PHOTO Essay

Backpacking & Fishing Little Lakes Valley

By Brian Klonoski

 

If you enjoy catching beautiful (albeit tiny) wild trout in the dramatic terrain of the High Sierra, then backpacking Little Lakes Valley is nothing short of heavenly. Part of the John Muir Wilderness, this glaciated landscape is surrounded by jagged spires of granite and dotted with alpine lakes. In those brilliant blue puddles reside brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout and even the elusive golden trout, California’s state fish. All these trout rise with gusto to dry flies, but spook easily, so tread with stealth and caution when angling in this dreamy mountainscape.

Little Lakes Valley had been on my radar for some time, but it wasn’t until the tail end of last summer that I finally made it up here. My dad visits California every August to backpack with me in the Sierra Nevada, and this would be our trip in 2018. It turned out to be a wonderful and relatively comfortable adventure — the weather was perfect, the fish were biting and the scenery was grand.

Quite the view looking up Little Lakes Valley toward Treasure Peak. I took this photo the evening before we hiked into the backcountry. We stayed at Mosquito Flat Backpacker Campground, which is reserved for backpackers carrying wilderness permits. There were plenty of spots and we managed to snag a nice one along Rock Creek, where we ate hot dogs, sipped Belgian beer and warmed up by the fire. We fell asleep listening to the cascade of water tumbling down the valley.

A classic view of the basin taken a short way up Little Lakes Valley Trail. From left to right (beginning with the first entirely visible peak) are Rosy Finch Peak, Pyramid Peak, Bear Creek Spire, Pip Squeak Spire and Mt. Dade. Access to this area is absurdly easy. Mosquito Flat Trailhead sits at around 10,200 feet, so once you step out of the car and start hiking, you’re facing only a few hundred feet or so of elevation gain, depending on where you’re going. Even if you traverse the valley and climb to the top of Morgan Pass, you’re still only looking at a thousand feet of elevation gain over the course of 5 miles. You really feel like you’re getting away with something when you’re hiking up here. If there’s ever a backpacking trip where it’s worth bringing a few extras, like a bottle of whisky or a hammock, this is the one. 

As we ambled up to Long Lake, we could see plenty of brook trout cruising in the shallows near the outlet, so we stopped to take a rest and do a little fishing. I don’t think we caught anything. The valley ahead looked inviting and we were anxious to keep hiking.

We made basecamp at Chickenfoot Lake. I’m not sure we could have picked a better spot. It’s centrally located, with plenty of gorgeous campsites to choose from, and is far enough from Little Lakes Valley Trail to feel off the beaten path (or at least relatively so — this area is crowded, plain and simple). The lake itself was dimpled with hundreds of rising trout in the mornings and evenings. At night, we watched the moonlight crawl across the mountain faces on the other side of the valley.

The fish would begin to feed en masse as soon as the sun dipped behind the mountains, casting a shadow of arctic half-light over the lake. I fished plenty, but it was just as fun to sit in this granite amphitheater and watch my dad cast to risers. He did well every evening, catching mostly rainbows with a brook trout here and there.

I struggle to understand how something so pretty, fragile and quite frankly dim-witted can survive in such a harsh environment. But then again, that is the beauty of the mountain trout.

This spot is listed in my GPS as Penthouse Camp. The first night I slept here, I was awoken by a pack of coyotes howling as they ran through the rocky canyon below (my dad had a bear poking around his tent that same night). But the best sound by far was the wind whistling through the pass just south of here all night long. This was a great campsite — one of my all-time favorites — but I bet there are dozens of even better spots waiting to be discovered up and down this valley. 

The view looking up Little Lakes Valley from Penthouse Camp, just as the moon was rising.

Moonlight rushes through Morgan Pass, illuminating Mount Dade. I stayed up each night to watch the moon rise — it was too good a show to miss, especially from my front row seat at Penthouse Camp. The full moon seemed to shine with all the power of the sun, bringing day to the valley at night. 

