Baxter Pass View

“Plan B? No problem,” said the Sierra

If I’ve learned something lately it’s that the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is highly forgiving. Their airy summits and picturesque meadows may not gift the visitor with soft excuses, but they’re willing to make allowances when plans suddenly change.

Plan A: drive up Friday morning, collect our wilderness permit from Lone Pine and camp at Big Pine Creek, walk in Saturday morning, relax, climb Middle Palisade early Sunday morning and walk out before driving back to Los Angeles. Big but doable.

Said plan was on track until shortly after collecting the permit. Grabbing a cool drink in the local Bi-Rite as Lone Pine began to sizzle, my husband looked ashen and nauseous as he leaned against the checkout. Uh oh. Our friend Jess, joining us for the trip, agreed he looked bad.

Optmistically we drove up to the Big Pine Creek Campsite and scored a wonderfully positioned, shady site. Jess and I arranged things while Dikko slept, half wrapped in a sleeping bag in the back of the wagon, looking like a body bag about to fall out of an ambulance.

Friday night was mild, highlighted by our first rather unsuccessful attempt at S’Mores with an MSR Stove. Dikko was lucky, he wasn’t into eating.

The following morning the decision was set to scrap plans and start anew. Like a child denied an ice-cream I felt sad, annoyed, and frustrated. In my immature state the beautiful creek, purple flowers, and even a deer bounding long grass straight from a picturebook failed to cheer me.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault, and there was nobody to blame, it was just luck of the game. Though my frustration was the game seemed a little one-sided the past few outings – San Jacinto no summit for me (sick), Bloody Couloir (rockfall and bail) and now Middle Palisade slipping through my fingers like fine silt from its remnant glaciers.

Big Pine Creek Campground

Beautiful orchids near our campsite at Big Pine Creek

Enter Plan B: Explore by car instead of foot, and relish air conditioning and a roof over our heads, as temperatures on Highway 395 bubbled to 100 degrees (that’s 37.8 Celsius for metric folks).

Little did I realise some of the treasures between Big Pine and Lone Pine…

Sawmill Pass Trailhead

I had an impression this trail pierced a rocky canyon (viewed from the road). Turns out the trail contours south (around the northern hillside) before climbing high above the rocky canyon. I think it looks like a fantastically rewarding walk in to the mountains, but definitely an option for cooler months, a little like Taboose Pass.

We explored further up the road past the Sawmill Pass trailhead, passing a utility building and driving to the road’s end under a shady oak. There we stumbled upon someone’s campsite – a great set up along the rushing creek. We also found little flakes of gold and put on our best prospector voices while enjoying the view to the sizzling valley below.

Sawmill Pass

Impressive erosion from summit to sage – near Sawmill Pass trailhead

Sawmill Pass

Sawmill Pass starts in the right of this photo (in the dark brown area)

Baxter Pass Trailhead

Sometimes a focus on certain mountains means we miss trailheads. Such is the case with Baxter Pass, a dry, prickle infested, tree-less welcome to the mountains. Thinking we could enjoy lunch in the shade near another rushing creek, we walked through prime snake territory only to find the banks steep and the shade non-existent. Back to the car with our lunch we went. I’m sure in other seasons Baxter Pass is a lovely walk, but it wasn’t one bit inviting when I saw it.

Baxter Pass Trailhead

Would you like sun and sweat with your slog? Baxter Pass

Old Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery

Coming down from Baxter Pass we stopped at an old fish hatchery, the perfect oasis for our lunch. The building, constructed in 1916-17, is managed by a community group who’s worked hard to reinstate its former grandeur. Basic displays gave insights to the history and most impressive to me were some photographs of mules, laden with large pots, carrying fish to high lakes in snow! I’d recommend dropping in, it’s not far from the 395, has a nice lawn area and a cool, giant pond with lots of fishies.

Onion Valley Campground

I’d heard of Onion Valley though all I knew was it was a gateway to Kearsarge Pass. Now I can tell you the drive up there is spectacular. Tour de France look out – it’s steep, it’s got switchbacks and it’s beautiful.

Arriving at the parking area the temperature was about 30 degrees Farenheit less than the valley. Dikko and Jess explored, Dikko feeling better and making a good recovery from what we knew now was a 24 hour bug. There were hikers everywhere and the carpark, even though huge, was overflowing.

Onion Valley Campground View

Onion Valley Campground View

We saw walkers coming out for a break from the Pacific Crest Trail, most hitching rides to Bishop for a break and/or supplies. Much respect to those feet!

Without plans of where to stay that night Dikko and Jess managed to find a campsite. I couldn’t believe our luck. It was a walk in site, perched on little dusty ledges that had been neatly raked by the camp host. We set up, and in a craving for tea I realised I’d left our stove pot back at Big Pine Creek Campground. Luckily the camp host James was extremely friendly and let us borrow one of his pots, now that’s customer service!

MSR Stove

Our borrowed pot doing very nicely on the MSR Stove

We practiced our MSR Stove S’Mores after a simple dinner, and we all slept well with the slight breeze swaying tent flies around the campground. The next morning was relaxing, and we decided to hike to Robinson Lake which was absolutely stunning. It was a hot weekend best spent at the beach or in high mountains, and we enjoyed the best of both worlds at the lake. It deserves its own blog post (to come!)

So plans will always change, and the mountains can be a playground for many activities. It’s about being flexible and adaptable and making the most of opportunities you can create. Thanks Dikko and Jess for an accidentally great weekend.



  1. Lynn -  23 July 2014 - 5:26 pm

    Fun weekend! When I was at Onion Valley campground a couple of weeks ago, James the camp host brought our group a batch of homemade cookies. Camp host of the year right there!

    • Kristy Dixon -  23 July 2014 - 5:36 pm

      Hi Lynn! Thanks for your comment 😀

      It was a fun weekend in the end, and I agree James is THE camp host of the year – super friendly and knows his stuff (plus his dog is pretty cool too). I see you’re from Lake Tahoe, haven’t been up there yet (yes I’m guilty)! California has so many options we’re rather spoiled. Enjoy!


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