Hiking Through The Sky: Alta Meadow, Moose Lake, Pear Lake
Inspired by recent interviews, and fueled in part by an overconfidence in our collective cross-country navigational skills, I organized my first off-trail hike in the Sierras for myself and five others. The plan was to form a loop that would include Alta Meadow, Moose Lake, Pear Lake, Emerald Lake, The Watchtower, and the rest of the Lakes Trail by connecting two, 6–8 mile, out-and-back trails in Sequoia National Park with about 7 miles of unmarked, rocky backcountry between them, also known as The Tablelands. The loop would be approximately 22 miles—perhaps masochistic for a weekend, but doable.
The hike was doable in that it was done, and in two days, but we didn’t return to our cars until close to midnight on that Sunday, exhausted and with buckling knees, a sprained ankle, and blistered feet. It was certainly the most physically and emotionally challenging hike I’ve ever completed, although that has a lot to do with the short timeframe. Had we had another day, we could have rested at least once.
Here is where we went wrong: with cross-country hiking and especially cross-country backpacking at high altitude, Naismith’s rule does not apply. We learned this the hard way. The somewhat reliable formula we usually use to calculate the duration of a hike (1 hour for every 3 miles, plus an additional hour for every 2,000 feet of ascent) is irrelevant when you’re debating routes and scrambling up mountainsides just to see whether there’s a vertical drop on the other side. We spent nearly every waking hour that weekend on our feet and we did not have enough time to guess, backtrack, and then guess again. All in all, everything took at least twice as long as we expected.
But this was undoubtedly some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen, and even more so because it was all a surprise: no guidebook described those seven trail-less miles and no instagram geotag revealed a view in advance, at least not any that I saw. We encountered no other humans between Alta Meadow and Pear Lake, no one to tell us “you’re almost there” (where would “there” be anyway?), provide tips, or to remind us that we were still in the same dimension as our cars. For just a two day trip, it felt extremely remote, beautiful, terrifying, and psychedelic, a lot to say about a single weekend.
When we made it to Alta Meadow, the hills were a-l-i-v-e. Alta Meadow in July is no sweet, pastoral scene, but a tilting terrain of soggy earth, trunk-like plants that drowned us up to our waists, swarms of bees, enormous flowers, and the vibrating energy of thousands of bugs just beneath every green surface. The sun beat down on us and one of us stopped to attend to a bee sting. Luckily, we found a small, sandy and forested area with enough shade to eat lunch and contemplate the rough journey ahead. At this point, we said goodbye to our friends Zach and Sarah, who decided to camp next to the meadow because Zach had a terrible cold.
Naively, we thought leaving Alta Meadow around 3pm would give us enough time to get to Moose Lake, but we couldn’t find a clear way out of the aptly-named “Last Chance Meadow,” a narrow continuation of Alta where the trail ends. There was some debate about whether to go straight up the mountainside, which seemed unreasonably steep but matched a stranger’s GPS we found online, or to skirt the mountainside and follow the meadow, which would have sent us downhill.
A mysterious group appeared on the mountainside far above us and we wondered if they were part of the WTC (Wilderness Travel Course) run by the Sierra Club, knowing that this is one of their regular routes. “Hey!!!” I shouted up at them, thinking they probably didn’t hear me. “Where are you coming from?!!!” We were anxious to find the proper route out of the meadow. They paused and shouted back, “Where are you going?!!!” “Moose Lake!!!” I shouted back. “It’s too late!!” they screamed. “We left this morning! And there’s a storm coming!”, pointing to a collection of black clouds forming over the Great Western Divide behind us. We continued on, hesitantly, and those were the last people we saw for well over 24 hours.
Our indecisiveness led us up and down. Every time I looked at my GPS, we didn’t seem to be getting any closer to Moose Lake, which was ironic given our exertion. Sometimes we climbed steep terrain for an hour only to discover a ravine that stopped us from moving forward, and we would have to backtrack down to where we started. Contour lines on our topographic maps, we learned, only reveal terrain shifts every 30 feet, and a lot can happen in 30 feet.
Darkness started to fall. We resigned ourselves to setting up camp in a forest somewhere a few miles east of Moose Lake. I was comforted by the sight of someone else’s old fire ring in that forest—at least someone had been here before—but I had a hard time sleeping, wondering how I could have enthusiastically pulled my friends and fiancé down this rabbit hole.
We woke up early the next morning and climbed rapidly over a steep hillside. At the top, we were greeted with sweeping views of the Great Western Divide. Our moods were uplifted by the dramatic, smooth rock formations tumbling down the sides of vertical cliffs. Far below us stood glassy pools of water, small but dark and deep in color. We stopped to take pictures in a grassy saddle where shallow waters and permafrost remained even in the summer heat.
Since the day before, we had been looking for what some old guidebooks referred to as a boot path, remnants of a trail from the 1940s that connected Alta Meadow to Moose Lake. At times, we felt like we were seeing mirages in the desert: “Is this the trail?” we’d ask, pointing to a bald line of earth, or “Is that a cairn?”, examining what could have easily been a rock that fell on top of another rock. I am not convinced the alleged boot path remains at all, except in the immediate vicinity of Moose Lake. When we finally spotted something that looked like a trail, we knew that we were getting close.
The marmots at Moose Lake were charismatic, charmingly fat, and brave enough to get so close to us that we feared losing our lunch. We ate quickly, wishing we could stay longer, then walked around the periphery of the lake, trying to find the way out. Consulting our topographic maps and debating over GPS routes, we stopped, stunned, to admire the view of Moose looking out over the Great Western Divide. Dotted with white rock islands, the lake seemed to disappear over the mountain range like an infinity pool. Of all the places in the Sierra that I’ve been, I had never seen anything so incredible. We reluctantly moved ahead.
The backcountry between Moose and Pear Lake is known as The Tablelands, named for the endless granite slabs that cover the landscape. I became so accustomed to walking over them, trying to protect my knees while carrying a 28-pound pack, that the awkward motion will forever remain in my muscle memory. The Tablelands are barren in parts but are surprisingly lush in others. I made a note to myself to come back to this strange place to rest properly in one of the high altitude meadows that kiss the sky.
Standing on top of a bowl beneath Pear Lake, we finally stood in a part of the Sierra Nevada that we recognized, having done the Lakes Trail a couple of years earlier. It was 6pm by the time I bathed quickly in the water, trying to shake up my tired bones. Although we swore that we would never take a trail for granted again, relieved to be alive and carried along by a clear path, I’m thrilled about the prospect of doing more cross-country when the time is right. And when I have enough time.