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TR: The Great Mono Loop - July 2-5, 2016

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TR: The Great Mono Loop - July 2-5, 2016

Postby vhsvhs » Thu Jul 07, 2016 2:19 pm

Hi Everyone,

Over the holiday weekend I enjoyed a 40-mile circuit starting and ending at the Pine Creek trailhead. I call this route The Great Mono Loop; it connects Italy Pass, Gabbot Pass, Mono Pass, and Morgan Pass. The circuit mixes on-trail and off-trail hiking, and it features a short section of the Sierra High Route. Overall, this loop is extremely scenic and offers deep solitude. I believe this route would be a good introduction to cross-country trekking for Sierra backpackers that are already experienced with on-trail travel.

I imagine other HST members have hiked a similar circuit. Feel free to post URLs to previous trip reports in the comments of this thread.

CONDITIONS UPDATE:
The conditions were nearly ideal. The weather was warm, mosquitos were not bothersome, and snow was relatively easy to cross. This was the sweet spot of summer.

ROUTE:
I attached a KML file with my approximate route. I planned to complete the trip in five days, but I was feeling strong and I finished in four days. The Great Mono Loop has many opportunities for side exploration and peak-bagging; you could easily spend a week enjoying the loop.

GreatMonoLoopJuly2016.kml
A KML file with my route on the Great Mono Loop.
(39.57 KiB) Downloaded 43 times


GreatMonoLoop.jpg
A screenshot from Google Earth showing my route along the Great Mono Loop. The circuit starts and ends at Pine Creek Trailhead.


PHOTOS:
I posted some photos further down in this post. You can also view all my photos at this URL: https://flic.kr/s/aHskDPYLU8

MY TRIP:
I departed the SF bay area at four AM and drove across the central valley, over Tioga Pass, and south along Highway 395 to the Pine Creek trailhead. Along the way, I picked up two PCT thru-hikers hitchhiking from Tuolumne Meadows to Mammoth Lakes. They needed new shoes. Our conversation was a nice reprieve from my long drive. We mostly talked about the evolution of the PCT since my thru-hike in 2005, and they expressed curiosity in my recent Continental Divide Trail thru-hike last year.

The parking lot at the Pine Creek trailhead was nearly full – perhaps not surprising because it was Saturday on a holiday weekend. I ate lunch and started hiking at 1 PM. Following advice from previous HST posts, I found the Pine Creek trail by walking through the pack station; this trailhead is not obvious, and without the advice I probably would have wasted much time searching for the trail outside the pack station. I climbed the switchbacks slowly under the hot afternoon sun. I felt elated to enter the backcountry again, but I also felt miserable in the heat with a full pack coming from sea-level.

As I climbed higher, I passed several dozen hikers returning from day trips to Pine Lakes. I eventually arrived at Upper Pine Lake (10,200’) and setup camp. I considered climbing higher to Honeymoon Lake, but I chose to rest because I felt fatigued from the heat and the altitude.

On the second day, I followed the Pine Creek trail to Honeymoon Lake, and then followed the Italy Pass trail into Granite Basin. This section is fantastic; it passes through a seemingly endless chain of alpine meadows, waterfalls, and delicate tarns. A light breeze kept the mosquitos away, and the wildflowers were brilliant in the morning sunlight. The trail disappeared near the head of Granite Basin, but I found the cross-country walking to be easy here and the route to Italy Pass was obvious. I arrived on Italy Pass at noon. I ate lunch and watched a party of climbers scramble up the western ridge of Mount Julius Caesar.

My descent from Italy Pass was relatively straightforward. Crossing the talus slowed me down, but I found a rough use trail above Jumble Lake and the walking was easy. The use trail ended at the shore of Lake Italy, and I returned to talus-hopping along the southern shore of the lake. This section around Lake Italy was frustrating and my progress was slow. The talus here is large and unstable, and I frequently scrambled over car-sized boulders. In hindsight, it probably would have been easier to traverse around the western and northern shores of the lake.

By mid-afternoon, I reached the sandy meadow between Lake Italy and Toe Lake. I setup camp in the shade of a large boulder. I was exhausted from all my talus scrambling, and it felt nice to splash around in the shallow water of Toe Lake. I took a nap in my tent, and then enjoyed the evening light dance in colorful patterns across Mount Dade and the Sierra Crest. Lake Italy is an amazing place to camp – a huge cathedral in the sky – and I felt lucky to have it all to myself for one night.

