TR: taboose, upper basin, and NOT lake basin, 8/23-8/29

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TR: taboose, upper basin, and NOT lake basin, 8/23-8/29

Post by frozenintime » Thu Sep 07, 2017 12:26 pm

day 0:

my friend has a high clearance car and made short work of the taboose road. for what it's worth, after the section around the corral where most folks abandon ship, the last bit to the actual trailhead is considerably better.

we started out around 4. it was hot, but a few strategically placed clouds saved us from the worst of it. around two miles in, the bit of trail that has been flooded by the creek is a bit confusing -- i'm sure someone could be convinced that this was the first crossing and barge across to the other side. the bushwack up and around the flooded bit was fine, but from the trailhead side, it's not particular obvious what to do without some investigating. (i imagine this flooding isn't a problem in normal and/or drought years, though.)

the real first crossing was loud and frothy, but only shin height on me (6'1"). the various small logs were helpful, but two poles would've been fine too.

we made camp just as night was settling in at the "no fires" campsite above the first crossing (approx 8,200 ft). it's a nice, large site -- you could fit 4 or 5 tents there if necessary.

day 1:

the next morning took us over the pass, and straight into the good ****. the little basin just west of the pass is beautiful, though a bit marshy this year and likely a mosquito hellscape.

after talking to bob (the bench lake ranger) about our cartridge pass plans, we made our way to bench lake. it was warm overnight and, despite camping away from and above the lake, both tents ended up with apocalyptic condensation by morning. i'm not sure why.

day 2:

we were headed towards cartridge pass today, and decided to try our hand at bushwacking down the steep, south slope of the canyon. it would save some miles and backtracking, and sounded like an interesting challenge.

we did not choose wisely. i'm sure there is a better line to take than ours. what we ended up on was flat, slippery, steep rock faces, talus, and a whole lot of what a hiker we ran into later called "vegeation belay": holding on to small branches while we slid down the canyon on our butts. all while descending 1000 feet in 1/2 a mile.


to be honest, i found the descent to be pretty frightening. we were able to avoid being totally cliffed out, but what we ended up on what not fun. this was partially due to my new shoes.* i simply wasn't confident on my feet after a few moments of sliding down rock faces where i expected to find some traction, and that kind of killed my confidence in general.

it's also likely that my window of acceptable risk has simply narrowed now that i'm a dad (of a 15 month old). for what it's worth, my two companions (childless heathens) found the descent difficult but fun. i think that given stickier shoes and different life circumstances, i may have been with them on that.

still, we took a bad route. i imagine that staying in the trees a bit further west makes more sense. in person it also looked like a better move, though not definitively so -- everything looks steep! at least according to the topo, if you stray quite a bit west (i.e. descending in the vicinity of the 3100 line on the usgs map), you could avoid the steepest slopes.

in any event, after almost 2 1/2 hours spent descending 1/2 a mile of canyon, we found ourselves at the kings, still riding various twitchy body highs. this kind of extremely slow cross country travel (or unmaintained trail travel -- which is almost worse?) would be a theme of the trip.

the kings sure has mellowed recently: it was low and slow in late august where we crossed (right by the old packers camp) - probably up to or just above my knee, but moving slowly. it was hard not to think of the pct hiker killed just upstream in july. what a difference a few weeks makes.

we ate breakfast on the north side before heading off to find the remnants of the cartridge pass trail. in a large meadow or clearing, there is a giant cairn and a big arrow made of logs that points the way in. so, look for the clearing. heading up is steep and no nonsense. we were mostly able to stay with the switchbacking trail, but somewhere near the middle of the ascent, things got pretty confusing. it feels like the path branches off in several directions, not a surprise since the trail hasn't been maintained in 80(?) years.

there is a long flat section with remnants of a rock slide above and (i think?) below, with beautiful views across the canyon. if you don't make it there, you're in the wrong spot. closer to the top, the trail clears up again and is easy to follow.

we topped out at the beautiful lake below cartridge pass. this is a special lake. i'm scandalized that it doesn't merit a name -- even an elevation-related placeholder -- on the USGS or harrison maps. this is a real deal, magical high sierra lake.


the ascent from the kings to this lake took us almost 2.5 hours to go 2ish miles, and it was already lunch time. we ate along the south shore before working our way around the east side towards the north end of the lake. again, we followed the old trail but eventually found ourselves on a newer offshoot that took us far too high above the lake.

back at the shore on the north side of the lake, we came across the (seemingly recent) remnants of a deer. the ranger had mentioned seeing mountain lion tracks on cartridge pass, so perhaps this was their handiwork.


we started scouting for the trail up the next rise to just below the pass. it was not obvious from our initial forays, and we realized it was already 4 pm. while we could've made it over the pass before dark, we likely wouldn't have any fun doing it. and did you notice how beautiful the lake is from the wide, soft bench to its north?

we settled in for the night.
this was one of my favorite campsites ever.
visit this lake!


