Backpacking in California’s Sierras

Living in congested, over-populated Los Angeles, it is very important that I occasionally sneak away to a quiet, secluded part of the state where there are no cars, electricity, TVs, and very few people. The only way to truly leave the modern world behind is to shove some gear into a backpack and head into the wilderness.

The Sierra Nevada mountain range is one of California’s greatest natural resources. It is bursting with lakes, alpine meadows, towering granite, and majestic views. While the fringes are easily accessible by car, the vast majority of the area can only be reached by good old-fashioned leg work.

The Sierras have so many lakes that one could camp at a different one every weekend of their life and still not see them all. Although there are a couple of favorites I return to every once in a while, my friends and I usually pick a new lake to visit each summer.

This year it was Tyee Lakes on the eastern side of the range.

The drive from Los Angeles is about five hours–the first of which I spent driving eight miles in the city trying to get on to the freeway at rush hour. My final destination for the night was the small town of Bishop, California where I met up with my friends and crashed in a hotel room for the night.

The Tyee Lakes trail head is just a 40 minute drive from Bishop. Highway 168 takes you from Bishop’s 4,000 foot desert floor up to 9,000 feet where the trail starts. Then it’s a four mile hike and an additional 2,000 foot elevation gain.

I prefer trails that are somewhat short and whose brief uphill sections are punctuated with level ground. The Tyee Lakes trail, however, was straight up. The entire four miles were uphill with practically no flat or downhill sections whatsoever. It was a tough climb, especially with heavy backpacks, but one that was rewarded with great views and three lakes along the way.

Tyee Lakes is actually a four-lake chain. Although the first was rather beautiful we shortly discovered that each subsequent one was even better. The third one is pictured above.

Our goal was the fourth lake and despite the challenging trek, it was well worth it. As you can see here, the lake is magnificent. All your big city woes are washed away with just one peaceful glance over the placid waters. I’m happy to report that my high sierra swimming streak didn’t come to an end either. Although 11,000 feet high and fed from snow melt, the lake was refreshingly brisk–albeit, not tolerable for very long. We also spied quite a few good sized trout coursing through its waters.

Our campsite was located just off the lake and populated with strange, indigenous Coffee Smurfs as captured in the photo above.

A day at camp is a day spent doing nothing. With no errands to run, TV to watch, cell phones ringing, or any other annoyances competing for your attention, it is so very wonderful to just lay back and relax, to soak up the energy of the mountains and to mental cleanse the old grey matter. Backpacking is a throwback to the old days where reading and conversation are your only source of entertainment. This is what backpacking is all about and in my opinion this is what makes it infinitely more enjoyable than car camping.

That being said, there were two small downsides to the trip.

The mosquitoes were a bit worse then we’ve experienced in the past and without some powerful Deet repellent things would have been very miserable.

The other downer was a small bout of altitude sickness which affected us all. Traveling from sea level in Los Angeles to 11,000 feet is bound to cause a few problems. None of us were able to sleep the first night and most of us had a slight headache the next day. One member of our party even felt so bad he hiked out in the morning (which is the best cure for altitude sickness, a disease that can actually be fatal in extreme cases). The rest of us woke up on the second morning and felt fine; we were finally acclimated. It was very strange. I must be getting old because even though altitude sickness can kick in at 8,000 feet, 11,000 feet still isn’t very high. I guess I’ve become a wimp in my old age!

Nonetheless, the trip was well worth it, headaches aside. If you’re traveling though California in the summertime, be sure to visit the Sierras. You won’t be disappointed.