About two weeks ago, the craziest thing happened: Al and I were given off on the same week. We were both between shows and somehow all the stars aligned to finally give us a week off…together. We almost couldn’t believe it. After the initial shock of it all, we immediately had the same thought: we need to go backpacking.
For those of you not familiar with backpacking or climbing terms, a “Fourteener” is a mountain peak with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet. California just so happens to have twelve of them. I just so happen to be married to a crazy man who wants to do them all…and so it kind of just went without saying that we were going to attempt another Fourteener. For those of you who followed along on my last 14er journey of Mt. Whitney, then you know it didn’t end so well for me! I’m going to go ahead and spoil this for you all now: we didn’t summit. On a 20 mile round trip trail, we made it about 18. But as the saying goes, “it’s the journey, not the destination,” and this particular journey just so happened to be one of my all-time favorites. Mostly due to the wonderful man who was hiking by my side 😉
Split Mountain is probably one of the lesser-known Fourteeners in California. And it’s definitely the least-climbed of them all. It’s located near the town of Big Pine, and is part of the Eastern Sierra Nevadas. It summits at 14,064 feet, making it the 8th highest peak in California. We picked it mostly because there didn’t seem to be much information out there on it, and that had the word “Challenge” written all over it for us. Some sites will tell you that Split Mountain is the “easiest” of the Fourteeners. And while I don’t know if that’s true or not, I can say that you shouldn’t take it lightly.
I think probably the number one reason Split Mountain is the least-hiked Fourteener is due to its accessibility. There isn’t much. There’s this crazy dirt road that leads to the actual trailhead, and it took us an hour and a half to get there in our car. The little bit of Internet advice we found on this hike warned that travelers need a high-clearance vehicle with four wheel drive to reach the trailhead. That is 100% accurate. In our case, we had high-clearance, but not four wheel drive. And you know what? We got stuck on our way out!! But luckily we brought with us a shovel and fix-a-flat (you can never be too prepared!) and ended up getting ourselves out fairly easily (go in with a game plan). If you don’t have a vehicle to make it to the trailhead, you will have to add anywhere from 8 – 10 extra miles onto your round trip hike…in the desert sun…with no shade cover…and with zero signage to tell you which way to go. So yeah, I can see why the road to the trailhead causes a lot of people to skip this Fourteener. It’s a shame though, because the hike itself is absolutely gorgeous. On our way out, Al and I mused that one day when we’re more financially set, we’d love to put a little money into the Split Mountain entrance, just to supply signs and even out some of the problem areas on the road, so that more people can enjoy this beautiful trail.
Another reason that we think this trail is so rarely climbed is the lack of shade. It. Is. Hot. If we were to attempt this hike again, I think we’d do it later in the year. But whenever you do attempt it, we would recommend getting your hiking in early morning and early evening, to avoid the hottest times of the day. There are few water sources in the early part of the trail (especially if you have to hike on the road that leads to the trailhead), so you use up your water pretty quickly, and we were sweating bullets within ten minutes of walking in the morning. There’s pretty much zero shade. Lots of sunscreen and sun protection are a must!
And finally, the third reason we think this mountain remains so desolate is due to the pretty much unmarked trail to the summit. It was a little unnerving at times. We would be hiking and realize that we ventured off the trail, and so we had to turn around and reevaluate where it continued. Two things saved us: 1) we purchased a Garmin GPS and SOS device. We had found someone who had hiked the trail before and we downloaded their map. This was huge. Purchasing one of these is definitely an investment, but a worthwhile one, especially if you plan to do more backpacking in the future. The particular Garmin we got is even better because it has an emergency SOS feature on it, so if something were to happen to either of us, we could use satellite to get in contact with an emergency rescue team. 2) Some incredibly kind souls who had hiked the trail before left little Cairns along the trail when things got tough. Cairns are little stacks of rocks. They’re helpful because they’re obviously manmade so you know someone has been there before, and hikers often use them on trails when the path becomes unclear, so that when they double back, they know which way to go. Once we figured out that these were left along the trail, we oftentimes just had to get to higher ground to see one, and we knew which direction to head in. So that’s something cool to remember next time you’re out hiking! Nevertheless, the trail is incredibly tough to follow sometimes, as the terrain is mostly loose dirt and boulders, and some areas are extremely overgrown and you have to bushwhack your way through. I would 1,000% recommend bringing a GPS with a downloaded map with you, because the chances of even running into other hikers are so slim.
Which brings me to my next point: we only ran into one other set of hikers our entire time out on the mountain! Which is scary, but was also one of my favorite parts about the entire trip. We were seriously alone out there. On this massive mountain. With whatever we could carry on our backs. That’s a pretty surreal feeling in itself. Luckily, the other two people we ran into were super cool. They were coming down from summiting, and we ended up picking them up on the road afterwards because their car couldn’t make it to the trailhead. They were adding 8 miles to their already-20 mile hike!!! To say they were grateful and relieved when we picked them up and drove them to their car would be an understatement. Ha!
