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Horsepacking the Eastern Sierra

At sunrise, Purple Lake is a reflection of its lovely surroundings in California’s Eastern Sierra. Thinking of driving up there for a day or two of solitude? Think again. The only way to get to the remote lake high up in the John Muir Wilderness is on two feet or four. And for those who don’t feel like hoofing it, plus hauling up supplies and camping gear themselves, there is the pack outfit, a decades-old tradition. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
A folksy sign welcomes visitors to Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit, purveyor of horseback rides and pack trips into the Eastern Sierra. The outfit, one of the oldest in the state, is located on the site of Mammoth City, an 1870s mining camp near the shores of Lake Mary. The mining camp is long gone, replaced by horse and mule stables, a few miles outside the ski resort town of Mammoth Lakes. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit owner-operator John Summers, left, and Victor Parker carefully load a mule. The sure-footed animals are used to haul food and cooking and camping gear on pack trips into the Sierras. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Horses are all saddled up and awaiting riders as a group heads out on a day trip from Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit near the ski resort. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Backcountry guide Tammy Lee leads a group of campers across an alpine stream as they approach Purple Lake, nearly 10,000 feet above sea level in the heart of the John Muir Wilderness. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit owner John Summers spends his day in the saddle along the John Muir Trail. The third-generation mule packer says he can’t imagine a day when horses and mules might be barred from the wilderness. He notes that conservationist John Muir explored the Sierra Nevada on horseback. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Like a scene out of an old Republic western, a line of riders and pack mules makes its way down a remote trail. Along the way, backcountry campers rode past several pristine, clear-water lakes, each more dazzling than the last. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Eight miles into the wilderness along the John Muir Trail, Ed Sauls of Laguna Beach watches as the sun begins to set over Purple Lake. Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit owner-operator John Summers says he is keeping alive a part of history by bringing campers to the Sierra to experience the wilderness the way John Muir saw it. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Backcountry guide Mindy Foley relaxes as her horse enjoys a grassy “snack” near Purple Lake. Campers don’t need horse-riding experience to join a pack trip, but it helps. Be sure to pack some aspirin or Tylenol for the aches and pains, and don’t forget — a smart horse can take advantage of a novice rider. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
One critter’s plaything is another’s dinner: After a day in the saddle, a Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit cowboy unwinds by leaping from a stack of hay used to feed the horses and mules on the backcountry trips. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
The kitchen tent is set up amid pine trees at the wilderness base camp. No beef jerky or cold beans for this crew. Practically everything but the kitchen sink is hauled along on these pack trips into the Sierras. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Just like home — almost: Del “Cookie” Andrus makes breakfast in his outdoor kitchen. Flapjacks and bacon in the backcountry: For Times staff writer Hugo Martín, it all seemed so civilized. Isn’t this supposed to be a wilderness, as described in the Wilderness Act of 1964, a place “where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”? (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Del “Cookie” Andrus checks his biscuits. Andrus’ heavy iron Dutch oven is his favorite cooking tool. He puts it over the campfire, closes the lid and stacks hot briquettes on top, raising the temperature inside to 350 degrees. “Anything you can do in a conventional oven,” Andrus said, “I can cook out here.” (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Head wrangler Rycke Scheier sports an impressive Fu Manchu mustache. Mule packs have a long history in the Sierra Nevada. According to one outfitter, back in the 19th century, they were a way of life — like automobiles are today — and the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails were the main thoroughfares. Anyone who settled in the Sierras relied on mule packs for tools, medicine and clothes. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
Who says a pair of spurs have to be plain to get the job done? Head wrangler Rycke Scheier’s are right pretty, and surely the envy of many another cowboy. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)
After a day exploring remote stretches of the Eastern Sierra, it’s time to mosey up to the camp fire to relax, swap tales or just enjoy a companionable silence. (Spencer Weiner / LAT)