My all-time favorite back-packing destination is the Cottonwood Lakes Basin, in California's eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. It took a full day's drive from my home in Ventura County to reach the trailhead, but it made for a great 5 or 6 day backpacking trip. I haven't lived in California for almost 20 years, so this blog is based on my past trips to this destination, although I doubt it has changed much.
The area is approached via highway 395, with the turnoff to the trailhead south of the town of Lone Pine. It's a steep but very scenic and dramatic drive up the mountains, as you get some incredible views of the Owens Valley. This is also a popular spot for hang-gliders to launch into open space.
There's a nice campground at the trailhead, where I'd recommend you take spend at least one night to acclimatize to the altitude, which is around 10,000 ft above sea level. The night skies are very clear up here, with incredible numbers of stars visible. It's a good spot to star gaze.
From the trailhead camp it's another 6 miles up to the Cottonwood Lakes basin, with a gain of an additional 1,000 feet of altitude. Not all that much climbing, but the air is quite thin up here so it's a bit of a slog.
The Cottonwood Lakes Basin is located just below the tree line, and is beautiful. It has several alpine lakes and meadows framed by a rim of forest and huge granite peaks -- Mount Langley (14,027-ft.) to the northwest and Cirque Peak (12,900-ft.) to the southwest. These lakes are home to California's state fish, the Golden Trout.
In many ways the Sierra Nevada Range makes a perfect place to backpack. Summer days are warm and usually dry, especially on the rain shadow (eastern) side. The lakes are mostly fed by melted snow pack and do not dry up in the summer so you have plentiful fresh water. And there are almost no mosquitoes after the spring thaw so you can have a bug free experience. Nights are pleasantly cool, and I'd often just sleep under the stars instead of in my tent.
(Scenes from the Cottonwood Lakes Basin)
There are side trails to several lakes, including to Muir Lake (see above map), where I'd usually make my camp. From this refuge, I'd do day hikes to the various lakes. The next few photos are of Muir Lake.
(Food and trash must be hung each night to prevent bears from reaching it)
Backpacking permits to the area are limited, and the region is large enough so that you'll have a nice natural experience without dealing with lots of people.
If you go:
- Be sure you have an overnight permit if you wish to camp in the Cottonwood lakes basin.
- No campfires are allowed over 10,400 feet elevation, including in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin
- Pack out what you pack in
- The lakes provide everyone's drinking water. Be sure you do your best to keep the water clean
- Use common sense backpacking techniques.
I end this post with more scenes from the Cottonwood Lakes.
The final photo is of a much younger DrFumblefinger, taken almost 30 years ago.