The Red Lake Trail in the John Muir Wilderness of the Eastern Sierra has a reputation for being one of the worst maintained in the area, but don’t let that discourage you! A little bushwhacking, some determination, and a lot of elevation gain will win you access to a secluded cirque of mountains surrounding a picturesque lake. There are multiple peak-bagging opportunities here from spring to fall, ranging from easy scrambles and snow climbs to ice climbing and bergschrund navigating!
Access to this trailhead can be difficult. If you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, your approach will be simplified. Drive down Tinemaha Creek Road until a sign greets you at a turnaround with several parking spaces. Be careful to take the trail to the right going up the mountain range rather than the one to the left and along the creek.
If you only have a two-wheel drive vehicle, very careful access can be gained by slowly dodging boulders along Taboose Creek Road and parking at the Taboose Pass Trailhead. Navigate cross-country for roughly 3 miles until you reach Red Mountain Creek. As of June 2017, there was a small, wooden bridge marked by a few cairns that can be used to cross the stream more easily. Continue your off-trail adventure toward the Red Lake Trailhead and begin up the trail from the parking area.
This trail leads up toward Split Mountain and Mount Tinemaha and gets steep as it climbs. Though the trail itself isn’t very long, only 4.3 miles each way, be sure to give yourself ample time to get lost or stop for breaks, as it is almost entirely at elevation and can be tricky to follow. A GPS is strongly encouraged on this route! As you hike up and out of the desert landscape, you’ll be rewarded by panoramic views of the Owens Valley, White Mountains, and the beginning of the Palisades. The sunsets are incredibly surreal once you get above 9,000 feet, as the blend of alpine conditions and the orange glow of the desert below make an unlikely pairing.
If you get a late start or end up chasing daylight on the trail, there’s a great bivvy or tent spot at 9,500 feet, just off the path and underneath an ancient foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana). If you don your crampons and push on, however, you’ll reach your destination after just another 1,000-foot ascent. The final effort rewards you with jaw-dropping views of the massive spires of Split Mountain (14,065 feet) rising up from the edge of Red Lake.
The lake is often frozen over until June, so be sure to call the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center to check conditions. The best places to camp are on the eastern side of the lake as you are approaching from the trail below. Red Lake is an excellent place to set up a base camp to backcountry ski neighboring slopes ranging from 20 to 50 degrees. It’s also a great jumping-off point for spring mountaineering objectives or summer scrambles up some seriously massive peaks.
If solitude, high-elevation scrambling, snow climbs, or backcountry skiing is your thing, definitely brave the thickets and the gnarly dirt roads to check out this hidden gem in the Eastern Sierra.