OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

4:00 P.M.

April 1, 2004

Gardiner Basin

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by John Templeton

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library

About the Author


Born in the small town of Irvington near New York City, raised in Pittsburgh and schooled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, George Washington University and the University of Maryland, most of his professional work involved development, testing and operation of heavy weapons, in particular the Minuteman and MX intercontinental ballistic missiles. His most notable achievement was allowing capture by the former Marjorie Roy. Their four children have spawned nine grandchildren and two more in the succeeding generation.


Of the numerous annual trips the Templeton family and friends have taken in the High Sierra, an exploration of the Gardiner Basin area proved to be one of the finest. It began and ended at Onion Valley and traversed Kearsarge, Gardiner, 60 Lakes and Glen passes, all reaching an elevation near 12,000 feet.

Gardiner Basin

Of the many backpacking trips we have taken in the High Sierra this one, taken in August of 1983, by two sons, Peter and Richard and a grandson, Tim, is probably the favorite.

If you value serenity and relative seclusion amid true alpine surroundings, and are tired of encountering swarms of hikers and campers who crowd the Muir Trail and other popular routes in the Sierra, visit Gardiner Basin. This hidden sanctuary, forested in its lower reaches and spotted with sparkling lakes, ringed on three sides by granite ridges and sharp peaks, will satisfy you’re longing for a genuine wilderness experience. Only a handful of hikers reach this isolated basin, because only one footpath, seldom maintained, enters it, making the long climb from Charlotte Lake over Gardiner Pass. It is one of the few areas reachable by trail where the marks of man are minimal.

Entry permits had been increasingly difficult to obtain so Richard, who was living in Bishop at the time, applied to the ranger office there around July 1st. But reservations (30 of 60 total) had all been spoken for. So he and Timmy traveled to the Lone Pine ranger office on 14 August, arriving bright and early (6 A M( only to find themselves at the end of a long line. By 6:15 they were told to hurry to the ranger station in Onion Valley where the last 15 entry permits and cancellations were held. But no luck there. The ranger told them to get in line early the next morning (4:30 would do the job, she said).

Meanwhile, Peter and I left Redlands in his old Yellow station wagon. It was a nice trip up #395 until Olancha when for no apparent reason the clutch petal just flapped instead of engaging the clutch. Pete said he could drive clutchless so we went on to Lone Pine, found Bill’s Garage and a mechanic working on his daughter’s car on his day off. He crawled under, looked around a bit and said “You’re in luck. The linkage came loose but I can fix it” Fifteen minutes and $20 later we took off for Independence and got to the museum, off Market Street, as advertised at 10 AM. There was Richard’s yellow Beetle, and close by snoozing on a picnic table, were Rich and Tim.

The sad “No Permit tale was related, but Rich assured us we would have a campsite up in Onion Valley for the night because he had covered a picnic table in site #20 with his green tube tent. John was nervous “Let’s go back up there. That tube tent might not do the job, and you haven’t paid the fee for space #20. Further, we just might be able to sweet-talk the ranger out of an entry permit” John got out-voted. Instead we all went too the local greasy spoon for breakfast, then to the fish hatchery a few miles up the road, There were thousands of brooder trout in a pond in front and long canal-like pools to the side of this 1914 brick and stone structure, and perhaps millions of fingerlings in rows of tanks inside. The California Fish and Game Commission really take care of its sporting public.

The two cars chugged the 15 miles up to Onion Valley by early afternoon. We went straight to space #20, now occupied by two big guys, big gals and assorted kids, motorcycles, a motor home and lots of other stuff. The  green tube tent was still nicely in place on the picnic table, so Rich promptly proceeded to tell those folks who space #20 belonged to, while I started looking for alternatives. We settled on site #17, a walk-in.

It was a nice lazy afternoon. Rich caught Tim’s zip football pass many times. We played ‘Pac-gammon’ and then went over to talk the lady ranger out of a permit. She said “Get in line at 4:30 tomorrow morning”.

