Little Sur & Pico Blanco

Pico Blanco is a fascinating mountain along the Big Sur coast rich in history and beauty. Meaning “White Peak” in Spanish, the mountain is aptly named with a distinctive white apron of limestone on its upper slopes. Towering 3,709 feet above the Pacific Ocean, Pico Blanco’s distinctive cone shape and striking white limestone make it arguably the most recognizable peak in all of the Santa Lucia mountain range and a sentinel of the Big Sur coast. Legend has it that the Essalen Native American people believed this mountain to be sacred and the source of all life. The Little Sur River and its south fork have carved deep canyons around the peak (separated by Dani Ridge) with an impressive stand of lush redwoods at the bottom complete with a carpet of redwood sorrel. The lush setting by the stream contrasts sharply with the hot slopes above, which are largely composed of oak woodland, grassy meadows, and rock.  The mountain is particularly dry on its south and west slopes, which can swelter in the summer heat and become a frenzy for flies and other insects. The vistas from the summit are breathtaking and include Post Summit & East Molera Ridge, Andrew Molera State Park, the Little Sur River canyon, Ventana Double Cone, Cone Peak, and many other interior Ventana peaks. The Little Sur River Trail is accessed from the Old Coast Road, which is beautiful drive with amazing coastal scenery in a bucolic setting of an active cattle ranch. The windy dirt road is passable in passenger vehicles if it hasn’t rained in awhile.

Pico’s distinctive white limestone is reportedly one of the largest deposits of limestone in the Western United States.  While beautiful to look at, the limestone is also a valuable resource to a private landowner, who owns the summit and other portions of the peak amounting to around 2,800 acres (note the private land and respect it as such). The landowner’s desire to extract the limestone by proposing to blow off the top few hundred feet of the peak became the subject of a landmark land use decision from 1987 – Granite Rock v. the California Coastal Commission – which pitted the mining company against the State of California, the Big Sur Foundation, and attorney generals from eight western states. The landowner argued that the State was trying to interfere with use of federal lands but the State contended that it had the right to regulate a mining use so that it be carried out in a more environmentally sensitive fashion. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the majority opinion in a 5-4 decision that decided for the Coastal Commission and established the states’ ability to impose reasonable regulation on federal land use and activities. 25 years since the decision, the mining company still owns the mountain but has not proposed any mining plans and therefore has not applied for a coastal development permit from the Coastal Commission. The result is that the mountain remains pristine and unfettered.  Below are some photos from the Little Sur canyon and Pico Blanco, with the first photo of Pico Blanco above taken from East Molera Ridge.

Tuolumne Explorations

One of the finest views in the Tuolumne Meadows area is from an unnamed dome between Pothole Dome and Glen Aulin, a dome we dubbed the “Mystery Dome.”  This rarely visited vantage frames the peaks, granite and forest of the Tuolumne Meadows area to perfection. The Mystery Dome is accessed via use paths and easy cross country hiking through pine forest and granite slabs from Pothole Dome. While not far from Tioga Road, there is a feeling of solitude and remoteness that provides a unique perspective of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding peaks and domes. None of the infrastructure of the area is visible so it’s easy to imagine what the first explorers encountered on their trek to Yosemite’s high country.

The 360 degree panorama from Mystery Dome includes:

  • Cathedral Range and Fairview Dome
  • Mount Hoffman and Tuolumne Peak
  • Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne
  • Cold Canyon, Matterhon Peak and Sawtooth Ridge
  • Mount Conness and North Peak
  • Mount Dana and the Kuna Crest
  • Lower Tuolumne Meadows

I could spend hours admiring this view!  One the way back we ascended the back side of Pothole Dome which features an awesome field of glacial erratic boulders on the flat granite and more excellent views of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding peaks. Pothole Dome is a popular viewpoint, but after all these years driving through Tuolumne Meadows it was my first time ascending its gentle granite slopes. I discovered it’s worth the stop and I will definitely plan to hang out on Pothole Dome Again, perhaps to coincide with the glow of evening light. We wrapped up the day by taking a refreshing swim in Tenaya Lake. Below are some photos from Mystery Dome, Pothole Dome and Tenaya Lake.

