Covd-19 Escape: Botanizing in Horseshoe Meadows at 10,000 Feet

By Paul Gipe

The drive to Horseshoe Meadows is a trip we long for every summer. The drive up Hwy 395 on the East Side of the Sierra Nevada is one of the best road trips you can make in North America. The scenery is nothing short of spectacular. And when you’ve been cooped up in quasi-quarantine for weeks due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the drive is more exhilarating than usual.

We drive a Chevy Bolt EV and that’s all we drive. We are a one-car family and that car is long-range EV. Yet even in “green” California there are still places you can’t get in a non-Tesla EV. And until recently, one of those was Horseshoe Meadows–at least for us.

Let’s back up for a moment. We’ve been driving electric for six years now and we’ve driven the Bolt to Horseshoe Meadows several times. However, this always required us spending the night at a small, privately-run motel so we could charge. We’re not eating out and we’re not staying in hotels during the pandemic, ruling out charging overnight.

A round trip to Horseshoe Meadows from Bakersfield is 340 miles (570 km) and requires a climb from near sea level to 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). Altogether, the trip would use more than 90 kWh. This is well beyond the 60 kWh capacity of the Bolt’s traction battery.

The only way we could make this a day trip is by fast charging somewhere enroute. That simply wasn’t possible until late July when Electrify America opened their station at Coso Junction. Equipment at the station has been installed for more than a year and stood idle gathering dust–it’s in the desert–and teasing non-Tesla drivers that it would open–someday.

It did–finally. And we set about planning a trip to Horseshoe Meadows. It would be ambitious for us, four hours of driving each way, including charging at EA’s DCFC station. And it would be risky. There’s no backup if EA’s station isn’t able to charge our car for any reason. But we’ve used EA’s fast charging stations in the past and despite finding some of the typically four kiosks at a station out of service we’ve always been able to get a charge.

The trip up to Horseshoe Meadows was uneventful, glorious in fact. For the first time we noticed that meadows is plural in the description Horseshoe Meadows and we wondered why that was.

The air was thin, but cool and refreshing after the oppressive heat of the San Joaquin Valley. There’s the hint of pine in the air that always signals the mountains to us. The sky was bright blue and the sun intense at that altitude. So we packed up our gear and headed out from the picnic area to the meadow.

As soon as we broke out of the trees and stepped into the meadow, Nancy saw the first of many Alpine Gentian. Crossing a small stream that drains the meadow we climbed what turned out to be a low drainage divide to discover a whole new meadow we’d never seen before. It finally dawned on us there was more than one meadow at Horseshoe Meadows. Duh.

We spent three wonderful hours exploring and in all that time we saw only two other people who quickly disappeared up the trail. At the height of the pandemic, when forest campgrounds and beaches are being trashed across the state as people flee the cities, we had one of the Sierra’s most beautiful meadows to ourselves. We had to pinch ourselves for our good fortune. There in the distance were the long sweeping slopes of Mount Whitney and Mount Langley. Their stark shapes were easily distinguishable above tree line.

Though we hated to leave we knew we had a long drive ahead of us. After lunch we headed back to the car and packed up.

Until this point everything had worked like clockwork. The Bolt had used almost exactly the amount of electricity estimated for each leg by A Better Routeplanner. We’d used a total of 57 kWh to get to Horseshoe Meadows from Bakersfield, a distance of 170 miles (280 km).

It would take another 6 kWh to get from Horseshoe Meadows to Coso Junction. Obviously, a fast charge was necessary to get from Coso Junction to Horseshoe Meadows and back again.

The 54 miles to Coso Junction went as planned and again the Bolt’s consumption was within 2% of the ABRP estimate. So far, so good.

This was when things took a turn for the worse. We had problems getting a charge at Coso Junction and for a while it looked like we might need to be towed. (See Electrify America EV Charging Payment SNAFU for all the gory details.) We did eventually get our charge and headed out a little later than planned.

However, by then a strong headwind had whipped up on the Mojave Desert and we had to fight that a third of the way to Bakersfield. This cost us 10% more in consumption than that estimated by ABRP.

Fortunately, I am conservative when planning a trip and I’d estimated that by charging only to 65% of capacity at Coso Junction we should arrive home with about 15% remaining.

When you’re driving against a strong headwind, you don’t have a good sense of how much it’s going to affect your efficiency–and your range. While I drove at normal highway speeds, I was more conservative than normal, but I never felt the need to hypermile. I wasn’t anxious, but I did pay attention to my efficiency and to my range remaining.

Unlike other EVs, the Chevy Bolt provides three estimates of the range remaining: high, medium, and low. Eric (1%) Way suggests gauging your remaining range to the low estimate. Way, who has put more miles on a Bolt than anyone else, says that targeting the “low” range estimate should leave you with about 10% battery capacity when you arrive.

And that’s what I did. I kept my eye on the “low” estimate and when it was less than the miles remaining to home, I drove more conservatively than otherwise. Once the “low” estimate matched the miles to home, I relaxed and drove normally.

Within a few miles of home capacity dropped below 15% and the orange charge warning lights illuminated. We pulled into the driveway with 14% capacity remaining 12 hours after departing. It was a long, but successful day.

Later looking at the statistics for the trip, I noticed that the actual display of the State-of-Charge was down a little than 2% from what would be calculated if the traction battery had its full 60 kWh of capacity. On a subsequent trip I calculated that the difference was closer to 3%, indicating a loss of 1.8 kWh during the three years we’ve been driving the car. This is close to what I’ve observed from tracking the capacity available in the battery.

Would we do it again? Yes, no doubt we will. But we’d like CalTrans to get its station installed at the Coso Junction rest area. That will provide a helpful backup if EA’s Coso station isn’t operating as expected.