Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Cottonwood Lakes

Mount Langley rises above Cottonwood Lake No. 5
12.5 miles round trip, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required, permit quota for overnight hikes

The many lakes of the Cottonwood Lakes lie beneath the gleaming white granite of Mount Langley, marking the southern end of California's famed High Sierra. This is an enjoyable if slightly long day hike to visit four lakes in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin, a starkly beautiful region that can be accessed by a fairly easy paved drive and then a fairly easy hike. While many hikers choose to make overnight trips to the lakes and use them as a base camp for climbing Mount Langley or exploring other High Sierra destinations, this makes an excellent day hike for visitors to Lone Pine hoping to sample a bit of what makes the High Sierra so magical. The hike visits both the Golden Trout and John Muir Wildernesses in Inyo National Forest.

I hiked to Cottonwood Lakes during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. It's easy to reach the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead from Lone Pine, although the area is a long drive from either the Bay Area, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. From Lone Pine, I took the Whitney Portal Road uphill for three miles and then turned left onto the Horseshoe Meadows Road. I then followed the paved Horseshoe Meadows Road for about 20 miles. This road is one of the most extraordinary in the Sierra Nevada, cutting wide, sweeping switchbacks up the slopes of Wonoga Peak. As I drove up this road, incredible panoramas of Owens Valley and the great front of the Eastern Sierra provided constant wonderment; I also spotted distant Great Basin summits like White Mountain Peak and Telescope Peak, as well as a view at one point of Mount San Gorgonio far to the south. The dry lakebed of Owens Lake filled the valley below. 

Owens Lake and Telescope Peak from the Horseshoe Meadows Road
The Horseshoe Meadows Road then delved into the mountains and arrived at an intersection once it came to the Cottonwood Campground; here, I turned right at the junction for the Cottonwood Lakes and New Army Pass trailhead. I followed this road to its dead end at the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. There's no fee or permit necessary for day use here but overnight campers must reserve or claim in-person one of the quota-limited camping permits for staying in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin.

Leaving the trailhead, I started the hike with a gentle ascent through the forest, joining up with a stock trail from the Equestrian Camp 0.3 miles into the hike. The trail soon entered the Golden Trout Wilderness, which is named for the spectacularly colored trout endemic to the watershed of the Kern River, the now-threatened species that is the state freshwater fish of California. At a half mile, the trail crossed a nearly imperceptible saddle and then descended gently through the forest for the next mile to reach a crossing over South Fork Cottonwood Creek at 1.5 miles into the hike.

Illuminated tree husk along the trail
On this cold mid-November day, South Fork Cottonwood Creek had frozen solid. I rockhopped across the creek and then continued along the trail to Cottonwood Lakes. The trail was sandy at times and slightly rocky at times over the next mile and a half as it ascended very gently through the valley of North Fork Cottonwood Creek; at times, the tree cover would break enough for partial views of the granite ramparts of nearby Flattop Mountain.

About 1.2 miles after the creek crossing and about 2.7 miles into the hike, I came to the first open views of the hike as the trail skirted the edge of a pretty meadow along Cottonwood Creek. Soon afterwards, around 3 miles into the hike, the trail entered the John Muir Wilderness and then crossed the north fork of Cottonwood Creek. 

Meadow along Cottonwood Creek
After crossing the creek, the trail began to climb a bit more steadily as it passed another meadow, this one with a nice view of Flattop Mountain. In November, the meadow grasses had turned yellow for the winter, but visitors in July are likely to find lush green meadows with blooming wildflowers here.

Flattop Mountain rises over meadows
As the trail began to climb more aggressively, it passed a junction with the trail to New Army Pass at 3.5 miles from the trailhead. I took the right fork at this junction and followed the Cottonwood Lakes Trail up its steepest stretch, in which it ascended nearly 600 feet in a mile. This was still a fairly moderate grade: the trail was almost never truly steep. The trail generally ascended through the forest but there were frequent breaks in the trees that yielded partial views of nearby Flattop Mountain and the impressive pyramid of Cirque Peak. A number of foxtail pines dotted the trailside; upon death, the foxtails leave behind gnarled, twisted trunks with rich, golden wood.