High Sierra Camps Loop

At 48+ miles, the High Sierra Camps Loop covers a lot of ground and in the process showcases the spectacular Tuolumne Meadows area and Yosemite high country. The route includes a great mix of scenery characteristic of the region including lakes, waterfalls, meadows, granite and views. It’s one of the most popular circuits in all of the Sierra Nevada, largely owing to six conveniently spaced wilderness accommodations along the route. These fully-stoked camps allow patrons to travel without the burden of an overnight backpack and eat cooked meals every night and morning; a relaxing way to enjoy the scenery for some. A couple weeks ago I hiked and jogged the High Sierra Camps Loop as a day-trip and I included a few worthwhile side excursions that I had scoped out before. I intentionally aimed to do this loop before the camps opened for the summer so crowds were minimal. Strava route here. Following are photos and a video from the outing, a beautiful late spring day in Yosemite!

Save for a few miles between May Lake and Glen Aulin, there is virtually always new scenery around the corner to inspire and motivate. There are numerous variations of the base route and several worthwhile side trips that provide a lot of bang for the buck in terms of effort to reward payoff. These side excursions include gorgeous Townsley Lake below the rocky buttresses of Fletcher Peak (near Vogelsang Camp), pristine Emeric Lake situated in a grassy meadow with a backdrop of granite cliffs (between Vogelsang and Merced), and Sunrise Ridge with 360 degree views including the Cathedral Range and Tenaya Canyon  (near Sunrise Camp).  A great summit near the route is the popular Vogelsang Peak with close views of the “roof of Yosemite” – Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure and Mount Florence. One can continue to Vogelsang Pass and descend Lewis Creek to Merced Lake instead of the standard route along Fletcher Creek. Another summit near the route is Mount Hoffman, geographically at the center of Yosemite with great panoramic vistas. Maximum elevation for the standard 48-49 mile route is just over 10,000 feet so altitude is largely not an issue.  Moreover, the low point at Echo Valley is only around 7,000 feet so elevation change is not daunting. The greatest climbing is into and out of Echo Valley/Merced Lake.  While it’s fairly gradual in nature, this portion can be quite hot owing to it’s exposed nature. Furthermore, the trail descending from Fletcher Creek to Merced Lake is a “cobblestone” path of uneven rocks so it’s an arduous and technical section if you’re trying to run downhill. Overall, the High Sierra Camps Loop is a great route, both for multi-day backpacks and for single-day trail runs. I would definitely consider checking out some of the attractions off the beaten path, which are relatively close but are real gems.

Cherry Creek Canyon

Cherry Creek Canyon is a granite moonscape with fascinating glacial features and stunning scenery that is unlike anywhere else in the Sierra. In other words, it’s ridiculously cool! Located in the Emigrant Wilderness near the border with Yosemite National Park, it’s surprising this canyon was not included within the park, but I’m guessing the line-drawers had no idea what the terrain was like. The ice-polished granite that characterizes 99% of the surface area in upper Cherry Creek Canyon is so white and smooth that it’s easily recognizable from space on visible satellite, clearly standing out from the rest of the range. On the way out via the Kibbie Ridge Trail we learned that Cherry Creek Canyon is known as the “miracle in the Sierra” or the “holy grail” in the whitewater kayaking community and is among the best in the world for Class V+ expedition kayaking (a group from New Zealand was preparing to put in the next day). It’s not easy to access this trail-less canyon on foot either with portions of thick brush, rock scrambling, and route finding, especially in early season when the stream cannot be forded. However, high flow is the most picturesque time to visit the Canyon as the watercourse becomes a trickle in late summer. The highlight of the route is known as the “Cherry Bomb,” a spectacular narrow “S” shaped gorge with sheer granite on both sides. While we visited the canyon in the short period when the water flow is ideal for kayaking, we did not see any active kayakers on the stream, and in fact, we didn’t see anybody until we were descending the Kibbie Ridge trail.

