Sierra Nevada backpacking: Cottonwood Lakes loop

June 24-27, 2021

It’s that time of the year again. The snow atop the highest peaks of California has nearly all drained down into the valleys below, the alpine flowers have opened, and the sun has reached its highest point in the sky of the boreal summer.

Thus, as the Sierra Nevada emerge from the spring thaw, its network of trails, passes, and lakes become accessible to those who wish to explore the wilderness that lies within. It’s some of the most remote land that California has to offer, and certainly among the most stunning.

After a stressful couple of months at work, a debut trip to Sierra Nevada for 2021 was my self-subscribed remedy to clear my mind. Getting out of cell range is a sure-fire way to avoid the anxiety of nonstop email and text notifications.

For my first trip of the year, I had my eyes set on Cottonwood Lakes. There are a few reasons I homed in on this part of the Sierra:

1) It’s the closest access point to the high Sierra for folks coming from southern California (5.5 hours from San Diego).

2) With a trailhead that starts at over 10,000 feet, it’s the second highest paved road in California. The higher you start, the closer you are to the peaks.

3) This is the access point for Mt. Langley, one of California’s dozen 14er’s (mountains over 14,000 feet tall.)

I studied maps, read forums, and mulled over trip reports to concoct a three-night loop hike in the Cottonwood Lakes area that would provide a good challenge and cover a range of scenery.

It also was set to be my first multi-night trip solo out in the wilderness. I had done several one-nighters by myself, but this trip was going mark the first time by myself on such a demanding hike. I tend to value my alone time more than most, so it was a challenge that I was more than happy to take on.

Day 1: Acclimation

I have an awful habit of crafting backpacking routes that push me to the brink of my physical abilities. Thus, on this trip I tried to plan for a balance of physical exertion and free time to smell the flowers.

After spending a night at the walk-in campsites at the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, I planned on a relatively leisurely 6-mile hike to kick off the first day of my trip. Also, I wanted to give my body time to acclimate to the altitude, as I had my sights set on cracking the 14,000-foot barrier the following morning.

Never having had to backpack so many nights alone, I found myself at the trailhead struggling to fit all the necessary items into my 55 liter backpack. I am used to splitting the shared items on group trips, but since I had to carry everything myself this time, it took a bit of backpack Tetris to get the straps to click into place.

Once on the trail, I began my slow, gradual ascent about 1,000 feet up into the Cottonwood Lakes basin where I would scout out a spot to camp at the foot of Mt. Langley.

Entering the Cottonwood Lakes Basin and getting a good look at Mt. Langley, my day 2 destination.

The stagnant water from early summer snow melt can often turn the Sierra Nevada into a blood-sucking insect hell, but from the get-go I was pleasantly surprised to notice that the mosquitos happened to be nearly nonexistent in this neck of the woods — most likely due to the low snowfall California experienced over winter.

While I wasn’t celebrating the worsening drought of the western US, I was selfishly glad that I didn’t have to endure the mosquitos swarms that can alter the morale of a trip.

I chugged along the trail, liberally taking photos of the scenery until I arrived at the Cottonwood Lakes. Once at my destination, I scouted out a nice spot to pitch a tent, performed my daily ritual of plunging into an ice-cold lake, and took a stroll in the surrounding woods to get a feel for my surroundings.

There must be something to hiking alone because I found that the wildlife was more abundant than usual as I went for my evening jaunt among the altitude-stunted pine trees.

As I rounded a boulder I found myself face-to-face with a coyote trotting at a steady pace. We both made eye contact, yet the coyote didn’t break stride or change speed. Clearly it couldn’t be bothered to delay whatever plans it had in place.

As I returned to camp the marmots sat like sentinels atop the granite boulders now bathed in the low, evening light. Chirping to one another, they surely were spreading the news about this odd bipedal creature that had encroached on their territory.

Resting up and soaking in the sun at Cottonwood Lake #5.
Camp for night 1 checked all the boxes with lake access, great views, and soft ground.

