Thursday, November 15, 2018

Leaf Peeping & Lake Spotting

Per Wikipedia, "leaf peeping" is an informal term in the United States for the activity in which people travel to view and photograph the fall foliage in areas where leaves change colors in autumn, particularly in northern New England and the upper Midwest.  Well, we were able to do this (and join many other "leaf perverts", as Wes likes to call them) right here in California, just a six-hour drive up our favorite freeway, the 395.  It's really quite amazing - fields of gold are literally hidden in between the mountains, found only if you follow narrow, winding roads into specific destinations.  With the help of Mono County Tourism's website, we knew exactly where to go to gain entrance to the year's most exclusive peepshow.  The leaves turn sexy shades of yellow and orange, the meadows are golden, the lakes sparkle and flash, and we were lucky enough to be treated to a light snowstorm that created a dramatic backdrop to it all.  Depending on a variety of natural factors (i.e. elevation, weather, type of tree), the leaves change quite quickly, so there's only a four-week window to catch these views each year. is diligently updated every Wednesday (by some leaf pervert, no doubt) with viewing conditions.  I guess there are a lot of people out there who come to the Eastern Sierra at this time of year just for the Fall colors!

So the true intention of the trip wasn't even to see the changing leaves, even though I do have a huge soft spot for Fall colors.  We actually had a backcountry permit booked for that weekend to through-hike a trail out of Mammoth, but the weather took a huge dip (26 degrees Fahrenheit at night!) and there was snow in the, we packed a ton of extra blankets in the car and opted to get a walk-in campsite and do some day-hikes rather than going backpacking.  Snuggling under our heavy down comforter and huddling by the campfire with hearty, fresh food sounded way more ideal.

You really can never go wrong in the Eastern Sierra, ever.  It felt like we had truly experienced the transition from Fall to Winter firsthand!  We did a few good hikes and also ate a ton of good ole American comfort food: tacos, pizza, wings, burgers, ice cream, pasta, sandwiches, ice cream, and pho.  Ice cream was in there twice, not by mistake.  It was another trip for the books, for sure.

Day 1:  Little Lakes Valley to Gem Lakes

Day 2:  Lundy Canyon Trail

Day 3:  Ruby Lake via Morgan Pass

Complete food list: Anthony's Grill in Mojave, Tacos Los Hermanos in Lone Pine, Schat's Bakery in Mammoth, Black Velvet Coffee in Mammoth, Subway in Mammoth, Mono Cone in Lee Vining, Giovanni's in Mammoth, Bishop Burger Barn in Bishop, Good Earth Yogurt in Bishop, our campsite

We started off the trip on Thursday night leaving LA right after work.  We didn't really have any specific plans for dinner and were throwing around ideas (like that pricey Thai place in Mojave?  The burger place with the bullet-proof cashier windows? Carl's Jr.?) when I remembered that it was National Taco Day, according to the foodies of Instagram.  Pfft, sure, if it helps us make a decision on what to eat for dinner.  We ended up eating fish tacos and flautas at Anthony's Grill, a little Mexican restaurant in the middle of nowhere (where they probably won't care that we brought in our own avocado).  These weren't the most amazing fish tacos, but they were fine.

When we stopped in Lone Pine because I wanted to find some fruit (haha, too many onions I guess), we ended up seeing a taco truck (Tacos Los Hermanos) parked right next to the gas station.  Wes joked that we should walk over and try their tacos, too.  Before we knew it, we were munching on a buche taco and an adobada taco, complete with all of the usual fixin's.  If anything, these tacos were redemption for the ones we had just eaten at Anthony's.  We would definitely have no problem with eating dinner or lunch at this truck during future roadtrips to Mammoth.

We spent Thursday night at our usual Motel 6 in Mammoth and then set out the next morning to buy some rye bread from Schat's and grab coffee from Black Velvet before driving to Rock Creek.  We were able to get a walk-in site pretty easily at Rock Creek Lake Campground.  Wes found a secluded spot just over a wooden bridge with some yellow foliage surrounding it.  This looked like the perfect place to call home for the next two nights.

We made some breakfast with that awesome rye bread and the other half of that avocado from yesterday (which we were able to expertly preserve in a plastic cup within a trash bag) before heading to the trailhead.

Our first hike was only a ten-minute drive from the campground, down to the end of Rock Creek Road.  The Little Lakes Valley to Gem Lakes trail is a 7.2 mile out-and-back hike which leads out of Mosquito Flat, the highest designated trailhead in the Sierra accessible by car (above 10,000 feet).  It was a relief that there were no actual mosquitoes at their namesake trailhead this late in the year.  Since the starting point was already at such a high elevation, there was not a lot of elevation gain on this trail, but we did find ourselves huffing and puffing in the beginning because we hadn't acclimated to the altitude yet.  The views of the surrounding mountains and the many lakes that we passed were enthralling.  This is known to be a popular hike during the summer, but it was the first week of October and there weren't many other people (just a few fishermen and some other friendly hikers).

 We had Subway wraps at the second lake, and then we continued hiking past a few other glorious lakes in the meadows until we arrived at Gem Lake.

All of the lakes were beautiful in the golden Autumn sunlight, but Gem Lake was our favorite.  It was an ethereal shade of turquoise and very quiet up there.

We came back to camp with enough light to cook some pasta for dinner.  Wes pre-chopped the bell peppers and onions this time - no more bringing chopping boards and dirtying up knives if we can help it!  We added those and some anchovies into this delicious arrabbiata sauce that we brought, and in a separate pot, we boiled up some of these adorable pumpkin-shaped pasta that I found at Trader Joe's.  They call them "zucchiette."  They apparently have pumpkin in them, but they taste like normal pasta to us.  They also sort of broke apart after a while because of the weird shape, but they really put me into the spirit of Fall!

