Laurel Lakes: Last July 4th we decided to celebrate this amazing country by going into the Sierra Mountains. We’d just spent 2 days primitive camping and exploring east of Independence, at hot and dusty high plains Badger and Papoose Flats and needed some different terrain and water. Breaking camp and driving the windy way back to the I-395 took a long 2 hrs and we were happy to eventually be on the highway and heading north. The journey up from Independence was certainly more scenic than the previous trip up from Ridgecrest and we were looking forward to some high altitude exploration. When we arrived in Mammoth the town was preparing for their parade and the roads would soon be closed down. We lucked out and managed to easily find Old Mammoth road (0.8 miles south of town) and head out before we’d be locked down for a few hours. As much as it would have been fun to see the parade, we also knew that the trails would be somewhat empty. Taking Sherwin Creek Road we headed to the trailhead at the intersection of 4S08 and 4S86 a few miles up the road.
The trail itself is only 4.5 miles in length and has an elevation range of 7,300-10,000ft. It is an incredibly scenic trail with long sections of loose shelf road, ending at stunning Laurel Lakes. It is rated as a difficulty rating 4 and as you can see the sign says High Clearance Vehicles Only. However, we were in 4 high the whole way and in our experience the trail is rough, loose and rocky and slow going and it took us 1.5 hrs to drive the short distance. We did not air down (but it would have been less bumpy if we had) and certainly we never felt we needed 4 low. The trail is certainly within the capability of stock SUV’s, but inexperienced drivers may be intimidated by the rough and loose terrain. TIP: Your stock high clearance 4×4 SUV will be fine, so gut out the bumps, relax your grip of death on the steering wheel, as the end result is well worth it.
We followed a series of easygoing switchbacks to the crest before Laurel Canyon. The view up the canyon is stunning and even in this low snow year and being July, we could still see areas of snow. I imagine in some years much more snow will be present and hang on throughout the summer. Laurel Canyon runs high along the wall, with most of it’s length being a single lane shelf road. There are very few passing places (especially in the upper section), although it is easy to spot on coming traffic. TIP: Don’t be afraid to pull over where you can even if it’s a long wait for the rig coming towards you. Have patience, relax and simply enjoy the scenery.
On the way up the trail we passed a couple of fantastic camp site opportunities. They were tucked in amongst the trees next to the stream that runs down from the lake. We pulled over on one of them to walk the stream and reconnoiter future camping. Blue Dog also spent some quality time hunting for Brown Trout, although he doesn’t have his fishing license! The stream was truly beautiful with flowers lining it’s banks and butterflies fluttering everywhere. It is definitely now on our list of places to stay!
Continuing on from the campsite we eventually crested the trail at well above 10,000 ft. The view down to the lake is stunning as is the view back down Laurel Canyon. It was tempting to get down to the lake as quickly as possible as that was the end goal, but we stopped for 10 minutes to survey the scene, take in some clean air and smile!
After jumping back in our rigs we started to tackle the final descent. It involved a very tight switchback and the Taco needed to back up a few times to complete it. The Rubi with it’s shorter wheelbase had an easier time and according to Lori, a better driver also helped in the execution…;) The trail down to the lake was very loose. Again, nothing to worry about but it may intimidate inexperienced drivers. The trail ended at the banks of the lake and there were plenty of places to pull over. All in all, there were 4 other rigs parked but we still felt alone. The scenery was simply amazing and we stayed at the lake watching people fish for trout and taking a well earned nap. There are plenty of areas to car camp by the lake and we will certainly do this on another trip. TIP: At this altitude, you’ll want sunscreen during the day and warm clothes and sleeping bags at night, even in summer.
What an amazing way to spend the 4th of July!