Day 2: Conquering my first 14er

In the grand scheme of the world, summiting a 14,000 foot peak isn’t that impressive, but in California they are the holy grail of peak bagging. California boasts 12 peaks that crack the 14,000-foot mark. The highest, Mt. Whitney, clocks in at 14,505 feet — the tallest mountain in the ‘lower-48.’

Of those twelve 14ers, ten lie within the Sierra Nevada, including Mt. Langley.

Mt. Langley is the little sister of Mt. Whitney. Just 5 miles south of Whitney as the crow flies, Langley comes in at 14,032 feet of elevation. As far as 14ers go in the Sierra Nevada, Langley is considered one of the easier due to its accessibility and relatively gradual approach.

I figured that Langley would be a good warm up for me to join the 14,000-foot club.

Early start to tackle Old Army Pass.

While I spent the night camped under Langley’s shadow, my attention was focused on the more immediate challenge at hand, the trail up Old Army Pass to gain the ridge from which I was to summit Langley.

Old Army Pass is not a maintained trail and due to its northerly orientation, it holds snow pack late into the summer, even in a low snow year like this.

With New Army Pass just to the south — a maintained, south facing trail that does not hold snow — many hikers opt for that as the safer route.

Having gone back and forth in my head dozens of times about which pass I would take to the peak, I finally settled on Old Army Pass, deciding that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. Old Army Pass is a more direct route that requires 700 less feet of climbing, so I let my achy back and shoulders do the thinking on this issue. Old Army Pass it was.

As I ascended the pass on my second morning in the mountains, I found that the ‘unmaintained’ trail was still plenty worn enough to follow. The challenge, however, that I had been keeping an eye on since the following afternoon, was the patch of snow at the top of the pass.

At the most steep, narrow point in the pass there was a snow bank that turned a normally uneventful portion of trail into a bit of a technical ice or snow crossing, depending on the time of day that you arrived.

Admittedly, I was a little anxious to see how sketchy it actually was up close. After climbing about 800 feet up the pass, I arrived at the end of the snow bank and studied the worn footprints that traversed about 50-60 feet across.

Normally a small snow patch wouldn’t be a big deal, but the hundreds of feet of exposure made calculating each move a crucial task.

As I studied the snow patch, a voice from the opposite side called out to me.

“You see that rock in the middle,” he yelled across a gusty mountain wind. “Take that rock and climb around the snow patch. It’s awfully icy on this end!”

Heeding the advice of this mystery man across the snow field, I did as he told and successfully crossed with his recommended path. It was a nice gesture from one solo hiker to another, looking out for each other in the backcountry.

I thanked the fellow hiker and he got on his way, however it was not the last that I would see of him that day.

Way above the tree line on my approach to Langley.

As I continued on up the mountain slopes, I eventually caught up to him and we turned out to be going to the same destination, and hiking at a similar pace.

A middle aged man with a stubby, grey beard, the mystery hiker’s name was Ward, and lo and behold he was also from San Diego County. Whether we intended to or not, we shared the trail for a mile or two, exchanging small talk about hikes we had done in San Diego and beyond.

Eventually my youthful calves put some distance between us, dragging me up one labored breath at a time to the top of Langley. For a few moments I had the peak to myself, soaking in the panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada and Mojave Desert.

I poked my head over Langley’s edge, admiring the abruptness of the thousands of feet of vertical wall that compose the northeastern flank of the mountain. I also gazed across the mountains to Mt. Whitney — most likely buzzing with hundreds of hikers — and appreciated how I had one of California’s 14ers all to myself, if only for just a brief moment.

Not long thereafter Ward joined me on the peak. He tipped me off that there was good cell service and it was a good chance to send an “I’m alive” text to your family. As we were sharing our hiking stories, he memorably told me of a time that he hiked Half Dome during a wildfire, getting the whole peak to himself and one other friend, possibly saving the lives of some parched climbers on the top, and receiving a serious scolding from the fire chief upon descending.

I enjoyed the stories, opting to do more listening than telling stories of my own, reminding myself the people you meet almost always leave more lasting impressions than the places you see.

