Off Trail in Dusy basiN
Trip Duration: 3 Nights
Distance: Not Really Sure
Total Vert: Whatever It Took
As always seems to be the case with every hiking trip Sarah and I go on, the journey from our home in Toronto to the trailhead is always the most laborious. Our intention for this trip had been to hop between the Sierra High Route and John Muir Trail depending on how confident and energetic we felt. Weeks before the trip were spent downloading, printing and marking-up Andrew Skurka's PDF maps of the route and reading Steve Roper's guidebook. We were fully aware that hiking the entirety of the route would be significantly above our skill level, but wanted to get a taste of going off-trail in the Sierra Nevada by doing some sections of it. With this in mind, both our itinerary and route were very fluid and open to adaptation as we saw fit.
Months before the trip, I had secured a permit from King's Canyon National Park to start at the Road's End Permit Station. Soon I learned that not only was getting to this permit station a logistical nightmare, but the initial climb was something like 6,000 feet over 7 miles. There was quite literally no time for acclimation as the steepness of the surrounding terrain prohibited any decent camping below ~8,400 feet. Thinking it was probably unwise to carry fully-loaded packs with five days of food up 6,000 feet on day one with no altitude acclimation, we adjusted our plan to instead start our hike from the town of Bishop and intersect the Sierra High Route just after Bishop Pass.
So, in the end, here's what our journey involved:
Flight from Toronto to LAX
Rental Car from LAX to Mammoth Lakes
Sleep in National Forest
Get walk-up permit from Ranger Station in Mammoth
Return rental car to Mammoth Lakes Airport
Hitchhike from Airport into town of Mammoth Lakes
Eastern Sierra Transit Authority Bus from Mammoth Lakes to Bishop
Get ride from one of Sarah's childhood friends to the South Lake Trailhead.
Yes, it was a long and arduous process. Yes, it was a pain in the butt. But, yes, I would do it again. There is no easier way to get to the trailhead without having your own car to leave at the trailhead. On the positive side, when we did finally start walking, it made that initial climb up from South Lake Trailhead (beginning around 10,000 feet) seem just a little bit easier.
Soon we encountered mosquitoes. We had heard myths about them, but honestly didn't think they'd be this abundant especially in the higher and more exposed areas around 11,000 feet. Fortunately, a 25 gram mosquito net over my wide-brimmed hat worked well when coupled with a sort-of-mosquito-repellent long-sleeved shirt. Even when the sun went down and temperature dropped, the mosquitoes were still out. Only once during the trip did we find relief in a random off-trail boulder field near a lake fed by a nearby snowfield. Anyways, that's enough complaining about the mosquitoes. Just be forewarned that they do exist, and that planning ahead is wise.
Our campsite the first night was relatively close to a couple of other groups of hikers, but once one makes their way into the backcountry and away from the stereotypical tourist crowds, the people one meets tend to be much quieter and more respectful of those around them. It sounded as if everyone was asleep by 9pm to rest up for a full day of hiking the next morning.
Going to sleep so early (AKA 'Hiker Midnight') means that you're almost certainly going to wake up with the sun. During the summer when afternoons at higher altitudes can get subtly, but punishingly hot, putting in the miles before the sun reaches the top of its daily arc makes for much more comfortable travel. When crossing snowfields, early risers also get the benefit of crossing on harder snow that is less likely to swallow half your leg (AKA post-holing). The flat open area leading from our first night's campsite up to Bishop Pass would have been very exposed and sunny during the day, but early in the morning, the mountains provided us with some pleasant shade.
Although only 900 feet, for the unacclimated amongst us, the climb up to Bishop Pass (11,972 ft.) with 5 days of food is still nothing to shake a stick at. As a rule of thumb, one should ideally sleep approximately 1,000 feet higher subsequent night in order to properly acclimate. That may be great in theory, but when coming from sea level, that is impractical. Personally, I have found that I don't begin to feel the effects of altitude until around 8,000 feet. Spending one night around 10,000 feet generally leaves me feeling strong enough for climbs up to around 13,000 feet. Your mileage may vary as altitude can exert very different effects on different people.
