This unique geological landscape in the California Desert Conservation Area consists of more than 500 tufa spires, some as high as 140 feet, that rise from the bed of the Searles Dry Lake Basin. Composed primarily of calcium carbonate (tufa) from deep beneath the lake, the pinnacles vary in size and shape from squat and thick to tall and thin. The tufa here date back 10,000 to 100,000 years ago, forming over 3 ice ages. There are distinct in their age and elevation and are referred to as the northern group (youngest), middle group (110 spires and highest tower), and southern group (200 formations and up to 100k old). If you’ve been to Mono Lake, you’ve seen more recent formations. The expanse of desert in every direction and the stark mountain ranges on either side create a dramatic landscape.
You can drive around the area or hike around it. Temps are triple digit in the summer so be prepared.
Getting there: ~ 20.0 miles east of Ridgecrest. Via a 5 mile BLM dirt road (RM143), usually accessible to 2-wheel drive cars, that leaves SR 178, about 7.7 miles east of the intersection of SR 178 and the Trona-Red Mountain Road. Note: The road may be closed after heavy rains.
Note: This is BLM territory so camping in this barren, impossibly hot, desert landscape is free. It’s also a great spot for offroading & ATVs.
Not sure I’d drive hours to see it, if it’s on the way as it was on my way back from my Mt. Whitney adventure, it’s worth it.
Difficulty: Yes, challenging – all depends on your fitness level & your knee health. Peak is 14, 505 ft elevation with a gain & loss of 6,100 ft & rocky, uneven, occasionally treacherous terrain. If you have arthritis in your knees, like me, going down is going to hurt. A lot. Even with poles.
First of all, I probably wouldn’t have done Whitney again since I’d already been there and done that (1994) and I’m not much for redos.
But we were up in the area. And my swim buddy, Rosie, and a group of her friends were doing it, and Ken wanted to do it, so I figured let’s leave it to fate.
We raced down from Mammoth Lakes to Lone Pine and lined up at the Ranger and Visitor Center at 11AM sharp as instructed. Ken picked a lucky #3 out of the hat, which put us in the lead to capture a spot. Fate would have it that Mt. Whitney and I would meet again. Off we went equipped with the requisite bear canister.
Note the trail is difficult (altitude, terrain, length, elevation gain/loss). Many people train and prepare for months to do it. We are both endurance athletes and accustomed to pushing our boundaries (sometimes we are [i am] a bit too ambitious though – see our Catalina mt. bike adventure). While we were a little concerned about altitude sickness, we were relatively sure we could handle the hike.
Our trip to the mountains was last minute. We packed up in about 30 minutes and accidentally left out some key items (water purifier, hats, gloves, headlamps) at home. We stopped at the Lone Pine grocery and loaded up on munchies and water and then strolled across the street to pick up a couple headlamps at the Outfitters store.
Note, we were not prepared for high-altitude sub-freezing temps the night we camped (without a tent to keep the packs light) and the morning we hiked to the peak. I’m going to put together a camping checklist and post it here so we don’t leave home without the essentials again.
We could have cut the weight in our packs significantly if we’d brought the water purifier. Contrary to memory of 1994 there was plenty of water along the trail and at Trail Camp – lakes, streams and waterfalls.
We started on the trail at 2:30 PM with the goal of camping at Trail Camp 6 miles up, elevation 12,000 ft. I had a vision of sunrise on the peak that I wanted to fulfill – that would certainly make hiking this monster twice worth it. I had no memory of the lovely lakes, streams, and waterfalls (perhaps it was a dry year) and the beauty of the Whitney.
Note there is an earlier opportunity to camp near a waterfall at Outpost Camp just 3.8 miles up and 10,800 feet elevation.
Waterfall at Outpost Camp
About a mile after Outpost Camp the terrain begins to get a bit more ornery (rocky)…Of course, the views become more beguiling to take your mind off the occasionally tortuous footing. Speaking of footing, I hiked both times in trail runners. Ken wore running shoes and said his feet took quite a beating. It’s really personal preference. A visual poll of hikers, coming and going, was about 50/50 hard-toe hiking shoes, running / trail running shoes.
