I pulled into Cottonwood Springs Campground around 3 pm. Since this part of Joshua Tree National Park is lower in elevation, it was a bit warmer. I set up my tent and relaxed in my chair beneath some shade. I rehydrated some more while enjoying Journeys North: The Pacific Crest Trail by Barney “Scout” Mann. As the sun began to get lower, I thought about summiting Mastodon Peak then, instead of in the morning. Since the trailhead right at the campground, so I grabbed my gear, making sure to toss in my headlamp and set off.
Opting to take the loop in a counter-clockwise route, I soon found myself at Cottonwood Springs. The evening light was making the palm fronds glow. I continued up the trail, watching as the evening light crept across the desert. Soon I reached the turnoff toward Mastodon Peak and Mine. The Lost Palm Oasis would have to wait for another time…
The trail continued working its way up. There were even some nice carved steps at one point along the trail. Finally, Mastodon Peak revealed itself. A sign indicated that the summit was just .1 miles away but on an unmaintained trail. I knew from my research that the path circled around to the eastern side of the peak and had some light scrambling. I found the route without issue, and with two little scrambles was standing atop Mastodon Peak. The sun had almost set, so I was being mindful of the time. Even so, I got some nice photographs.
After scrambling back down, I rejoined the trail and soon found myself at the Mastodon Mine. The actual mine shaft is grated over and is now home to a variety of bats. I looked over some of the other artifacts for a bit before continuing on.
The trail was still fairly easy to follow as the light faded. Finally, I stopped and donned my headlamp. When I was on a rise, I could see the lights of the campground off in the distance. Once in a while, I would see a bat fly by, much too fast to even attempt to snap a photo.
Soon, I found myself back at the junction to the trail and my thoughts were turning toward dinner. All told this hike was 3.36 miles with just over 500 feet of elevation gain. It took me 1:35 to complete it (including a short side spur).
My second peak of the day was to be Ryan Mountain, which is also on the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks Section list (#239). This peak is one of the more popular hikes in the park, in part due to the incredible views from the summit. Before I set off, I saw a couple looking over a map, and I offered some assistance as to their next adventure. Afterward, I chatted with one of the volunteers nearby. We commented on how many of the hikers were improperly clothed for the hike. Shorts, t-shirts, or tank-tops were common on many of them. While we stood there in long pants and long-sleeves and wide-brimmed hats just shaking our heads.
The trail begins climbing straight from the parking lot. For the first part of the trail, stairs built from the native rocks helped me make the 1,000-foot climb to the summit. Standing off to the right, just after hitting the trail, was a massive rock formation. This white tank granite is over 135 million years old.
I would keep climbing up the mountain, letting the returning hikers pass safely by. It was hit and miss on the face-covering usage. After a short, relatively level section, the rock stairs returned until I reached the saddle. Here I got my first real view of the summit. At this point, the trail’s grade eased and I soon found myself atop Ryan Mountain.
I had packed my lunch, so I found a nice spot to rest and enjoy my well-earned meal. The views were truly spectacular. The summit is nice and wide, so everyone was able to find a spot to safely distance from one another.
While it was warmer, the breeze made it pleasant to just soak in the views. I eventually figured I should head back down, as I had about an hour’s drive down to my campsite at Cottonwood Springs. The descent was uneventful, except for the sweeping views. All told, I covered the 2.8 miles in 1:43 with 1,060 feet of gain.
I decided to spend a couple of days exploring Joshua Tree National Park. The first day was spent summiting some peaks, and the second day would be playing tour guide for a friend. Since the weather was still warm, I knew I wanted to get an early start. I arrived at the trailhead for Lost Horse Mine to an empty parking lot around 7:30 am. This was to be the longest hike of the day, so I wanted to get it done first. After grabbing my gear, I set off to see the well-preserved mine and then summit the nearby peak. The entire loop is just about 7 miles, while if you just go to the mine and back it is about 4.5 miles. Being mindful of the temperatures, I was unsure which option I was going to take. As I stepped onto the trail, I saw the sign that the park had turned this trail into a one-way route, so I realized I’d doing the loop.
The trail worked its way back into the wilderness. About a mile in, a runner shouted that he was coming up from behind. I didn’t expect to see that on the trail. I wished him a safe run and he wished me an enjoyable hike. As I made my way toward the mine, I was rewarded with some nice vistas of the park. Soon the mine came into view. I had tried several times in the past to hike out to this site but had been unable to.
