Junipero Serra Peak

It’s fairly rare for a modified arctic cold front to sweep into central California. However, in early December a cold, dry continental airmass overspread the region. With the cold air in place, attention turned to the possibility of low elevation snow on local mountains. All we needed was moisture. It seemed like wishes would come true with a system coming in from the north late in the week. In fact, the National Weather Service office in Monterey issued a winter weather advisory two days out from the event, specifically calling out the Santa Lucia Mountains for up to 6 inches of snow. Stoke level was high for a snow day on Cone Peak’s Stone Ridge. Well, things didn’t turn out as initially forecasted and the winter weather advisory did not verify. Snow levels wound up being much higher and only the highest peaks in the Santa Lucia Mountains received snowfall (>4,500 ft). Why?  The low pressure tracked from near Crescent City, California to Lake Tahoe placing the central coast on the south side of the low. In this sector, onshore winds brought in relatively mild air off the Pacific Ocean just as the heaviest precipitation arrived. In fact, temperatures increased as the event unfolded despite it being in the middle of the night. Once the cold front passed, snow levels plummeted once again, but by then very little moisture was left. All things considered, it seemed highly unlikely snow accumulated on Stone Ridge between 2,500-3,800 ft (we were right).  At this time Joey came up with a plan B – Junipero Serra Peak. As the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountians at 5,862 ft, Junipero Serra Peak stood the best chance of having some snow accumulation. The route would be only 12.4 miles roundtrip but feature over 4,000 ft of climbing.  It turned out to be a great idea!   Strava route here

The group for this adventure included Joey Cassidy, Flyin’ Brian Robinson and Brian Rowlett. From the trailhead we could see some snow accumulation on the summit, but we were not prepared for how remarkably awesome the wintry scene would become on the last thousand feet of vertical on the mountain.  As we ascended above the snow line, we found a unique combination of snow, rime ice, and glaze ice (from freezing rain).  It felt as if we were entering an ice box as everything was glazed in ice, sometimes approaching over an inch thick.  I have never seen so much ice accumulation!  After ascending to the summit ridge, we traversed to the north side where we hiked through a coniferous forest which had become a winter wonderland with snow and ice covered Coulter Pines (largest pine cones in the world, weighing up to 8 pounds!) and Sugar Pines (the longest pine cones in the world, growing up to 24 inches long).  The entire mountain was burned in the Basin Complex Fire in 2008, but it’s good to see a large portion of the conifer grove survived the fire. In fact, Coulter Pine saplings were thick in spots. The chaparral slopes on the mountain did not fare as well with virtually all of the older woody chaparral charred. Five years later new chaparral vegetation is growing back aggressively, but the old burned snags remain making for an interesting sight when glazed with ice.

The flora and fauna of the Santa Lucia Mountains is often rare and fascinating. The pine forest of Coulter Pines and Sugar Pines atop Junipero Serro was so striking I decided to do a little research. It turns out Sugar Pines are not common in the Santa Lucia Mountains and can only be found on a few of the tallest peaks in the range, including Cone Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. The grove at Junipero Serra is particularly large with several tall old-growth trees.  Interestingly, the Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucias are genetically distinct from other populations of Sugar Pine due to large geographic separation. The two populations cannot mix. I wonder how these trees got the summit area of Junipero Serra in the first place as everything surrounding the grove is either chamise or montane chaparral. 

Another favorite topic of mine is meteorology. What caused such an impressive accumulation of glaze ice on Junipero Serra? As mentioned above, the weather system that pulled in some relatively warmer air off the Pacific in the middle and upper levels of the atmosphere, but colder air lingered at the lower levels of the atmosphere. Rain droplets formed in the warmer clouds but then became supercooled when they descended into the colder air below and froze upon contact with any object on the upper part of the mountain. This is freezing rain. The resulting ice from freezing rain is aptly named glaze ice and was at least an inch thick in spots. After the cold front passed on Saturday night, the entire atmosphere became cold enough to support snowfall on the highest elevations of Junipero Serra. This phase of the storm dropped 3+ inches of snow to complete the unique winter wonderland scene.  

While I’m a big fan of winter sports in general, seeing places snowcovered that don’t typically receive much snow is always a special experience. After this adventure I’m even more pumped for the winter season and the potential for a few more chances to see local mountains snowcovered. You can bet I’ll be chasing the snow!   

