TR: Duck Pass, Purple/Ram Lakes, Lake Virginia, 9/19/2014 | High Sierra Topix  

TR: Duck Pass, Purple/Ram Lakes, Lake Virginia, 9/19/2014

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TR: Duck Pass, Purple/Ram Lakes, Lake Virginia, 9/19/2014

Postby wjb » Sun Oct 19, 2014 12:06 pm

I've been meaning to write up a trip report for the route that I asked about here: ... 384#p88384

(This was our backup trip; our primary trip up Bear Creek, to Lake Italy, and out via Florence Lake was discussed here: ... 821#p87821 In the end, we went with the backup due one of our party having a hamstring injury, and the backup being 50% shorter and overall easier than the primary. This turned out to be a good decision.)

On Friday we drove through Mono Lakes and camped overnight at Coldwater Creek campground, snagging one of the last available spots. This night at about 8500 feet helped us to acclimate to the heights to come, and it was a pleasant (if full) front country campground.

Hit the trail in the morning, heading for Pika Lake. For two of the four, this was their first backpacking trip. The shadeless climb up to Duck Pass on a sunny morning let them know what they were in for!

We enjoyed passing several lakes on the way in -- Arrowhead, Skelton and Barney. Took a break to enjoy Skelton Lake and chat with some anglers. We saw lots of day hikers on the trail up to and over Duck Pass, probably because it was a beautiful Saturday. Didn't see too many backpackers.

The pass itself was not much, just a narrow trail, but on the other side, the view opened up. Duck Lake was stunning, a very large mountain lake surrounded by jagged peaks and curtain walls of rock, with a massive valley lurking out beyond the end of it.

From the pass, we couldn't yet see our destination, Pika Lake. We made our way down to meadows near the lake.

Image Duck Lake, clouds building.

Along the way, we came across a rowboat lying in the grasses and a cabin seemingly built into a boulder (both of which I have seen mentioned in other threads on this forum). We continued on until we climbed a small rise and reached Pika Lake. A big group of college-aged guys was throwing a football on the north shore. There said there were 10 of them in all, some kind of a group trip. Five of their party were scaling the scree field on the slope to the east. They pointed one out, a speck of orange faaar above us. I wouldn't have guessed it was possible to scale it without serious climbing gear -- from where we stood, it looked taller than a skyscraper, reaching most of the way to the crest.

We also talked to another group on the other side of the lake. They had had a windy night and advised that we camp on the same side as the larger group. We found a nice spot and made camp, none too soon. Clouds had been floating by for hours, and now they meant business, rolling in thick and fast with thunder to back them up. Lighting crackling in Cascade Valley seemed like it would soon work its way up to our campsite. It did, opening with pea-sized hail.

Then after a few minutes it let up. Then it rained. Then let up again. On and off. We cooked dinner, hung out, enjoyed patches of clear sky where we could find them, marveled at wind blowing up from the southwest towards the Duck Lake outlet. Lightning struck nearby peaks a few times, making us jump. Eventually the rain got steadier so we cleaned up and hunkered down, dry in our tents even when they shuddered against strong gusts rushing up from the pass. I gather that this is common Sierra Nevada late season weather.

We woke sad to hear steady rain Sunday morning. I had hoped/expected it would blow over during the night but it hadn't. Hard to leave the sleeping bag when it's cold and wet outside. But once we did get up and moving around, the rain tapered off. Still very cloudy. Got on our way. The destination for the night was Ram Lake.

Retraced our steps back up to the trail around Duck Lake. The scree field behind Pika Lake that the guys had been climbing was now revealed to be only 1/3rd way to the crest, which from looking at the topos now, I see was about 12000 feet, towering above Pika at about 10500 feet. From the ground it had seemed to be more like 3/4 of the way up. Perspective in the mountains is incredible, it depends so much on where you are standing.

We rounded out past Duck Lake and along the valley to where we'd turn in towards Purple Lake. Clouds rolled through all day, limiting the view, though Cascade Valley was still quite beautiful. I thought I remembered the forecast calling for Sunday to be dry, and hoped that I was remembering accurately.

We didn't see much of Purple Lake, but marched on towards Ram Lake, which according to our directions was just a little further up an un-maintained trail, following a creek, past some lovely mountain meadows. The meadows were indeed lovely. The creek was low or in some places dry. Rain had held off so far, and it was fun to follow the trail as it got fainter and fainter. At points we had to scramble around and gain ground to find it again. We kept thinking that Ram Lake was just over the next rise, only to find no lake! Since we were out of water at this point and the sun was nearly setting, it was with great joy that we finally came upon Ram Lake after a number of false alarms. From there, we could see the other side of the mountains that we'd been looking at the previous day from the Duck Lake basin and Pika Like. They were just as tall and imposing, perhaps even more jagged, from this side.

A bit of scouting turned up a fine campsite (for this season; it would have been far too soggy in the early season), and the clouds slowly departed during sunset, giving us stunning views over Cascade Valley after we scrambled to the top of a nearby rise. We were treated to a spectrum of color, yellow through deep purple. After dinner, we lay back on some comfortable(ish) rocks, dusted off our memories of constellations, and appreciated the Milky Way and a few shooting stars.

