Pine Creek Pass Trailhead to French Lake
(9 miles, +4,300/-500 feet).
Well, it’s time once again for my biannual trip with Half Cookie! The grandparents always come down for our kids’ birthdays, and since that means we have built-in childcare we usually organize a trip before or after (thanks mom and dad!).
Half Cookie really liked the Rae Lakes last year, so I thought it would be nice to hike up to another lake basin and explore.
I was really worried about the mosquitoes this year because of the record snowfall, so I wanted to go somewhere above tree line. When I looked for permits for our dates, Pine Creek Pass was available, so that sealed the deal.
After an early start, we arrived at the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop about 10am to pick up our permit. The person who helped us was maybe the most lethargic ranger we have ever met. We felt like we had been transported into an episode of Parks and Recreation and were dealing with Aubrey Plaza.
When we asked her about trail conditions, she replied in the most nasal and deadpan hipster voice possible “stream crossings are SKETCHY, at best….”
Well, that was helpful….
I always like to ask rangers about their favorite places. When we asked Aubrey Plaza that question, she replied “Oh, it’s all beautiful.”
We gave up trying to actually get any useful information from her. At least she gave us a theme for what we dubbed the “sketchy at best” tour!
We headed up to the trailhead at 7400 feet and got started a little before 11am.
We had a surprisingly hard time finding the actual trail. I knew it left from a horse corral area, but for some reason we missed it a couple of times.
Soon we were in the forest and I was very surprised by the lack of mosquitoes.
We chanced on a beautiful butterfly. It posed for a photo (or maybe it was just dead?).
After a few hundred feet we left the forest and started walking up a long exposed climb in the mid-day sun. Suddenly a hiker bounded down the trail towards us and stopped. He cheerfully offered each of us a StarBurst. We accepted, and then he continued down the mountain. Thanks candyman!
Our views to the north were of the Pine Creek Tungsten Mill (not shown) but to the south they were expansive and gorgeous.
As the trail neared Pine Creek, the roar of its falls filled the valley.
By 1:30pm we crossed into the John Muir Wilderness at around 9600 feet.
The rocks near Pine Creek shone brilliantly in the sun with many signs of glacial polishing.
Soon it was time for lunch!
I had originally asked Aubrey Plaza about stream crossings because I read a trip report saying the Pine Creek crossing was tough. We were relieved to find that, although the log crossing was partially submerged, it was not too difficult.
And just like that we were at our first lake of the day.
There was still a snow field on Pine Lake, which surprised me since it is below 10,000 feet. This year’s record snowfall persists!
We thought we were in for a somewhat sketchy traverse, but someone had actually carved a very large path in the snow, including steps!
Alas, the mosquitoes which had been conspicuously absent began to swarm around us as soon as we crossed the snow, and they would be with us all the way to Pine Creek Pass. We were okay as long as we were in motion, but they would come after us during breaks unless we stopped on ridges with a little breeze or in open sunny areas.
Huge striped cliffs loomed above us as we rounded Pine Lake.
Our next stream crossing (the outlet from Birchim Lake) was even easier than the first, completely dry on a manicured log.
Our third crossing above Upper Pine Lake was mostly a dry rocky hop, but there was one 10 foot section where the rocks were submerged and we had no choice but to soak our feet.
We reached the junction for Honeymoon Lake and took a left towards Pine Creek Pass.
About 5pm we crossed paths with a father-son pair of day hikers who were carrying a pick axe and a huge snow shovel. They were slowly breaking trail through snow fields so stock could pass. We thanked them for the beautiful path around Pine Lake, and they said they would be returning to continue their work all the way up to the pass.
At Pine Creek Pass there are two extremely beautiful tarns, one on each side of the divide. We decided to make dinner next to the one on the south side. Surprisingly, there were only a couple of lazy mosquitoes here, and they would not bother us again the rest of the evening.
After dinner we still had some daylight, so we decided to head cross country towards the ridge above French Lake to find a place to camp for the night.
By 7pm we found an amazing site above French Lake to camp for the evening. We watched the (free) nightly light show for about an hour and then turned in for some well-deserved zees.