Backpacking Over Cottonwood Pass to Lower Soldier Lake

Backpacking Cottonwood Pass

Backpacking Cottonwood Pass
Backpacking Cottonwood Pass

Planning for Backpacking Cottonwood Pass

It starts with a decision to go on a trip. You start by figuring where…for purposes of this conversation, we’ll pretend it’s the Sierras. You do some research, you find your route, and then you work to sell the trip to your friends. The route you’ve chosen – backpacking Cottonwood Pass – is approximately 12 miles each way over two days, reaching ~12,000 feet at a maximum and gaining a good chunk of elevation both coming and going.

You figure – we have all day, 12 miles won’t be that bad.

You find a few friends who are interested, and they find a few more friends who are interested, and suddenly you have at trip! You’ll be hiking from Horseshoe Meadow campgrounds in the Sierras over Cottonwood Pass, and on to Lower Soldier Lake. It will be 5 chicks, 1 dude, and a whole lot of wilderness.

The Morning of Your Trip, Backpacking Cottonwood Pass

It’s Memorial Day weekend. You set off Friday after work for your ~6 hour drive from San Diego to meet the rest of the group. You’ll sleep at Horseshoe Meadow overnight and then head to the Ranger’s station early the next morning for permits (it took your group a bit of time to commit so you were without permits…).

Morning comes, and you luckily have no problem securing permits for the route you want (I do not recommend banking on this option because there will come a time that the quota is full!) since you were first in line when they opened. You head back to the campground, pack up your packs with the essentials for an overnight backpacking trip, and set off into the wilderness. You figure 12 miles can’t be that bad so you’re in no real rush.

You finally set off backpacking Cottonwood Pass around 10am and you’re feeling great. It starts out fairly flat and you’re surrounded by incredible beauty. You’re keeping up with everyone, enjoying the conversations and you think – wow, this is going to be a great trip.

Heading Over Cottonwood Pass – Just Keep Breathing

Then it comes – you reach the pass. Time to head up the switchbacks! It’s about 1,200 feet up over 3.5 miles which you think should be fine, but you’ve forgotten to take into consideration the elevation. Going from 10,000 feet to 11,000 feet is a lot more difficult than going from sea level to 1,000 feet.

The girls you are backpacking with are beasts. They move up the pass with no problem, while you seem to stop every 3 steps for a breath (it’s actually more like 100-300 steps…but who’s counting). Luckily the token dude of your group hangs back with you which half makes you feel bad that he has to wait, but half makes you feel comforted. You stop to take pictures and use that as an excuse for a breath every so often.

You finally make it to the top of the pass and you feel relieved. The rest of your group is waiting at the top having a snack, and you drop your pack to admire the view and take in some calories. The altitude is slowing you down but luckily you still have a bit of an appetite which is a good sign.

The view while backpacking Cottonwood Pass….is amazing. You forget all about how hard it was to breathe coming over the pass and you enjoy the moment. This is your moment. It belongs to you because you worked hard for it.

After your snack, you put your pack on and continue with your trek. You’ve made it over the first obstacle but you still have plenty left to go. The girls, as expected, take off again leaving you feeling inept. It’s not their fault, but you’re frustrated. You work out, you eat right, yet you can never figure out why this always seems to be so much more difficult for you than it is for some other people.

Regardless, you push on. The token dude once again hangs back, and you are appreciative. The altitude is hitting you hard so your half of the conversation is fairly limited, but you continue on counting your steps and taking in the amazing landscape around you. The counting seems to keep you focused, and gives you milestones to help you keep moving.

Frustrations of Backpacking

At one point you realize how far ahead the other group must be because when you call, they don’t answer. You become more frustrated. You feel completely left behind, short of the token dude (and no, he wasn’t trying to get in my pants, folks) who has clearly picked up on this and knows you well enough by now to know how to help.

You make stops along the way to look at the map and determine how much further you have to go. You talk about the strange “whomp whomp whomp” sound you hear coming from some creature and you make guesses about what it could possibly be (for the record, it’s a blue grouse). You talk life and relationships and before you know it, you’ve turned a corner and the rest of the group is sitting having lunch.

You’re still upset. You’re upset with yourself for not being able to move faster, at your lungs for not being able to work harder, at your friends for not recognizing how left behind you feel, yet not wanting them to wait for you because you don’t want to be the victim. You know it’s not their fault, but you’re just upset all around. You eat your lunch quietly, and then it’s time to set off again.

Leaving Inyo National Forest and entering Sequoia and Kings National Parks
Leaving Inyo National Forest and entering Sequoia and Kings National Parks

Finally Heading Downhill to Lower Soldier Lake

After a few miles, the trail that has been lingering around the 12,000 feet marker starts to decline. You would think this would be a great feeling, but all you can think is that the next day of backpacking Cottonwood Pass, you’re going to have to climb right back up. Regardless, you feel relieved. Your feet start to move more quickly, your lungs start to work better, and you’re better able to keep up with the rest of the group.

In the distance you see New Army Pass, which you conquered a few years before, and you know you’re almost there. You continue on to Lower Soldier Lake and you’re feeling energized. Soon you will be making dinner and sipping wine by a lake that relatively few get to see.

Finally, you get to camp. Day 1 of backpacking Cottonwood Pass is finally complete. You know you need to set up camp before you lose your momentum, and then dinner must follow because you need the calories. The sun is starting to go down and it’s starting to get cold so you put on your warm clothes and wait for your dinner to finish cooking.