Point Reyes South District Loop

[Summary from my April 2013 post] A spectacular meeting of land and ocean, Point Reyes National Seashore is one of my favorite places anywhere.  Point Reyes has incredible variety from rugged beaches to waterfalls to lush forests. With nearly 150 miles of trails  to explore, there always seems to be something new to experience on each visit.  Most of the trail miles are within the Phillip Burton Wilderness, the only federally designated wilderness along California’s coast aside from the King Range Wilderness at Humboldt County’s Lost Coast. Covering 33,373 acres of wilderness and “potential’ wilderness, the road-less land encompasses nearly half of the total 71,070 acres of Point Reyes. 

On this day Erica and I set out from Bear Valley on a 24 mile lollipop loop of the southern portion of Point Reyes. Along the way we had great variety from the fir forests on Greenpicker Trail, Lake Ranch Trail and Ridge Trail to the coastal scenery of Alamere Falls, Wildcat Beach and Arch Rock. It was great to check out some trails I had never seen in the interior part of Point Reyes and revisit some familiar scenes along the coast in different lighting and tidal conditions. Trails in the interior of southern Point Reyes are heavily wooded and solitude can be found with few visitors. The coastal scenery was beautiful as usual and the photo above shows late afternoon sunlight coming underneath Arch Rock, providing a twist on this extremely photogenic scene that I have captured numerous times. Other photos from this loop are located below. There are so many awesome trails in Point Reyes the options for designing aesthetic routes for long runs is virtually limitless. I imagine it won’t be long before I’m back at the Seashore.  Strava route here.

A selection of photo albums and reports from past trips to Point Reyes:

 

Cone Peak Marathon Loop

California’s spectacular natural landscape ranges from the Pacific coastline to the Sierra crest, each filled with many inspiring destinations and experiences. As the seasons shift into late autumn and winter I gravitate to coastal adventures. This time of year has reliably less fog along the immediate coast and interior locations are comfortably cooler. This is also the time of year when winter rains begin to revitalize the redwood forests.  One of my favorite regions for coastal scenery is the Ventana Wilderness along the Big Sur coastline. The premier destination within this vast wilderness is Cone Peak. Arguably the most aesthetic and complete route on Cone Peak is the “Cone Peak Marathon,” a classic lollipop loop from the ocean to the summit of 5,155 ft Cone Peak and back down via the Gamboa Trail and Stone Ridge Trail. This route thoroughly covers the trail network around Cone Peak and passes through three of the canyons formed by forks of Limekiln Creek. In addition, there are great views down the rugged and wild South Fork Devils Canyon.  The route showcases the wide variety of ecosystems on Cone Peak including coastal scrub, redwood forest, grassy meadows, oak woodland, chaparral, and a unique high elevation forest composed of Santa Lucia Fir and Sugar Pine forest. This is a top notch route in a stellar region! Strava route here.

As of this writing, the Vicente Flat Trail is in excellent condition all the way up to the Cone Peak Road. The route beings with about 1,200 feet of climbing over the first couple miles and then levels off as it rounds a corner into the Hare Canyon. Just before 4 miles from the trailhead, the trail makes a short descent to the bottom of Hare Canyon where the junction with the Stone Ridge Trail is reached after a creek crossing. Shortly after this junction, the Vicente Flat trail gets down to business with the steepest chunk of climbing between miles 5 and 7. Over these two miles, the trail ascends around 1,600 feet. The Vicente Flat trail ends at a gravel road that can be driven from the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. Turning uphill on the dirt road, the ascent is more gradual than the preceding steep climb out of hare Canyon, but it’s still a bit of a slog. After about a mile on the dirt road, you turn onto the Cone Peak Trail for the final chunk of climbing. The trail first makes a lengthy traverse beneath the summit and then switchbacks up Cone Peak’s South Ridge to a junction with the Summit Trail. The final set of switchbacks on the Summit Trail to the abandoned fire lookout are steeper once again but the spectacular views are a great distraction. The view from the summit is outstanding with a 360 degree panorama including the interior Ventana Wilderness and views for miles up and down the Big Sur coastline.

Back at the junction with the Summit Trail, turn left down the backside of Cone Peak. This section of trail is still called the Cone Peak Trail and passes through a section where trail crews recently cut through enormous Sugar Pine downfall. Descending off the backside of Cone Peak into the South Fork Devils Canyon is a treat with passage through a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir, the rarest species of fir in the world. These beautiful conical trees are only found in small pockets at high elevations of the Santa Lucia Mountains.  Somewhat counter intuitively, the Santa Lucia Fir is not fire resistant and therefore fares best in areas of fireproof topography (i.e. rocky sheltered locations).  The backside of Cone Peak is a perfect example of this rocky and rugged, fireproof terrain and therefore contains one of the finest Santa Lucia Fir forests in existence. Ultimately, the Cone Peak Trail ends at Trail Spring Camp where it intersects the Gamboa Trail.  From Trail Spring commences a particularly pleasant stretch of single track traverses the hillside below Twin Peak all the way to a small pass along the West Ridge of Twin Peak. It is at this pass that the Gamboa Trail becomes the Strone Ridge Trail and descends into the West Fork of Limekiln Creek canyon. Extensive trail work was completed this year on the Gamboa and Stone Ridge trails removing a lot of brush and downfall. It should be noted that the tread on these trails is narrow and sometimes technical; generally not fast tread or terrain for running but they are runnable. In addition, the descent via the Stone Ridge Trail entails some deceiving climbs, including an ascent up to Stone Ridge and an ascent out of Limekiln Creek. Both of these climbs are not long, but any substantial climbing after the initial climb up Cone Peak can be taxing. All told, there is over 7,000 ft of climbing on this route. Stone Ridge is the most prominent feature in the region and includes an excellent direct route to the summit, the true “Sea to Sky.” A good chunk of the Stone Ridge Direct route is visible from the Stone Ridge Trail as it crosses Stone Ridge at around 2,200 ft and again from the slopes above Limekiln Creek. This winter I hope to visit Cone Peak during a relatively rare winter snow event.  With outstanding scenery, lots of vertical, and engaging trails, I will surely be back for more runs on Cone Peak soon. Strava route here.

Clouds Rest & Yosemite’s Complete South Rim

While I know that Yosemite Valley is beautiful any time of the year, I had not experienced the Valley in the fall and I was eager to see some new trails (for me) on the south rim. A Saturday in early November was a great opportunity with the trails on the rim remaining largely snow-free. I designed a 38+ mile tour of the south rim of Yosemite Valley from Clouds Rest to Wawona Tunnel starting with the classic ascent up the Mist Trail from Happy Isles. The aesthetic point-to-point included a number of famous vistas: Clouds Rest, Panorama Point, Panorama Point Overlook, Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, Taft Point, Dewey Point, Crocker Point, Stanford Point, Inspiration Point and Artist Point. It was amazing to see the changing appearance of Half Dome and El Capitan, the most prominent features in the Valley,  as I made my way west along the South Rim. The biggest climb (6,000+ ft) is right at the beginning from the Valley to the summit of Clouds Rest, but the 2,500 ft of climbing from Illilouette Creek to Sentinel Dome is not easy either. All told, there is probably over 12,000 ft of climbing on the route. Beyond Sentinel Dome, the final 12 miles is largely downhill save for some moderate ascent to Dewey Point after crossing Bridalveil Creek. For a high resolution 360 degree annotated panorama from the summit of Clouds Rest, click on the image below or here. 

We encountered a surprising amount of snow in the shaded forest between Taft Point and Dewey Point, but overall the trails were in good condition. Panorama Point (not to be confused with Panorama Point Overlook) is a short-off trail hike along a ridgeline with nice 360 degree views. The highest point is at the end of the ridge. Panorama Point Overlook is just off the trail about 700 vertical feet below Panorama Point. A use path leaves the main trail at a switchback above Illilouette canyon, but there is no sign. It looks as if Panorama Point Overlook was once a bona fide vista, but the guardrail has since been removed (or fell off the cliff?) and it’s now one of the hidden gems of the Valley. Being late in the season, it was generally dry and the restroom facilities and water fountain at Glacier Point were closed. This means that if you are going out for a long run you must plan ahead for water locations. In fact, after Illilouette Creek, there is only one suitable water source on the route at Bridalveil Creek. Beyond Sentinel Dome, the focal point of the view is the immense granite wall of El Capitan. Taft Point is a tremendous viewpoint with some nice exposure for photogenic photography.  Continuing along the rim, we enjoyed magnificent evening light as we passed Dewey Point, Crocker Point and Stanford Point.  It took awhile to find the unobstructed view, but sunset at Inspiration Point was nice and post-sunset glow at Artist Point wrapped up a great day on the Yosemite trails.    

Monarch Divide Semi-Loop

The Monarch Divide is a region of the High Sierra that is easily overlooked. Topping out below 12,000 feet, the peaks along the divide are not as impressive as nearby zones to the north, east and south. The most used trail into the Monarch Divide is the Copper Creek Trail to Granite Lake and Granite Pass, starting at Road’s End in Kings Canyon. This trail is well-maintained and includes some fantastic views of Kings Canyon right from the start and much of the way up. The other access trail is the Lewis Creek Trail which is near Cedar Grove. This trail is used infrequently resulting in some sections of narrow tread and brushy sections. Either way, it’s a long way from the canyon floor to the Monarch Divide with over 10 miles and 6,500+ feet of elevation gain either way you go. Looking at the maps, my first desire was to climb Goat Mountain and see the panoramic views from its summit. Upon further inspection, it seemed like a point-to-point semi-loop was possible utilizing both the Copper Creek and Lewis Creek trails and including the summits of Kennedy Mountain, Munger Peak and Goat Mountain and a traverse through Volcanic Lakes. The section from Kennedy Pass to Granite Pass would be off-trail but the terrain seemed favorable to easy wandering. This last minute itinerary design turned out to be fantastic. I found an adventure running playground that exceeded my expectations with stellar scenery and opportunities for off-trail exploration. Strava route hereThe next image is an annotated panorama from the summit of Kennedy Mountain which shows virtually the entire drainage basin of the Middle Fork Kings River from Finger Peak to Mount Bolton Brown to the Monarch Divide, arguably the most rugged and wild watershed in the High Sierra. Click on image or here for the full high resolution version. 

I started out up the Lewis Creek Trail with some pre-dawn running making way into a pleasant pine forest for a few miles. Eventually, the forest became more alpine in character before opening up into a long avalanche scoured hillside with a forest of miniature aspens (except a handful of large aspens). I was about a week too late to see the fall color through this section but I imagine it to be awesome if timed correctly. After a long traverse through the avy slope I made my way up the final switchbacks to Kennedy Pass and then continued up the ridge through easy off-trail terrain to the summit of Kennedy Mountain where I was greeted with a lovely view to the Middle Fork Kings Canyon, the Palisades, Goddard Divide, Black Divide and White Divide. From Kennedy Mountain, I returned to Kennedy Pass and dropped down the Pass’s north side through a section of snow. I mistakenly turned off the trail a bit too soon, but scrambled down some steep grass and granite slabs to rejoin the trail near a small tarn. At the tarn I left the trail for good and headed up to East Kennedy Lake, a Sierra gem with pristine blue waters and a beautiful backdrop of cliffs along the Monarch Divide. The surreal setting was highlighted by the recent snow on the granite cliffs.

From East Kennedy Lake, I ascended steep grassy slopes up to a small saddle high on Dead Pine Ridge that provided access to Volcanic Lakes, a glorious granitic basin with a series of large alpine lakes. The origin of the name “Volcanic” perplexed me as this area seem far from volcanic in character. Descending to the largest Volcanic Lake (10,199 ft) via meadows and granite slabs, a tremendous view of the Palisades above the lake came into focus. The setting was so impressive I could hardly take a few steps without stopping to photograph and admire the picturesque scene. At the shores of Lk 10,199 I ascended more slabs to a knob with a centralized vantage where I could see five of the lakes surrounding me (there are at least eight large lakes in the basin). From the knob I crossed between Lk 10,284 and Lk 10,288 and then ascended yet another grassy gully to a broad area of meadows and slabs which took me to Granite Pass. In my entire time from East Kennedy Lake to Granite Pass I saw no evidence of human impact. From Granite Pass, I crossed the Copper Creek trail and traversed slabs and more meadows into the basin below Munger Peak. Munger Peak and Goat Mountain lie along the Goat Crest, a short north-south oriented spur between the Monarch Divide to the west and the Cirque Crest to the east. I chose to climb over Munger Peak from the north and found slippery snow on the talus in the final few hundred feet which made things slower than I otherwise would have expected. With conditions as they were, it would have probably been more efficient to cross over to Munger’s dry south side and tag the summit as an out-and-back. At any rate, I eventually made the summit of Munger and snapped some photos before heading down to the gap between Munger and Goat for the much-anticipated last climb of the day up Goat Mountain. The ascent up Goat Mountain was loose in the lower part but became more solid in the upper portion with a finish through large talus blocks near the top. The view from Goat Mountain’s summit was all that I had expected and more. It’s truly a remarkable point with a sweeping panorama from the Evolution area to the Kaweahs. The centerpiece of the view overlooks the South Fork Kings Canyon and the Murro Blanco with the peaks of the King Spur most prominent, including Mount Clarence King, Mount Cotter and Mount Gardiner. I also enjoyed the view looking to the Kings-Kern Divide including Mount Stanford, Caltech Peak and Mount Ericsson. Beyond the Kings-Kern Divide Mount Williamson and Mount Whitney were clearly visible. At this point in the afternoon clouds were beginning to gather to the south and chilly winds were increasing, but I spent quite a bit of time on the summit admiring the stupendous panorama. The afternoon light along with some the cumulus clouds enhanced the photography.

