Day 8: Milling About in the General Vicinity of South Fork Lakes, With a Side Trip to Cirque Lake (3 miles)
Our decision to stay at Upper South Fork Lake was one of convenience, putting us about five miles from the trailhead for our hike out on the last day, but it was also a stroke of good fortune. From the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, there really aren’t that many places one can go on the east side of the ridge. The Cottonwood Lakes are the place where most people go, probably because the Cottonwood Lakes are quite pretty and the South Fork Lakes much less so.
|Nice camping at Upper South Fork Lake. (Photo ST)|
Upper South Fork Lake is really more of a pond, or perhaps a sump, than it is a lake, and by the end of summer it may be just a damp spot on the ground. There is a small stream that feeds into the lake from the mountains above, but the catchment area is small, and the stream was barely flowing at the beginning of July. Curiously, the South Fork Lakes are a separate watershed from the Cottonwood Lakes. Their headwaters share the same basin below New Army Pass, but a small spit of land separates Upper South Fork Lake from Long Lake, though they are only a few hundred yards apart and at about the same elevation.
To the south of Upper South Fork Lake is a long, low shoulder of crumbling granite that juts out from the ridge below Cirque Peak, and on the other side of that shoulder is Cirque Lake. With one more day to enjoy and no real reason to move camp—other than the sheer joy of packing and unpacking—we decided that a third lay-over day was just the ticket. Cirque Lake offered a unique combination of promise and proximity that made it a must see destination for a short but vigorous day hike on an otherwise kickback day.
The climb to the top of the low shoulder of crumbling granite did not take long, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, which, even by our decidedly unambitious standards, was not enough. From the top of the shoulder we had an excellent view of the lake and of the cirque surrounding it. Cirque Lake is very pretty, and had we known we might have been tempted to move. There is one good camping spot on the northwest side of the lake, and several sites in the meadow below the lake on the eastern side that would have been okay. On the western side of the lake, the ground slopes very steeply up toward the high ridge and Cirque Peak. Across the lake on the southern side was a well-defined glacial moraine hanging about midway between the lake level and the high ridge behind.
“Maybe we should go explore that moraine,” Snow Toad suggested. “See how it slopes down the lake level? We could just follow it down and then explore the lake.”
No one had a better plan, so we agreed to go explore the moraine. The only question was how to get there. Climbing down to the lake level and then back up would have been the most sensible route, but sensible is for lightweights. We might have committed ourselves to the principles of lightweight backpacking, but we had not adopted lightweight sensibilities. No, climbing down would require climbing back up, and a more direct route, scaling the cliff face above the western side of the lake, was available. So it was settled. We would go explore the moraine, and we would scale the cliff face to get there.
|The easy way across.|
This was one of those things that made more sense while standing securely atop a rounded mound of crumbled granite than it did as we clung to the rocks, fly-like, suspended two-hundred feet above the lake. But after the first few steps—which included squeezing between two big rocks, sliding carefully down a steep, slick chute, jumping over a narrow ravine onto a broad patch of deep sand, and then carefully wading through the sand while hoping that it would not all start sliding down the mountain—we were committed. Without knowing what lay ahead it was easy to imagine that it had to be easier than turning around and jumping from deep sand over a narrow ravine and into a steep, slick chute. It wasn’t. Our reward for crossing the deep sand was an opportunity to scramble across scree-covered rocks, around a loose boulder that Oliver nearly dislodged, and onto a narrow shelf that allowed us to shimmy past a 20-foot vertical cliff. Once past the cliff, we found ourselves perched on a broad flat rock with an opportunity to relax for a moment before continuing. From there, Oliver and Snow Toad charted out an excellent path that had us fighting our way uphill through prickly bushes that were all growing downhill, carefully sidling along a another little ledge and around a big tree that was growing right on the edge, up through a sand-filled chute, and then across a large, smooth, sloping rock surface that was suspended above a 30-foot fall and lubricated with sand. All in all, it wasn’t too bad, and clearly better than hiking all the way down and then all the way back up.
