Chasing the Tundra: a Foray into California’s Lofty Frontier

There it was, carved into the side of the mountain like a serpentine scar, slithering its way up toward a sky riddled with barren peaks; their toothy prominences ripping through the leading edge of a building storm. A keen eye and a pointed finger could trace its path, lurching upward from where we stood at the western edge of the Great Basin Desert, zigzagging all the way up through Pinyon/Juniper woodland, wandering between stands of Ponderosa and getting steeper as the Foxtail pines got shorter. Miles away it could still just barely be seen, emerging atop an alpine ridgeline some four thousand feet above.

I had stared inquisitively at the old mining road dozens and dozens of times before – it was a common roadside distraction while en-route to one of the many hikes I’d done in the Eastern Sierra for the latter and better portion of my life. Gazing up at it now was different though. Instead of just another passing glance from the car window, this time I stared up at it from behind the handlebars of my bike, myself and my friends loaded with enough food and gear to transport us across the road’s length to spend a few days deep in the Sierra Nevada beyond where it ends.

For years the route had tempted me. It is likely one of the only, bike-legal circuitous routes through the Eastern Sierra Nevada that traverses tundra prairie and meanders past trout-filled subalpine lakes. Encompassed almost entirely by National Forest land, the loop begins with the intimidating climb ahead of us, then attains an alpine ridgeline where it plummets up and down past a series of basins, meadows and shimmering post-glacial lakes. At its western edge, the route flirts with the limits of the Wilderness boundary, but never once crosses it – a seemingly prophetic wink and nod from Forest Service Staff way back when who knew someone might want to ride bikes there someday.

All said and done the loop comprises only twenty-four or so miles, but has a terrifyingly steep elevational profile that tops out near 12,000 feet numerous times, and plunges over four thousand feet down what appears to be a very steep and rocky drainage for a dramatic and climactic finish (particularly with loaded bikes). During normal years, the weather window between snow and violent thunderstorms is a short one, but this year the snow has melted exceptionally early… Could the loop be done in one day? Oh, for sure. But would doing it over three days with a few friends, fly rods, camping gear and cameras be better? We were about to find out.

As we pedaled away from the car at roughly 7,000 feet, it became readily apparent that loaded bikes and tall mountains make for unsettlingly high heartrates. As we climbed upward the scale of the landscape around us and our diminutive efforts became almost comical; we were but an assemblage of tiny specks slowly working our way up these mammoth slopes, sucking in air with fervor, pushing down on heavy pedals and wobbling under the weight of carrying things we weren’t used to carrying. Our progress was slow, but that was alright, we had all day. At the vantage points that followed the end of each anaerobically steep pitch, we would gather to catch our breath and soak in the scenery. The gasped exclamations, “Holy shit, look at that view” and “Holy fuck, this is steep” made up the fair share of words spoken that morning.

At around mile seven, we crested a long slog up through the last of the dwarfed foxtail pines and attained some semblance of a peak. Peppering the trail and blanketing the ground around us was a carpet of muted, mossy green plants with vibrant bursts of white and pink exploding through gaps in the rocky soil. The plant was cushion phlox, a small alpine flower with a very narrow elevational preference of roughly 10,500 to 11,500 feet, and its relative abundance told us that we were officially entering the tundra prairie. It was early June, and the lack of snow at that elevation was baffling. Late season storms, large drifts and miles of post-holing through lingering snow fields are typical hurdles on backcountry jaunts to these elevations this time of year, yet here we were, in short sleeves on a snow-less alpine ridge, the week after Memorial Day. In the few odd patches of snow we passed by – many not even large enough for a proper snow angel – it was becoming increasingly evident that conditions in the Sierra Nevada this year were anything but normal.

The severity of this winter’s lack of snow became jarringly obvious as we arrived at our first water source for the day. What once wandered across the Google Earth imagery from just two years ago as a lush and verdant spring creek that fed into a small lake, was now a bone-dry cobbly wash leading to a dusty, barren depression. Thirsty, slightly defeated, and with the sour tinge of altitude sickness slowly settling in for some of us (myself included), we quickly inventoried our water supply, ate some snacks, and decided to head straight to the only surefire water source; the larger and hopefully more seasonally stable lake that we had planned on spending our second night at. With our day’s mileage now doubled, nausea waning our spirits, and ominous thunderheads building around the peaks that bordered our destination, we had some work cut out for us.

