Maybe there's a better name for this trip. Like "ill-advised lakes basin loop", or, "why listen to Secor when you could ignore him and suffer?". Let's start with the premise.
There's an isolated lake basin, bookended by the JMT in the east, Bubbs Creek to the south, Woods Creek to the north, and Paradise Valley to the west. And right through the center of it is the long-abandoned trace of an old trail, through some of the most remote, untouched, beautiful Sierra there is.
It's undeniably alluring-- enough for me to skip right past Secor's advice: "It is easier to approach Gardiner Lakes via Sixty Lakes Col than attempting to follow the abandoned trail over Gardiner Pass." Had it occurred to me at the time that this is the same guide book which regularly downplays the difficulty of cross-country passes, I might have given it more thought. And as it turned out, it was not the difficulty of the terrain that made this trip what it was-- but more on that later.
My plan was simple: enter over Kearsarge Pass, and work my way over to Charlotte Dome. Then, use the trace trail and/or cross-country travel to access Gardiner Creek via Gardiner Pass. Climb up into Gardiner Basin, then use 60 Lakes Col to cross into 60 Lakes Basin. From there, a decent trail can be found that connects to Rae Lakes, the JMT, Glen Pass, and finally, Kearsarge once more. The gear list for this trip can be found below.
I car camped in Alabama Hills, having arrived rather late and having come straight from work. The real reason for not setting up a tent was that the 85 degree heat at night had driven all the ants out from underground, looking for water. I tried a few different sites with no luck, and eventually curled up as best I could in the backseat of my Jetta. Between the heat and sleeping situation, I slept fitfully. In the morning, I drove down to the ranger station to get a walk-up permit for Kearsarge-- which apparently was a thing of the past. These days, you just use the same recreation.gov process as normal permits, but in the 24-hour window before your day. I snagged the second-to-last permit and drove to Onion Valley.
My camera had broken the day prior, so phone pictures it is for this one, folks-- sorry!
TL: Ascending Kearsarge east; TR: Kearsarge Lakes & Pinnacles;
BL: Brewer and North Guard; BR: Brewer Group from camp.
Day 1: Onion Valley to Charlotte Dome
The ascent over Kearsarge Pass was quick and smooth, but the threat of inclement weather hurried me through the JMT junction until I reached Charlotte Lake. There, the brooding clouds took a turn south, leaving me with blue skies and sunshine. The trail contour is easy enough to follow through the pines, though the needles somewhat covered the detail for me. Once the trail left tree cover, as it rose off Charlotte Creek in increments, it fragmented, each way marked with a duck/cairn, each assuming to be correct. I assumed that if I aimed low, I could avoid some of the needless climbing and falling an overshoot trail might endure. This was, in retrospect, a bad decision.
Charlotte Dome almost makes me want to get into trad climbing... almost
The trail in this section passes through manzanita, which in its dry, summer state, is firm and sharp, as well as thistle, which in all seasons, is thistle. It made for gorgeous walking, with greenery around, Charlotte Dome up ahead, and the creek increasingly far below. But the slant of the terrain was tiring out my ankles-- the traces are not graded width-wise, or at least not anymore, and the shrub cover was biting at my legs. At frequent intervals, my trace trail would simply end, and it was clear that those before me had scrambled straight uphill to the next trace. This cycle repeated, and I probably had to slog uphill through thorns for several hundred feet over the course of this section.
Eventually, however, I stumbled out onto a flat, wide, and well-graded trail-- I definitely erred too low on this section, and returning, would aim much higher on the slope in an effort to find this trail sooner. Once I did, it was an easy half mile to the massive campsite at a small tributary near Charlotte Dome.
I arrived early, around 3 pm, and considered pushing over Gardiner Pass-- but high passes are better left for the mornings. Instead I cooked dinner, scared off a bear, and eventually admired the sunset catching the ridge leading up to Cross, Farquhar, North Guard, and Brewer.
Stats for the (half) Day:
11.4 mi, +3700' / -2650'
Day 2: Gardiner Pass to Gardiner Lakes
I awoke to realize that I'd packed an extra bottle of soap instead of contact solution, so I'd be doing the rest of the trip in my glasses, with less confidence and comfort on the terrain. Not a great start, but it couldn't be helped. I set out uphill toward the pass, and immediately lost any trace of the trail. The terrain was relatively simple, if steep, and the views truly opened up behind me as I ascended toward Gardiner Pass.
The back of Charlotte Dome set against Brewer (center) and North Guard (spire just right)
Gardiner Pass south, somewhere image left, is forested and a bit hard to find.
Reaching the top, I found myself at a narrow chute that looked dangerous on my own. Unable to see the bottom, I had no way to know if it cliffed out dangerously. Wanting to be certain of my route, I traversed a bit around Point 11555 and Glacier Monument. From that angle, it was very clear that just west of my previous position, there were traces of the old switchbacks! Although it took about very difficult 45 minutes to traverse back and forth, the certainty and safety was worth it. I was able to locate the correct notch and easily walk down the switchbacks. As I went, I saw many of the chutes (including those mentioned on trip reports) cliff out. Some were passable at a Class III or IV level, others were impassable and extremely dangerous. The importance of choosing the right notch at Gardiner Pass cannot be overstated. Some reports mentioned a tin can lodged in a rock; I never found it. The correct pass is a little east of the true low point on the saddle. The further west you go, the worse it gets.
Point 11555 from a bit down (north) true Gardiner Pass. You don't want most of those chutes.
From the north, the correct notch is much more easily found, it's the low point in this view and the apparent way up. Various chutes west (right) cliff out or end in a granite slide.
While I was happy to be over the worst pass of the trip, I was also subject to a new opponent: June in the Sierra. This trip had been thrown together last minute, and I had forgotten bug spray-- or naively hoped that I'd beat out mosquito season. While there were nearly no mosquitos on the trip thus far, they descended on me in droves the moment I crossed Gardiner Pass. This basin was swampy, with gorgeous meadows that revealed themselves as football-field sized standing water. And although the trail had been a lifesaver descending the pass, it all but vanished as soon I was down. I committed to the cross-country travel and moved through this section as quickly as possible. The terrain was easy, but I couldn't stop for even a moment without getting eaten alive. I've spent a lot of time in the Sierra, and this was the worst I've ever seen mosquitos.
My discontent increased after stepping into muddy water that had looked to be solid grass, and I trudged along in the growing heat, with wet shoes, hounded by mosquitos. The terrain was beautiful, but I wasn't in a position to enjoy it. And that brings us to the absolute worst section of this trip: the hellish descent/ascent of Gardiner Creek.
The route descends 700 feet in 0.4 mi, which is steep enough to be tough on the ankles, to say the least. Several trace trails attempt to map out switchbacks, but I found more success making my own. A series of cairns dictated their own ways down to the creek, none clearly better than the others. I chose a direct route hoping, bracing myself for what would likely be the worst of the mosquitos around the creek itself.
The creek crossing was nontrivial with the snowmelt in full swing. I was able to find a fallen log that was mostly stable, and hop across in short order. In thick brush, I decided my best bet was to climb first, and then find the trail. While this was strenuous, I think it was the correct decision. With a few Class III moves to avoid a lengthy sidetrip around some boulders, I found myself on largely flat terrain. The heat was brutal in this valley, and the mosquitos continued to prevent me from taking a rest. My only option was to continue up the creek valley, hoping the higher elevation would solve both issues at once.
It did not. The wind picked up occasionally to offer respite, but the sum of the conditions make for one of the worst days of backpacking I've ever had. But at least it was memorable, right?
The picture on the right is one of the few images I have from this period, and it does a good job summarizing the brush, the creek behavior, and general terrain. I would've had a lot of fun if not for the bugs, honestly. Writing this now, I'm almost thinking about going back.
My pace slowed dramatically as I approached Gardiner Lakes. It had been 5 and a half hours since I'd taken a break, and I was starting to feel pretty awful. Any exposed skin was badly bitten, and I was dehydrated from the heat. Cursing the very concept of this trip, I eventually stumbled into a passable camp site at a high enough elevation to ward off the mosquitos, set up my tent, and collapsed in it. I counted over 400 mosquito bites before tiring of the exercise, made dinner, and went to sleep.
Stats for the day: 8.4 of the worst miles I have ever hiked (6.1 with no detours).
+4300' / -3700' (+3300' / -2700' with no detours)
My tent is maybe 50 feet off the main route through this area. Blame exhaustion.
Day 3: Was it all worth it? (Gardiner, 60, Rae, Glen)
I awoke with a view that immediately made me feel optimistic. It was a cool morning, brisk, with not a mosquito to be found. I felt much stronger than I had the day before, maybe a combination of real rest, of hydration, of acclimatization-- who knows, I certainly wasn't going to question it. I got moving fairly early, worried about my slow progress the day before, and was underway by around 6:30. I got to watch the sunlight drift over the peaks, reflected in the clear, still water. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the few mosquitos I encountered along the way seemed to mostly stay near their standing water rather than following me for thousands of feet upward. I made good time through the basin, though with ample opportunity to take it all in.
These views were the entire point of this trip-- and they were worth it.
