Prairie Creek Redwoods

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is simply amazing. Miles of ancient old growth redwoods, Roosevelt elk grazing in meadows, and unfettered sandy beaches create a primeval setting. Nowhere else can one find such an extensive and continuous stand of old growth redwoods in pristine condition. This park offers a glimpse of what the entire north coast of California once looked like before logging. I’m glad conservationists existed in an era of extraction and destruction with the foresight and wherewithal to set aside such a glorious forest from ax and saw. Perhaps the most unique aspect of this park is a fern canyon with seven types of ferns draped over 50 foot walls creating a lush hanging garden. With 75 miles of trails to explore, Prairie Creek is a paradise for trail runners. The trails range from well groomed paths such as the Prairie Creek Trail and James Irvine Trail, to very technical and arduous single track including the Rhododendron Trail and West Ridge Trail. What all of the trails share is spectacular scenery, most of which is under towering old growth redwoods with a remarkably lush understory. I found it interesting that the Sequoia sempervirens along the far north coast appear to have a grayish bark versus the reddish brown bark common among the subspecies further south. 

During our visit to the north coast, I was able to do three runs through the park and in the process I covered a good chunk of the trail network, which is split fairly evenly by the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway that runs the length of the park from south to north along Prairie Creek. Perhaps the best loop in the park, and arguably the best redwood hike in the world, is the Miner’s Ridge and James Irvine Loop, which passes through all facets of the park – prairies, old growth redwoods, beach, and the fern canyon. The loop is about 12 miles long and it’s a very runnable and enjoyable trail run (route on Strava) with under 1,700 ft of elevation gain, no steep climbs, and relatively non-technical compared to many of the other narrow and root-strewn trails in the park. Just before leaving the coastal area to enter fern canyon, we spotted a group of elk grazing on the prairie with ideal afternoon lighting. Fern Canyon is simply awesome and we were lucky to have the canyon all to ourselves. I look forward to returning in late spring when the ferns in the canyon are at their peak of green vibrancy.

The second run I did was around a 20 mile loop and included some of the trails on the eastern side of the parkway (route on Strava). Foothill Trail and Brown Creek Trail were both moderate while Rhodedendron Trail was challenging with narrow, technical single track and steep climbs. Next time I would like to run the entire length of the Rhododendron Trail, hopefully coinciding with peak Rhody blossoms. Crossing over the parkway to the westside, I ascended up to the West Ridge Trail and then down to the coast for a nice run along the coastal prairie with more elk sightings and two surprise waterfalls tumbling off the coastal bluffs in a very lush setting of moss and ferns. I finished the loop with another walk through fern canyon (this time with different lighting) and then the awesome James Irvine Trail back to the campground area in Elk Meadow.  The third and final run in Prairie Creek included a run up and along West Ridge with a return via Prairie Creek (route on Strava). The West Ridge trail is technical and will keep your focus down on the trail instead of up at the redwoods, but nonetheless an amazing tour along the ridge and super fun for technical single track aficionados.  The upper part of the Prairie Creek trail is more singletrack before opening up onto an improved gravel trail for the final couple miles back to the park headquarters. As a big fan of redwoods, it was a real treat to spend a couple days in Prairie Creek and I look forward to returning here for further explorations!

Buena Vista Peak, Horse Ridge & Ostrander Snowshoe

I had a great visit to Badger Pass at New Years so I was excited to return for a new objective – Ostrander Lake, Horse Ridge and Buena Vista Peak (see Glacier Point XC ski here and Dewey Point Snowshoe here). This is a fantastic route with stupendous views. The total mileage was 26.5 miles according to GPS (Strava route here, and first 4.2 miles here).