We debated an original plan to go over Molthrup Pass and Baxter Pass (which would require spotting one of the cars at the Molthrup Pass road-head), or repeat the 1978 trip through Gardiner Basin. The repeat trip got a unanimous yes vote.

One of Pete’s fabulous dinners was next. Charcoal broiled steaks, baked potatoes, corn, salad, red and white wine and apple crunch pie. A far cry from the Spartan dinners we would enjoy on the rest of the trip. Later we fired up the lantern for some cards before Pete and Tim “volunteered” to stand watch down at the ranger station all night while Rich and I crashed.

I opened an eye about 5:30 and could see a long line outside the ranger’s house. I hoped both those guys hadn’t fallen asleep while on duty. Rich went over to check and take a picture. Finally at 7:15 the twosome came back triumphant, permit in hand The long line outside the ranger’s place was still waiting-- in vain. There were only two permits left after we got ours.

Breakfast consisted of eggs, bacon, English muffins and orange juice. Then it was time to do a final sorting out of what to pack into the mountains and what to leave in the cars. We  loaded up and got on our way about 9:30.

Sure enough, about half a mile up the Kearsarge Pass Trail – there was the lady ranger checking permits. “That was a fitting reward for having spent all night camped on her doorstep” Rich said.

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Looking back, we got a breathtaking view, between serrated canyon walls, across Owens Valley to the rounded, tawny crest of the Inyo Mountains. As we zigzagged upward through open terrain, just north of tumbling Independence Creek, the granite spire of Independence Peak loomed high on the left. The trail crossed a terminal moraine of granite boulders and skirted the north shore of placid Gilbert Lake and Flower Lake, just beyond. Then we encountered a series of short zigzags up a steep wall, with views down on Heart Lake. The whitebark trees become more gnarled and dwarfed with increased elevation, until just above Big Pothole Lake they were prostrate, more bush than tree. Then a final, long switchback up shaley terrain got us to 11,823 foot Kearsarge pass.

The panorama that abruptly unfolds in the west is awesome. In the foreground are the jagged teeth of the Kearsarge Pinnacles; beyond the serrated rampart of the Kings-Kern Divide. Below, glimmering in the sunshine, are the Kearsarge Lakes.

 After catching our breath and exchanging high fives, we set out for Charlotte Lake. The trail drops westward on gravelly footing, switchbacking down the south slope of Mt. Gould. Down to the left are the usually placid waters of Bullfrog Lake, with the spiked summits of East Vidette and West Vidette across the chasm of Bubbs Creek as a lofty backdrop. Farther south are the even taller Junction Peak and Mount Brewer. The trail continued westward, crossed the Muir Trail, and descended via short switchbacks through a cover of lodgepole pines to the southeast end of long Charlotte Lake.

Tired and thirsty, we collapsed at the first available spot at the east end of the lake. I started to boil some water (we had been told the streams were contaminated this year), and Pete went to find a campsite. Rich said “Surprise! I just found a Coors in my pack, cool it in the inlet stream and we can quench our thirst”. That beer lasted a long time, possibly two minutes.

Pete came back with good news. He had conversed with a ranger who spends his summers at Charlotte Lake. “The water from a side stream  is potable; there are lots of  fine campsites at the northwest end of the lake, and he wants to see Pete’s electronic mosquito repellant”

We found a good campsite—a knoll at lakeside. There were two or three other groups within shouting distance. Pete and I went to the stream to fill the water bag and crossed a beautiful marshy area where  I went in so deep I’d drown.

About 9 PM, after supper, we were engrossed in a game of hearts when the ranger came by. We swapped lots of stories of our travels through the region the ranger watches over, including the Shorty Lovelace cabins. He told us to be sure our food was secure from a bear in the area. We spent a good fifteen minutes talking about Pete’s new mosquito repeller, a small device about the size of a lipstick case. The ranger wanted more data. What were the near and long-term effects on insect and animal (including human) life? What research had been done? He was obviously a dedicated environmentalist. A very likeable and interesting guy. Still going to school but unable to tolerate long stretches with the books without months-long breaks with his real love—the wilderness. He has other interests also—said that in a few days he was going to walk twenty miles or so, over the King/Kern Divide (12,600 ft. Harrison Pass) to see his girl friend.