Standing atop Langley with Whitney just to my right.

Altitude sickness is a bitch

After a good 30 minutes soaking in the glory of Langley’s peak, I bid adieu to Ward and scampered down the mountain the way I came, moving at a much faster pace going downhill.

I still had a good chunk of hiking ahead of me for the day. My plan was to descend Langley down another informal trail to Soldier Lakes, and if my endurance permitted, to head up to the Miter basin to Sky Blue Lake.

Up to this point, I was actually quite surprised at how my body had sustained the extreme elevation change from sea level to 14,000 feet in less than 48 hours. At 14,000 feet the air contains about 43% of the oxygen that I am accustomed to at sea level and the last time I tried to do something similar (summit San Jacinto in one day), I was overcome with the worst migraine that I can remember.

As I started to descend Langley, I thought I was in the clear since I had nowhere to go except down, yet a minor headache gradually grew with each passing step. By the time I had descended down to Upper Soldier Lake at 11,200 feet the headache blossomed into a full-blown nail-in-the-forehead migraine.

Despite the fact I had plenty of sunlight left in the day, I figured there was no reason (or desire) to go any further. I pitched my tent in the woods alongside the lake, took some Ibuprofen, and napped for a couple hours hoping to wake up a new person.

Luckily, some rest seemed to do the trick. I awoke from my nap drowsy, but mostly headache-free, still with enough lingering afternoon warmth to go for a dip in the lake that I had all to myself.

The lack of humans once again proved to be great for the wildlife, as I observed three big horned sheep grazing in a marshy field, two coyotes howling near their den, and several marmots keeping their watchful eyes on my tent, probably hoping I would slip up and leave a morsel of food behind.

Descending down to Upper Soldier Lake.
The big horn sheep were very cautious and sure to keep a safe distance from me.
Camp for night 2. A nice little nook with great wind protection.
Peering off at the peaks in the distance from my tent at dusk.

Day 3: Revived and ambitious

While I was in the midst of my altitude sickness the previous day, I had already started thinking about a contingency plan to get back to the car ASAP. Incessant pain tends to result in shortsighted thinking.

However, I woke up feeling oddly fresh and lucid on Saturday morning. So good, in fact, that I felt ready to take on the route that I had been unable to finish the previous day. My plan was to descend from upper Soldier Lake, take a cross-country route to the Miter Basin, visit Sky Blue Lake, and then slog back south to Chicken Spring Lake, which lies near the top of Cottonwood Pass. It was an ambitious but doable plan that would clock in at over 10 miles with quite a bit of elevation change across some trail-less routes.

With a rejuvenated spring to my step, I headed on from Upper Soldier Lake and left the trail to ascend a steep, narrow chute of granite towards the Miter Basin.

When I topped out at the chute, I discovered a quaint little pond up in this remote corner of the Sierra. I was admiring the remote slice of wilderness for its silent, private pond and sweeping views of the valley below — a perfect place to camp for those looking for solitude.

Just as I thought I was alone I saw a beanie-topped head pop up from behind a pile of boulders in the glare of the early morning sun, a mere 100 feet or so away.

I gave a friendly wave, not wanting to encroach on their seemingly secret spot, but the man walked over to me for a morning chat.

The man introduced himself as Bruce, an older guy, with a tall, slim build and graying hair. His grizzled face clearly belonged to a man that had seen many-a-summers in the outdoors. As it turns out, Bruce was another fellow San Diegan exploring the remote corners of Sequoia National Park and we struck up a conversation that transitioned across a range of topics from backpacking to wildlife to cameras.

Bruce invited me over to their campsite where I met his wife Lynn. At 72-years-old, I was impressed that they were still in good enough shape to get this far into the backcountry, especially without a trail. I had stumbled upon a secret spot of theirs that they had been to before, with just enough flat ground to pitch a tent. Far enough off the trail system that few probably venture out here, but close enough to not make it too crazy to reach, it was a practical, memorable place to camp.