Never had a keen eye and a pointed finger done as much to damage group morale as it had when I traced out the visible remainder of what was left for us to ride that afternoon. Up and down, disappearing below the treeline then ascending back up to barren peaks over and over like some sort of satanic sin wave, the road ahead of us undulated in epically steep proportions. The group let out numerous collective sighs as our new reality set in, and as we shouldered our bags and threw our legs over our bikes the dark clouds overhead began to roll with thunder.

One by one we ticked off each low then high point on the trail, reluctantly losing elevation, rolling down through rocks that scattered and clacked like broken dishes beneath our tires, then stubbornly pushing up each subsequent ascent, step by step in silence toward the top. Before long we had achieved our final and highest point of the route – some 12,000 feet high on a barren alpine plain. Our moods lightened while the clouds continued to darken. Smiles cracked and thunder did too.

Big then bigger raindrops started to fall, audibly smacking our helmets and dry bags as a surprisingly frigid breeze began to blow. Things were getting colder and more ominous with every passing minute so we picked up the pace. In what seemed like an instant, the nearly flat expanse of tundra before us fell away to reveal a massive, rocky basin cradling a vibrant blue alpine lake. I chuckled to myself as we fled from the storm and raced toward the lake, amused by the irony of running away from and toward water at the very same time. My amusement faded quickly as I was forced to focus completely on the task at hand; navigating the exposed, janky section of raw and rocky trail that dropped one thousand feet to the lake below. As we descended the scree escarpment toward the southern edge of the lake, the rain slowly waned and the temperatures rose, almost as if in reward for our valiant efforts.

Fish were rising out in deep water as we hopped over the tiny lake inlet, its flow well below the well-worn height of its incised bank. We gathered at the edge of the lake to formulate a game plan for finding a campsite, and while we talked a pika chirped at us from the scree above. Relegated by our warming climate to increasingly tiny alpine islands in the sky, hearing or seeing a pika signifies that you are in a high and wild place, and that we were. As we continued on and skirted the shore in search of a clearing sufficient for a few tents, the Clark’s nutcrackers cackled from their perches atop the stunted foxtail pines, some of their beaks clasped onto pine seeds as they fluttered between trees to find suitable caches for them in the rocky soil. During the course of this summer season, just about each and every Clark’s nutracker will cache thousands of pine seeds for the fall and winter, and miraculously they will remember some 75% of the locations where they bury their seeds. Having gotten a head start on germination from their feathered friends, the remaining buried seeds that the nutcrackers forget will contribute significantly to the next generation of foxtail pines, perpetuating the forest through a continuous symbiotic process of eating, burying, forgetting, and growing.

Before long we located camp, dropped our bikes and our bags, and assembled our tents. Our campsite was perched above the lake on a sandy barren circled by small pines, far enough from the water and exposed to just enough wind to keep the bugs at bay. The clouds had parted to reveal a sun that was quickly descending toward the horizon, so we rigged up our rods and headed down to the lake to test our luck with some fish. As we neared the water’s edge the fish were still visibly rising out in deep water, so we wandered over toward the lake outlet to see if there were any within closer reach. Like the inlet, the lake outlet was low, actually very low.

It was almost more rock than water at this point, with its low flow providing little refuge for fish, and most of the fish we saw tucked away in its tiny pools appeared to be trapped. Typically, lake inlets and outlets are seasonally swollen this time of year and rushing with active snow melt. The scouring and gravel deposition of the high flows is often mutually timed with the spawn of the fish, and in June they will usually be actively spawning in any accessible, well oxygenated gravel bed in or near the lake’s inlet or outlet. This year, not so much. It is likely that few progeny will be added to the population this year.

After a few hail mary casts to the rising fish in the middle of the lake, I finally enticed one with my dry fly. My 2 wt rod doubled over and fly line ripped through the crease in my finger where I tend to pinch it against the rod for smaller fish, burning me as it went. After a much longer fight than I’m used to enduring in these mountains, I not-so-gracefully landed a chonker of a wild rainbow trout. It spewed eggs as I lifted it from the water – a testament to its girth and the spawn that would be occurring if water levels were sufficient enough. A failed spawn is not necessarily a bad thing for all of the parties involved, however; the rainbow trout here are not native, in fact, no trout species in this portion of the eastern Sierra Nevada are native to watersheds that drain into the Owen’s Valley.