* i wore hoka challengers due to a bout of metatarsalgia from a rough hike earlier this summer. they are great trail shoes. i really like them, and don't find the higher stack height problematic. but i was wondering how the tread would handle off trail sierra terrain, and now i know. i'd look elsewhere -- perhaps to hoka's with vibram soles? -- for this kind of higher level off trail stuff.

day 3:

we packed up quickly... and again took the wrong route.

east of the old trail is what looks like an easy grassy ramp. we decided this must be the trail. if we'd done a better job consulting the topo, we would've realized that it was in fact the drainage from the tiny tarn below the 3500m marker on the USGS map. ascending it was not particularly sketchy (at least as compared to the descent the previous day), but it was more exposed than necessary and requiring a few handsy moves that could've been easily avoided if we'd just spent more time assessing where we were beforehand. there were lots of little mistakes/"learning experiences" on this trip.

at the top of that short rise, we worked our way west and eventually found the trail for a while, but lost it again around where it turns sharply north towards the pass. we tacked farther east than we should've, following some boot prints and a few well worn spots that were easily confused for the old trail. there may have even been some cairns involved. in retrospect, we may have been on a use trail heading towards mt ruskin.

i started getting frustrated. we weren't getting where we needed to be, we still hadn't had breakfast, and the terrain kept edging us farther east. eventually i took out the map, took a deep breath, and looked with fresh-ish eyes. i realized our mistake. not only were we heading away from the memorable, pointy peak just west of cartridge, but we hadn't even seen (and indeed were nowhere near) the tiny tarn just south of the pass.

a few minutes of backtracking and we were at the pass. it had taken us almost three hours to make, i don't know, a mile of distance?

we sat at the pass eating breakfast, watching two guys hoofing up the north side. they had entered via vennacher col the day before, and said that the mosquitos were horrible in lake basin, echoing what the ranger had told me.

those reports, coupled with our continually slow progress had me sitting at the top of cartridge pass rethinking our plans. my goal since the deep, dark winter had been to get over taboose, and cartridge, and into beautiful lake basin. and here we were, literally staring down into it for the first time.

but our other goal had been to get somewhere where we could relax and spend a day or two exploring without any clear objective. if we continued at this kind of pace, that was not going to happen. we'd likely have to turn around and head right back over cartridge the following afternoon.

the goal was the high sierra. everything else is names and maps in a guidebook. we were already here in the heart of kings canyon, as was made plain to us the minute we crested taboose pass. we didn't need lake basin. we were already here.

so, we turned around.

staying on the old trail was much, much simpler on the descent (as always seems to be the case). for what it's worth, the trail down to our favorite lake is not a straight line, as its shown on the map. it's full of tight switchbacks. this is at least partially why we thought the aforementioned "green ramp" -- a straight shot up -- was the old trail.

we made it back down to the packers camp at the shore of the kings by midafternoon, 2 to 3 times faster than it took us going up. interestingly, we ended up coming out of the cartridge switchbacks at the eastern end of the meadow -- nowhere near the advertised entrance with cairn and arrow. but we were following real switchbacks all the way down. so clearly there are (now) two parallel trails, at least near the bottom.

we considered heading back to the JMT, but ended up calling it an early day at the old packers camp. generally i'd be wary of such places as bear magnets, but while the area had clearly been long and well used, i found no traces of recent usage at all. and it's a sweet spot.

day 4:

the bushwack back to the JMT was fun. there's no use trail to speak of from the packers camp through the first talus field. but a very obvious trail emerges at the base of the second field, right next to the kings. from there, we were on what felt practically like maintained trail all the way back to the JMT.

for what it's worth, the ranger told us in no uncertain terms that we should follow the old JMT as described on the topo -- that is, cross the kings to the south side in order to avoid the first two talus fields and then cross back. that probably works fine, but sticking to the north side was fun and easy and avoided two crossings.

we headed south to get some water at the JMT crossing of the south fork kings, and sat for breakfast while deciding what to do. we had two days left and no plans. so we decided to head north on the JMT into upper basin. this was a great decision.

