In 2016, I passed through the Cottonwood Lakes Basin on the exit of my SOSHR attempt with Art and Joe. That trip didn’t go quite to plan; it did inspire me to make several other trips though in the years that followed, into places near that route. I have a love affair with the Eastern Sierra for which there’s no substitute. Although Mammoth or the June Lakes are summer destinations for a lot of folks, I feel that a person has to keep going South or even further East to meet adventure. The harsh landscape, the imposing mountain peaks and passes, the feeling of being about one step away from dropping off the grid into the almost-intangible oddity of the East Side culture… these are the ingredients that make for great experiences.
August 1st through 5th, 2020.
This trip had been on my mind for about a year. What I wanted to do was start at Horsehoe Meadows, then make the relatively short hike out to the Cottonwood Lakes Basin to basecamp. This would provide access to a network of trails in all directions, plenty of cross country exploration options including several high mountain peaks, and a handful of lakes that happen to be among the few which hold Golden Trout. I envisioned hanging my hammock by a lake then fishing, swimming, running, and peak bagging to my heart’s content. While this would have been a really nice trip to have a friend along on, it worked out better that I did it solo.
With a long drive over Monitor Pass (Tioga Pass is only accessible to those with a reservation right now due to COVID restrictions) and down 395, the vision materialized; I found myself once again at Horseshoe Meadows with a pack strapped to my back. Any time a trip begins at 10,000 feet, it’s guaranteed to either be a totally radical experience or a complete debacle. I wondered which this might be as I set out into in the thin air.
I was packed for 5 days out and was carrying about 30 pounds all total. That’s not bad considering I had a bear canister, fishing gear, running gear, a small camera, and my sat comm. I decided to camp near Cottonwood Lake #5. Lakes 4 and 5 are a little higher up (about 11,200 ft) and fewer people were camped up there.
Although Lake 5 is right at the tree line, I was able to find a couple of trees to hang my hammock from near the lake. Sitting into the hammock, the view was just right – one of the things I love about hammock camping (aka “hanging”), having a comfy porch swing to sit in, that is. The first evening, I decided to fish before dinner. It was 6:30 ish and all was calm. I pulled some line out from the reel as I mentally made some casts. “Hammer the nail” “make a loop”, I remembered the cues that my Dad used to tell me. It had been a while since I’ve fly fished for trout. Dad taught me the basics but I’ve never been the master fly fisherman that he is. Despite my inept casting tendencies, it’s a bit like riding a bike. With a nearly perfectly executed roll cast, I sent the tiny caddis fly out onto the dark glassy water, then picked up the rod and cast my fly further to where the trout were rising. Almost immediately a fish grabbed the fly, then, just as quickly, spit it back out. This would be a pretty regular thing with the Golden’s on this trip, I didn’t know that yet, however.
Near the shore, a larger fish was sucking bugs off the surface of the lake; I could see its tail fin poking up out of the water. Casting to it, I waited, stripped a little line and waited some more, then… boom! Fish on! Hooking a Golden on my first evening resulted in a very high stoke level! This one was a lot bigger than most of the others that were rising. It darted away from me, rolled on the surface a couple of times, then broke my leader off! Damn! I lost him, but it was exciting. I hooked one other that evening which got off the hook. Eating some camp food for dinner, I was full of anticipation to fish the other lakes. The nearly-full moon rose above the craggy horizon. It was good to be back in the mountains.
The next morning began with an early walk down to the lower lakes. The rod I had been using was loaned to me by my neighbor, George. He and I had never met previously, but he was kind enough to answer a request that I posted on Next Door, hoping someone had a lightweight rod that they would allow a stranger (me) to borrow for a week. I don’t own a fly rod suitable for trout, but George’s 5-piece 3-wt was the perfect thing for this trip. I have a few boxes of flies that my Dad tied; most are for bass and larger game, but I managed to find the small box of trout flies that I have rarely used.
Exploring lower lakes, it was evident that they held plenty of fish, but those fish are smart, or picky, probably both. They were not having any of the caddis pattern I was throwing out at them. A quick look at it, maybe a taste, definitely spitting it out, and often ignoring everything presented to then became the theme. I tried a March Brown and some other dry flies and over the better part of the day. Several lakes and hours later, I hooked exactly zero fish! I did have a few missed opportunities, but mostly I think it would have been wild luck to hook a fish as it was spitting out my fly.
I sulked back for a late lunch then I decided to hike up Army Pass since I had been staring at it for a couple of days. It looked nasty from the lake, which of course is typical when there is a perfectly acceptable way through that just can’t be seen from far off. All the worrying turns out to be for nothing, as is usually the case in life.
Although one hiker who caught me staring at the pass warned me “not to do it”, called it “really bad”, and said I would need good hiking boots (not my trail runners) and hiking poles (which I did have). I thought I would find out for myself. In the same conversation, this fellow said he would never go over Forester Pass again, which I find to be an excellent and well-constructed pass, and he thought he had been over Junction Pass when I asked, which isn’t exactly a forgettable pass seeing how a person has to make an effort to even find it, at some point traversing the infernal expanse of large talus to the South, and navigate the loose-as-hell pass itself. So, long story short, Old Army Pass was totally fine. There were one or two spots where rocks had slid, obscuring the trail, but scurrying across them was not much of a concern and didn’t involve much exposure. Soon enough, I was on top of the pass remembering the views from the last time I was up there when I took New Army Pass, which is not far away, atop the same ridge.