Having explored all the nooks and crannies of the Miter Basin, Bruce and Lynn told me all about the different places that I could go visit and insisted that I return that night to take the private campsite that they were soon going to vacate. They even gifted me a bag of San Diego grown dried strawberries, which turned out to be an excellent snack at Sky Blue Lake.

While the pitstop at Bruce and Lynn’s spot set me back about half an hour on my quest to Sky Blue Lake, I didn’t mind and quite enjoyed our early morning banter. I was sure to snap a group photo before getting on my way, again remembering the people met on an adventure leave a more lasting impression than the scenery.

I can only hope my body can continue to venture into the wilderness when I am as old as them.

Bruce (right) and Lynn (center) told me that if there is grass growing on the trail, you are headed in the right direction.
I imagine few ever venture off the trail to visit this little pond, but it was a charmingly peaceful spot.
Lunchtime on the shores of Sky Blue Lake.
Taking in the views of the Miter Basin.

While my mind began to run wild with all the destinations that Bruce and Lynn had told me about in the Miter Basin, I stayed true to my plan and mentally saved their advice for a future trip. I trod on and up the basin until arriving at Sky Blue Lake, a huge body of water above the tree-line with a deep blue hue contained by steep granite walls.

I had the entire lake, and maybe even the whole basin as far as I knew, all to myself.

I selected a comfortable looking slab of rock where I read my book and munched on the exquisite, dried strawberries that I had recently acquired.

After an hour or so it was time to get back on the road. I descended out of the basin, returned back to the quaint pond at Bruce and Lynn’s spot to get water, and went on my way towards Chicken Spring Lake.

The next few miles were a slight climb on well-worn dusty trails. I jumped on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for a couple miles, crossing paths with a few through hikers on their way to Canada. I envied their freedom and lack of internet access, but did not envy their aroma that could be strongly smelled as they passed on the trail. To be fair, having gone more than 72 hours since my last proper shower, I am sure I didn’t smell much better.

I arrived at Chicken Spring Lake in the late afternoon. Given its location on the PCT and relatively short distance to a paved road, the lake was a bit more bustling than my previous two nights, but still with plenty of room to share. I pitched my tent on the eastern shore without a neighbor in sight.

I powered through the last pages of my book, took advantage of the remaining camera battery I had to take some time lapses, and soaked in the peace and quiet of my last night in the Sierra Nevada.

Looking down on lower Soldier Lake.
Camp set up at Chicken Spring Lake next to an almost unnatural looking cube-shaped hunk of granite.

Day 4: From the pass to pavement

I rose before the crack of dawn on my final day and was pleased to see that there was a bit of low cloud cover for the first time since I began the trip. The clouds were nice not only because of the pink hues they produced for sunrise, because also because I had unfortunately lost my sunscreen somewhere on the trail the day before. (I am pretty sure I left it at Upper Soldier Lake and I hope someone picked it up. I promise I’ll earn my trail karma points back.)

The clouds provided enough cover from the early morning sun to save me from a last-minute sunburn before I hit the road.

Woke up to these views on day 4.

I scooted over to Cottonwood Pass and descended through the thick pine forests en route to the trailhead. I was glad to see that my car was right where I had left it and soon thereafter hit the road for a predictably traffic plagued drive down the I-15.

Cottonwood Lakes turned out to be all I had hoped for and more. I successfully survived my first multiple-night backpacking trip unscathed. I cracked the 14,000 foot mark for the first time. I spent three nights at three different pristine, alpine lakes. I watched big horned sheep, coyotes, and marmots go about their daily lives. And most importantly, I had given my brain a nice 4 day break from the (nonstop) demands of the internet.

Cottonwood Lakes is a perfect getaway for a quick weekend mission from SoCal. I’ve got my eyes on a few more trips out there that I hope to squeeze in during this summer, or perhaps next, when the cycle of the seasons happens all over again.

Goodbye to the Sierra, looking back up towards Mt. Langley.

One thought

  1. Once again, reading about your adventures brings great satisfaction I’m drawn along irresistably from the first sentence. Breathtaking photos. Still hoping we can get together as I live near La Costa in Carlsbad

    Like

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