Backpacking from South Lake to Long Lake


Excitement builds. Daphney and Jayden can’t wait. Last year’s backpacking trip felt like a proud accomplishment. This will be a trip bigger than the last, and this will be Myles’s first such trip. It’s Friday evening of Labor Day weekend. Yan and I are doing some final packing. “We’re going to wake up at midnight to get ready,” they say. I have them set their alarms for 5:00 am so we can hit the road early.

On Saturday morning, the kids wake up before me. They have waffles. For lunch at the trailhead, I heat two frozen baguettes I had made earlier and parbaked. The car is loaded, and we head out right on time.

Menacing clouds follow us along the drive north on the 395. We arrive in Lone Pine and take a rest stop at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center. The wind nearly rips off my car door as I dash out. The ranger, in monotone, says, “There’s a wind advisory throughout this area until tomorrow.”

We make it to the South Lake parking lot in good time, half an hour before schedule. My friend Kevin is already there on the lookout for us, bundled up and braving the elements. I find one of the last remaining parking spots. Our picnic lunch takes place inside the car while it rains and hails. The kids don’t seem concerned; they love rain anyways.

Bishop Pass Trail to Long Lake

Kevin and his son Nico join us at the trailhead. Myles is in my front baby carrier, and everyone has their own backpack. The path heads south, taking us along a gentle uphill by the east bank of South Lake. Several switchbacks later, we reach the John Muir Wilderness boundary. Daphney and Jayden demand rest stops—a lot of them, such that the stops seem longer than the actual time spent hiking.

The final uphill push brings us to a shallow notch, and beyond that, we glimpse a body of water. Long Lake at last! We emerge through the trees, walk past a large grassy area, and crest a pile of boulders. Here, we pause to take in the expansive view of Long Lake and Mt. Goode. This scene looks vaguely familiar, from the last time I was here twelve years ago. The winds continue to howl; we quickly cross the stream and wander up the trail to find sheltered sites.

Near the waist of the lake, a large granite outcrop provides windbreak. We set up on two small sites that are tucked between the rocks and trees. I crack fresh eggs for the egg drop soup. The spinach noodles with home-pickled Napa cabbage cook in the other pot. This is the perfect meal for such a cold and windy evening.

We watch the clouds race along like shape-shifting horses galloping across the gray expanse. Soon, some of the clouds glow bright red as the sun fleetingly peeks at them.

The evening routine is the same: wash dishes, have dessert (mango sticky rice), brush teeth, and tuck in. It’s 8 o’clock, and we’re all in bed. At 2:30, I wake up and see shadows of tree branches on our tent; I figure that the sky must have cleared enough for the moon to shine through. The winds continue to rattle our tent and branches around us. Through the night, Myles requires constant feeding from Yan.

Rest Day at Long Lake

The pre-dawn sky is decorated with puffs of orange and golden fleece. Mt. Goode stands sentinel, guarding the far end of the lake, and along the Inconsolable Range, Picture Puzzle with its forked peak pierces the sky. The fleecy clouds turn pale as they tumble across the brightening sky.

We have burritos filled with hash brown potatoes and vegetarian taco meat. Kevin and Nico pack up to leave. After goodbyes, we backtrack the trail and lazily explore the north end of Long Lake. Back at the large grassy area, the kids find a burrow—probably from a marmot or other rodent. They build a canopy of branches cemented with mud from the nearby pond. It’s a shelter for “MitMot.”

Overlooking the large field and under the shade of some pine trees, I find a large flat area for a tent. I decide to move campsites. I retrace my steps back to the large outcrop and roll up the tent, with all the bags and pads still inside. The entire package goes on my head and I haul it down the trail, back across the stream, and up to the new site. It’s beautiful, and the view is panoramic. The family returns with me to retrieve the remaining things we had left at the other campsite.

We have dried apricots, nuts, crackers, and cheese for lunch. I bring the kids to the trailside inlet pond and kite a #16 elk hair caddis fly at the end of my line. The fish are watching. In the blink when the fly hit the surface, I get a strike. The kids brim with excitement. We have three brook trout to add to lunch. I gut them, and Jayden helps me with the salt and pepper. From my herb pack, I slice garlic and stuff the fish with fresh thyme and minced chives. The butter sizzles. Soon, we’re picking at crispy-skin trout with our chopsticks.

In the afternoon, the winds die down and the sky clears. We hike in to explore the headwaters of Long Lake. The kids find a little snow field to play in. After snacking along the lakeshore, we return to make dinner: broccoli cheese soup and spinach tortellini with extra-virgin olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese. Then, we have cinnamon apple with crunchy granola crumble for dessert.

By 7 o’clock, we’re tucked in. Knowing that our tent is facing south and that the moon will rise later tonight, I set my alarm for 8:50, as that’s when astronomical dark night begins. Feeling anticipation, I wake up a few minutes before that and step outside. The landscape around me is illuminated by starlight, and the Milky Way glows brightly above Mt. Goode. I had forgotten to bring the ball-head attachment, so I rig a makeshift tripod setup and take several shots.

Final Day in the Wilderness

The rest of the family wakes up after sleeping for eleven hours, likely off and on. I am the first to emerge from the tent. The sky is calm and clear. Evening dew had crystalized, and each footstep makes a light crunch in the frost. Long Lake is a mirror, reflecting the first light on Mt. Goode and Hurd Peak.

For breakfast, we have brown sugar-topped oatmeal enriched with dried coconut, blueberries, slivered almonds, and flaxseed. Afterwards, we stand by the lake, watching the sunlight slowly creep down the steep face of Hurd Peak and hit the lake. Then, in less than a minute, the entire lake and grassy field glow bright. The frost vanishes in the next instant. As the kids stare at the pine branch and mud canopy, MitMot emerges from the burrow. It turns out to be a ground squirrel.

We pack up and bid farewell to the mountain peaks, Long Lake, the trout, MitMot, and our beautiful campsite. One the way back, we only stop once. We have a pre-lunch snack at the junction to Treasure Lakes. Soon, we pass the John Muir Wilderness boundary, retrace our steps along South Lake, and emerge from the aspen thicket to arrive at the parking lot.

Making Memories

This trip will no doubt turn into those big mileposts that mark the passing of time. At first, I wasn’t sure how momentous these trips are, but two days ago, as we arrived at Long Lake, Jayden asks me, “Are you going to filter water using the red pump you used last year?” Hearing that, I knew that for the kids, this trip will be at least as memorable as the last, another early waypoint in their journey of life.

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