Against the odds (Part 2): making it to Moonlight Falls
Updated: Jul 5, 2022
Date: 20 – 21 July, 2021
Location: John Muir Wilderness in Inyo National Forest
Entry point: Lake Sabrina trailhead, near Bishop, California
Distance: 13 miles (21 kilometres)
Elevation gain: 2,430 feet (740 metres)
Highlights: Swimming in Blue Lake, sunrise at Moonlight Falls, having whole lakes to ourselves, glorious weather, vegan Pad Thai for dinner
Summary: After a stressful first day, this part of the trip made it all worth it. The climb to Moonlight Falls passes a number of beautiful lakes which look stunning against a backdrop of dramatic granite mountains.
This hike followed directly on from our trip to George Lake. It was meant to be one continuous hike, but after having to leave the wilderness to go back into Bishop to buy a new water filter, the trip was split into two. To understand why it felt like we were battling the odds to get to Moonlight Falls, make sure you check out the first part of our trip log.
Day 2: Lake Sabrina to Moonlight Falls // 6.5 miles (10.5 kilometres)
By 10:30, we had bought (and tested) our new water filter, and were back on the trail we'd already done twice, hugging the edge of Lake Sabrina. We were pleased to see blue skies over the mountains that had been covered in dark clouds the day before. After passing the turning to George Lake, we continued straight, following the trail to Blue Lake. The elevation began to climb as we took switchbacks up through the forest. The view from the path looked over the entirety of Lake Sabrina, and we were especially impressed by the red peaks of the Piute Crags in the distance. Despite the rapid elevation gain and the hot weather, we were feeling much better than the previous day and didn’t need to stop every few minutes for me to catch my breath. Yay for acclimatisation to altitude!
When the trees finally parted, revealing the view of Blue Lake, I was stunned. "I think this is the most beautiful place I have ever been," I remember saying to Brett. After soaking in the scale of the area, we changed into our swimsuits and waded into the water for our first swim of the trip. We swam around in the small green pool just north of the main lake, the cold water refreshing in the heat of the afternoon.
After our swim, we cooked lunch while our towels dried in the sun on a nearby rock. As much as I wanted to continue relaxing by the shores of Blue Lake, we were less than half way done with our hike to Moonlight Falls, so we realised we needed to keep moving. We continued around Blue Lake, crossing large granite slabs where the route was marked by rock cairns.
At the next junction, we took a right, into the forest and towards Dingleberry Lake. Yes, you read that right. Dingleberry Lake, apparently named “on account of dingleberries hanging on the rear of sheep in the area.” Brilliant. The trail wound through a forest and passed Emerald Lakes before leading us out onto an exposed rock face, one of the few parts of the trail that had a steep drop off to one side of the path. When we arrived at Dingleberry Lake, we refilled our water bottles and had a snack in the shade before continuing the climb.
From there, the trail led us through stunning alpine meadows, where small streams, tall grass and purple lupine filled the valleys between the tall white granite peaks around us. This stretch had a number of river crossings, and the marshy landscape meant there was an abundance of mosquitoes, which prevented us from stopping to rest for long. It was at this point when we began to feel exhausted, our bodies working on autopilot to keep putting one foot in front of the other. As much as I wanted to stop for the night, I was determined to make it to Moonlight Falls, to prove to myself I was strong enough – both physically and mentally.
At the next junction, we met some hikers who were carrying fishing rods. They explained that they had set up camp near Dingleberry Lake and were doing day hikes to fish in the mountain lakes. Impressed, we said goodbye and continued on our way, following the path to Hungry Packer Lake. After passing Topsy Turvy Lake, we were finally able to see Moonlight Falls in the distance. It took us another half-hour to get down to the waterfall and somewhere along that stretch our GPS told us we had reached 11,000 feet (3,350 metres), which ended up being one the highest elevations we reached on our whole 12-night trip!
At 18:00, almost 8 hours after we had set off from Lake Sabrina, we finally arrived at the base of Moonlight Falls. Despite everything we had experienced in the last two days (including permit issues, thunderstorms and an unexpected trip to Bishop to buy a new water filter), we had completed our intended trip. Against the odds, we had made it to Moonlight Falls.
We saw another couple camping a few hundred feet away, but they were far enough away that we stripped off and waded into the freezing water at the foot of the waterfall. It was our first time skinny dipping together, which felt fitting after the journey we’d had to get to this moment.
We drank tea as we dried off, trying to warm our insides after the swim. It was then that we learnt our “instant” camping dinner would take 30 minutes to cook (due to our high elevation). Not so instant after all...(but easy enough – just add boiling water to the pouch and wait for 15 minutes. Stir. Wait another 15 minutes. Eat). While the food was rehydrating, we sat on the huge granite slab right in front of the falls, reading our books and marvelling at the fact we had this breathtaking spot essentially to ourselves.
