Trip Date: May 29-31, 2021
Trail: Deer Lakes trail
Distance: 11.5 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: 2,400 ft.
Location: Mammoth Lakes, CA
Permits: Wilderness permits are required for overnight stay. Wilderness permits can be reserved here.
It’s Memorial Day weekend, the end of May, and the beginning of backpacking season! Winter is gone, and for the past 4 months, I have successfully gone on one solo trip every month this year. Since I am not a huge fan of camping in the snow, and only due to lack of experience; I set a realistic goal of at least one solo road trip a month until backpacking season.
My motto: “You don’t have to go far, you just have to go.”
I was excited to have locked down a permit for a trail I had just completed last summer. I tend to stick to familiar trails when hiking solo so that I feel comfortable with my surroundings and have a better idea as to what’s to come. Even though I had completed this trail last summer, the conditions were completely different. Sure, it was the end of winter, but even within half a mile of starting my trail, I ran into some snow. As with any good ol’ Eastern Sierra trip, I’d usually hit the road from L.A on Friday evening, to arrive in/around Mammoth later that night. It’s always nice, though sometimes hard, to drive through the night, and wake up at your destination.
Little was I aware of how much snow I would wake up to the next morning. The higher elevations were completely covered, oh and people were still skiing Mammoth Mountain! As I prepared to pack my bag, I realized that I had forgotten to pack my microspikes. I didn’t think I would need them, to be honest, but after seeing the amount of snow on the mountain, I wanted to be as prepared as possible. I almost thought it would be too much snow for a solo trip, and my lack of experience in snow situations. My plan, to drive back to Bishop to check out the Big 5, and hopefully be able to pick up some microspikes. For whatever reason, I thought to myself, “we are in Mammoth, a mountain town, there HAS to be a sporting goods store here where I can purchase microspikes.” Sure enough, I discovered Mammoth Mountaineering Co., there’s no better way to explain this store, other than a mini REI. I was shocked. Being Memorial Day weekend, they were having a sale, and I could have easily spent all day, and my money right then and there, but I needed to stay focused on just getting my microspikes, and getting on the trail.
The parking lot was busy, but not as busy for being a holiday weekend. It was close to 10 AM, and after a few additions to my pack, I decided to snap photos out of a book that I had been reading. I figured this would be a nice way to wind down, and still keep up with my reading goal (1 book/month). I always tend to take too long, leaving my car to get on the trail; especially during a solo trip. This would be my 2nd solo trip in the Eastern Sierra, and I had planned to stay for 3-days and 2-nights.
Within half a mile of instant climbing, I ran into patches of snow. Some families had been day hiking, and this is where most of them stopped and turned around. It wasn’t enough snow where I needed to put on microspikes, but I was immediately thankful that I did stop in town to grab a pair. Following old tracks on my GPS that I had created the last time I hiked this trail; made it a little easier to navigate in the snow. It wasn’t until I reached the junction for Crystal Lake, that I completely lost the trail in the snow.
Crystal Lake is where everyone was going, so when a few people saw me scrambling the other way, they made sure to let me know I was going the “wrong way.” For a solid 10 minutes, I was backtracking, climbing, trying to find any footprints in the snow, knowing that there were people at least a day ahead of me. I had invited a friend of mine to go backpacking with me this weekend, and she already had plans prior, and they just happened to be the same trail I was doing solo the next day. Even though we were a day apart, I still felt a little safe knowing that they were out there as well.
Original plans were to complete a loop, up and over Deer Lakes to Duck Lake and then hike down Duck Pass and out. This is the route I did last summer with a friend and was excited to do it again, only now with snow! Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for THAT much snow, and after about 2.5 miles in, I messaged my friend who was a day ahead and asked her about the pass conditions. She said it was very snowy, and dangerous; she did not recommend that I go by myself. I understood her concern but wanted to make the call myself.
Hiking in the snow is no joke. I easily lost the trail multiple times, even with a GPS, and following old tracks. One simply cannot follow the trail the entire way, without having to avoid really large snow patches. It was the first time I had backpacked on a trail with that much snow, and I felt a little badass being out there by myself, navigating my way. I love returning to a trail and just remembering my time there prior.
Deer Lake is ~ 5 miles from the trailhead. There are 3 large lakes, lower, middle and upper, and I had planned to camp at the upper lake. That is, until I arrived and realized that it was probably going to be impossible to climb up from middle lake. The trail that I had been following on my GPS was completely covered, and I was not able to make out any safe route where I can safely make my way up to upper lake. It was getting late, my phone literally died the moment I decided to stay at middle lake, and to just drop my pack and scout a spot.
I needed to get out of the snow. I needed to get off the meadow, and I wanted a lake view. I had ran into one other couple who were also staying at Deer Lakes, and they mentioned to me that they had plans to hike to Deer Lakes for the night, hike out the next day, and hike in to Duck Lake the following day. It occured to me that they probably weren’t aware of the trail that I was going to do, that literally takes you up and over Deer Lakes to Duck Lake! I mentioned it to them, and told them that it is possible, however, I did not feel safe enough going by myself in those snow conditions. They wanted to make the call themselves, and I felt that.
