like we spent most of the hike back going upward, with only short stints of walking downhill. I’m sure it had a lot to do with not sleeping a wink the night before heading back. In the end, we spent exactly 48 hours in the John Muir Wilderness, and hiked a total of just over 15 miles, and despite the wind and sleepless night, I can’t wait to be back in nature’s embrace again.

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In