On day three, I climbed Gabbot Pass in the morning. Several feet of snow remained on the pass, but it had consolidated into the proverbial “Sierra cement” that made for easy crossing. Previous HST posts mentioned the talus was annoying on the north side of Gabbot Pass, but the snow worked to my advantage and I rapidly descended into the Mills Creek canyon.

The Mills Creek area is very scenic, with open pine forests under towering granite spires. I rested at Lower Mills Creek Lake, swam in the cold water, and layed under the sun to dry. A light breeze kept mosquitos away and the conditions were practically perfect. I struggled to find willpower to leave.

My descent from Mills Creek into the Second Mono Recess was frustrating as I bushwhacked through aspen and cottonwood thickets. Whereas the cross-country walking along upper Mills Creek was easy, here the canyon pours into a steep waterfall and I could not find an optimal route down into the Second Recess. I thought I was following a rough use trail, but it frequently disappeared and I had to fight through dense foliage. I would love to hear if other HST members have advice on the best route through this steep section.

Near the bottom of the Mills Creek waterfall, I met HST members RoguePhotonic and AlpineMike. It’s nice to meet HST members in real life! We chatted about our routes and snow conditions. They shared with me useful advice about the Mono Creek ford – Rogue said the water was above his waist and the crossing was challenging. Mike, however, found a log crossing fifty meters upstream. Rogue and Mike were climbing Gabbot Pass, so we said goodbye and I continued downstream.

I found a lovely trail through the Second Recess, and I soon arrived at the Mono Creek crossing. Rogue and Mike were correct: the ford indeed appeared too dangerous. I followed Mike’s advice and found the log upstream. The log was somewhat hidden in bushes, though, and I doubt I would have found it without Mike's suggestion.

Across Mono creek, I boiled a pot of soup and refueled at Fish Camp. I then enjoyed the afternoon following the well-maintained trail up Mono Recess. After traveling off-trail for a couple days, it felt luxurious to follow an engineered trail. I was able to turn off my brain, so to speak, and just cruise through the forest. I saw no one else all day. I camped at Fourth Recess Lake in a lovely site on the northeast shore. The alpenglow was incredible on the peaks above Fourth Recess.

On the fourth day, I continued up the Mono Creek trail and reached Mono Pass by noon. I love the stark landscape at Mono Pass; it’s just rock, ice, and blue skies. Two backpacking groups passed me headed the opposite direction, presumably hiking from Mosquito Flat trailhead into the Mono Recesses.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. I descended Mono Pass and hiked up the Little Lakes Valley and over Morgan Pass. The Little Lakes Valley is outrageously beautiful, but also crowded due to the proximity of Mosquito Flat trailhead. The crowds didn’t bother me, though. After several days of solo travel, I found it charming to see all these families, and fishermen, and climbers carrying ropes and helmets.

Over Morgan Pass, the crowds disappeared and I seemed to have the mountains to myself once again. The Morgan Lakes area is fantastic – deep blue lakes, huge vistas, and colorful geology – and I’m surprised I haven’t seen more trip reports from these lakes. This area has a long history of mining, and the “trail” here is an abandoned jeep track. I followed the track down the canyon, and enjoyed the afternoon sun cast long shadows across the rusted mountain landscape. I returned to Pine Creek trailhead a few minutes before sunset, just in time to watch Mount Tom glow pink in the evening light.

Overall, this was a fantastic trip. I highly recommend this circuit.

Photos from Day One. . .

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The Pine Creek Tungsten Mine, seen from the switchbacks ascending Pine Creek.

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Entering the John Muir Wilderness along Pine Creek

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Lower Pine Lake with a view of Mount Tom.

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The outlet of Upper Pine Lake

Image
My camp near Upper Pine Lake
Last edited by vhsvhs on Fri Jul 08, 2016 1:11 pm, edited 8 times in total.



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Re: TR: The Great Mono Loop -- July 2-5, 2016

Postby vhsvhs » Thu Jul 07, 2016 2:19 pm

Photos from Day Two. . .

Image
The Italy Pass trail climbs past a seemingly endless chain of wildflower gardens and waterfalls.

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Welcome to Granite Park

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Italy Pass, pictured in the center, is an easy off-trail pass.

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On Italy Pass, looking south over Granite Park

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On Italy Pass, looking north towards Jumble Lake

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Spot the climbers on the west ridge of Mount Julius Ceaser.

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I camped in the shade of a boulder above Lake Italy. Notice the steep talus on the south shore of Lake Italy (left side of photo); it was extremely tedious and slow to traverse.

