No Bikes Allowed in the High Sierra

There’s kind of a joke on Instagram right now. A joke hashtag that is, dubbed #NoBikesNoLikes. From what I can tell, it implies that if you’re a cyclist, and your followers are cyclists, all they want to see are bikes, bike rides and other cyclists. I get it. People can get very myopic about their interests, but there’s more to life, right? Obvious statements aside, we live in the great state of California, where the highest point and the lowest point cohabitate the same 100 square miles. In this magical place, you’ll be hard-pressed to find legit backcountry trails where bikes are allowed, if any. You can thank the Sierra Club for that. Equestrians and hikers greatly outnumber cyclists and a long time ago in a bureaucracy far, far away, someone, somewhere said “No Bikes allowed.”

This was written in stone and rather than get all in a huff about it, in recent months, I’ve kinda embraced the whole thing. Bikes aren’t allowed in Wilderness Areas. Got it. So what is? What offers a similar experience to bikepacking? Duh. Backpacking. Cari has experienced parts of the High Sierra I’ve never even thought to explore. Personally, if I take off four days from work, I want to be bikepacking or cyclo-touring some unknown region – to me anyway – of California. That’s why I moved to this damn fine state to begin with.

A few months back, Cari scored eleven permits to backpack on trails outside of Mammoth Lakes. The loop, as we planned it, was 40 miles and we’d tackle it in three or four days. Since the only provision was water – freezing cold snow melt – we’d have to bring in four days worth of food stored in a bear vault, clothing and other necessities, all fitting into a 70L or so backpack. We knew we were doing this trip early in the season, so we expected lots of snow, some plump, rushing rivers and potentially some GPS navigation, as much of the trail could be destroyed from the record snowfall.

Fell trees were a plenty and turns out, everything else on our list was bountiful as well but we’ll get to that in a little bit.

We all met at a campsite, just a few miles from the trail head the night before. Cari and I were well prepared, having already packed our food and supplies in Los Angeles before hitting the road in Ziggy Mojave – my Land Cruiser. So while everyone else was packing and buying supplies, I took a nap and relaxed for a while. As night fell, the campfire blazed on and my pre-mixed Manhattan cocktails went down easy. A little too easy at 9,000′ elevation. Soon, I was ready to pass out…

Morning called at 5:30am and we all scrambled to make coffee and breakfast before finally setting down on the Duck Pass trail at almost 9am. That’s a long time to get ready but remember, we had 11 people. Sheesh. Within a few miles, we encountered a German hiker who turned back, visibly upset. When asked why, he stated there was too much snow and he couldn’t find the trail. Panic worked its way through our group like “the wave” at a baseball game. I assured everyone it would be ok. I had a GPS and we’d be fine.

Duck Pass was gorgeous, with a minimal amount of snow scrambling and views to keep your shutter finger firing.

What we didn’t expect was the very steep and very sketchy section of snow to follow. It had to be at least a 50º angle, but felt near vertical, as our ledge in the snow was merely inches wide and the consequence – falling down the 100′ drift into freezing cold lake water – could be fatal. Later, when we had to wade through a small crossing, my bones ached from the cold. It was a temperature I’d never felt before.

Some hours later and we’d find our camp at Purple Lake, beside Purple Creek. I’m an early sleeper on trips like this, so at 8pm, I was in my tent, passed out. I knew the morning would come early – at 5:30am – and that we’d all be in the sun’s path by 6am, making it difficult to sleep in. Getting a good night’s sleep on the first day – even though we only walked 9 miles and climbed 2,500′ – meant I’d be good to go in the morning.

Our next day’s agenda was easy. 9 more miles and around 1000′ of elevation, we’d mostly be descending to Fish Creek, or rather Fish Valley. The problem is, we’d have a trecherous creek crossing at what is known as Second Crossing. Usually, this creek is 12″ deep, but after this year’s snowfall, it plumped up to waist deep, with flows of 70 CFS, or 70 cubic feet per second. That’s like having 70 thanksgiving turkeys pass you every second. It’s an issue when you’ve got 11 people hiking, one of which is 6 months pregnant.

Again, another German couple passed us going the opposite direction. Their cry was similar: “turn back! it’s too trecherous!” Panic ensued, which I tried to thwart: “We’ll be there in ten minutes, let’s go check it out.” The crossing went as expected: it sucked! Being the only one tall and strong enough to help the others across meant I’d be in the water for an hour, grabbing onto people’s arms as they inched their way across the rough and dangerous creek. Since I was in deep, rushing water, I didn’t have the chance to document any of it and that’s probably a good thing. It gives me anxiety even writing about it…

Risk vs reward is high in the High Sierra, however. Our campsite that night was divine. One of the better kept secrets on this trail.

Day three brought a challenge. We’d either hike out, all the way, topping 20 miles, or split it into two days, camping at Reds Meadow and leaving Mammoth Pass, plus the walk back to our car for the following morning. Cari and I had to get back to civilization on Monday for work, so we took off on our own. Then, as our maps were wrong, we spent over an hour searching for a bridge that was never there and before we knew it, the group caught up with us. We’d take off again, at a fast pace and made it to Reds Meadow by 2pm, with plenty of time for a late second lunch and a break before ascending Mammoth Pass.

Once we packed up and were ready to go, another set of bad directions foiled our plans, setting us back another hour or so. Soon, the group that was three hours behind us, caught up with us again as we circled Reds Meadow looking for the “Old JMT”, a trail that could cut off a lot of elevation gain onto Mammoth Pass. Turns out, that section of trail was closed ages ago.

The sun was setting and the wind was picking up. Cari’s feet were killing her, forcing her to a crawl up the pass, so I took the heaviest items out of her bag and transplanted them to mine, making her load easier and our pace equal. Before we knew it and long before sunset, we popped out at Horseshoe Lake and began walking with our thumbs out, hoping to hitch a ride down the road to our car. After hiking on dirt for three days, walking on asphalt was killing my feet.

One, two, ten cars passed and we were already halfway there when a local named Sean picked us up in his Honda CRV. Thinking we were JMT or PCT hikers, he struck up a conversation. We exchanged stories, trail conditions and other anecdotal tales to pass the time of our 20-minute car ride back to our truck.

Camping sounded good to me, but work’s responsibility meant I should use some of my airline miles to book a hotel with Wifi. The next morning, we met up at Black Velvet Coffee for a coffee, while myself and one other flicked away at keyboards on our laptops like wood peckers devouring insects in a fell tree. Cari and I loaded the truck up and headed down the 395 corridor with a few dirt roads on our list to explore for future campsites. One last detour on our drive home found us in an alluvial canyon, perfect for a rest and a snack.

Backpacking may be slower than bikepacking, but in that time, you’re allowed a different experience. The mind is able to sop up the trail gravy, like a buttermilk biscuit and in the end, you’re allowed a vista into a part of California that is closed to bikes. For me, these experiences all tie into a more complete understanding of California’s geological and ecological stories, so that I can, in tern, share them with you.