My family visits me from New England annually, and this year I warned my father and brother to be prepared for a long hike. After trying to narrow down one of my favorite places to share with them, I finally decided on Mono Pass and Spillway Lake, one of the less strenuous hikes on the list (which included Mt Dana and Conness—perhaps a bit ambitious for two people who have lived at sea level their entire life). The area provides a great introduction to the high country as the fairly level trail up to Mono Pass leads though inviting forests to reveal, at the end, a picturesque alpine basin guarded by the Kuna Crest, Mt. Gibbs, and Mt. Lewis. A short hike over a ridge brought our intrepid group to Spillway Lake, its depths fed by water cascading (i.e., spilling) down from the Kuna Crest. Although the altitude proved trying for Dad and Kevin (and Kevin had never walked as far in his life!), both sauntered on and finished the hike.
The Kuna Crest stretches from Mammoth Peak to Kuna Peak and hides some of the loveliest lakes in the region. I began my trip on the Mono Pass trail, literally running though the swarms and swarms of mosquitoes. The wet winter brought us a great year for waterfalls and wildflowers, but the downside certainly is the thriving mosquito population. Once on the crest, (and away from the relentless bloodsuckers), I visited Spillway, Helen, Bingaman and Kuna Lakes. Winter still reigned at Kuna Lake, which was guarded by its glacier and still frozen in places.
I keep returning to the Mono Pass area for hiking. I’ve been exploring the region from all directions, having hiked, over the years, Mt Dana and Gibbs and the Granite Divide in between, Parker Pass and Mt. Lewis, and the Mono Pass Trail itself. I decide to tackle the south-west region of the area, the Kuna Crest and it’s lakes.
Smoke from the fires on the east side still linger, but we notice a very peculiar cloud to our west. Being an amateur weather buff, I have Shad take photos of it from all angles. It’s a stratiform cloud, shaped by the winds shearing off the mountains. It’s shaped like a series of solid eights, in a wave formation, and has several different textures within.
Making it even more peculiar is the smoke clouds drifting around it. I know there is a phenomena called the Sierra Wave and I vow to consult the guidebook when I get home.
From the shoulder of Mammoth Peak, we ascend into the basin containing Kuna Lake. The crest hugs Kuna Lake tight in its basin and the gem-blue water reflects the sky above. The wind is a forcible presence here and I can see why we have stratiform clouds above. I hold onto Shad when a wave of wind roars into the basin that bends the tops of the trees. Then oddly enough it’s silent again. I joke about nor’easters, being from New England, but Shad, being from the Midwest, experienced tornadoes, so this is pretty tame stuff to him.
Next comes Bingaman Lake, smaller and not nestled so tightly in the cliffs. We find multiple animal tracks on its muddied shores: marmot, coyote and something unidentifiable. We follow its outlet down, hoping over monkey flower patches near the stream, and then veer east to explore Spillway Lake. No swimming today; it’s cloudy and breezy and we haven’t worked up enough of a sweat to make the cold water enticing.
From Spillway Lake we make our way back via the Parker Pass Trail. The strange cloud still looms overhead, its massive stillness unusual.