TR: Pine Creek to North Lake - July 19-22, 2018

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Harrison
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TR: Pine Creek to North Lake - July 19-22, 2018

Post by Harrison » Thu Jul 30, 2020 3:26 pm

I've been lurking for a couple of years, so I figure it's high time I contributed something. Two years ago a friend and I did a fantastic three-night trip from Pine Creek trailhead, up Pine Creek, through French Canyon and Humphreys Basin, and out Piute Pass. It was a challenging trip owing to intense, hours-long thunderstorms every afternoon. It rained every day from about 2-3 pm until 6-7 pm (often torrentially, with lots of very close lightning). Luckily we hadn't planned to do many miles each day (it was my friend's first backpacking trip) so we didn't have to change our plans due to the weather. If anyone is looking for a 2-3 night trip with no backtracking, this is a great route that is easy to set up with a one-hour shuttle.

We hired a shuttle driver to meet us at our end point, the hiker parking lot near North Lake. He got us to the Pine Creek trailhead (7440') by 9 am, and we started up the steep, rocky trail with over-the-shoulder views of the shuttered tungsten mine. (The trail you see switchbacking up the bare mountain goes to Morgan Pass and Mosquito Flat / Rock Creek.)
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It's a bit of a rough slog for the first 3-4 miles and there's not much shade, but the trail isn't as unpleasant as some descriptions I've read. Just do it early before it gets hot. There were some nice views of cascades in Pine Creek as we ascended. We passed an abandoned mine at 9500', and beyond that were a couple of large rockslides that had covered the trail that year and took some time to navigate around.
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The rain started just as we stopped for lunch at the Pine Creek crossing (about 9700'), and we hiked the rest of the afternoon through the drizzle.

The real Sierra scenery began when we got to Pine Lake (9942'). I was not expecting the crazy zebra-striped rock that surrounds this lake. (Unfortunately my geologist friend didn't join me on this hike, so "zebra-striped" is the best I can do.)
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I would come back here again just to see the rocks around this lake. I've never seen anything quite like it.

We made it to Honeymoon Lake (10,435') around the time the rain let up, so we decided it was a perfect time to stop and set up camp. I don't think we saw another person the entire day. Maybe everyone else paid more attention to the forecast than we did. I snapped this nice picture as the sun was setting, only later to realize my pots and pans were in the photo, drying on a rock.
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The next morning we climbed up to Pine Creek Pass (11,135') and over into French Canyon. I have to say that upper French Canyon is one of the more beautiful places I have visited in the Sierra. It was full of wildflowers and little creeks meandering through open meadows. Another place I would return to eagerly. We only ran into three people this day. Two were a couple who had come over Puppet Pass ("to avoid the mosquitoes") cross-country, had just rejoined the trail and were heading down Pine Creek.
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As we worked our way down into the canyon proper we passed an area near the outlet from Royce Lakes with hundreds of downed trees, all pointing in the same direction away from a steep mountainside. I think it must have been from an avalanche during the heavy winter of 2016-17.

We arrived at Hutchinson Meadow (9500') around 3 pm. We had a brief discussion about whether or not we should push on a couple more miles, but this was cut short by a clap of thunder and some raindrops. This settled it, and without another word we commenced setting up tents in record time. By the time I pulled myself and everything I valued inside, it was pouring. What followed was three hours of sitting on my sleeping pad, holding my extra clothes and electronics in my lap, and watching as a 2-3 inch lake slowly appeared around my tent. Oh yeah, and counting the time between lightning flashes and thunder booms. ("Sound travels 1000 feet per second... Wow, that was close.")

My friend's tent was just a few yards away but the rain was so loud we couldn't communicate for hours. Meanwhile I was trying to prevent the items in my vestibule from floating away. Did I mention this was his first backpacking trip? I kept thinking, "Oh no, he's must HATE this. I hope his tent isn't flooding. He'll never forgive me for taking him on this trip." Long story short, both of our tents proved to have waterproof bottoms, we kept all the important stuff dry, and my friend loved the little adventure. Next month he will go on his third backpacking trip with me.

Here's our campsite after the ground finally had time to absorb all the rainfall.
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There's nothing like the feel of mountain air right after a big rainstorm.
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The next day we hiked up into Humphreys Basin, crossing many swollen streams. We used the "boots with no socks" approach for stream crossings. I don't think sandals would have worked very well given how fast the water was moving and how uneven and rocky the bottoms of the streams were.
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We also hiked through clouds of mosquitoes in the forested parts of Piute Canyon, but the bugs went away once we got out into the open. We took a leisurely break to eat lunch and dry out the boots.
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We got a late start since we had to dry out all our gear. And by this time we had figured out the weather pattern: hunker down by 2 pm each day and wait out the rain. So we only hiked about 5 miles with a half mile of cross country / use trail to get to Upper Golden Trout Lake (10,821'), a really lovely lake south of the main trail.
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This time we were ready and we had our tents set up by 2 pm. It started raining about 2:30 and didn't stop until 7:30. Jeez, I really didn't bring enough reading material for this many hours confined to a tent. We barely had time to cook a quick dinner before it got dark. While dinner was cooking I snapped a nice sunset picture of Mt. Humphreys.
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The next morning we packed up early and pushed out of Humphreys Basin to Piute Pass (11,423'), the highest point of our trip.
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Then it was down, down, down to North Lake (9360'), passing a few rock slides and trail crews along the way. We later found out we were chowing down at the Bishop Burger Barn when a rockslide closed the road to North Lake and stranded everyone's cars for a week. It's a good thing we got an early start that day!

Despite the rain it was a great trip. During a more normal summer weather experience you could easily add some side trips to Granite Park, L Lake, or Desolation Lake: all places that we had on our "maybe" list. This is a "do again" trip for me. I love trips with no backtracking, and this route requires only a short shuttle. Highly recommended.
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sturdyoak2012
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Re: TR: Pine Creek to North Lake - July 19-22, 2018

Post by sturdyoak2012 » Thu Jul 30, 2020 7:55 pm

Looks great! I was up in the Pine Creek/Royce Lakes area just last week. I was about to comment that I was just one day behind you, but then I realized that this is a 2018 report! Haha. Many of your pictures are still fresh in my memory.

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mckee80
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Re: TR: Pine Creek to North Lake - July 19-22, 2018

Post by mckee80 » Fri Jul 31, 2020 4:21 am

Thanks for the report and great pictures! I did a trip up in that area last year, beautiful!

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