After over 30 minutes on the summit, I descended Goat Mountain and headed down down to Grouse Lake with straightforward and efficient cross country travel en route. Below Grouse Lake I located a use path which deposited me at the Copper Creek Trail. Along this use path there were some phenomenal views of Mount Clarence King and Mount Gardiner. After a break, I started running down the well-maintained Copper Creek trail which is excellent for a descent since its fairly non-technical. I caught up to Erica part of the way down, the only person I would see all day (Erica enjoyed the day at Granite Lake). Towards the bottom of the trail there was some great evening light through Kings Canyon and the Grand Sentinel rock feature (aka the El Capitan of Kings Canyon). Both Erica and I made it back before dark and we both agreed it was a fine late-season day to be in the Sierra. I’ll definitely be back for further exploration in this area and I’m especially keen on ascending Goat Mountain in the spring when the snow-capped peaks will offer a different perspective of the panorama; one of the best in the Sierra. The Copper Creek Trail to Goat Mountain segment is also the beginning of the Sierra High Route, which I aspire to do someday as well.

Tuolumne Meadows to Devils Postpile via the Minarets and Donohue Peak

The point-to-point route from Tuolumne Meadows to Agnew Meadows or Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile is well established among trail runners. However, I haven’t heard of anybody extending the point-to-point into the Minarets and including a summit of Donohue Peak. Both of these additions substantially enhance the aesthetics of the route making it a complete highlight tour of an immensely scenic region spanning Yosemite National Park and Ansel Adams Wilderness. This objective has been high on my list for some time and I was happy to run it in perfect autumn weather. It was great to enjoy many familiar sights, some of the best scenery the High Sierra has to offer, all in a single day. This is an instant classic and I look forward to doing this route and/or variations of it next year!

A sweeping 360 degree annotated panorama from the summit of Donohue Peak can be found here or be clicking on the image below for a much larger image. 

The first 8 miles are along nearly flat Lyell Canyon. Cool air tends to pool in the canyon and temperatures were in the low-20s, but with calm winds the running felt comfortable. Just before Donohue Pass, I peeled off the trail and headed up toward Donohue Peak. The final bit of scrambling took a bit longer than anticipated as the high point of Donohue is at the eastern end of the ridge and entailed some traversing of talus covered with snow. The view from the summit is incredible and includes most of the Cathedral Range and Ritter Range, a mirror view of the panorama I saw from Foerster Peak just a few days prior. A small tarn below Donohue Peak is particularly photogenic with Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure towering in the background. From the tarn I took a cross country route down slabs and grassy slopes to reconnect with the John Muir Trail in Rush Creek Basin. This beautiful basin was largely dry but still featured excellent views of Donohue Peak, Mount Andrea Lawrence and Koip Crest.

Beyond Rush Creek Basin I made quick time up to Island Pass. After a stop to photograph Banner Peak reflecting in the tarns near the pass, I met Joel and we descended to Thousand Island Lake soaking in the amazing scenery. The beautiful views continued as we made our way to Garnet Lake. At the Shadow Lake junction, I turned upstream to gorgeous Lake Ediza and then made the ascent to Iceberg Lake. From Iceberg Lake I encountered fairly deep snow up to Cecil Lake, but fortunately somebody had kicked steps before me so the micro spikes were not necessary. It was an ethereal view from Iceberg Lake and Cecile Lake with the jagged spires of the snowy Minarets backlit by the afternoon sun. After the traverse around Cecile Lake, I descended to Minaret Lake where I enjoyed more awesome afternoon views. Beyond Minaret Lake I was back on maintained trail and made quick time over the last 7.5 miles to Devils Postpile. Total time for the 38 mile point-to-point was 11:19 including hundreds of photos (nearly 800!), a selection of which follows. Strava route here

Foerster Peak

Fall is one of my favorite times of the year in the Sierra. This time of year comes after the summer monsoon thunderstorm season but before winter storms roll in off the Pacific burying the high country in snow. The result is weather that is characterized by numerous clear and crisp days interspersed with the occasional light snowfall.  Mosquitoes and crowds are non-existent, and the trails are in great condition.  Foerster Peak hadn’t really been on my radar, or the entire region for that matter, but while looking at the maps midweek it looked like a nice objective and I’m always interested in visiting new spots off the beaten path. Joey joined me for this trip and we both agreed this adventure far exceeded expectations entailing a beautiful off-trail approach through Long Creek to Rockbound Lake and the exquisite Blue Lake, and a stellar 360 degree summit panorama including the entire Clark Range and much of the Cathedral Range and Ritter Range. My favorite view was the rarely seen west side of the jagged Minarets. Strava route here.

