By: Steve Smith
In November, nine members of the Desert Peaks Section, Desert Survivors, Friends of the Inyo WSA and BLM joined together for our initial exploration of another eastside Inyo Canyon. Cougar is the northern most major canyon on the east side of the Inyo Range along the northern boundary of the proposed Inyo Wilderness. Located north of Pat Keyes Canyon, this was another unknown area for us with no documentation about the area, its resources or terrain.
Cougar starts from the Inyo crest at around 9,600' and drops down to Saline Valley where the canyon opens up at 2,000'. The Pat Keyes 7.5 map shows two springs and two falls in the lower half along with the typically narrow, confined canyon topography which characterizes all eight of the eastside canyons. For this, our seventh eastside canyon exploratory trip, I was joined by Gerry Goss, Jerry Boggs, Tom Budlong, Morgan Irby, Wendell Moyer, Matt Webb, Scott Eggers and Brian Webb - all veterans of one or more of our other seven eastside canyon descents we have done since 1989.
We accessed Cougar from the Pat Keyes trail at 9,100' on the Inyo Crest - about four miles north of Mt. Inyo. We started by following the Pat Keyes trail for two miles down the Pat Keyes/Cougar ridgeline as we had done last April during our descent of Pat Keyes Canyon. This time, instead of following the trail south down to Pat Keyes spring, we continued east for .5 mile to a large historic mine site. From the mine at 8,500' on the pinyon covered ridge, the views east to Saline Peak and the Last Chance Range and south along the east face of the Inyos were spectacular and colorful in the late afternoon sun.
After admiring the panoramic view for as long as possible, it was time to drop down 1,500' to reach the floor of Cougar canyon at 7,000', Gerry Goss had previously followed the canyon bottom down to the 7,000' level in Cougar and seen the remains of a cabin so we suspected a trail existed from our mine down to the cabin. Be couldn't readily find the trail so just dropped directly down the ridge-side from the mine and reached the cabin site at dusk. Cougar at this point is a broad pinyon covered floor which made an exceptionally nice campsite for our first night out. There was lots of sign of Bighorn sheep throughout this area and down through the upper portion of Cougar although we were unable to spot any of the animals.
Friday morning, we explored the cabin remains and artifacts in the area. Pinyon nuts were plentiful and everyone collected lots of those. Gerry and Brian soon had the trail terminus spotted and we climbed it for several hundred feet to get an idea where it connected with the ridgeline. We all discussed a future possible trip to drop down the canyon to the trail and do a loop back up to Pat Keyes Pass. As far as we know, the cabin trailhead is the northern terminus of our eastside historic miners trail network and no trail probably extends any further north. From this point at 7,000' in cougar, our group has hiked a continuous trail system all the way south to the mouth of Bunter Canyon - except for the .25 mile, 700' gain gap from the bottom of Cougar up to the ridgeline. In addition to the excellent north-south trail (about 18 miles) which connects all the canyons from Cougar to Bunter, all the canyons also have one or more lateral trails connecting between the crest and valley floor which creates an extensive trail network for exploring the rugged beauty of the eastside Inyos, It is possible the trail network will go south from the middle of Hunter to connect with Craig and possibly Daisy canyons but that will take future exploration to determine.
After filling our pockets with the tasty pinyon nuts, we started down canyon beyond the point which Gerry had previously reached and quickly left the broad, open floor for a narrowing, confined canyon. At ~,820', we reached our first waterfall and rappel. It was 35' high and could be climbed around but we decided to rappel it for the practice. At S,400' was a 150' high waterfall which it was possible to climb around so to save time, we climbed around it on the north side. At 1,880', we encountered a 155' high waterfall which had to be rappelled. It was late afternoon by the time everyone was off our second rappel. Shortly, we reached our first surface water in the canyon at 4,P00' where the north and south forks join. with our water replenished, we camped a short time later at the first spring shown on the map at 3,700' where there was enough surface flow to collect water.
Saturday morning, we reached our third rappel at 2,910' which was at the first of the two falls shown on the map. It was 70' high with lots of water and beautiful aquatic vegetation covering the cliff face in the spraying water. By midday, we had descended to 2,100' and reached the second falls shown on the map. It was 110' high and also had plenty of surface water cascading over it and more aquatic vegetation. The approach to the second falls was interesting.. A rang, narrow 200' steep ramp lead down to a U-notch where Tom and Gerry placed our anchors for the rappel - one around a tree truck and the other off pitons.
This was the final canyon obstacle and a use trail lead from the bottom of the tails for .5 miles out to the canyon mouth. Unlike all the other eastside canyons, there is no vehicle access to the mouth of Cougar. It was about a 2 mile walk across the alluvial fan to where we had parked our shuttle vehicles along the Saline county Road to end another memorable exploration, surface condition monitoring and resource inventory of another portion of the Inyo Range.
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