At sun-up the next morning, a Monday, one of us (me) was out of the sack. Two deer-- a doe and a buck were browsing within a stone’s throw. I could get within 20-30 feet for some pictures. We got on our way about ten o’clock, going westward along the north shore of Charlotte Lake. Beyond the west end of the lake the trail is infrequently maintained. It crosses a maze of avalanche downed trees and descends westward, above the stream (the outlet from Charlotte Lake) through a mixed forest of aspen, lodgepole and some juniper, punctuated with clumps of manzanita. The trail drops gradually along the south slope of Gardiner Ridge, leaving the rapidly descending stream far below. Ahead is the Yosemite-like monolith of Charlotte Dome. This beautiful piece of rock was one of the earliest Sierra domes to be discovered outside of Yosemite Valley. In 1684 Charles Hoffman sketched this dome. It was first climbed 102 years later. Then in 1970 one of the world’s finest rock climbs was discovered on its south face.

Shortly before reaching the base of the dome, the trail turns abruptly north (right) and begins the arduous climb to Gardiner Pass. But despite much searching we could not find the trail. The Forest Service erects wooden markers on posts at most trail junctions, but none at this remote and unmaintained spot. There are alternative ways to mark trails: blazes on tree trunks at about eye height, animal (especially deer) trails, or “ducks” (Three or more rocks piled on top of each other). We searched the hillside ahead but could find no sign, so we resorted to the ‘cross-country’ method using the topo map and compass. This is a stiff climb but we have become very skilled over the years at finding a safe route across rocks and through heavily forested mountain sides Finally the ridgeline was reached—one of the few forested passes over 11,000 feet in the Sierra.

Richard and Tim can’t resist the race to be first up and, as usual, Peter and I are struggling just to get there. There are several potential points on the ridgeline that might be the pass. The correct one is to the right and slightly hugher than the low point. On the north (Gardiner Basin) side there is only one spot without huge cliffs, so it is essential to cross at the right place.

Breathtaking panoramas open to both the north and south. To the south, the high rugged summits of the Kings/Kern Divide lace the sky. Northward you look over the deep trench of Gardiner basin to peaks as far north as Mt. Goddard.

There were half a dozen other folks on the crest four teen-age boys and two middle age men who were keeping their charges under tight control using whistles and harsh commands, certainly no way to instill a love of the mountains in young men.

We downed M&Ms , water and peanuts and rested. A nap comes on very easily after a hard climb.

We started searching for a safe way to descend into the headwaters of South Gardiner Creek since the first forty feet or so were almost straight down. I found a rock-choked crack and descended it like a ladder. The others followed without any slips or rock falls. The next thousand feet or so were very steep and rocky, but not vertical. We found a cave under a rock overhang that we had used as a rain shelter during our trip through this region in 1978. The route becomes a series of downward sloping granite slabs, each of which must soon be abandoned because they invariably end in a cliff.

We made camp next to one of those granite slabs beside one of the upper lakes in this canyon. Tim, as always, was first out with his fishing pole. We played cards and after supper explored the geology of the region(especially the massive quartz intrusions which must have made the early gold-seekers salivate). A huge rock-fall, across the lake alerted us to the dangers of carelessness when selecting a camping site. We marveled at the magnificent sights this glacially cirqued high lake basin presented at sunset.

