Inyo Wilderness- McGee Creek Paintbrush Adventure with Polly and Donny Triplat Mid-July 2018
By Polly Triplat
The day we planned to hike into the Inyo wilderness was the first day it rained in two months. The forecast was calling for 80 percent chance of thunderstorms and then tapering over the next couple of days. Instead of leaving, hiking in the rain and hanging out in the tent the rest of the day, we enjoyed a quiet morning at home getting some pressing chores accomplished. It’s really hard to leave our Truckee compound, even for four days. A backcountry trip in the middle of summer for us, is very rare indeed.
Our goal was to make it to the Bridgeport ranger station to get our backcountry permit by 4:30pm. We drove through Reno so that we could get supplies that are not yet readily available in Truckee and grab some lunch. We didn’t make it to Bridgeport in time to pick up our permit. This dance of timing with the Ranger stations and permits is something to think about when planning your backcountry adventure. If you want to get an early start, you must get your permit the night before and plan on camping somewhere nearby your trailhead. Since we were already off the back on our plans and were not really in any great hurry, we were fine knowing that we could go to the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center the next morning at 8am. I just had to cross my fingers that we could get the permit for the trailhead we wanted.
After waking up early at one of my favorite car camping spots on the East side (no, I can’t tell you where) we drove immediately to the Mono Lake ranger station where we got in line for our permit. Got it! We stopped in Lee Vining for a Monoritto breakfast burrito and then headed to the McGee Creek Trailhead south of Mammoth which is about 40 miles south of Lee Vining. From highway 395 the paved road is old and narrow and then turns to dirt. There is a pack station along the way and then you pop out in a spacious parking lot along the creek.
This is definitely a trail that you want to start hiking early in the day. Even with what I felt like an early hustle we didn’t start hiking until 9:45am. That is why it’s better to get your backcountry permit the night before! We had a lovely cloudy day and it was still a hot start. This could be a brutal hike up in the heat, it’s not recommended. Get an early start! The first couple of hours backpacking for me is always a bit agitating. It takes awhile to find my pace, get in the rhythm and stop thinking about everything that is being rubbed, chaffed and pulled at. Once I get past that point, I settle right into the beauty and feeling that I’m self contained and able.
Right from the start the McGee Creek trail has spectacular scenery. I had been here several years before when the aspens were ablaze with the most incredible rainbow of autumn colors I had ever seen. This trip was just as incredible with the show of wildflowers. Don and I both kept exclaiming how we had never seen so much paintbrush before.
The hike up to McGee Lake is about 8 miles with a 2400 ft. elevation gain. We had it good on a cloudy and partially rainy day. I was pleased that for a stock trail this trail was in great shape. It also could have been the timing of hiking right after a good rain storm. Overall it was a very impressive trail. I was super happy with my new Altra Lone Peak running shoes I purchased at Tahoe Mountain Sports. I used to hike in the super burley leather hiking boots that you can even tell if you have feet. Now I’m sold on backpacking with my trail runners. Only ON TRAIL though. Usually we like to hike off piste and travel some adventurous passes and terrain that I would definitely use a hiking shoe for.
We found a wonderful campsite along the west side of the lake. With the massive Red and White Peak as our sentinel, we were surrounded by water with a lovely rushing waterfall coming from Upper McGee lake and the inlet for McGee Lake. Other options are to go to Steelhead Lake or Golden Lake from the McGee creek trail.
As I mentioned we rarely backpack in the middle of summer. I’ve had this idea that if we get up high enough we will be out the the “buggy” areas. Not true. This was a mosquito’s dream vacation home. Luckily I brought a tent knowing the chance of rain was high. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have and we would have spent a couple of sleepless nights listening to the drone of the little devils. Reminder to self- Good wildflower areas= mosquitos..
There is nothing more spectacular than the morning light in the High Sierra. Just saying…
Day two we packed up our daypacks and headed for an adventure. We normally like to galavant off trail to a far off pass, hoping boulder fields and looking for moss fairies. This particular day we decide to take the trail to the top of McGee pass. Just under 12,000 feet this was a great hike with awesome views. We passed along Upper McGee Lake which was still full of icebergs on the way to the pass. Traveling over snow and scree we talked about how amazing the trail builders were and how they must of been a little crazy. At one point a trail runner blazed pass us and I just couldn’t imagine the feat of running all the way up this pass and back down from the trailhead. It just doesn’t compute in my somatic body.
From the top of McGee Pass you look down into the Fish Creek drainage and beyond. We decided to hike down to the meadows far below where Tully Hole and a whole slew of small lakes and meadows perch in the granite slabs. Our goal was to get to Red and White Lake but it ended that we had already hiked about 8 miles and still had to go back up the pass a couple thousand feet so we bailed on that idea. Meandering off-piste along streams, mossy banks and fields of flowers…this is our heaven. The view of Red Slate Mountain was AWEsome!
After a full day of exploring we arrived back at our camp to relax. The mosquitos would not comply with that idea so we had some lovely tent time before dinner. Another favorite activity in the High Sierra is watching sunset while enjoying a good meal in a pouch. I’m a sucker for the Mountain Adventure Turkey Tetrazzini. Don pulled out a chunk of coffee cake for dessert from the cafe in Lee Vining that was absolutely divine!!
Day three I’m just getting settled in and it’s time to go. Boohoo. I want so badly to saddle up and just keep heading deeper into the Sierra but responsibility calls. We had a crystal clear day that lit up the peaks and valleys and the wildflowers were shining brightly in the sun. Funny how hiking out and back sometimes feels like you are on a totally different trail. We kept stopping and saying to each other, “were these flowers here on the way up?” The lighting can make a place look and feel very different.
I just can’t say enough how much I love the High Sierra and how much it cleanses my soul. McGee Creek area if a fantastic choice for seasoned backpackers and beginners. If you haven’t been, get your but in gear and get out there. If you have, you know the itch and the only way to scratch it is to get you some. One of the best things about living in Truckee is the access to the “East Side” and all that it has to offer. Get some maps and start dreaming. Make sure to stop by Tahoe Mountain Sports to get your gear!
Here are some more pictures from the trip! Enjoy! Polly T.
Name: Polly Triplat (@pollytahoe)
Core Activities: Skiing (all types), mountain biking, running, backpacking
Favorite Workout: Anything outdoors…but I do love skinning up a mountain in a blizzard.
Who Inspires You? My dad, who is 82 and skis more days than I do.
Local Community Organizations: Slow Food Lake Tahoe, Sierra Avalanche Center, Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue
Life Motto: Let no one ever come to you without leaving better.