Some other advice Al and I would offer to anyone who wants to hike Split Mountain:
- You need to pick up your Backpacking Permit by 11am on the day you want to start hiking. We missed the memo on this one, but luckily for us, not a single soul showed up to hike Split Mountain that day, so our permit wasn’t given away! When the Ranger asked Al what hike we were doing, and he replied “Split Mountain,” she said, “hmm, I don’t really know much about that one!”
- The trailhead entrance is pretty much completely straight up and consists almost entirely of loose dirt, which makes it pretty difficult to start out. We recommend heading north from the trailhead a bit, and take the lesser-traveled trail up. It’s tough, but not nearly as tough as the designated trailhead. It’s also near running water, so if you had to park your car a bit away, this would be a good place to stop and purify some water before ascending.
- Don’t forget bug spray and sunscreen. You will definitely need both.
- Bring a bear canister! You’re technically not allowed to hike without one. But why would you even want to risk it anyway!?
- The trail itself is probably 90% loose rock/dirt and 10% designated trail. Wear sturdy hiking boots with ankle support and don’t trust rocks that you think look stable, because a lot of them aren’t. Trekking poles are a must. Use them to test rocks before you step on them, and use them for the super steep parts of the trail. Remember, you have a heavy pack on your back the whole time…you need the extra support.
- Give yourself an extra day. One of the reasons we didn’t end up summiting was due to lack of daylight. By the time we were about 2 miles from the summit (with 3,000 ft elevation gain in that remaining 2 miles), we knew that if we made it up there in the light, we would have to come down in the dark. Which you never want to do. If you’re prone to altitude sickness like me, giving yourself an extra day is also a good idea just to let yourself get acclimated. Three days to summit Split Mountain would be very doable and maybe even comfortable!
- Within the last two miles, not only is there extreme sun exposure, but there is also a Class 3 Scramble, which means there’s a lot of loose, falling rock. The hikers we ran into warned us that they had some scary moments up there, and they were pretty seasoned hikers who were wearing helmets. If you want to hike Split Mountain, we recommend protective headgear!
- When you reach the lake, you’ll be so excited to stop and camp and rest for the night. Don’t stop yet. Hike a little bit past the lake until you get to the real lake: Red Lake. Aside from the gorgeousness of it all, the water is way clearer, there are less bugs, and there are way more places to pitch your tent. Also, you should go for a swim while you’re at it 😉
- Do not descend if you are fatigued. The path coming down is hard because of the loose rock. There were a lot of instances where we lost our footing. Get enough rest and drink enough water before you head down. The final stretch of the descent is kind of fun because you can sort of dirt-ski your way down to the bottom once you spot your car 😉
Overall, we didn’t summit for a number of reasons: Time. We needed more of it. The Class 3 Scramble. We didn’t have helmets. And Altitude Sickness. I felt a headache coming on, and given my last experience, we didn’t want to risk anything knowing that there was nobody else around. I think a lot of people would get discouraged about not making it to the top, especially when you get as close as we did. But I’m not. The hiking itself isn’t really about the summiting for me. It’s about just getting away from real life for awhile, getting out of your own head, and enjoying the outdoors. When we finally decided to call it, and turn back around for the day, Al and I took a few minutes to just sit on a rock and look out over it all, and I just started crying. This feeling of appreciation just came over me. Here I was, sitting next to my husband, looking out over a gorgeous lake and mountains – not another soul in sight – and it hit me: there are so many people in the world that will never see this view. That will never experience this feeling. And I felt so damn lucky, you know? I think that’s what it’s all about for me. These places that aren’t ruined by humans. Whole little ecosystems up there thriving because no one’s touched them. And the people that do see it, appreciate it enough to not leave trash behind or harm the animals, or whatever. It’s just virtually untouched. It’s magical. It’s hard to put into words, and I think maybe it’s just one of those feelings you have to experience for yourself to really understand. One of those “aha!” moments, if you will.
Will we do Split Mountain again? Who knows! I’d like to think that we will someday. I hear the view from the summit is something else. What I do know is, is that being outside in a tent with my husband is one of my favorite things in the world. Having no distractions. Living in the moment. Taking in the views. Crying at the views. That’s the real deal, to me. I’m thankful for him. Thankful that he’s patient with me when it comes time to set up camp, thankful that he always asks if my feet are okay. Thankful that he’ll lie and say he needs a break just because he knows I need one. We’re a team, and I’m thankful for all of the little lessons that nature teaches us out on the trails.
Happy hiking, friends!