Sounds like an adventure, Matthew! Sorry my directions were insufficient. If the "pipe" is indeed covered now, then the Meadows road is likely the way to go in a low-clearance vehicle. However, in the interest of distance, if I was driving a high-clearance machine, I would still go for the "fencline" road. Of course, the biggest question would still be "is the Red Lake trail worth all of this?" Of course not ;-)
Well, I took your directions, the ones from 395.com, and the ones from climber.org, and although all were accurate, I still failed. I was quite impressed that you found the road at night. I made it to the end of the mine road, headed down a couple of wrong options, walked around with my headlamp for a bit looking for the fence, before the absurdity of the situation hit me and I gave up.
Although the road is rockier, I think the boulders may be slightly smaller on the fenceline road than the section of McMurray Meadows Road after the pipe, so the shortcut may be preferred for lower clearance vehicles. But I don't think I'd have wanted to take a car with less clearance than my Subaru on either option.
And I'd have to agree that it'll be a while (perhaps never) before I slog up that trail again!
I got to the Red Mountain Lake Trailhead in a 2005 Ford Focus ZX4 SE (ground clearance = 6.2 inches) by taking the Tinemaha route. I don't recommend subjecting low clearance vehicles to this, but high clearance is not required. From trailhead to north end of Fish Springs Road and 395 took 38 minutes.
Some additions/clarifications to the drive to the Red Lake TH:
I tried the shortcut at night, using Scotty's directions and the 15', but had no luck finding the road. In my opinion, a 7.5' and/or GPS may be necessary to negotiate this at that time of day--although they're accurate, I found the written directions alone to be insufficient. I eventually gave up, and headed back to Big Pine to take the McMurry Meadows Road (this little diversion cost me an hour).
The McMurry Meadows Road is easy to follow, especially with the Forest Service directions (the Bishop ranger station office has a good information sheet on the Red Lake/Birch Lake trailheads). The road may have been improved compared to past trip reports; the infamous pipe is now mostly buried under gravel, and there were no fords required at the stream crossings. The road is nonetheless quite rough for about a mile or so after the pipe, with some large rounded rocks buried in the road, but it was passable by a Subaru Forester (7.5" ground clearance). This is the worst section of the road.
I was able to find the infamous shortcut on my way back in daylight, using the reverse directions from climber.org. This shortcut was also negotiable by my Subaru. Below are GPS waypoints I took on the return for the shortcut:
TOPO! GPS Data Format Deg NAD83 ElevFeet UTC-Time
MINE,37.05293,-118.29803,4981,07/20/2004,04:09:19,MINE (END OF PAVED ROAD)
SHRTCT,37.05788,-118.31368,5407,07/20/2004,04:08:09,SANDY TRACK TO SHORTCUT
MCMURR,37.05698,-118.32660,5604,07/20/2004,04:05:51,MCMURRAY MEADOWS ROAD
TH,37.03530,-118.35888,6613,07/20/2004,04:03:21,RED LAKE TRAILHEAD
To reach the mine, follow the paved road (Fuller Road) out of Tinemaha campground. At the mine, the pavement ends and the road turns to a good graded dirt road, which winds its way west around the base of a hill. The road peters out amidst piles of gravel, but a sandy track (see map below) leads shortly to a very rocky "road"--this rocky track might also be followed directly from the mine road. The rocky "road" runs alongside a fence, but the fence isn't too useful as a landmark for finding the track (especially at night), as it doesn't start until a little way along the track.
By the way, the drive to the trailhead from Big Pine took 60 minutes at night (stuck behind a slow car for the last few miles), while the drive back to Big Pine in daylight via the shortcut took 45 minutes. Both drives were more exciting than the climbs. I would probably just take McMurry Meadows Road again if I were heading to the trailhead at night.
The dirt road approach really isn't that complicated (in daylight anyway). Exit 395 at S. Fish Springs Rd. Take a left on Tinemaha Rd, to the campground. Then a right on Fuller Road, going past the gravel mine. there are a couple forks, but they all basically rejoin each other in a mile or so. if you hit a locked gate, no big deal, just follow the road along the fence line till you can get through. I know it sounds complex like a lot of turns, but basically if you just look up and see the peak and canyon, then aim for that point you will arrive. you dont need 4wd, just some clearance... a subaru should be able to make it with careful driving. 20min highway to trailhead going fast in a truck, prob double that time if your going carefully in a lower vehicle.
Coming down the north slope:
Stay full to the left to return to the John Muir trail or full right to return to Red Lake. In between, there is a very cliffy chasm which drains to the north of Tinemaha. In our early season descent we found a snowfield at the bottom of the slope leading to a significant cornice which was not visible from above. Not a problem in good conditions, but in poor visibility this hazard has true death fall potential. Need to avoid snowfields on the north slope unless you can see the entire runout.
I hiked this on 7/28/2013. I can tell you for sure, as accessible as this Split Mt. might look, it was a pain to make it to the trailhead and also to the top. I ran into a lot of conflicting info from the start. Fist of all, the Fuller Rd is the way to go. Take it until the asphalt ends. Follow the dirt road to the first split that has a sign NO PASSING PRIVATE PROPERTY. Make a right there and follow the road. Without a GPS I've never made it. I made the mistake of taking McMurry Rd back to the street and I drove for almost an hour and 30 minutes. That road it is in a way worst shape then Fuller Rd, at least for a sedan. I also need to point out I drove a sedan Nissan Sentra.
We had a wonderful hike up to Red Lake, then to the crest of the Eastern Sierras. Driving in from the South, pick up your permit at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center a couple of miles south of Lone Pine. There is a kiosk outside with a lockbox and you can request your pass to be left there at night (paid reservations only I think).
Continue up 395 and turn left onto Fish Springs Rd., then left again onto Tinemaha Rd. The paved road winds through a campground and becomes Fuller Rd. The pavement ends at the site of an unfenced commercial mining operation, and the good gravel road easily winds North then West along the base of a large red mound then meandering mostly North of Fuller Creek. The dirt road is a little rough with round rocks studding many spots at least 4" high but easily driven over with a standard ground clearance car. At GPS coordinate 37.057053, -118.326544 on Google Maps, take a sharp left turn to the South and you will be on the McMurry Meadows Rd. which is the same as the way in from Big Pine. Continuing South, turn right at the Tinemaha Creek Rd. and follow the Forest Service signposts to the Red Lake trailhead.
This way will easily save you 2 hours vs. driving up to Big Pine and taking McMurry Meadows Rd. We did this at midnight in a crewcab truck and had no trouble going in or out.
The actual trailhead is at the North fork of the last bit of dirt road ending at GPS coordinates 37.036612, -118.360028 on Google Maps. The trail begins going uphill West along a group of low trees near a creek then switchbacks a few times before heading South West high above Red Mountain Creek. If you were unfortunate enough to go to the other trailhead at the end of the South fork (which has a nice overhead sign announcing you are at Red Lake Trailhead), you will add several hours of bouldering along the creek before being forced to bushwack up the 45 degree hillside to rejoin the real trail.
With 40 pound packs, we made it to Red Lake in 9 hours. Coming down was about the same amount of time, with the last 3 hours using headlamps at night.
The road up to the red lake trailhead is easily doable if you have a 2wd high clearance vehicle or a 4wd anything. It isn't a flat road without rocks but if you trust your driving it should be easy. The hike up is hard and will take time so leave at a reasonable time. At the end of the road it splits left and right. Take the right split and at the end before the spring is where the trail up to red lake starts.