Tahoe Light Photography » Corporate, outdoor and adventure photography by Reno and Lake Tahoe freelance photographer Scott Sady.

Sierra Backpacking – Pine Creek Pass

Pine Creek Pass backpacking trip 2016

by Scott

It’s that time again, time for our annual 4th of July backpacking trip report (but we know you all mostly just check in for the pictures,) so here it goes…. This year’s trip was up Pine Creek Pass just north of Bishop, California, in the High Sierra. Pine Creek Pass trailhead is at a horse packing station at the end of Pine Creek Rd., across from an old tungsten mine. The trail switchbacks straight up for a few thousand feet and after about 5 miles it reaches its first lake, Pine Lake. After Upper Pine Lake, the trail splits with the right fork heading to Italy Pass and the left to Pine Creek Pass. We headed to Pine Creek Pass and camped at Upper Pine Lake for the first night about 6 miles in. (This trip was a really mellow one that would be suitable for any abilities, as long as you can read a map.) The mosquitoes at the Pine Lakes were the worst I have ever seen in my couple of decades of doing this. Fortunately we had read a few trip reports to this effect prior to setting out and we all bought dorky hat nets that fit over your hat and cover your face and neck. By the end of the trip those nets were my best friend. Once you had those on, and a long-sleeve nylon shirt and pants, you were pretty much mosquito proof without needing much DEET. But beware when you go to the bathroom, they try to make up for things there…. After Upper Pine Lake we did a water crossing that was nearly too high to pass in the evening when we got there, but had dropped by 4 inches the following morning. Pine Creek Pass itself is a very mellow pass with a long, flat saddle at the top and a gradual decent on the other side either along the trail into French Canyon, or cross country to any of a dozen high alpine lakes in close proximity. We cut off the trail at the pass and headed SW to French Lake. That was a good lake, fun for swimming and it had one large campsite in some flat grass at the south east end. From there we explored several close, higher and smaller lakes, but decided French Lake was by far the best to overnight. We saw no people there. From French Lake we cut cross-country again to L Lake, only 2 miles away. We got there early, dropped our gear and again hiked for a few hours to several nearby alpine lakes but decided a flat dirt bench above L Lake was our best camping option. This was our favorite spot with several snowmelt creeks running near us, a waterfall to swim under right beside us, L Lake below us and Steelhead Lake about 1/2 mile above us. The sides of the streams were lined with immature shooting star plants, and I imagine about two weeks after our trip, the area was a riot of color. But the best part was that we are pretty sure we saw a wolf. I only caught a glimpse, but two of our crew saw it, starting about 10 feet away, and watched it run with lightning speed and dexterity up a broken cliff face and into a small cave. We also saw lots of canine scat and paw prints nearby. From L Lake, with time running short and some of our group not feeling comfortable making the 10 mile hike back to the car, we headed back over the pass to Honeymoon Lake, where we would only have about 6 miles downhill to go in the morning. After two days of not seeing a single person, nor sign of them, Honeymoon lake was a bit of a shock. Situated right along the Italy Pass trail, there were at least 4 other small groups camped around the lake, but we decided to head the opposite direction and cross a stream at the outflow of the lake. That required taking our boots off and wading through about 30 feet of water, but we were rewarded with the best sites on the lake all to ourselves. Once we got over the initial shock of seeing people again, Honeymoon lake was a lot of fun. Cliffs to jump off of, waterfalls to play under and decent swimming and views.

Now for the technical info and shameless self promotion, so feel free to skip down to the pictures. All images are shot on a Nikon D810. This trip I only took the 24-70 f2.8. I usually take either this lens or my 14-24 f2.8, but that is a heavy lens. I know most people now look at these pictures on their phones or tablets, but I have several 5-7 foot prints hanging in local Reno businesses, so feel free to contact me or search through my archive if you need some wall art. For purchase or license of any of these images, which would make amazing decorations for home or office, head on over to my landscape photography galleries, and click search, then enter any keywords describing what you are looking for. Given the normal snowfall, I was too early for the wildflowers this year, but if you like wildflowers, check out last years trip to the Trinity Alps! And finally, I am in the process of updating the look of this blog, and this is my first entry with the images sized larger for Retina displays, so please let me know if you encounter unusually slow load times or other weirdness. Thanks.

Heading up the steep switchbacks from the Tungsten mine at the Pine Creek Pass trailhead. This is also the trailhead for Italy Pass

Heading up the steep switchbacks from the Tungsten mine at the Pine Creek Pass trailhead. This is also the trailhead for Italy Pass

The normal snow year meant a lot of water at high elevations, but most of it had a fairly easy way through.

The normal snow year meant a lot of water at high elevations, but most of it had a fairly easy way through.

At Upper Pine Lake a few shooting stars were out along the many creeks flowing into the lake, but at higher elevations it was still probably going to be mid-late july before the wildflowers really popped.

