2018 Grinnell Lake

Description:  A 7 day trip from the Mosquito Flat Trailhead into Mono Creek valley and some of its side basins, up to Grinnell Lake for a backpacking forum meetup, and finally out to the McGee Creek Trailhead.

I started under a sunny, blue, nearly-cloudless sky and enjoyed the views into Little Lakes Valley as I ascended the trail towards Mono Pass. But being at Mammoth Lakes the day before, I got a preview of the lightning and thunder to come. A cloud over the pass grew larger and denser so I picked up my pace in a race against the inevitable storm. Light rain fell as I descended to Mono Creek. I reached the valley floor at about 1pm, but it felt like 8pm since light was obstructed by both trees and dark clouds. Large drops of water became pea-sized hail and the loud patter intensified, interrupted only by claps of thunder. I don’t know if it was the darkness or distraction from the weather, but I hiked in circles trying to find the trail to Pioneer Basin. I finally decided to turn back and go to Fourth Recess instead.

Little Lakes Valley

Mono Pass ahead

Fourth Recess Lake

The morning sky was deceptively bright and clear again. In this condition, it was easy finding the trail up to Pioneer Basin. At the lowest lake was a group of about a dozen tents, most likely part of an organized trip. Continuing up to the higher lakes, I understood why this basin was so popular. Fortunately for me, I didn’t see anyone or any tents after passing the lowest lake. I made note of a prime camping spot at Lake 10862 but continued to explore, watchful of the clouds building overhead. Especially picturesque was the cascading creek flowing east of Lake 10862. I returned to my camping site and had my tent set up just in time to watch and listen to a repeat performance of rain, hail, and thunder. I had plenty of time to deal with small issues like losing the quarter that I use to open my bear canister. After many trial and error cycles looking for a replacement tool, I discovered the lever of my nail clipper was marginally effective.

Lake 10862 in Pioneer Basin

Pioneer Basin

The next day, I retraced my steps back to Mono Creek. I had intended to spend the evening up at Lower Hopkins Lake, but after a few miles alongside mule train tracks and mule train collateral, I changed my destination to Laurel Lake so I wouldn’t have to hike along Mono Creek another day. The first ½ mile up Laurel Creek averaged a steep 30% slope. Fortunately, I was able to follow paths that cut through the manzanita thickets. The trail leveled off into a beautiful meadow, tempting me to stop and camp. I refilled my water bottles and continued on, up past an area of downed trees and into another charming and bucolic meadow. I pressed on, finally reaching Laurel Lake, at the northern end of the hanging valley. Just a little further north and 500’ up lies Grinnell Lake, site of this year’s HST Meetup. But relaxation and watching the sunset and alpenglow on the face of the flat-topped Recess Peak and its neighbors were the only items on my agenda this evening. A curtain of haze slowly built up and obscured my view of these mountains, reminding me of the Ferguson Fire SW of Yosemite. Today was the first day with no rain.

Laurel  Creek

Laurel Lake

Laurel Lake

Laurel Lake

Fritos burrito

My wife has never been comfortable with me hiking alone so I offered her some relief by letting her know via text that I would be hiking with a legendary hiker today. Bill Finch, aka sekihiker, arrived at Laurel Lake and we arranged to hike up to Grinnell Lake together. He shared his knowledge of geology and botany as we made our leisurely way up the grassy ramps. I ignored the dark clouds that congregated over us at Grinnell Lake, as today and the rest of the week was supposed to be clear.  However, rain surprised us and the best tent sites that sekihiker and I could find were near the shore and over a bit of vegetation. The storm was short-lived and as we emerged from our tents, Gazelle and Robert passed by on their return from summiting nearby Peak 12,238. They were camped at the  southern end of the lake by the outlet.

Grinnell Lake

Another group of hikers also arrived at the lake. They were on a 50+ day variant of the SHR. Notable among them was Ken Ransford, son of Carol Ransford, whom Puppet Pass (Carol Col) was named after. He described how his mom frequently took them hiking in the wilderness and when she passed, they petitioned to have her memorialized.

By the end of the day, there were 7 of us, Richlong8, Gazelle, Robert, Dave_Ayers, Cameronm, Sekihiker, and Rockyroad (me) and Richlong8’s dog, Beau, congregated at the outlet. Richlong8 had just finished frying his trout in butter and seasoned salt and shared it with the group. Scotch, home-made jerky, and chocolate was also passed around and everyone had a great time conversing with new friends and reconnecting with old friends. Since Cameronm came via Grinnell Pass (Pace Col), my exit route, I asked him about its northern slope. An unexposed class 3 climb along Red and White Lake’s western side was required due to a snow field blocking the more commonly used eastern route. This sounded like more work than I would enjoy so I decided to go with my plan B option of exiting over Bighorn Pass and Shout of Relief Pass the next day.

Grinnell Lake

The next morning, we met another forum member, Ashery. Although the official meetup was 2 days, everyone eventually left the 2nd day. I headed up and over Bighorn Pass. Supposedly, there is a route that only loses ~75' from the top of Bighorn pass towards Shout of Relief pass. However, after staring at the granite slopes piecing together a route, I felt it would be faster and safer if I just descended down to Rosy Finch Lake below and regain 500’ up Shout of Relief. I was acclimated and hiking uphill didn’t require much more effort. At the base of Shout of Relief Pass, I filled my water bottle and started ascending. The large infinity pool midway up the pass is a good place to rest. I crossed the Silver Divide over the top of Shout of Relief Pass, and walked around a small snow field. The landscape metamorphosed from rock to lush mounds of grass, creeks, and small lakes as I hiked down to the benches above Tully Lake. I found one particular lake with a cascading inlet and excellent views towards Red Slate Mountain that I had to camp at. I stopped to watch the local habitat, specifically a male finch, flutter his lowered half-spread wings in an attempt to court a female. I explored nearby pools, creeks, and the surrounding area a bit and nearly got chills from the captivating beauty of it all. But I also noticed haze build up north and began to worry if the recent lightning storms had ignited new fires and whether my path out the next day was impeded. I texted my wife and daughter and got confirmation that there were no new fires, just the Ferguson Fire and the Lions Fire that had become more active again. So I enjoyed the sunset the rest of the evening.

North side of Bighorn Pass

Infinity pool midway up Shout of Relief Pass

From the top of Shout of Relief Pass

Top of Shout of Relief Pass

Past Tully Lake and along Fish Creek the next day, I was soon back on trail, hiking along in a perfunctory state. What a contrast to yesterday’s off-trail wandering. I heard from a passing hiker that smoke at Little McGee Lake was pretty bad the previous evening so I altered my plan from staying at Big McGee Lake to speeding down to the trailhead and driving home.

McGee Pass trail