The following day, I headed back up Old Army Pass to climb up Mt. Langley. The signs at the trailhead that mentioned cairns marking the way were not kidding – the trail crews constructed some serious cairns out there. The only larger one I can remember seeing was at the top of Harrison Pass and I believe the idea there was to make the point “yes, this is the pass, seriously, this death-chute is where you must now go…” These were much less foreboding, but even with the monument-sized cairns, I still managed to lose the “trail” with maybe 400 feet to go. To be honest, I didn’t spend a lot of energy looking around for it. I followed some tracks in the sand until there was nothing but large talus all around me. Then, it was time to strap my poles on my pack and do some class III climbing for a few hundred feet, eventually finding something that resembled a trail. After that, getting up to the peak was a straightforward matter.
The views approaching Langley and from the top were excellent. I took in the scenery in every direction and enjoyed the perfect weather while having a few bites of the food I brought along. There was about 1 liter of water left in my bottle to get back down with, which turned out to be fine. Before signing the summit register, I read a few pages as I like to do. I was the third party (a party of one, ha!) to summit that day. A group of young guys camped at the lake had also made the summit ahead of me in the morning. I laughed at their entry, but I recognize their right to express their feelings in language that makes sense to them 🙂
When I returned to camp, I was a bit parched from several days of sun and high elevation. I was also missing my kids, and Sandra as well. I wished for their company, even a short conversation for the evening would have been great. I had my books instead. Well, I decided that I would walk out a day early and skip the Cirque Traverse this time. I thought about maybe trying to squeeze it in on my way out, but the thought of trekking over Army Pass a third time just wasn’t appealing, especially not with a full pack. Leaving something undone always provides great motivation to return.
On my final morning, I sat in the hammock sipping coffee watching trout make rings on the still water of the lake. All motivation to summit Cirque Peak left me. I was still feeling motivated to do a little more fishing though and to make the short cross-country hike out that I had planned to do. If I can get off the trails and wander, I always take that opportunity. After taking down camp and packing up, I headed toward the South Fork Lakes.
Upon reaching the South Fork Lakes, two things… 1) there was nobody else anywhere around and 2) the Golden’s were looking really active. I sat in the meadow and assembled my fly rod for one last attempt to catch a Golden Trout. As I perused the small selection of flies, a pattern that I considered using but hadn’t tried yet stood out. “I bet these fish have not seen this pattern”, I thought to myself. So, I pinched the barb down, tied it on, and let it fly. Within a few casts, I had a fish on. It almost caught me off guard and when it ran, it ran straight toward me. I couldn’t strip line fast enough and when the line went slack, I lost it. The excitement was building now!
The breeze was at my back and my casts were landing in the places I willed them to. Maybe my timing was improving with all the practice, hammer the nail. After a few missed strikes, I hooked another. “You’re coming in!” I hollered out over the lake. It wasn’t to be, just as I had the fish at the bank, in a golden flash, it was gone! “Noooo! You’re killing me!” I yelled out again as if somehow the fish would see it my way.
I was persistent; I had finally figured out a pattern they would pick up and a different technique with my presentation that was working. I was determined to succeed. Again, after several more missed strikes I hooked another! Whatever I was yelling out in my excitement didn’t work; once again right at the bank I lost the fish! I looked at my watch. It was time to get going. I still had some miles to walk and no trail to follow, nor did I know, aside from its profile, what the terrain would be like (choked with downed trees, willow thickets, a swamp, talus fields, etc…). I wanted to be home that evening. My time was up.
At the end of the day, the barbless hooks did what they’re intended to do. This is a regulation for the area, no barbs. It gives the fish a fighting chance and prevents them from undue harm (there is also a zero-keep rule in the summer months). This species of Goldens is only found in these lakes of the Golden Trout Wilderness. It was only my ego that wanted a photo of one of those beauties in my hands at the water’s edge. The above photo is credit to Native Trout Addict. So, I reflected on that as I broke down my rod. I had the experience I wanted to have; there was no need to remove a fish from the water. With that thought landing solidly, I set off across the meadow to find and follow the South Fork of Cottonwood Creek.
The creek was a little below Cirque Lake, which is fishless. The drainage from Cirque Lake was dried up but down below, the creek was flowing well. The mountains were still holding some snow and everything was plenty wet. At one point, I stepped into a bog up to my calf, thinking it was solid ground. None the less, the walk out was spectacular and easy-going with simple navigation. I would recommend this to anyone as an alternative to taking the usual trail (hiking in or out). I didn’t see a single person. I did however discover a trail, which was unexpected. It was not on my map. Instead of following it, I stayed on the same heading and eventually I hit that trail (I presume the same one) again. It was going my direction this time, so I decided to walk on it. Eventually, it tied into the main trail, about 1.5 or 2 miles away from Horseshoe Meadows. Interestingly, the intersection was very low key and had been purposefully blocked with some large dead trees. This only made me more curious about the story of that trail but for the time, I was focused on getting back to the car. Clean clothes, a proper enough toilet, and some fresh food were driving me along at a steady clip. It had been a great trip and for a few seconds, I wished I had stayed out that last day; on my return home though I remembered the reasons for leaving a day early.
I’ll return soon, not soon enough.
Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film. Your bright eyes and easy smile is your museum.
– Ansel Adams