After dropping my pack I almost immediately found a spot with legit lake views. It was perfect. I went back for my pack, and started to set up camp. I kid you not, right after I started setting up my tent, it started to hail. Light hail, but hail nonetheless. It never fails, it always starts to rain or something weird with the weather right after setting up camp. The spot I found was…almost perfect. I was up high, and had to hike down to any running water. I was already tired from hiking in, so that was one last camp chore that needed to be done for the night. It was close to 5 PM and the clouds all day had been pretty dark and moody. I had a few hours to hang out before sunset, so I made dinner, and played music so it didn’t feel too quiet and lonely. I wasn’t expecting much of a sunset because of the passing storm, but I am so glad I stayed out to witness it. The pinks, the purples, the mountain views from camp…even though I was alone, felt a little lonely, it’s moments like these that make it so worth it. I’m reminded why I’m there in the first place. Solo. By myself. It’s needed, sometimes. A reminder that I can do it, and that it’s ok to be alone sometimes.
If I’m being honest, I made the call to skip the pass as soon as I saw it from up above yesterday. I had another full day, and I was not getting off trail early. If anything, I was just starting to have fun. I slept in that next morning. I had alll day to hang out, explore, and wander. I liked the site I found, and decided it would be basecamp for the weekend. I packed a small day pack after breakfast, and headed up to find a route to the upper lake. Sure enough, I ran into the couple and their dog, all packed up and making their way to the pass. They were going for it, and I was a little jealous. Once I saw the upper lake, completely frozen over, and no one camped there, I knew I was going back to camp to head back here. I sat and watched my friends safely climb up and over, and still, I was happy with my decision to have stayed.
I broke camp, packed up, and hiked a little under .5 miles to the upper lake. No one was there! Maybe cause the lake was frozen, maybe cause the trail was covered in snow? Who knows, but I am glad to have moved spots. After setting up, I heard rocks falling in the distance from the direction of the pass. It was a bit scary. I had recently purchased a new camera lens with pretty awesome zoom, so I pointed the camera in that direction, and found a person climbing the pass! He was moving pretty fast, and from what I can tell he didn’t have an overnight pack. I had the entire day to chill, and I honestly didn’t care much to leave the lake. I could have wandered, explored a bit, but I just wanted to chill, take in the scenery, and read. I skimmed through the photos of the book I had been reading so fast, I should have taken more photos.
It’s amazing how much we pay attention to detail when we are not focused on entertaining another person. I found myself taking photos of all the flowers, rocks, and views; things I probably wouldn’t have seen hiking with a friend. Stopped to smell the roses as one would say. After a few shots of Fireball, I found myself wandering around the lake. I came across the lake outlet and found the most amazing view of Ritter range. It was about an hour before sunset, but I could already tell that this was going to be one heck of a spot for sunset, and I needed to come back.
After dinner, and with a headlamp and more Fireball, I was back at the spot. I put on some music, soaked up the setting sun, and reflected on the past 2 days. I was proud of myself for yet another successful solo Sierra trip. Although the trip was not over, it was coming to an end. The sky put on an amazing show that evening, and I was blessed to be out there by myself, with myself.
The next morning it was hard to leave, like I was finally getting use to being out there by myself; but I had a 5-mile hike out, and a 6-hour drive home, and I needed to get my day started. After snapping too many photos, I was back on the trail and actually excited for it. When I had hiked this trail last summer, I completed a loop; this time I would hike out the same direction as I hiked in, and I was not mad about it. For miles, I had the best views of Ritter range, and of course, it was a beautiful day! I came across an open meadow, and at that exact moment I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. It was that exact moment that I made the decision to hike the JMT this summer, No Matter What. I wish I packed a paper and pen, to journal my thoughts. There’s something special to pen and paper where thoughts just flow freely.
I was only 2-miles away from the trailhead, and I was finishing a lot more quickly than I thought, even after losing the trail multiple times in the snow. I found a beautiful tall tree to sit on, and I ended up laying down on a rock with my feet up against the tree trunk. My feet were tired, but my heart wanted more. I didn’t want to hike into cell service, go back to reality, deal with society- but, it was Monday and I needed to go back to work the next day. As I got closer to the trailhead, my phone started dinging. Text after text, the family group chat was very active that morning, and I smiled at the photos of my niece and nephews and remembered that alone time is very special, but family is important too.
The last mile I ended up hiking with this older couple. They were day hikers and had no idea how long I had been out there. “You must have started very early this morning, we didn’t see you hike in.” “Oh, I’ve been out here since Saturday!” I mentioned, and their faces lit up. “You’re out here by yourself?!” the lady asked with concern. “I am. And I had the best time.” “You are my hero, and remind me so much of my daughter.” My heart warmed up, and I felt like a complete badass. A dirty, sweaty, smelly, badass. And these badass moments are the exact reason I continue to push my limits and get out on the trail as a solo female hiker- because even though it gets a little lonely, I never feel quite alone. 🧡