Sally and I packed up the vehicle to head over the Sonora Pass to the east side of the Sierras for a few days, looking for early signs of fall color, some hiking, some fishing and some relaxing. We achieved all of our goals plus some!
Where: John Muir Wilderness Area, Inyo National Forest
Elevation Range: 7,840′ – 9,560′
Date: September 11, 2013
Maps: Bloody Mountain, Florence Lake
Highlights: I didn’t let the Rim Fire closing Tioga Road stop me from heeding the call from the east side of the Sierras. Fall color at the higher elevations was becoming gorgeous and I could feel the change in the air as Sally and I explored this beautiful country where the colorful mountains touch the sky.
I was itching to get to the east side of the Sierras ever since I started seeing the beginning signs of fall color at the higher elevations but Tioga Road had been closed due to the Rim Fire, so I headed over the Sonora Pass on Hwy 108 to Hwy 395, then south through Bridgeport, past Mono Lake and the Mammoth Lakes exit to McGee Creek Road.
It had been about 10 years since I had driven over the Sonora Pass and I had forgotten how beautiful it is. It is the second-highest highway pass in the Sierra Nevada, topping out at 9,624′ and lower by 321′ than Tioga Pass to the south. The highway over the pass is extremely steep, up to 26% in some locations, narrow and winding between Kennedy Meadows on the west side and Leavitt Meadows on the east. The route is not recommended for vehicles or vehicle combinations that are unusually wide, heavy or long.
This route is full of some very interesting history. From Wikipedia, the first documented immigrant traverse of Sonora Pass appears to have been in the late summer of 1852 by a wagon train known as the Clark-Skidmore Company. Merchant interests in the communities of Sonora and Columbia promoted the route to California-bound immigrants, not always with happy results when immigrants discovered how difficult it was.
With the discovery of deposits and development of silver and gold mining on the east side of the Sierras that included Bodie, merchant interests in the counties on both sides of the pass pushed for development of a road that would enable them to improve transportation and trade. Surveying for a road through Sonora Pass began in 1863 and the road was in use by 1865. This opened up a route for immigration from the east into Tuolumne County and provided an additional supply line to the many mines on the east side, large and small.
These pictures were taken after dropping off of the eastern side of Sonora Pass, looking east.
No trip down Hwy 395 would be complete without a stop at the Conway Overlook. Just past the Conway Summit at 8,143′, you will notice a wide pullout with a guard rail that has been decorated with bumper stickers. This is that spot! Did you know that Conway Summit is named after John Andrew Conway, a settler in the area in 1880? Now you know. This is a great spot to stretch your legs, admire the view of Mono Lake, and there is always someone to help you get a photograph of yourself with that gorgeous backdrop of a view.
Why McGee Creek? Well, ever since Dave Stamey got that song, “McGee Creek—The Packer’s Song” in my head, I have been wanting to venture up this canyon. I was unable to find a link to the entire song, but you can listen to a snippet of it on Amazon. The song is off of his CD “Buckaroo Man”.
I drove up McGee Creek Road, which is only about 4 miles long, past the McGee Campground, past the McGee Creek Pack Station, to a nice parking area at the end of the road with a restroom. This is the start of the McGee Pass Trail.
These pictures, taken on the drive up McGee Creek Road, keep your eyes trying to look around the bend to see what the next view reveals.
The McGee Creek area has a very interesting history and I discovered a wonderful source for it on the High Sierra Western Art Website (link at end of Blog).
“In 1872, the McGee brothers, Alney and Bart, homesteaded a cattle ranch on McGee Creek in Long Valley and opened a stage station. Long Valley pastured many head of cattle during the summer months and early sheep and cattle ranchers established livestock trails over McGee and Hopkins Passes crossing the main crest of the Sierra. Mcgee Pass accesses Upper Fish Creek and eventually the John Muir Trail while Hopkins Pass accesses the Mono Creek Basin.
Cecil Thorington married Beatrice May a granddaughter of Alney McGee. Thorington was packer/foreman for Mammoth Camp Pack Outfit, owned by Charlie Summers, and managed by Lloyd Summers. Sybil McGee, daughter of Alney McGee had married Lloyd Summers, oldest son of Charlie Summers.
In the late 1920s, Cecil Thorington established a pack station at McGee Creek calling it McGee Pack Train. In 1934, the station operated with 30 head. By 1930, Thorington was packing fingerling trout for the Fish and Game by mule string to plant the lakes in McGee Canyon. Thorington and Lloyd’s son, Lee Summers, planted Lee and Cecil Lakes, and Upper Fish Creek and the lakes were named for the two men.
The Public Roads Administration built the McGee Creek Road as a mining access road to the Scheelore Mine up Baldwin Canyon on the slopes of Mt. Baldwin in 1944. A locked gate was placed at the wilderness line of the High Sierra Primitive Area to prevent vehicles other than mine trucks from accessing the wilderness.
The first section of the trail up the canyon was the mining road to Baldwin Canyon where the turn off went up to the mines then operating. The mines ceased operation in 1955. From the Baldwin Canyon junction, a trail continued up the main canyon to the other lakes and McGee Pass. In 1964, the Wilderness Act was passed and the primitive area became part of the John Muir Wilderness Area under Forest Service management.
In 1956, McGee Creek Pack Station, the Forest Service, and the Sierra Club organized the first cooperative trail project and worked on the McGee Pass Trail. For several years, Russ had a contract with the Federal Fish and Wildlife Agency to supply their backcountry camps at the lakes in Convict Canyon where they were studying the trout populations. McGee Creek Pack Station provides packing services for the public desiring a wilderness pack trip into the John Muir Wilderness Area.
Short rides of one or two hours up the canyon are very popular with families and longer rides for fishing at the lakes are available”. There is a link to the McGee Creek Pack Station at the end of this Blog Chapter.
When we reached the end of the road at the trailhead, Sally and I hit the trail. Sally led the way.
We followed the trail uphill, which paralleled McGee Creek.
It wouldn’t be too long before these aspens would be a vibrant yellow. They had just starting to turn at this elevation.
Looking back down the trail from where we had started.
And looking up the trail to where we were headed, I could see some pretty fall color. I couldn’t get that song out of my mind.
“Heading to the canyon with the trail far below.
Down to the pinyons where the sweet water flows.
Pack string behind me in the yellowing light, on to the meadow where we wait for a night.
Mountains in shadow, silver with age, moonlight on aspen, granite and sage. . .”
Ride, ride, ride on through time.
Pour off the cities, their whistle and whine. . .”
-Dave Stamey “McGee Creek”
We had a nice little 4 mile hike. Sally got to stretch her legs after that long drive over and I got to scope out some possible fishing holes for the coming days.
As I drove down the road, I glanced back at the buildups over the mountains contrasting with those red and white mountains. It was time for Sally and I to get settled for the evening and get ready for our next adventures on this east side trip.