Some hikers wore no shoes at all.
We arrived at Trail Camp at 6:30 PM just in time for sunset. At least a half dozen other hiking parties had already set up their tents. We laid out our mats and sleeping bags. I jumped in immediately, the temperature was already dropping. The video and the picture below were taken from my sleeping bag vantage point. How dreamy to experience sunset on Whitney and (fingers-crossed) sunrise too.
After chowing down on some nuts, Slim Jim’s and other munchies “in bed”, Ken put the bear canister ~150 yards away and it was lights out. My plan was for a 3:30 AM start. We didn’t sleep much—it was quite chilly (understatement). At 2:30, I saw another group rustling around with their headlamps and beginning their hike to summit. We got our start around 30 minutes later, rising at the crack of darkness to make a run for sunrise at the summit. Watching the string of headlamps bobbing in the darkness ahead and above us, snaking around the ridges through the infamous 97 switch backs was like being in an adventure film. I wish I had taken some pictures or videos, but my phone battery was low and my hands were freezing, despite my improvised sock mittens.
Unfortunately, my headlamp failed (note to self – bring extra batteries – duh). Since my eyesight is so bad, Ken let me lead with the other headlamp. The footing is quite tricky and some areas were wet so it slowed us down a bit. (The puddles had turned to ice when we reached them on the way back.)
When we arrived at Trail Crest, the highest trail pass in the US (13,645 ft) it was still pitch dark and we were half -asleep and perhaps a bit altitude touched. Somehow, we misread the sign and went the wrong way – going about 1/2 mile off course. We thought it was odd that we’d be descending before the peak, but we saw some headlamps down there and none in the other direction…Despite the wrong turn, we made it to the top in time for one of the most memorable sunrises of my life.
This time, no altitude sickness at all, but you can hear me slurring my speech a tad in the video – from the cold & altitude (no mimosas, unfortunately). These past 24 years and my history of running have not been kind to my knees so the way down was much harder (hurt more) than the way up. Not sure I’ll be back again, but ya never know. Maybe I should do it every 24 years? Maybe not. Anyway, it was totally worth it.
The steep drop-offs on the upper trail were equally daunting in the dark and in the daylight.
The view of a few of the infamous 99 switchbacks and the little lake by Trail Camp on the way down.
Ran into my swim buddy, Rosie, on the way down – her way up.
We made it back to Trail Camp by 9AM and out the bottom by 1:30PM – all in a days work – 23 hrs with camping. I recommend camping if you can, you get to enjoy the hike more and see more.
Many thanks to Ken for capturing and sharing his great photos on this post, for always being a great sport on my crazy escapades, and for carrying the heavier pack.
My toenail causality. Guess my foot modeling days are over.
Getting there: Take Whitney Portal road from Lone Pine
If you like alpine lakes, sublime scenery, and trail terrain that’s gentle on feet (good for trail running too), you’ll want to spend a day here, immersed in natural bliss. I loved this hike. The lakes and mountain scenery are SPECTACULAR. It felt easy to me despite my hiking book’s rating of it as a 4 out of 5 for difficulty due to the 2,100 ft elevation gain. The trail is quite gradual with many switchbacks, but it didn’t really seem like a big climb. Maybe I just woke up strong and altitude acclimated. The good news is the elevation gain keeps the crowds away.
There was something magical about this tree. Look for it on the trail after Lake Sherwin and let me know if it stopped you in your tracks too. The pictures don’t do it justice. I named it the Medusa tree.
If you’re not up for hiking up to Valentine Lake (9,698 ft – 5.6 miles), you can always make Sherwin Lake (2-3 miles) your destination instead, but just so you know, you’ll be missing this:
Valentine Lake, you stole my heart and nearly froze it too! I can’t resist the allure of an alpine lake, even when it’s snow melt cold. Can you?
My boyfriend was taunting me in the video below. Note: HE DID NOT JUMP IN THE LAKE. (And somehow I resisted pushing him into it.)