At Upper Pine Lake a few shooting stars were out along the many creeks flowing into the lake, but at higher elevations it was still probably going to be mid-late july before the wildflowers really popped.

Sunset at Upper Pine Lake, about 5 miles in from the trailhead. The mosquitoes were the worst I had ever seen this year.

Sunset at Upper Pine Lake, about 5 miles in from the trailhead. The mosquitoes were the worst I had ever seen this year.

Panoramic image of Upper Pine Lake at sunset in the High Sierra.

Panoramic image of Upper Pine Lake at sunset in the High Sierra.

There was a lengthy water crossing leaving Upper Pine Lake, it was impassible in the afternoon, but in the morning the water level had dropped by about 4 inches.

There was a lengthy water crossing leaving Upper Pine Lake, it was impassible in the afternoon, but in the morning the water level had dropped by about 4 inches.

Looking back from Pine Creek Pass at the trail and drainage up from the trailhead.

Looking back from Pine Creek Pass at the trail and drainage up from the trailhead.

There are two small lakes on Pine Creek Pass itself. The pass is one of the widest I have encountered, with at least a 1/4 mile flat section at the top before a gradual decent on the other side.

There are two small lakes on Pine Creek Pass itself. The pass is one of the widest I have encountered, with at least a 1/4 mile flat section at the top before a gradual decent on the other side.

Clockwise from left: After crossing Pine Creek Pass, we cut cross country to French Lake. 2: Cresting the basin ridge holding french lake and starting down. 3-4: We had a fairly low-mileage crew this year, and after two days of up, there was a lot of relaxing along the flat shores of 11250 foot French Lake

Clockwise from left: After crossing Pine Creek Pass, we cut cross country to French Lake. 2: Cresting the basin ridge holding french lake and starting down. 3-4: We had a fairly low-mileage crew this year, and after two days of up, there was a lot of relaxing along the flat shores of 11250 foot French Lake

I climbed up about 250 vertical feet from the far end of French Lake to check out the sunset on the 4 Gables above Little French Lake. Little French Lake would not make much of an overnight spot, but the views were nice.

I climbed up about 250 vertical feet from the far end of French Lake to check out the sunset on the 4 Gables above Little French Lake. Little French Lake would not make much of an overnight spot, but the views were nice.

As I started down from little French Lake, the sunset really kicked up only over the 4 Gables, so I spent some time working the rock formations and stream for a decent composition.

As I started down from little French Lake, the sunset really kicked up only over the 4 Gables, so I spent some time working the rock formations and stream for a decent composition.

Pine Creek Pass backpacking trip 2016

Pine Creek Pass backpacking trip 2016

French Lake really only had one possible campsite, a large flat grassy area on the SW side, but the lake and surrounding area were nice, great for swimming and was the first of two consecutive days that we did not see another person.

French Lake really only had one possible campsite, a large flat grassy area on the SE side, but the lake and surrounding area were nice, great for swimming and was the first of two consecutive days that we did not see another person.

I got up before sunrise to shoot some pictures. No wildflowers were out at this elevation yet, but I used one of the numerous snowmelt streams to help with compositions. This is pre-sunrise on Merriam, Royce and Feather peaks, a popular destination for climbers.

I got up before sunrise to shoot some pictures. No wildflowers were out at this elevation yet, but I used one of the numerous snowmelt streams to help with compositions. This is pre-sunrise on Merriam, Royce and Feather peaks, a popular destination for climbers.

Sunrise reflections on Merriam and Royce peaks in the High Sierra.

Sunrise reflections on Merriam and Royce peaks in the High Sierra.

The fish were not biting so much at French Lake, but that was soon to change as the other lakes we visited had swarms of fish it seemed you could catch with your hands in the small streams.

The fish were not biting so much at French Lake, but that was soon to change as the other lakes we visited had swarms of fish it seemed you could catch with your hands in the small streams.

We did a short day for day 3, exploring some of the small, high lakes nearby, then heading cross-country less than 2 miles to L Lake.

We did a short day for day 3, exploring some of the small, high lakes nearby, then heading cross-country less than 2 miles to L Lake.

Coming into L Lake. This lake was our favorite spot. Once again we saw no people but we are quite sure we saw a wolf, as well as large canine prints and scat. We convinced ourselves that was impossible, even though 2 of our crew got a real close-up look, but when we got back and did a little research, turns out there are numerous, but sporadic sightings of a wolf in this area.

Coming into L Lake. This lake was our favorite spot. Once again we saw no people but we are quite sure we saw a wolf, as well as large canine prints and scat. We convinced ourselves that was impossible, even though 2 of our crew got a real close-up look, but when we got back and did a little research, turns out there are numerous, but sporadic sightings of a wolf in this area.

