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Weekend Escape: Big Pine

Saps for the Sierra

On the track of the Palisades Glacier ... up and up and up

September 29, 1996|VANI RANGACHAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Rangachar is news and graphics editor for the Travel section

BIG PINE, Calif. — I had discovered Glacier Lodge as a small notation on a AAA map of the Eastern Sierra. But it turned out that I was only one of many to have found this small nine-room, 10-cabin lodge at the end of a paved road leading out of Big Pine into the Inyo National Forest.

The map showed that it was set high, surrounded by 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks. It also was very close to the John Muir trail and the Palisades Glacier, billed as the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada. I had never seen a glacier before, and this one seemed easily accessible. Or so I thought.

My 13-year-old daughter, Meera, and I started our journey on a Friday afternoon, leaving the smoldering San Fernando Valley and heading up California 14, past the burnt oranges, ochres and rust-colored Red Rock Canyon. As we sped by on the curving freeway, I made a mental note to return to explore the park's geologic land forms. But we were in a hurry--we had gotten a late start and had miles to go before we were to meet my sister, Madhavi, and her husband, Alan, at the Winnedumah Hotel in Independence, about 30 miles south of Big Pine.

The next morning, after a breakfast of fruit, cereal and toast, our party of four left Independence and headed up California 395 to Big Pine. After awhile, we made a left and drove into Big Pine canyon, climbing steep and deep against the swift current of Big Pine Creek, which flowed beside us. After we made a few curves and hairpin turns, Glacier Lodge came into view on the left. The wood structure looks like a ski lodge, with a steep, pitched roof the color of oxidized copper. Neon beer signs blazed in the window, even at 10 a.m., and people, some carrying backpacks, were going in and out its doors.

It was too early for check-in, so we decided to tackle the trail to the Middle Palisade Glacier--10 miles round-trip--and be back in time for what was touted to be a four-star dinner at the lodge. But first meals first. What about lunch? A T-shirted man at the front desk answered our query with bag lunches and told us we could put the tab on our room bill after we checked in later that afternoon. It was time to hit the trail.

We crossed back over the bridge, past a pond where several children were fishing, and picked up the trail to the left, as it followed the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. The beginning was but a taste of what was to come: steep. We were following the creek to its source in the glaciers, at about 11,000 feet, that were the object of my curiosity. The trail's pitch got even steeper; but after what seemed the 100th switchback, it crossed Second Falls and leveled off for a bit. We walked through stands of Jeffrey and lodgepole pine, and meadows filled with such a profusion of wildflower blooms that I went running for a field guide later that weekend. I could at least identify the daisies and the lemony scented angelica. Quaking aspens shivered as we walked by.

We only saw a few people on the trail; several backpackers planning to camp up at the alpine lakes crisscrossed our paths. We ate lunch on a creek-side boulder. I was ravenous, and our lunches of bread, Cheddar cheese, chips and fruit were scarfed down. We munched homemade gorp.

Soon after, we started the second series of switchbacks that signaled our climb into the basin of the glacier and the numerically named Big Pine Lakes. I seriously started to doubt my ability to make it up to Fourth Lake, at about 10,500 feet, and the Middle Palisade glacier. After a brief consultation with the fitter members of the troop, we decided to push on to First Lake and quit there. Time was a factor: It was about 2 p.m. and we still had to make it down in time for dinner.

About 2:30 that afternoon, we caught a glimpse of a small, still aquamarine lake through the trunks of the lodgepole pine trees surrounding it. On cue, a fish did a half-gainer out of the water. And we sank gratefully down on the banks, admiring the view. Those switchbacks were easier to handle going down, and we made it back by 6 o'clock, giving us just enough time to check in and shower before dinner.

We were given cabin 11, a small three-room wood structure with a kitchen--equipped with stove, table-top refrigerator, sink, table and some dishes and silverware--one queen-size bed and two twins. There was a bathroom with stand-up shower. In another corner was a small heater, which we didn't use because it never got cold enough. Decor was brown--brown paneling, brown carpet. Pastel green quilts livened up the room, and a wicker armchair sat by the door.

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