26 Miles Backpacking and Summiting Mount Langley - Cottonwood Lakes Trail
This actually isn't my first time attempting Mount Langley. I never wrote a post about my first attempt, but back in 2015 I decided to attempt Mount Langley as my first solo backpacking trip ever. I had been toying with the idea the whole year of 2015 and after a bit of research decided the Cottonwood Lakes trail to Mount Langley would be the perfect first solo backpacking trip. It had a defined trail. It was out and back trail (no shuttle required). The route seemed straight forward, had plenty of water, and as a bonus, the high point was the summit of Mount Langley. I wanted to go on a solo backpacking trip in order to prove something to myself. I wanted to know that I could use all these skills I had been learning from others and be completely dependent on myself in the backcountry. I wanted to learn how to make smart decisions for myself, and I wanted to experience what it felt like to be truly on my own (like in the middle of the night, no one knows exactly where you are, there might be a bear outside your tent alone). Most importantly though, I wanted to get over this fear I had of needing other people to be there. I needed to know that if I, for some reason, lost touch with friends or found myself on my own, that I could feel confident in my own skin to do things by myself. (Insert #indepentwoman rant).
It went great! I actually had a ton of fun out there on my own, and I totally geeked out over maps and finding alternative routes (my first route option, Old Army Pass, ended up being completely covered in snow). I learned a lot about myself even though it was only a 2 day trip. I didn't, however, get to summit Mount Langley. Shortly after I got to the top of New Army Pass on my solo attempt, I made the decision to turn around because there was too much snow on the summit and I was worried I wouldn't be prepared since I hadn't brought any sort of crampons or ice axe. It was mid October and the first snow of the season had fallen the weekend before. I'm happy I made that decision since I was alone, but this year, I had a hankering to finally bag Mount Langley. This time, I went with a friend.
High Level Trip Details:
- ~26.5 Miles Round Trip
- ~5,940 feet total elevation gain for trip
- Trailhead Name: Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead
- Trailhead elevation (10,066 feet)
- Highest Point on the trail (Mount Langley! 14,026 feet)
- Reliable water source at the different lakes headed up to the summit. Fill up with water at lakes before going up one of the passes.
- Dog are only allowed on part of this trail (the National Forest portion). They are not allowed in the National Parks portion.
When to Go:
- September is my favorite time of the year to backpack or hike peaks in the Sierra Nevada. The weather is perfect and there are less mosquitos (which can be really bad when it is warm)
- You could also plan to go in July and August, but expect the weather to be a bit warmer (with a chance of relentless mosquitos)
- June and October are hit or miss in the Sierra Nevada. If we had a big snow year in California, there may be too much snow on the trail in June. Alternatively, in October, we start to get our first snowfalls of the season. Be sure to call the ranger station before heading out on weather and snow updates.
How To Get There:
- This one is pretty simple since the trail is out and back and requires no shuttle.
- It takes about 40 minutes to drive to the trailhead from Lone Pine, California.
- The directions aren't very complicated. I just typed in "Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead" into my google maps and followed it all the way to the trailhead parking lot. Easy Peasy.
- A wilderness permit is required for overnight trips in the national forest. Online Reservations can be made here:
- There is a 60 person (36 reservation and 24 walk-in) trail quota for the Cottonwood Lakes Trail from June to mid-September. More details can be found here:
- Permits can be reserved from 2 days up to 6 months prior to your when you want to go. I found it fairly easy to get a reservation in advance ($5/person), and I believe I made my September reservation in April (6 months prior to trip).
- Trail code: JM39
- See some step by step details below:
Go to online reservation site (link above). In the "Find Permits" part on the left hand side of the page, select "overnight" (if backpacking), select "Cottonwood Lakes JM39", put your entry date (if known) and number of permits desired. Then click search.
If the date you chose is available, select "see details". Then follow the prompts to book your permit!
Below is a map of our trail with our campsites at Long Lake (near New Army Pass). You can go to the map below and download gpx file, if desired.
Below you can see the elevation profiles for each day of our trip.
And without further ado, the trip report:
Day 1: Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead - to Cottonwood Lakes Number 4 (Base of Old Army Pass) - to Long Lake (Camp for night 1)
My friend, Cara, flew in to California from Colorado to do this hike with me. She is a badass.
We drove up to Lone Pine the day of our entry and picked up our permits at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center at around 9am, and then drove to the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead (about 40 minutes from Lone Pine, CA).
Since I have done the hike before, I knew the first day would be pretty easy, so we decided to add on some extra miles for the enjoyment of it.
Pack weights were around 25 lbs each.
When we got to the fork in the main trail we decided to go on the right trail (wich takes you towards Cottonwood Lakes and Old Army Pass) even though we were planning to hike up New Army Pass.
The hike is fairly flat up to the base of both New and Old Army Pass with minimal elevation gain. It makes for a nice way to get acclimated.
Mount Langley summit is the the gentle sloping peak on the right hand side of the picture below.
The longer hike gave us plenty of time to catch up and make fun of each other.
The main reason i wanted to hike to Cottonwood Lakes up to the base of Old Army Pass is that I remember from 2015 that it was such a beautiful area.
It is just gorgeous lake after gorgeous lake. We saw a couple of fisherman out there too.