The many snow-melt streams between Steelhead Lake and L lake were great for photography, waterfalls, swimming and fishing. And we could tell that in another two weeks, there would be a riot of wildflowers along these streams making them even better

The many snow-melt streams between Steelhead Lake and L lake were great for photography, waterfalls, swimming and fishing. And we could tell that in another two weeks, there would be a riot of wildflowers along these streams making them even better

We explored the many lakes around L Lake during the day, and after seeing hundreds of decent sized fish in and around the outflow of Steelhead lake, some of the crew decided to fish there at sunset, they caught 6 fish each, I believe, but released most of them back.

We explored the many lakes around L Lake during the day, and after seeing hundreds of decent sized fish in and around the outflow of Steelhead lake, some of the crew decided to fish there at sunset, they caught 6 fish I believe, but released most of them back.

A black and white shot just after the sun passed behind Royce Peak.

A black and white shot just after the sun passed behind Royce Peak.

A black and white shot just after the sun passed behind Royce Peak.

A black and white shot just after the sun passed behind Royce Peak.

The stream flowing out of Steelhead lake with the last light on the other side of the Four Gables peak.

The stream flowing out of Steelhead lake with the last light on the other side of the Four Gables peak.

Without the wildflowers blooming, I really liked the leading lines of these small mountain streams at sunset.

Without the wildflowers blooming, I really liked the leading lines of these small mountain streams at sunset.

After the sun went down the wide granite benches above L Lake made for great card playing and star watching.

After the sun went down the wide granite benches above L Lake made for great card playing and star watching.

The wind shut off overnight and around 2am I was able to get some nice Milky Way shots with no moon and still pull a little reflection off L Lake.

The wind shut off overnight and around 2am I was able to get some nice Milky Way shots with no moon and still pull a little reflection off L Lake.

The wind shut off overnight and around 2am I was able to get some nice Milky Way shots with no moon and still pull a little reflection off L Lake.

The wind shut off overnight and around 2am I was able to get some nice Milky Way shots with no moon and still pull a little reflection off L Lake.

Lacking wildflowers and with Royce and Merriam being the only peaks getting first light from our vantage point, I went back up to my little streams at sunrise.

Lacking wildflowers and with Royce and Merriam being the only peaks getting first light from our vantage point, I went back up to my little streams at sunrise.

Pine Creek Pass backpacking trip 2016

Pine Creek Pass backpacking trip 2016

Back to the granite to soak up the first sun rays and drink some coffee after a particularly cold night

Back to the granite to soak up the first sun rays and drink some coffee after a particularly cold night

Heading back toward Pine Creek Pass from L Lake, we did encounter some nice pink flowers in the low, wet areas.

Heading back toward Pine Creek Pass from L Lake, we did encounter some nice Western Swamp Laurel in the low, wet areas.

Once over the pass we decided to stay at Honeymoon Lake. This was a fun lake, with some good swimming and jumping rocks and 3 waterfalls pouring into it. It was also the most crowded of the lakes we visited, but we decided to head away from the Italy Pass trail, which runs along the S. side of the lake and where most people were camped, and take off our shoes to make this large water crossing, and were rewarded for our efforts by the best campsites on the lake, 4 large flat areas with a flat granite bench looking back down into Pine Lake below, or across at the largest waterfall.

Once over the pass we decided to stay at Honeymoon Lake. This was a fun lake, with some good swimming and jumping rocks and 3 waterfalls pouring into it. It was also the most crowded of the lakes we visited, but we decided to head away from the Italy Pass trail, which runs along the S. side of the lake and where most people were camped, and take off our shoes to make this large water crossing, and were rewarded for our efforts by the best campsites on the lake, 4 large flat areas with a flat granite bench looking back down into Pine Lake below, or across at the largest waterfall.

Given that this trip happened during a period of basically no moon, I had my sights set on trying a Milky Way panorama, but did get any decent compositions until this final night, when the Milky Way arced perfectly over the peaklet behind Upper Pine Lake.

Given that this trip happened during a period of basically no moon, I had my sights set on trying a Milky Way panorama, but did get any decent compositions until this final night, when the Milky Way arced perfectly over the peaklet behind Upper Pine Lake.

First light from Honeymoon Lake hitting in the direction of Italy Pass. The saddle visible is not Italy pass, but a perfectly doable cross-country route if you wanted to come straight across from Royce Lake on the other side.

First light from Honeymoon Lake hitting in the direction of Italy Pass. The saddle visible is not Italy pass, but a perfectly doable cross-country route if you wanted to come straight across from Royce Lake on the other side.

  • July 11, 2016 - 5:36 pm

    Richard Whitney - Nice photography!
    What camera were you using for the celestial shots?
    Time exposure w/ clock dive?

  • July 11, 2016 - 5:37 pm

    Richard Whitney - Make that ‘clock drive’!

  • July 25, 2016 - 3:00 pm

    Steve - Hey Scott — great photos and trip report. Headed up to Honeymoon this weekend and hoping the skeeters in the area have diminished. And thinking about bringing the big ol’ Nikon now! cheers

  • July 27, 2016 - 2:58 pm

    ssady - nikon d810, though the d750 produces a bit cleaner file up to iso 6400…

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