Sierra High Route Day 17: Cotton Lake to Deer Lake, A Fire in the Sky

Day 17
Total Miles: 14
Cumulative Miles: 184.2
Elevation Gain: 2614 ft
Elevation Loss: 2584 ft
Camp: Deer Lake
This morning we have a decision to make. Do we continue down into Fish Creek and head to the Iva Bell hot springs as we had planned or do we skip it and make our way towards Reds Meadow Resort which is our next resupply stop? Iva Bell is not on the Sierra High Route; it was just a planned diversion. We did a side hike to it while on the John Muir Trail in 2016 (see John Muir Trail Day 11 ) and loved it so much we decided to add it into this hike.
Smoke from the Lion’s Fire blanketing Cascade Valley
But Fish Creek and the Cascade Valley drainage is thick with smoke and we can see plumes of smoke on the ridges below us. I look at the fire across the ridge and it makes me want to run in the other direction. It is an emotional reaction from the gut, probably a survival mechanism baked into my genes.
The Lion’s Fire off in the distance

We don’t run but we do decide to forego the side hike to the hot springs. It is disappointing that we won’t be going there but the right decision I think. We decide to cut over to the McGee Creek Trail instead of dropping down to Izaak Walton Lake but it isn’t quite so easy. We get to a cliff that we eventually are able to work around and soon are on the trail.

This “foam ball” in Fish Creek looks like a cake with bits of chocolate on top (I must be hungry!). Actually, it was formed from decaying leaves and twigs. The decaying organic matter sheds fatty acids which reduce the surface tension of the water. When the surface tension of the water is reduced, more air is allowed to mix with the water creating the bubbles. This was a cool example!
Most of the day we are not bothered by smoke but can see it off in the distance. We hike the McGee Creek trail 4 miles down alongside Fish Creek to the junction with the John Muir Trail in Tully Hole. The McGee Creek trail does not seem to be that heavily travelled and we have to ford the creek before meeting up with the John Muir Trail.
Ray crossing Fish Creek right before we join up with the John Muir Trail

And then we are back in familiar territory as we are on the John Muir Trail and go up from Tully Hole over 1,000 feet in less than a mile. Both of us are now strong after several weeks of being out and a lot of off-trail hiking. We zoom up the switchbacks and pass a few John Muir Trail hikers but not so many. I think the fires are scaring people away.

We pass the familiar lakes of Virginia and Purple and head up to Duck Lake.
D50C666E-EA49-42F0-8774-264A8E256876.jpegWe have been on a trail most of the day but soon we cut off as we make our way up and along the Mammoth Crest. Unfortunately, we did not copy this part of the Sierra High Route from the guidebook onto our phones. We thought we would be hiking to Reds Meadow from Iva Bell Hot Springs which is a different way. But because of the fire and our change in plans, we are back to map reading and figuring out where we can go by the topography. But both Ray and I are well versed in navigation and off-trail route finding so it isn’t that hard for us.
Ray looking down at the Deer Lakes with the Lion’s Fire in the background
We finally stop for camp at Deer Lakes on the Mammoth Crest. This area is highly altered geologically and is a fine place to look for unusual minerals.
Rhodochrosite crystals shows that these carbonate rocks have been altered by hydrothermal fluids.

One of the lakes has a pretty blue color, also related to the hydrothermal alteration in this area. Being geologists, we know not to drink the water from this lake but we admire the beauty.

A tip of a projectile point from our ancient past
One of the Deer Lakes is blue because of the hydrothermal alteration in the area.

As we settle in for the evening, we have ridge between us and the Lions Fire and can almost forget it is there. But it looms on our minds and in our dreams.

Our campsite at Deer Lakes

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