TR: Red Mountain Basin Aug 4-9 2019

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kpeter
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TR: Red Mountain Basin Aug 4-9 2019

Post by kpeter » Sat Aug 10, 2019 2:11 pm

Red Mountain Basin August 4-9, 2019

Purpose, Logistics, and Conditions of Trip

The Red Mountain, Bench Valley, and Blackcap Basin areas are all parts of the Sierra I had never visited, mostly because I have focused more on the east side approaches. After hearing much about these areas here on High Sierra Topix, and after receiving lots of excellent advice from members, I planned my trip and brought along a friend. This year we focused on the southern portion of Red Mountain Basin.

The permit process is primitive compared with the national parks or Inyo National Forest—via snail mail to the High Sierra Ranger Station in Prather. There was no issue obtaining a permit—in general we found this region far less traveled than other destinations and I imagine permits are pretty easy to obtain.

The day before we drove 3 hours to Prather and picked up the permit, then another 90 minutes on to Courtwright Reservoir, where we had reserved a camp at the Marmot Campground (online via PG&E.) After camping the night we drove the very short distance across the dam and on to the Maxon Trailhead, allowing us to get an early morning start for the first day of the hike. As others here have said, Courtwright Reservoir was quite beautiful.
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Some general remarks about hiking in this region, which struck me as quite different from my more frequent east side haunts. Most of the trails are very old and were engineered for and by horsepackers. For anyone used to modern trails it will be a shock. As with many horse trails, the preference is for direct routes rather than longer contouring routes, and switchbacks throughout the area are a rarity. The hikes to prime scenery are long—it was 11.5 miles to Fleming Lake, which was really only at the beginning of the most scenic areas. All that said, there is one huge advantage to this region over the national parks and east side—very few people. Other a couple of groups we met that were leaving, and one Outward Bound group we met, we had the region to ourselves. I have seldom experienced that degree of solitude in California.

Now some remarks about the appalling decay of infrastructure in the Sierra National Forest—utterly unlike what you will find in Inyo, for example. The Marmot Campground was chaotic, with most campsite numbers destroyed or missing and the campsite boundaries undefined. Large groups packed in with no seeming regulation, late night beer drinking parties blared music, etc. Its water tap was not functional, and the nearest garbage was down the road at the boat ramp. The outhouses lacked TP and smelled as if someone had poured gallons of pure ammonia over them. The day-use only area near the dam was packed with people camping, again with no enforcement or regulation. At the Maxon trailhead I opened the outhouse door to find that people has stacked their garbage inside 3-4 feet high and so thick that it would have been difficult to reach the toilet had I tried.

Trail maintenance in the wilderness was also very poor. Deadfall had been cut out but that was the entire extent of trail work. Near the trailhead there were a couple of useless “corduroy roads” in which the logs had half rotted, leaving holes and weak spots that threatened to fall through with each step. I saw almost no sign of erosion control or drainage rockwork on any of the trails that was less than 10-20 years old, resulting in many trails becoming rubble strewn stream beds or mucky messes. The trail that cuts over from the Hell for Sure Trail to Devils Punchbowl, for example, ran across a marsh with as many as five parallel tracks, several of them cut a couple of feet deep.

Day One


The Maxon Trailhead (about 8100) is served by a single lane paved road and parking lot. From Maxon we hiked north along the east side of Courtwright Reservoir, following an Off Road Vehicle track for a short ways before the trail takes a curve NE. The first leg of the journey is over a pass out of the Courtwright drainage that takes you up 800 feet to about 8900 and then back down to a ford over Post Corral Creek at 8200.
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In other words, you gain and lose almost all of that elevation uselessly, and the hike itself was not particularly interesting—with almost no views outside the lodgepole forest. Many people stop at the Post Corral crossing—many good campsights there near granite on the SW side—we went on but did stop there on the way out.