Foxtail pine on the ascent
The ascent ended at 4.5 miles from the trailhead as I passed the turnoff on the right side of the trail for Muir Lake: at the junction, I emerged into a beautiful, flat subalpine meadow set at the base of a collection of mighty High Sierra peaks. The most renowned of these peaks was Mount Langley, one of California's rare 14,000-foot peaks, but Cirque Peak to the southwest struck a remarkably symmetric and beautiful profile, a fitting form for the mountain that anchors the southern end of the High Sierra.

Cirque Peak and Army Pass Point rising over the meadows on Cottonwood Creek
I crossed another fork of Cottonwood Creek as I entered the broad meadow. Looking back to the east, I had a great view out of the Sierra Nevada to mighty Telescope Peak, an ultraprominent peak that is the highest point of both the desert Panamint Range and Death Valley National Park.

Telescope Peak from the meadows
The meadows were a fulfilling reward after 4.5 miles of fairly uneventful (almost boring!) hiking. I soaked in the views of Cirque Peak as I continued along the trail through the meadows. Although I was the only person on the trail on that cold weekday, I realized I wasn't alone in these meadows: a coyote was wandering about nearby but bolted when it noted my presence. I spotted the first of the Cottonwood Lakes off to the left of the trail; the lake was small and frozen, so I chose to bypass it and continue on to the later lakes.

Coyote near Cottonwood Lake No. 1
Cirque Peak

The trail stayed flat for about a mile after entering the meadows. After leaving the main meadow, I passed through a patch of trees before emerging into a second meadow with great views of Mount Langley ahead. Here, the trail passed a small cabin and skirted the west side of a shallow, unnamed lake that filled the center of the meadow.

Mount Langley
Frozen unnamed lake
At 5.7 miles into the hike, the trail passed the north end of the unnamed lake, skirted a forest, and then made a short descent to the shores of Cottonwood Lake No. 3. Cottonwood Lake No. 3 was quite long and unfortunately the trail skipped over most of its shoreline; however, as the trail wrapped around the northern end of the lake and began to ascend, I had a magnificent view down the length of Lake No. 3 with Flattop Mountain rising behind it. Cottonwood Lake No. 3 had frozen as well, but not to the same extent as the previous lakes; the result was a mostly clear surface to the lake that was decorated by a beautiful lattice of cracks.

Frozen Cottonwood Lake No. 3
Leaving Cottonwood Lake No. 3, the trail made a brief final ascent, pushing uphill a bit to reach a slightly higher level of the Cottonwood Lakes basin. After the trail flattened out again, this time in a basin right below the granite walls of Mount Langley, I followed the trail a hundred meters and then bore left at an unmarked junction to reach the shore of Cottonwood Lake No. 4. Nestled in a bowl beneath high granite cliffs, Cottonwood Lake No. 4 had a stark, alpine feel. This lake had frozen over as well and the nearby granite cliffs still retained their recent dusting of snow. Old Army Pass rose above the far end of the lake; an unmaintained trail continued along Cottonwood Lake No. 4 and then climbed precipitously up to the pass, providing access to the main summit route up Mount Langley. Old Army Pass lies atop nearly vertical granite walls and it amazed me that this was considered a pass at all: the trail to reach the pass was visible from across the lake and was clearly both very steep and very precarious.

Old Army Pass above Cottonwood Lake No. 4
I enjoyed lunch and a brief nap on a set of large rocks on the northeast shore of Cottonwood Lake No. 4. After my siesta, I moseyed over on a social path over to Cottonwood Lake No. 5, which was right next to Cottonwood Lake No. 4, separated only by a low isthmus about 50 meters wide. This was the end of the hike, 6.2 miles from the trailhead.

Cottonwood Lake No. 5
The southeast face of Mount Langley rises vertically above Cottonwood Lake No. 5, an impressive sight. The high pinnacles on the cliff are not the true summit of Mount Langley, which is set slightly back from this massive wall of white granite. At 14,032 feet tall, Mount Langley is the ninth-tallest peak in California and the last fourteener of the High Sierra when counting from the north; it also has the distinction of being the southernmost fourteener in the United States. While the other lakes in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin had frozen for the winter, Cottonwood Lake No. 5 was just beginning to freeze, so I was still able to see into its waters to the rocks below the surface. This was my favorite of the lakes along the hike and a fitting coda to an enjoyable hike to this alpine lake basin.

Mount Langley rising over Cottonwood Lake No. 5

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