Saturday, October 22, 2011

Mono Pass and Spillway Lake

Lower Sardine Lake and Mono Basin
I’m doing some back posting again from our Labor Day trip to Tuolumne Meadows. I had an interesting talk with one of the rangers as we were walking around on our first day there. We happened to be taking a leisurely late afternoon walk along the river as a young ranger was leading a group on a nature walk. I heard him talking about the various wildlife species in the area, and I paused for a moment to listen in. Noticing us taking an interest, the ranger invited us to tag along. I resisted my initial notion that this would be too “touristy” and we took him up on it. After all, Yosemite’s rangers are generally very knowledgeable folks as well as personable.

Yearling black bear
His presentation was very good, and when his subject turned to bears, I had shared with him about the little yearling cub that was trying his darnedest to sneak into the campground earlier that day. The ranger calling himself B-rad (x-gen for Brad) was very interested to hear the story. He immediately recognized the bear from my description. It was a yearling male cub, a black bear (Ursus americanus), dark brown in color, with blonde streaks in his coat, and a blue ear tag #51. We had tried really hard to do the right thing, discouraging the cub from hanging around the campground, loudly chasing him out of several sites, but B-rad had a story to tell about that little bear. He told us about how that bear’s mother had trained her cubs to look for food around people, recognizing and breaking into any unprotected areas likely to contain food. A tragic story really, because as cute as he is now, he will eventually become a serious nuisance when he grows larger, stronger, and probably more aggressive. That will eventually spell trouble. With the cubs on their own now, the mother, sadly, has already been euthanized as a “dangerous” bear. But B-rad, recognizing my interest in wildlife, had invited me to come to the campfire meeting that evening to hear his discussion about bighorn sheep. After working through the same misgivings about being too “touristy”, I took him up on that as well.

Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep (photo courtesy of Lewis & Clark Wiki)

It was actually a very engaging little talk, interesting as well as entertaining, during which B-rad, who is an avid backpacker, shared about his personal multiple year quest to spot the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis sierrae) that were reintroduced to the Yosemite backcountry years ago. This subspecies of bighorn was once thought to have vanashed from the Sierra range that gives it its name. It is thought that they had fallen victim to diseases from domesticated sheep which once grazed the high meadows. That was until a healthy herd was discovered in a very remote section high in King’s Canyon years ago. Some of the King’s Canyon herd was later reintroduced to the Yosemite area. B-rad was also willing to share some tips about where someone might go to find likely places to spot them. One of the places he mentioned was surprisingly close by, which really peaked my interest. The prospect of spotting bighorns had me excited, even though the odds of success were low. The area of interest was the various rocky slopes visible from Mono Pass. I figured the worst case would be to have a beautiful high country hike, spend some time sitting around studying the knarly slopes, and not see any sheep. This is a hike I had done before years ago, and I remembered looking east from just beyond the pass and having some really nice views down to Mono Lake, and gazing at the stark beauty of the surrounding peaks, and inviting meadows, but I had no idea there might be wild sheep roaming the area. According to B-rad, they don’t spend much time in the high peaks as he originally thought. They tend to move along on the rocky slopes, some of which are visible from the Mono Pass area. And so it was due time to head back there.

Parker Pass Trail
There is a trailhead along Tioga Road about 3 miles west of the Tioga Pass entrance station. The trail begins within a dense forest of lodgepole and white bark pines which is still sprinkled with some late season wild flowers. Along the way there are some really picturesque open meadows and a couple of creek crossings, all of which are tributaries to Dana fork Tuolumne. Soon the trail leads alongside Parker Pass Creek, which flows directly down from Spillway Lake. Several access points make great places to filter water, and admire wild flowers. Even this late in the year, all the creeks are still flowing well, and all of the water we were using on our hikes was pure snow melt we had filtered out of streams. It really makes the treated water at the campground taste like crap. After a few miles we passed the junction for Spillway Lake which was a tempting diversion, but I would save that for later. After the sun came out, Mariposa lilies were blooming which are one of my favorites, along with a host of other species (see my photos). We also saw ruins of some old mine shacks, called the “ghost mines”, and lots of small critters.

Summit Lake with Mammoth Peak in the background
After the junction for Parker Pass the terrain becomes very open, exposing vast meadows and lots of high peaks, and the views are tremendous. Along the trail to Mono Pass you hike along the shores of several crystal clear high lakes. The smaller lakes have no names, but I took photos of Summit Lake, and Upper and Lower Sardine Lake. They're not huge, but make a great foreground for the looming peaks. Further down the canyon is Walker Lake. The sign at the pass reads elevation 10,599 feet. From here you begin to have commanding views of the high sierra crest dominated by Mt Gibbs and Mt Dana to the north, with Mt Lewis to the south. We hiked beyond the pass a couple of miles into Bloody Canyon, named after a huge Indian battle between the Mono and Ahwahnechee peoples. We found some negotiable rock outcrops that made fine viewing locations to sit and have lunch and keep a lookout on the surrounding slopes for wild sheep. We could see all the way down across Mono Basin part of Mono Lake, and a section of the While Mountains. This trail can take you all the way down into the Mono Basin eventually bringing you into Devil’s Postpile national monument thousands of feet below. These jagged layered rocks off trail were a great place to just spend some quiet time gazing into clear lakes, scanning the peaks, breathing the air, and catching some gentle rays. We never actually spotted any sheep, (curses....), but we paid some dues in trying, and eventually we will succeed, perhaps in a different location. With scenery like this, this hike is far from a wild goose chase, or actually a wild sheep chase. It’s actually very rare to spot them. B-rad had tried for years before finally spotting any, but they are there. But even without any sightings, the hiking is really a fine time.

Spillway Lake
When we started heading back to the trailhead I really wanted to get down to check out Spillway Lake. It seemed like a long way back to the junction, but one of our old maps shows a trail heading down there from the Parker Pass trail. Sue decided to head back on her own while I would hike down to the lake, and then find the trail back to the junction, and back to the car, arriving no more than about 1 hour after she got there, or so I promised. I headed up toward Parker Pass, and could see down to the lake, but the trail shown on the old map was not to be found. At least it was not marked. Looking over the terrain, I could see that I could easily reach the lake by just hiking cross country following down along the little creeks, so that’s what I did. I made my way to the shores of the lake at the foot of Kuna Crest south which obviously gave the lake its name. The snow packs into the cracks and crevasses of the high rocky crest and flows down forming the lake, which in turn feeds into Parker Pass creek, and ultimately into Dana Fork Tuolumne. It was such a beautiful and tranquil setting, and with no one around, I wanted so much to just hang out for awhile and enjoy it. It was very hard to leave, but I needed to stay on pace as promised. So I snapped a few photos, then quickly found the trail alongside the creek leading back to the junction with Mono Pass trail, and headed back. I had an amazing time, and would recommend this hike to anyone, whether or not you have the patience to sit around trying to spot the highly elusive Yosemite big horns. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

Click here to see my track log at EveryTrail 
Click here to see my photos on flickr
Click here for more information on the Sierra bighorn @ SNBSF


Greg said...

Great story! Thanks for the rich detail - I did not make it to Yosemite this year - and this helped fill the gap!

Waypoints said...

Thanks Greg. I know what it's like when you want to be in the mountains, and can't get there.