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Honeymoon Lake solo backpack trip

Headed uphill past the old tungsten mine. 
First goal: get to the notch. 
Making some progress as the real switchbacks begin.
Made it! Lower Pine Creek Lake.
Backpacker's campsite, Honeymoon Lake, John Muir Wilderness
My campsite at Honeymoon. Don't camp there: terrible place! 
Honeymoon Lake, John Muir Wilderness, Eastern Sierra
View across the lake. 
Sun flares at sunset, Honeymoon Lake

I turned 50 this past summer and decided to take the advice of my old college buddy Laird, whose life motto may as well be: “when presented with a range of options, pick the one that appears to be the manliest.”

I decided to go solo backpacking. This was not the most super-manliest of choices, given that I would run into plenty of other solo people on the train, including some well older than 50. Still. I had never gone backpacking by myself and I thought this was a reasonably good selection and cheaper than buying a Harley, getting arrested in Vegas or jumping out of a plane, which I had already done (twice, actually).

As for a trail and destination, I selected one that I had long read about but never visited: the Pine Creek Pass trail to Honeymoon Lake in the Eastern Sierra. It’s known for being steep (rising about 3,000 feet in its first 2.5 mile or so) and relatively unpeopled compared to others in the Eastern Sierra. This was an important consideration as I’ve not quite felt by people-person best for much of 2016. 

It turned out to be a great choice because:

•Because the trail is not super popular, you don’t have to wait to park at the trailhead or park very far from the trail, as is the case at most of the big Eastern Sierra trailheads these days.

•I got a great campsite at Honeymoon Lake, which was as lovely as advertised. There were a few others camping in the area, but I barely saw them.

•There was plenty to explore in the area — namely a nice day hike to Pine Creek Pass and French Lake, as well as a visit to the lower Granite Park area that is en route to Italy Pass.

Let’s talk briefly about the hike up the hike. To put it delicately, it’s a steep motherfucker with little shade until you reach Lower Pine Creek Lake. I started about 8:15 a.m. on an early August morning and that’s about as late as anyone should start, especially if it’s during a warm spell.

The lower half of the trail is noticeably uphill and then becomes buttkickingly uphill after the trail peters out as an old mining road and becomes a rocky footpath with many, many steps until you get to the John Muir Wilderness boundary at about the two-mile mark. It mellows a tad between there and the first lake, but be warned: your fitness will be tested.

I thought for a time that it might just be me and the fact that I wasn’t in super great shape. But a couple who started about the same time as me were moving at a similar pace. And on my second day I met a dude camping at the lake who had just come up the trail.

He had hiked up the trail earlier in the afternoon, set up camp, napped. He said the hike up was hot and exhausting. He was now sitting beside his tent, slowly spooning a rehydrated meal into his piehole.

I didn't think the spoon would make it. This fucker was tired. I was tempted to ask him to lay on his back so that I could expedite the process by pouring the gloomy meal down his throat.

"Where you going?," I asked.

"Italy Pass,” he muttered.

"Is that it up there?,” I said, pointing to some distant hills.

"I don't know. I'm meeting someone tomorrow,” he said. “I just want to eat and go to sleep.”

I wished him a good evening. I'm not sure he noticed that I walked away.

The day hike up to Pine Creek Pass was fun, helped by the fact that I could leave the big backpack back at Honeymoon. The pass is actually a broad flat area with a nice lakelet. I figured there would be a use trail to French Lake, but there wasn’t. I met another guy who said “it’s just over the ridge” and after some exploration of the area, I decided to check it out.

Pine Creek Pass, John Muir Wilderness
Pine Creek Pass. Almost certainly a place a better photo than this could be taken.
Wildflowers, Pine Creek Pass trail, John Muir Wilderness
Wildflowers on the other side of the pass. 
Pine Creek Pass trail, John Muir Wilderness
Looking back toward Pine Creek Pass from the French Canyon side. 
Pine Creek Pass, John Muir Wilderness, Eastern Sierra Nevada
Same view but wider. 
Looking in the direction of the cross-country hike to Royce Lakes (I think). 
Approaching French Lake. 
French Lake, John Muir Wilderness
Another view of French Lake and surrounding country. 
French Lake, John Muir Wilderness
Looking along French Lake shoreline with Humphrys Basin and peaks in the distance. 
Wildflowers near Pine Creek Pass, John Muir Wilderness
More wildlfowers near Pine Creek Pass. 
Descending Pine Creek Pass and heading back to Honeymoon.