Remnants of stocking efforts long ago, these fish have persisted in this lake and hundreds of other lakes and streams in the Sierra Nevada, much to the detriment of native amphibian populations whose tadpoles and efts (salamander tadpoles) make a quick and easy meal for a trout. Upstream of this very lake, scientists have actively removed trout and reintroduced one such endangered amphibian, the Sierra mountain yellow-legged frog. As it turns out, in the absence of fish the frogs do quite well. As we watched the fish swim away, back toward the deep and dark water of the lake, we vocally regretted not bringing anything to cook up fish with. A fish of that size would’ve made for a great hot meal, and as a species that does not naturally occur here, I’d have had little qualms with harvesting it. (A native fish though? No way.)

That night the Sierra Nevada delivered in spades; we were gifted with warm temperatures, little-to-no mosquitoes and a milky way so bright you could almost hear it emanating from the heavens. Despite the extensive effort of the day’s journey though, my body was surprisingly unwilling to fall asleep, so I stayed awake taking photos of the stars and sipping slowly on a small flask of whiskey. For me, soaking up the nights in these mountains is almost as important as enjoying the days, so I was not at all perturbed about keeping sleep at bay.

We all rose early the next morning, greeted by a bright and sunny sky and a clamorous dawn chorus of chattering mountain chickadees, Steller’s jays, white-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins – to name just a few. We had nowhere to be but where we already were so there was no rush to commence anything in particular. We donned our down to ward off the brisk morning air and lazily boiled water for coffee and instant oatmeal. We sipped coffee, we ate our oatmeal and we lounged around on boulders of granite that resembled anything remotely similar to furniture, all while the sun got higher and warmer and the birds continued their singing. As the coffee kicked in the pace of our conversation picked up, and we began humorously recounting the struggle of yesterday’s endeavor, and relished knowing that we had nothing to do today but nothing.

Before we knew it, the day was nearly over. Far from doing nothing, we burned through the daylight hours hiking around the lake, swimming, hiking to another lake, fishing, swimming, and fishing again. At some point in the afternoon, we even happily spent over an hour attempting to get photos of golden-mantled ground squirrels running frantically to and fro beteen their cozy little burrows (no cigar). Dinner came and went and again the milky way carried out its slow dance across the sky, beckoning us to sleep much earlier than the night previous.

We awoke early again in the morning, refreshed by great sleep and eager to get back on the bikes. Silently and in unison we deflated our sleeping pads, broke down our tents and re-situated all of our gear back onto our bikes. A quick bite and a cup of coffee and we were on our way, careening down the boulder-strewn trail that descended back to the cars from camp. “Rocky” would be an inadequate characterization of the trail dropping down from the lower lake to the road – it was far more rock that it was dirt, and extremely careful line choice was necessary to avoid snagging a pedal, a crank, a frame, or a pannier. IT WAS FUN! Aside from the clearance concerns, the weighted bikes almost worked to our advantage, keeping the tires planted firmly on the ground and maximizing contact between rubber and trail. Collectively, we rode the entirety of the descent, with each technical section delivering at least one exuberant victor, until finally (and sadly) we arrived back on pavement and made the short coast down the highway and back to the cars.

Over greasy burgers and baskets of tater tots at the Burger Barn we all agreed that the three day approach to the loop was well worth the extra effort to carry all the gear to pull it off. Besides, getting to spend a couple of nights at the lake fishing, swimming and marinating in the wild definitely made the trip less of a bike ride and more of an experience, and that’s never a bad thing (especially when bikes are involved). And in light of the ongoing drought, the longer trip also afforded us the time to better comprehend how the diminished snowpack and warmer and drier spring and early summer season is visibly affecting the sensitive high-altitude montane ecosystems like the tundra prairie and subalpine mixed coniferous forest. In general, the passive observations we were able to make during our longer stay up there will offer a great personal baseline for quickly detecting observable ecological changes that may occur there in the future – and the same notion applies to any place susceptible to climate or human-induced impacts; stay longer, see more.

The more time we allow ourselves to spend in our favorite places (or new places) the better chance we have to productively advocate for it, and that’s also never a bad thing (especially when bikes are involved).