There are two pleasures in life that can’t be beaten…1) finding money in your pocket, and, 2) realizing you have a three-day weekend at the last minute. Just before the July 4th weekend, we experienced the second and made a quick decision to spend the weekend in Cottonwood Lakes and climbing the New Army Pass. Both are near Lone Pine (just south of Mt Whitney, which we attempted in June 2011) in the John Muir Wilderness of the Eastern Sierras of California. As an added bonus, we could take our two dogs, Gwenn and Mitch, who love the outdoors and are impossible to tire out, or so we thought.
Using our handy checklist, we made our run for last-minute supplies at REI and had the fortune to run into Tony Neary, one of the most experienced employees at the store and a veteran of Cottonwood Lakes. He gave us great advice, as always, and we were packed and ready to go by 9pm that evening. We weren’t sure of the snow conditions but knew the runoff from the heavy snows this winter would mean swollen streams and high water levels in general. We needed to be well-prepared.
We drove to Lone Pine where we picked up our permits from the Interagency Visitors Center just south of town. Cottonwood Lakes are outside of the Whitney Zone and therefore are free, which is always good. There are only 24 permits held for walk-ins, but we had good advice to be there at 11:00am, when passes are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. We made our obligatory stop at Subway to pick up a sandwich, stopped at one of the best hiking/climbing specialty shops we know, Elevation, for some last-minute gear (we decided to buy super-light crampons) and were at the Cottonwood Lakes trail head by 2:00 pm. We were sorted and on the trail by 2:40pm, and enjoying a mostly flat 4-mile hike up to the basin that contains the six lakes and is the jumping off point for New Army Pass, Old Army Pass and Mt Langley (4,277 m., 14,032 ft.). We couldn’t climb beyond the pass, however, as that would involve entering the Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park where dogs are not permitted on trails.
John Muir Lake
Once in the basin, we chose John Muir Lake for solitude, as several people along the way told us that there were plenty of people at the other lakes. Finding this lake, however, was a bit of a challenge as the trail branched but then was lost among pine trees and boulders. Looking above at the mountains, we sorted out where the lake had to be and sure enough, we found it within thirty minutes. It was a gorgeous place to camp with widely-spaced pines among boulders the size of small homes. There were snow patches covering about half the ground and it was cool and comfortable compared to Lone Pine, which was 38 degrees (100 degrees Fahrenheit) earlier that day.
Climbing New Army Pass
We were up early the next morning and on the trail by 6:40am. Getting there meant making our way past Lakes 1 and 2, then past Long Lake and up into the very snowy final basin below the pass itself. We passed occupied campsites just before leaving Long Lake and noted that this would be a great base camp for the Pass and for a climb of Mt. Langley. Once above Long Lake, the snow became much deeper and softer, even at that early hour. Also, we could hear water rushing below our feet as we crossed snowfields, leaving us anxious about dropping through the surface crust. We crossed these areas quickly and were able to reach the steep slopes of the Pass without problems. The dogs showed no signs of altitude or exhaustion even as we reached the highest point of 3749 m. (12,400 ft.). Coming down was, as always, much faster than going up as we were able to glissade quickly down. Gwenn pulled Chris down the slopes very quickly, while Jeanne took the more cautious Mitch into her lap for the slide.
Once down the steep side of the final bowl, we crossed the basin quickly to the hill above Long Lake, which by now was very soft and with even louder sounds of water rushing below the surface. We should have been exhausted by that point but were feeling great, so we make the decision to continue our hike up to Lakes 3, 4 and 5, which were in a basin to the north, requiring a seven-mile hike to get there and back to John Muir Lake.
The last day
Up early again the last morning, we enjoyed sunrise on Mt Langley, high above us, and the reflection of the mountain on a perfectly still lake. Temperatures had dropped below freezing overnight, making the trail solid and less muddy than the previous two days. We had a very fast descent to the trail head, where the dogs immediately passed out in the back of the car and we sorted our gear, knowing it would be much warmer and tougher to do this once we were home in Pasadena.
Cottonwood Lakes and New Army Pass are a great weekend getaway from Southern California, regardless of the summer heat elsewhere. The approach trails are well-maintained and the campsites are plentiful. We hope you have a chance to experience this idyllic part of the Eastern Sierras.
See all of our photos at our website, Maximum Adventure. For the map of our hike, see the image below: