I’ve never had a problem getting my first pick for wilderness permits in areas with quotas. I’ve gotten the very last one before, but never had to execute a backup plan. This July, though, we were headed down to some very popular trailheads in the John Muir Wilderness, and I knew I had better have some alternate hikes in mind when approaching the permit desk at Mono Lake. I didn’t get my first choice or even the second! Horton Lakes was my third choice, and the ranger said he had 10 permits available. The daily quota for this trailhead is 10, meaning nobody reserved permits online or walked in before us. Odd in such a busy area!
We continued south from Mono Lake to the desert town of Bishop. This small town of less than 4,000 people was packed with people making their journey along Highway 395. There looked to be a lot of fun things to do, and a few places that sold outdoor gear if needed. But because of our long drive, we had to keep going. We took Route 168 (West Line Street) west out of town, and were immediately treated to grand views of the jagged peaks of the John Muir Wilderness.
Soon we turned onto Buttermilk Road, a graded dirt road that goes through the Buttermilks (aka the Buttermilk Country), a popular bouldering destination. I would’ve loved to explore the huge boulders if we had more time. No camping signs were everywhere, warning people that it was the property of The City of Los Angeles.
On the west side of the Buttermilks we passed through a cattle guard, and the road became less maintained. Camping is allowed in this area, and we saw many roadside campsites. The higher we went, the rockier it got, and we made really slow progress the final few miles to the trailhead. You’ll definitely want a high clearance vehicle to do this one, or you may be adding some hiking mileage to the beginning of your hike. Just when we started to worry that we may be going the wrong way, we’d see a trailhead sign to restore confidence. We finally made it to the end of the road at about 8,000 feet elevation where there’s just enough room to turn a vehicle around. It was pretty obvious now why there weren’t more people here. In fact, we saw only one other vehicle here besides our own.
Just past the gate is the John Muir Wilderness boundary sign. It was strange to see the sign in such a desert-like setting. If it weren’t for the giant 13,652 foot Mount Tom behind the sign, you might think it was misplaced. The trail, an old roadbed to get to the mines above, switchbacks up the hillside here. There’s not much in the way of shade during this section, and it was pretty hot with our mid afternoon starting time.
We passed an old burned out tree, a hint that this area was probably more shady at one time. Once the trail crests the hill, it begins a more direct route into the canyon. Basin Mountain and Mount Tom stand like gatekeepers into the new world above. Before reaching the creek, a cabin for the Sonny Boy Mine is off to the right. There’s good shade here and the creek is nearby. It wouldn’t be a bad spot to setup camp if you arrived too late to get to Lower Horton Lake.
The trail soon crosses Horton Creek on a sturdy bridge. This is the last chance for water along the trail until reaching Lower Horton Lake. The creek immediately wanders off into the meadow, while the trail begins to ascend the canyon on the north side. With less than 4 miles from trailhead to lake, though, water isn’t a big issue. The bridge makes a nice stop if you are hiking with dogs.
After leaving the creek, there’s a short section of easy meadow hiking. It’s nice to get a break once in a while when hiking in the Sierras! Soon the easy hiking is over, though, and the trail begins climbing again. The grade isn’t too bad, the trail still following an old mining road. Although you’re now at 8,800 feet elevation, there still isn’t much shade. More wildflowers and high elevation plants start to appear, but the desert still has a strong presence here. It’s easy to see the basin ahead that holds Lower Horton Lake, and reminds you that it’s not far now.
The trail continues to climb, following switchbacks at times. A little relief from the sun is found near the top in the low aspens. A small pond below Lower Horton Lake is visible when you’re close. Finally the trail branches: continue to the right to reach the the Hanging Valley Mine and Mount Tom high above. We went left to hike down to Lower Horton Lake.
As the trail descends to Lower Horton Lake, it passes mining equipment and cabins from the old Hanging Valley Mining Camp. The cabins look like they are supposed to be locked, but the doors have been forced and jammed open. We investigated the cabins over the weekend. The larger one is stocked with canned food and and other gear, but has been ransacked by either animals or humans (probably both) since the door won’t close all the way. You definitely wouldn’t want to spend much time in either cabin unless you were escaping foul weather.
We quickly grabbed an existing campsite below the cabins near the lake, then went down to take in the view of beautiful subalpine Lower Horton Lake with the jagged peaks of the Four Gables above. The only other people up here were camped across the lake on the south side. There is a good campsite near the outlet as well, but it doesn’t have as much cover from the wind (something we’d come to appreciate our 2nd night…). There’s a bit of garbage and evidence of illegal fires about, the garbage most likely brought down from the cabins. Seems strange that people would work so hard to get here, only to be lazy and disrespectful once they arrived.
The next day was a layover day to do whatever we wanted. Two campers chose a day of leisure, breaking in our new Eno DoubleNest Hammock. With the perfectly spaced trees and mountain views, how could you blame them? The other two of us were itching to hike, and decided to try to get to Upper Horton Lakes, 1.25 miles and 940 feet of elevation higher up the canyon.
The guidebook warned that the trail to Upper Horton Lakes is barely a trail, and I was worried about slow-going bush whacking. After we got around the stand of aspens by camp, though, we were surprised to pick up the trail. It’s not much, and disappears at times, but it allows for easy and quick hiking past the lake and up the canyon. It took some study of the ground to pick up the trail when it disappeared. Sometimes only subtle clues would get us back on track.
