Dusy Ershim in October
Written by Mark Larson (pictures)
The Dusy Ershim trail is basically a corridor between two wilderness areas in the Sierra National Forest of central California. With John Muir to the east and Dinkey Lakes to the west, this southern corridor is the only motor vehicle route through the National Forest. This trail has long been a test of Man’s endurance to the harsh trail conditions and his vehicles ability to hold-up under the stressful twisting and pounding during this 33-mile journey.
Day 1 Kaiser Pass 10/09/2001
Typically most individuals start this trail at the southern end, but due to the notoriety this trial has bolstered over the years, we decide to begin at the north entrance at Kaiser Pass. It is quite simple to reach this entrance by traveling north up 168 out of Fresno. By the time you encounter the town limits of Academy you’ll begin to see the mountains swallow you up as you climb higher and higher into this majestic national forest. The next major town, Shaver Lake, is around 6,000 feet in elevation. This is the last place where you can get your supplies and fuel before heading to the trailhead. Now confident that our supplies and fuel will carry us through the entire journey, we set out for Huntington Lake. Still climbing in elevation and now at over 8,000 feet, we come to our first turnoff towards the Florence and Edison Lakes. This is the Kaiser Pass Trail and continues on for a couple miles. Making a left at Badger Flat’s is a must as you begin traveling a single lane road up… up… the mountain. Soon you come upon another forestry sign on the right indicating that the Dusy Ershim trail and White Bark Vista are very close.
Here there are a couple of forestry installed toilets (Clean too) that remind you that these creature comforts will not be available for the next several days. Getting late we get a move on and travel beyond the official trailhead and set-up camp on the ridge over looking Edison Lake1 and the Minnerettes. Mark Matthews (Turtle Man) in his 1984 Blue Toyota Four Runner2 parks on level ground to prepare for the evening. His rig has been modified to handle most contingences that may arise during this 33-mile expedition. With the standard 2.2-liter motor and transmission, he added a set of 5.29 Ring and Pinions coupled with Detroit Soft Lockers. To supplement the axle upgrades he also installed the heavier front axle joints. His 3 ½ “ lift is a combination of Rancho and Northwest springs, with a set of small 33 X 12.5 X 15 tires to give him additional height. We are not done yet… yes… this truck has a Marlin Crawler set-up under its belly. One more thing, we mustn’t forget are the incredible side rails. His truck should make small work of this trail. Next we have a Yellow 1980 ToyotaZu3 belonging to yours truly (Mr. Ugly). This truck was a project of mine to which, I am still debugging. The engine, tranny and transfercase was removed from the Toyota and replaced with a 1990 Isuzu Trooper driveline. 2.8 Liter TPI V-6 Motor, 5 speed Tranny and all gear transfercase. Next was the swap of the rear axle (Open) from the Trooper (Four Wheel Disc Brakes), the front axle needed the new 5.54 ring/pinion, so a LSD was added at the same time. The Northwest suspension gives the truck an extra 3 ½ “ of lift overall, with a little extra height in the rear by way of longer shackles. The 33” tires fit nicely underneath to support the truck and camper shell combination. This truck is geared fast; so super low range is not an option. I’ll just do the best I can and hope that my nerf bars and axle trusses keep me from harms way. We both take the time to air down to 15 psi with Turtle Man’s express tire setup. Four air-lines, all with special fittings, attach to each tire, all this as a gauge is monitoring the amount of pressure being deleted or applied to all four. Quick and easy.
We get the camp set-up and I fire up the chain saw for the first duties of this trek. Fallen trees everywhere and dry as a bone. We make quick work of the cutting and splitting the wood, making our first campfire and having our last fast-food dinner (Subway) for the short term. Night comes upon us quickly. At 9800 feet, the air temperature drops significantly as the sun disappears on the horizon. We prepare our sleeping arrangements and say goodnight.
Day 2 Lake Camp and Ershim Lakes 10/10/2001
The next morning we awake cold and anxious to get on our way. Last night the temperature got down to 32º F. Burrrrrr. I’ll have to layer my clothing better to stay warm during those frosty evenings. We have a light breakfast and lots of coffee as we pack our gear. We are ready to travel at 9:45 am. The very first section of the trail is nasty, narrow, rocky, super twisty and then we climb a little. Notice as Turtle Man turns into his side rails5 while making the left. Then it’s up and over8,9,11 probably the largest boulder garden we see on the trip. Looking back we can see Huntington Lake12 in the west as we approach another nasty section of loose, teetering and rocky terrain. Coming up and over we catch a glimpse of Deer Lake16 below in the valley. The next section, although downhill, makes you stop and think how glad you're going in this direction. This section would beat me to death if I had to climb back up it. Moving along the trail we encounter narrow and very rocky sections22,27,29 nearly non-stop along the way. We arrive at Lake Camp Lake30,31 at 12:18 pm and break for lunch. Here, especially for this time of the year, the lake is very shallow and is surrounded by pines and the neighboring high peaks. A couple of stone fire rings are here indicating camping has occurred, however, not much room for vehicles and friends. Very primitive, but cleaner than usual in appearance. The air temperature now a pleasant 80º or so we turn our attention to our next destination.