The ford was easily cross-able with stepping stones, and right across the ford is an intersection, and here we began a loop. We headed east up the trail to Fleming Lake. From the ford to Fleming Lake there are not many good water sources, so take plenty along. There are a couple of ponds just out of sight and off trail once you cross the saddle at around 9400, but the intermittent streams are indeed intermittent. The climb from the ford up the hill was tough—our first encounter with the steepness of the area trails. It was also psychologically tough since at first there were few scenic rewards to spur us on. Finally, after about 1000 feet of climbing, the trail switch-backed a bit and got a few open views and we were refreshed. Once we reached something that resembled a pass the trail leveled out for a mile or so through forest before starting a final 300 foot climb to Fleming Lake. We staggered in after 9 hours of hiking over 11.5 miles and set up camp at the obvious site at the outlet.
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We knew that just a little further up the hill was Rae Lake, reportedly quite pretty, but we were just too exhausted to continue. I had been prepared for a utilitarian and ugly camp by that point, but Fleming struck me as much nicer than that. It had some granite and some verdant meadows surrounding it, and our camp was on a kind of divide between the lake and a pretty stream just downhill. After miles and miles of lodgepole forest, this was pretty, green, with the sound of the creek just below. Across the lake we saw some people riding horses, who disappeared and turned out to be the last people we saw for some time.

Day Two

This day we moved camp from Fleming up the hill to Disappointment Lake. It was an increasingly pleasant hike, with views opening up and the terrain becoming increasingly dominated by granite rather than lodgepole. Disappointment Lake (10342), as others have remarked, was not at all a disappointment. We found it lovely, with a great combination of granite, forest, and meadow abutting it and many excellent campsites.
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It also is in a great location from which to launch dayhikes throughout the basin.

We set up on the north side, then launched an afternoon dayhike to Blackrock Lake, ascending point 10552 along the way for the views and enjoying the streams, ponds, and meadows in between. Blackrock was lovely, with massive cliffs and huge talus blocks near its outlet.
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We returned to camp and enjoyed a sunset from the eastern end of the lake, looking due west.
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Re: TR: Red Mountain Basin Aug 4-9 2019

Post by kpeter » Sat Aug 10, 2019 2:14 pm

Day Three

We stayed at Disappointment and dayhiked up the main trail to Hell for Sure Lake and pass. The trail passes through a series of charming meadows and ponds, and gets rather sketchy in a few places.
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Still, we had no issues finding our way uphill. Hell for Sure Lake is large and sparkled azure in the sun.
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The trail to the pass climbed very steeply up a wet ravine, with the trail even fading out in the muck once or twice.
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A little further up it became drier and more defined, and toward the top it even had switchbacks in the gravelly soil. I don’t believe they could take stock over this. At the top, what a view!
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It was fun to look over into Goddard Canyon and to notice the abrupt change from wet side to dry side, and to look back west for an aerial view of the lakes.
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After hanging out in the Pass for a while we headed back down to Hell for Sure Lake.
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We picked our way around its western shore and climbed the low saddle toward Horseshoe Lake. Horsehoe Lake was also quite pretty. We looked down on what looked on a half a dozen tarps over the top of some sorts of supplies and held down by stones. No people around, and this was obviously not a tent camp. A cache of some sort for a large group? We also saw what Wandering Daisy had said—the central peninsula looked like a great camping spot, but it is cut off from the shoreline of the lake by cliffs on both sides, and can only be accessed by descending from the heights near 10941.

We looped up the inlet end of the lake and looked out over Arctic Lake, nestled behind its moraine dam, and had lunch at the inlet of Horseshoe.
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Then began an interesting exercise on micro route-finding as we circled the lake high to the east and north until we were able to descend to its outlet.
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We descended its pretty outlet stream and snaked down through meadows and slabs all the way back to our camp at Disappointment, content with a day rich with sights and sounds.
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Re: TR: Red Mountain Basin Aug 4-9 2019

Post by kpeter » Sat Aug 10, 2019 2:15 pm

Day Four

We moved camp over to Devil’s Punchbowl Lake, and were a little miffed about the main cutoff trail, which plunged and re-ascended through forest rather than contouring high through the granite. Nevertheless, it was a short hike and we were set up at the northern end of the lake with plenty of time left for dayhiking.

We explore up the inlet to Little Shot and Big Shot lakes and found them to be among the prettiest of the trip. The isthmus separating Little Shot and Big Shot, where Wandering Daisy reports having camped, was quite entertaining, with a great view of the friction slabs above Big Shot.
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The connecting stream sinks through cracks in the granite and emerges below.