Image
Mount Dade and Sierra Crest towers over the Lake Italy basin.

Image
The Milky Way rises over the Sierra Crest above Lake Italy.
Last edited by vhsvhs on Fri Jul 08, 2016 1:13 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: TR: The Great Mono Loop -- July 2-5, 2016

Postby vhsvhs » Thu Jul 07, 2016 2:20 pm

Photos from Day Three. . .

Image
Follow the waterfalls up to Gabbot Pass, pictured in the upper left of the image.

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Detail on Bear Creek Spire, seen from Gabbot Pass

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Sun cups on Gabbot Pass

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On Gabbot Pass, looking north into the Mills Creek canyon

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Upper Mills Creek Lake

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Cross-country travel is easy through the open pine forests of the Upper Mills Creek canyon, pictured here.

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An alpine garden in the Mills Creek canyon

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A waterfall tumbles from the Mills Creek canyon into the Second Mono Recess. Route-finding through this steep section was tricky.

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Wildflowers, creeks, and easy hiking through the Second Mono Recess

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This log crossing is approximately fifty meters upstream from the Mono Creek ford.

Image
Fourth Recess Lake

Image
The Milky Way rises over Fourth Recess.
Last edited by vhsvhs on Fri Jul 08, 2016 1:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: TR: The Great Mono Loop -- July 2-5, 2016

Postby vhsvhs » Thu Jul 07, 2016 2:20 pm

Photos from Day Four. . .

Image
My ULA Circuit backpack at Mono Pass

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On Mono Pass looking south

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Welcome to the Little Lakes Valley

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Shooting Stars at Long Lake

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Easy hiking through the Little Lakes Valley

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On Morgan Pass looking west

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On Morgan Pass looking east

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Lower Morgan Lake

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An unnamed tarn along Morgan Creek

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Goodbye John Muir Wilderness

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A scene along the jeep track from Morgan Pass to Pine Creek Trailhead. Mount Tom is the highest peak in the background. The geology in this region is incredibly diverse, and it seems like every mountain is a different color.

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I returned to the Pine Creek Tungsten Mine, where I started.

Image
The Milky Way rises over Mount Tom at the Pine Creek trailhead
Last edited by vhsvhs on Fri Jul 08, 2016 1:41 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: TR: The Great Mono Loop - July 2-5, 2016

Postby maverick » Thu Jul 07, 2016 2:49 pm

I would love to hear if other HST members have advice on the best route through this steep section.


From LMCL descend on the southern side of the creek, as you get down to Lake 10,700 jump the creek and descend on it northern side down into Second Recess. There is a faint use trail but it can be annoying to try and follow, it is better to just remember to switch to the other side of the creek at or near Lake 10,700.

Fun TR and pretty pictures, love the LMCL and UMCL area, thanks for sharing.
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Re: TR: The Great Mono Loop - July 2-5, 2016

Postby wildhiker » Thu Jul 07, 2016 3:15 pm

Great trip report and photos. Thanks for sharing.

I've always wondered about walking down from Morgan Pass to Pine Creek, but thought it would be too ugly with the tungsten mine and its operations. Is the mine closed now? Is the jeep road closed to vehicles?

-Phil
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Re: TR: The Great Mono Loop - July 2-5, 2016

Postby vhsvhs » Thu Jul 07, 2016 3:21 pm

@wildhiker -- The road is closed to vehicles. There's a couple rock slides along the way that are easy to hike over, but are impossible for a jeep. Overall, the walk from Morgan Pass down to Pine Creek was surprisingly beautiful. The geology here is incredible, and the sense of vertical was thrilling. If you had a car shuttle, hiking from Mosquito Flat over Morgan Pass to Pine Creek would be an A+ day hike.
Last edited by vhsvhs on Fri Jul 08, 2016 3:50 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: TR: The Great Mono Loop - July 2-5, 2016

Postby copeg » Thu Jul 07, 2016 3:39 pm

Thanks for sharing. Loved scrolling down the page from one pic to the next. Looks like a fun route
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Re: TR: The Great Mono Loop - July 2-5, 2016

Postby SSSdave » Thu Jul 07, 2016 4:00 pm

Been through all those areas except the end mining road from lower Morgan Lakes to Pine Creek. The east end of the south shore of Lake Italy has a long history of sucking in cross country travelers because mileage wise dropping down via Italy Pass and Jumble Lake, it is otherwise much longer to go all around the lake in order to reach Gabbot Pass. Seem to recall reading in an early edition of Sierra South not to go that way for reasons you mentioned. Large talus carrying a backpack is not only unpleasant but also dangerous. During my own experiences, we followed the north shore that I seem to recall as mostly just walking.

