10,000 Feet High in the Eastern Sierras
We recently snuck in a weekend camping trip to the beautiful Eastern Sierras. It’s a long drive from West L.A. (and even longer when you’re driving in a caravan with families who need a stop every 90 minutes, and then sit down at the restaurant for lunch instead of eating sandwiches on the road). But like any trip to the great outdoors, the drive is usually worth it. Our specific destination was Leavitt Lake. It’s BLM land camping (no toilets), and getting there requires an actual 4×4 vehicle to negotiate the 3 mile dirt “road” to the lake. Indeed, we didn’t even take our AWD Highlander down the road because we weren’t convinced it would make it unscathed.
But we got there with the help of our slow-highway-driving-in-real-4×4-vehicle friends. The lake is at 10,000 feet elevation. Though we’re in the middle of extreme drought, and there’s virtually no snowpack in the Sierras this year, there were still patches of snow around and above the lake. The best part of the weekend was an exploration walk that I took with my 14 year-old to find Koenig Lake (pictured above). We knew which direction it was from where we’d camped, and my son brought the necessary enthusiasm. It can be a little slow going at 10,000 feet when the path gets steep, but we found the little lake and were rewarded with jaw-dropping beauty.
There was a small chance for some lifers around the lake. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches are spotted sporadically in the area, though I wasn’t sure we were actually high enough to see them during June (we didn’t). Pine Grosbeaks can also be found in the Sierras, but we were probably too high to luck into one of them (we didn’t). Black-backed Woodpeckers move around the area, too, but there weren’t enough trees, much less recently burned trees, to see one of them (we didn’t). And we could’ve made a stop along the way to get Sagebrush Sparrow, but I wasn’t going to add to the family’s car time.
Still, there were some birds around. Clark’s Nutcrackers were the most numerous, and most vocal. Cassin’s Finches and Mountain Chickadee were regulars, too. On the walk up to Koenig Lake, my son and I saw two Golden Eagles soaring through the valley. The ravens spotted them, too, and harassed them away. While wandering around the area, I also found a male/female pair of Williamson’s Sapsuckers, which are always a high-elevation treat.
There were also White-breasted Nutchatches, American Robins, a single White-crowned Sparrow, an unexpected Cliff Swallow, and a breeding-plumaged Yellow-rumped Warbler, among the other birds I identified around Leavitt Lake.
On the drive home, we stopped at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Manzanar was one of the World War II internment camps where Japanese immigrants, and American citizens of Japanese heritage, were imprisoned. The population at Manzanar at its peak was 10,000 people. There aren’t any original buildings left, but they have reconstructed a couple of barracks and a mess hall. There’s a fantastic visitor center with a lot of stories and artifacts, and a big wall listing the names of the residents/prisoners. One of the parents on the camping trip has Japanese ancestry, and her grandfather was imprisoned during World War II in Hawaii. Growing up around only white folks, I never got to hear the kinds of stories my kids hear from our diverse collection of friends.
Perhaps the most impactful part of the visit was simply being there on a 97 degree day with the wind blowing 25 miles per hour. It almost kept us from stopping and strolling around for a few minutes, and we had an air-conditioned car and visitor center to relieve us from our suffering. The visitor center testifies to the amazing spirit of the imprisoned (even if it does distract you from the terrible big picture). If you ever get a chance, I highly recommend stopping at Manzanar.