I don’t normally do much cross-country, but it was fairly obvious from my topo map where the lake had to be, so I picked my way over the ridge (it’s just an uphill walk) and the subsequent hand full of smaller ridges until the lake came into view. In other direction, I could see French Canyon and the bench above it with several other lakes I’d like to visit (Elba, L and Moon Lake, etc.).

French Lake was awesome. Had lunch, failed to catch a fish and on the way back took a particularly long, satisfying manly piss while taking in the 360 views. Got back to camp in time to play around with the camera, fish a bit (the fishing in the morning was very good for small brookies and rainbows) and sit around while staring into space.

The night wasn’t even that cold — maybe high 40s at the lowest. I ended up waking up about 1 a.m. and then sleeping with my head outside the door-hole of the tent to allow for a better view of the Milky Way. Nice night.

The trip down was uneventful (but warm). Searching for a place to waste more time fishing in the creek that runs alongside the trail, I ran into an elder hiker coming uphill in the late afternoon heat.

This guy was awesome. He was 69. He had spent the previous night somewhere near Mono Pass above the Little Lakes Valley and had hiked down from there in the morning, driven over to Pine Creek and was now climbing toward Granite Park and Italy Pass. He had a smallish pack, explaining that you don't need a tent this time of the year in the Sierra and he never brings a stove -- he hydrates his freeze-dried meals with cold water. "The noodles can be a little crunchy but I don't care," he said.

He also pointed out that Pine Creek Pass Trail -- while steep -- had something more important going for it: a relative lack of people compared to (for example) the aforementioned Little Lakes Valley. "That place is a human sacrifice zone," he said. "Total clusterfuck."

I told him how crowded Mammoth and Tioga Road were earlier in the weekend. "You know what the problem is?," he asked. "Internet tourism," he added, explaining that any dipshit can now go online and see a pretty picture and easily book a trip to places such as Mammoth, Yosemite or anywhere else. The result: trails and trailheads that have gone from being just popular to crowded. I’ve seen it happen in just my 20 years in California — and I’m not just saying that because I get increasingly grouchy with each passing birthday.

And that’s my trip in a nutshell. A few hours later I was in my car heading back to the L.A. area. It was great to be out there on my own for three days on my own schedule. I would highly recommend the area if not for the fact I’d prefer people stop going there.

Granite Park en route to Italy Pass, John Muir Wilderness
Lower Granite Park above Honeymoon Lake. A couple of really nice campsites are in this area near the trail to Italy Pass.
Honeymoon Lake at sunrise. 
Ridge near Honeymoon at sunset. 
Typical brook trout from Honeymoon Lake.
Lower Pine Like as seen from the other side. 
Pine Creek Pass trail & tungsten mine, Eastern Sierra Nevada
And that's all she wrote, heading back toward the tungsten mine and the trailhead -- about where the road disappears into the trees. It's fun to see the parking lot and feel like you're never really getting closer!

Most of the above photos were taken with an Olympus micro four-thirds camera or my iPhone6. I didn't want to carry the DSLR up the hill, although the image quality would have been better. Next year!

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The above photos are ©Steve Hymon and may not be reproduced or used elsewhere without my advanced written permission.

1 comment:

  1. Nice work, Steve! Your post and photos will just encourage another shitload (excuse my Trumpism) of city folks to head up to Honeymoon Lake and beyond (at least those willing to tackle that "steep motherfucker" of a trail). I'm 70, have been hiking the Sierra for well over 40 years, and would agree with the comments of the 69 year old you met on the trail. The backcountry was sparsely traveled until the 1990s and now it's a real zoo by comparison. Thank goodness for the overnight permit quotas!