On the first weekend of October, we went out for what was very likely our last backpacking trip of the year. Below freezing temperatures led into the weekend, and left us wondering if we’d stay warm enough. And not only would it be cold, early nightfall would mean a long time in the tent waiting for the morning sun. We packed a couple extra layers for this trip, pulling items from our winter gear and even pajama collection. And to add another challenge to this hike, we’d have to figure out how to get a wilderness permit in the middle of a federal government shutdown!
My dad planned this trip for us. Two nights at Barney Lake in the Hoover Wilderness, with a day hike up to Crown Lake. To gain overnight access into this area, you need a wilderness permit. We stopped at the ranger station in Bridgeport, CA and hoped for the best. As expected, the ranger station was closed, but there were plenty of permits left at the self-serve kiosk outside the building. This was a relief, because there are stories around the country of rangers writing tickets for people hiking in some areas.
We parked at the Mono Village backpacker parking lot and paid our $10 for leaving the car there three days. Mono Village is a privately owned RV campground, and you must pass through it to get to the trailhead. My mother-in-law and husband were camped here, and we paid them a visit before hiking up into the mountains. They said the bears made nightly walks through the campground, and went through anything they could find. They had an ice chest outside with waters and iced tea in it, and the bears busted open the tea. Since it’s a private campground, there are no bear boxes for campers like you would see in a Forest Service or State run campground. I don’t think I’d want to be in a tent here, and from the look of things, nobody else did either. It was all just RVs.
Because of other weekend obligations, we got a late start on the trail that day. It was already 3:00 PM, and we had about 4 miles to get to Barney Lake through unfamiliar country. We’d also need some time to locate a campsite once we got there. Our pace was a little quicker than normal, fueled by some nervous energy.
The trail leaves Mono Village at 7,095 feet elevation, and quickly enters the Hoover Wilderness. The forest here is full of big and widely spaced trees. It almost feels like a park. We passed several large piles of bear scat, apparently left by bears gorged on camper food, headed up to the mountains to sleep it off. After leaving the woods, the trail enters some open country for some great views of the canyon ahead, and Little Slide Canyon to the south. There are many aspen groves here, and all were glowing bright gold.
We made good time through the canyon, thanks to a mostly straight trail. The switchbacks don’t start until the end of the canyon. A lot of elevation is gained quickly through the switchbacks, the trail climbing over granite and under the aspens. Finally the trail arrives at Barney Lake at 8,258 feet elevation. Because of our late start, we arrived at near the perfect time for a stunning view. The lake was smooth and dark, but the massive Crown Point at the other end of the lake was still sunny and reflecting in the water.
Still needing to find a campsite, we kept hiking around the west side of the lake, passing a few berry laden piles of bear scat along the way. My map showed a marshy area to the south of the lake, so I wasn’t sure what we’d find. The first good campsite we came to was occupied, so we kept hiking. Large pine trees ahead at the border of the marsh indicated some firm, dry ground. We hiked down off the trail through a talus field, and entered the stand of trees where we immediately found a good campsite. Just to be sure, I dropped my pack and went a little further into the trees. Just out of sight from my family, I heard a big animal crashing through the nearby trees. It sounded more like something tall and graceful (deer) and less like something short and brutish (bear), but I didn’t want to investigate further. I suddenly decided that the place where we dropped our packs was as good as any other place to camp.
Without any resting, we went quickly about setting up camp and making dinner. Partway though dinner, a deer walked right through camp and confirmed my suspicion about what was lurking in the nearby bushes. Nightfall was upon us before we could finish our camp chores, and dishes were done with the headlamps on. We also had more food than room in the bear vaults. Kristy and I went into the woods with a bag of food and 50 feet of utility cord. We found a suitable branch, hung the bag high, then I made some of the most pathetic looking knots you’ve ever seen to tie it off. I really need to practice this. Soon we were in our tent, and got bundled up for the long, cold night ahead. It was only 8:00 PM, and because of the orientation of the canyon we were in, we wouldn’t get sun on our tent for a while into the morning.
Not too long into the night, I heard a munching sound coming from outside the tent where we left the packs. I got my headlamp, unzipped the tent and lit up the packs propped up on the granite boulders. Sure enough, there was a big rodent underneath my pack. It looked more like a big rat than a marmot (which looks more like a fat squirrel). A mountain beaver? It was hard to tell in the dark. I got out and moved our packs underneath the tent fly where I hoped they’d be safe the rest of the night.
The night was long and cold, but we stayed warm enough, mostly complaining about cold feet. Towards the end of the night we tucked our faces down into the sleeping bags for more warmth. While we weren’t really cold, it wasn’t really comfortable either. I think we all agreed that we prefer warmer temperatures to camp in. It was more like surviving than camping. Daylight finally arrived, but it would still be a long time before sun hit our camp. You could see it slowly creeping down the mountainside high above us. Instead of waiting for the sun, we got started on some hot beverages and oatmeal to warm us up. Filtering water with my pump from a nearby creek was also a good way to warm up. There was a thin layer of ice on the slow moving water in the meadow. As we started getting ready for the day, we discovered that the rodents had gotten into a couple things that weren’t secure. The packs were fine, but Kristy’s hiking hat had the sweatband chewed out! There were a few nibbles on her trekking poles as well. They were apparently after anything salty.