Looking back the way I'd come, the difficulties of the past day fresh in my mind, I was still impressed by the gorgeous landscape. If only navigating it had been as pleasant as the view. With lower Gardiner lakes spread out with Goat Mountain and its range behind it, it was classic High Sierra-- but at what cost? I continued moving east, wondering if I'd know if it was worth it.
The traverse around the main lake in Gardiner's chain was much, much faster than I'd anticipate from trip reports. I may have been slightly faster or more reckless on the talus than some trip report authors, made up for by my mortal fear of mosquitos, perhaps. I regretted having to leave so quickly-- upper Gardiner, the central fork, would be a great place to explore some. The northernmost fork is also fascinating-- small tarns, by the look of the map, with a potential route to cross up and over the saddle of Pt. 11693.
60 Lakes Col is the low point at the far side of the lake. The impressive spire is Pt. 12602.
Mt. Gardiner reflected in Gardiner Lake.
I made good progress around the lake, and met two folks I'd seen atop Kearsarge on the same route as me in reverse. They would be the only people I'd see between Kearsarge and re-entering the trail system at Rae. We were 1/4 mi from the exact halfway point, though I felt I'd put the more difficult terrain behind me (or so I hoped).
My route up 60 Lakes Col was not so steady-- put off by a snowfield, I opted for a less-than-ideal route up the loose talus, leaving me a good amount higher than the pass by the time I could safely cross over. A few Class III moves got me out of the pinch I'd put myself in. The best route up is slightly south of the apparent pass-- but not that much south.
The east aspect of the col is relatively austere, with massive ledges sloping downward from the saddle. There seems to be no superior way, so long as you avoid choosing ledges that cliff out. I trickled my way down the slope, angling to refill water and looking for a boulder to take shelter from the noon sun. I found both, and was able to take a nice lunch break. And at this height, the mosquitos had disappeared completely.
While the upper reaches of 60 Lakes is rugged and lonely, the lower reaches are gorgeous, boulder-filled islands rising off the lakes, with tree cover, babbling creeks, and, somewhere, a trail connecting to Rae. The only issue lies in getting there. The final hurdle on this cross-country leg is an old fisherman's use trail that skirts the western shore of Lake 10840. While I'd read over trip reports relatively thoroughly, I'd missed mention that this trail climbs several hundred feet off the lake in steep fashion. It's a matter of judgement whether one takes a steeper trail closer to the lake, saving distance and elevation, or trends more inland for a more gradual ascent.
Lake 10840 from the fisherman's trail.
Reaching 60 Lakes, I was unsurprised that the mosquitos had returned-- but in much less force than in Gardiner Creek. Encouraged, so to speak, by my insect companions, I made good time toward Rae Lakes. The trail from 60 Lakes over the saddle near Fin Dome is easy Class I, true trail walking, and a welcome return from the harsher terrain of the last 2 days. Having been a little unimpressed with Rae and the Painted Lady on the JMT, I was glad to see that its southern aspect, from a new angle, was perhaps more flattering.
Feeling strong, and not wanting to camp with the many, many PCT hikers coming over Glen, I decided to hit the pass myself, despite the day wearing on 4:00. Familiar terrain for me, I moved very quickly, and saw nearly no one taking the pass at that hour.
The trail was snow-covered, but slushy and worn at that time of day. Some sections had deviated from the true trail, and postholes had exposed dangerous gaps in the talus below. Without much of an option to go around, as everything was so soft, I avoided what I could via boulders and made do with the remainder. The entire neighborhood of Glen Pass was stunning, the north faces of the peaks and ridges still mostly snow-covered, the lakes that weren't frozen hosting tiny icebergs. The snow was sun-cupped where flat, and I didn't envy the shoulder season PCTers who had made stubborn and steady progress through it.
My favorite tarn on the far side of Glen was as photogenic as always, and I cruised past it quickly to set up camp in one of the dry sites just south. This early in the season, however, a small creek was flowing in the gorge-- a wonderful surprise to end the day.
Stats for the day: 9.5 mi, +3950' / -3350'.
Day 4: Exit over Kearsarge
The last day was uneventful save for some new friends I made-- I came across the trail junction up to Kearsarge at the same time as some folks on the PCT; Lobster, Section, and Hand Me Down. Traveling at the same pace, we sort of just merged together into a group stoked on the possibility of real food. And as of writing this a full 3 months later, they've all successfully made it to Canada!
The summary: this was a great trip, and if done this way, bug spray and/or hiking in August would be preferable. If I could re-plan it, I think I would suck it up and do Glen twice, or maybe go over 60 Lakes, then King Col, and exit the area to the north. Or I could recoup all the saved bushwhacking and do the Canyon of the Muro Blanco up to Bench Lake, then out over Taboose . . . we just watched me formulate another bad idea in real time. Oh well-- safe travels out there!