Date: 19 July – 20 July, 2021
Location: John Muir Wilderness in Inyo National Forest
Entry point: Lake Sabrina trailhead, near Bishop, California
Distance: 6.7 miles (10.8 kilometres)
Elevation gain: 1,730 ft (530 metres)
Highlights: Dramatic views over Lake Sabrina, complete solitude, perfect reflections during sunset at "Mini George Lake," eating trail mix
Summary: A challenging hike and a stressful start to our extended adventure in the Sierras, but a beautiful spot to end the day
After eating a delicious homemade breakfast of pancakes in Lone Pine (the perks of car camping), we headed to the Eastern Sierra Visitor Centre to pick up our wilderness permits and discuss weather conditions with the rangers. When we arrived, we were disappointed to learn that the centre's communications systems were down (likely due to the storms we'd witnessed the previous night), meaning they were unable to print our permits. Since you are required to carry a printed copy of your permit with you while hiking in these areas, we drove to the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop, which, luckily, was on the way to the trailhead.
Once there, we got the permits for our first and second trips printed out. Success! All was looking good until the ranger glanced at our proposed campsites for our first trip and informed us that our original permit, for George Lake, wouldn't let us complete the route we had planned for the second day. Turns out we completely misunderstood how wilderness permits work. Oops. She suggested that we either choose another route or find another permit. We had chosen to hike in the Inyo National Forest in order to visit Moonlight Falls, and choosing another route would have made it difficult to reach this point. Luckily we didn't have to change routes because, in another stroke of luck, there were still walk-in permits available for Lake Sabrina that would allow us to walk to Moonlight Falls on the 20th of July. The ranger also warned us that we would likely experience some afternoon thunderstorms, so we were prepared that we might be getting soaked later that day. What we weren't prepared for is how intense mountain storms can be...
Day 1: Lake Sabrina to George Lake // 3.3 miles (5.4 kilometres)
We left Bishop and made the 19 mile (30 kilometre) drive out to Lake Sabrina, where the real adventure would start. After arriving at the lake, we unpacked our gear from the back of the car and spent half an hour reorganising, repacking and double checking we had everything we would need for the two night trip. We ate lunch (instant rice and curry) near the parking lot overlooking the lake, marvelling at the views of the mountains in the distance.
After lunch, we drove back out to the end of Highway 168 (where we were allowed to park overnight), put on our backpacks and started off towards the trailhead. After months of planning, our adventure was finally starting – we were officially on our first camping trip together in the Sierra Nevada! We set off on the trail at 12:30, feeling excited for what lay ahead and enjoying the cool(ish) weather.
The first stretch of the hike followed the trail that hugs the Lake Sabrina Basin. Although elevated from the lakeshore, this part was relatively flat and we enjoyed walking past colourful wildflowers and groves of quaking aspen trees.
At around 13:15, we entered the John Muir Wilderness and heard the first rumble of thunder in the distance. The sky was getting dark above us and the other side of the valley was dappled with sunlight that forced its way through breaks in the clouds.
1.5 miles (2.5 kilometres) into our hike, we reached the turn off to George Lake and after a short break, we began the ascent, breathing heavily as the trail quickly steepened. Within a few minutes, it began to rain.
The thunder got louder and the first flashes of lightning lit up the valley. After debating our options, we decided to turn around and descend back to the main path around Lake Sabrina, where we could take shelter in a forest for the duration of the storm. In an electrical storm, there's no 100% safe place to be outside, but being at lower elevation in a cluster of medium-sized trees seemed like a better option than being exposed on the side of the valley.
For the next 45 minutes, we crouched on the ground amongst the trees, away from our backpacks and hiking poles, amazed (and terrified) at how quickly the distant rumble of thunder had become deafening – neither of us had ever heard anything as loud as the thunder in that mountain valley. The whole world seemed to tremble around us.
Lightning flashed all around us. When a lightning bolt appeared to strike less than 100 metres away, Brett screamed and I started crying immediately. We held each other (which is exactly not what you're meant to do in an electric storm...), terrified that the next bolt would be even closer. I was, once again, in awe of Brett's ability to remain (or at least, appear) calm in a terrifying situation (the first time I learnt of this trait was when I thought we were about to be killed by cows). His courage inspires me.
Thankfully, the sound of the thunder began to subdue as the storm moved further down the valley. It was a sobering experience, reminding us that despite the overwhelming beauty of nature, natural forces are incredibly powerful. Living in urban areas, it's sometimes easy to forget how vulnerable and small we are in comparison to Nature.
Once the rain had stopped and the sky brightened above us, we stood up. Aching, drenched and cold, we put on our backpacks again. We were both nervous about the climb up to George Lake, as we weren't sure whether there would be sufficient cover incase of another storm.
The ascent was challenging: over 1,000 feet (300 metres) of elevation gain on painful switchbacks. The altitude, made worse by a heavy backpack and little pre-trip fitness training, was definitely getting to me, and I spent much of the ascent struggling to catch my breath. We took breaks every few minutes, to let our breathing settle and reassess the storm situation. At one point, we saw another set of dark clouds coming in from the same direction as the previous storm. After hearing distant thunder, we decided to play it safe and got low beneath a cluster of trees on the side of the hill. I napped while we waited to see if another storm would develop. After twenty minutes, we hadn't heard any more thunder and the sun was out, so we decided it was safe to continue up the trail. In the distance, we could see a huge waterfall winding its way through the rocky terrain above Lake Sabrina.