We stayed at Mariposa the night before and drove into the park with great anticipation as skies were clear and fresh snow coated the fir trees. We enjoyed a cup of coffee and breakfast snacks at the Badger Pass lodge before setting off down the Glacier Point Road at 8:30 a.m. I strapped on the microspikes for this four mile stretch which helped with traction while running. At the junction with the Bridalveil Creek trail, I switched to snowshoes and soon turned onto the Horizon Ridge trail. I was the first to travel this trail in several days, but the prior tracks were still easy to follow. While it was still only 10:00 a.m. the sun exposure on Horizon Ridge was already making it feel hot. Some sections of snow were getting thin, manifesting the warm nature of this ridge. As I ascended up Horizon Ridge proper, views of Yosemite opened up, including a fantastic and unique angle on Half Dome and Mount Starr King. I took photos from the top of Horizon Ridge and then descended to the junction of Bridalveil Creek trail (which I would descend). I continued up for 1.5 miles to the Ostrander Hut. I had passed a large group of skiers departing the hut and their turns in the powder were evident on the slopes above Ostrander Lake.

Continuing beyond Ostrander, the climbing became steeper on the final slopes approaching the summit of Horse Ridge. The breezes also began to pick up near the summit. Horse Ridge is a fascinating escarpment feature. It’s quite long and the ridge is a tale of two sides: the north side has a consistent cliff drop and steep open slopes below while the south side is gentle sloping with a forest of large trees. I enjoyed the panorama from Horse Ridge, including Half Dome, Tuolumne area peaks, the Clark Range, Buena Vista Crest, and even distant peaks like Mount Conness and Tower Peak. I gazed over at Buena Vista Peak as I checked my watch and figured I had enough time to at least attempt to reach Buena Vista so I set off down the south forested side of Horse Ridge. I soon found myself at a saddle between Horse Ridge and Buena Vista. It began to feel like true wilderness on this side of Horse Ridge since few people venture beyond Horse Ridge’s summit. I began climbing up the open slopes of Buena Vista with views opening up once again. The climbing was pretty straightforward until I reached the point where I had to access the northwest ridge of Buena Vista. Here the snow became step and icy for a small section and an ice axe would have been beneficial. A few steps later I was happy to be on the ridge snowshoing up the final part of the ridge to the summit. All in all, it took a little over an hour to go from Horse Ridge to Buena Vista Peak.

Buena Vista Peak is aptly named with a magnificent 360 degree view. The panorama also includes a impressive views of Gale Peak and Sing Peak on the southern border of the national park. In addition, there was a great vista of the high Sierra to the south including the evolution area of Mount Goddard and Mount Darwin. On the way down from Buena Vista, I went further down the northwest ridge before angling off which was an easier route and retraced my steps down to the saddle and then up to Horse Ridge, taking many photos along the way. On the way down from Horse Ridge, Half Dome was uniquely photogenic with a tongue of clouds surrounding its lower slopes. After some snacks at Ostrander Hut, I made my way down to the Bridalveil Creek trail. This route felt much longer than Horizon Ridge, partly because it is in fact 1.5 miles longer, and also because it’s quite monotonous meandering through the woods with not much to look at. I finally reached the Glacier Point Road and traded snowshoes for microspikes for the last 4.2 miles. I soon caught up to Erica and we traded photos before making the last push to the car. We both made it back to Badger Pass before dark with big smiles, extremely satisfied with the day’s adventure (Erica made it to Ostrander Hut for a 19.5 mile snowshoe).

Winter Alta & Moose Lake Snowshoe

I had a great memories of a climb of Winter Alta in 2011 so I was excited to come back and this time I ventured further to remote Moose Lake (see route on Strava here).  The view from Winter Alta is simply outstanding. Overlooking Moose Lake and the Great Western Divide, it seems as if the entire range is at your feet.  At around 10,500 feet in elevation, Moose Lake is one of the largest high alpine lakes in the region. Nestled in a shallow bench, the lake is well above tree line which provides an unobstructed view of a large portion of the Great Western Divide and Black Kaweah.  The panorama of Moose Lake and all the peaks in the background is one of the greatest in all of the High Sierra. Complete photo album here.