The trail continues to serve up narrow turns through rocks34, trees39 and other obstacles43. We encounter our first stream and makeshift log crossing at East Fork Creek44 flowing out of Ershim Meadows. Here we feel relieved that the trail, or so we think, has mellowed out some. We soon realize that this trail has more of the same boulder climbing, narrow off chamber sections through trees and fallen58 debris. We are both watching our odometers in anticipation of Ershim Lake. The constant work of driving this trail has made us eager for a long awaited rest.
The time now approaching 4:00 pm we finally arrive at the Ershim Lake Campsite. Here unmistakably, carved into old split logs is “ERSHIM LAKE” and “EL. 9080” and yes we still be above 9000 feet. This campground, although very sheltered from the many trees, offers many camping areas with Giant Designer Tables and Benches62 as well as fire rings. Here too are toilets for your convenience. Toilet paper was evident outside the perimeter of the campground indicating peoples lack of sanitation etiquette. The lake was beautiful and clean. One can see through the surface several feet deep. No trash evident in the water, what a relief. The lake begins to take on a deep blue color as the sun sinks beneath the tree line and the air temperature drops 15º in minutes. We make preparations for our evening meal. Beef Stroganoff, Green Beans are the main choice for tonight. With a nice campfire going to warm our bones, we relax, enjoy our meal and plan our next leg of our journey.
Day 3 East and Summit Lakes 10/11/2001
We awake as the sun glistens over Ershim Lake as we try to shake off the overnight temperature of 36º. Again we have a light breakfast and our morning coffee… gotta’ have our coffee. We secure the gear in the trucks, be sure the fire ring is cold and fire up our rigs. At 9:55 am we are off to our next destination.
Soon we are crossing another creek65, which according to the map is ‘Big Creek’ and then it’s trail time. Yeehaw. Yes… boys and girls, it’s boulder hopping70 and squeezing between narrow openings72 again. We had thought by this time that the trail would give us a break. No, not on the Dusy. We stop occasionally to photograph ancient magma domes. Then it’s off to hammer ourselves against boulders as they pitch us to and fro all along the trail. Turtle Man masterfully weaves in, out, over and around the obstacles effortlessly as his vehicle flexes to accommodate full articulation. Although the pictures75, 76, 78, 79 show outstanding driving skills by Turtle Man, it does take physical and mental endurance to its limits. Can we take much more of this??? Just as we are tempted to stop and shake it off we arrive at East Lake. What a relief. Checking the time (12:30 PM) we relax, have lunch and check on this small lake.
Here you can plainly see Dogtooth Peak86 across the lake. Very primitive camping seen here, with limited space available for any sizeable group gathering. Still, all and all, it is a very nice lake with clean water and excellent views. We finish up lunch and are now in the realization mode that the trail from here to Summit Lake will probably be more of the same pounding. Oh yeah can’t wait. Well it wasn’t too bad, with some rocky places and some tight turns93 between natural obstacles, we arrive at Summit Lake just before 3:00 pm. This low laying lake is placed right into a large open meadow surrounded by smaller hills in the foreground and the higher peaks to the north. We park real close to the trail and huddle in and around a stone fire ring. We are still surrounded by small pinion pines to break up any severe windy conditions. I mention to Turtle Man that arriving early will give us extra time to relax. We slowly setup camp and scout out the place. It was obvious that most campers that settle here do not camp on the open meadow. Lot’s of wind and very little shelter next to the lake. We still have firewood from Kaiser Pass, but decide to gather more. Most of the wood from fallen trees were very hard and slow burning, but not moist. It was excellent. Tonight’s entrée is Hamburger Steak sandwiches and Corn. Once finished we melt beside the warm fire and become fixated by the glow of the red burning embers. Before we know it's nightfall and the chill of the air is upon us. The air temperature was cooler here and could be felt penetrating into our backsides as we sat glued to the campfire. Here we would stand occasionally and become human rotisseries as we rotated round and round to keep ourselves warm. Knowing that our next leg of the trail will be relatively short, we don’t make plans for an early departure in the morning. Yeah, like we have really been pushing it. Now 9:00 pm as the air temperature begins to get brutal. We hit the hay.
