YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Starry-eyed, saddle sore in the Sierra

Good food, green mountains, sparkling lakes: Mountain mule-pack trips are a comfy tradition, though they come with staunch critics.

July 08, 2007|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

THE smell of steaks sizzling on a campfire grill wafted through towering tamarack and Jeffrey pines as the sun set over the saw-toothed crest of Duck Pass in the Eastern Sierra about eight miles south of Mammoth Lakes.

We sat on folding chairs around the crackling fire, sipping beer, while our cook prepared a dinner of surprising delicacy. Surprising, because in the heart of the John Muir Wilderness, 10,000 feet above sea level, this soft-spoken, bespectacled man had conjured a tasty, three-course meal, capped off with a freshly baked pineapple upside-down cake and kettle-brewed coffee filtered through a tube sock.

In a nearby meadow, the horses and mules that carried us and our camping gear to the shores of Purple Lake grazed peacefully. It's the only way to get here -- unless you hike.

As darkness closed in on the last night of our four-day pack trip, I thought about the poor fools who made the trek on foot to these high-country woods.

On the dusty trails, we trotted past them as they politely shuffled out of our way. Some smiled and waved happily. Others held their noses because of the stench and the dust we kicked up.

Equestrians and pedestrians have shared trails in the Sierra for more than 100 years, but the relationship has become strained of late as the two sides quarrel over the impact of horses and mules on the wilderness. It has become so strained that I had to wonder if I was witnessing the last days of mule packs in these mountains, but for now I didn't want to think about that.

I wrapped myself in layers of polypropylene and wool. It was late August, and the warm summer nights were almost over. I dozed off under a million shimmering stars.


My trip began at an old wooden bunkhouse that once served as the post office for Mammoth City, an 1870s mining camp near the shores of Lake Mary. The mining camp is long gone, replaced by horse and mule stables a few miles outside the ski resort of Mammoth Lakes.

It was within this shady pine forest that a rancher's son named Lloyd Summers started Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit in 1915, making it one of the oldest in the state.

This is where I met John Summers, Lloyd's grandson. He now runs the outfit out of the creaky, weatherworn shack. Summers has a graying goatee and hands so rough you could strike a match on them. Ten years ago, he got fed up with the construction business and took over the outfit launched by his grandfather.

At the stables, the head wrangler -- a skinny, bowlegged cowboy with a Fu Manchu mustache -- paired me up with Dillon, a 12-year-old quarter horse with a chocolate-brown hide. Nearby, other wranglers took my camping equipment, along with the food and gear for the 11 other guests, and strapped it all onto several stocky, grizzled mules.

Most of us came from Southern California and toil in cubicles for a living, but now we were cowboys. We headed out on a five-mile ride along the John Muir Trail to our campsite near Purple Lake. I immediately saw why pack trips are taking heat. Decades of horseshoes and mule hoofs had turned this historic trail into a deep channel -- rocky and dusty, like a dried creek bed.

Summers can't imagine a day when horses and mules might be barred from the wilderness. After all, he argues, John Muir, father of the environmental movement, often explored the Sierra Nevada on horseback.

High in the saddle, we rode past half a dozen pristine clear-water lakes, each more dazzling than the last.

Skelton Lake was aqua green, bordered by a red, rocky mountain. Duck Lake was vibrant blue with a flat green meadow on one shore and pine groves on the other.

We climbed a mountain covered in shale, stones broken into sharp, angular shapes, like scattered books. At the top, we crested 10,427-foot Duck Pass and looked down on Cascade Valley, the result of a glacial movement about a million years ago.

At 2 p.m., we reached our base camp, near the shores of Purple Lake. Summers and the other wranglers took the animals to rest in the shade of a pine grove before letting them graze in a wide, green meadow nearby.

Base camp is the domain of Del "Cookie" Andrus, a cheerful guy with a white mustache, thick glasses and a wide-brim cowboy hat. As we rode in, he was preparing dinner: meatloaf he had cooked back at headquarters and would reheat at the campsite in a cast-iron Dutch oven.

Despite our remote setting -- no electricity, no running water and no bathrooms -- I knew at least I wouldn't go hungry.

"Anything you can do in a conventional oven," Andrus said, "I can cook out here."


As the sun broke over the purple mountain, we awoke to the smell of eggs, bacon and pancakes. Camp consisted of a fire ring with a grill and a tall canvas and aluminum-frame tent that housed Andrus' cooking gear. Summers and his crew have been bringing guests to this site for years.

Los Angeles Times Articles