We were amazed with the beauty and unique scenery that the southern and eastern sides of the Sierra Nevada range offered. Our original plan was to head south and east from Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. This would send us through Las Vegas and onward to the Grand Canyon, and the National Parks of Utah including Bryce Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands and Arches. The weather in those places, however, was obscenely hot. Duke and Spike, our loyal canine companions, wouldn’t appreciate that…and neither would Alison or I for that matter!
Therefore, we opted to drive up the eastern side of the Sierra’s towards Lake Tahoe, stopping in Mammoth Springs along the way. We expected the weather to be cooler there. We were glad we did this.
Our first stop was a barren and unremarkable campsite on Lake Isabella (which is really a reservoir) on the southern end of the Sierra’s. On map it looked to be an idyllic place, located at 3000ft elevation, on the banks of a large lake, bordering the southern edge of Sequoia NP, with some small towns dotting the shore. As we approached, we saw the reality of a barren landscape devoid of many trees, sweltering daytime heat (though it was pleasant in the evening), and a reservoir so low due to drought that it stunk like rotten fish when the wind blew towards us (either that or there really was rotten fish in the campsite dumpsters). Add to that the placement of the campsite on a busy road…and we were happy to stay for only a single night before moving onward the following morning.
The following day we drove through a precarious thirteen mile long twisty canyon road nestled deep down in on the bottom of the ravine, next to a raging creek. It was a gorgeous drive so Alison tells me, I was focused on staying between the lines in the road!
As we emerged from the canyon, the landscaped changed with more pervasive sage brush, tumbleweeds and Joshua trees. We headed up to Lone Pine, a cute desert town and all the while thoroughly enjoyed the fantastically smooth and straight four line highway traversing this desert laden part of the country. To our right were smaller volcanic hills and to our left were the eastern foothills of the Sierra Range.
We expected the desert to be a boring place, but it actually looked pretty neat. There were occasional lakes and creeks fed by snowmelt high in the mountains, and all sorts of interesting rock formations scarring the eroded hills. In spite of the desolation, we saw quite a lot of livestock farming and cropland…no doubt fed by diverted rivers and underground aquifers.
At the small town of Lone Pine, we decided to make the drive up the Whitney Portal Rd. to get a better view of the tallest peak in the continental USA, Mt. Whitney. I was very curious to make the drive because I also knew this to be the final thirteen miles in the 135 mile Badwater Ultramarathon. I was interesting in seeing for myself what I had read about in numerous books about the race.
The drive slowly ascended from sea level to about 9000ft over the course of thirteen miles. The views were amazing and the vegetation changed from scrub brush to large stands of orange colored incense cedar trees, hemlocks and pines that somehow managed to grow on sand filled cracks interlacing large slabs of rocks and boulders. The views of the desert valley below along were worth the drive.
We made it to the end of the road, and saw the trailhead from which people depart to make the steep 18 mile (roughly) round trip hike to summit Mt. Whitney. We weren’t prepared to do this, and didn’t have a permit for it anyway. Perhaps another day!
On a whim we checked out the campsite located at the end of the road and it was stellar, with a flowing creek and plenty of large trees. We decided to stay here for two days. Our site was one of the best in the entire campground, bordering a babbling brook with plenty of space and shaded areas for the dogs.
With the dogs in tow, we took turns hiking and watching the dogs (or perhaps it is really they who watch us?). One day I did a hike up an adjacent valley en route to Meyson Lake, but ran out of daylight and didn’t get all the way to the actual lake, nonetheless I had great views of the desert valley floor. I probably did about 7-8 miles and roughly 2000ft of climbing.
Another day, Alison hiked the first portion of the Mt. Whitney trail to an alpine lake and back. About 8 miles with 3000ft of climbing.
The most excitement during our stay came the evening of our first night. We were sitting in a relaxed mood having just eaten dinner and locked away our food in the bear lockers each campsite is equipped with. All smelly stuff (including toiletries) and food must be locked in these, or a bear with find it! Bears will even break car windows and rip apart metal car door frames to get to food trapped inside. We followed the rules!
As we were relaxing, Alison noticed Duke, our precocious two year old lab/corgi mix pup, growling in a very low tone. He only does this when there is something worth looking at (usually it is a deer, another dog, or a small child riding a bike!).
This time, we turned around and noticed a black bear standing no more than twenty feet away from our campsite, on the other side of a creek! We instantly jumped to our feet, and threw (literally) the dogs in our car to keep them safe. We were a bit stunned, and the bear came towards us and right into our campsite!
By this time we had moved away, and I started yelling “HEY BEAR HEY BEAR HEY BEAR” to scare it away. It worked! Lucky for us it did, for as the bear sauntered off, another one ran out from behind our car! Both bears trotted away and down the creek-bed past some other campsites.
From this point on, we have maintained an entirely new awareness to wild animals around our campsite. Bear, deer, coyotes and other animals are out there and especially as we are traveling with dogs, it is important to keep them out of harms way. This means never leaving our dogs unattended, always keeping them on leash, and keeping all food locked away in bear-proof containers. Bears in particular, are shy animals and yelling at them (or banging pots, honking horns or throwing a small rock in their general direction – but not hitting them!) is an effective way of scaring them off. I’ve also learned that the main thing you need to worry about is getting in the way of animal and it’s young. This includes deer.
Our campsite host at Mt. Whitney said that the most dangerous animal for a dog is not a bear, but elk (which are found in Colorado and the Rockies). Adult elk will very aggressively attack dogs if they chase after them or get between them and their young. Another reason why you should always keep your dog on leash and watched over when wild animals are around.
After a couple nights at Mt. Whitney we packed up and headed further north to Mammoth Lakes. Neither Alison nor I had been their before, but we both knew it was a place where elite runners lived and trained, due to its elevation and massive trail system. Were were excited to check it out. Despite not being elite runners by any means, we were looking forward to pretending to be Ryan Hall or Deena Kastor floating along on the trails.