just before the headwaters of the south fork cross the trail -- around 10,800 feet -- i noticed that the terrain to the west was suspiciously flat, and beautiful. what we found, naturally, were several developed campsites within (loud) shouting distance of the JMT, but worlds away in every other respect. it was just lovely. we set up camp, and had the whole afternoon and evening to explore.

while wandering around on the east side of the trail, we found a lush area that felt like a manicured garden, with the kings shooting down its center. i sat on a rock by the water for a long time staring down canyon. it was heaven.


the mosquitos were very bad right by our campsite, but, mysteriously, nowhere else.

day 5:

we decided to retrace our steps south, but on the east side of the kings. we crossed around 10,500 feet where the river spreads out into four or five branches. the area was heavily cairned, i'd assume by 2017 PCT hikers that used this crossing out of absolute necessity.

on the other side of the kings, i expected to find mellow cross country hiking, but instead we followed a very well defined trail (sometimes two trails, higher and lower). i wonder if this was also a result of this years PCT hikers. horses had also been through. either way, it was a great way to cover the same ground. the trail hews closer to the river than the JMT, which meant that we stumbled on this stunning, emerald pool.


we met up with the JMT again and decided to hike up to lake marjorie, and possibly up the south side of pinchot. we ate lunch at marjorie, by which time clouds had massed and it sprinkled on us. it never let loose, but the temperature dropped quickly and we couldn't see what was on the other side of pinchot, so we decided to head back towards our final campsite.

the views down upper basin headed north on the JMT were stunning. the clouds conspired such that none of my photos did it justice, but it's certainly one of those high sierra views you won't forget.

we turned up the taboose trail and camped by the outlet of the lakes below striped mountain, where we again had a disturbingly beautiful view of upper basin.


day 6:

we were wakling by 6:45 and to the top of the pass by 7:30, saying our final goodbyes to the high sierra for another season.


soon we were over the lip and headed back towards the owens valley. we stopped for breakfast around 10,200 feet, at the lovely, shaded campsites there, a real desert oasis. it's not on the map, but there was a bit of a tarn there this year.

as the descent continued, the heat began to seep deeper into my bones. at the second crossing (i.e. below the waterfall), i dunked my shirt and hat, which provided instant and very convincing air conditioning. but a few miles later, by the first crossing, clouds had poured over the crest and hidden the evil desert sun from us.

we ate lunch by the flooded section of trail, where it started raining. this was not the taboose trail we were expecting! the rain let up, but the clouds remained thick and lovely, making the last bit of trail to the car surprisingly mellow. the desert is quite beautiful when you're not broiling.

by the time we got to the car, the sierra looked like it was under attack by the rain gods. in fact, the entire crest was dark and stormy on the drive north to bishop.


this year's trip was an experiment in getting somewhere beautiful and staying put, as opposed to my usual hike-all-day style. the details didn't turn out as planned, but we certainly managed to spend some slow, quality time in beautiful places.

we criss crossed the south fork kings from its headwaters in upper basin on down towards the muro blanco, and got a feel for its personality. that was rewarding, and not an experience i would've had on a regular loop hike.

similarly, this hike involved a lot of time either hiking through or looking back at upper basin. doing so over several days, from various perspectives and under different kinds of light and weather, was a nice way to get to know an area.

we saw no smoke at all and had no real weather, though saw plenty of threatening-looking clouds that filtered off into nothing again. it seems that we may have just missed an actual storm.

the nights were warmer than i've experienced in the sierra, but i've also only been in september until this year. mosquitos were rough in upper basin and a mild annoyance everywhere else. with the exception of a couple groups of cute, surly JMT youth, everyone we came across was happy and thrilled to be out there. ah, another season has come and gone!
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Re: TR: taboose, upper basin, and NOT lake basin, 8/23-8/29

Post by frozenintime » Thu Sep 07, 2017 12:39 pm

(not sure why the photos are appearing in those small windows, but i'll fix it if someone tells me how.)

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Re: TR: taboose, upper basin, and NOT lake basin, 8/23-8/29

Post by Harlen » Thu Sep 07, 2017 2:20 pm

Thanks for the report, that's an area we are really keen to get back into again. Sounds like you guys made some wise decisions, and were nicely flexible. Was your original plan to cross over C.Pass, into Lakes Basin, and out Vennacher Col?
I really like your second to last photo. Cheers, Harlen.

p.s. Just watch how your "window of acceptable risk... narrowed now that i'm a dad (of a 15 month old)..." when you've got the little kid on your back while crossing passes. Good luck.

