Backpacker Tony Kurlander headed out to the eastern side of the Golden Trout Wilderness for a few days. He started and ended in Horseshoe Meadow. Here is what he had to report.
I drove up to Horseshoe Meadows to acclimate the night of Wednesday, 20 June 2019, and stayed in the walk-in Cottonwood Pass campground. I noted no signs of bear activity. My first trip out of Horseshoe Meadow was in 1974 over Mulkey Pass. This whole area has appealed to me ever since. I am old enough to remember seeing planes land at Tunnel Meadow Air Camp many years back.
Hiked over Trail Pass the first day and stayed at the extreme east end of Tunnel Meadows. I was last on that route in May 2015, a drought year. Then, the South Fork was not much more than a trickle. This year, a heavy snow year, the South Fork was raging! I was surprised at how challenging the initial ford was near the old McConnel Meadow trail. It was not dangerous, but I took my time and used trekking poles. It was interesting to see the old telephone line along parts of the route, and to see, high on a tree, the old sign indicating the trail to McConnel Meadow. There was lots of water, and lots of green grass, in Bullfrog Meadow on the way in.
The second day was a very short day, only to where the trail crosses Golden Trout Creek, just past the site of the old guard station and still-remaining snow survey cabin. I waved to a fisherman on the creek, but he was only the second person I’d seen once I got past the PCT at Trail Pass.
The third day I headed toward Little Whitney Meadow, after a nearly hip-deep wade across Golden Trout Creek. I crossed at the main ford because I did not want to fight my way through the bushes elsewhere, even if the crossing might have been a bit shallower. Lots of golden trout…and lots of water–another pleasant change from 2015. This time, I took the short, unmarked trail to Groundhog Meadow to see it for the first time ever–it was a remarkable emerald color, and absolutely beautiful.
Once I got to the next crossing of Golden Trout Creek, which is just shy of Little Whitney Meadow, the creek was pretty high. I am almost 60 and had a heavy pack, so I decided not to wade across but, instead, to clamber over the rocks on my side of the creek and head toward the cow camp/snow survey cabin at the north end of the meadow. That’s what I did, although the trail petered out after a couple of hundred yards. So, I sloshed through the meadow and waded across a couple of creeks. Once at the cow camp/snow survey cabin, I picked up the faint trail toward Salt Lick Meadow. I camped near Salt Lick that evening.
The trail to Little Whitney Meadow was excellent! There were no trees blocking the way, and several days later I bumped into the local trail crew. Three guys–they were young, enthusiastic, and did a great job clearing the trail. In contrast, the trail to Salt Lick Meadow and beyond–up, up, and up before finally dropping into Barrigan Stringer, was, in places, very difficult to follow. I lost the trail about a dozen times. However, I am not complaining–it gives one a sense of accomplishment to follow a less-traveled path, and one feels a real sense of achievement finding the trail! I cannot take all the credit, though, because rangers had at some point put blazes on some of the trees, and some thoughtful hiker or hikers had placed ducks in various places to mark the trail. I found the blazes and ducks of immeasurable assistance. I recommend that folks take this route to Big Whitney Meadow. It is off the beaten track and very scenic.
Barrigan Stringer was just beautiful! I camped there, just above 10,000 feet, and the next two days I camped at Big Whitney Meadow. I’d never visited Big Whitney Meadow before, and camped near the junction with the Siberian Pass Trail. Lots of water in Big Whitney. I do not know whether cattle still graze at any of the meadows I visited, but the cow camp at Little Whitney Meadow looked in disrepair, all the drift fences were in poor shape, and I didn’t see any cattle at all on the trip. Which, quite frankly, was nice. (I later ran into a patrolling ranger named Matt, and he told me he did not think that cattle are still grazed in those northern meadows–of course, these meadows were historically used for grazing for many decades–hence, the cow camps at Mulkey, Little Whitney, Templeton, and elsewhere.)
I saw just two folks total from Trail Pass to Big Whitney Meadow, but at BWM saw about ten more folks–that industrious trail crew, a couple of guys my age, and several 20-something hikers. So, if you absolutely want to avoid seeing people, stick to the less-frequently maintained trails and camp out of sight of a trail.
The weather was great the entire time. It got close to freezing most nights, but the days were sunny and warm. The mosquitoes were slightly annoying at times, but generally were unproblematic. The hike out over Cottonwood Pass was fine–plenty of places to get water, generally a well-graded trail, and no logs blocking the route. This was a very enjoyable, week-long trip.
I do recommend a visit to Groundhog Meadow, Salt Lick Meadow, and Barrigan Stringer. There is plenty of firewood and water, and a plethora of camp spots.