Day 4 Thompson Lake 10/12/2001
We are reluctant to get up today. The air temperature during the night dropped down to an incredible 24º. We slowly migrate from our dens, but quickly add additional clothing to our bodies to fight off the morning frost. Man it’s cold. The steel toes of my boots are causing the small digits of my feet to burn from the cold.
Our water jug has a 1” thick layer of ice that has clogged the spigot shut. It’s time to retrieve our backup supply. Coffee made, a couple meal bars and Turtle Man’s favorite morning meal, peanut butter and fruit spread as we hop around trying to get our blood to circulate.
Our antifreeze for this climate hasn’t had time to thicken up. Ahhhh the morning sun was a welcome relief as we continued to find comfort from the cold. We finally get our act together and depart the campsite at 10:55 am. By all indications the forestry map estimates that we will arrive at Thompson Lake within an hour. So we are looking forward to a peaceful little trek to our next spot to unwind. Of course, the Dusy has other plans for its newcomers. More moderate rock crawling and the close encounters with trees are still part of our agenda. Nearly 3 miles have passed and we climb up a rocky section to maneuver between a large tree and small boulder, then smack right into my camper shell. No significant damage. I shoot a couple pictures as Turtle Man99 approaches the same section. Nice job as always. From this vantage point we can see the blue water100 from Thompson Lake, but are uncertain as to why we are so far from the water. We park our rigs near a large flat camping area near the top of Thompson Hill. Turtle Man checks out the ‘HILL’ as I scout out the lake. It is now 1:00 pm, which is normal for our progress on this trail. But those two hours on the trail felt like an all day trek. Glad to be here early. I walk over to the west side of the lake103 and discover an empty bucket that had been left behind and a footpath returning towards the trail. Here was another group of campsites just below the trail. We had missed it going in the southerly direction because of the very tight left. We were concentrating on the trail directly in front of us and missed the turn. This location is great. Short walking distance to the lake. Nice shelter and deep blue (COLD) lake. We hike back to our vehicles and drive back through and down the hill mentioned earlier. Again bang into the Camper Shell. Here we can clearly see the trail to the right of a huge tree and down a little hill. We decide to bring much of our cooking gear and supplies down to the lake. Tonight is a special macaroni noodle, homemade meatballs and a garlic, onion, tomatoes sauce dish. MMmmmm MMmmmm good. I begin preparing and sautéing the meat balls, boiling the noodles and heating the sauce, as Turtle Man freshens up by the lake. He returns to take over the dinner duties, as I get ready to bathe in the lake. I lay out my dry clothes, soap, shampoo and enter the water.
My feet sunk into the muddy shoreline as I struggle to maintain my composure and balance under the frightfully cold conditions of the lake. I begin splashing water on my upper torso, trying to get use to the freezing water. Quickly I escape from the water for a short moment and regain my composure. Back into the water, sinking in the cold frigid mud, I lather up and under the water I go. Frantically scrubbing to remove the soapy residue, over and over again until I was squeaky clean. Wow, now that was invigorating. I quickly towel myself off as my body stings from the icy aftermath. I sit and relax absorbing the warm rays of the sun and slowly regain my sanity. I return to our lakeside cooking spot and find that everything is ready. We chow down and relax, enjoying every bite and the mental memories of this great place. Great meal and of course, Turtle Man is great company. We pack up our supplies and return to our campsite and prepare for the evening. We are sitting around the campfire as we hear vehicles in the distance. We look at the time, 5:00 pm-ish, and think to ourselves that Friday night would be a likely time for travelers to be climbing Thompson Hill. Sure enough a small group of Jeep’s and FJ40’s was approaching the campsite. Next thing we know they are asking if we had a welding rig. Apparently one of the Jeeps had sheared off one of his spring hangers, just before reaching the top. Ouch. No one in their group or ours had any welding equipment. The vehicles’ spring is chained to the frame for what will be a long trip back down Thompson Hill. We are reminded of the ‘Hills’ reputation for breaking vehicles, whether it be spring hangers, axles, differentials, shock mounts, gouging oil pans or simply ripping your tires to shreds.
We are mindful of these events as we settled in for what seems to be a pretty warm evening. Our neighbors are asleep before we decide to follow their example. 2 hours of traveling and lot’s of rest. I think we are gonna’ need it for tomorrow.