Distance Round Trip: 11.2 miles
Elevation Gain / Loss: 2,100
Getting There: South from Lee Vining on the 395, you’ll find Sherwin Creek Road two miles south of the Mammoth Lakes exit. Take Sherwin Creek Road west and drive ~2.5 miles and then turn left on the spur road before you reach Sherwin Creak Campground.
They say that 100-acre Lundy Lake (ele. 7,800′) is one of the most overlooked drive-to lakes in the Eastern Sierras. Named after W.J. Lundy who operated a sawmill near Lundy Lake, it’s hidden in the easily accessible foothills above Mono Lake. Part natural beauty, part manmade, originally, Lundy Lake was a smaller lake that was expanded to its current size in 1910.
I didn’t go jump in the lake as is my habit, because I only had a couple hours to Go Take a Hike and Go Chasing Waterfalls
The hike was rated as a 3 for difficulty and a 9 for scenery in my old school, 1995 Cali hiking book. They were spot on for the scenery and a bit off on the difficulty level. The book said we would pass 2 small waterfalls and then at 3 miles arrive at Lake Helen to be followed by Odell Lake a mile beyond. There were many waterfalls some were narrow snow melt tracing their way down from mountain ridges above and others were thundering tiered falls along the trail–all were quite beautiful.
We only had a couple hours before sunset so we thought, with a good pace, we could at least make it the 3 miles to Lake Helen and back. Nope. The book didn’t mention the mountain of scree that had to be conquered before encountering Lake Helen. It also, didn’t mention that the beginning of the trail would be all but obscured due to floods and avalanches. (How could it predict 2018 conditions?) I didn’t find anything about it online either. Of course, I wanted to see what was up and around the corner of this massive mountain of scree so I kept going only to find yet another, steeper mountain of scree and no sign of the Lake Helen. Sunset was upon us so I reluctantly “skied” (not really, well maybe on my backside) the scree downhill and headed back down the trail.
A young hiker who missed her loop trail from above said she had read about the scree mountains somewhere online and knew she’d be contending with them. We gave her and her little dog, Beast, a ride back to her car on Tioga Pass. It would have been a very cold night to bed down in the woods.
Back at home as I was writing this post I discovered that AllTrails rates the trail as difficult and one person noted this: The only downside is that you can no longer reach Lake Helen due to the shale slides. The mountain has wiped out the last portion of the trail and the shale is not stable.
Oops. Just as well, I turned around when I did. I’d say it’s an easy hike if you turn around before the scree / massive rock slide, which is the safe thing to do. (Do as I say, not as I did.) Thankful the forest fairies were watching over me.
Lake Lundy is a lovely area to explore, take a dip in the lake or under a waterfall, hike and / or fish. Maybe someday I’ll be back to meet up with Lake Helen and Odell Lake when new trails are established. Note: You can approach Helen and Odell Lakes from the top instead via Tioga pass, but should stop short of the scree for safety. Happy Trails.
And enjoy easy shore access, the natural beauty and your fishing without the crowds. Lundy Lake is home to healthy populations of rainbow (26K stocked each season) and some large brown trout and because it lacks the pressure of some of its neighboring lakes, the fish are known for being slightly more gullible and often slightly larger than you’ll find elsewhere.
Below the lake, Mill Creek is also known for its small, wild trout population.
You’ll have your best luck in the wet years, of course.
Lundy Lake Campground: First come first serve, no reservations
36 campsites with restrooms and non-potable water.
The Lundy Lake “Resort”
RV hook ups, additional regular campsites, cabins, a general store and boat rentals in paradise.
For more information or to book reservations at the “Resort”, call 626-309-0415.
Getting there: Hoover Wilderness, Inyo National Forest: From Highway 395 north of Lee Vining, turn west onto Lundy Lake Road and follow roughly five miles to the lake and two miles beyond on the dirt road top get to the trail head.