We hiked up Little Lakes Valley Trail and over Morgan Pass to take a stab at fishing Upper Morgan Lake. Here’s the view looking back down Little Lakes Valley, with Chickenfoot Lake, the site of our basecamp, visible amongst the evergreens and granite. 

My little super pup, Gunther, at the top of Morgan Pass, elevation 11,110 feet. This was a new altitude record for him, crushing his previous best of a little over 10,000 feet. 

As we hiked down the pass, Upper Morgan Lake came into view, standing out brilliant and blue against an otherwise bleak landscape. We made our way for the stand of trees on the far side of the lake. As we passed along the water’s edge, we were stoked to see big trout cruising the drop offs and rocky shoreline, rising to whatever insects manage to survive up here. 

I love this shot of my dad hurling a cast into Upper Morgan Lake — you can see his lure hit the water! In the background you can also see the trail heading up to Morgan Pass, with Little Lakes Valley beyond.

Gunther leading the way, with my dad close behind, as we hike back over Morgan Pass on our way to camp after a successfull afternoon of fishing.

It’s interesting how two lakes in the same valley just a couple miles apart can feel so different. On the left is Chickenfoot Lake, pushing up against the crags that border Little Lakes Valley. Every now and then, we’d hear a rock or boulder tumble down the scree slope, loosened by who knows what. On the right is one of the four Gem Lakes, enchanting pools of emerald water full of hungry brook trout.

In this moment, Gunther was a little over it after 10 days in the mountains, the last three at nearly 11K feet in the backcountry. But the next morning he was all trots, tail wags and smiles as he led the way down the trail, making friends with every human and dog he passed.

Sunset on our last evening in the backcountry. We ate beef stroganaf and watched rings appear then vanish as trout fed in Checkenfoot Lake. We had to admit it was awfully pretty and surprisingly comfortable up here, and it would be tough to leave the next morning. 

My dad leading the way on the leisurely hike out, probably thinking about all the fish he caught and not much else. And that’s pretty much the point of backpacking into the high country — so mission accomplished.

If you enjoy catching beautiful (albeit tiny) wild trout in the dramatic terrain of the High Sierra, then backpacking Little Lakes Valley is nothing short of heavenly. Part of the John Muir Wilderness, this glaciated landscape is surrounded by jagged spires of granite and dotted with alpine lakes. In those brilliant blue puddles reside brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout and even the elusive golden trout, California’s state fish. All these trout rise with gusto to dry flies, but spook easily, so tread with stealth and caution when angling in this dreamy mountainscape.

Little Lakes Valley had been on my radar for some time, but it wasn’t until the tail end of last summer that I finally made it up here. My dad visits California every August to backpack with me in the Sierra Nevada, and this would be our trip in 2018. It turned out to be a wonderful and relatively comfortable adventure — the weather was perfect, the fish were biting and the scenery was grand.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

Quite the view looking up Little Lakes Valley toward Treasure Peak. I took this photo the evening before we hiked into the backcountry. We stayed at Mosquito Flat Backpacker Campground, which is reserved for backpackers carrying wilderness permits. There were plenty of spots and we managed to snag a nice one along Rock Creek, where we ate hot dogs, sipped Belgian beer and warmed up by the fire. We fell asleep listening to the cascade of water tumbling down the valley.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

A classic view of the basin taken a short way up Little Lakes Valley Trail. From left to right (beginning with the first entirely visible peak) are Rosy Finch Peak, Pyramid Peak, Bear Creek Spire, Pip Squeak Spire and Mt. Dade. Access to this area is absurdly easy. Mosquito Flat Trailhead sits at around 10,200 feet, so once you step out of the car and start hiking, you’re facing only a few hundred feet or so of elevation gain, depending on where you’re going. Even if you traverse the valley and climb to the top of Morgan Pass, you’re still only looking at a thousand feet of elevation gain over the course of 5 miles. You really feel like you’re getting away with something when you’re hiking up here. If there’s ever a backpacking trip where it’s worth bringing a few extras, like a bottle of whisky or a hammock, this is the one.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

