Sunday, June 14, 2015

Big Cottonwood Loop

Hiking along Cottonwood Creek
The Cottonwood Lakes/Horseshoe Meadow trailhead complex near Lone Pine gives hikers a variety of choices for adventure.  We had hiked many of the trails in years past but planned this week to connect two of the major passes with a big loop. If the weather cooperated and we didn't run out of gas climbing to the first pass, we would continue around the loop. Blue sky greeted us upon arrival at the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead (elevation 10,000 feet) early in the morning. Getting out of the car we immediately heard the chatter of a flock of Red Crossbills high in the trees. The first couple miles of trail traverses a low ridge then follows along Cottonwood Creek for an easy warm up for the climbing that would come soon enough. This section of trail with a mixture of Foxtail and Lodgepole pines entertained us with good birding. Two of my favorite mountain bird songs were regular - the beautiful flute-like song of Hermit Thrush and the bigger than life musical song of the diminutive Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Soon enough the creek and trail turned to the west and began the ascent to the Cottonwood Lakes basin below Mount Langley. This 14,026 foot mountain, just a few air-miles south of Mount Whitney would dominate our view for much of the morning.

Cottonwood Basin.  Mt. Langley is in the middle, New Army pass slight left at the top of the cirque.
Mule deer near a lower Cottonwood Lake.  Mt. Langley above.
The lakes basin, even at over 11,000 feet and near tree line had good birding. A couple of Savannah Sparrows flitted about the grass at the edge of a lake. Wilsons, MacGillivray's, and Orange-crowned Warblers were seen and heard wherever there was water and willows. Mountain Bluebirds worked the meadows for insects. Mule deer grazed along a lake edge, not a care in the world.

To cross the divide and reach the west side the trail climbs an ancient glacial cirque, cresting at New Army Pass - elevation 12,300 feet.  

A near treeline "moonscape." 

Glacial cirque with New Army Pass near the center. This nearly 180 degree panorama flattens the amazing view.

Cottonwood Lakes basin from cirque wall near New Army Pass

The last stretch of trail to the pass

New Army Pass with Mt. Langley still dominating the view
On top, Rock Wrens and American Pipits were all that was left of the avian crowd. We were hoping for Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, but the lack of snow here appeared to have sent them elsewhere. As we started down the west side, two things happened - the Great Western Divide came into view in all its glory, and we walked right into a herd of 10 Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep. They tolerated our presence with a casual glance and let us get reasonably close for fantastic looks.

The view west from New Army Pass - Great Western Divide

Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep!
After a quick lunch we looked at the clouds and decided to go for the loop.  What could go wrong?! We descended down to treeline again at 11,000 feet, turning south on the Rock Creek/Siberian Pass cutoff to connect with the Pacific Crest Trail at Mile 755. It was about this spot that Zeus became angry with us and began rattling the heavens. The first raindrops fell as we continued south on the PCT, occasionally ducking under a large foxtail pine to avoid the worst of it.  Thankfully it was relatively warm and most of the rain was a light sprinkle as we made our way to Cottonwood Pass and the exit back to the east side.

Big Whitney Meadow in the rain

Susan says I'm a rain magnet. I don't understand why. :-)

The PCT intersects Cottonwood Pass right at the crest.  A quick drop of 1,100 feet through foxtail pine forest with a Sooty Grouse every few hundred yards brought us to the edge of Horseshoe Meadow.  A short cross-country jaunt took us back to the correct trailhead and our waiting car.  

Horseshoe Meadow from Cottonwood Pass

Mileage: 21
Accent: 3,500 feet

Map Track

Bird Lists:

Cottonwood Trailhead
New Army/South Fork Junction
New Army Pass
Rock Creek Trail Junction
PCT Mile 755
PCT Mile 750/Cottonwood Pass
Horseshoe Meadow

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