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Backpacking into Miter Basin -- September 2013
Sierra Nevada

My brother and I spent 5 days hiking in high-elevation areas of the southern Sierras just south of Mt. Whitney. We started at Horseshoe Meadow and hiked over the Sierra crest at Cottonwood Pass. Turning north, we hiked into Miter Basin where late-summer meadows were surrounded by towering granite peaks and Alpine Chipmunks and Gray-crowned Rosy Finches posed for photos. Looping south, we crossed back over the crest at Old Army Pass and dropped into Cottonwood Lakes Basin, eventually hiking back to Horseshoe Meadow. The weather was less cooperative than we had hoped, but it was a great hike and a nice time with my little brother. Map of the hike.  

cottonwood pass trail

Day 1. September 06. Trailhead to Chicken Spring Lake.

We left Las Vegas early, but after stops in Death Valley, the Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine (hiking permit), and a few other stops, got a late start on the trail. Even so, we had an easy time hiking from the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead (9,950 ft elevation) 4.1 miles west to Cottonwood Pass (11,150 ft). We then continued northwest another 1.2 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail to Chicken Spring Lake, which has several nice campsites near the outlet. We took the northeast-most site (farthest from the outlet and another pair of hikers) and had a nice quiet and starry night.

pacific crest trail

Day 2. September 07. Chicken Spring Lake to Lower Soldier Lake.

After a leisurely breakfast, we returned to the Pacific Crest Trail and continued north. The trail climbed onto the ridge west of Chicken Spring Lake and more-or-less contoured (max elevation 11,500 ft) around the west side of peaks along the crest of the Sierras. We crossed into Sequoia National Park (11,350 ft), traversed above the Siberian Outpost meadows and dropped into the South Fork of Rock Creek (10,900 ft), which comes down from Army Pass. Still hiking north, we continued to Lower Soldier Lake (10,800 ft) and set camp. After a rest, we day-hiked onto the ridge (11,350 ft) overlooking Miter Basin and then to Upper Soldier Lake (11,200 ft). Returning to camp near dark, we had a late dinner and settled in for a chilly night.

Miter Basin

Day 3. September 08. Lower Soldier Lake to South Fork Rock Creek.

Awaking to fog on the lake and ice on the sleeping bags, we packed up, fixed a cup of coffee, and carried our packs over the ridge (from the evening before) and then down into Miter Basin (about 11,200 ft). As we entered the exposed Miter Basin, storm clouds began to build, at first only interfering with sunny-day photos. During a sunny rest break, an Alpine Chipmunk came to visit for a few minutes. We also saw Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, Yellow-bellied Marmots, Mallard Ducks, Golden Eagles, White-crowned Sparrows, and Orange-crowned Warblers.

Later, the storm built and started to hail. Lightning often accompanies hail, so we headed for lower and less exposed elevations, eventually camping along the creek (10,900 ft) that comes down from Army Pass where we got a bit of rain.

Cottonwood Lakes Basin

Day 4. September 09. South Fork Rock Creek to Cottonwood Lakes Basin.

Starting early on a cold but sunny morning, we headed east and climbed over Old Army Pass (12,000 ft). As a ploy to catch my breath in the thin alpine air, I frequently stopped to photograph fall-blooming plant species along the trail. Old Army is a decommissioned trail, and traversing the high and exposed cliffs made for a thrilling descent into Cottonwood Lakes Basin (11,200 ft). After John and I posed for photos, Gray-crowned Rosy Finches joined us for the same.

We rested at the upper-most lake (Cottonwood #4) and saw more Alpine Chipmunks, then continued our descent past several other lakes until finding a site with the grandest of views for our last night on the trail (Cottonwood Lake #2, 11,000 ft). Despite heavy clouds building in the evening, we had a dry and breezy night.

Cottonwood Lakes Basin Day 5. September 10. Cottonwood Lakes Basin to Trailhead.

Even with the "grandest of views" at our campsite, we packed up and moved west about 0.4 miles to eat breakfast with an even grander view. We then took the "trail less traveled" and headed down the South Fork of Cottonwood Creek. Descending past waterfalls and hiking along meadows, we hiked quickly but slowly descended towards the main trail. Arriving at the well-used main trail, we were particularly glad that we had taken the quiet South Fork Trail.

The two remaining miles passed quickly, we arrived at the trailhead, and headed home. Five days out with my brother, 33 miles of grand scenery, and nice photos of Alpine Chipmunks made for the perfect hike.

Note: All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 130914

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