In 1977, Yosemite National Park was a much different place. Rock climbers traveled the world over to live modest lives in their camping packs and enjoy some of the biggest and best wilderness the world had to offer. Hippies came from all over the west coast to take LSD and enjoy the massive rock formations. Waves of tourism that you see today didn’t exist in the 750,000-acre park and true seclusion could be found.
The area consisted of a small community of enthusiastic youngsters living the lives of bright-eyed hobo sportsmen and calling themselves The Dirtbags. They were obsessed with rock climbing and they were poor – until January of 1977, that is. That winter would see an economic boom for that lucky group of Yosemite loyalists and wilderness junkies, one that came in the form of a green plant.
In January of 1977, two employees of Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel decided to go for a snowshoe hike. The park was in the middle of one of its worst droughts in a hundred years, so they could hike further than usual for that time of year. That day, they were able to reach all the way up to the Lower Merced Pass Lake, where they made a terrifying discovery.
Laying nose first in the lake was a crashed Howard 500, a twin-jet aircraft with a missing wing. The crashed plane had laid there for a month, along with occupants of the plane – a pilot, a passenger and 6,000 pounds of Mexican marijuana.
The hikers reported the crash to authorities and soon enough, the park was filled with every law enforcement with an acronym you could think of – NTSB, DEA, FAA – all trying to figure out how this plane full of pot had landed in this remote Yosemite lake. When the authorities arrived at the crash site, they recovered 2,000 pounds of half-frozen marijuana in burlap bags scattered around the lake. They hauled the bags down the hill and stuck it in one of their small jail cells. They thought it was a great score for law enforcement who were able to get the significant amount of illegal drugs off the streets. But what they didn’t know is the plane was carrying much more than that.
During the month the downed aircraft had sat there, the lake had frozen over, creating a cold, underwater bath of leaked oil and scrap metal. Authorities brought in the best in the business to dive into the water and hopefully recover the bodies and grab any marijuana still in the fuselage. But the conditions made it much too difficult, and with a massive storm approaching, they decided to wait until early-spring to finish the recovery mission. They wouldn’t return to the site for another three months.
Word had reached the colony of rock climbing hippies at the base of the park that there was free weed up in the remote wilderness of Yosemite. And say what you will about hippies, but their entrepreneurial spirit kicked into high gear. They would spend the following months turning Lower Merced Pass Lake into the legendary Dope Lake.
They began making the long and arduous hike up to Lower Merced Pass Lake, where they would take axes to the frozen sheet of ice to recover as much marijuana they could hike down the mountain. Factions were beginning to congregate around the cold lake, with busy workers constantly in search of their next bag of green treasure they could sell on the black market. Some were said to have made up to $20,000 from their findings, the equivalent to $125,000 today.
With the new economic fortune found by the hippies at Lower Merced Pass Lake, they created a makeshift shantytown, developing the infrastructure needed to recover the frozen marijuana in the lake. The rumors had brought scavengers to the park, and the Park Service noticed a curious uptick in park activity and winter rental equipment. The whole operation was interrupted when the Park Service returned to the site in April, only to be embarrassed that the crash was discovered.
“We underestimated the entrepreneurial spirit of certain members of the community,” said Park Ranger Tim Setnicka to The Men’s Journal.
As the hippy scavengers scattered into the wilderness, law enforcement only arrested two people, but no one was ever convicted. From that moment on, law enforcement camped at the lake full-time, sending back anybody who had heard the rumors of Dope Lake. When the lake finally thawed in June, Search and Rescue officials were able to recover the bodies of the two occupants of the airplane, but all the marijuana was up and gone.
Today, the legend of Dope Lake serves as a reminder of a simpler time, one without social media and tourists traps that run ragged in Yosemite. It sparked the quote “I Got Mine at Lower Merced Pass Lake.”
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine