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2015: Middle Section High Sierra Route

July 30, 2015

Middle Section High Sierra Route (≈53 miles)

Nick, Alan, Cynthia, Dean, Frank, Lawrence

July 17-23, 2015

 This is a mostly off trail hike. If you are serious about doing this hike you will want to read Sierra High Route by Steve Roper. Our trip follows, more or less, a portion of that route.

This trip was a MeetUp group trip. There were six of us.

Overall this was a very experienced group of backpackers—me being probably one of the less experienced ones! We ranged in age from my 56 years, to late 60s.

While some of the hiking was on the difficult side, the days were fairly short in terms of mileage, and we were usually at camp by early afternoon.

While we had a fair amount of rain, and wind, we experienced very few mosquitoes.

00 MS Topo w title

Elevation Profile of Trip

Elevation Profile of Trip

Day 1: Puite Creek Trail Head to Mesa Lake (≈9 miles)

Day 2: Mesa Lake to Merriam Lake (≈7 miles)

Day 3: Merriam Lake to Brown Bear Lake (≈7 miles)

Day 4: Brown Bear Lake to Lower Mills Lake (≈7 miles)

Day 5: Lower Mills Lake to Laurel Lake (≈8 miles)

Day 6: Laurel Lake to Tully Lake (≈3+ miles)

Day 7: Tully Lake to McGee Trailhead parking lot (≈12 miles)

As this was not a loop trip, we all met at the end point and then took two of the four cars to the starting point, an hour south by car.

I left home at about 9:00am on Thursday 7/16, and met Frank, the only one coming from my area, at the Livermore airport at 10:30am, where he left his car, and from there we headed off. We met the rest of the folk at McGee trailhead, our exit spot, at a little after 4pm. It was decided that mine would be one of the shuttle cars to the North Lake trailhead. On the way there, it suddenly occurred to me that I had not brought my hiking boots (I wore my Teva sandals to drive in). Everyone was very understanding and we stopped at a great backpacking store, Eastside Sports, in Bishop, which was more or less on the way, and I picked up a pair of Merrill trail shoes. They stood me well.

Car camping near trail head

Car camping near trail head

We car camped the first night near the turn off to North Lake

Day 1: Piute Creek Trail Head to Mesa Lake (≈9 miles)

02 Day1

03elevation1

9,400′ 11,400′

Friday morning we got an early start. Dean and I dropped everyone off at the trail head, parked the cars, and walked back to the trail head. We started off at just about 8:00am. The beginning of the trail is wooded heading up. There is an early creek crossing, but if you go off to the right up a little there is a log crossing.

3750s Group at trail head

Once up past tree line, and past the use trail that goes up to Desolation Lake, we headed off-trail angling off to head to Mesa Lake. The area is pretty wide open. Along the way, in taking out my map of the area, which was in my shirt pocket—a pocket that had a side zipper—my glasses must have fallen out—which I did not discover until getting to camp that afternoon.

3900s my tent

Camp at Mesa Lake

We arrived at Mesa Lake at about 2:30pm and set up camp. It was quite windy there, but calmed down around 4:00pm.

Day 2: Mesa Lake to Merriam Lake (≈7 miles)

3988 Day2

3989 elevation2

11,400′ – 12,200′ – 10,000′ – 11,000′

We got a relatively early start and were on the trail at 7:45am. We were headed first to Puppet Pass. It was a bit of a scramble up, but nothing too tricky.

Heading up to the pass

Heading up to the pass

We were at the pass around 9:30am or so.

Puppet Pass

Puppet Pass

We then headed back down into the woods, staying mostly to the right of the drainage down. We hit the Finch Canyon Trail at Royce Falls. We then headed down trail to find the trail up. Supposedly there was an earlier turn off up toward Merriam, but we must have missed it, and found the one at the sign. We stopped there, at about 11:20am, for a short lunch break.

Cynthia resting

Cynthia resting

We headed up on a good use-trail, recently maintained about half way up. Then the trail disappears, as it gets somewhat more open. We meandered up to find the lake. We got to Merriam Lake about 1:30, but in the last little bit, lost Frank. It took about 10-20 minutes of scouting to find him waiting on a rock near a small lower lake, that he was not sure was Merriam Lake or not. We camped pretty far above the lake on the south end, not really seeing anything much better. For a smaller group, there might be some spots further down at the outlet of the lake.

Nick Swimming in Merriam Lake

Nick Swimming in Merriam Lake

I did get in a dip there with Lawrence, with a little sun breaking through for us.

Weather turned cold and threatening rain. It was again windy until about 4 or 5pm and got down to about 40F at night.

Day 3: Merriam Lake to Brown Bear Lake (≈7 miles)

4518 Day3

4519 elevation3

11,000′ – 12,400′ – 11,500′ – 12,100′ – 11,100′

We were again on the trail at about 7:45am. We got to Feather Pass at about 11am, giving us a view down into the Bear Lakes area. There was some bouldering up and down. On this route we passed a lot of lakes along the way

4830s over the side

At 12:30pm we stopped at Bear Paw Lake and I took a quick dip as we still had some sun. By 1:00pm it was already threatening to rain.

5040s Brown Bear Lake

Brown Bear lake

We stayed high along the right rim as we headed down to Brown Bear, with a lot of tricky boulder hopping. All of us agreed that it was pretty difficult hiking all day, especially at the end. (I probably would have gone down more directly in to the center of the bowl). As we were doing the final descent, at about 3:00pm, it started to rain.

5080s Dinner at Brown Bear

Dinner at Brown Bear Lake

We got down and found an open area to camp at the south end of the lake, and quickly set up our tents in the rain, and huddled down. It rained for about and hour. But all night it was extremely windy, with the tents flapping. Frank’s tarp shelter did not withstand it, and he ended up just keeping wrapped up without the tarp over him.

5230s Sunset at Brown Bear lake

Sunset at Brown Bear Lake

Day 4: Brown Bear Lake to Lower Mills Lake (≈7 miles)

5288 Day4

11,100' – 12,400' – 10,900'

11,100′ – 12,400′ – 10,900′

It was still windy in the morning as we broke camp. I left Brown Bear Lake about 7:15am, first walking around the east side of lake, and then heading up the stream from Lake Italy, staying on the right (south) side until getting to the outlet where one could rock hop across easily.

Brown Bear Lake

Brown Bear Lake

We skirted the edges of the lake, heading up as we neared the skinny end of the lake, angling up to the pass. When I had done this before, there was a lot of snow around he lake, but this year, none. Also, my previous trip over this route, I had gone to Toe Lake and gone straight up the drainage.It might be a little longer that way, but I think easier to navigate. This way we actually ended up going a little bit high.

See the Bird?

See the Bird?

We got to Gabbot Pass about 11:30am. This was when we really found out Frank was not feeling well. Turned out he had been having nausea since the second day, and was having trouble keeping up. We had lunch at the pass and then headed down. Boulder hopping mostly down to Upper Mills, and in some places there is a use trail. Then at the last part to get down to Lower mills got a little tricky, but not too bad. At the bottom to get over to the right side of the lake it is a bit marshy.

Upper Mills Lake from Gabbot Pass

Upper Mills Lake from Gabbot Pass

We arrived at the camp at about 2:30pm. There is lots of camping on the south end of the lake. There is a little rock cliff as the use trail leads you around the lake, but can get up it in lot of places, including going all the way to the water’s edge (which on the approach does not look obvious).

Lower Mills Lake

Lower Mills Lake

Lower Mills is a nice place to camp, with some trees. However, most of the camping where we were had rock under the dirt/sand, so not really able to get stakes in. There are fish in the Lake (probably small), though none of us brought fishing equipment.

I did get in a dip there.

Lower Mills Lake

Lower Mills Lake

It was drizzly much of the afternoon evening, then really rained hard at about 9:00pm for a couple of hours. Dean’s tent ended up being in a low spot and was sitting in water for a bit until he got it drained (though no water got in). My boots got wet when a rock holding the stake of my vestibule area up slid from the wind, exposing my boots to the weather. It stayed windy through the night, though it was calm in the morning.

Day 5: Lower Mills Lake to Laurel Lake (≈8 miles)

5888 Day5

10,900' – 8,600' – 10,400'

10,900′ – 8,600′ – 10,400′

Lower Mills Lake camp

Lower Mills Lake camp

Because Frank was hiking slower, Alan and Frank left a little earlier than the rest of us at 7:30, while the other four of use left at 8:00am.

This day was mostly on-trail. The beginning half down the steep part from Lower Mills was on and off again use-trail, with often us just finding our own way, staying on the east side of the creek. Once we got down to the falls with the pool by it, it was all easy trail from there. As I had done the last time I was this way, I, of course, had to go in the pool and falls for a dip. Lawrence joined me as well.

Nick at the Waterfall

Nick at the Waterfall

Where the trail meets up with the Mono Creek trail we had to ford Mono Creek.

Fording Mono Creek (photo by Lawernce Pallant)

Fording Mono Creek (photo by Lawrence Pallant)

From there we headed briefly up the Mono Creek Trail to the cut off for Laurel Creek.

