Gorgeous and remote, the southern Sierra’s Golden Trout Wilderness is the perfect setting for a weekend backpacking adventure with my new wife.
Two Nights in the Wild with my New Wife
By Daniel Anderson Jr.
Heart hammering. Hands sweaty. It’s Friday afternoon, and my newlywed wife, Julie, and I finally park at Blackrock trailhead 45 miles deep in the southern Sierras. I’m tense. Julie’s never been backpacking, and I imagine a lifetime of future adventures hangs in the balance of her enjoying this trip. Full of nervous energy, I pirouette out of the driver’s seat of our 1999 Toyota Camry and gape. Julie looks incredible in her new floppy hat, a $5 pair of used North Face boots and a bright yellow bandana swathed around her neck. My jitters thaw into frothy anticipation.
Blackrock is the primary point of entry into the southern half of Inyo National Forest’s Golden Trout Wilderness. And we’re here by accident. A bustling ranger, well into her sixties, summarily nixes my original itinerary. “Oh, it’s much too hot for Wild Rose trail right now,” she says. “Start here.” She points to a large map of Golden Trout sprawling across a counter at Blackrock ranger station. “Hike to Red Rock Meadow. It’s beautiful out there, and secluded.” I’m unfamiliar with this particular area, so I’m persuadable. We quickly procure a free wilderness permit. “Fires are allowed, but beeee careful,” says the ranger.
At the trailhead, we find ourselves dwarfed by lodgepoles, perfumed by pine needles, crowned by endlessly deep skies. “How does your backpack feel?” I ask as we reenact all manner of stretches, stiffened after a six-hour road trip from San Diego. Julie’s wearing my 38-litre Gregory Savant which, loaded with her clothes and water, clocks in around 15 pounds. She nods optimistically. The Gregory Z65 on my back, crammed with the remainder of our gear and weighing somewhere in the range of 55 pounds, feels as light as a feather.
Located at the southern end of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Golden Trout is a 304,000-acre wonderland of subalpine meadows, mixed conifer forests and granite summits. Crisscrossed by hundreds of miles of well-maintained high elevation trails, the wilderness encompasses Kern Plateau, a wrinkly 30-mile wide depression hemmed in by the Whitney escarpment to the north, the continental divide to the west, and the Sierra’s dramatic subduction zone boundary to the east.
After several selfies at a signpost, I take the lead and set a downright leisurely pace. The easy-to-follow path begins in a lodgepole and white pine forest at 8,960 feet and lopes over a gradual notch between wildfire-scarred hillsides. “Me and a group of volunteers come up every summer to clear away dead trees,” says a cheerful, grime-covered horse rider, swearing at a mutt called pork chop.
Compared to popular trailheads near Horseshoe Meadows on Golden Trout’s eastern boundary, Blackrock seems far-flung and vacant. It’s Fourth of July weekend, but the only other hikers we see today are a solo backpacker heading the opposite direction and a family of day-hikers with four boisterous kiddos. Water is plentiful along our route, the weather ideal, a smattering of bugs occasionally present but easily avoided. All eight and a half miles to Red Rock contour along 8,500 feet of elevation with no big scrambles or drop-offs.
We descend a shaded drainage through two miles of thin wet parks hung with crimson columbines and mountain bluebells. July turns out to be peak wildflower season in the high Sierras. Blooms are everywhere, carpeting the meadowland like sprinkles on a donut. A helpful Bureau of Land Management website says plentiful blossoms depend on three meteorological factors: steady rainfall from December through May, warmth from the sun and “the lack of desiccating wind.” For a wildflower enthusiast like myself, I find myself in paradise.
At Casa Vieja Meadows, wide fields of bright peppermint green are freckled with raincoat yellow goldenrods and soft lavender lupines. Ponderosa pines and mountain hemlock encircle the pasture like latticed coat racks, densely green and shadowy like a jeweler’s penlight gleaming through uncut jade. Weathered fence posts enclose a large square where several horses stand confidently, silently. We stop for our first breather, take a few pics, eat a snack. “Starbursts are essential for hiking,” I explain, reaching into my pocket stash. Julie asks for a lemon one.
We cross an unnamed stream, just roomy enough to host several diminutive, darting trout, then rise with the land along the grassland’s edge where the clear air chimes with chirping and cheeping. Julie doffs her outer shirt layer and continues hiking in a tie-dye sports bra only. I can’t stop glancing behind me with a big goofy grin.
We think of trail names for each other, I almost step on a rattle snake, Julie can’t seem to spot any birds. After three hours and six or so protracted miles, I’m getting tired under my burdensome heft, and Julie is breathing hard. The sun is dropping towards the western horizon, so I announce we will stop at the next hospitable site, quickly found at Big Stringer Creek. “Oooo . . . they look like plants from Alice in Wonderland,” Julie whispers, referring to tall and leafy corn lilies marching over soggy bottomland under drooping pine boughs. “I know!” I agree. “I know!”
For dinner, we feast on a backpacking favorite of mine, calculated to impress Julie with my backwoods culinary prowess. Two Ramen bricks each with McCormick French Onion Dip Mix, sliced summer sausage and copious globs of parmesan. Absolutely delicious, the hardy fare also has the beneficial effect of instigating Julie’s first-ever outdoor bowel movement. Ever-helpful, I find a suitable place located modestly behind a large boulder, dig a cat hole, demonstrate the supple leopard squat. “It’s absolutely liberating,” I say with gusto, hoping to overcome any heebie-jeebies with a positive review. Many minutes later, Julie returns with a sheepish smile across her face. “It was liberating!” she admits.
Waking up late the next morning, we decide to finish the last two or so miles and spend the night at Red Rock. It is not cold, but Julie trundles about like an astronaut wearing every layer we packed for her. “The cold gets into my bones,” she insists. “I don’t want that to happen.” She scarfs down a double helping of plain oatmeal.
The morning walk to Red Rock is swift and beautiful. As the trail coils around mountainsides, several deadfalls intersect the well-trod path but are easily skirted. We see some mule deer. We take our time through a particularly gorgeous meadow, overgrown with more lupines and goldenrods, sloping westward beneath a wide arc of hilltops that look like bare knuckles on a clenched fist. More pictures ensue, both of us smiling like nincompoops, having the time of our life. “I love you,” I blurt out. “I love you too, D.”
After a gentle knoll, the trail descends into Red Rock Meadow eight and a half miles from the trailhead. Meandering through the woods, the narrow prairie pops with yellow monkey flowers and alpine asters, pale rings of purple floating above bright avocado waves. The meadow forms a chute towards the base of a multi-color massif gleaming sunburnt orange, burgundy and bronze. Puffy white clouds look like tufts of batting peeking through unraveling seams on a cerulean blue quilt.
It’s still early, and we have all day to dillydally and relax. Julie and I set up camp at the meadow’s remote western fringe. I gambol around the fields identifying blooms. Julie reads. A thin rivulet’s bubbling chorus serenades us as we spend a long afternoon in the breezy tent – an agreeable first for me in the backcountry.
At dusk, we take a walk around Red Rock and return to our campsite to find three or so backpackers pitching tents one hundred yards above us. “No one around for miles, and these guys decide to make camp next door!” I fume. “It’s OK,” Julie says in the way of loving reproof. “They won’t ruin our evening.” The temperature drops into the forties soon after twilight, and we don more layers, sit as close to each other as possible at the margin of grassy fields glowing pearly under a breathtaking fleece of stars. I get the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time.
Waking up earlier the next morning, I fill our Nalgenes at the creek and fret that the eight and half mile slog back to Blackrock will be exhausting. Once we hit the trail, Julie is a trooper. Return trips along identical routes always seem shorter than the initial ascent, and we make good time. We take note of lovely Beer Keg Meadow which was somehow missed on the way up. Somewhere around mile five, we both cease to recognize our surroundings, and I realize I missed a trail intersection we should’ve passed a mile or two behind us. I become edgy.
To lift our spirits, I ask Julie what she will eat at Grumpy Bear Diner back at Kennedy Meadows. After a long stretch of thinking, Julie settles on a patty melt. My choice is thoughtlessly instant: “I’m gonna get a cheeseburger.” Julie nods. We talk about food for a long time.
The trail finally crests a familiar low ridge and, before we know it, we reach the tip of Casa Vieja. The last two uphill miles are speedy. “Wow,” I sigh when I detect the glimmer of cars at the trailhead parking lot. “Come ‘ere.” I lock Julie in a prolonged bear hug, both of us heaving, hungry and happy. “I’m so proud of you,” I say. “I couldn’t do it without you,” Julie says. “Our first backpacking trip,” I say.
Julie smiles. “I can’t wait for the next one,” she says.
June 1-3, 2016
Dan Points: “6” for sweeping views over the southern Sierras, near(ish) to home in Southern California
Distance: 16 miles back-n-forth
Time: Three days
Trails: Well maintained
Elevation: About 1,000 feet cumulative gain/loss on route to and from Red Rock meadow
Directions: From San Diego, take I-15 through the Inland Empire. Turn north on US-395 until taking exit to Nine Mile Canyon Road, just south of Lone Pine. Continue on Sherman Pass Road, then turn right (north) onto National Forest Service route 21S03. Follow regular road signs to Backrock Ranger station and trailhead.
More information can be found at the National Forest Service’s website.