I took the spur trail up to the Lost Horse Mine. The mine itself is fenced off, so it took a little finagling to take my photos. It is quite a sight to see. After exploring some of the surrounding artifacts, I rejoined the main trail and headed along my clockwise route. I soon came to the turnoff to make the ascent to Lost Horse Mountain. This peak is #251 on the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks Section, hence why I was eager to climb it.
The route is straight up the short slope, and I was able to follow the faint use trail for most of it. As expected I was rewarded with some sweeping views. A light breeze made it quite nice. There was no register nor benchmark to be found. After a short break, I headed back down, knowing I had another 4 or so miles of hiking to return to the car.
Once I was back on the trail, it began its steep descent for a while. I stopped for a bit to explore what appeared to be closed mine shafts. Here, an actual hiker passed me. We exchanged hellos as he continued on. Since I was hoping for a multiple peak day, I was playing it conservatively with my pace and energy.
After a bit, I came to the ruins of an abandoned cabin that Johnny Lang, the founder of the mine, moved to after being accused of stealing gold from the mine. All that remains is the chimney and the bed frame. This is also the site of the Optimist Mine, which unlike the Lost Horse Mine, was a bust.
Once I made a short climb, the trail would gradually descend back to the car. I was passed by another runner. Did I miss the notice for the race? Around a mile to go, I encountered three hikers going the other direction. I let them know that this trail is one-way and they might encounter some folks giving them the stink-eye.
While I cruised along, I debated what my second peak will be. Mount Inspiration was an option. While short, it was a use-trail-only hike. My other option was Ryan Mountain, which would have more traffic. In the end, I decided Ryan Mountain would be the smart choice. Soon the road came into view as well as the parking lot. The lot had filled up since I set off. Tossing my gear into the back and enjoying some cold water, I was off for the short drive to the next peak. This hike took me 3 hours to cover the 7 miles with 1,111 feet of gain.
One of the items on my bucket list was to summit Yosemite’s Half Dome. This year I got a permit for the cables in late September! I convinced Ted Markus to join me on the adventure. However, as most know, I herniated two discs in my neck in early April. Slowly, I began my recovery from the injury. I kept focusing on getting strong enough to attempt the Dome. As the time got closer, I felt that I might be able to do it. My foot was doing well through the training hikes, and my neck was better. So, on Friday (Sept 21st), we loaded up the car and headed to Yosemite. Since it is a drive and sadly, we are not in our 20s, we decided to break the drive up into two parts. Since we were passing through Bakersfield, I had to introduce Ted to the only two good things in that town; Basque food (Benji’s) and Dewars!
After a fine meal and some ice cream, and some chews to bring home, we headed on to Visalia for the night. As we drove into the Yosemite the next morning, the effects of the Ferguson fire were all around us; trees still smoldering, “Thank You” signs hung on fences, and repair crews still working to restore services…
We drove our way up to Glacier Point to gaze at the Dome, as well as much of the route we would take the next morning from the valley floor: first past Vernal Falls, then Nevada Falls, along the Little Yosemite Valley, then back around to the sub-dome, then the cables to the top.
We had talked about a short hike to Sentinel Dome, but it took us 20 minutes to park at Glacier Point, and the parking at the Trailhead was full. In fact, some poor driver got his car seriously stuck as we were leaving.
We returned back to the valley floor to see some sights, find our trailhead, and double-check our permits with the Rangers. We took a short hike out to Mirror Lake (long since dry for the season) and to gaze up at the sheer face of Half Dome.
As the sun began to set, we headed out of the valley for an early dinner and last-minute prep for the following day. On the way out, we were greeted with some magical light against the valley walls.
Unfortunately, the room we had reserved in El Portal had a pipe burst, so we had to stay another 10 minutes further from the entrance. We quickly settled in and had a forgettable dinner and hit the pillows. The alarm was set for 3:00 am, but we were both up before then. The air was crisp but not cool as we drove back into the park. The parking lot was slowly filling up with other hikers. We donned our gear and headed off. After a quarter-mile, we realized we made the wrong turn, so backtracking, we found the road to the Happy Isles bridge and began in earnest.
Through the darkness, lit only by our lamps, we trekked along the asphalt path toward the Vernal Falls bridge. A critter moved along the side of the trail, and the white stripe along its back made us pause and retreat. Thankfully, the only stink that we would be carrying would be our own.
The splashing of the unseen Merced River could be heard as we climbed ever upward. Once we left the paved trail, the real hike began. About a mile later, I took a misstep and rolled my right ankle. I could not believe it! It hurt some, but I could put weight on it. Hoping it was just a light sprain, I soldiered on in the darkness, taking a tad more care as I climbed the stone steps every upward.
