Backpacking to frozen Long Lake on the Bishop Pass Trail
Last summer, Sophia and I went on her first Sierra Nevada backpacking trip. She was hooked. Since her summer vacation was only two months long and was already nearly full with travel plans, we decided to head to the mountains right after her school let out in late June.
The plan was to backpack three nights: Long Lake, Bishop Lake, and Chocolate Lakes, possibly summiting Chocolate Peak.
We knew it was a pretty heavy snow year for the Sierra, but decided to take a chance. If snow was to make an impact on our plans, there were plenty of other places to go nearby.
As usual, we stopped by the Lone Pine Interagency Visitor Center to pick up our permit. The rangers there did not have a lot of information about snow on the Bishop Pass Trail, other than there was a lot near the pass.
We picked up some last minute supplies at the grocery store and had some dinner in Bishop. We headed up the road to Parcher’s Resort, which is where we stayed twice last year to acclimate to the higher elevation.
After a nice night of sleep and perhaps our last showers for a while, we had breakfast at the resort. We asked the helpful woman who worked at the resort about the trail to Long Lake. She let us know that there was one snow wall that was sort of steep, but we’d be able to do it if we were careful.
We readied our backpacks and drove the short distance to the South Lake Trailhead, my 5th time there in 5 years.
We put our belongings in the bear lockers at the trailhead and got ready to head up the trail. After taking a picture for another group of hikers, and having our picture taken, something caught my eye. There were two women at the trailhead that looked familiar.
After a few moments of thought, I asked, “Hi there, did you two happen to be here in September last year, hiking to Treasure Lakes?”
It turns out, it was them; the same women who had met my wife, daughter, and me on our family re-visit to Treasure Lakes! Last summer, we had spent about 20 minutes together hanging out at a log bridge at the South Fork of Bishop Creek talking about life and the outdoors. They are old friends who go on day hikes in the area once a year. We just happened to be starting on the same day again at the same trailhead. They remembered us and asked us about Sophia’s surf lessons and gymnastics. They were on their way to Long Lake, too! We wished each other a good hike.
Many times, it’s the people we meet on the trail that make our experiences outdoors so memorable and enjoyable.
They headed out and Soph and I took our time heading up the trail.
Before long, we were gasping a little bit. The trail starts at around 10,000’ and goes up from there. The sun was warm, but the temperature was cool. We noticed the snow in the hills ahead of us and wondered how challenging the trail would be.
We stopped for a bit to take off a layer at a perfect shady rock at the top of a rise. This is the third time we’ve used this rock for the same reason. While sitting there, we encountered a gentleman who let us know that there was a nice bench overlooking Long Lake that was clear of snow, right near the inlet stream on the right-hand side of the lake, perfect for a campsite.
We took our time, stopped for lunch in the sun and enjoyed the silence. We encountered some people heading back down the trail that were not comfortable with the ice wall, but they were wearing Vans and Converse.
We continued up and started seeing a few patches of snow here and there until we came across the snow wall. It was a little exposed, but it wasn’t bad at all. We used our trekking poles and made it up without an issue.
After that, we were almost entirely hiking on snow, with a dry patch near the marshy area at the Long Lake outlet. We encountered a bunch of people navigating around snow and visiting the lake. We even saw a small black snake, which was probably a garter snake, among the bushes. We made it to the edge of the lake.
We found an amazing campsite, right on the edge of the water. It had clearly been used before. However, it was too close to the water. I wasn’t able to find a place for our tent over 100 feet from the lake’s edge.
We also found the high bench overlooking the lake that the man had mentioned. It was an amazing site, but it was already taken by two tents. There was also an Ursack hanging in the trees nearby.
Though we were tired, we moved on, climbing a hill onto a peninsula that jutted out into the very northern part of the lake. Most flat parts of the valley were covered in snow, but I managed to find a nice spot protected by a couple of trees and we quickly set up the tent.
It was the afternoon, so we got settled in. We went to the edge of the lake and grabbed some water and explored. There was snow everywhere, so we couldn’t really explore that much. Long Lake was mostly frozen. And beautiful.
We sat on some rocks and enjoyed the views and the silence. We could occasionally see some hikers across the river, following the trail in deep snow toward Bishop Pass to the south. From our vantage point, we could see cornices and tons of snow on the pass. A strong breeze would occasionally blow up from the lake, chilling us.
The word on the trail was that ice axes and crampons were highly recommended if you wanted to get up and over Bishop Pass. Some thru-hikers had already come out from that way with reports of heavy snow.
Looking ahead, it was clear that backpacking to Bishop Lake tomorrow was out of the picture. Looking to the left, the way up and over to Ruwau and Chocolate Lakes was precarious at best in the snow.
We would wake up tomorrow and see how we felt.
We had dinner and enjoyed the night sky before the temperature plummeted and the wind picked up. I stayed out a little later, communicating with my wife via GPS that we might be spending three nights at Long Lake. I retreated into the tent and we played Rummy until bedtime.
It was a beautiful and chilly morning when we awoke. Sophia and I stayed in the tent a while playing more cards until the sun came out. We got up and had some breakfast, taking our coffee and tea down to the edge of the lake.
We skipped stones onto the lake ice and enjoyed ourselves for much of the morning. We came to the conclusion that there wasn’t much to explore here, given all the snow. The evenings were also really cold with the strong winds. We couldn’t keep our original plans of continuing on to Bishop and Chocolate Lakes. We decided to head down the mountain and do some day hikes in the White Mountains.
We took our time in the morning, walking along the shoreline, watching the ripples on the lake and noticing how the ice was already receding. In a few days, I imagined the lake would be completely freed of ice. We slowly sipped our warm beverages and shared each other’s company. We didn’t have far to get back to the car and had plenty of time.
Since we were headed back to town for the night, we decided to absorb this place as much as we could. As the sun got higher and the day warmed up, we packed up and headed back down the mountain.
We took a different way back to the trail, scrambling down a steep section. If we tripped, we might end up in the lake. We made it down to another potential campsite, but, like the other, this one was too close to the lake. It had a great view, though.
Before long, we were back in the snow, which was a little more slippery on the way down. Our trekking poles did the trick in helping us keep our footing.
We still had the snow wall to descend. The exposure was definitely more pronounced on the way down. We took our time as we planted out trekking poles and made sure each step was secure. Microspikes would have made a nice difference.
The picture below doesn’t capture how steep it was.
We made it back to town and had dinner and stayed in a comfortable and warm hotel room. The next morning we headed out to the White Mountains to see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and to search for Campito, the lone wild horse.
We knew Methuselah, one of the world’s oldest trees, was around here somewhere. So we looked up each ridge, wondering which one it was. We likely saw it, but since its location and image is kept secret, we never knew if we found it or not.
It was a great hike in great weather. It showed us a completely different side of the 395 than the Sierra Nevada, visible across the valley.
We hung out at the visitor center and was told that Campito was seen this year. We decided to get into the car and drive the rugged White Mountain Road in search of this fabled horse. I had seen him on my trip to White Mountain back in 2013.
As we were driving around, scanning the hillsides, Sophia and I decided to spend our final night at Horseshoe Meadow. She had heard me mention it many times and it was likely our starting point for when we made our trip to Mount Whitney, so we decided to go there.
We were unable to find Campito. This time.
After a long drive and a quick dinner in Lone Pine, we arrived at the campground just as dusk was upon us. We searched around, but it appeared every campsite was taken. We saw one rectangle for a campsite that was free in a site otherwise occupied by a group of 5 men, so we approached and asked if it was taken. They welcomed us to their campfire and picnic table.
We quickly set up our tent in the fading light (we’re pros now) and quickly got set up on the picnic table playing Rummy until it was time to get settled in the tent for the evening.
We slept great.
We packed up and prepared to head out. The others in the campsite had a varied history of adventure and we had been in a lot of the same places. We shared stories and said farewell and we all headed back down the mountain.
To our surprise, we met them all again at the Alabama Hills Cafe, another tradition of Sophia and I.
Although the trip didn’t go exactly as planned, we had a great time and saw quite a bit in the few days we were there.
In the car on the way home, Sophia asked, “Could we come back before summer is over?” and “Could I climb Mount Whitney when I’m 12, like you did?”
I’m already planning it.