After a nice big breakfast in Lone Pine, we piled into the car and started up Whitney Portal to Horseshoe Meadows. Horseshoe Meadows is one of the most amazing roads I’ve ever driven, and was quite a bit of fun in the WRX … After a few miles of fairly straight road with a gentle grade, you get to the start of the giant, sweeping, and seriously steep switchbacks that take you up about 4,000 or so feet. Be very careful here as the guardrails are few and far between, and a trip down the side would be at least 200-300 feet straight down in most parts. After the switchbacks, you are up in some pretty pine forests and you continue to climb on fairly straight roads until you get to the turnoff for Cottonwood Lakes Campground/Trailhead. We went up on a Friday (28 June 2014) morning and got to the trailhead around 1100 and there was plenty of parking. After loading up on food and water and stashing our extra food in the bear boxes (located by the vault toilets), we hit the trail right around 1130.
The trail starts out pretty flat, sandy, and dusty until you start down a bit of a downgrade. You go down maybe 2.5 miles until you hit the first creek crossing, and after that you get about a mile of pretty flat trail before you start your gradual ascent back to your starting elevation. The trail is wide and fairly exposed to the sun here, so it might get a bit warm depending on the season. You pass by a beautiful meadow on your right (NE) which is just below the Golden Trout Camp. After passing this camp, you cross the creek again and start to climb a bit faster. In a little over a mile you come to a fork that goes to the right (North) towards the Cottonwood Lakes or left (West) to New Army Pass. Here the trail gets a bit steeper and in maybe 0.75 miles you come up to a very nice little meadow off to the South. We stopped here and watched a mating pair of California mule deer eat for a bit. After this you start an even steeper section that gets you to the crest of the basin which holds South Fork Lakes. When you come up over this ridge you are afforded a stunning view of the ridge that connects Cirque peak and Mount Langley, and the impressive summit of Mount Langley off to the Northwest. The trail skirts the South shore of the lake here for about a quarter mile and then cuts SW for another little climb up some rock and then by another picturesque meadow with a little brook which gets you up to Long Lake. You cross over the creek at the East end of the lake and the trail goes right along the South shore. Just before the trail starts to head up again there is a nice stand of pines with lots of open space underneath. At this point we had travelled about 7.5 miles and it was about 1600 and seeing as how we had driven from Orange County that morning and were dog tired, we decided to make camp for the night. Long lake was absolutely stunning and is teeming with golden trout, so bring your fishing gear if you’re into that as it’s a really great spot (even with the clouds of mosquitos – don’t forget your repellent like I did...).
We woke up around 0700 on Saturday, made water, and had a nice leisurely breakfast before we hit the trail at around 0830. From the NW end of Long Lake the trail to New Army Pass cuts West and climbs a bit along the cascade that feeds Long Lake from High Lake. By the time you reach High Lake you are above the timberline heading North towards the ridge you will climb to gain the plateau that leads to the summit of Langley. The trail is obvious and well used and climbs up to the West of the massive headwall that guards High Lake. We took a breather here and I made some more water to put in my reserve bladder - MSR Dromedary - cannot recommend that thing highly enough! A series of fairly steep switchbacks takes you up to the ridge (approximately 900 vertical feet on about 2 miles of trail) with minimal exposure. We took our time on this section to conserve water and made it to the top of the ridge at around 1000. Here we enjoyed the incredible views to the South looking down the chain of lakes that leads to the trailhead while having a snack. From here you head pretty much directly North (and down, unfortunately) toward Langley. We took a slight detour to the Northeastern edge of the ridge to scope out Old Army Pass (which we had considered as an alternate route up, but decided against as it is fairly north facing and holds snow late in the season). While it looked as though one could navigate it without crampons or an ice axe (there was indeed still a decent snowfield covering the switchback), I would advise against it as it has a fairly steep grade and a fall, while likely not fatal, would not be fun.
The trail from here heads generally NW while climbing again. After a steepish section, the trail levels out a bit and regains its Northern heading. You'll see the summit ridge from here and have a fairly easy walk to where it starts to climb again at a decent grade. This is where it gets sandy and SLOW (really, really slow - like half a step backwards for every forward step), but don't get discouraged because you will make up time and then some on the way down! Just put your head down here and grind through to the giant cairn that sits atop the little pass leading to the boulder field below the summit. After the cairn you'll get a bit of a respite as the trail heads NW to gradually take you through the boulders. Here we decided to break trail and continued straight North to scramble up through the boulders - nothing technical here really, maybe a couple of 5.6 moves here and there, but the exposure was never more than 12 feet and there were probably much easier ways if you looked hard enough. I'd say we saved almost an hour going this way but we both needed a little nap on the summit afterward. The summit is really more of a giant shoulder than a peak, but the view is absolutely incredible. Looking NNW you have a perfect look at the southern aspect of Mt Whitney over some gnarly canyons and beautifully colored lakes. Off to the East you can see the town of Lone Pine on the valley floor, some 10,000 feet below. Quite epic views from up there to be sure. I had finished all the water in my camelback (~2.5L - I like to stay well hydrated, which I was) by the time we reached the summit, so I took my half of the reserve (another litre). My partner on the other hand, still had a full litre in his camelback. Funny how differently bodies work, especially considering he is 6’2” and I am 5’8”.
We had reached the summit at around 1330 and spent about an hour exploring the ridge, eating, and napping and then decided to get a move on towards camp at 1430. We went basically the exact way we had come up, which meant a bit of awkward downclimbing, but as there was no real exposure involved with this it wasn’t too bad. After the boulder field, we got onto the sandy scree and absolutely flew down, taking full yard long strides and sinking and sliding another 1-2 feet with each step. Gaiters would have been awesome to have on this bit, but I didn’t have too much of a problem (I was wearing full ankle mountaineering boots) with scree getting in. I’m guessing one would be miserable in running or approach shoes with no gaiters, however. The descent is very straightforward and fast going, until you get to the ridge where Old Army comes up. Here you have to climb again to the ridge the New Army comes up to. It isn’t terribly steep (maybe 25% grade?), but it is a bit prolonged and if your energy is sapped it is a little grueling. Going back down the switchbacks seemed to take a bit longer than they should as well as they are pretty long and flat between turns (a blessing on the way up!). Once we got passed High Lake we were both pretty drained and ready for dinner. We finally dragged back into camp at about 1630 and flopped down for a bit. After making water and cleaning ourselves up a bit, we absolutely gorged ourselves on a full on 4 course meal, complete with the apple and berry cobbler we had both utilized as our primary motivattion on the way down. After dusk we stayed up to check out the stars for as long as we could, which was tough since it didn’t get fully dark until almost 2200 and we were both thrashed.After an awesome and long sleep, we again took our time with breakfast and breaking camp, getting on the trail around 0900. The hike out was pretty slow going as the sun was out fully and there really isn’t much elevation change once you drop down out of the Cottonwood Lakes basin. We got back to the trailhead at around 1300, threw our gear into the car, and went back down to Lone Pine to have a nice big lunch before making the drive back to Orange County. While the route we took was far from isolated (we probably met about a dozen different groups on the trails and there were at least eight groups camping around Long Lake), it was certainly less crowded than Whitney with equally breathtaking scenery. I definitely would recommend this trek to anyone who wants to bag a 14er but doesn’t have much experience. I think I will revisit Langley, but maybe as a solo day hike, camping at the trailhead the night before.