As I went to bed last night I had butterflies in my belly for the first time in a really long time. It’s not like I hadn’t done something like this before. I hiked Mt. Whitney a few years ago as a day hike and just this week also reached the top of White Mountain, one of only two CA 14-thousand footers that aren’t in the Sierra Nevada Range. But it still seemed kinda like a big deal. I’ve had many early awakenings this Summer to summit Half Dome by sunrise (I think my total was 5), but that was always a decision made for clients and the group I was with, not just me. This was the first time in a long time that I was the one making the decision on what I wanted to do, and also technically the first time I would set out in the dark by myself for an adventure goal that I wanted to accomplish, just me, myself, and I. I was going to hike to the top of Mt. Langley, the 9th tallest peak in California and I was going to force myself up at a god-awful hour in the morning to do it.
The alarm was set for 4:10 am. I had fallen asleep earlier this past week but decided to set a hard bedtime for 9pm. Not hard to do when you’re living out of your car without any electricity and the sun now setting (early November) at the terrible time of 5. Blast daylight savings time. Anyway that I looked at it I had a limited amount of daylight since the days were, in fact, getting shorter and that would factor into how much time I would give myself to hike to the top and back. I was hoping to be on the trail by 5:00 am.
When the alarm rang I shot right up as one does for these occasions. I pre-packed my bag and pretty much slept in what I was going to wear so I wouldn’t have to spend too much time doing anything at that god awful hour. Who likes cooking grits at 4:30am anyways?? I was ready in no time and hopped in the car to begin the climb up the mountain. I stayed at Alabama Hills the night before because I wanted to be in a warmer temperature for sleeping. I had learned my lesson earlier that week with waking up to an 8 degree temperature at 8500 ft. There are walk-in campsites right by the trailhead if you want to go that route, but it sits at 10,000 feet elevation so it will definitely be a tad colder up there. It takes awhile to climb up to Horseshoe Meadows in your car, hairpin turns and drop-offs around every corner, but that means less climbing for the legs!
I finally arrived and started my trek at about 5:15 am. A tad later than I had hoped, but not terrible. Although the sun wasn’t supposed to rise until around 6:20 I only really needed to use my headlamp for maybe the first 30 minutes. Not bad. What was bad was the lack of feeling on all the fat on my thighs and butt. Uh-huh, shoulda wore thicker leggings. It was chilllllayyyy!
The first part of the trail, about 4-5 miles, is super gradual and almost level even. I did have the advantage of hiking this part of the trail last Fall with a group of Sophomores that I was trying to take up Whitney a few days after that hike. I remembered it being pretty nice but we didn’t quite get to the good stuff before we had to turn around, which was ok because it only wet my desire to return and see what Cottonwood Lakes and Langley were all about.
I arrived at the first trail split. New Army Pass was a left turn or Cottonwood Lakes to the right and do the Old Army Pass. I didn’t do too much research before I did this hike but I do know this much; people definitely have their opinions on which one is better to take up or down or not at all. I decided to head up the Old Army Pass since that was the confirmed more direct route as long as there isn’t any chance of snow on the trail, which can make this option the sketchier choice of the two. There was also mention that this route was an unofficial one and the trail hasn’t been maintained for 40 years. Sweet. Let’s see what it’s like!
There was a slight elevation gain once I took the Cottonwood Lakes spur and headed up to see that side of the loop. It leveled out again once I spotted the lakes and saw massive rock faces lining up behind the lakes. Ahhhhhhh. I’m probably climbing to the top of those huh? Can I see my final destination from here? I’m not even sure, but what magnificent scenery!!
The trail meandered around some lakes before heading to Cottonwood Lake #4, which would be the last one before the massive rock wall that I was going to climb. While I was walking around this lake I heard the funkiest noise I’ve ever heard in nature. It kinda sounded like a car alarm. It was nuts and of course I couldn’t get my phone out in time enough to record it. I only saw ducks around and I don’t think it was them so I was left pondering what caused it. I have done further investigation and it sounded exactly like this. The culprit was definitely rock fall from above hitting the frozen lake. How freakin’ sweet is that?!
As I looked from afar at the line the trail would take to get to this pass I thought, ‘oh, ok, that makes sense’. And then, ‘hmm, some of that looks kinda sketch.’ It’s kinda like when you’re giving advice to a buddy rock climbing, some of the moves seem so easy and obvious from below and then you go up there and see that they are barely nothing. Well this was kind of the opposite. I looked at it from afar and thought it looked sketchier but then as I approached and started towards the rubble/sand piles I saw there was an obvious path and there wasn’t anything sketchy. Just watch yo step and stay on the path and you’ll be fine.
The climb up Old Army Pass slowed me down a tad but it wasn’t that long and I was stoked to finally see the Sequoia National Park sign indicating that I had reached the top of the pass. Sweet. Now only several thousand more feet of elevation still to climb!
