Day 1: Cottonwood Lakes Campground to Cottonwood Lake #3, or No Question About It, This Is A Popular Spot (5.5 miles)
Sleep that first night proved elusive. The elevation might have had something to do with it, or it might have been the dry air. Perhaps it was the drinking or the excitement of being out on the trail once again. Or maybe it was the small group of campers that pulled into the site next to ours at 10:00 that night, unencumbered by any sense of propriety or decorum. Everything they did they did at full volume, blissfully unaware that their voices might carry in the thin air of a silent mountain night. Worst was a woman with a very large baritone voice, who did a fine job as a play-by-play announcer keeping the entire campground informed about what each member of the group was doing. When she announced, at 11:00, that it was time for bed, we could hear the entire campground, including the horses and the mules, let out an audible sigh of relief.
Relief was short-lived, however. At 4:30 in the morning, the whole herd of cowboy wannabes began stirring, banging pots, striking tents, gathering gear, and getting ready to head out. To their credit, they spoke in muffled voices and tried not to turn their one-million-candle-power spotlight in our direction too often, but there were at least 27 wannabes and noise was an unavoidable consequence. I would have preferred to sleep without distraction, but the annoyance was almost worth it when the lady with the baritone voice emerged from her tent at 7:30 complaining (at full volume) about the noisy neighbors.
Our plan was to start hiking by 9:00, but because of the goings on behind us, both Rick and Oliver were up early and ready to hike by 8:00. My packing took longer, in part because I had to organize all the car-camping gear and pack the truck, but mostly because I am not at my most efficient in the morning. By the time I had everything organized to my liking, Oliver was fit to be tied. His repeated offers of help were well intended, and might in fact have been helpful if I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to do. When he could stand it no longer, Oliver offered to hike to the trailhead and wait there. Finally, something he and I could agree on. Despite all the histrionics (his), catty commentary (Rick and Snow Toad), and bumbling efforts at getting organized (mine), we were at the trailhead and ready to hike by 9:00.
The parking lot was much less crowded this morning than it had been the night before, and the walk-in campground was largely deserted. We were hiking in on the Sunday after 4th of July, almost everybody else was hiking out. This was a good omen. Over the years the MountainGuys have sought out venues that are both spectacular and remote. Sequoia is certainly spectacular, but it is not so remote that lots of people don’t go there. So it was with a sense of relief that most of the traffic was in the opposite direction.
|Welcome to the wilderness. (Photo ST)|
Day hikers comprised most of the traffic in our direction, and unburdened by packs as light as ours, went zipping by at regular intervals. Occasionally we would pass another group of backpackers, or they would pass us, and it was on one such chance encounter that we decided to see what we could learn about the trail ahead.
|On the trail. (Photo ST)|
One of the vexing questions we had tried to answer before setting out was which pass to take to cross into Sequoia National Park. The main trail winds up past lakes Long and High before climbing over New Army Pass. However, since this was to be a cross-country trip, we planned to follow the trail up to Cottonwood Lakes with the intention of going over Army Pass the following morning. The main trail used to go over Army Pass, which is about 300 feet lower than New Army Pass, but Army Pass is prone to being snowed in until late in the season. So the new trail was built and the old trail was allowed to slowly disappear. The most recent reports we could obtain suggested that Army Pass was probably open, but no guarantees.
We had stopped along the trail to take a group photo when a young couple, each carrying a large daypack, hove into view. They agreed to take our picture and we agreed to return the favor. While we were thus engaged, Snow Toad asked what they knew of Army Pass.
“Army Pass is a miserable, sandy, mess. New Army Pass is excellent. We will go over the pass today, and maybe do some climbing. Think we will climb Langley and see how far we get. Maybe all the way to Whitney. We have a few days,” he added with a smug shrug of his daypack.
The young man seemed to know what he was talking about, but the packs these two were carrying were impossibly small for the trip he had described, and his perky demeanor and youthful zest were enough to convince us that he could not possibly be right. We would go over Army Pass.
|Signs in the wilderness. Almost spooky.|
There are six Cottonwood Lakes, conveniently named One through Six. Lakes One and Two are small, with nothing really to recommend them as campsites. Lakes Three, Four, and Five are very pretty lakes, and pretty good sized, although the camping is pretty mediocre. Cottonwood Six is tucked high above the rest of the lakes, on the southeast flank of Mt. Langley. Lakes Four, Five, and Six are all above treeline. The best camping is up in the trees at Cottonwood Three, although it is still pretty mediocre. I will say this, though: by putting ourselves up in the trees, well away from the water, the spot where we camped was little used and clean, almost like wilderness.
|Campsite at Cottonwood 3. Almost like wilderness. (Photo ST)|
The trail to Army Pass climbs between Lakes Four and Five, traverses the north side of Cottonwood Four, and then disappears into an ever-shifting mountainside of sand. But we didn’t know that yet. We arrived at Cottonwood Lakes at about 1:30, and so had a long afternoon to relax and explore our surroundings. Snow Toad spent the afternoon alternating between seat time and napping, and Oliver and Rick played 18 holes of disc golf. I took the opportunity to spend time fishing. Since Cottonwood Three is strictly catch-and-release, I decided to take the hike up to Cottonwood Five, which is catch-and-eat. The fishing was lousy, but the hike was nice and it gave me a chance to scout out the pass for our climb the next day.
I spent a lot of time studying that pass, and I can honestly say there was nothing about it that appealed to me. Once past the lake, we would have to climb up a very steep slope of deep, grainy sand, clamber around a steep section of smooth rock covered in scree, and then work our way up a long shelf that leads to the pass. Just before the pass, there was one last troubling section where we would have to scramble over exposed rock, perched atop a cliff face; one slip would mean a very long fall to the bottom. New Army Pass was looking better all the time.
When I returned to camp, Oliver was in the midst of preparing a fine meal of tortellini with salmon. Fresh trout would have been a nice addition, but as I had none to offer, the salmon would have to do. Snow Toad had ramen. Over dinner, I reported what I had learned about the pass.
“I don’t want to go over that pass,” I said with conviction.
“Think we could do it?” asked Oliver.
“Yes, I think we could. But I don’t want to.”
“Well, if you think it’s doable,” said Rick, “then I think we should do it.”
“You did promise us a cross-country route,” added Snow Toad.
“Yes, I did. But there is no need to be dogmatic about this. I don’t want to go over that pass.”
“Great!” said Oliver. “I’m looking forward to going over the pass tomorrow.”