This area is accessed via the Pear Lake ski hut and a marked winter trail from Wolverton.  The path from Wolverton to the ski hut is challenging for a snowshoe hike with lots of elevation gain but well worth the efforts. The slopes near the hut are fairly popular with backcountry skiers, but I found few tracks beyond a couple hundred feet above the hut and no tracks beyond Winter Alta.  Prior to summiting Winter Alta, I decided to continue further along the Tablelands to Moose Lake. The lake is about 850 feet below 11,328 foot Winter Alta which apparently deters most people from visiting. The snow conditions on this day oscillated between a stable crust and deep powder, but overall not bad for efficient progress. I made my way down some moderately sleep slopes and soon found myself walking across the tundra that is a frozen Moose Lake. I crossed the lake at its center and my poles hit a solid ice platform about a foot and half underneath the top of the powder. From the far end of the lake, I admired the view down the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, the Kaweah Gap area, and the line of peaks that stretched as far as the eye could see.

I recrossed the lake at a different point and headed up for the summit of Winter Alta taking many photos and video clips along the way. Calm conditions on the summit provided an incentive to stick around and enjoy the scenery for a bit. Once I packed up, the descent went fast and I decided to come down through Pear Lake. After some moderately steep (but soft) slopes, I was on top of frozen Pear Lake, which is located in a rugged granite cirque beneath the Alta Peak massif.  After some more photography and video, I headed down the slopes to the Pear Lake ski hut and started my return to Wolverton.  This proved to be another fantastic snowshoe outing in Sequoia National Park!  I look forward to coming back and exploring further along the Tablelands in the winter, perhaps all the way to Big Bird Peak for views down to Big Bird lake and closer views of the Great Western Divide.

Mount Silliman Snowshoe Climb

Mount Silliman rises 11,188 feet with over 4,500 feet of vertical  in a short distance from Lodgepole Visitor Center in Sequoia National Park. As its position is to the west of the main concentration of peaks along or near the Sierra Crest, the summit provides an amazing vantage of the range from the Yosmite high country all the way down to the end of the Great Western Divide. The view across Kings Canyon to the Palisades is particularly impressive, along with Mount Brewer and the line of peaks from Thunder Peak to Milestone Mountain.

In the summer, a use trail apparently leaves the Twin Lakes trail and provides relatively easy access up the drainage and to the peak. In the winter, however, no such trail exists. I started off at Lodgepole along a snowshoe track that was excellent for the first 2.0 miles as the trail slowly gained elevation. A (less defined snowshoe) track continued beyond the turnoff for Silliman Creek and I was optimistic somebody had kicked steps up to the summit or at least up the basin. No such luck. At a clearing in the trees at 8,200 ft, the tracks finished near a spot where a party had snow camped. It was all deep powder and trailblazing from here up another 3,000 feet to the summit. We had driven from the Bay Area that morning resulting in a start just after noon and it was fairly warm by this point (40s) so the snow was wet and heavy with resultant post-holing even with snowshoes. Each step was heavy and travel became exceptionally arduous until 10,000 feet when a thick crust on the snow supported my snowshoes. I made my way up to a sub-peak of Silliman with an amazing view down the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River and the Alta Peak massif that I would ascend the following day.

From the subpeak I made a quick descent down into Silliman Bowl and then climbed the final slopes up to Silliman’s summit. The southern foxtail pine forest near the top is one of the best I have seen with exquisite trunk formations and positioning. I enjoyed the 360 degree view from the top taking video and many photos before beginning my descent. Going downhill through the deep snow was a pleasure and it almost felt like jumping on pillow. I took many photos of Silliman Bowl and the high meadows. After entering the forest, the goal was to get back to Lodgepole before darkness and I was just able to make it in time. This is a fantastic snowshoe climb. If you’re prepared to break trail, you’ll be rewarded with awesome views and rugged scenery.