In my quest to explore all of the Eastern Sierra passes, a peruse of the map got me excited about an area called Pioneer Basin, which would require a journey over the previously unvisited Mono Pass near the end of Rock Creek Rd. There were no peaks on the agenda for this trip, but numerous lakes and a relatively quiet part of the backcountry called for a visit. This would be a straight forward out-and-back trip leaving me plenty of time to poke around and explore as my curiosity demanded. Although climbing was not the objective of this walk, the region is home to a host of worthy summits with Mts. Hopkins, Crocker, Stanford, and Huntington forming the walls of the basin, all above 12,300ft, named for the ‘Big Four’ of the Central Pacific Railroad.
The hike in was uneventful, though not without beauty and interesting landscapes, particularly the pass itself with its wide saddle of sand and turquoise lake (mile 3.3, 11,950ft). The trail sees heavy use from pack animals on their way to accessing the JMT so I was glad to split towards Pioneer Basin after dropping past Needle and Trail Lakes. The trail improved, then disappeared completely as I climbed into the basin to find my own adventure. Wandering from lake to lake, I settled on a lump somewhere in the middle to make camp for the evening (mile 9.2, 10,860ft). Views across the valley to the gray spires of the Mono Divide were superb as alpenglow faded to night’s shadow. A crescent moon wandered its wide arc.
After a leisurely morning, Pioneer Basin proved to be an exceptional playground to explore. The off trail wandering was straight forward in the open terrain. I circled the basin, visiting each lake and reaching the saddle between Mt. Stanford and Mt. Crocker just to get a view down the other side (mile 11.6, 11,600ft). On my way out, I made a visit to the Fourth Recess for a dip in the lake and lounge in the sun on a sandy beach that I had all to myself. I highly recommend this area and certainly plan to return.
Storm clouds cut my siesta frustratingly short, and it was just a quick sprint up and over the exposed terrain of Mono Pass before the lightning show began. Sheets of rain swept across the horizon as I took one last look west before plunging back to the trailhead. In no time, I was stuffing my face with a burrito in Bishop. Full stomach, full heart.
This was an easy trip, and there is potential for so much more in the area. Pioneer Basin, Hopkins Lakes, Fourth Recess, Third Recess, Mills Creek. These all branch from Mono Creek and are worth visiting in their own right, probably. And that’s all before you even reach the JMT! Link this area with a scoot over Silver Pass, and you’re talking about one heck of a trip. But if you want to keep things simple, look no further than Pioneer Basin. It has plenty to keep you hiking for days.