Significant numbers of Pine Creek horse packing customers are plopped down at the much touted Honeymoon Lake with advice to spend a day going over Italy Pass to famous Lake Italy. Of course very popular Honeymoon Lake is also a prime destination for backpackers. More scenic than Upper Pine Lake but less so than Pine Lake or most everything above in Granite Park. Thus whenever we've camped about spectacular Granite Park sometime after mid morning most days would be a chain of day hikers making their way up towards the pass. And then a few hours later mid to late afternoon somewhat bedraggled the reverse on their return.

As a photographer not a fan Lake Italy itself . The big barren devoid of trees lake sits down in a giant hole between some of the tallest Sierra peaks, with sunlight blocked by those peaks till mid morning or too early in the pm getting shadows while light is still rather blah. The one time it shines is when it is calm and reflecting during dawn or early morning light bouncing off high cirrus clouds above as there is much in the big bowl of a barren basin to reflect sky light.

As for the area below Lower Mills Creek Lake, I seem to recall my route through that zone on my first trip as a learning experience I made a point of not repeating on following visits haha. Exceptional zone to base camp at for a couple to three days as setting light during summer shines late on its spectacular avalanche chute white granite walls.
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Re: TR: The Great Mono Loop - July 2-5, 2016

Postby Bluewater » Fri Jul 08, 2016 11:51 am

I really enjoyed your trip report and photos. The format was easy to read and I looked forward to seeing each section of photos after the route description. The Google Earth map and elevation profile made a nice overview.

I've hiked most of your route with the he exception of the Morgan Pass section back to the Pine Creek trailhead. I was surprised to read that the mosquitos were not an issue at the Pine Lakes (good news!).

I also took the trailed route around Italy Lake, it's much longer than the x/c route but I avoided that based on Ropers description. Great pxts of the waterfalls and view of Bear Creek Spire on the climb to Gabbot Pass.

LMCL is one of my favorite spots on the SHR and I also spent some time swimming and relaxing there before reluctantly moving on. I remember the bushwhacking below LMCL (and before the steep descent into the 2nd recess) being unpleasant due to the very dense foliage. Once past that the route finding along the north side of the creek was steep but straightforward, I remember being happy to finally discover the mostly flat use trail along the 2nd recess.

Thanks for a fun read!
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Re: TR: The Great Mono Loop - July 2-5, 2016

Postby GraceC89 » Fri Jul 08, 2016 2:48 pm

wildhiker wrote:Great trip report and photos. Thanks for sharing.

I've always wondered about walking down from Morgan Pass to Pine Creek, but thought it would be too ugly with the tungsten mine and its operations. Is the mine closed now? Is the jeep road closed to vehicles?

-Phil


I've been up and down the trail to Morgan Pass from the Pine Creek Trailhead and found it much more enjoyable than I expected. I thought that it would just be a dusty, exposed road with piles of old trash from the mine, but the tread is rocky (tough on the ankles but no dust!) and the mining equipment was really interesting to look at. Given that it used to be a road, the gradient is very reasonable.

My only tip is to watch out for the left hand turn to take you to Morgan Pass. As you break on to a saddle at the top of the initial switchbacks from the trailhead, the road continues off to the right (east) while the trail to Morgan Pass, which is much fainter than the road, cuts west. I initially kept walking mindlessly along the road until I realized that something had to be very wrong if I was turning toward the Owens Valley :o . Thankfully I fixed my mistake quickly, but it's an easy one to make.
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Re: TR: The Great Mono Loop - July 2-5, 2016

Postby deadeyes » Fri Jul 08, 2016 8:36 pm

Nice TR and great photos; I haven't been to Granite Park and it was nice to see those images up towards and down from Italy Pass.

I can only echo what others have said; south side of Lake Italy = big bummer! As for dropping down to the second recess from Gabbot, yes, the Mills Creek area is sublime and yes, it can be confusing finding your route down the steep wall below the lower lake. I recall lots of bushwhacking and wondering where the previously obvious friggin' use-trail went and then steep slabs until it finally leveled out. When I went through, I remember a swimming hole near the bottom of the drop. Why do I remember? Because it was populated with a crew of naked senior citizens! Yikes! If ever the phrase "I can't unsee THAT" was appropriate!
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