Overlook Mountain & Tower Rock Golden Trout Wilderness Solo Sojourn

  • Updated: June 04, 2018
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

June 2nd to 4th, 2018
Overlook Mountain (10,220')
Tower Rock (8,520')
Day 1: 13.8 miles, 1,000'
Day 2: 14.9 miles, 3,200'
Day 3: 18.4 miles, 3,700'

I came out of last weekend's three day Memorial Day Massacre trip sore but feeling surprisingly strong compared to previous years.  That left me ready for another significant trip and as it turned out this weekend was one of those rare ones that I didn't have a solid commitment for.

After debating options I decided to do a solo backpack out in the Golden Trout Wilderness.  It's rare for me to do trips solo as I'm fortunate to know a ton of people who are always up for adventures of various sorts and I think this was probably my first full solo since my JMT fastpack back in 2013.

I'm a huge fan of the Golden Trout Wilderness since it's relatively lightly traveled, it's low enough to allow campfires, and there are some really spectacular camping options along the various streams and rivers.  And the meadows out there are just spectacular!  After looking at different options I eventually settled on going out of Cottonwood Pass and aiming for some remote named peaks called Overlook and Tower that I'd had my eyes on for quite some time.

Cottonwood is an driving accessible area above Lone Pine accessed by making a left on the way up Whitney Portal and following some long switchbacks until you reach a parking lot up around 10,000 ft.  I commonly recommend it to folks wanting to camp at altitude in before Whitney or other high altitude plans. There are two trailheads up here with the more popular being Cottonwood Lakes commonly used to access Cirque, Langley, and the New / Old Army Passes.  Permits commonly fill up since there are a number of popular lakes you can camp at a few miles up the trail.

Then there's Cottonwood Pass which is a seperate parking lot a bit to the south. It also gives you access to Trail and Mulky Pass to the south and the PCT continues to the north behind Cirque and the Army Passes.  As it turned out the trailhead is non quota until the end of June meaning they don't limit the number of permits they'll issue.

Other than the peaks my goal was to get some miles in and see some new trail so I planned to do a loop over Trail Pass, through Mulky and Tunnel Meadows, and then down to the Volcano Meadow area which I'd previously visited during one of the Massacre trips.  I'd then camp somewhere in the vicinity of Little Whitney Meadow which would put me within day hiking distance of Tower Rock and Overlook Mountain and then I could come out Cottonwood Pass the following day.

Permits are really easy for Golden Trout. One phone call to the Inyo Permit Line later I had a permit waiting for me in the night drop box in Lone Pine. After a hectic day Friday I left Orange County about 7:30 pm and eventually arrived at the Cottonwood Pass parking lot a little after 1 am where I slept in the back of the Jeep.

The trailhead was lightly populated the next morning but there were a few people running around as I got packed and took advantage of the facilities.

The trails can be a bit confusing around here since there's more than one way to get to any of the passes but I followed signs south across Horseshoe Meadow.

Trail Pass is nice and gentle as passes go and there was a ton of foot traffic headed north.  They all looked to be PCT'ers and many asked questions about Lone Pine and the Cottonwood trailhead.

My route crossed within a few miles of the headwaters of the South Fork of the Kern.  At this point it was a small flowing stream which I took advantage of to refill my water.  The lack of sleep was making this a bit more of a struggle than I thought it would be.

I hiked for most of the day and by the time I was passing through Groundhog Meadow I started looking for a place to camp.  I'd originally intended to continue on the Little Whitney Meadow but when I found a spot tucked away from the trail complete with fire pit and a very nearby stream I decided I was home.

This was on the tree in the middle of camp.  I have no idea what CC 68 is in reference to.

I was so tired I actually set up the tent and slept for about an hour before getting up to make food which is something I never do.  After that I forced myself up and made a hearty meal of of tortellini, pesto, and red wine while I enjoyed a fire and listened to the sound of the creek running behind my camp.  As pleasant as it was I was exhausted and before it was even dark I doused the fire went to bed.

After a relaxed breakfast the next morning I loaded up my daypack and crossed over a log behind camp intend on shortcutting to the trail leading up Right Stringer Creek...

...and promptly starting regretting my life choices. Cross county travel in most of Golden Trout is great but the lava areas are somewhat of an exception with endless unstable rocks and undulating terrain.

Once that annoyance was over and I was back on friendly dirt I found a faint trail that led through some meadows and up the gully towards Right Stringer Pass.  The trail was extremely faint and I lost it several times before it finally seemed to just disappear and I had to settle for following some rather large bear tracks that happened to be heading in the same direction.

About half a mile before Right Stringer Pass I abandoned my "trail" and started climbing following a ridge up towards the summit Overlook Mountain.

Most of the route was through mixed tree cover but the summit is a grey rock outcropping which led to some really nice views from the top.

I made the summit around 11 and spent a some time tracking back and forth along the summit ridge trying to figure out which of the bumps was actually higher.  Each time I thought I had the answer I'd run over to it only to look back and think one of the others had to be just a bit taller. I believe I checked all of them and didn't see any sign of a register or other marker.