The next day was a few miles of cross-country from Ram Lake down to Lake Virginia. We took our time ascending to the high point of the trip, just over 11,000 feet, and took many photos of Ram Lake, which viewed from above, turned out to be three barely connected lakes. This day was bright and sunny, so we could really appreciate all the views. The hike down alongside a creek towards Lake Virginia was a real pleasure, filled with great vantage points of the valley ahead, not difficult going but just interesting enough because we were bushwacking. Thoughout the trip we saw little wildlife, only various birds; pika; chipmunks; a few large spiders at night. This day we saw a large shoulder(?) bone stained with rust-colored blood, and speculated about what it might have belonged to, and who/what bought about its demise.

Image Ram Lake (part of)

When Lake Virginia appeared, we had to reevaluate our opinions of Duck Lake -- this was just as beautiful, maybe more so. We left the JMT and made camp at a nice site above the east side of the lake, then scrambled down to clean off in the frigid water. We faintly heard one other party on the north side of the lake, but aside from that, we were alone again. The evening brought another fantastic opportunity for sunset and star appreciation.

In the morning Lake Virginia doubled every peak and hill around her -- we snapped many photos of those totally still waters.

Image Lake Virginia, morning.

It was hard to leave her behind. Our destination today was somewhere over Duck Pass -- we weren't sure yet. Perhaps Barney or Skelton Lake.

Today our view of the Cascade Valley was splendid. No clouds to dim the scenery. We took our time and enjoyed it. We got to see Purple Lake from its outlet, a completely different vantage point. Ram Lake was as tucked away as ever.

Image Purple Lake, on the way back. Not pictured: Ram Lake

Along the JMT, we ran into a solo PCT through-hiker who seemed lonely. We chatted a bit. He'd been on the trail for two months. We couldn't answer his questions of whether the John Muir Ranch was open or not. An hour or two later we ran into another through hiker who informed us that the ranch was closed, and who, after more than three months on the trail, was quite impressed at the previous hiker's speed.

Everyone we ran into that day was interested in the forecast. I told them the best I could remember (rain on Saturday, clearing on Sunday -- which had proven true -- and sunny for the next few days), but they wanted news of the coming weekend, which I didn't have, since we'd be out of the woods by then. From looking at the forecast once I got home, it seems that the first significant snowfall of the season arrived that weekend. I hope these through-hikers got through it OK.

Soon we were retracing our trail, passing Duck Lake's outlet, climbing to skirt around it. The views now were familiar yet different, seen going in the opposite direction and at a later time of day. The water's color was stunning, and we enjoyed seeing birds flying far below. We started to encounter day hikers again.

Image Duck Lake from a new angle.

That night, we camped at Skelton Lake. Perhaps biased by our days out on the trail, we'd imagined it would be too small and not scenic enough. We almost camped at Barney Lake because it was closer to the pass, the tall peaks, the wilderness. But bent trees nearby suggested that the winds roaring down from the pass were intense, so we continued onto Skelton -- and did not regret it. The abundant campsites made it clear that Skelton would be overcrowded during the high season, but on this night, we had it to ourselves, and the point where we set up camp had fantastic views of the lake, so it was a pleasant place to spend one more night before hiking out the next morning.

Thanks very much to everyone on this forum who answered my questions about routes! It was very helpful in planning this trip.
Last edited by wjb on Thu Oct 23, 2014 9:51 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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Re: TR: Duck Pass, Purple/Ram Lakes, Lake Virginia, 9/19/2014

Postby gary c. » Sun Oct 19, 2014 4:35 pm

Thanks for a great report of what sounds like a very successful trek. Your description brings back a lot of memories of a similar trip that I made.
"On this proud and beautiful mountain we have lived hours of fraternal, warm and exalting nobility. Here for a few days we have ceased to be slaves and have really been men. It is hard to return to servitude."
-- Lionel Terray
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Re: TR: Duck Pass, Purple/Ram Lakes, Lake Virginia, 9/19/2014

Postby Herm » Sun Oct 19, 2014 10:12 pm

Thanks for posting. I made the trip over Duck Pass, spending a night between Duck and Pika Lakes, before heading to Ram Lake (in the vicinity) for a night, then returning to a different spot between Duck and Pika Lakes for my final night. My trip was during the first weekend in September, and the wind howled on my final night. I too had that feeling that Ram Lake was just around the next curve, or the next, or the next after that, etc. Ram Lake is a destination to which I would love to return, and spend more than just a day.

I am not in a hurry, so don't be hasty.
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Re: TR: Duck Pass, Purple/Ram Lakes, Lake Virginia, 9/19/2014

Postby kpeter » Mon Oct 20, 2014 9:03 pm

I am so glad you had such a splendid trip! Your report brought back many memories. Now I will just have to find a time to check out Virginia!
Last edited by kpeter on Fri Oct 24, 2014 5:15 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: TR: Duck Pass, Purple/Ram Lakes, Lake Virginia, 9/19/2014

Postby wjb » Thu Oct 23, 2014 9:37 pm

Happy to bring back fond memories for you all. It was a great route, for sure.

kpeter: Virginia is worth it, you won't be disappointed!
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