Day 5 Thompson Hill and Upper Courtright Reservoir 10/13/2001
We awake surprised that the night’s temperature had only dropped to 42º, which was in direct contrast to the night before. We perform our morning rituals, having coffee, breakfast bars and that special Turtle sandwich. A couple Jeeps of the group that came up last night (not part of their party) continued north to Ershim and the others disappeared down Thompson Hill. Soon it was our turn to descend this mysterious hill. Now 10:42 am and we are off. We begin our journey and quickly run into the gang of Jeeps104 and their crippled comrade heading down the mountain. They tell us that the ‘Hill’ is as treacherous going down as it is coming up and to be extremely careful. “You too”, we added. We wait until they are clear and out of view before continuing. I am of course, the leader and find myself braking, clutching, bouncing and sliding down almost the entire hill. Turtle Man makes short work of the many steep, rocky113 and twisty sections of the trial. The trail seems to go on and on and on and… well you get the picture. Turtle Man continues his forward motion down and over obstacles118,119 that would slow any vehicle heading in the opposite direction. We finally get down to something reasonably flat and check our time. Almost 1:00 pm. That’s equates to a racing speed of approximately ½ mile per hour. Not good time. We have another 6-miles, at least, to our next destination. Here the trail is still a formidable challenge to anyone and forces you to stay focused on your driving skills. Now the trail winds in and out of the forest adjacent to Dusy Creek. You will encounter several log pole crossings122 and bridges124. The view of the Granite Mountains are spectacular, as you slowly get closer to the Courtright Reservoir. We’ve traveled nearly 7 miles and we reach a rocky narrow section entering into a beautiful campground. This opening is a stern reminder of things to come. If you have difficulty here, then don’t make the attempt to venture further. Here is ample parking and a meadow to pitch a tent if desired. Dusy Creek is low, but flows continually south to feed the huge reservoir below. The crossing here is a combination of small rocks piled to form the road, much of which is held together with long sections of wire mesh. Turtle Man scouts the area for firewood and returns to get my help. We discover a bounty of wood and also the eerie sight of the upper Courtright Reservoir. It looks like a landscape of another planet, barren with huge boulders133 dotting the dry, plantless surface. Totally bizarre. We didn’t make great time traveling, so time (4:30 pm) was of the essence to get our camp set-up quickly. Dinner tonight is very nice portions of Rib-Eye Steaks and mixed vegetables. I get all the spices together and season the meat. We let it marinate while the charcoal briquettes heat up.
I take one last photo of the La Conte Divide134 at our campsite, before finishing up camp duties. With the coals white-hot I begin barbequing the steaks. Turtle Man prepares the veggies. Getting dark quickly as the sun drops down below the western skies. Steaks now cooked to perfection we relax in front of a HUGE fire and believe we are finished with any more trail abuse. Ah man what a steak, easy travel tomorrow and the faint sounds of Dusy Creek to lull you to sleep. Couldn’t be better. Goodnight is said to one another and we crash.
Day 6 Courtright Reservoir 10/14/2001
Another cold morning at 26º, which was a little unexpected from the warmer night before. We break camp a little quicker than normal and are on our way at 10:15 am with the presumption that the trail must get better from here. Ultimately we would like to get out to the pavement early, so we can make the long trip home without undue fatigue. Well… like the rest of the Dusy we had some more nasty stuff. One section in particular, was a lot of work. A hill climb of loose rock and debris was one more unexpected challenge that came upon us. Even Turtle Man135, 136, 137, 138, 139 was working this section a little harder than normal. We overcome the climb and the trail seems to quiet down as we enter onto a large granite face. We have to get out to see where the trail goes. I scout around as Turtle Man videotapes the surrounding area. I drive down the granite monolith and discover that this is the trailhead. Turtle Man likes this God size marble and drives up and back down one more time. The entrance to the monolith is a narrow section of huge rocks158,159 and also hints at a warning about what’s ahead. This area is called Voyager Rock and has ample camping near by. We still have another three miles or so to the Dam. The trail does mellow out somewhat after this, but by this time we are just anxious to get out. The pounding, twisting, and driving has taken its toll. We have had enough rock hopping to last until at least next year. We finally arrive at the south gated entrance posted ‘28E34’ ‘Gate 4570’. Great, we are on the pavement. We unlock the hubs and head on down to the dam. Here you can see an awesome canyon176 at the spillway, carved over time to form an array of colors and jagged shapes. In the opposite direction is Courtright Reservoir with the majestic mountains to the north. Hard to believe we came out of there in one piece. I check the time, 12:40 pm.
We get moving again and take a few more photos along the route. One of Wilson Reservoir179 and our last stop, this tavern180, in Shaver Lake for lunch an hour and a half later.
This trip was an experience one will never forget. I recommend taking a week (7 to 9 days) to run this trail and soak up all that it has to offer. The amount of time Turtle Man and myself took to do this trail was the minimum time I would recommend spending here. There are hiking, fishing, sightseeing, laughter and total enjoyment of the outdoors here, so take advantage of it, but please keep it clean. Pack out your trash and bury your excrement’s.
Thank You Mark Matthews for an exciting time.
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