As we ambled up to Long Lake, we could see plenty of brook trout cruising in the shallows near the outlet, so we stopped to take a rest and do a little fishing. I don’t think we caught anything. The valley ahead looked inviting and we were anxious to keep hiking.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

We made basecamp at Chickenfoot Lake. I’m not sure we could have picked a better spot. It’s centrally located, with plenty of gorgeous campsites to choose from, and is far enough from Little Lakes Valley Trail to feel off the beaten path (or at least relatively so — this area is crowded, plain and simple). The lake itself was dimpled with hundreds of rising trout in the mornings and evenings. At night, we watched the moonlight crawl across the mountain faces on the other side of the valley.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

The fish would begin to feed en masse as soon as the sun dipped behind the mountains, casting a shadow of arctic half-light over the lake. I fished plenty, but it was just as fun to sit in this granite amphitheater and watch my dad cast to risers. He did well every evening, catching mostly rainbows with a brook trout here and there.

I struggle to understand how something so pretty, fragile and quite frankly dim-witted can survive in such a harsh environment. But then again, that is the beauty of the mountain trout.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

This spot is listed in my GPS as Penthouse Camp. The first night I slept here, I was awoken by a pack of coyotes howling as they ran through the rocky canyon below (my dad had a bear poking around his tent that same night). But the best sound by far was the wind whistling through the pass just south of here all night long. This was a great campsite — one of my all-time favorites — but I bet there are dozens of even better spots waiting to be discovered up and down this valley. 

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

The view looking up Little Lakes Valley from Penthouse Camp, just as the moon was rising.

Moonlight rushes through Morgan Pass, illuminating Mount Dade. I stayed up each night to watch the moon rise — it was too good a show to miss, especially from my front row seat at Penthouse Camp. The full moon seemed to shine with all the power of the sun, bringing day to the valley at night.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

We hiked up Little Lakes Valley Trail and over Morgan Pass to take a stab at fishing Upper Morgan Lake. Here’s the view looking back down Little Lakes Valley, with Chickenfoot Lake, the site of our basecamp, visible amongst the evergreens and granite.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

My little super pup, Gunther, at the top of Morgan Pass, elevation 11,110 feet. This was a new altitude record for him, crushing his previous best of a little over 10,000 feet.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

As we hiked down the pass, Upper Morgan Lake came into view, standing out brilliant and blue against an otherwise bleak landscape. We made our way for the stand of trees on the far side of the lake. As we passed along the water’s edge, we were stoked to see big trout cruising the drop offs and rocky shoreline, rising to whatever insects manage to survive up here.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

I love this shot of my dad hurling a cast into Upper Morgan Lake — you can see his lure hit the water! In the background you can also see the trail heading up to Morgan Pass, with Little Lakes Valley beyond.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

Gunther leading the way, with my dad close behind, as we hike back over Morgan Pass on our way to camp after a successfull afternoon of fishing.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

It’s interesting how two lakes in the same valley just a couple miles apart can feel so different. This is Chickenfoot Lake, pushing up against the crags that border Little Lakes Valley. Every now and then, we’d hear a rock or boulder tumble down the scree slope, loosened by who knows what.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

And this is one of the four Gem Lakes, enchanting pools of emerald water full of hungry brook trout.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

In this moment, Gunther was a little over it after 10 days in the mountains, the last three at nearly 11K feet in the backcountry. But the next morning he was all trots, tail wags and smiles as he led the way down the trail, making friends with every human and dog he passed.

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

Sunset on our last evening in the backcountry. We ate beef stroganaf and watched rings appear then vanish as trout fed in Checkenfoot Lake. We had to admit it was awfully pretty and surprisingly comfortable up here, and it would be tough to leave the next morning. 

Moonrise over the Alabama Hills and the Inyo Mountains beyond.

My dad leading the way on the leisurely hike out, probably thinking about all the fish he caught and not much else. And that’s pretty much the point of backpacking into the high country — so mission accomplished.

Tent in Little Lakes Valley.

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