So, Wes had bought a brownie from the Rock Creek general store earlier this day in order to get change to pay for the campsite.  I had rolled my eyes asking why he hadn't gotten some nuts or some jerky instead, but this brownie quickly became the best idea ever.  We wrapped it up in foil and threw it into the fire to heat it up.  After 20 minutes, we unwrapped it and it was like a fresh-out-of-the-oven brownie, with crisped corners and edges and a molten center.  It was like, as Wes called it, "Hot chocolate on crack."  Insanely better than a S'more.

Despite the cold, it's always so refreshing and nice to be out in nature instead of indoors.  Snow falling on our tent woke us up in the middle of the night, but we were warm underneath the many layers that we had brought.  The next morning, we deliberated over whether to do a long, hard hike (the beginning of the backpacking trail that we had originally intended to do) or to drive to some areas with Fall colors and walk around.  After some thought, I decided that it would be best to take advantage of seeing those Fall colors, even if it meant more driving and less hiking.  So, we took our time making a large brunch and then got into the car to drive about an hour north to Lundy Canyon, which is around the little city of Lee Vining.

Cooking in the cold morning air was nice.  We had chorizo breakfast sausage hash (it was the only flavor available at the 99-cents-only store) and scrambled eggs (safely made it to the campsite in our special egg holder) with (more) avocado.  We also had some sauteed spinach for good measure and more of that rye bread, toasted in the pan drippings!

It was cold, but it's never too cold for some ice cream, right?  While passing through Lee Vining on the way up to Lundy Canyon, we saw the big red-and-white sign for Mono Cone.  We always manage to find ice cream wherever we go, it seems...Wes popped a U-turn and before we knew what we were doing, we found ourselves licking a big fat swirled ice cream cone.  Yeah, the name of this place isn't the most appetizing, but it was soo good!

Driving into Lundy Canyon was stunning.  At first, we could see only splashes of yellow against the faraway mountains.  Then, the paved road ended and it became narrow dirt roads as the trees drew closer and closer and were eventually arching above our heads on both sides of the road in brilliant golden colors.

After winding our way into the canyon an hour away from our campsite, we luckily found parking in the very cramped parking area at the Lundy Canyon Trailhead and hiked as far as we could.  The sun was still out when we started, but the weather changed almost instantaneously before our eyes.  Some pretty ominous clouds rolled in at around 3:00 PM.  Just as we were taking some photos at a ledge, it began to snow.

Wes insisted that we go deeper anyway.  I must thank him for being so enthusiastic about the bad weather - it was enough to deter all the other hikers, including myself!  We threw on the rain gear and continued forth.  Even in the low light, the trees were still so beautiful - those leaves seemed to stand out even more against the flat, grey sky.

Good thing we had waterproof phone cameras!

As always with the changeability of mountain climate, it all cleared up after about an hour and we saw the sun peek out.  We had reached a very impressive waterfall at this point, and we saw that we were surrounded by other tall, thin waterfalls coming from high above.  It felt like we were in the Alps again.  We also spotted two bald eagles soaring around above us - they were so regal, we felt instantly humbled by their presence.

My eyes were burning from the intensity of these colors!  We finally got back to the car, thrilled that we had made it through another one of those snowy, crazy hikes.

We were both totally ready for some pizza at our favorite place in Mammoth Lakes, Giovanni's.  If there is a prototype for a loaded, classic pizza, it's theirs.  Also, the wings are great here!

After indulging in running water, electricity, and sports on TV for a bit, we drove back to camp in the dark. The headlights illuminated the trees on the side of the road and we saw that everything was covered with snow.  It looked like the storm had moved south of Lundy Canyon.  Our tent looked almost like an igloo when we walked up.  Wes had to shake the tent vigorously to get the snow off.  We were just glad that the storm had passed and that it wasn't still falling now, but this night was going to be just as cold as the last one!

All of the snow had stuck around through the night and we were treated to the most gorgeous morning view.  None of those yellow leaves from the day before were there anymore - everything was covered in a fresh, white dusting of snow.  I remember audibly gasping when I opened the tent to walk out to the bathroom.  It was a total surprise, I didn't think that the coverage would be that thick

No time for cooking breakfast today.  We planned to do one more hike before heading back to LA, so we shook off the tent and packed it up.  There was another hike leading out of the Mosquito Flat trailhead going up to Ruby Lake via the Morgan Pass fork.  Everything looked completely different from the trailhead today, even though we were starting out of the same exact place from two days ago.  While it felt like Autumn on Friday, it really looked like Winter today.  There was fresh snow everywhere, as far as the eye could see.  The sky was clear and cloudless, it was pleasantly chilly, and the lakes shimmered brilliantly.  It was totally rejuvenating.

We set out on a bunch of switchbacks that led us up to Ruby Lake, which of course is not red.  Since we had acclimated to the altitude and it was only a little over 2 miles to there, we were rewarded very quickly.

What a dramatic view!


The best part was that we had this entire lake and all of its surrounding cliffs to ourselves for such a long time.  No one came!  We felt really lucky to be able to savor such a peaceful atmosphere on such a great day.  It was a very good way to end our vacation into the Sierras.

Ah, but it was not quite over yet!  We went to Bishop Burger Barn to eat some really big, classic burgers.  And tater tots, of course.  And some Good Earth frozen yogurt - an absolute Bishop must.

Then, on our drive down, we saw the SpaceX rocket launch.  It was crazy - neither of us had known about it and we thought that the aliens were coming to abduct us.  After all of the natural phenomena that we had been through over the past three days, it was just as impressive to see a manmade miracle materialize out of nowhere and to suddenly envision everything in a more cosmic perspective.  I guess we live on a truly fascinating planet, full of surprises.  We come away from every trip feeling so lucky to be alive.

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