The trail ascends steeply up first through woods. Then it levels out into some meadows, and at that point there isn’t always a trail, and in parts, what might have been the trail has been covered with fallen trees. As we were getting closer, it started to look like thunder storms and began to rain, and we got under some bushes for a bit. We soon decided though that we might as well hike to camp, as it was not about to stop soon.

Shelter under the boulder

Shelter under the boulder

We arrived at the Laurel Lake at about 2:30pm, setting up camp at the north end of the lake, in the rain. There were some large boulders, though, that provided some shelter to sit under. The rain did not last too long, but stayed mostly overcast.

Vista at Laurel Lake

Vista at Laurel Lake

We did get a great sunset though.

Sunset at Laurel Lake

Sunset at Laurel Lake

Day 6: Laurel Lake to Tully Lake (≈3+ miles)

6258 day6

10,300' – 11,500' – 10,500'

10,300′ – 11,500′ – 10,500′

Laurel Lake

Laurel Lake

We got going at 8:00am. Our plan was to make McGee Lake, but given Frank’s condition we were not sure. We headed straight up the drainage on the left to reach the first of this double pass. It is a long steep climb up, and gets into some boulders as you ascend. As we got higher, we decided to take most of Frank’s weight, as he was clearly having a hard time keeping up. We took a quick break at the first pass. It was decided to stay high across to Shout-of-Relief pass (whereas when I did it before we descended to Rosie Finch Lake).

Nick at the Pass

Nick at the Pass

This kept us higher but meant more difficult boulder hopping and talus crossing. Personally, I’d rather go down and up. We took lunch at Shout-of-Relief Pass. We also stayed high, with lots of boulder hopping, after that as well, rather than going down toward the other lakes. Again, I think it would have been better to stay low down into the meadow (see my blog of my Silver Divide trip for how I did it that time).

Lunch at Shout-of-Relief Pass

Lunch at Shout-of-Relief Pass

It was a little after 1:00pm when we arrived at Tully. We had a short discussion about whether to continue to McGee—it was only 1:00pm. However, Frank was really beat, and it was about 4 miles. Though it wold be on trail there was a 2,000 foot climb to go over McGee pass.

We decided to stay. At first they were looking at camping along the side of the lake in a sandy/rocky stretch in the open, but having been there before, I scouted out the area in the trees, across a little swampy area, and convinced them it was better camping.

Hail

Hail

Just as we got our tents up, it started to rain. We got in, and soon it was hailing and raining really hard. It was a good thing we had not pressed on, as we would have been caught in the storm going over the exposed pass. That lasted for about 3 hours. It continued to look threatening, but the rain abated for the evening and night.

Lake Tully at Sunset

Lake Tully at Sunset

Day 7: Tully Lake to McGee Trail head parking lot (≈12 miles)

6868 Day7

10,500' – 12,200' – 7,900'

10,500′ – 12,200′ – 7,900′

As we figured Frank would have a slow go of it out, and we would still need to get the cars that were at the trail head, it was decided that Cynthia, whose car was at this end, would hike out more quickly with Dean and myself, whose cars were at North Lake where we began. Alan and Lawrence would hike with Frank. We got an early start at around 7:00am.

Waterfall by Tully Lake

Waterfall by Tully Lake

 As we headed up McGee Pass, we saw that Lawrence, Frank and Alan were not really all that far behind.

Vieww down on way up McGee pass

View down on way up McGee pass

It is a long slow climb but a well engineered trail though it is on small rock, so not very comfortable on the feet for a lot of it. And there are several places where you think you are about at the pass, only to discover it is a false pass. We took a short break at the pass.

Nick and Dean at McGee Pass

Nick and Dean at McGee Pass

Then we headed down, again on a trail of small rocks. We came down in the next couple of miles to see McGee lake, which the trail keeps you above (worth going to if you have time).

Nick hiking on the rocky trail

Nick hiking on the rocky trail

We then descended into more woodsy area, following McGee Creek, though sometimes a ways above it. At 11:30, as we crossed a bridge over McGee Creek, we decided to break for lunch, and it is also a good spot for a dip, which Cynthia and I took advantage of.

View on way down

View on way down

Dean took off a little before us, and then again we head off, with less than an hour to hike. After not too far we found we had to ford another stream. First looking for a way to cross without getting wet, we ended up just walking though it in our trail shoes.

McGee Trailhead

McGee Trailhead

But about 1:30 we arrived at the cars, though we then had to drive to get our cars at the trailhead and come back, and then the long drive back home. I arrived about midnight back in Santa Cruz.

To see more of my photos from this trip click here

For Lawrence’s Photos: click here

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One Comment
  1. Great trip Nick, thanks for the detailed post.

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