Our plan had been to head up toward the Lucifer Passes, but just as we set out it began sprinkling and clouds threatened. As it turned out, it amounted to nothing, but I was skittish about heading up the steep friction slabs if a downpour was about to begin. So instead we checked out the cross country route from Big Shot around the contour to Black Rock Lake. We handled this with minimal boulder hopping—it was a pretty easy route, and for future reference I think I would prefer this route to connect to Disappointment than the formal trail. After enjoying the views from the outlet of Blackrock—a different point than we reached on our first exploration of that lake--we returned to camp at Punchbowl.
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That evening we went to the spectacular ledge that narrowly separates Punchbowl from the cliffs that plunge below it to the west, and awaited sunset.
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The clouds were roiling and the sky entertained us with one of the better lightshows I have seen in the Sierra.
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Re: TR: Red Mountain Basin Aug 4-9 2019

Post by kpeter » Sat Aug 10, 2019 2:17 pm

Day Five

For several reasons we decided not to head over to Bench Valley—time, food, and weather all figured into our calculation. So we started our trek out.
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The plan was to head back to Post Corral Creek so we would have a short day and drive home on day six. I was fearful that the trip to Post Corral would be as dull as the way in, but we headed down the Meadow Brook trail and found it delightful. Seldom have I seen so many large verdant meadows—emerald green.
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We ate lunch on the North Fork of the King’s River right near the intersection of trails and were entertained by the cascades over granite.
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It was reminiscent of the Merced in Yosemite or Cherry Creek, although water levels were down by the time we were there.
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The trail along the King’s was entertaining, and the old Meadow Brook snow cabin still seemed in good shape.
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The trail climbed out of the King’s canyon and delivered a few nice views of the granite canyon below before heading once again into the lodgepole approach to Post Corral.

We camped at Post Corral in the usual spot—SW of the crossing up around a large granite slab. That evening we were entertained by a couple of young prancing deer and we collected ourselves for the final push.
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Day Six

With lighter packs and better lungs, we made shorter work of the “hump” from Post Corral to Courtwright than we did on the way in. We cleaned up at the trailhead a little and started our drive home.
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Re: TR: Red Mountain Basin Aug 4-9 2019

Post by kursavwilage » Sat Aug 10, 2019 3:22 pm

Thank you for the report. Great photos especially the one titled "Approaching Sunset".

Funny you said that you hardly saw anyone on your trip, I went out of the same trailhead and was shocked at the amount of people. We camped at the opposite end of Flemming Lake in a well hidden site among the trees. Watched approximately 6 parties stop at Fleming Lake to water up. While staying at Post Corral we were serenaded to sleep by numerous teenagers, probably some youth group. I just thought that maybe it was always crowded......

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Re: TR: Red Mountain Basin Aug 4-9 2019

Post by balzaccom » Sat Aug 10, 2019 6:12 pm

Beautiful photos. We loved that area when we visited about ten years ago--but you got to see more of it than we did. thanks for posting this!
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Re: TR: Red Mountain Basin Aug 4-9 2019

Post by giantbrookie » Sat Aug 10, 2019 9:20 pm

Great photos and a sweet trip. I still haven't been into that area and your report prods me to go there sometime in the not too distant future.
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Re: TR: Red Mountain Basin Aug 4-9 2019

Post by maverick » Sat Aug 10, 2019 10:44 pm

Thank you for the wonderful TR and pictures! Can’t wait to hear your views on Blackcap Basin, which to me, is the highlight of that region.🙂
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Re: TR: Red Mountain Basin Aug 4-9 2019

Post by tlsharb » Sun Aug 11, 2019 6:32 am

I really love that basin. Those are great pics, and I'd still vote for Blackrock as the best camping spot. So how were the mosquitoes? That area can be pretty bad at times.

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Re: TR: Red Mountain Basin Aug 4-9 2019

Post by dougieb » Sun Aug 11, 2019 7:46 am

Great trip report. Really unfortunate to hear about some of the issues with trail erosion, garbage and all but the beauty and solitude once you reach elevation looks quite special. I almost went to this area around the same time but stuck with my original plan around deadman canyon in sequoia. I'll post a short report soon. Still need to get to this area you visited...

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