Most of the complexities in the canyon are located in its lower portion, including annoying and unavoidable brush patches, routefinding, and a rock scramble. The upper part of the canyon is fairly striaghtforward cross-country travel on granite slabs.  I noticed a potential route into the upper part of the canyon that would avoid most of the complexities but not sacrifice the best part of the scenery in the upper canyon. This route would utilize the Kibbie Ridge trail up to Lookout Point and then descend through forest and slabs to a part of the canyon known as the Flinstones. I will likely try this approach next time. We found that Cherry Creek was not fordable and when we encountered an impasse about three-quarters of a mile from the top of the Canyon, we instead ascended the ridge line to Mercur Lake. Along the ridge there were breathtaking views of Cherry Creek Canyon and granite as far as the eye could see. The region also contains some spectacular lakes nestled amid the granite slabs. Last year, we visited Big Lake and Hyatt Lake and I look forward to returning to the region to explore Boundary Lake, Spotted Fawn Lake and Inferno Lakes.  

Tenaya Rim Loop

The “Tenaya Rim Loop” is an outstanding and aesthetic 45+ mile circumnavigation of Tenaya Canyon along its south and north rims passing through most of the highlights of Yosemite Valley including Clouds Rest, Panorama Point, Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Point and North Dome. Total elevation gain for the route as presented is 14,500 feet. It was amazing to see Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon from all directions as the day progressed.  Side excursions for next time include Sentinel Dome and Mount Watkins to make it a round 50 miles. I chose my starting point (Tenaya Lake) and direction to optimize light for photography. An option to shorten the loop is to skip Glacier Point and instead head down into Yosemite Valley via the Mist Trail.  However, by cutting out Glacier Point you lose an immensely scenic stretch with unique views of Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon that are not achieved at other points of the route.  Overall, this is an awesome loop that hits most of the highlights of Yosemite Valley that I will surely do again.  Strava route here.

The route started with a frigid thigh-deep crossing of Tenaya Creek. The legs did not get a chance to warm up before climbing snowy switchbacks up to the junction with the Sunrise Trail. Beyond this point the trail was wet in spots with some more snow patches, but I soon found myself on the final summit ridge up Clouds Rest enjoying the spectacular views from the summit. Heading down from Clouds Rest to the Nevada Falls bridge is mostly downhill and fairly fast. Beyond the Nevada Falls bridge is one of my favorite views in Yosemite including Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick and Half Dome all in the same frame. Panorama Trail featured more views into Yosemite Valley and Illilouette Falls is spectacular. Panorama Point is particularly impressive perched on top of a precipitous cliff. This point is not marked on the trail and is a short distance off-trail via a use path. The final climb up to Glacier Point is one of the most beautiful stretches of trail in the park with awesome views of Nevada and Vernal Falls and Little Yosemite Valley. After seeing hardly any other visitors the entire morning, the stream of hikers increased as I approached Glacier Point. The Point itself contained the expected bus loads of tourists, but the view is incredible despite the crowds.

I had never done the Four Mile Trail before and it was a beautiful descent into the Valley with excellent views of Sentinel Rock, El Capitan, and Cathedral Rocks. The Four Mile Trail is an example of a trail that was once paved by the park service, presumably in an era long ago when it was determined that paving was beneficial. Big parts of the pavement have since eroded away leaving uneven chunks on the trail – proof that paving should have never happened.  Finally at the bottom of the Valley, I crossed the Swinging Bridge and envied the rafters on the Merced River. It was getting hot and I made sure to rehydrate at Camp Four before beginning the ascent up Yosemite Falls. Fortunately, the Yosemite Falls trail enjoys considerable shade in the afternoon hours and the climb was not that bad. I made my way up to Yosemite Point and enjoyed a snack enjoying another awesome vista of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley. Next up was North Dome with it’s unrivaled view of Half Dome’s North Face and close looks into Tenaya Canyon. The route into and out of Snow Creek is not as interesting, but still pleasant montane forest. On a saddle near Mount Watkins I enjoyed more views of Tenaya Canyon, Pywiack Cascade, the immense granite massif of Clouds Rest. The final view of the route is at Olmstead Point, where I was greeted with evening light on Half Dome and Clouds Rest.

And finally, a fun comparison of the winter and summer view from Glacier Point: