Sometimes the inertia of getting out of the city is too much to overcome – especially when we’re talking about a long holiday weekend like the Fourth of July. My three main barriers to outdoor enjoyment seem to be logistics, the heat, and the crowds that commute en masse from the Los Angeles area to popular SoCal “wilderness” destinations. It’s enough to convince me to spend another weekend riding my beach cruiser around Venice (which isn’t a bad option, by the way).
Dirty paws are a sign of a good weekend
But if you’re like me, sometimes you need to escape the urban scene. And this past weekend, I discovered a destination that managed to overcome all of my barriers to entry, and that offered an ideal weekend escape from the sizzling concrete of L.A. in July.
Have trail, will travel
Horseshoe Meadow is a sub-alpine meadow located in the Inyo National Forest. It serves as a base camp and staging area for forays into the Kern Plateau/Golden Trout Wilderness and John Muir Wilderness, and is located at almost 10,000 feet, at the end of a precipitous mountain road above the town of Lone Pine, California. We visited this mountain paradise over the Fourth of July weekend. While searching for an easy destination, with minimal logistics and minimal crowds, I was inspired by a few posts from two local Sierra outdoor blogs, Southern Sierra Outdoors, and Windyscotty’s Blog. They promised easy access to pristine and dramatic mountain meadows, streams and lakes, with few people. They were right in all respects.
One of the handful of groups we encountered on our hike
Our first destination en route to Horseshoe Meadow was the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, one mile south of Lone Pine. This center is a one stop shop for everything from permits, to maps, to in-person advice about specific destinations and current weather conditions. The center is fairly new and sparkly, compared with the usual small ranger outposts that I’m used to. You could spend an hour here and plan an entire two-week vacation. In our case, we wanted maps and trail information for Horseshoe Meadow. Unless you’re a map junkie (like me), or headed for some back country hiking, you’ll be fine with the free handouts showing the local trails out of the meadow. During our conversation with an obliging ranger, we were also happy to discover that (1) we would not need a permit to hike in the wilderness or to spend the night in the walk-in hiker campgrounds at Horseshoe Meadow (we would only be required to pay a $6 fee at the camp), and (2) dogs are welcome in the wilderness, as long as they’re on-leash and you don’t cross over into neighboring national parks (note: if you’re planning on hiking extensively through the region, double check the specific limits of the dog-friendly zones).
Salami, the gateway meat
Although we were worried about snagging a spot at one of the two hiker walk-in campgrounds, we were told by the ranger that he generally lets overflow campers squeeze into the campground, as long as they’re careful to stay within the footprint of the developed area. In addition, he suggested that we try the hiker campground located to the north (adjacent to the equestrian camp), since it tends to get less traffic.
Tackling the switchbacks to Horseshoe Meadow
Armed with maps and knowledge, we made a quick stop in Lone Pine for our edibles before heading west, to Horseshoe Meadow Road. We passed briefly through the Alabama Hills, which at this time of year were sun-baked brown and uninviting. Although the temperature topped 103 in the valley, it gradually reached bearable levels (about 80 F) as we gained elevation. The road itself offered breathtaking vistas of the Owen’s Valley–and in particular, the dry bed of Owen’s Lake, one of the many victims of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s systematic water diversions to the LA Aqueduct. The once-large saline lake borders the old Cerro Gordo silver mine (now defunct). During the mining boom in the 1870’s, when fuel surrounding the mines had become scarce, trees logged in the Horseshoe Meadow area were transported by flume, wagon, and barge 6,000 feet down and across the Owen’s Lake to Cerro Gordo. Tree stumps from that era are still visible today.
Halophilic (salt-loving) bacteria give the dry Owen’s Lake bed its pink tinge
We arrived at Horseshoe Meadow at around noon. Our goal for the afternoon: to explore the Cottonwood Lakes Trail and hopefully reach some of the resident lakes. The trail was fairly moderate, with only slight elevation gain (1,ooo feet over 4.5 miles), but with a sometimes sandy terrain. Pine trees provided intermittent shade as we ascended past small river crossings, scattered boulders, and eventually, beautiful expanses of open meadow punctuated by the occasional stream.
Log bridges provide crossings for feet and paws
Perhaps due to the large snow pack leftover from the wet winter, portions of the trail were quite boggy, and the mosquitoes were out in force. (Trust me, bring your DEET.) Even on a holiday weekend, we only encountered a handful of hiking parties. However, we did pass several horse riders and mule trains, so we were glad that our pup Toki was on leash.
The first four miles of hiking were pleasant, except for the swarming mosquitoes, but it didn’t prepare me for the sight of the open meadows at the Cottonwood Lakes Basin, when the trail opened up to a gigantic green field carpeted in yellow wildflowers and encircled by rocky, snow covered crags. We finally let Toki run off leash, and she flew around the boulders and cleared the stream in one bound. She made several glorious rounds of the meadow before settling down to sniff the flowers and interesting animal smells.
In a single bound: Toki the Pegasus
We spent some time exploring the area around “Lake 1” before the mosquitos and the waning day made us turn back for camp. I was sad to leave, but sure I’d be back.
Toki is coached on stream crossing techniques by Josh
Time to leave paradise
The Cottonwood Lakes basin was some of the prettiest country I’ve seen, and friends say it keeps getting prettier the further you hike. Plus, there are some great classic climbs to be tackled (check out the guidebook by Peter Croft, The Good, the Great and the Awesome). It’s a tantalizing prospect for our next camping weekend. And hopefully next time, the planning will be the easy part.
No shortage of wildflowers
If you go:
- Plan on a 3.5-4 hour drive to Lone Pine, from Los Angeles, and then another 40+ minutes for the drive to the meadow. From Lone Pine, take the Whitney Portal Road for 2.7 miles (through the Alabama Hills), turn left onto Horseshoe Meadow Road, and then drive another 20 miles up the side of a mountain to reach the Horseshoe Meadow campgrounds. The turn onto Horseshoe Meadow Road is well-marked, and the road is in good condition, but make sure your car is in good shape for the strenuous climb, and subsequent drive back down.
- Stock up on supplies before heading to Lone Pine. The selection and prices were disappointing at the small local mart (Lone Pine isn’t as well-stocked as Bishop, for instance). But if you need to grab some fresh bread for some PB&J sandwiches, try the fresh baked loaves at the Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery. Mmmm!
- Don’t forget the mosquito repellent – we were swarmed by mosquitoes until the temps cooled down in the evening. They don’t hurt when they bite, but believe me, they will itch later.
- If you plan on bringing your pup, remember that the temperatures in the valley will be pushing 100+ F, so you won’t be able to leave your dog in the car while you run errands in Lone Pine. Luckily, you can take your dog with you into the Ranger Station if you need to get maps or permits.
- Bring water purification methods and bear canisters in the back country.
- Camping at the walk-in hiker campground at Horseshoe Meadow will set you back $6 per night. (The camp has a limit of only one night, but it seemed like people spent multiple nights in the same spot.) If you venture into the back country, you will need to arrange for a permit at the Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine.
- Finally, remember to hydrate and consider the altitude! You may want to acclimatize at the Horseshoe Meadow camp before striking out into the back country.
Snow still blankets the high elevations. We’ll be back!