The moraine was hardly worth the effort. What looked to be an easy stroll from across the lake proved an arduous exercise in bouldering once there. The entire moraine was a giant jumble of large rocks, which makes sense once you sit back and think about it. But we hadn’t sat back and we hadn’t thought, so there we were. No matter what direction we set out in, we had to climb up, down, or sideways to get there. Our goal of exploring the moraine was laudable, even noble perhaps, but the MountainGuys do not award badges for nobility, and it was nearly lunchtime, so we abandoned the moraine and climbed down the lake.
|The moraine looked more inviting from afar.|
Water flows out of Cirque Lake at the eastern end, through a broad meadow, and eventually into South Fork Creek. The entire eastern shore is shallow, with a fine little sandy beach. The breeze was blowing cool off the lake, but we found a large, black rock to lean up against and it was plenty warm in the sun. From our lunch spot we had an uninterrupted view of the cliff face we had climbed across earlier, and had to admit that it looked pretty dangerous. Of course that filled us with a sense of pride in our mountaineering accomplishments. But proud as we were, we knew where the real danger lay, so we also took a sacred vow not to share the details with our wives and girlfriends.
|Our path took us across the top of the sand chute. (Photo ST)|
There are three lakes in the South Fork Lakes. The upper lake is more of a sump than a lake, and the middle lake is little more than a vernal pool. The lower lake is small, but genuinely lake-like, with deep blue water that sparkles in the sun.
There is a semi-maintained trail from the lower lake to the Cottonwood Creek trail, and it’s a pretty good bet that the semi-maintained trail continues on to the upper lake, even though it wasn’t shown on our map. But no matter, we were in off-trail mode, so when Oliver suggested we hike up South Fork Creek to get back to camp, none of us so much as hesitated. We should have. From the trail the hillside sloped steeply down to the lake. A few lousy campsites had been established on the flattish spots, but one would always have to beware the risks of rolling out of bed and all the way down to the water. Hiking up the stream was a lot like hiking on the moraine—large boulders blocked our path in every direction, and every step had to be carefully planned to avoid rolling a stone over and ending up underneath it.
|Hiking up South Fork Creek to camp.|
Upper and Lower South Fork Lakes are separated by only half a mile, but the hike up the creek took almost an hour. Leaping from boulder to boulder is fun for the first 200 leaps (give or take), but after that it is just tiring. So when we finally crested the rim of the upper sump at about 2:00 p.m., we are all exhausted and grateful. Snow Toad was painfully behind in his “chair time,” Oliver and Rick (well, Oliver anyway) were looking forward to playing golf, and I was anxious to fish. This was our last afternoon in the wilderness, and there was still so much to be done.
Although Upper South Fork Lake was a very modest affair, it did have one very important feature: the fish were ravenous and feeding on the surface pretty much all day long. I had done some fishing the previous afternoon, catching at least ten fish, all on mosquitoes and ants. The ants worked best. But I had not kept any of them because I didn’t feel like cleaning and frying fish in the rain. On this last day of our trip, I was determined to catch the biggest, plumpest fish in the whole lake and eat them. I even had the temerity to tell my companions of my ambitions. You can imagine their surprise when I walked into camp with two big, beautiful golden trout, and after catching about 25 fish, I can say that these were very likely the biggest fish out there.
I fried the fish in a little oil and carefully removed all of the meat from the bones. Between us, Oliver and I had two extra tortillas, so I fried those up one at a time, threw on some cheese and some fish and some hot sauce, and made fish tacos as an appetizer. These were so good that Snow Toad couldn’t help himself and even had a bite. For my efforts I was awarded the Golden Taco Badge for high achievement in wilderness fish taco cuisine.
Dinner that night was curried rice with salmon and vegetables. And even though we were committed to the whole lightweight thing, on this last day we had to have a complete three-course meal, including raspberry crumble for dessert. Snow Toad, however, had recovered his equilibrium, settling back down after his brush with fish taco exuberance, and had ramen.
|Resting easy at the end of the day.|
As always the last night was a bittersweet affair. I drained the last of my scotch, and Oliver his tequila, as the four of us watched a lightning storm out over the Owens Valley more intense than the finale of even the biggest fireworks display. The lightning flashes lit up the towering thunderheads, crackling off with barely any break for more than an hour. Overhead we had clear skies and bright stars. The lightning show was dramatic and exciting, and we were all really glad that it was 15 miles away.