One misty morning, I drove to the park from Santa Cruz on windy Highway 9. I turned one of the many blind corners and almost ran over a vagrant walking down the middle of the road (literally the middle of the road) pulling his rolling suitcase. Yikes. Luckily I was driving cautiously through here because when I drove into town the day before I couldn’t help but notice that the pullouts were polluted with groups of what I am going to call “car people” in various states of inebriation and agitation and ankle-deep in their own litter and debris. Yes, that was my off-putting experience with the “Santa Cruz city greeters.”
I thought early morning might be a good time to explore Henry Cowell State Park, avoid those car transients and the crowds in general. I was mostly correct.
The 4,650 acre park is best known for its 40-acre grove of towering old-growth redwood trees, but it also includes 3 other habitats (grasslands, river/riparian and sand hills). The redwoods here are said to have inspired some of California’s earliest redwood preservation efforts. The tallest tree in the park is ~277 feet tall, ~16 feet wide, and estimated to be ~1,500 years old. Some trails run alongside the Sans Lorenzo River and there’s even a swimming hole.
When I arrived, the parking lot was empty as were the trails. I just ran into a couple trail runners and dog walkers.
The .8 Redwood Grove Loop trail is, of course, a must do. I also did the Cowell Highlights Loop to the Observation Deck (the park’s highest point at a meager 805 feet) Overlook Bench, Cathedral Redwoods, and Cable Car Beach about 6 miles.
It was pleasant but I never felt I was away from civilization – one “trail” is a paved road and you can hear people at the campground from different points on the trails. It’s a good place for a quick leg stretch or trail run, family hiking and camping experience. If you’re a hard-core hiker, I’d say if you miss it, you won’t miss that much. If you get it on a clear day, you might be rewarded with spectacular views of Monterrey Bay. I wasn’t, but the Santa Cruz mountains views were certainly pleasant. By the time I finished my hike, the parking lot was full of people crowding onto the trails in hopes that the mist would clear for them. It may have, but I’m glad I got out of there when I did. Go early, if you want to avoid the crowds.
After 2 somewhat disappointing days in Santa Cruz, I headed south for adventures in Carmel and Monterrey. They did not disappoint.
Had I known what my Santa Cruz experience would be like ahead of time, I might have decided to stop and stay awhile at Sanborn Park, instead of just doing a quickie leg stretch here.
I was enjoying driving along CA 9, taking the scenic route from San Jose airport to Santa Cruz. I’d just passed through the quaint hamlet of Saratoga when I started inhaling a fragrant, slightly cooler breeze and enjoying the dense forest shade on both sides of the winding road. That’s when I saw the sign for Sanborn County Park and decided to stop for a little explore.
Nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the park covers 3,449 acres and has over 18 miles of trails amidst mixed evergreen forests of Oak, Tanborn Oak, Madrone, Redwoods and Douglass fir. During the summer, the park features the only outdoor Shakespearean company in Silicon Valley. The day use area has a 1 mile nature trail, picnic areas and restrooms – perfect for those on a road trip like me.
I read that the upper reaches of the John Nicholas Trail connect Lake Ranch Reservoir with the Skyline Trail and reward hikers with spectacular vistas of the San Francisco peninsula. (This trail that is open to all users – hikers, equestrians & mountain bikers.) If i’m ever in this area again, I’ll definitely do it. Until then a quick immersion in nature with a glimpse of wildlife was just what I needed.
Most interesting geological feature of the park is the San Andreas Fault which cuts through it diagonally.
Have you been to this park? If so, let us know what trails you did and how you liked it.
Day Use Entry Fee: $6
Mountain Biking: Allowed on park roads and designated trails only.
Camping: RV (year-round) & Tent (April through October)
Getting there: The main park entrance is on Sanborn Road, about 1.75 miles from Saratoga via CA 9.
I’ve never been to Santa Cruz, but it’s always held a certain allure for me. I was expecting a fun, charming surf town and had planned on spending some time getting to know the area. I took the scenic route (9) in from San Jose. It was a lovely ride through the mountains with redwood forests on either side. It was lovely, that is, until I got within a couple miles of Santa Cruz city limits. Here, the pullouts were crowded with disheveled people hanging out, drinking, smoking, erratically crossing the street, their stuffed cars overflowing, litter and debris everywhere. Are these the official town greeters of Santa Cruz? Yikes. I had intended to camp in the state park here, but made a quick decision that camping by myself anywhere near Santa Cruz would be ill advised.