After breakfast and getting camp tidied up, we decided to split into two groups for the day. Kristy, my son, and the dogs would stay behind and hang out at Barney Lake for a more relaxing day. My dad and I planned to hike to Crown Lake up above to the south. My dad and I set out directly to the south along the marsh instead of climbing back up to the trail. The trail eventually crossed the valley, so we’d run into it if we kept going straight. This turned out to be a big mistake though. The brush started to get real thick at the end of the valley. I crossed the creek, and tried my luck on the other side, but eventually got walled up and had to turn back. I followed my dad into a boulder field that was thick with aspens. It was tough getting through, and I thought I might rip my pants or worse, break an ankle. By the time we broke through and reached the trail, we realized how close we were. It took several minutes to walk just 50 yards. This little adventure cost us some time, and it felt like we had walked an additional mile. That little climb from camp back up to the trail didn’t seem bad at all now.
Back on the trail now, we stopped at Robinson Creek to fill our water bottles and cool down a bit from our tangle with the bushes. After crossing the creek, the trail climbs up into the woods again, crosses the creek again, and then starts a long series of switchbacks to climb the steep granite mountainside. Because of the bends in the canyon, we never could see Barney Lake as we climbed higher.
After many switchbacks, we finally arrived at an intersection. To the southwest was Peeler Lake, to the southeast, Robinson and Crown Lakes. Either direction would’ve been a beautiful trip, but we hung a left towards Crown Lake.
This section of trail passes through fields of enormous boulders that were probably moved downhill by glaciers coming off Crown Point. The trail work that was done to get through this area is pretty amazing. I thought of the people who first explored this area, and what it must have took to climb through all this. Here we were just out for an easy stroll.
The first of the Robinson Lakes we encountered was a pretty turquoise color. The water was crystal clear and it had a sandy bottom, so it was hard to tell why it was so green.
The trail passes right between a narrow strip of land between the two lower Robinson Lakes, with a lake visible on each side. After passing by all the lakes, we followed the creek up through more giant granite boulders.
The trail crosses the creek once more, and then you are in a basin. Slide Mountain towers above, and soon Crown Lake (9,600 feet elevation) comes into view. The trail follows right along the lake shore for a wonderful hiking experience. We hiked around to the south side of the lake to have lunch, and ran into the two backpackers we saw camped at Barney Lake. These two ladies were headed further up to Snow Lake. We got to talking and found out that the rodents got their stuff too! One of the lady’s trekking poles was pretty chewed up.
It was very exciting to be up in this area. I wanted to hike every pass and see what was around every corner. Any side trip we did though was going to add an additional three miles. After sitting down for lunch and relaxing, my legs started to stiffen up, and going back to camp seemed far enough. We investigated the inlet creek to Crown Lake and it was full of some pretty good sized trout. I bet there are even bigger ones in the lake.
We followed the same trail back to camp, but this time getting to see everything from another point of view and with different lighting. We made much better time going back down. We passed a group of backpackers on their way to Peeler Lake. They were running out of daylight and were inquiring of the trail ahead. Luckily they only had a couple miles or less left. I was glad it wasn’t us in a hurry this time. We flew down the switchbacks, and I couldn’t believe how many we had come up!
We finally returned to camp, and were ready for a more leisurely dinner than the night before. It was good to reunite with the rest of the family and hear about their day. I was sorry they didn’t get to see the sights we saw, but also thankful we didn’t drag the dogs into our first bushwhacking adventure. That might have killed the whole day!
This night we stashed all our gear under the tent fly, and didn’t leave anything out for the rodents to gnaw on. Sometime in the night a breeze came in, and the aspens were quaking all around us. This also seemed to bring in warmer temperatures, and the night wasn’t as cold as the night before. The night pretty much went without incident with exception of a daddy longlegs that got into the tent and crawled on my neck. In the dark I brushed off whatever was crawling on me, and then I smelled something strange. A little freaked out, I grabbed my light, and then discovered the bug. I’ve since confirmed that daddy longlegs have a pair of defensive scent glands that secrete a peculiar smelling fluid when disturbed. Gross.
We woke up and started the coffee/tea/breakfast routine. Normally my son likes to sleep in, but he was already deflating mattresses and stuffing sleeping bags. He was on a mission to get back on the trail, so he could hopefully see my mother-in-law before they left camp. He’d been talking about their raviolis all weekend. I don’t think we’ve ever left camp sooner than we did that day.
Before the final hike out, we stopped at Barney Lake to shed a layer of clothing and filter some more water. It’s a beautiful view anytime of the day, so of course we took more photos too.
After we got down the switchbacks, Kristy and my son flew down the trail, determined to make it back to see her mom before they left the campground. My dad and I took a more leisurely pace. As we neared the campground, big piles of bear scat looking like early Clif Bar prototypes became more numerous. I was glad they stayed down low and didn’t bother us. By the time we caught up with Kristy, they had been waiting at the campground for a half hour. Sadly though, the camper was gone, and there would be no raviolis. They probably just missed her mom by minutes. Instead, we opened up the bear vaults, and had a backpackers buffet with our leftovers as we drove back to Carson City.
This is definitely an area I want to come back to. Especially for longer trips. There are a few different options for loops or extended out-and-backs that would take you through some amazing country. It’ll have to wait until next year though. Snow was forecasted for the area just a few days after we left. I think we got our final backpacking trip done just in time! It’s with mixed feelings that we say good-bye to backpacking season. Spring is a long way off, and we’ll miss it. On the other hand, we’ve certainly got our fill of camping this year, around 25 nights sleeping outside. Winter is a good time to rest, dream up next year’s trips, and do some day hiking and snowshoeing.
The complete photoset of this trip can be found on Flickr here.