This post covers 5 days of backpacking in the Hoover Wilderness, part of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. I divided up the days onto separate pages. This will also allow you to stop reading earlier if you tire of my tale since the pages will be shorter. I still hope you make it through the whole thing.
I woke up at the crack of dawn after my second night at Buckeye Creek. Since I had the entire previous day to prepare and pack, I was ready for action nice and early!
I was on the road by 7:00 in order to reach the rendezvous point in Long Barn, CA. My route took me over Sonora Pass which made for an excellent 2 hour drive through Stanislaus National Forest. Looking at the map beforehand, the distance didn’t seem too far, but the rugged Sierras have limited passages so I made a bit of a circle around a good chunk of the mountains. It’s less than 40 miles as the crow flies, but over 80 miles on the road.
Sonora Pass has grades (correct me if I am wrong) up to 25%. Trucks are technically allowed, but there is a sign as soon as you turn onto route 108 stating that trucks are “highly discouraged”. You can see why after just a few miles. Driving from East to West, the road is windy and steep until you reach Dardanelle. It’s a good idea to use low gear, which I didn’t think of until after I had crossed the pass. As I drove through Dardanelle, I saw the damage from a forest fire from the previous year. Most of the tiny mountain settlement was caught in its path. I would come to see more and more evidence of forest fires during my time in the Sierras.
There were surprisingly little guardrails along the turns of Sonora Pass. If you overshoot a turn, you are likely fly off the side of the mountain. Also on the return trip to the trailhead, my brakes overheated during the descent and smelled like burned rubber.
The final 30 minutes of the drive to Long Barn, I was able to drive much faster as the road is more level and not nearly as windy. I got to Long Barn at 9:00 where I met Lenny and his friends. I had not met any of these guys before (except for Lenny of course) although I had heard some stories about their previous trips. I am bad with remembering names, but they made it easy on me with one-syllable names: Josh, Noam, Matt, and Tom. These guys have gone on a week-long backpacking trip each summer in the Sierras since college, and I was fortunate enough to join them on this one. As the new guy, I was bestowed with the privilege of carrying the kettle which has accompanied the guys on all previous backpacking trips. After about an hour of packing, loading of 2 vehicles and 6 hikers, we reversed course to drive back over Sonora Pass to the trailhead at Leavitt Meadows.
The original plan was to start at the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Sonora Pass; at an altitude of ~9600 feet. This would allow us to hike downhill for almost the entire hike into the forest (clever as our packs would be lighter when we hiked uphill on our return trip). However while driving over the pass we made the executive decision to start at a lower altitude due to the high levels of snow that were still on the trail. People were sledding on some of the hills near the mountain pass, despite it being 55F and July! Needless to say there was still a lot of snow pack that had yet to melt. I heard whispers that over 50 feet of snow fell over the winter.
A few days earlier Lenny and his pals decided to rent a pack mule in order to haul in additional gear (and beer…ok mostly beer). I had no idea what this meant. I thought we would actually have to guide and care for a farm animal for 5 days. I later found out that we would be stopping at a pack station (I hadn’t heard of these before either, and I don’t think they have them on the east coast) where they take your gear, load up a mule, and haul it to your camp for you.
Before starting our hike, we stopped at the Leavitt Meadows Pack Station to “weigh in” for the gear we were packing on the mule. We had a weight limit of 150 pounds (poor mule) and we came in just a few pounds underweight. We informed the pack station folks that we would be setting up base camp at Long Lake, and they would guide the mule to our campsite the following day and drop off our gear. Once we reached Long Lake, we would have all of they gear we needed (and all of the beer we could drink). I was already packing at least 5 pounds too heavy, so our equine assistant was certainly appreciated.
Day 1 – 7/4
Happy fourth of July! We started our hike at Leavitt Meadows shortly after dropping our gear off at the pack station. We crossed over the Walker River (a recurring theme) and headed into the initial ascent up the trail. The slope was uphill and gradual, fooling me early on into thinking that the Sierras were not as rugged as I had heard.
After a few miles we arrived at Lane Lake, a campsite for the guys’ previous backpacking venture. I was already exhausted. I was definitely carrying too much weight, but the altitude was also having an effect. I was glad that I had spent a few days around the area to acclimate, but I hadn’t done anything strenuous in that time. Now that I was hauling 30+ pounds on my back and we were reaching altitudes of almost 9,000 feet, I was struggling to keep up.
After a good rest at Lane Lake, we continued higher into the mountains. Lane Lake is a very popular campsite due to it being the closest to the trailhead. The trail is also much smoother from the trailhead to Lane Lake. Once you get another mile down the trail from Lane Lake, the trail becomes much more rocky and ambiguous. I stuck with Lenny or Noam for most of the day since they knew the area much better than me (Lenny also had the map). I was warned by both of them that we would have to cross the river shortly before arriving at Fremont Lake. I wasn’t too concerned as I had packed with me extra shoes and trekking poles. What I didn’t anticipate was that, due to the high snow pack, the river level was about waist deep, and it was really cold. The current was pretty strong too, but Lenny and I crossed together and we each used one of my trekking poles as support.
Another obstacle on the first day, which nobody anticipated, was the mosquito population. Apparently this was the worst mosquito level any of the guys had ever seen in the area. It was like being in Maryland again after a rainy afternoon. The mosquitos were swarming us when we were in shady areas, and unfortunately it was very shady around the river crossing. Everyone stopped to change out of their boots before crossing the river, and again to put them back on after a successful river crossing. This made made for a painful experience at the river crossing. I didn’t carry much insect repellent as I was informed that the mosquitos “aren’t nearly as bad” in the Sierras. Some of the guys didn’t carry anything to repel the mosquitos based on their previous experience. At least we would get some relief after the sun set and we had a fire going.
After hiking for approximately 5 hours, we arrived at Fremont Lake where we would be staying for the night. We were about 3 miles from our final destination at Long Lake. However due to our late start (and some of us with dwindling stamina) we decided to call it a day. Also, Matt (who seemed to be one of the fastest at the beginning of the day) suffered a knee injury and he barely managed to make it to camp before dark. Our campsite at Fremont Lake was nice, as the granite around our fire pit served as a “couch” for a few of us to sit on. In my overloaded backpack, I had included a trail chair, which I was too exhausted to setup this night. I barely had enough energy to setup my tent and cook dinner. Getting water was a chore as the mosquitos did not let up since we were right next to a water source. After the sun set, the temperature dropped dramatically and the insects promptly exited our campsite.