The Eclipse: A Reason to Explore the E. Sierras - August 2017
I first read about the “Great American” solar eclipse at the beginning of the year and I knew that I had to plan some sort of a trip to celebrate the occasion. My buddy Reed and I decided that a trip to explore some new ground and hot tubs with our significant others in the Eastern Sierras sounded like a great way to experience the eclipse. Our plan was simple, head out to the area between Mono Lake and Lake Crowley to get a lay of the land, search for hidden hot tubs and maybe let Reed get some fishing in.
We left the Bay Area on Saturday in the morning, heading towards the Sonora Pass to avoid traffic in and around the Yosemite Valley. I had never been over the pass, and I am so glad that we chose to go that route. The road was small and winding… and STEEP. The sign at the bottom of the hill stated that it was a 26% grade. I thought it was a typo, but it wasn’t. (side note: I haven’t really ever felt the 4Runner struggle. It’s known for being underpowered, and yes compared to my diesel work truck, there is something to be desired. But I have never felt that it was really holding it back, until the grade. Granted, it made it over the top with no real issues other than a lack of torque to hold second gear. But that was a minor thought, something I wanted to share) We stopped at the bottom at one of the campsites to let the dogs out before making our way over the summit. A crack of thunder was a quick reminder that we were in the Sierras in the summer; Thunderstorm territory. We decided we should move on towards the summit and over to the East side of the Sierras.
As we descended into Toiyabe National Forest, the valley opened up to a view of the West Walker River and the Hoover Wilderness. And by the time we met with Highway 395, we ran into those Sierra thunderstorms with heavy rain almost the entire way into Bridgeport. Reed had mentioned a small burger joint in Bridgeport that we had to stop at for lunch. He was right. I will never drive through without stopping again. So. Good.
With full stomachs, we continued south over Conway Summit to our first area for campsite hunting. We wanted something a bit more isolated and possibly near a creek. After passing through the June Lake Loop for some sightseeing, we started the camp hunt on the west side of 395 between June Lake and Obsidian Dome. We found a number of good spots and with time in the afternoon we agreed to head to the other side of the highway to check a few more nearby, to get a better lay of the land as niether Reed or I had been camping in the area prior to this trip. Using Gaia GPS and the USFS Topo Layer, we pinpointed a promising site near a creek not too far from the highway. After navigating a Caltrans maintenance yard, wiggling down a widely spaced washboard trail, and crossing a flowing creek we arrived in what would be our campsite for the night.
Reed deployed his awning to shield the late afternoon sun as we set up camp. We brought out some chairs and let the dogs out to give them some time to run around. After a day of driving they end up having quite a bit of pent up energy measured by the size of the dust cloud that encompassed our camp. Reed set out for some fishing along the creek, Bri discovered that her overalls conveniently held her cup of wine, and dog became very photogenic. We cooked up a balsamic vinaigrette chicken dish that I found in the Tembo Tusk Cook Book. Easily in the top five meals that I have cooked on it so far, and it will definitely be a repeat on trips to come.
The morning was cold. We woke up to frost on exposed surfaces, but the sun quickly rose and warmed up our camp. Our plan for the day was to explore around the area between our camp and Benton Crossing Road, North of Lake Crowley. Rather than covering a lot of miles we wanted to keep our area of interest focused and enjoy the area outside of Mammoth. We also wanted to seek out some of the more remote hot springs in the area that I have seen heard about but never known their location. So we packed camp, and drove south down Owens River Road into Long Valley.
The road was wide and mostly a gravel surface, allowing us to pick up the speed and blast across the valley floor. This is the exact scenario that I will be looking forward to using my upcoming suspension upgrade to enhance ride comfort and performance. We stopped to enjoy some of the surrounding views and take a few photos before moving on to our first hot spring location.
We had a few ideas of where to find soaking tubs in the valley based on studying topo and satellite maps prior to the trip. The question was what the tubs would be like, and whether or not they were useable. After finding a school bus on the banks of Hot Creek, we targeted our first hot tub, and man was it great. We were the only ones there, however the water was a bit too hot for us to comfortably soak in the water. So we resorted to some cold beers and wine while enjoying the view and soaking our feet. Reed and I eventually got in for a short soak, turning me to a nice shade of pink. I will be purchasing a battery powered thermometer after this trip to better check the water temperature before getting in.
Due to our close proximity to the highway and Mammoth, we decided to visit Mammoth Mountain Brewing for some refreshments and food. On our way we scouted out a few more hot springs, and talked with some locals about the condition of the nearby springs. When we arrived, we enjoyed the beers on tap, and if you visit be sure to order up some of their steak nachos! You won’t be disappointed. I was too busy burying my face in food to take a photo this time.
Reed had been talking to me about fishing the famous Owens river for about as long as I have known him. So that became the plan for the late afternoon. We drove out to the east side of the valley, along the river on land that is apparently owned by Los Angeles County. I remember watching Cadillac Desert sometime in college, and was reminded of the unfortunate history surrounding the Owens River water rights and the Eastern Sierra environment/communities. Thankfully for us, the river is still accessible for recreational use, so after a few miles driving parallel to the river we traversed a field and landed on a sweet riverside area to hang out while Reed got his fishing in.
The weather was rapidly changing around us as the day led on. The morning started out cloudless and still, and as the afternoon went on thunderheads surrounded the valley as monsoonal moisture flowed from the Southeast feeding upward motion and anvil shaped cumulonimbus clouds hovered over Mammoth Mountain. We got a great view of the growing cloud tops as thunder and lighting were spotted to our east. As a weather nerd, I was very happy with the afternoon and everything that was happening around us.
With the weather came a shift in the wind and smoke from the valley. The same wind change made for unfavorable fly fishing conditions, so we decided to head for camp. We decided that we really enjoyed the site from the first night on the creek so we went back for night two. As we drove back we encountered some steady rain from a localized cell that was moving towards our campsite. Thankfully we arrived before it had gotten there and had about a 10 minute rush to position the 4Runners and deploy Reed’s awning to give us some shelter from the rain. The cell passed over quickly, and left us with a dust free campsite and the smell of wet sage and dirt. It was a great ending to the day.
We continued to set up our campsite and start a fire as the weather cleared and the stars came out. Due to the late afternoon nacho carnage, we opt’d to snack for dinner versus preparing a whole meal. I played around with some night exposures as the night wore on, working with flashlights and motion. As a self learning photographer, I take a lot of photos to learn what works and what doesn’t. It may take more time to learn, but it’s something that I enjoy experimenting with when I can.
We packed up camp quickly in the morning wanting to hit some of the hot springs that we visited the day before to view the eclipse. Unfortunately when we got to site number one, where we had the tub to ourselves the day before, there were a number of people that had come to the area and had taken over for the event. So we opt’d to head to a site that I had found the day before on Hot Creek where we would have a nice grassy area to enjoy the eclipse.
We took some of the dinner fixings from the night before to make breakfast tacos on the Tembo Tusk Skottle. It was quick to cook as we wanted to eat before the show began. I had read about eclipses and what they felt like, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. We were expected to get a maximum sun coverage of 76% where we were just outside of Mammoth. And as the time came around for the peak coverage, the surrounding landscape looked looked as if I was wearing sunglasses, but I wasn’t. A very weird feeling that came on quickly. Looking through the solar proof glasses revealed the moon covering the sun, and the feeling that we (as humans) were so tiny in comparison to such a massive event. I will say without a doubt that I will be travelling to the path of totality during next total solar eclipse when it comes across North America.
After the eclipse has (mostly) ended, we packed up our breakfast spot to head off to another nearby hot spring that I way-pointed the day before. And to our luck, the tub was empty with no one in sight. What a treat to end the trip.
We made our way to pavement after our afternoon soak to air up before heading home and back to reality. The weather was visually impressive as thunderstorms developed on the western slopes of the sierras. We didn’t encounter any rain however on the drive home, snaking our way through two rather prominent cells as we crossed the summit and descended into the central valley. Thankfully the drive was easy and we made good time back to the Bay Area.
This trip didn’t cover a ton of ground, nor did it involve any technical trail navigation. But it did provide us with the opportunity to explore a new area and for a different type of adventure. At the end of the day, we got out there and sometimes that’s all that matters.