Tuesday morning we got away about ten o’clock for the pleasant walk down through the series of lakes along the south fork, descending from granite bench to granite bench, arranged like giant stepping stones, several of them harboring tarns or marshy lakes. The forest cover becomes exclusively lodgepole, interspersed with verdant clearings laced with colorful wildflowers. A trail passed 50 feet above the east edge of the lower lake, and just beyond dropped in unbelievably steep zigzags to the floor of Gardiner Creek’s main basin.To the left, hidden in forest and brush on a small flat 200 yards south of the creek, is the remains of one of Shorty Lovelace’s pigmy cabins.

A hundred years ago mountains surrounding the San Joaquin valley were filled with trappers, men who made a living by catching animals and selling their hides. But Shorty Lovelace, the most famous trapper of the area, was one of a dying breed. Born in 1886, he began his career in 1920. City life drove him to whisky and a perpetual drunken stupor; only intoxicating mountain air could keep him from the bottle. He built a small shelter in Crowley Canyon and began trapping weasels, fishers and other small mammals for their pelts. Over a period of years, Shorty built a number of shelters, each a day’s travel apart, with a line of traps in between. Like all trappers, Shorty worked only in the winter, traveling on homemade skis, to get the pelts when they are thickest. When spring came, Shorty would descend to the San Joaquin Valley and quickly sell his winter haul for $2000 or more. But just as quickly he would spend the money on booze, or lose it while drunk to muggers. So before long Shorty made it a habit t hand his earnings to his brother, who would then ration it back to him for food and liquor. Shorty still spent most of his summers drunk, but he occasionally returned to the mountains to work for horsemen as a chef.

One estimate claims that Shorty built 36 shelters, most of them in the Kings River drainage. His huts were scarcely ample for even his 5ft. 4 in frame, but they no doubt served as solid bivouacs during winter gales. Some still stand including the one in Gardiner Basin.

When Kings Canyon National Park was established in 1940, Shorty was ousted to the North Fork of the Kings. There he trapped until the late ‘50’s living a simple mountaineers life. He was last seen in his beloved Sierra near Roaring River in 1961, two years before his death at age 77.

We speculated on that guy’s life, running trap lines every winter by himself, moving from cabin to cabin every day or so. His cabins weren’t built to stand the rigors of 100 winters, and one of these times, visitors will find little, if any, evidence of his life style.

Just before leaving this idyllic spot I dipped my sierra cup into the small stream rushing down the mountain nearby and noticed flecks in the sandy bottom. “Gold!” says I. And all four of us became instant ‘49ers’ panning ‘gold’ with sierra cups. The stuff was very realistic, and we collected part of a small vial full to be assayed back home.

The trip up East Gardiner Creek to the lake basins that form its headwaters is indeed magnificent. At the lower elevations the stream winds its crystal-clear way through forested areas. Then, as we got higher, climbing over a series of granite benches, it cascades over spectacular waterfalls. Finally we reach the 10,500-11.000 ft. series of lakes near timberline, each hemmed in by towering granite walls.

No other people but hundreds of hungry   golden trout as we spend the next two days at two of these lakes in the Gardiner Basin. Just ‘lazy livin’ in the finest surroundings four guys could ever imagine. Besides fish on the line with every other cast, we ‘enjoyed’ an afternoon Sierra thunderstorm. The tube-tent-shelter Pete and Tim constructed kept the rain off our heads pretty well, but the storm kept up long enough for a small river to start flowing through our gear under the plastic canopy. No lasting damage, just lots of scurrying around and a good test of our ponchos.

Finally on Thursday morning it was time to leave the Gardiner Basin. The route was faintly ducked some of the way up to 60 Lakes Col near 12,000feet. On a granite ridge between the last two lakes on this climb another thunderstorm broke. This one tried to give us serious trouble—lightning and our metal pack frames were inviting lightning rods on that high, exposed ridge; thunder that shakes you; icy wind that quickly makes your exposed arms and legs shiver; and then hail stones that cover the ground with1/4 inch or so in a few minutes. We found some protection in the rocks, shed the backpacks and huddled as best we could for thirty minutes or so until the storm passed. Just a vivid first-hand experience which leaves us all with much respect for the high mountain county.

