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TR: Little Lakes Valley, Gem Lakes, Morgan Pass, Chickenfoot

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TR: Little Lakes Valley, Gem Lakes, Morgan Pass, Chickenfoot

Postby kpeter » Sun Jun 14, 2015 10:44 am

DSC00167-4.jpg
Panorama at Chickenfoot Lake. My first panorama, actually, taken as an experiment with the new camera.


Purpose and Scope of Trip

Years ago I dayhiked Little Lakes Valley with my two young children. A 10,200 foot trailhead with a paved road and a string of spectacularly beautiful lakes with an hour or two's hike makes it extremely popular and overcrowded. For years I avoided it for backpacking for that reason. This year, however, I needed a easy warm-up trip and I wanted one as high in elevation as I could get, in a effort to avoid the mosquitoes that were beginning to bloom lower down. I thought I might explore it more thoroughly than when I had kidlets in tow and find some off trail places to escape the expected onslaught. Secondly, I had just purchased a new camera to try out, and a photogenic and easy destination seemed like a good place to start. So I went knowing it would not be much of a challenge and knowing that it would likely be crowded.

Getting Started

I grabbed the last online reservation available for a Thursday. There were not many available for any point in the summer, but perhaps because it was midweek and June there was a singleton available. For any party of more than one, reservations would be needed much longer in advance. I set out very early Thursday morning, got to Mammoth before 10 to get the permit, and continued on to the Mosquito Flat trailhead. The road is being repaved and the bridges widened, and so on weekdays there is as much as a 1/2 wait in each direction. There was quite a bit of parking on the weekday. I came out on a weekend to see cars circling for spaces like sharks. Moral of the story: don't even think of starting a trip at Mosquito Flat on a weekend.

The hike in

The trail going up Little Lakes Valley and over Morgan Pass used to be a mining road, built in 1939 to replace mule trails coming up Pine Creek to service the Tungsten mines. In many places trail re-construction has altered it but in rocky, flat areas the width of the trail and the sizable cuts betray its origins, as does an old chassis by the side. Like many old roads, it has a few dips that someone laying out a trail for hikers would have avoided, but it is a very, very tame trail.

I passed by Mack Lake almost without seeing it, moved past the Mono Pass turnoff, glimpsed grassy Marsh Lake, and then came to Heart Lake, the first lake which seemed very obviously photogenic with an inlet stream flowing under a couple of foot bridges.

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Heart Lake, on the way out when it was sunny


Box lake was next--this was as far as I got with my small children and I paused there to reminisce about our picnic. As I recall we walked around the lake before returning home. Long Lake has had its east shore blasted to accept the mining road, but it was still pretty in its own way. I climbed out of Long Lake thinking that I would set up camp at Chickenfoot. However, I did not realize that the main trail bypasses Chickenfoot and I was most of the way to Gem Lakes before I figured it out. Why not camp at Gem Lakes? It was starting to rain, and so I crossed the stepping stones on the main trail and found my way to the new Gem Lake turnoff (not marked on old maps). A few hundred yards and I found my way to established and very nice campsites to the left of the trail just before it crosses back on a second set of stepping stones.

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Stepping stones under the outlet of the biggest Gem Lake


Racing the rain, I set up camp and ducked inside to snooze and acclimate. I had come from sea level and was now at nearly 11,000 feet in half a day. The rain let up long enough for me to eat dinner, pump water, and poke around the lakes a bit.

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Gem Lakes


Then back to the tent to read and sleep.
Last edited by kpeter on Sun Jun 14, 2015 9:02 pm, edited 9 times in total.



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Re: TR: Little Lakes Valley, Gem Lakes, Morgan Pass, Chicken

Postby kpeter » Sun Jun 14, 2015 10:45 am

Day 2 dayhikes

I got up very early and decided to dayhike over Morgan pass. I hoped to get it in before the weather threatened again. As it turns out, I should have waited, since it was overcast and drippy in the morning and the sun came out in the afternoon. The trail up to Morgan Pass was not difficult. There were only a few very small patches of snow and they were all to the side of the trail. The Pass itself was quite rocky. I had often looked up from the Pine Creek trail at the mining road behind the tungsten mill and wondered what it led to. Well, I found out.

Upper Morgan Lake was pretty uninviting to my tastes, but there was an interesting pond, meadow, and copse of woods between it and Lower Morgan Lake that I thought seemed much friendlier. As I got above the descent to Lower Morgan, though, it started to rain, and I thought I should get back over the pass before it became serious. As it turned out, it didn't.

That afternoon I climbed around on small knobs North and West of Gem Lakes to get better views, especially since the sun came out. I thought about climbing over to Treasure Lakes but was feeling a little weak. Perhaps it was the elevation? I headed back towards camp.

On the trail back I met two different pairs of hikers who were each climbing the scree to the SE of the big Gem Lake. Two guys were going to climb the Spire and said they were going to camp at Dade lake. Two women were going the same way but were going to skirt the Spire and make it to Lake Italy that night. I had no idea people accessed Lake Italy from Little Lakes Valley. (After getting home, I found Cox Col on the High Sierra Topix map and recognized that name from our conversation.)

When I got back to camp, I decided to move down to Chickenfoot Lake to get myself set up for some exploring of its north side the next day. This was accomplished quite easily. I also discovered that most people camp on the SW side of the lake since that is the easiest to access from the trail, but that there were spectacular camps on the peninsulae on the North, where I set up.

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Camping on north side of Chickenfoot


I also found some easy to access knobs behind my camp which gave good views.

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Looking south across Chickenfoot Lake


Unfortunately, about 530 after I set up camp, i felt an uncontrollable chill. I took my temperature and it was over 102 degrees! I haven't had a fever that high since I had pneumonia as a teenager. What could have caused this? I was so glad I bring a substantial first aid kit with a working thermometer and a substantial supply of ibuprofen. I was able to lower my fever to near normal--although it was a miserable night.

The day out

The plan was to stay for a couple more days, but even though I seemed to be normal the next morning, I had no appetite and I decided to head back to civilization to be safe. Still, I felt good enough to pack up and do a little exploring on the way out. First, a morning reflection photo:

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Chickenfoot Lake in the morning


I followed the outlet stream from Chickenfoot to the north and explored the lakes and meadows to the east of Long Lake before rejoining the main trail at the inlet to Box Lake. I enjoyed the outlet stream, although there were a few ups and downs as I had to climb when the stream went through slots.

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Fishing at the inlet of Box Lake


This was well worth doing--an area of Little Lakes valley that gets virtually no dayhikers and very few backpackers. In fact, camping at the NE corner of Chickenfoot felt far more isolated to me than up at Gem, and there were several areas around the unnamed lakes E of Long Lake that looked very inviting.

As I hiked out on a Saturday I passed the full brunt of Saturday dayhikers. I decided that the closer to the trailhead I got, the smaller the dogs became, until I found packs of tiny yapping creatures before the end. Yes, the ideal backpack to Little Lakes Valley would have to be a Monday-Friday affair.

Home

Leaving was the right thing to do. I had to keep gobbling ibuprofen to feel well enough to drive home, where I am still recovering from this unknown illness. How much worse it would have been had I not been prepared.
Last edited by kpeter on Mon Jun 15, 2015 7:43 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: TR: Little Lakes Valley, Gem Lakes, Morgan Pass, Chicken

Postby maverick » Sun Jun 14, 2015 5:12 pm

Thank KP for this pretty report, and wonderful photo's. Sorry to hear you were not feeling well, hope you are felling better now!
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Re: TR: Little Lakes Valley, Gem Lakes, Morgan Pass, Chicken

Postby giantbrookie » Mon Jun 15, 2015 9:17 am

Sorry to hear you got sick on the trip, but it sounds like a great trip anyway.
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/csm/ees/facu ... ayshi.html
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Re: TR: Little Lakes Valley, Gem Lakes, Morgan Pass, Chicken

Postby kpeter » Mon Jun 15, 2015 2:29 pm

I am feeling much better today, thanks. It took a full day after getting home to get over whatever it was. As I sat around feeling sorry for myself I read up on the history of the Little Lakes valley and the Pine Creek mines. Really interesting stuff available online. Not sure what the policy is here on linking things, so I won't.

I don't know what trails existed in Little Lakes Valley before 1939, but in the WWII run-up they blasted the road over Morgan Pass to shuttle the miners to mines above Pine Creek. The mines had been going since 1918 but were dependent on mule trails out of Pine Creek. Once they put the road through Little Lakes Valley they ran a "bus" of sorts that took them in over Morgan Pass, and it was compared to the most exciting roller coasters. It is also possible to find photographs of cats pulling sleds over Morgan pass in the winter. The miners worked 24/7, all year long, even at the Adamson mine which was at 13,000 feet. Rock Creek and Little Lakes valley was a much easier approach than up Pine Creek, which had twice the elevation gain.

