Big Whitney Meadow in the golden trout wilderness
Hiking to a meadow as the ultimate destination of a long hike is something I hadn't heard of before a guidebook introduced me to Big Whitney Meadow in the Golden Trout Wilderness. Meadows, to most people hiking through the Sierras, are dormant places between legitimate destinations like glacial lakes, roaring rivers, hot springs, or towering peaks. On our trip, we encountered more than one person passing through Big Whitney who seemed confused about our decision to camp there for two nights, as if we had given up.
But it was something that my friend Richie and I wanted to do. So we embarked on a leisurely 3-day backpacking trip there in late July of 2017 after a long winter of record-breaking snow, which left the 2-mile-long meadow teeming with life late into the summer season. We had no regrets.
To get to the trailhead, you must drive up the infamously winding Horseshoe Meadows road, covered in snow for most of the year, that climbs over 6,000 feet above Lone Pine, California. The steepness of the road is no joke—I watched as my car's thermometer dropped from the 90-degree heat blanketing Owen's Valley in late July to a chilly 38 degrees at 10,000 feet. Luckily, the campground had firewood for sale using an honors system, so we were able to purchase a bundle as we arrived late on a Friday night. We set up our tent in the dark at the Horseshoe Meadows Backpackers' Campground, a lightly-forested spot with ample sites.
In the morning, I walked around and photographed the tiny stream that ran along the periphery of the campground, admiring how gently and quietly the water moved.
One night of poor sleep was not enough time for me to adjust to the high starting elevation of the hike, as I usually have insomnia at high altitudes. Horseshoe Meadow and Big Whitney Meadow, both about 10,000 feet above sea level, look like mirror images of each other from afar. The meadows are separated by Cottonwood Pass, which you must climb over to access the Golden Trout Wilderness and the nearby Pacific Crest Trail.
Seven miles each way and 1,200 feet of elevation gain doesn't seem like much, but the hike is mostly switchbacks, which can grow monotonous. As we ascended, my nausea worsened, and Richie and I stopped numerous times to take breaks.
Just past the junction with the PCT at the top of Cottonwood Pass, we were greeted by a beautiful meandering stream and views of distant peaks, including Mount Whitney. Big Whitney Meadow, below us, was a swirling, bold pattern of sand, trees, and grass.
One forested section of the trail below Cottonwood Pass was blanketed in yellow flowers that extended back into space as far as I could see. We stopped to rest and acknowledge this fleeting moment in the dappled light, laughing at its sweetness. We also spotted an empty wood cabin set back a ways from the trail and envied the life of its occupant, whoever that person may be.
What we found at Big Whitney, besides complete solitude, is that the beauty of a big, blossoming meadow requires some time to notice and understand. Panoramic photos of meadows will inevitably miss the magic; meadows are filled with details: dainty wildflowers that change color with each step, white boulders that emerge from the grass in clusters like whale pods, streams filled with golden fish that move soundlessly and endlessly across the landscape.
Inexplicably, the textures across Big Whitney Meadow vary wildly and move from sand to grass so abruptly that, from some angles, the meadow resembles a manicured golf course. The softest, most delicate grass would suddenly give way to a crabby tangle of shrubs.
We also noticed a great deal of incongruity, like bright pink flowers emerging in large quantities from the sand, but not at all from the grass, or pools of water that mirrored the sky so precisely that 'up' was indistinguishable from 'down.'
Our second and only full day in Big Whitney Meadow concluded with a thunderstorm. The sky became a daunting mix of black and white and the air filled with electricity, but we managed to take some pictures before retreating to our tent to wait out the rain and rumbling. Richie wore a white dress.
The rain stopped just before nightfall, but the dramatic clouds remained, leaving us with a beautiful sunset.