Hiking along upper Horton Creek is very scenic, with lots of rushing water and a few small waterfalls. There are good views of Lower Horton Lake at first, but it soon goes out of view as the trail follows the canyon to the southwest. Occasionally the trail will climb away from the creek to get around an obstacle or gain some altitude, but for the most part it hugs the creek (and always returns to the creek). When in doubt, look for trail along the creek.
Eventually the canyon ends at a pond, a wide spot in the creek, just 0.3 miles from Upper Horton Lakes. There’s a notch at the top of a boulder field where the creek flows out of an unseen lake. The strange thing, though, is that the rushing creek is only visible partway up the mountain. It disappears under the boulders higher up. We weren’t really sure which way to go at this point. I wasn’t sure if we had lost the trail or had just come to the end of it. It’s not marked on the map.
From my view point, getting past the bushes and up the boulder field looked like the “best” way to go. It looked difficult, but didn’t look like it’d take too long if we just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Getting through the bushes was probably the hardest part. My hiking partner temporarily got stuck in the bushes, and I had to give her directions through the maze from atop a boulder above. The giant boulders weren’t much easier, many the size of a compact car. Words of encouragement were needed at times, but we were now through the worst of it.
Getting past the boulders, we were now in the smaller talus and forward progress was now easier. We could hear the creek passing beneath us under the rocks as we climbed. Finally the steep part was over, and the creek reappeared. I thought it would be a piece of cake from here, but the creek filled the gap wall to wall. We had to cross back and forth a few times. I thought for sure we were going to get wet, but I was able to move some rocks around for stepping stones.
Finally we reached the largest of the Upper Horton Lakes, and the view made it all worthwhile. The lake, just below 11,000 feet elevation, is much more alpine than the lower lake we were camped at. Up above is nothing but desolate rock, snow, and jagged peak. It’s very pure looking. According to the map, other smaller lakes dot the area. We didn’t explore any further up this day.
After refilling our water and taking a good rest, it was time to head back. I was concerned about going back the same way we came, so I looked at the map to see what else may be available. The contour lines were a little further apart to the north of our location. Maybe we’d find something that way. As we headed that direction, we found an old shovel and a heavy pry bar. Considering this find and the concrete dam we just crossed, there had to be an easier way up there! There’s no way they carried these materials up the way we came. We climbed up the rocks, and sure enough, spotted what looked to be some trail cairns.
What followed was barely a trail, but ended up being way easier than what we had come up. You couldn’t really see a foot path, but the cairns, sometimes just a single rock, were placed at regular intervals. Losing the trail meant scanning the area for anything that didn’t look natural. Occasionally there would be some substantial rock work where they built the trail up, but then nothing.
This little used route has mostly gone back to nature, but got us safely back down the mountain. Returning to the meadow below revealed a couple more cairns, but I’m not sure I would’ve found the route up even if I had noticed the markers earlier. From here, though, it was easy walking back to camp, the mosquitoes encouraging a brisk pace.
We returned to camp where we found the hammock testers still engaged in study. They had had a much more relaxing day than we had, but were eager to hear about our adventure. The rest of the day was spent relaxing, eating, and doing a few camp chores. The wind picked up later in the afternoon, which is common as the mountains and valleys below exchange different temperature air masses. The wind never quit, though, and made for a rough night’s sleep in the flapping tent. Not helping was my air pillow with the slow leak.
We awoke somewhat groggy and wind-blown the next morning, but still got an early start to get back to Carson City on time for previously scheduled events. A final visit to the lake revealed a very active fish feeding in process. My son didn’t bring his pole this time, and here were fish jumping everywhere to get at the lake bugs!
The hike down the canyon was much easier than the ascent. With the cool morning temperatures, we barely stopped on the way down. I broke off from the group to get a few photos of the Sonny Boy Mine cabin. A shaded structure next to the cabin appears to be setup for a social gathering. The inside of the cabin, though, is covered in graffiti, and wasn’t worth more than a quick peak inside. What a shame. The outside is much more photogenic.
I caught up with the rest of the group and we finished our hike. It still seemed to take forever to make the bumpy journey down to the pavement in the vehicle. I thought it might be faster with gravity on our side. We stopped to refuel in Bishop, got some ice cream, then made the drive back to Carson City. As is customary, we made a stop at Walker Burger, always delicious after a weekend in the mountains!
With the long bumpy road to the trailhead and the hot and sunny lower trails, it’s easy to see why this destination is not more popular. But it’s these same qualities that also make this area desirable. If you’re willing to tough it out, you may have the whole place to yourself. It’s hard to beat the rugged scenery and solitude of the lakes above. There’s also the option to climb Mount Tom or visit the Hanging Valley Mine above, two reasons I may go back someday for further exploration.
- Complete photo set from this trip on Flickr HERE.
- Recommended Guide Book: Exploring Eastern Sierra Canyons,
Bishop to Lone Pine
- Recommended Map: Tom Harrison Mono Divide high Country. (National Geographic’s Mammoth Lakes Mono Divide is also nice, but is much larger than needed for this hike.)