With the recent mid-August heat wave, and the temperature gauges rising into the triple digits in our bone-dry backcountry, it’s hardly time to recommend local Santa Barbara backcountry hikes.
One of this column’s hiking mottoes is when in doubt, turn away from the seductive sea and send your gaze toward the hinterlands — near or far.
Famous naturalist and writer Mary Austin rightly termed our area and out toward Mount Pinos a “Land of Little Rain,” also the title of her most famous book (first published in 1903 and never out of print).
Since I’m a schoolteacher and have extra time in the summer, August usually means I seize my son by the scruff and aim for the beckoning Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains up Highway 395.
With elevation cometh coolness, and a mandatory attitude adjustment when one breaks away from Santa Barbara’s arid backcountry and often polluted beaches.
Tom’s Place along Highway 395 north of Bishop is 350 miles from Santa Barbara, and I trust readers can figure out how to drive there (taking Highways 101 to 126 to 5 to 14 to the 395), hopefully with the family in tow.
Whether you choose to car camp at one of the U.S. Forest Service sites near Tom’s Place along the road up to Rock Creek Lake (e.g. French Camp), or rent a modest “ski condo” at Mammoth Lakes for a week, there will be bracing high peaks all around you and scores of opportunities to hike your brains out.
Over the last several years I’ve stayed on the outskirts of Mammoth Lakes in July or August, and made numerous hikes all around Mammoth Mountain, limiting them to day hikes and a few cross country bushwhacks.
For the last six summers, friends and I have culminated our mad Sierra hiking week by making the 13-mile round-trip jaunt to Ediza Lake.
Situated at 9,200 feet, every one of the quintet of day hikes to Ediza has been different, but equally challenging.
Heavy snow covered some sections on the first one in 2010, especially above 8,700-foot Shadow Lake, and we cautiously trod over ice-covered creeks to crest over the outlet to Ediza.
Ediza Lake retains its fascination for me because of the Siberia-like white snowpack all around it that time in 2010, the freezing July wind, and we met just one other guy who backpacked right past us and out onto the mini-glacier beneath the Minarets.
As he made his spectacular disappearance, it reminded me of Austin’s comment that “somehow the rawness of the land favors the sense of personal relation to the supernatural.”
The transition from our local desert areas and the edge of the boiling Mojave Desert near Edwards Air Force Base to the southern high Sierra and picturesque Lone Pine (population 2,035) can mirror an inner transition from Santa Barbara’s urban density and intensity to higher altitudes with more water and cleaner air.
While the drought certainly has had an impact on the Sierra, and we saw very little snow or snowpack, there are still some awe-inspiring log bridges and stream fords.
After parking our truck at the Agnew Meadows trailhead near Devils Postpile National Monument, about 20 minutes drive from Mammoth (scroll down the page for the 4-1-1 with driving directions), we double-checked our equipment for a day-long strenuous hike.
Although we start out by descending along the signed “River Trail,” there will be some steep trail portions beyond Shadow Lake where the path is unrelentingly rocky. Within a mile of Agnew, you see the sign informing you that you are entering the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
I wore my heaviest boots, wide-brim hat, long-sleeve shirt, bulging fanny pack, and carried three liters of water, a nutritious lunch, emergency gear and twin hiking poles. My colleague had more water, and he also lugged a water purifier so we could pump if we ran short.
The summer Sierra weather waxed warm but not too hot (68 degrees), and for the first time in many summers there were no biting insects.
At this time of year, we did encounter several groups of backpackers, and it heartens us to see so many families and young children having fun in the mountains. On our descent from Ediza, the nature gods even cast a pleasantly cooling breeze across our sweaty brows.
After a little over three miles of easy hiking, you circle around gorgeous Shadow Lake and begin to ascend along rocky steps and near the rushing outlet of Ediza Lake. In earlier summers the roar from this outflow deafened us, but now it merely made a mild melody.
At the top of this you find some wooden trail signs and go toward Ediza Lake using the famous John Muir Trail for a bit, and again take the Ediza Lake sign (don’t continue on to Garnet Lake since that adds an extra five miles).
The ideal conditions this year made the 2010 venture seem like an Arctic nightmare. If you want more than these 13 miles try going up and back to Garnet Lake (beautiful) or bushwhack over to the austere Nydiver Lakes (10,100 feet) for a dip.
Every camping group or hiker we met noted the astounding lack of mosquitoes and horrible flies.
My son is a working musician living in Europe, so I haven’t been able to grab him by the scruff of the neck and drag him along on these last few Sierra hikes. But he remembers them vividly, particularly the enchanting Minaret peaks, and will take his sons there when they’re 6 or 7.
On this trip we observed babies in baby-carriers, enthusiastic teenagers and small hikers proudly accompanying their parents “into the wild.”
Eastern Sierra Hiking 4-1-1
Hike: Lake Ediza round trip from Agnew Meadows (near Devils Postpile National Monument)
Distance: 13-mile round trip, mostly above 8,000 feet elevation
Map: Tom Harrison Mammoth High Country Trail Map is excellent
Driving directions: From the town of Mammoth Lakes, drive to the well-marked ski area, go on up toward Minaret Summit toward Reds Meadow Road and the kiosk marking the twisty road into Devils Postpile. (Note: During the summer, unless you pass through this kiosk before 7 a.m., you will need to take the shuttle down to Agnew Meadows. Cost is $7 for adults; $4 for children 3 and over. Once the shuttles stop running in the fall, there is a $10 fee per vehicle.)
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.