4-hour Drive from Lee Vining to Cottonwood Meadows
Cottonwood Meadows>Lake Two, 6 miles
Our shuttle driver, Lone Pine Kurt, arrives at the Lake View Lodge at 8:00 am. I arranged a ride with him via email back in March when I learned that the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority buses don’t run on weekends/holidays. Just our luck, right?
Lone Pine Kurt is 74 and drives a Nissan Maxima. We load our backpacks and Onion Valley food cache into the trunk of his car, and we are off. LPK is unassuming and soft-spoken, and he entertains us for the next four hours as we make our way down to the trailhead with stories and historical anecdotes of the area and by pointing out anything of geographical interest. He is very knowledgable, and the time flies by as we travel on the highway parallel to the range of mountains that we will be hiking through.
From the valley highway, the mountains look so stark and imposing. There isn’t a cloud in the sky, and it is hot. From our vantage point, we wonder where the trail is and what it will be like hiking in such a foreboding place. What on earth have we gotten ourselves in to?!?! Is it too late to turn back?
We make a quick stop to drop off our cache at the Mt. Williamson Motel, where we will be staying seven days from now and then head to the Forest Service Station just outside of the town of Lone Pine to get some trail info. We also want to see if there is any chance of changing our permit to allow us to enter at Cottonwood Lakes instead of Cottonwood Pass. When we booked our room at the Mt. Williamson Motel with Strider, she strongly recommended that we change our entry point, proclaiming that the lake route was way more beautiful. As luck would have it, the permit is available, and we are on our way to the trailhead.
LPK drives us up through the Alabama Hills, an interesting area in the foothills of the Sierra, strewn with peculiar rock formations that remind us of Grapevine Hills in Big Bend. Many old western movies have been filmed here, and the town of Lone Pine even has a Film Museum celebrating the area’s long-standing ties with Hollywood. We finally make it to the trailhead, and LPK wishes us luck as we unload our packs and get ready to set off on this epic adventure. After a quick lunch and some ceremonial JMT start photos, we hoist our heavy bags up, strap them on our backs and set off slowly down the trail.
With seven days worth of food, our backpacks are heavier than they have ever been, but we are making progress. Thankfully, the grade is gentle, and we find some shade beneath the tall pine trees. It is the 4th of July today, and we see many parties heading back to the trailhead at the end of this long holiday weekend. We exchange pleasantries as we pass.
After about 20 minutes, yet another group comes along, and, just as we are about to step off the trail to let them go by, one of the women begins screaming. We aren’t quite sure what is happening. I look up at her just as she pulls her sunglasses and hat off and then look at the woman behind her and realize that these screams are screams of excitement. And they are coming from faces we know!
It is Michelle and Olivia from Team San Diego who we met just a month ago on the Trans-Zion Trek!!! They are just ending a four-day loop in this area and, knowing that we were starting out today, had been hopeful to cross paths with us on our way in.
If you stop to think about it, it’s pretty crazy that we did run into each other—we had just changed our entry point a few hours ago, and they had deviated from their original plan to head back to the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead. What a crazy coincidence! We chat for nearly 30 minutes, still in utter disbelief at the good fortune. They’ve had a great few days, despite the fact that a marmot took a liking to Michelle’s bag while that they had stashed unattended while summitting a peak.
Finally, we bid our farewells and hit the trail again in earnest. We are in high desert forest for many miles, occasionally crossing small streams and following forks in the trail with signs pointing us toward New Army Pass.
After a final short push, we reach the flat plateau of the lakes and begin to look for a camping spot for the night. There are boulders strewn everywhere, and we spot many marmots warming themselves on the warm rocks. Just off the trail, Matt sees two baby marmots poking their little heads out of their den, but they disappear when we get closer to them and won’t come out to play like those crazy Ladakhi marmots we saw while trekking in India.
The trail winds around a lake. Based on the map, we think it is Long Lake, but we aren’t quite sure. (Later, we discover that this is actually Lake Two.) Regardless, it looks like a nice place, and we find a cool camp spot nestled amongst the large boulders where we set up our tent for the night.
We eat our dinner on a large flat rock with a commanding view of the lake below us. We are entertained by the constant splash of Golden trout that are jumping and flipping up out of the water in earnest now that the sun is setting. A marmot takes in the view a few boulders away. Below us, a pair of beautiful yellow Wilson’s warblers flit about the willow bushes frantically looking for bugs.
It is just after a new moon, and the stars come out in full force after the sun dips below the horizon. We grab our cameras and go for a walk looking for a cool subject to photograph with the night sky. We find a fantastic old skeleton of a tree and celebrate the 4th of July by photographing the stars and the Milky Way behind the silhouette of the tree. We break out the flashlights and try our hands at light painting for a bit. What a great way to end our first night on the trail!