Miter Basin and Mt. Langley ~ October 2014

Falls colors in Miter Basin
There is something special about fall in the High Sierra. The days are shorter and the weather is much colder but the crowds are long gone and the colors are beautiful. Over a long weekend and over 30 miles in the backcountry I saw only four other hikers.  

After spending the night at the trailhead the night before I got an early start on the Cottonwood Lakes trail. I slept in a homemade sleeping bag, but it was only rated to 40 degrees. It was below 40 that night! 

Fortunately I brought warmer gear for the hike in. 

Starting at the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. 

I'm not sure what part of the Sierra wilderness isn't part of the John Muir Wilderness. . . but soon I was entering the John Muir Wilderness.

Entering the John Muir Wilderness. 

After 4 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation gain I made it to Cottonwood Lake #1.

Cottonwood Lake #1.

Next was Cottonwood Lake #4.

Cottonwood Lake #4. 

Then Cottonwood Lake #5. I would be hiking to the top of the low point on the ridge in the background, called Old Army Pass. It is so steep and difficult to maintain the park service abandoned it and built a new one (New Army Pass) nearby. I like Old Army Pass as it only climbs to 12,000 feet.

Cottonwood Lake #5 and Old Army Pass. 

The winds were between 25-35 mph with gusts up to 45 mph. This is the first time I have seen white caps on an alpine lake.

Surf in the High Sierra. 

A rock slide covered the trail near the top of the pass a few years ago. Since the trail is not maintained people have just figured out ways to get past.

The top of the un-maintained Old Army Pass trail.

At the top there is a vertical cliff.

Vertical cliff at the top of Old Army Pass. 

This is the view from the top of Old Army Pass, with Cottonwood Lake #5 at the bottom.

View from the top of Old Army Pass.

I took a cross country route along the base of Mt. Langley to Soldier Lake. There is a use trail that leads down from the low point in the ridge.

Looking back at the cross country route to Soldier Lake. 

Drought conditions in the High Sierra. This is usually a meadow that leads to Soldier Lake.

Barren meadow near Soldier Lake. 

There is no official trail leading into Miter Basin. With a little creative route finding and a map and compass it's usually easy to find a way. This time I found a tarn at the entry to the basin.

Fall colors in Miter Basin. 

Local rangers named this tarn "Three Tree Tarn". 

That night I slept a ridge at 11,400 feet overlooking Miter Basin. The large boulders provided a good windbreak that night.

Camping behind some boulders for a wind break. 

Sunrise in Miter Basin. It was a cold and windy night and my water bottles were frozen in the morning. . . but I slept just fine after the long hike in the day before.

Sunrise in Miter Basin.

Sunrise in Miter Basin. This huge glacially carved basin is covered with wildflowers in the spring. In late October the fall colors dominated the landscape.

Sunrise from my camp overlooking Miter Basin. 

In the morning I took a side trip to Iridescent Lake at 12,000 feet. The peak on the left is the east side of The Miter, the namesake peak of the entire basin.

Iridescent Lake.  

Mt. Pickering (13,400 feet) and Miter Basin from Iridescent Lake. 

A frozen creek in Miter Basin. 

Rock dude in Miter Basin.

This was the view looking back into Miter Basin on the hike out. There is a faint use trail that leads part of the way in. The pointy peak just to the right of center is The Miter.

Miter Basin.

On the hike out I decided to climb Mt. Langley. At 14,042 feet it is one of only 12 peaks in California that are over 14,000 feet. Mt. Langley is considered to be one of the easiest 14'ers.

Mt. Langley (14,042 feet)

Route to Mt. Langley.

The park service placed cairns (large rock piles) to lead the way.

Cairns lead the way to the top.

Can I get a cheeseburger?

By the time I reached 13,350 feet the shadows were getting long. I realized that I would be climbing down in the dark if I kept going. . . and I wasn't sure how long it would take to climb the final 650 feet. After eating my last Cliff bar I decided to head back down. Mt. Langley would still be there next time.

The last light on Mt. Langley.

On the hike out I could see the last light on the top of Mt. Langley in the distance. It was strange to think that I had been near the top just a few hours earlier.

Eventually I got below treeline and hiked the last few hours in the dark by headlamp. I had warmer clothes in my pack but it was easier to keep going while wearing shorts, t-shirt, windbreaker, hat and gloves. . . but it got COLD once the sun went down. By the time I reached the car it was 30 degrees.

Thanks for reading.

Route overview. 


  1. Great pics. My wife and I attempted Mt. Whitney through Miter Basin over Discovery Pinnacle, just a few weeks before your trip,. I lost a DSLR (with expensive lens!) on our dropping from Pinnacle to the switchbacks on Whitney Trail, so after a frustrating afternoon of looking for the camera, we went back to Upper Crabtree and grabbed our gear and hike down into Crabtree Basin. If you haven't been through Crabtree Basin, it is on par with Miter for scenery, just awesome.

    Anyway, I was told by a ranger staying near us at Upper Soldier that the tarn in your photo is called "3 Tree Tarn" by the rangers. Panning 90 degrees from your photo angle, it's clear why it's called 3 Tree Tarn. What a great way to get in to Miter Basin, huh?

    At the "barren" meadow at Upper Soldier, we had the company of two coyotes, and generally climbed up a steep rock face like they were sheep. I've never seen them that high. Also, we saw many big horn sheep. Unfortunately my lost DSLR contains all of my photos of the sheep. We spent two nights at Upper Soldier, in and out, and both nights a family of sheep climbed down the western ridge and were backlit by sunset.

    1. Thanks Calisubie! Somehow I missed your comment and it was a nice surprise to find it today.

      It's too bad to hear about your DSLR & lens but it sounds like you made a valiant effort to find it. I still haven't been over Crabtree Pass but I look forward to seeing it this summer.

      "3 Tree Tarn", how cool! I checked out some of my other pxts from the trip and I see the trees. That would have been a good place to camp and was definitely a beautiful spot in fall.

      Your stories about all of the wildlife you saw in the meadow at Upper Soldier is in real contrast to what I saw on the more exposed ridge in Miter Basin. I'm sure the "locals" like the more protected area around Upper Soldier. Too bad about your camera, I'm sure you got some great wildlife shots on your trip.


    2. I just saw 2 coyotes traveling together at Lower Soldier a few days ago. Interestingly, I saw a BUNCH of tracks beyond Sky Blue Lake at an unnamed tarn at 11,946 that looked like feline prints as well.

    3. I meant canine, not feline! Haha

  2. Super nice looking trip, Andy. Mitre Basin is **high** on my priority list of Sierra "to do's".

    My understanding about Army Pass (the actual name is just Army Pass although it usually gets called Old Army Pass to distinguish it from New Army Pass) is that it wasn't abandoned because of difficulty of maintenance but rather because of orientation. It's orientation is such that it retains snow (well, before Global Warming) well into late season, making ascents and descents treacherous. The Park Service, as I understand it, re-routed the trail through New Army Pass which is south facing and clears far earlier of snow.

    I'd really like to go in over either Army or New Army, head over Guyot Pass to Crabtree Meadows, ascend Whitney, descend via Pinnacle "Pass" to Upper Crabtree Lake, ascend to Crabtree Pass, and then return to Army or New Army via Mitre Basin.

    By the way, you failed to mention one truly essential technique: borrowing UL gear from kind friends who are better equipped than oneself. :)

    Happy hiking,


    1. Thanks HJ! I like your planned route to Whitney in the area. I've done that loop in parts during various trips in the area. I really liked the scree skiing down the sand hill after climbing over Pinnacle Pass on the way back from Whitney. Good times!

      And yes, trying out UL gear from buddies is the way to go:) You and your family are always welcome anytime!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.