I could easily make out my next target Tower Rock down below with Coyote Creek in the background.

I dropped off the northwest side of the summit and aimed for a ridge that would get me to the base of Tower. I had to drop about 2,000 ft and a good chunk of that involved some slightly unpleasant bushwhacking but that improved once I was most of the way down.

The last 60 ft or so to the summit was a light scramble and I didn't see any use trails or ducks.

The summit was flat enough that I could find a spot that gave me good views in ever direction.  I ended up walking back and forth a few times getting pictures north and south along the Kern.

To the north I had a spectacular view of the Kaweah framed by Kern Canyon.  This section of trail is another one on my list do in the next few years.

And to the south I could see the Little Kern Lake where Jen and I had camped the first night last weekend and both Coyote (right) and Angora (left) above.

Across the canyon from me my eyes kept getting drawn to the peaks north of Coyote.  They're an offshoot of the Great Western Divide and don't appear to be named on either the USGS Topo or Peakbagger.  I may have to do a trip out there from Mineral King to see about climbing them...

Again I didn't find a register or any sort of marker.  I left the summit around 2:45 pm and rather than climb back up and over Overlook I curved to the north following whatever terrain looked the least unpleasant and soon met the trail running up Golden Trout Creek.  I came in a little too high to see the Volcano Falls marked on the map but I did get to see the Natural Bridge marked on the topo.

It's a rock span with water running underneath which occurs in a very pretty part of the canyon.

After my experience earlier I wasn't eager to try another shortcut across the lava so I followed the trail to Little Whitney Meadow.  This has been where I'd originally intended to camp before I found my little tucked away spot and there is a nice camp right by the stream.  It didn't have the privacy of my camp since it was right off the trail but there was a really nice fire pit and wood log seating.

I was back in camp right around 5 pm and enjoyed another pleasant campfire while I cooked a dinner of Suddenly Pasta and polished off the last of the red wine. Since I was feeling a little more rested today I stayed up until about an hour after dark before drowning the fire pit and sacking out for another great night's sleep. (If only I slept this good during the week!)

The next morning after a pleasant breakfast by the stream I reluctantly said goodbye to my campsite and started hiking again around 7:30 am.  My plan was to retrace my steps to Little Whitney Meadow at which point I'd be climbing for most of the day to get over Cottonwood Pass.

I made a small side trip to explore some cabins off to the side of the meadow.  They were all locked up with signs identifying them as being used by the snow survey.

As I started up my long climb my pack still felt surprisingly heavy considering it was the last day of the trip.  I blame the new tent I was trying out and the water filter that I'd brought along and then never used.

I took a pleasant break in Salt Lick Meadow where a coyote and I watched each other from across some logs.  It would make for a great campsite and it's a shame that it's located so far below Johnson or else I'd plan to stay here when I eventually come back.

Speaking of Johnson Peak I don't believe it's on any list but it's another named bump stands out from a distance.  I had a stretch goal of trying to climb it on this trip but according to my napkin math I was already looking at a 20 -ish mile day and I didn't feel like I had another 4 miles and not insignificant gain in me. (Also there's the whole having to drive home one I got out thing..)  So next time!

Big Whitney Meadow lives up to it's name being the biggest thing out there.  I kept expecting to see bears or other wildlife off in the distance but other than a few marmots I still seemed to have everything to myself.

I had been running low on water for a bit so I took the opportunity to sprawl out beside the stream and refill.  While I sat there I was watching what I think were small golden trout darting around and sometimes jumping up after bugs.

I'd somehow forgotten that Cottonwood Pass was 11,100' or so and the climb from Big Whitney up to the pass hurt just a bit.  (There's a ridiculous amount of switchbacks that take their bloody time getting you up there.)

One I made the pass I could see a people waiting up ahead.  I hadn't seen a single person since leaving the PCT at trail pass 3 days ago but now that I was back on it there was a fairly constant stream of thru hikers.

The north side of the pass drops back down to 9,900' or so and this is one of those passes with annoyingly large mule steps and meandering switchbacks.  The last few miles felt rather long.

Once I reached the car I changed quickly and made it down to Lone Pine around 7 pm which gave me plenty of time to grab a well deserved burger at Whitney Cafe before starting the long drive home.

All told I did about 47 miles and 8,000' of gain over three days and also managed to listen to 30+ hours of audiobooks while I strolled along.  As always I wished I had more time but now that I know the trailheads up here are non quota I can see about maybe taking a WTC group up to do Johnson next year or possibly trying to do Sharknose.

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    In reference to your post of June 4, 2018; "Overlook Mountain & Tower Rock Golden Trout Wilderness Solo Sojourn". Down about halfway through your article, you commented; "Across the canyon from me my eyes kept getting drawn to the peaks north of Coyote." I have a photo, taken in 1927, naming one of those peaks. I would surely like to converse with you regarding this. I also have a couple of color photos of it, taken in the 1960s. Please reply. My email is miligatz@gmail.com.

    Sincerely, Wayne Davis