Fall in Santa Clarita can be elusive (Still hot, but now windy.). Though barely detectable, it's enough to stir in me a restlessness that demands one final trip to the Sierras before winter snows blow in and shut down the canyons, trails and lakes.
It's impossible to predict when that will be, so when the calendar clears and an opportunity arises for adventure, I take it. This year's excursion was a boys trip: my 12-year-old son Drew and I were joined by my brother-in-law Javier and my 13-year-old nephew Ethan.
Up before the sun one Saturday, we were in Bishop by late morning. After an early lunch at the Burger Barn, we pushed on to Mammoth for off-roading exploration of the Laurel Lakes area. We left the pavement at Old Mammoth Road and stuttered along the washboard road past Sherwin Creek Campground. Turning right at the sign for Laurel Lakes, we headed up the mountain on a very rough four-and-a-half mile single-lane trail.
The elevation climbed quickly as we slowly lurched and bounced our way over the rocky, dusty track. Laurel Creek ran in the canyon below. No water was visible, just a ribbon of green draped across the brown sage where trees and shrubs sprouted from its banks.
This was my first time driving off-road in a recently-purchased Ford E350 van. It's not a 4X4, but it's been built up for just such adventures. Our first major obstacle was a hairpin turn, followed by a steep, soft section of trail. I positioned the van in a turnout where I could get a running start and line up a straight shot through the tricky section. But before I went for it, Javi suggested we scout the rest of the route to the lakes in his Land Rover. Good idea.
Our reconnaissance quickly showed the van's long wheel base wouldn't have negotiated the tight turns and last steep descent to the lake - at least not with me behind the wheel.
We stopped near the shore of the upper lake for pictures and rock skipping and then headed back the way we came in search of a campsite. We found it where the trail and creek nearly converged.
A circular clearing in the greenery was wide enough to park the two rigs side by side, leaving us with our own little woodsy nook. We turned the boys and the dog (My German shepherd, Tess.) loose to explore while we set up camp. All three returned, the boys with sticks that they set to carving with their pocket knives.
Grey clouds appeared in what had been a polished blue sky, adding a light sprinkle to our dinner of chili and beans. The sun set behind the canyon wall and darkness slowly slipped over us.
We used the last of the light to walk further down the canyon. The thickets around the creek gave way to a wide, flat bank covered with long dead grass. We followed a faded set of tire tracks for a trail. A bear had been here before us, leaving a seed-filled calling card in the grass. The wind blew steadily, enough to make the aspen across the creek dance. A handful of yellow leaves in the grove hinted at fall's impending arrival.
How quickly would it come? And would winter's snow be close behind? It didn't matter at that point. We returned to camp with the satisfaction of visiting the Sierras one last time this season.
And, we made enough memories to last us until spring when the mountains will renew their summons and beckon us to come exploring again.
Eric Harnish lives in Castaic.
Go Before the Snow
Inyo National Forest
California Trail Users Coalition Map
Inyo National Forest (North) and Bishop Area BLM