Backpacking the Sierra Nevada Backcountry

Summary of my weekend in the backcountry: a sunburn on my shoulders, two blisters, five bruises, six (minor) lacerations, 18 sore muscles, 482 mosquito bites, and a spirit that has been washed clean.

For the second time this year, my brother and I ventured out into the wilderness to explore some California backcountry; this time heading to the Sierra Nevada Mountain’s northeast of Fresno. The original plan was a four-day backpack but due to a variety of obligations and such, we decided to cut one night and pack as much as we could into three epic days. It did not disappoint!

(You can find my brother’s recount of the trip, along with his stunning sunset photos, HERE.)

Day One – 8.75 Miles

Accessing the Sierra Nevada’s from southern California, where we both reside, is a minimum five-hour drive depending on the final destination. My brother, who’d flown back to San Diego the night before –landing around 10 PM – after a short business trip, was at my place in Los Angeles by 7:30 AM. After a quick coffee stop first thing, we hit the road before making two more brief stops outside of Fresno for last-minute essentials, gas, and our permit.

After we arrived at the trailhead, located at Wishon Reservoir, we loaded our bags and began our trek a few minutes past 2 PM. The plan included stops at a few lakes; depending on conditions in the higher elevations, we’d either be making some sort of a loop or doing an out-and-back.

Backcountry Meadow

This view sucks. Said no one ever!

The goal for the first night was Halfmoon Lake. However, the climb proved to be pretty challenging and we wanted to get settled before dark so we decided to head toward the nearest lake, just three-quarters of a mile off the trail on our way to Halfmoon.

We continued to make our way up the trail, surpassing what we guessed had been the three-quarters of a mile that would have gotten us to our destination. My brother, who is a very seasoned backpacker (he, his wife, and a college buddy spent six months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail back in 2007) consulted the map a number of times and speculated that we’d taken a different trail by mistake. The good news was that he believed we were still heading in the direction of the alternate lake we’d chosen to camp.

At this point however, we were both feeling the effects of the elevation and didn’t know how many miles we had to go to reach our target. I was feeling extremely thirsty despite drinking several liters of water and had developed a mild headache and some light nausea.

Challenges in the backcountry.

Challenges on the trail. (Photo credit: drempd.com)

Finally, just after 8 PM, we arrived at Woodchuck Lake and quickly pitched the tent. Neither one of us felt hungry enough to eat dinner but forced a small snack and electrolytes before climbing in the tent and crashing out about 9 PM.

Day Two – 11 Miles

I never sleep well when I camp and compounded with the fact that I’ve been having difficulty sleeping anyway due to a pinched nerve, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I’d actually slept pretty well (thanks in part to Advil PM). We did wake to rain around 3 AM but fortunately by morning, it had passed.

Woodchuck Lake Backcountry

Morning tea and reflection at Woodchuck Lake. (Photo credit: drempd.com)

We were both still feeling the effects of the elevation but eager to get started. After a few minutes enjoying my tea while deep in thought, we picked up camp and had a light breakfast before setting off toward our next destination.

Woodchuck Lake Backcounrty

Leaving Woodchuck Lake.

It turned out to be a beautiful, overcast morning. We stopped for a snack break short of reaching Crown Pass, perched above Crown Lake, before making the descent down to Halfmoon Lake. Once there, we rested for about an hour while watching the fish swim near the shore and ate lunch.

The next section of the trail, leading us up to Portal Lake, was the hardest portion of the entire journey. Due to the higher than average snowfall during the winter, there was a lot of runoff which had accumulated in sections on the trail along with downed trees and debris. It made for some interesting maneuvering and slowed our pace considerably but we had plenty of daylight and made the best of it.

Backcountry stream

This is not the trail. However, many spots on the trail looked like this!

After arriving at a gorgeous clearing with a small lake being fed by a river from above, we lost the trail but ended up forging our own way up along the river. The final push to the top, along with a few curse words (from me) as we scurried up granite boulders, was well worth the effort. Portal Lake was stunning!

Backcountry climb

Cursing this little climb. (Photo credit: drempd.com)

Our late afternoon arrival allowed us some down time to rest in preparation for our hike out, which would be an accumulation of the mileage from the first two days. We read, enjoyed dinner, and watch the sunset before getting settled into our mummy bags and calling it a day.

Day Three – 18.25 Miles

We knew it would be a huge mileage day and though we didn’t know exactly, my brother was pretty spot-on with his estimate of 18 miles. We set an alarm for 6 AM but were both awake before 5:45 AM. I didn’t sleep as well as I had the first night but was still raring to go. Camp was quickly packed while we fueled up and by 7 AM, we were making our way back toward civilization.

Saying it was a long day is an understatement. The first few legs passed pretty fast. We stopped in the same spot at Halfmoon Lake for an early lunch break before climbing back up the pass. A minor detour when we missed a trail split added about 15 minutes to our day but fortunately, the error was caught early.

Halfmoon Lake Backcountry

Lunch stop at Halfmoon Lake.

We had been making good time until that point but then the afternoon started to drag. And drag. And drag. And… you get the idea. We had hoped to be back at the trailhead before dark and we seemed to be on target but it was still slow going and plagued by blisters and increasing joint soreness from the descent. We had broken each leg into roughly three miles so we knew where we’d stop to rest. Every time we took a break, I was counting down how many more times I’d have to put the pack back on before being able to take it off one final time.

Backcountry

Crossing the creek like a boss. (Photo credit: drempd.com)

Our last stop, three miles or so from the car, was after a river crossing. My brother, the fearless log crosser, beat me to the other side while I changed from my hiking shoes into sandals to wade across. The water felt so refreshing and paired with a snack, my spirits were restored. The last few miles flew by and we arrived back at the trailhead at 5:40 PM. We were both exhausted but elated to have completed our journey, having packed 38 miles into our three-day trip.

Lessons from the Backcountry

We talked a lot over the course of the three days in the backcountry about how vital it is to make time for adventures – in whatever fashion adventure speaks to you. This is especially true when you think you don’t have the time or shouldn’t take time away from other obligations or commitments. In these cases, the break you get from the hustle – even if only just a few days – is enough so that you return to your work and family life recharged and ready to dive back in with a renewed desire for what moves you. This quote, to me, pretty much sums it all up:

“Keep close to nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” ~ John Muir

Backcountry

Self portrait. Clean spirit.

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