A fine hike — for a graveyard
July 2, 2013
Graveyard Lakes, at least on the surface, doesn't sound like the most appealing destination.
Then again, neither does Devil's Bathtub — choice No. 2 for our overnight backpacking trip.
But as any Sierra Nevada traveler will attest, the range is speckled with such dauntingly named features. And despite their monikers, most are worth the effort to visit, if only for a brief passing or stay.
Last week was spent a couple hundred miles away from the work desk, on the western slope of the central Sierra. We can thank for the vacation my longtime family friend Caitlin and her new husband Walt, who were married under a giant oak on a foothills ranch, surrounded by good people.
Before the wedding, however, my girlfriend Becky and I decided to venture into the high country above Huntington Lake. We had one night. We settled on Graveyard Lakes, beyond the southeast tip of the Ansel Adams Wilderness and into the heart of the John Muir Wilderness.
The trailhead is reached by way of Kaiser Pass, a narrow and bumpy backcountry gateway that rises above Huntington and dead ends at either Edison or Florence lake, both of which offer ferry rides across their icy waters to the Pacific Crest Trail. Through-hikers know Edison Lake for its Vermilion Valley Resort, a popular stopping point for PCT hikers overdue for a hot shower and restaurant meal.
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Lagging from the start, we eventually arrived at the trailhead near Edison around mid afternoon. I had almost forgotten how deep it is, located up and over the shoulder of the Kaiser Wilderness Area, down across the south fork of the San Joaquin River and back up to the crotch of the Sierra Crest.
Our trail, much like Kaiser Pass, snaked through impressive old-growth forest dotted with plump Jeffrey and ponderosa pine, lodgepole (often called tamarack in those parts), juniper and red fir as we climbed steadily toward the jagged ridge of the Silver Divide.
Twice we kicked off the shoes and waded across the aptly named Cold Creek — whose swift waters, particularly on the hike out the next morning, caused throbs of pain through the meat of our feet. The trail skirted Graveyard Meadows to the southeast as it continued its parallel route up the ridge.
After the second shoes-off creek crossing in the scenic Upper Graveyard Meadows (we used fallen logs for two other crossings along the way), the trail sent us over the final, steep climb into the lowest of the Graveyard Lakes, some 9 miles from our starting point, about 10,000 feet in elevation.
The lake, nestled at the foot of the 11,494-foot Graveyard Peak, did not disappoint. The surrounding granite peaks reflected off its clear water, which teamed with small brooke trout feeding on the surface.
By this time the sun was minutes away from ducking behind the towering granite above. We decided to post up at one of the many ideal campsites along the eastern shore, content with the serene nature and solitude of our destination (the only humans we ran across were on the hike out).
Mosquitos were vicious, but nothing out of the ordinary for June in the Sierra. They did seem particularly hungry in the morning, after the chilly night began to give way to day. Becky took the brunt of their attack as they chewed on whatever non Deet-soaked portion of body was available.
Between defensive mosquito swats I managed to hook a couple of the 6-inch brookies that overpopulated the small body of water — near clones of the fish I caught the night before. After cooking a breakfast of instant oatmeal and battling more mosquitos, which swarmed around the warmth of the stove, we departed our alpine paradise, reeking of the Off Deep Woods spray that we exhausted.
A lunch fuel-up at Vermilion and we were back on the road, with one stop remaining — White Bark Vista atop Kaiser Pass. The scenic viewpoint marks the end, or start, of the Dusy Ershim OHV Route, considered one of the big three of California's four-wheel-drive routes, along with the Rubicon and Fordyce Creek trails of the Tahoe backcountry.
The view atop White Bark Vista's perch, located between Kaiser Peak and Mount Givens at roughly 9,600 feet, is one of the finest in the area, and had to be shown off. It sprawls from the dark and distinctive, 13,000-foot steeps of Mount Ritter (and Mammoth Mountain) to the north, south across all three forks of the San Joaquin River to Edison Lake and beyond, which stands out in stark contrast to the barren, sandy-colored high peaks of the John Muir Wilderness.
Then it was back down the hill to civilization, where we were left with lasting memories of our brief backcountry adventure, and itchy remnants of our mosquito encounters.