Dawn’s light slowly began to fill the canyon, revealing the beauty that had been hidden. Atop the falls, we took a break before climbing to entering Little Yosemite Falls. We missed a turn and followed the wrong path for a bit. Our ‘Spidey-Sense’ told us to backtrack. Ted’s GPS was bouncing all over the place in the narrow canyon. So we entered the relative flat of Little Yosemite and enjoyed the respite as the Merced River flowed past…
The ankle was gently reminding me of the episode hours earlier as we walked through some river sand. I could also feel the elevation in my lungs as we climbed ever higher.
Soon, we began to catch glimpses of the backside of Half Dome and the sub-dome. They still were towering above us, although we had been hiking since 4:30 and it was close to 9:00 am. When we reached the turnoff for the last two miles up to Half Dome, we unloaded my two side water bottles, and Ted’s Gatorade, behind a tree. No sense in carrying the weight up to the summit.
I could feel my energy begin to drain, along with the unsteadiness of my ankle. I told myself that at the sub-dome I would be honest and decide if I should abandon the attempt. Over 7,000 feet up, the lungs were feeling it. We had started the day at about 4,000 feet.
Closer and closer, we neared the sub-dome, which many had said was equally as hard as the cable ascent.
As I reached the base of the sub-dome, I knew that I did not have it in me to safely attempt the summit. Between the ankle and my energy, I knew that I should not try. I was truly saddened as I wished Ted good luck on his summit attempt. I placed my safety belt on a rock, where I hoped someone would be able to use it. Ted said he passed his along as well once he was done with it.
We agreed to rendezvous back where we left the water. As I descended, my ankle gently reminded me that I was making the correct choice. I found solace under the pines as I worked my way back down. Once at the junction, I let my feet rest, ate some of my lunch and sipped some water. I chatted with hikers as they passed, wishing them good luck on their attempts. Then I began to worry about my pace and the distance I needed to cover to return to the trailhead.
I packed up my water and left Ted’s empty Gatorade as a signal that I had started back down (along with an arrow made of sticks). As I made my way back down the switchbacks, each step reinforced my decision. I knew that Ted would catch me at some point, and if not, I planned to wait at the bridge at Nevada Falls, where we would take the John Muir Trail (JMT) down, bypassing the steep, stone steps from earlier.
Just before entering Little Yosemite Valley, the Ranger was checking permits on her iPad. I gave her my name and asked her to pass along a message to Ted that I was ok and headed down. I was also able to find some ankle tape, which greatly helped. I was so lucky that it was just lying there…
Ted caught me just before we left the valley again. Crossing over the Merced River, we were treated to some tremendous views of the falls as we worked our way down the JMT.
We still had about 4+ more miles to go back down to the valley floor, along with about 2,000 feet of elevation. Although this route is longer, by about 2 miles, our knees and my ankle were thankful.
We did have a brief unscheduled stop, because a bear and her two cubs were reported ahead, so we let them pass. We did not see them.
But our adventure was not over! We decided to take the long way home down the 395 the next day. If you have never explored this road, you must. It is truly a hidden gem of California. After one last farewell to Half Dome, we continued along the 120, and over the pass at 10,000+ feet.
We quickly began our descent toward Lee Vinning, but not before more awesome vistas filled our car window. Our first quick stop along the 395 was at Mono Lake and the Tufas. (It was too early to hit the Whoa Nellie Deli).
As we drove down the 395, the eastern Sierras rose sharply along the highway. Patches of snow still clinging to a few spots. As lunchtime approached, we were nearing the town of Bishop, which could only mean one thing…
Grabbing some sandwiches to go, and a bag of bread for the family, we continued back toward San Diego. As we neared Lone Pine, we stopped at the Manzanar National Historic Site.
In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated during World War II. Sobering…
After a brief look at the Visitor Center and the driving tour of the site, we headed the short way to Lone Pine on Whitney Portal Road. There we headed out to the Alabama Hills and the Mobius Arch.
I was too sore to attempt the hike to the arch. I had seen it a few years before, so Ted scampered down the trail. I did stare up at Mt. Whitney in the distance…
We made our way through the high desert, occasionally slowed by traffic. It looks like the 395 is being widened from Kramer Junction to the 15 (eventually), and the 58 will be bypassing Kramer Junction sometime soon as well. We both reflected on the journey and we were thankful for it and the support of our family to undertake it.
Soon, the sun was setting over the desert, and Chris and Ted’s adventure came to a close. Thanks for reading. Happy Trails…