Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Miter Basin

Hike Track Link

Day 1

Horseshoe Meadow
With six days of food on board we headed out with only one goal in mind - visit the Miter Basin south of Mt Whitney and west of Mt Langley. Friend Rosie told us this off trail location is one not to miss. 

There are a few ways to get in the basin and we chose Horseshoe Meadow to Cottonwood Pass, a few miles of our beloved PCT, then up the Rock Creek trail. The day was glorious with hardly a cloud to be found and no smoke from any fire! 

As we entered the Basin, Susan had an idea we both quickly agreed to. With the perfect weather for the next couple days, why not bag Mt Langley while we are in the neighborhood. We trudged the last steep mile to upper Soldier Lake to position ourselves for the morning ascent. It's still 3000 feet higher and a couple of cross country miles but that's for tomorrow. 

Chicken Springs Lake

Big Whitney Meadow

Siberian Outpost, Grunion Plateau, Great Western Divide

Bambi's dad

Lower Soldier Lake

Lower Soldier Lake, Joe Devel Peak

Upper Soldier Lake
Camp at Upper Soldier Lake

Day 2

A relatively early start saw us moving toward the head of the Soldier Lakes valley and the steep head wall that pointed toward the use trail to the top of Mt Langley. Susan had spied a faint trail up the wall the night before and we found it quickly. This route to the top gets some use so we weren't surprised to find a trail. And it was a good one, weaving in switchbacks both easy and steep to the ridge a thousand feet above. 

Once on top we followed the well worn trail toward the summit. Little snow remains now and the going was good - although we could have used a bit more oxygen as we moved through 13,000 feet. Giant cairns marked the way to nearly the top which helped when the trail became more obscure. 

And then we were there, perched on top of the world at just over 14,000 feet. The view in every direction was spectacular. Mt Whitney, only a few hundred feet higher dominated the view north. The Kawea group and Great Western Divide traversed our view to the west. To the east was the Owens Valley and Owens Lake ten thousand feet below. And to the south the lower reaches of the southern Sierra with Olancha and Kern Peaks most prominent. We could even see Owens Peak over 50 miles to the south and knew it stood proudly over our own Indian Wells Valley. 

We lingered for a while at the top soaking in the views. The descent was quick if quad punishing, retracing our track to camp at upper Soldier Lake. Just as we reached the valley floor we heard the distinctive call of a Chukar. But here? Finally Susan got a look at him perched on a rock above and cackling his heart out. A Chukar at 11,500 feet elevation - amazing. 

And the flower of the day was Sky Pilot, one of my favorites. This polemonium only grows at the highest elevations and is always a treat to see. 

Soldier Lakes basin

The route is marked by park service constructed giant cairns to help minimize the number of informal routes and habitat damage

Soldier Lakes, Siberian Outpost, Boreal Plateau, Great Western Divide to the west

My favorite alpine flower, Sky Pilot (Polemonium eximium), found only at the highest elevations

Cottonwood Lakes basin from near the summit

Alpine Gold, another high elevation flower

Hiking the last few meters to the top

The view northeast from the summit

Looking north and northwest from the summit. Our destination for the rest of the trip, the Miter Basin, holds the lakes left of center

Among the summit blocks

East to Tuttle Creek and Lone Pine (10,000 feet below)

Almost back to camp

Day 3

Not far but spectacular. After our ascent yesterday of Mt Langley it was time to explore the Miter Basin proper. Instead of dropping all the way down to Rock Creek from our lofty perch at upper Soldier Lake we picked our way across the divide on a series of granite and grassy ramps. We were able to stay high on the canyon side and make our way up to the side drainage that holds Iridescent Lake, our goal for the day. 

From there it was an easy climb up to the lake with several majestic peaks to lead us on. The Miter, Mt Corcoran, and  Mt LeConte form the backdrop to this gorgeous alpine lake. As this trip is mostly about scenery and not miles we found a campsite and threw down the packs. Each of us took turns climbing to the divide on the west side and overlooking Sky Blue Lake. That is tomorrow's destination. 

Into the Miter Basin

Bob getting a close up panorama flower photo (below)

The Miter is on the right

The Miter

Iridescent Lake

The Miter

Sky Blue Lake from the divide

Sunset at Iridescent Lake

Sunset alpenglow

Day 4

We moved camp today from Iridescent Lake to the nearly comparable Sky Blue Lake in the main Miter Basin. With no plans to continue any farther up canyon for camping we dropped our packs and set up camp. With nothing in our packs but lunch and a few spare clothes we set off to explore the upper basin. 

Contouring around the lake we picked a line to gain elevation and avoid the incredibly steep granite. With a bit of weaving here and there we managed to see all the unnamed ponds and lakes all the way to the base of the final climb to Crabtree Pass. We lunched at the big lake below the pass. This is some pretty spectacular country and we were happy to finally see it. 

A special treat on our way back was spawning Golden Trout in the inlet stream just above Sky Blue Lake. There were dozens of fish and some really big ones. Very cool!

And then the rain came. I had no more than finished this entry when the thunder clouds bloomed and we had our first rain of the trip. Thankfully it didn't last long as we rode it out in the tent. By sunset it was clear again, as is typical with so many Sierra summer storms. It did make for a great sunset.

The final approach to Sky Blue Lake

Sky Blue Lake

Sky Blue Lake

Moving up through the basin with unnamed lakes

The final unnamed lake before Crabtree Pass

Bob trying to take photos of the spawning fish (it didn't work)

In rolls the storm clouds

What a sunset!

Day 5

Crossing the Sky Blue Lake outlet stream
Another day where camp only moved a couple miles as we continue our exploration of the Miter Basin. We descended from Sky Blue Lake far enough to get a good angle to the approach to Primrose Lake. The ascent was easy on ramps in the granite. Once there we were convinced this would be our final campsite as the view in this glacial carved bowl was outstanding. Up went the tent so we could shed ourselves of excess weight before a day hike to the next side valley down - Erin Lake. 

Looking at the map we suspected this would be a tough one and we weren't disappointed. Dropping a few hundred feet from Primrose we found a reasonable bench to traverse. The final climb up to Erin Lake was exciting as it demanded some serious route finding and class 3 scrambling. Our resident acrophobe was not happy but she braved the climb (and even scarier descent). We had lunch at Erin which was pretty enough but not as good as the other lakes we visited on the trip. Camping tonight at Primrose was the right call. 

Tomorrow will be a long day as we have to get out of the Miter Basin, climb up and over New Army Pass, then knock out the miles back to the trailhead. Camping one more night in the Miter will make it worth the effort. 

As I write this the thunder boomers are building again. We'll see...  

Nah, a bit of wind and a few drops, but another spectacular sunset!

Primrose Lake

Our latest home at Primrose Lake

Some scrambling was necessary to reach Erin Lake

Erin Lake

The descent was even trickier

The weather builds again

Another incredible sunset!

Day 6

Sunrise at Primrose Lake
Today was get out day, as all good things must end. Besides, we were about out of food... We found ourselves a good long way from the car so were up and at it early. Dropping down from Primrose lake we picked up a faint use trail that appeared to be the typical route into the basin for those headed to Sky Blue Lake and beyond. We followed it, and Rock Creek, down to a wet meadow (look out, skeeters!!) then contoured over to the New Army Pass connector trail. Another mile or so and we were on the main trail to the pass and headed up, way up. New Army Pass sits at 12,300 feet elevation, some rarefied air indeed. It took us a while to get there so we were ready for lunch. Tucked out of the wind we enjoyed our last looks for this trip of Mt. Langley, the Whitney group, Kaweahs, and Great Western Divide.

Then it was down into the Cottonwood Lakes basin and back in the trees. Some more miles on a familiar trail and we were back to the trailhead. This is a beautiful stretch but does get quite a bit of backpacker and hiker pressure. 

The Miter Basin was a spectacular area and we are sure to be back.  

Leaving the Miter Basin

Mt Langley from the New Army Pass trail
The lakes below New Army Pass on the east side
New Army Pass from below is on the right side of this glacier carved basin


  1. Wowsers!! I really have enjoyed seeing this back country. My kind of rugged punctuated with stunning wildflowers and reflective lakes. I so much appreciate your sharing, including photos of you both.