Over on the Pine Creek side you can see the remains of many mines. About the same time they constructed the Morgan Pass road, they also created trams to send the ore downhill to the Pine Creek mill. The remnants of those trams look like wooden towers for ski lifts and can be found all over Pine Creek, so the ore did not come out on the Morgan Pass/Rock Creek road. But having miners ride in the trams was not recommended--although a few did and at least one died. Much later they excavated tunnels and elevators that made the roads and trams obsolete. It is one of the few mines in the world in which almost all the excavation went UP instead of down. They were tunneling up into the mountains sometimes from the level of the mill. Once the mines got connected underground and elevators installed, they no longer needed the trams or the old roads, and that is when I presume they began to be converted to trails and/or allowed to revert--most likely before the Wilderness Act.

There are a few places where the trail seems so obviously to have been a road, and many others where there is no longer a trace. It was interesting to see what had healed and what has not in 75 years.
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Re: TR: Little Lakes Valley, Gem Lakes, Morgan Pass, Chicken

Postby SSSdave » Mon Jun 15, 2015 3:59 pm

Good to read you are enjoying the new toy. One thing about little cameras is they are much more easily dropped. Thus some wisdom in connecting a wrist loop strap.

Although Little Lakes Valley is the most popular location for day hiking in the High Sierra, you have apparently stumbled on the fact one can indeed find reasonable solitude there. The lakes, streams, marshy areas, and irregular mini cliff-out ridges form a difficult barrier to those traveling on the trail to the west. So areas to the east of the barrier are relatively pristine to the extent there are hardly any sign of use foot trails. I've noticed some fine places one could base camp at though note deer and black bear prefer that side. For the crosscountry savvy a nice loop challenge is to head off from the Mosquito Flat trailhead out on the trail to the Eastern Brook Lakes but vector off taking that basin's ridge to the no name cup pond before continuing south all along that side of the valley till Chickenfoot. Then continue back on the mining road trail. Also those waters along the east route have an abundance of pan sized eastern brook.

David
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Re: TR: Little Lakes Valley, Gem Lakes, Morgan Pass, Chicken

Postby jmherrell » Thu Jun 18, 2015 3:09 pm

It is one of the few mines in the world in which almost all the excavation went UP instead of down.

They called it The Upside Down Mine.
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Re: TR: Little Lakes Valley, Gem Lakes, Morgan Pass, Chicken

Postby rileySB » Sat Jun 20, 2015 6:48 pm

Great trip report! I'm looking for a good warmup backpacking trip to start my summer adventures. I've always wanted to do Mosquito Flats over Mono Pass but yours sounds just as appealing. Just not sure how the skeeters are gonna be in the next few weeks- seems like they seem to be blossoming in the 10K region. How many miles was your trip? Lots of elevation gain? I'm sorry to hear you got sick during your trip- sucks when you are far away from the comforts of home and feeling cruddy. Do you think it was just a coincidental illness or was it possibly related to altitude sickness?
Thanks again for sharing! You have me excited to hit the trails again!
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Re: TR: Little Lakes Valley, Gem Lakes, Morgan Pass, Chicken

Postby kpeter » Sat Jun 20, 2015 8:07 pm

Riley,

The trailhead is at 10200, one of the highest in the Sierra, so the elevation gain is negligible. I think Gem Lakes are at 10800. I don't know the mileage but everything is ridiculously close. I came out-of-shape from sea level and made it from the trailhead to Gem Lakes in less than three hours, and that was at a very slow pace with many breaks. It was without a doubt the easiest trip I have ever made. Even getting from Sabrina to Blue Lake is harder.

Now, if you choose to go up over Mono Pass that is an entirely different trip. That is over 12k and so there is some reasonable gain and mileage.

As for the mosquitoes, I would watch the reports. I had the feeling that mosquitoes were about to get worse in Little Lakes Valley, and there have been plenty of reports of mosquitoes in the 10k zone. I'm off to 1000 Island in the third week of July--hoping that the worst of the mosquitoes at that elevation will be over by then.
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