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Re: TR: taboose, upper basin, and NOT lake basin, 8/23-8/29

Post by frozenintime » Fri Sep 08, 2017 6:45 am

thanks harlen.

i was really interested in your early season trips into humphreys, etc. i haven't been on ski's in 15 years, so even the idea of that kind of trip is mindblowing to me!

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Re: TR: taboose, upper basin, and NOT lake basin, 8/23-8/29

Post by cgundersen » Fri Sep 08, 2017 9:26 am

If it's any consolation, as pretty as it can be, I think Marion Lakes basin is the source of all the mosquitoes in the Sierra. I have hit the highest bug count there at several different times and I'm pretty confident that the only period that is safe is when one does need skis. And, one of my most miserable slogs in the Sierra was in the south fork basin, so your report was a "great" reminder of the kind of things that can happen when you choose a route that looks like a good idea. And, isn't. Nevertheless, you guys got a terrific dose of quintessential Sierra, and simply having negotiated Taboose pass is worth a toast. Cheers, Cameron

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Re: TR: taboose, upper basin, and NOT lake basin, 8/23-8/29

Post by kernwanderer » Fri Sep 08, 2017 11:09 am

I thoroughly enjoyed your report, Ben. You got into some beautiful country via one of the tougher Sierra passes, so don't be too hard on yourself. As for the mistakes, ponder them and go forth to make some new ones. That is how you learn to navigate cross country routes. I suspect most of us who do have gone through the same process; I know I did. Heck, even the Bench Lake Ranger was mistaken in his advice to follow the old JMT, when there is a veritable superhighway leading back to the new JMT, once you cross the first talus field. So, you were in good company. ;0)

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Re: TR: taboose, upper basin, and NOT lake basin, 8/23-8/29

Post by steiny98 » Fri Sep 08, 2017 11:12 am

Sorry to hear about your somewhat failed plan and the Hokas. But, THAT LAKE THOUGH. Fell in love with that one last year too. The pics of Upper Basin look great, and glad you made it in/out safely.

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Re: TR: taboose, upper basin, and NOT lake basin, 8/23-8/29

Post by SweetSierra » Fri Sep 08, 2017 12:26 pm

The way down from Bench Lake is in the forested slope to the west of where you descended and to the right of the big talus pile in your photo. I did this with a group three years ago. It's steep but there are trees to hold onto as you make your own zig/zags down. There's no talus at all. It drops you right to the old packer's camp (after crossing the river). That lake part of the way up Cartridge is beautiful.

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Re: TR: taboose, upper basin, and NOT lake basin, 8/23-8/29

Post by frozenintime » Fri Sep 08, 2017 12:56 pm

hey all, thanks for the thoughts.
i guess i made it sound like we had a miserable time.
we did not!
the learning experiences were annoying at the time, but i consider myself a novice out there, so it's to be expected.

anyway, upper basin was more than enough consolation for missing lake basin this year.
and it sounds like i want to go in september of a drought year, anyway. oh well, another trip to add back to the list...

i found taboose to be not as big a deal as i'd planned for, which is good news since i can only imagine that some (all?) of the other 'bad' east side passes are in my future. (though we did get really lucky with clouds/weather on the up and the down.)

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Re: TR: taboose, upper basin, and NOT lake basin, 8/23-8/29

Post by SSSdave » Fri Sep 08, 2017 3:53 pm

As a photographer that has never been over Taboose Pass but has had a detailed 10-day trip plan for several years, Upper Basin and the north side of the Pinchot Pass areas have always looked much more interesting aesthetically from images I've seen from those that went over Cartridge Pass. For one those areas have a mix of colorful metamorphic geology while Lake Basin outside a bit near Marion is just granite. So your redirection may have turned out to lead you to more scenic areas.

Vertical elevation lines on 7.5m USGS topos using meters instead of feet need to assessed carefully. Not surprised dropping into the canyon due north of Bench Lake was difficult because the map shows it is quite steep. As a yard stick, that is just as steep as descending most of The Cornice slopes at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area that is also a meter map. A wiser somewhat longer, less steep, and no doubt faster strategy for descending into the canyon from Bench Lake would be to follow the west side of the stream that drains the east side of Arrow Peak. See cross hairs:,-118.48136&z=15&t=T

General advice from an expert rambling cross country about unfamiliar areas over decades in the Sierra Nevada is to have a 7.5m topographic map right in your hand, regularly looking at it while moving along, learning how doing so matches what a map shows. With a map in one's pack one only perused the previous evening, just eyeballing where to incrementally go, or following what appears to be use paths, or worse some novices placed ducks, is prone to at a minimum result in inefficient routes wasting effort and sometimes worse.


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