At around 10,500 feet (3,200 metres) of elevation, the switchbacks finally ceased and the path levelled off as we entered a smaller valley. Up to this point, we weren't sure whether we would have the energy to make it all the way to George Lake, our intended final destination, but once the path began to level out, we decided we would push through. The trail wound its way through alpine forests and meadows, a comforting environment after the stress of traversing the exposed side of the Lake Sabrina valley. The meadows were particularly beautiful and we were astonished at the number of colourful flowers spreading out around us. The mosquitoes in these areas were arguably less fun.
To get to George Lake, we had another 300 feet (100 metres) of elevation gain. Each time the path climbed up, we thought we had reached the lake, but we kept emerging from the woods to find yet another meadow. At 16:45, we finally arrived at the shores of George Lake, physically and emotionally exhausted from the day's hike. We chilled in the shade, admiring the lush green banks of the lake while snacking on Jolly Ranchers and trail mix to boost our energy (and morale). Once we felt up to it, we left our heavy bags and went exploring, on a mission to find a spot to set up camp.
Still nervous about potential electrical storms, we found a spot sheltered by some trees to camp for the night. The soil conditions made it easy to put up the tarp and I felt excited about trying out my bivy for the first time.
After setting up camp, we began to cook dinner. The whole day, I had been excited to eat mac n' cheese, but after taking forever to cook, I learnt that vegan and gluten free mac n' cheese is not for me. Thankfully Brett was able to finish it off when I couldn't stomach another bite (leave no trace, remember). Brett's classic Kraft mac n' cheese was good as always.
After dinner, we headed back to the smaller lake north-west of George Lake (as far as we can tell, it's unnamed, so let's call it "Mini George Lake") to take pictures of sunset.
The sun was setting over the peaks behind us, casting a golden light on the trees surrounding Mini George Lake. The still waters of the lake beautifully captured the reflections of the surrounding landscape. We were surprised and pleased to find that we had the whole area to ourselves. (This could possibly be because no one else was stupid enough to go into the mountains with thunderstorms in the forecast...). Such a gorgeous moment and we were the only ones there to experience it. It was magical.
It was at this point that we learnt yet another very valuable lesson for camping trips: test *all* of your equipment before you leave...
We needed to refill our water bottles, but as hard as we tried, we couldn't get water to flow through our filter. It had worked the last time we'd used it (in November 2020...), but now it appeared to be broken. Good work us. Time to reassess our plans.
Luckily, we still had some water left – half a litre in a bottle, plus two litres in my hydration pack – so we agreed the best move was to hike back out of the wilderness the following morning and return to Bishop to buy a new water filter. Yet another barrier in the way of our goal of making it to Moonlight Falls by the following evening!
Exhausted from the day, we took our bear canister away from our campsite, then crawled into our separate bivys around 20:45 (making sure to be speedy so no mosquitoes joined us inside). We were asleep by 21:00. It was our first night sleeping in our new camping set up – a waterproof tarp plus two bivys – and it felt odd to be sleeping next to each other, but to not be able to hold hands or cuddle as we fell asleep. We were relieved that there were no more storms and had a much appreciated calm night.
Despite the challenges of the day, it was good to see we could rely on one another and were flexible enough to take every day as it comes.
Day 2: Lake Sabrina to George Lake // 3.3 miles (5.4 kilometres)
The following morning, we got up at 5:00 to take pictures of sunrise. We packed up camp in the dark and made our way back to the trail towards Lake Sabrina. The lighting was gorgeous, and we especially enjoyed the pink alpine glow illuminating the mountains on the other side of the valley.
The route down was much less physically demanding, so we made great time.
From the junction, we retraced our steps to the car and drove back to Bishop. We grabbed breakfast at Looney Bean cafe (including a surprisingly delicious blended-iced-chai-latte-with-real-pumpkin). As we ate our bagels, we debated whether or not to return to the Sabrina Basin to continue with our planned adventure. After the stress of the previous day, I wasn't sure I was mentally ready for another day in the mountains.
Yet, after buying a new water filter at the Mammoth Gear Exchange, we drove back to the trailhead at Sabrina to start the second part of this adventure.
I'm so glad Brett convinced me it was worth going back.
Map of different trails in the area: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5337633.pdf
George Lake Trail information: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/inyo/recarea/?recid=37192
Wilderness Permits for Inyo National Forest: https://www.recreation.gov/permits/233262
Backcountry lightning safety guidelines: https://cmc.org/Portals/0/GoverningDocs/NOLS%20Lightning%20Safety%20Guidelines.pdf
Land acknowledgement: We acknowledge that we were hiking on the traditional land of the Eastern Mono/Monache and the Numu (Northern Paiute) people.
Find out whose land you are on by visiting https://native-land.ca/. To learn more about Indigenous people in the Sierra Nevada, here are some resources we have found interesting:
A People's History of the Sierra Nevada: https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2016-4-july-august/americas-national-parks/people-s-history-sierra-nevada
A discussion on John Muir in Native America: https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2021-2-march-april/feature/john-muir-native-america
Inyo National Forest 'Areas of Tribal Importance and Tribal Rights': https://www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/92247_FSPLT3_1462371.pdf
History of the Bishop Paiute people, decedents of the Numu people: http://www.bishoppaiutetribe.com/about-us.html#tribalhistory