A long bolder hopping traverse got us past the north shore of the highest and largest Gardiner Basin lake. Finally, the last of the climb ended at a saddle called 60 Lakes Col between 12,721 ft. Mt. Cotter to the north and a 12,600 ft spire just south. 60 Lakes Basin forms the panorama to the east

We dropped steeply down the snow fields and granite benches and skirted the west shore of the highest of the “60 Lakes”. Now we see some folks, the first since crossing Gardiner Pass, four days ago. There is a trail here that swings northward through this string of lakes. We stopped for lunch here near a monolith called Fin Dome, first named in 1899.

 More light rain as we crossed this area and made our way down to the beautiful Rea Lakes where there were at least half a dozen groups of campers. We separated, each of us being sure we could find the ‘best’ or at least a ‘suitable’ campsite. Richard was the last to concede that the others had made the best selection. Pete and Tim arranged another rain shelter. Rich and I walked to the stream, flowing from Dragon Lakes, for water. Tim tried his best to get us to agree to take a route over Dragon Pass tomorrow as a way back to Onion Valley. But there was no way he could convince me to try a class 3 knapsack route over a 13,000 ft. monster.

We enjoyed our last dinner while we watched the Painted Lady, Dragon Peak and Glen Pass alternately colored by sunshine, storm clouds and even a double rainbow.

Friday morning we started our last leg at 0830—1500 feet and two miles up over rock and snow to Glen Pass. Rich and Tim again vied for first up and got there in 90 minutes. Pete and I made the ridge about 15 minutes later. This is a very strenuous climb so we were elated to have made it so quickly and with such apparent ease.

Its another two miles down to the junction just east of Charlotte Lake, then a seemingly endless (3 miles) climb up to Kearsarge Pass.

Besides the fat ground squirrels that scurry boldly for crumbs dropped by hikers, a guy with a fancy short wave receiver was demonstrating its prowess on the pass.

We all felt kind of superior—well conditioned and very trail-wise as we passed a lot of the “fortunate 60” sweating and puffing their way up the Keasarge Pass Trail that afternoon. Male/female, fat/thin, young/old, well/ill equipped—all kinds sample the trails and enjoyment to be found in the Sierra.

Back to Onion Valley we unpacked our feet from those heavy, dusty boots to let our toes recover in the fresh air, packed all the gear in the trusty yellow cars, and wound down the 15 mile road to Independence. Two pieces of business there: call Eva so she wouldn’t faint when four tramps showed up for dinner, and getting six-packs to quench our week-long thirsts for Bud and Coke.

 Rich said “There’s no way my hot water heater can accommodate all the grime on our hides” so we stopped at Keogh hot springs just south of Bishop. We took a dirt road off #395, parked at the end, walked a short way to the stream, and stripped like it was a private place (which it wasn’t). That stream bubbles out of the ground at about105 degrees F, and was a great way to clean up and relax sore muscles.

Eva, as always was the gracious hostess for our steak, spuds, asparagus, salad, wine dinner. The next door neighbors visited with a big ‘baby Templeton’ cake before we spread our bags one more time (one on the front lawn) for the last night of the trip.

Gardiner Basin Bibliography

            Shorty Lovelace, Kings Canyon Fur Trapper

                        William C. Tweed

                        1980 Sequoia Natural History Association

            Gardiner Basin, California, Topographic Map

                        Created by –, for J.A.Templeton, June 9, 2003

                        Beartooth Mapping, Inc

                        POBox 2075

                        Red Lodge, Montana, 59068

            High Sierra Hiking Guide #14

                        Mt. Pinchot  Central Kings Canyon Park

                        John W. Robinson

                        Wilderness Press, Berkeley

            Mountaineer’s Guide to the High Sierra

                        Edited by Hervey H. Voge and J. Smatko

                        Sierra Club                 


High Sierra, Onion Valley, Kearsarge Pass, Glen Pass, Charlotte Lake

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