As I finally let myself relax, I felt relief and pride that we had made it so far. We were both exhausted from walking over 10 miles (16 kilometres) that day – 3.5 miles from George Lake to the Lake Sabrina trailhead in the morning, and then 6.5 miles up to Moonlight Falls in the afternoon. We had also gained over 2,430 feet (740 metres) of elevation since setting off from Lake Sabrina – no wonder we were tired!
Dinner was the Backpacker's Pantry Pad Thai – definitely our favourite camping meal of the trip – followed by Mango Sticky Rice for dessert. We watched as the sun set behind the mountains, feeling relieved the weather had remained glorious all day.
The waterfall was very photogenic and we spent a long time trying to find the best angles to capture it against the granite peaks in the background. We especially enjoyed watching the moon rise over Moonlight Falls.
As I continued to take pictures, Brett ventured off to find us a campsite. He found a decent spot only a few hundred metres from the waterfall, in a meadow-like area. He set up the tarp, we stored our bear canister away from the campsite and were asleep by 21:00. The night was chilly, so I was glad I had brought my sleeping bag liner to add some additional warmth inside my bivy.
We got up three times in the night to shoot moon and star trails on our film cameras – once at 10:45 (to start the shutters for the moon trails), again at 1:30 (to stop the moon trails and start the star trails at a different location) and again at 4:30 (to stop the star trails before the sky got bright from the rising sun). The full moon lit up the mountains and the valley, making it easy to see where we were going without needing our head torches. The photo below, on the right, was taken on my medium format film camera (it was shot on colour film and converted to black and white in post processing).
Day 3: Moonlight Falls to Lake Sabrina // 6.5 miles (10.5 kilometres)
We woke up at 5:45 for sunrise. It was cold outside and as I was feeling cozy and warm in my bivy, I was tempted to continue sleeping. I’m glad I got up, however, because the alpine glow that morning was truly spectacular. As the sky began to get brighter, the pink light crept down the side of the mountains, casting a warm glow over the valley.
Leaving our gear at the campsite, we hiked up to Moonlight Lake, passing some small streams tumbling down the rocky terrain. We had the whole lake to ourselves.
After we finished exploring, we returned to the campsite, ate a quick breakfast of ProBars and packed our bags before we began to retrace our route back down towards Lake Sabrina.
As we walked down a rocky path, one of Brett's hiking poles collapsed into itself and he tripped, scraping his knee and the palms of his hands. Luckily, it was the only time on our trip that we needed to use the first aid kit.
We stopped for a long break on the shore of Blue Lake, where we rested in the shade as our soup cooked. After two long days of hiking, it felt great to take some time to just relax. Brett managed to lose his sunglasses at some point (they wouldn't be the last pair of sunglasses he lost on the trip...). I napped on the rocks before we went for our second swim in Blue Lake, this time in the main body of the lake. The colour of the water was incredible and with the mountains rising up in the distance, it was a truly magical place to swim.
After a few hours at Blue Lake, it was time to head back down towards Lake Sabrina. On our way down, we saw what we thought was a baby bunny, but what we later realised was probably a pika. As we reached the car, we both felt proud of what we had achieved on our first trip.
We drove back into Bishop and arrived at The Hostel California – a hostel specifically for hikers! After one night sleeping in the car and two nights camping, we were excited for a shower and a real bed. We checked in at the hostel, dropped our bags, changed clothes and then headed out to get supplies for our next trip.
We stopped at two camping stores in Bishop, where we grabbed more dehydrated camping meals, as well as additional sun protection. Despite our best efforts, both Brett and I were sunburnt from our trip in Sabrina Basin. By the second day in the wilderness, my lips had started feeling tight and painful, and generously applying lip balm wasn't helping – I later learnt these were telltale signs of sunburnt lips. To prevent additional burning throughout the rest of our trip, I bought lip balm with SPF 30 protection. Brett's sunburn was more obvious – the back of his neck was red and the skin was already beginning to peel. While hiking, we had pinned his hat to his shirt using safety pins, but it wasn't a long-term solution. In Bishop, Brett bought a collared, long-sleeved shirt, plus a Sun Runner Cap from Outdoor Research (which he highly recommends). Worn together, his neck was completely protected from the sun.
After finishing at the camping stores, we drove to Vons and stocked up on food for our next trip. With our stomachs growling, we finally headed to Mountain Rambler Brewery for dinner. We thoroughly enjoyed our burgers and fries, a perfect post-camping meal (thanks for the recommendation, Mitchell!).
Tired but satisfied, we drove back to the hostel, where after showering and packing for the following morning, we headed to bed. It was our last night in a proper bed until we arrived at my Grandma's house...8 nights later...
Map of different trails in the area: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5337633.pdf
Sabrina Lake Trail information: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/inyo/recreation/recarea/?recid=20374&actid=51
Wilderness Permits for Inyo National Forest: https://www.recreation.gov/permits/233262
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