You finally have a moment to pour and enjoy a glass of wine, and it’s glorious. You spend the rest of the night cramped, all 6 of you, in 1 tent drinking wine and laughing. You step outside occasionally to take in the Milky Way and every other star that must exists – you can see them all. You marvel at how amazing our universe is, and then you settle in for bed. Your REI Joule sleeping bag is amazingly warm and cozy, and it doesn’t take very long to fall asleep.

Hiking Back to the Beginning of the Trail – 12 Miles, Here We Go

You wake up the next morning sore, so very sore. You tell yourself there’s no time for that – you have to make it back the way you came and that’s no easy feat, and you don’t want to be the girl who complains the whole way back (or at all). You all make breakfast and take in the beautiful morning at the lake around you. You know there’s not much time to sit around if you want to make it to the car before dark, so you start to pack up camp. Before long, your pack is on your back again and you’re walking again towards the pass.

It seems so much harder this time backpacking Cottonwood Pass. Climbing up, you count 100 steps, and stop. Then 75 steps, and stop. Then 50 steps, and stop. You’re once again the last one in the pack and your pride is eating at you. Why is this so hard???

The token dude stays close telling random stories to pass the time, and another girl friend has slowed down, possibly recognizing your frustrations and wanting to help. 75 steps, and stop. Push for it – 100 steps, and stop. You reach the top of the pass and stop for a brief snack and some hydration, but everyone is looking to keep moving so you set off.

When people ask you how you feel, you put on a smile and say “great”, or you make jokes so that you’re not the Debbie Downer. You really do enjoy this…you’re not sure why, but you are always the one who plans these trips, so you must enjoy it, right?

You finally make it to the decline on the other side of Cottonwood pass and you can almost feel the comfort of your car. The hike to this point yesterday wasn’t all that far, it’ll be that much easier going downhill. Yes, my knees will hate it, but my lungs will love it. You still hear that “whomp whomp” and wonder what the heck it is.

Wrong. It’s exactly that bad. The last ~2 miles backpacking Cottonwood Pass feels like hell. Literally. This must be what hell is like. The ground is now flat, and somehow you don’t remember this part of the hike being all sand, but it is. Your muscles work 5x as hard to move you forward, and you get very, very quiet. Yet you continue to put one foot in front of the other.

You wonder what it must have been like years ago when the first explorers moved west and brought their families. Or for native cultures who first explored the lands. You think about those who lost their lives just searching for something new, and those who reveled in the landscapes they came across.

You come across a tree and through your despair you realize that it looks like an upside down heart. You take a photo, and then continue on through the sand. You continually wonder how much further it could possibly be. This part of the trail seemed to go so quickly the day before. Your friends are still not far ahead, but you continue to feel like the weakest link. Yet you continue on.

Well Done, You’re Finished! Back to Horseshoe Meadows…

At long last…you see the parking lot of Horseshoe Meadows campground. It’s like an oasis in the middle of the desert. You suddenly feel a burst of energy and your legs begin to move a bit quicker. You think about getting into your car, changing into fresh clothes, and driving into town for a burger. All things that weren’t options for those back in the day doing this for survival, and you realize how lucky and blessed you really are.

You catch up with your friends, you take photos of the end of the trip, and all of the negative feelings pass on. You suddenly feel amazing – accomplished – light as a feather…a very, very sore feather.

Woooooo back at Horseshoe Meadows, ready to go home!
Woooooo back at Horseshoe Meadows, ready to go home!

You say goodbye to your group and head off for the long drive back to San Diego. You put on some music because you and your friend have had your share of talking and just want to relax. You suddenly feel great – tired, but great. You think back to what you’ve accomplished, and the amazing views along the way.

You realize that most people never get the opportunity to see what you’ve seen, to be where you’ve been. You don’t think of it in a sense of bragging, but in a sense of accomplishment and privilege – you’ve seen an incredible wonder of the world. Mountains, lakes, trees – all from way before we were even a thought in the universe. Animals all around, hiding in plain sight yet keeping their distance. You realize what your body was able to do, even if it wasn’t the most comfortable thing.

You recognize that every time you thought you couldn’t make it another step, you did. You realize how amazing the last 2 days were and the pain subsides. Yes, it was difficult. Yes, at times it outright sucked. But the experience as a whole was incredible. You climbed a mountain. You carried all that you needed on your back. You didn’t rely on technology or anyone else. You relied on yourself, and you did great.

And you realize how backpacking Cottonwood Pass relates back to your life. No matter how bad things might seem, no matter how many times you feel like you can’t possibly make it another day….you do. You move on. You take another step. And when the bad part is over, you look back and realize how many amazing things were around you the whole time, and that it wasn’t all that bad after all.

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir

7 Responses

  1. […] slip (my squats paid off). This was where my counting started (if you haven’t check out my blog about climbing mountains – it’s my “keep moving “ tactic). 70 steps…stop, breathe. Okay, 100 steps this […]

  2. loved the narration (y) awesome

  3. […] started the day towards New Army Pass (note, you can also take Cottonwood Pass – both will get you to the same place). The camping area we wanted by Lower Soldier Lake was […]

  4. Great post Rachel. Thanks. But you forgot the bit about the emergency whistle. 😉

    • Haha good point! I guess I need to add a disclaimer that this list is for people who would be going with people more experienced than themselves who would have other basics – like the whistle, first aid, water pump, etc. – but if they’re not, the emergency gear is very important!

  5. […] a team member with Advntur, also has her own travel blog about her adventures – here’s her story about one Sierra Nevada Backpacking trip, and we’re sharing below for you to […]

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