Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Boreal Plateau

We had a weekend available, and our good friend "Hikin' Bill" needed to be reintroduced to backpacking after many years, so we planned a short trip to an area that had great interest to us in the southern Sierra. The Boreal Plateau is an isolated sky island at the south end of Sequoia National Park surrounded by lower elevation meadows (Big Whitney, Little Whitney, Tunnel, Siberian Outpost) to the south and east, the remarkable Kern Trench to the west, and Rock Creek to the north. Sitting in the middle of the plateau is Funston Lake. From everything we had heard, this was a must-see destination.

Day 1 - Horseshoe Meadow Trailhead to Rocky Basin Lakes (15 miles)

Horseshoe Meadow trail
Being the crazy hikers we are, the decision was made to visit the plateau by the roundabout route through Rocky Basin Lakes. These lakes sit on the south edge of the plateau several hundred feet below. An early start from the trailhead had us cruising through Horseshoe Meadow and up to Cottonwood Pass in the cool morning air. The giant gnarled Foxtail Pines mixed in with Lodgepoles are always a treat when you hike in this area. From the top of Cottonwood Pass we detoured a short distance to pick up water at Chicken Spring Lake.  In this severe drought year we weren't taking any chance on the entirety of Big Whitney Meadows being dry and it was still a long way to Rocky Basin Lakes.

Foxtail Pine cones

Chicken Spring Lake
Next up was the long descent to Big Whitney Meadow, from 11,130 feet to below 9,800 feet elevation.  The "Big" in Big Whitney is no exaggeration as this meadow stretches on for over a mile. The drought has taken its toll on this meadow.

Big Whitney Meadow
At the west end of the meadow we began a gentle ascent toward Rocky Basin Lakes, working over several ridges until the final hard climb up to the lowest lake. The lack of snowpack has punished many of the backcountry lakes evident by the large "bathtub" rings around the edges.  The smallest lakes in this basin were nothing but dirt.

One of the Rocky Basin Lakes
Fifteen miles and lots of up and down seemed like enough when we reached the shore of the farthest west lake, so we made camp for the evening.  This staged us right at the edge of the climb for the Boreal Plateau the next morning.
Bird Lists for day 1:

Horseshoe Meadow
Cottonwood Pass
Chicken Spring Lake
Stokes Springer Creek
Big Whitney Meadow Rocky Basin Lakes

Day 2 - Rocky Basin Lakes to Cottonwood Lakes Basin (14 miles)

When you only have a weekend for a long trip into the backcountry, there will always be disappointment in not being to explore an area more, and this day was no exception. The Boreal Plateau is amazing and a longer future visit is certainly in order.  We started the day by cross country climbing the ridge dividing the Rocky Lakes Basin from Johnson Lake, then turning north to finish the ascent to the plateau.  The entire world view opened up then with views extending for miles and miles in all directions. To the south, Kern and Olancha Peaks stood out. In the west, the Kern Trench gouged its way through the mountains and beyond was the immensity of the Great Western Divide. To the east, the Sierra Crest including Mount Langley and Mount Whitney.  And in the north stood the magnificent Kaweah group with Mount Kaweah dominating front and center. It was one of the most impressive Sierra views to be had anywhere. Unfortunately, even photos can't do justice to these amazing vistas.  A short traverse across the plateau brought us to the overlook to Funston Lake - another place to spend more time in the future.

Paintbrush and Kern Peak
Boreal Plateau with Kaweah Group
Boreal Plateau with Mount Langley (right) and Mount Whitney (slighly left of center)
Great Western Divide and Funston Lake
As we continued across the plateau we came to the cirque edge that allowed a look back down to the Rocky Basin Lakes where we spent the previous evening.

Rocky Basin Lakes
At over 11,000 feet elevation, the plateau itself was other worldly, a windswept expanse with the occasional hearty Foxtrail Pine and other arctic ground hugging plants. The grasses were in full seed and the birds knew it. We found dozens of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, adults and juveniles, gorging on the seed heads.  

Rosy-Finches everywhere!
All good things must end, and we had many miles still to travel this day. We worked our way to the east edge of the plateau and found a notch to descend into the vast meadow that is the Siberian Outpost.  Continuing across this expanse for a couple miles brought us to trails again. We made our way to a fork of Rock Creek and the trail ascending to New and Old Army Passes.

Siberian Outpost below
Siberian Outpost with Mount Langley beyond
The original (Old) Army Pass was built in the late 1800 by US Army soldiers. With a mostly north facing aspect, this trail is choked with snow in most years for all but the latest part of summer.  A mile away in an adjoining cirque, is a newer trail (New Army Pass) with a more south facing aspect that clears of snow earlier in the season and has a much gentler grade with long wide switchbacks. Either trail would get us back to the east side of the crest but the old trail is the only one that goes directly into the scenic Cottonwood Lakes basin. Old Army Pass hasn't been maintained for a long time, is very steep, and is subject to rock slides.  None of us had ever been up or down this trail but were willing to give it a go.
Cottonwood Lakes basin from Old Army Pass

Descending the pass

Tricky footing in a few spots

Looking back up toward the top of Old Army Pass
A special treat awaited us on the climb down, the rare Polemonium eximium, or Sky Pilot, that only grows at very high elevation in the Sierra.

Sky Pilot
 Reaching the bottom of the cirque wall and the lake we quickly found a nice secluded campsite, and called it a day.

View from camp to the top of Old Army Pass
Camp at Lake 4
Bird Lists day 2:

Boreal Plateau
Siberian Outpost
Rock Creek
Army Pass
Cottonwood Lakes


Day 3 - Cottonwood Lakes Basin to Trailhead (10 miles)

Susan and I have hiked this section of trail many times, but it was Bill's first time here so we had to take some sightseeing detours along the way back.  We started off hiking through the Cottonwood Lakes basin with all it's magnificent views.  Muir and Hidden Lakes are off the main trail a little ways, but worth the effort.

Cottonwood Lakes 4 and 5.  Mt. Langley in the background on right.

Mt. Langley (back right) and meadows below lakes.
Hiking bums at Muir Lake
Ancient Foxtail Pine near Hidden Lake
The rest of the trip back was uneventful, passing lots of backpackers and day hikers heading in.  The high altitude trailhead and easy hiking make this is a very popular area. We were back to the car quickly and eating pizza in Lone Pine by early afternoon!

Bird Lists day 3:

Upper Cottonwood Lakes 
Lower Cottonwood Lakes
Muir Lake 
Hidden Lake 
Cottonwood Lakes Trail

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