Don’t get me wrong, not all of Santa Cruz is like that, but there’s enough of this element to make many areas downright unpleasant and uncomfortable. Of course, I don’t go in for the amusement park scene either and Santa Cruz has a big seaside amusement park and boardwalk. The entire area gets inundated with people, especially on a summer weekend. So inundated, in fact, that my map program told me it would take 30 minutes to drive 1 mile. Yikes again. Since I’d been in transit all day, I wanted to take a nice walk. Not knowing where to go, I headed for the beach and ended up by the squalor of the boardwalk. My stroll took me through neighborhoods with boarded up and ramshackle homes and through other undesirable areas where street people were lurking under bridges along the river trail. Second impression was as bad as the first. Wouldn’t recommend walking alone at night around here at all. To top it all off, my Airbnb had a port-a-potty and an abandoned couch out in front of it. I paid $115 for the dubious privilege of spending the night in a dingy, dirty, dimly lit dump. Everything was sold out so I was out of luck and I was too exhausted to drive any further. Luckily, the sheets and towels were clean.
The next morning, I discovered one of the most beautiful areas of Santa Cruz, scenic West Cliff Drive, with its gorgeous homes, famous surf spot, “Steamer’s Lane” and Natural Bridge State Beach. If you’re looking for a coastal stroll in Santa Cruz, this is the area to take one. Third impression of Santa Cruz, much better.
I took a yoga class on the beach at Natural Bridges State Beach – spectacular setting, lame instructor. I’m all smiles before the class.
Despite posting extensive credentials, the instructor didn’t seem to know yoga flow, was too chatty and stunk of body odor. (Was he sleeping in his car too? Had I been scammed?) He had 29 reviews and they were all good??? What? When I’m on vacation time, my time is precious and I don’t want to waste it. If someone is advertising yoga and hyping their credentials, I have certain expectations. Definitely wouldn’t sign up for his class again and I am officially responsible for the 1 negative review currently posted. (Guess the class would be fine for beginners – maybe?) Santa Cruz disappointments kept racking up so I decided to leave town for a scenic drive up the coast to Half Moon Bay.
Fast food drive by
Super sweet strawberries
The scenery did not disappoint. The central coast is ravishingly beautiful and gives a sense of a pristine California before people invaded.
Five miles south of Pescadero, you’ll find Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Built in 1871, at 115 feet high, this is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast. It is still an active navigation aid for the Coast Guard. The light house has a cool hostel with a jacuzzi you can rent out at night. Looks like you’d have your pick of secluded beach coves too.
Warning: Soap Box
But I spoke too soon, much to my dismay, every spot I stopped in a pullout, there was litter strewn about. In one spot, I filled a paper bag within a 2-feet radius of my car. Humans really disgust me sometimes, especially Americans and others who trash their environments. We are a 1st world country that acts like a 3rd world country in many respects. It really disturbs me. Any of you old enough to remember that American Indian PSA commercial about littering? The one with teh Indian Brave who has a tear rolling down his noble cheek when he observes a littered area? Cliché, I know, but that’s how I felt – it’s heart breaking to see nature ruined. I stopped to find a spot to have a picnic and saw filthy underwear, antifreeze containers, all kinds of grotesque detritus of car transients etc -all within 25 feet of the ocean.
I spoke to a Park ranger and she said, “We just can’t keep up with it.” I hate to think of what this coast will look like in another 5 years if things don’t turn around. Where is the respect for nature? Where is the personal responsibility to clean up after yourself? Animals behave better.
Watching the “uplifting” wind surfing and kite surfing on the way back helped lift my mood a little as I contemplated my next move. Stay tuned for my Carmel / Monterey experience – it did NOT disappoint. Highlights include Point Lobos, two epic bike rides and more to come.