Below shows the base of Old Army Pass (in the distance), this is where we decided to take a lunch break and enjoy the views... basically to ourselves. In front of me is Cottonwood Lake Number 4.
Many people decided to take Old Army Pass, and if you do, camping between Cottonwood Lake Number 4 and 5 is the perfect spot to be. The trail on Old Army is a bit more rugged and "adventurous" and steep, but it is a slightly faster and more direct route to the summit of Langley.
I'm not sure why, but I didn't really consider it this go-around. I sort of just wanted to go up to New Army, probably because I remember thinking that area over by Long Lake and New Army Pass is equally as beautiful and not to be missed.
Choose your own adventure. You do you. We weren't in a particular rush, so we meandered.
Then if you look at the map (I've put a link to the map I used at the bottom of this post), you can see there is a trail that connects the Cottonwood Lakes over to the trail that takes you to Long Lake (where we intended to camp that night).
It's very easy to follow and just skirts the edge of Cottonwood Lake Number 3.
Then you have to pass through a bit of "marshy" area. There wasn't a super defined path across the watery grasses, but you can see the trail on the other side that you want to connect with. So we just tried to follow the path that kept our feet the driest.
The trail to Long Lake then turns into this really insane, alien-planet looking boulder field. The picture below doesn't really do it justice. It was really cool to walk through.
We reached camp at Long Lake a little before nightfall, set up our tent, pumped water for the next day and then made dinner.
Cara found out at dinner that her dehydrated meal that she was half way through eating was over 2 years expired! haha! There is a funny clip from this discovery in the little video I linked at the bottom of the post.
It got very cold at night even though we were there early September.
Alternatively, you could continue on up to High Lake a bit further and be positioned right beneath the base of New Army Pass. We opted not too since we figured it would be colder up there.
Day 2: Long Lake - to New Army Pass - to Mount Langley Summit - to Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead
We woke up around 6am the next day and left most of our stuff at camp and only took a few things up to the summit with us in our packs.
Once you start heading up New Army Pass, there isn't easy access to water sources, so make sure you have plenty of water to summit and make it back to at least High Lake.
I honestly think the switchbacks look like they will take longer than they actually do. We were up at the top of the Pass in no time it felt like.
And at the top, you are rewarded with great views of all the lakes you hiked around the previous day! It's fucking beautiful!
Lakes on lakes on lakes.
Make sure to pay close attention at the top of the pass to the Carin Stones and entry to the pass. It's easy to get lost at the top because all of the rock looks the same. I marked the "Top of the pass" on my GPS just in case we got lost amongst all the granite shaded stone.
At the top you'll find a path that starts to take you down, but be careful not to follow it for too long or you'll find yourself hiking away from Mount Langley and deeper into the backcountry! You'll see in my map above how me and Cara made this mistake and ended up backtracking. It's probably better to stick closer to the edge, you can pass by the Old Army Pass even on your way across to Langley.
There is really only one tricky spot to the whole hike. As you make your way across, up and down, toward Mount Langley at the top of the pass, you will eventually reach some vertical rock and you'll think.. "Shoot.. now what?"
Well Cara and I opted to go "right" of the vertical rock, and found ourselves doing a bit of exposed scrambling. What we should have done is gone to the left. The left version and up and you'll see a huge Carin stone which shows you the next way to follow.
If you are getting overly sketched out, you've gone the wrong way. The exposed and "tricky move" should only last a few minutes before you find trail and Carin stones again.
From that point on you will continue to follow these huge Carin Stones to the summit (seen below).
The trudge to the summit is quite steep. It took me a bit of time, especially as I was adapting to the altitude. Cara had mile-high lungs and seemed just fine.
Soon enough we reached the summit of Langley! And just as it has happened to me many time before, a huge cloud came and sat over us at the summit, so we weren't able to see many of the views from the top.
It was awesome to finally be at the top of this bad boy, considering I failed my last attempt due to snow.
Getting to the top is only half the battle though, and we knew we still had a long day ahead of us. So we began our hike back down the mountain.
The downhill was much faster (of course), and we made great speed back to camp. We took a longer break at camp to get more water and eat more food before heading back to the trailhead.
We made it back to the trailhead by around 5pm, pounded some chips and salsa, grabbed some Mc Donalds to go and then drove 4 hours back home! That put us at a really long day. 17 miles +4 hours of driving.
Cara hopped on a plane the next morning out of LAX.
I'm super stoked she was able to come, even though the weekend went by fast! We had a ton of fun, got another 14er, and it was her very first hike in California!
Hope you guys get a chance to go on this trip. It's one of my favorites so far! Going in October (like i did back in 2015), although colder and snowier, is also a really beautiful time to go on this trail. The fall colors are out and the snow and the lakes... just wow.
Some people opt to do this trail in one day, which is definitely doable if you are in shape (and you can shave some mileage by going up Old Army Pass), but I really think this is a great backpacking trip. This is one of the most beautiful areas in the Sierra. My vote is to spend some time hanging out in it.
I also made a short little video of our trip, just a bit of fun. :)
Below are some additional resources for planning your trip:
- The trip report I found most useful: http://www.highsierratrails.com/cottonwood/resources.html#here
- I used my GPS (detailed on my favorite gear page), but also had a physical map. The map ended up being really useful, and had a lot of great detail about the trail. Link to the map I bought below: