Portal offers escape from summer heat

Southern Sierra Sojournal: Part 3 in a series

Portal offers escape from summer heatBy REBECCA NEIPP

News Review Staff Writer

The dictionary defines “portal” as a gateway or entrance. Perhaps I’ve been too heavily influenced by science fiction, but to me the word has always implied transport to somewhere exotic and unexplored.

With the number of days until school starting to dwindle to the single digits and the temperature still resolutely peaking in the triple digits, my whole family was in need of an escape. And Whitney Portal lived up to every expectation — even my most unrealistic — delivering us to adventure, beauty and revival.

About 70 miles north on U.S. 395 in central Lone Pine you’ll find the aptly named “Whitney Portal Road.” A left turn will lead to 25 minutes on a very winding road and subsequent arrival at 8,300 feet in elevation. This is also the end of the line for motorists.

If you can find a parking spot (which can be tricky at the height of tourist season), the portal offers restrooms, spigots of spring water (I’ll get back to this little-known perk), picnic tables, grills, climbing rocks and trailheads that lead all over the mountain — from the summit of the highest point in the Lower 48 to the myriad streams, campgrounds and hiking paths maintained as part of the Inyo National Forest landmark.

Our family decided that after 90-plus minutes on the road, we needed to first stretch our legs. I wanted to share with our children my husband’s and my favorite spot, where you can watch from behind the falls in a recess just beneath the water cascading over a jutting ledge. It had been a few years since I’d made the hike, but I recalled a moderate trail with perhaps a few more challenging bits.

Oh, how the march of time erodes the clarity of memory and the vitality of youth. I can’t recommend this hike to everyone.

We all made it — thankfully my children have the exuberance, agility and endurance of mountain goats — but I’m still haunted by the moments of terror that struck as I clung to the slippery slopes of granite with nothing but sheer willpower and rugged shoe tread to keep me from tumbling to what I imagined would be a horribly painful demise. (My more practical husband tells me that while pain was indeed a risk, any demise was highly unlikely).

My children, on the other hand, seemed to gleefully embrace this part of our adventure — with my youngest son going so far as to remark, “This is so much fun! Like when people are doing dangerous stuff in the movies!” I was too busy whimpering to tell him to can it.

At the top of our climb we were rewarded by the sight of unprecedented volume of snowmelt roaring down the rocks, radiating cool mist as it carried icy rapids down the hillside. But even my husband agreed that an attempt to inch along the slick ledge in an attempt to creep behind the thundering waters very likely would end in tragic demise. But even if our vantage point was not what we hoped, the view was no less extraordinary.

There is something profoundly humbling in being able to witness the transformation of something as ordinary as water into a sight so awesome, even terrifying, to behold. Between the unprecedented volume of snowmelt and the velocity facilitated by gravity, we watched as this otherwise inoccuous form of matter roared over rocks and bounded down the mountainside before us in a display of unmitigated power.

We started back down the hill, sliding part of the way on our backsides, a little quieted by the spectacle we had just witnessed.

Typically we gather atop the large rock overlooking the creek-fed pond at the portals for our picnic.

This year, the “pond” is just a few rivulets punctuated by sandbars that are now more appropriate for wading than for fishing or swimming. (Once again, I rely upon the sound theorizing of my husband, who speculated that rockslide-fueled sediment recently filled in the historically deep pool of water.)

After lunch we chose another trail to follow — this one leading us past some of the most picturesque scenery our beloved Sierra has to offer. Looming trees, rushing creeks, an obstacle course of stone and fallen lumber — all against an azure blue sky — made our walk far too pleasant to dwell on the fact that the descent would be much harder once we reversed direction.

But the kids were troopers, and we ultimately made it back to the car with that pleasant sort of weariness that seems to inflate the spirit as much as it saps the body.

The drive down the mountain was another unexpected moment of joy. The purported millions of acre feet of snowmelt moving through the Sierra this summer after our exceedingly wet winter has left its green thumbprint on the entire Owens Valley.

Even the southernmost tip of the Alabama Hills — one of our favorite places to incorporate into a visit to the portal — looks significantly greener than it has ever appeared in the multitude of westerns filmed against that backdrop.

Once again, our trip cost nothing more than the price of fuel (of course we packed a lunch, but that would have been eaten no matter where we were). Despite the relative shade and cool of the mountains, I still highly recommend sunblock, hats and other appropriate protection.

If at all possible, I also urge each traveler to bring an empty jug. We don’t go anywhere without our emergency water rations, but when visiting the portals we always make a point of partaking in the cool, naturally filtered mountain spring water that is so superlatively refreshing you’ll want to bring some home with you.

It was only the second-best thing we brought home, though. That decadent mountain water is already gone, but the memories of this trip will be cherished by me and my family forever.

Pictured: The raging falls at the top of our brief hike at Whitney Portal spills across the background, with members of the Neipp family in the foreground. -- Photo by Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2017-08-04