Near the top of the pass, we encountered a small snowfield with very deep suncups (large dimple-like depressions in the snow). Fortunately, the trail left by hikers before us allowed us to easily get to the top of the pass without having to navigate these ankle-breakers since only one of us (I won't say who) brought microspikes. Since we were traveling this area relatively early in the morning, the snow was still firm making for easy passage. As per usual, the most posthole-prone areas were the beginning and ending of the snowfields where the warmth from the neighboring rocks had softened the snow.
Once up and over Bishop Pass, one officially enters King's Canyon National Park. While no permitting issues arise due to permit system integration between the National Parks and National Forests within the Sierra Nevada, it is important to remember that certain park regulations do change. For example, unlike in National Forest, when in King's Canyon National Park all food and scented items must be carried within a bear canister. Furthermore, used toilet paper is no longer allowed to be buried. Yup, that's right, your used toilet paper must be carried out with you. My suggestions for making this experience as pleasant as possible include, 1) Find natural materials to do the job, and 2) Double bag with a Ziploc and a grocery bag to avoid the constant visual reminder.
A short jaunt down from Bishop Pass leads you straight into Dusy Basin; a high alpine playground. Having done minimal off-trail travel before, the cirque-like (mountains on three sides) structure of the basin provided a nice safe environment to get off the hiker highway and out into areas less traveled.
The trail through Dusy Basin winds for four miles through a high alpine garden of rocks and flora unlike any other place we had ever visited. At the end of this section, the trail drops 2,000 feet down into LeConte Canyon where it connects with the John Muir Trail / Pacific Crest Trail (they overlap in this area). We arrived at top of these switchbacks in the late afternoon, but ather than dropping down into the Canyon and dealing with hoards of mosquitoes and JMT thru-hikers (both of which would make finding a nice campsite more challenging), we decided to stay up in Dusy Basin. After all, we came to this area to explore off-trail and discover tucked away spots that hadn't already been seen by thousands of others.
Since we had a little bit of time to kill before bed, and admittedly hadn't showered in about three days, we decided to rinse off in the stream that runs through the Basin. As always, we adhered to 'Leave No Trace' principles and didn't use any soap or chemicals in the stream. Furthermore, neither of us wear sunscreen as we prefer to cover up with long sleeve shirts, hats, and umbrellas.
For the night, we decided to backtrack into the more picturesque section of the Basin. We made an unsuccessful attempt to escape the mosquitoes by climbing about 150 feet up the slope of one of the surrounding mountains where we found a small bench (the geographical type, not the man-made type) that was just large enough to pitch our tent on. We put up our tent and spent the evening lying there enjoying this view...
The third day was all about off-trail travel. The afternoon before, we took some time to study the map of the surrounding geography and found an interesting looking S-shaped ridgeline that we wanted to climb partially up. We had no idea how far it went, what the condition of the rock would be nearer the top, nor how easy the terrain would be to travel. Only when going off trail, can one get a true appreciation of just how difficult/exciting it must have been for the first explorers to this area; I'm looking at you John Muir. They didn't have any maps to tell them what lay over the next mountain pass, nor websites to show them photos of what to expect. When you just forget about the maps for a little bit and explore an area solely for the sake of exploration itself, the pay-off is often incredible.
Our off-trail travels were undoubtedly the most memorable part of the trip. After running into a bunch of sections on the aforementioned ridgeline that called for more climbing than hiking, we decided to head back the way we came. The views from up there were, nonetheless, incredible.
We travelled for about one hour off trail through an area littered with car-sized boulders that made the going very slow. Eventually, we reached the snow-fed lake at the bottom of the cirque and spent a good two hours just lying there beside it staring up at the mountains. We tried to swim in it, but it was much too cold.
For the remainder of the day, we decided to make our way back to the campsite that we spent our first night at. This area had been one of our favorite campsites ever due to large sweeping mountain views and absolute stillness of the lake. As is too often the case, pictures often fail to capture the true essence of a scene. Only once you're out in these types of areas, can you get a true appreciation of their beauty and power. If you're interested in travelling to the Sierra Nevada, but aren't quite sure about the logistics of it (e.g. route planning, how to get there, and permit requirements), check out Custom Trip Planning to see how I can be of assistance.