I headed off to the right when the trails forked. The trail here is technically not official but felt very much so and they have even established massive cairns so that people will follow one route instead of 10 to the top. There was a very obvious path and it was pretty easy going for a while until it wasn’t. The trail started to get less faint, the cairns much much bigger and the elevation gain, evident. I started to take more breaks to
rest ‘check out the beauty’. As I started to climb higher and higher the vistas really did start expanding and stretching like Laffy Taffy. I knew the summit was within reach now but it didn’t make it easier. The air was thin, the rock piles kept appearing higher up in the sky, and the sand that I had to hike up to get there, hmmpphhh! For every 2 steps that I would take I would slide back another. I didn’t quite know if I was following the path that I was supposed to in between cairns, but I followed some sort of line between them. I figured at that point it was mainly rock and gravel so I wasn’t doing too much damage hopefully.
I hiked, I paused to take a photo, I studied the paths to see which way best to take, I hiked some more, I paused to rest, I hiked some more, I pondered more paths, I wondered if I would ever reach the top….and then I arrived! I first saw a pair of trekking poles that somebody had left, then I stumbled upon the sign, register, and geological survey marker. I done did it, wahoo!! The view was pretty spectacular! Spanning into Sequoia, Whitney is the next biggest mountain to the North and this is the most Southern 14’er so nothing else towers over it to the South. I could see other mountain peaks for miles and miles. I had the summit, as well as the rest of the day’s adventure, all to myself. I was stoked.
I savored the views while also savoring my handful of olives from Trader Joe’s and some Sriracha Chicken Bar from Epic followed by a dark chocolate coconut square. I wasn’t planning on staying long so I finished up and started heading down, taking with me the creepy leftover and chewed trekking poles. It was, as it usually always is, easier following the cairns going down and I was just sliding down some of the gravel from one cairn to the next. Being very careful of course Mom ; ). I finally got to a point where I could start a slow jog and it was magnificent. There was scenery for days and just enough in the path where I had to pay attention so I wouldn’t trip, but could look up and enjoy it every so often.
I arrived at the junction of Old Army Pass and and it was time to decide if I would continue back the way I came or if I would do the loop for New Army Pass, even though that meant gaining back another 300 ft. elevation and a few more miles to the daily total. I decided to do the loop. When given a loop option, always take it! I also needed to see what all the discussion was about with the Old vs. New Army Pass mumbo jumbo.
Jogging back towards Sequoia National Park was magnificent and magical. The perfect level trail with the mountains just out of reach in the background. Ahhhh! It finally switched back and started that 300 foot climb. That is also when I started to contemplate why I chose to do this route? Hmm…
I slogged up a few more switchbacks after furnishing the belly with another bar and finally arrived at New Army Pass, wahooooo, no more uphill today!!! I quickly found which way was down and whenever I was able started jogging down the switchbacks, stopping to take several photos of the snow on the headwall and of course the lakes along the way. I was down to High Lake in no time, followed by a jaunt by Long Lake, which held true to its name. The other 2 remaining Cottonwood Lakes rounded out the itinerary of lakes for the day, which put my total to 5, 6, maybe 7 lakes? Who knows? Any day spent by or around an alpine lake is considered time well spent to me! And 7? Forget about it….
The trail then rambled through the forest and started its decline to where it would meet up with the Cottonwood Lakes Trail. It was a gentle downhill slope with a stream meandering by on the left for some time. At this point, even though the day had been great and I still had quite a bit of daylight left it was the ‘are we there yet?’ hour. I only had a handful of miles left on the agenda but of course, those last few are the hardest and most tiring. I tried to jog whenever I could but sometimes just wanted to walk. I was tired. I was beaten. I had started my adventure before dawn and I was ready to be done and in celebration mode. I jogged out of there, no matter how slow, but I did it. I finally arrived at the parking lot exactly 10 hours after starting my journey, starving, tired, wet with sweat, cold again, and totally stoked! I changed into my fleece-lined long underwear and was ready to get warm, drive down the mountain taking in the views, and reminisce already in my mind about the panoramas that I saw today, feeling proud that I challenged myself once again and stepped up (4,544 ft. in elevation to be exact) to meet that challenge.
Wow, sounds like a great trip ! Your pictures are fantastic, looks like a perfect Sierra blue sky day. Loved the article ! I spent the summer of 1983 working for the Forest Service repairing trails in the Golden Trout Wilderness. It was the most fun summer of my life and your photos brought back so many memories, thanks, Kevin
Thanks Kevin! The clouds at first actually had me a little worried on that day but they cleared up beautifully! Glad you enjoyed the article! That sounds like an awesome summer. I would love to do some trail work in the future…
Very nice! This one’s on my list, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I’d probably do an overnight, but this way looks appealing if I could get in the shape for it.
An overnight would still be great! I just didn’t really want to sleep in those temperatures if I didn’t have to at that time of year! Start working for it, it’s a great hike!
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I read this post and followed the same loop on July 3, 2020. Up Old Army Pass, and down New Army Pass. Beautiful hike. Thank you.