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Day 4: PCT Through Hiking & Reds Meadow

July 17, 2008

After a leisurely breakfast of delicious french toast made with raison walnut bread from Schat’s famous bakery in Bishop (the secret of great French toast is to use exceptional bread, one egg per person, equal amounts milk plus a tablespoon or two, and soak for a long time!), we headed north along Highway 395 toward Reds Meadow Campground near the ski area of Mammoth.

We’re anxious about getting a campsite since this is such a popular summer destination for hiking, fishing and sightseeing so following a quick resupply at the huge upscale Vons in Mammoth, we climb to 9,000 Minarets Pass which will take us from the east side of the sierra to the west.

If we don’t get a campsite, we won’t be able to drive our van there, and we will have to change our plans and go elsewhere which will be hugely disappointing as I haven’t been to this scenic area since I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the 1980s.

Reds Meadow became so overrun with cars after they paved the road in 1978 the US Forest Service established a mandatory shuttle service in 1990. Fears that paving it would be the first leg in a trans-Sierra highway delayed the road’s construction for years. In one of his best acts as governor, in 1972 Ronald Reagan kept the road from happening and was instrumental in protecting the area which now includes the Ansel Adams wilderness.

Because Reds Meadow is so popular, unless you are headed to a campsite (and you have to sign an affadafit saying you will spend the night regardless of weather, bugs or flush toilets etc!), you must ride one of the shuttles which run from the Mammoth Mountain ski area to the end of the road at Reds Meadow and back with 10 stops along the way. Shuttles leave there as early as 715am, and leave Red’s Meadow at 8am. The last shuttle leaves the meadow at 745pm.

We were in luck: according to the whiteboard at the pass, 9 campsites were still available at Red’s Meadow as well as sites at numerous other campgrounds in the valley several of which dot the banks of the Middle Fork  of the San Joaquin River. The road down the mountain is mostly one-way—it’s that narrow with a steep drop-off 2,000’ down to Starkweather Lake, and you can take a trail down on foot if you want.

Views of the Minarets, Minaret Falls, and the wildflower filled meadow easily distracts white knuckled drivers but soon we are down. We pass by the entrances to the 17 site Agnew Meadows (vault toilets and 17 sites at 8,400’ with lots of flowers and mosquitoes!), Upper Soda Springs (vault toilets and 28 sites at 7,700’ and fishing), Pumice Flat (flush toilets and 17 sites at 7,700’ and fishing), Minaret Falls (vault toilets and 27 sites at 7,700’ some with views of the falls and fishing), NPS’s 21 site Devil’s Postpile Monument Campground along the San Joaquin River, and finally arrive at our destination, Reds Meadow, with flush toilets, 52 sites spread out over a large meadowed area at 7,600’ and HOT mineral water!! Reds Meadow also has a short trail  conveniently connecting the campground to the store and café.

We cruise the campground then get out and walk it before deciding to camp next to the hiker camp since we know they won’t have any noisy generators and will be tired to be much into staying late and being rowdy! Plus the site is lovely with views of a meadow and rock walls, pine trees for shade, and it’s conveniently close to the hot water!

As we set up, I get into a conversation with a through Pacific Crest Trail hiker. No a through hiker isn’t someone who’s through with hiking! A through hiker is someone doing the whole PCT in one season. It’s been 20 years since I did the whole PCT, but it seems like yesterday—my memories of the trail are that vivid and important to me. Hiking 2800 miles from Mexico to Canada in a season or even 1600 miles of California like we did and Oregon and Washington the next is an unusual experience, and one that I rarely share since it is so hard for anyone who hasn’t hiked like this to imagine.

Reds Meadow is an important resupply stop both for PCT hikers and John Muir Trail hikers, and from late June until mid-July is when most through hikers come by; we arrived on July 3 and stayed over the weekend. My former husband’s mother, brother, and some of his friends drove up from the Bay area to join us for a few days. They brought a truckload of food which we proceeded to devour. At my request, my former mother in law brought me a dress and flip-flops to wear, and a glass to drink out of. The whole time we were there the farthest I got was to take a shower! I’d already walked some 800 miles, and decided it was good to sit and eat for a few days! I’m still getting over it I guess—I wear more dresses than anyone I know and love to drink from glass.

Camp established, we hike over to play in a series of swimming holes and watch people hiking back from Sotcher Lake loaded with fish they’d caught there. Soctcher Lake is named after Red Sotcher who established the pack station and supply store here and for whom the area is named.

For dinner, we BBQ’d wild Alaskan coho salmon we picked up at Vons which we enjoy with a bottle of Clos du Bois chardonnay (taking a break from the red Australian wines!)

Lots of memories this day—seeing all the hikers brings back stories of the PCT, and of my mother-in-law, who I loved dearly, and who died from cancer a few short years after our trip to Reds Meadow. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t been back. So many memories here. Time to make new ones!

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