After a long time preparation, our trip to Eastern Sierra was finally executed and successfully completed. In this blog, I will describe my personal experience for this winter backpacking activity and provide some information and summary that people may find useful for undertaking winter backpacking in a similar environment.

Our Goal and Original Plan

Our goal is to go to Minaret Lake (elevation 9800 feet, elevation gain 2200 feet from Devils Postpile trailhead ), camp there for a few nights, and make photographs in that area. Minaret Lake is a lake in the Ritter Range, a subrange of the Sierra Nevada, in California. It is located in extreme northeastern Madera County, within the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the Inyo National Forest. It has a unique photographic feature, especially in winter.

Our original plan was as follows:
(1) On 30 October 2013, after picking me up by my team members from San Francisco International Airport at 12pm, we directly drive to the trailhead at Devils Postpile Ranger Station, Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth, CA, and camp one night there;
(2) Then next day, starting from the trailhead at Devils Postpile, alone Minaret Lake trail, we hike 8 miles to reach Minaret Lake, which has elevation 9800 feet;
(3) Camping three nights (31 October, 1 – 2 November) at Minaret Lake, then explore and make photographs around that area;
(4) On 3 November, we come back to the trailhead of Devils Postpile first, and then drive back to Santa Cruz.

The Actual Trip

30 October 2013

At 10:45am, my flight UA870 arrived in San Francisco International Airport on time. About 12:00pm, my team members picked up me from the airport. After simply re-arranging my luggage, we started our journey to Eastern Sierra.

Due to a two-day snowfall just prior to 30 October, as well as an early winter arrival, the access roads – the Tioga Road and Minaret Summit Road, towards the Devils Postpile Trailhead, were all closed. Our original plan had to be changed.

Following Jon (our team member and guide)’s suggestion, we arrived at Mono Lake at 8:00pm and had camped there on the fist night.

31 October 2013

Our new plan was to get to Horseshoe Lake park area, starting from there, hiking 8 miles (12.8 km) along the Mammoth Pass to reach the Devils Postpile trailhead first. See below Map 1.

Map 1: Red line indicates the trail via Mammoth Pass from Horseshoe Lake park area to Devils Postpile, 8 miles.

Map 1: Red line indicates the trail via Mammoth Pass from Horseshoe Lake park area to Devils Postpile, 8 miles (12.8 km).

Starting at 11:00am at Horseshoe park area, we hiked along the Mammoth Pass towards Devils Postpile. Most parts of the trail had been covered by more than one-foot thick snow, which made our progress quite slow. Around 5:00pm, we reached Devils Postpile. We continued hiking further 40 minutes, stopped at the Boundary of Devils Postpile National Monument and INYO National Forest (see below picture), and set up our camps there.

Reaching the Boundary.

Reaching the Boundary.

1 November 2013

Next day, after finishing morning shooting at Devils Postpile, around 10:00am we continued our journey, along the Minaret Lake trail which was about 8 miles (12.8 km) long (see below Map 2).

Map 2: The red line indicates the trail from Devils Postpile to Minaret Lake, 8 miles (12.8 km).

Map 2: The red line indicates the trail from Devils Postpile to Minaret Lake, 8 miles (12.8 km).

Like the previous day, most parts of the trail were covered by snow, some parts the snow was over one-foot thick. Hiking was all the way up-hill, sometimes the trail was quite steep and slippery. With the elevation increased, our progress was slower. We arrived at the Minaret Lake around 6:00pm. We made some evening and night photographs at the Minaret Lake area.

Under the Minaret Mountain Summit.

Under the Minaret Mountain Summit, carrying a 40 lbs (18 kg) backpack.

2 – 3 November 2013

After finishing morning shooting at 10:45am, we started to head back from the Minaret Lake. On the way downhill, the many parts of the trail were visible, but the path was still very icy and slippery. We hiked about 7 hours on 2 November, passed Devils Postpile, and camped one night somewhere on the Mammoth Pass.

On the Mammoth Pass, the Minaret Mountain Summit was clearly visible far behind.

On the Mammoth Pass, the Minaret Mountain Summit was clearly visible far behind.

We continued our journey home at 8:00am on 3 November. The hike was then getting easier, part of the reasons was that most snows were melted and the trail became visible, though some part of the trail was still slippery. We only spent 4 and half hours to reach the Horseshoe Lake car park.

The trip finished at Horseshoe Lake park area.

The trip finished at Horseshoe Lake car park area.

What Important Things I Brought for This Trip

Tent: To prepare for this winter backpacking trip, I bought a Black Diamond 2-person 4-season HiLight Tent:

Black Diamond Tent

The tent is not cheap, but this trip proved that it was definitely a must for camping on the snow/wet ground under a cold and windy weather condition. The tent is also super light, only 2 lbs. Note that sealing all surface connections of the tent is necessary before use each time.

Sleeping bag: During my preparation, I received all sorts of different opinions about sleeping bags for winter backpacking. Eventually I bought one North Face Inferno Sleeping Bag: -20F Degree (850-fill goose down), 3 lb 6 oz. While this sleeping bag is a bit bulky and quite expensive, it was evident that this sleeping bag did excellent job for keeping me warm in those cold nights below the frozen degree. Unlike some people said, this sleeping bag was not an over kill but just right for this trip. I believe that I will take this sleeping bag with me to all my future mountainous backpacking trips to New Zealand and other places.


Down pant: While most people will bring down jackets for winter backpacking, we have found that down pant was equally important. During the period of making night photographs, without much movement and waiting for a long time, a warm and light down pant really helped me to concentrate on my subject.

What I Missed or Overloaded for This Trip

Hiking poles: The biggest mistake I made for this trip was that I only brought one (yet low quality) hiking pole, which, quite often, made me hard to balance when walking on an icy surface. Hiking downhill was also difficult towards my knees while a pair of hiking poles would be very useful to reduce the pressure for both knees.

Waterproof hiking boots: My leather waterproof hiking boots were supposed to be tough enough for walking on the snow surface (together with wearing waterproof gaiters) while keeping my feet dry. However, it was not the case, for two days, my boots got wet inside. Afterward, Jon told me that I should seal all boot surface connections before use, just like the tent.

Camera lenses: In this trip, I brought two lenses Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and 24-70mm f/2.8. It turned out that this was another big mistake – adding unnecessary weight to my backpack. I believe that one camera body plus one lens should be a rule for any backpacking photography. This time, I only used 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, and left 24-70mm f/2.8 completely untouched.

There are other essential issues associating to winter backpacking activities, such as foods, drinking water, clothes, etc., which are equally important but relatively standard, so I don’t provide detailed descriptions on these in this blog.

Finally, my photographs made from this trip are being processed, please check my website for latest update.