A sweeping 360 degree annotated panorama from the summit of Foerster Peak can be found here or be clicking on the image below for a much larger image. 

Clark Range Panorama (click image for larger version): 

We started the trip from Isberg Pass Trailhead after a long, bumpy ride on the Beasore Rd. While this route is shorter, the pavement on Beasore road is so badly eroded it’s actually worse than if the road had been all gravel.  We parked about 0.6 miles from the trailhead to avoid a rocky section of road (the reality of driving low clearance cars). On the way back we took the Minaret Road which is substantially longer in distance, but a much better drive due to its smooth pavement. We followed the Isberg Pass Trail through the Niche and shortly thereafter broke off on the Chetwood Cabin Trail. The montane forest and meadows were so pleasant for running we passed the dilapidated Chetwood Cabin without even noticing it, which meant we also passed the location where we were supposed to turn off. On the way back we took the old use trail that we were supposed to take in the morning and came to the conclusion that trying to follow this path is essentially useless and our unintended off-trail route in the morning was more efficient. A couple years ago a major windstorm blew through the forest and toppled countless trees over the old trail. Combined with lack of use, the old path has grown very faint and difficult to follow.

Back to the morning, we discovered our “error” of overshooting Chetwood Cabin when we came to a second junction for Cora Lakes. Instead of backtracking we headed uphill cross country to a saddle on the east side of Sadler Peak. The cross country travel proved to be very efficient and straightforward and it turns out this is my recommended route versus the route we took in the afternoon. Thus, for the most direct route into Long Creek I would stay straight past the Niche heading to Cora Lakes and then head cross country from the second junction with the Chetwood Cabin trail.  Beyond the saddle on Sadler Peak’s east side, the use trail can be picked up again with numerous cairns and followed down to Long Creek where the trail ends for good. Travel up the granite canyon of Long Creek is a pleasure with a babbling stream, grassy meadows and clumps of trees amid a setting that is predominantly ice-polished granite. At the headwaters of Long Creek we turned east ascending slabs and grass over a ridge to spectacular Blue Lake with a perfect backdrop of Mount Ritter, Banner Peak and the Minarets. At Blue Lake, Foerster Peak is finally within striking distance. The final scramble starts with an ascent up a grassy ramp, followed by granite slabs, and finally some talus hoping to the summit.


The challenge of Foerster Peak is clearly its remote location and not the straightforward scramble. The reward for reaching the summit is a truly remarkable vista, which was enhanced for us by a perfect fall day. We could see virtually all of the headwaters of the Merced River and the top of Half Dome. Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure (the roof of Yosemite) stood tall across the Lyell Fork of the Merced River with a series of high alpine lakes visible in the granite basin.  Close at hand was the rugged west face of Ansel Adams Peak and the ridge crest to Electra Peak and Rodgers Peak.  To the south, the rugged Ritter Range dominated the skyline with impressive views of the west side of the Mount Ritter and Banner Peak massif and the intricate spires of the Minarets. Over our stay at the summit, we watched the light on the Ritter Range become increasingly better. After spending over 45 minutes on top, we retraced our steps to Blue Lake and stopped for a photography extravaganza along its blue shores… just great!

The final views of the day (before entering forest) were near Sadler Peak with excellent afternoon light on the Minarets and the North Fork San Joaquin River canyon. I look forward to climbing to the summit of Sadler and taking the 2 mile ridge to Long Peak in the future. This ridge is sure to have excellent views for its entire length. Enjoying this last view, we thought we were set for a fairly easy last 8 miles back to the trailhead, but we were wrong.  The old use path we were supposed to take in the morning from Chetwood Cabin proved extremely challenging to follow with copious downfall to navigate. In fairness, the Tom Harrison Map does not show this trail at all and we were relying too heavily on outdated USGS topo maps. This region has seen more foot traffic in the past.  In the end, we decided the unintended cross country route taken in the morning was now a more efficient, superior access route to Long Creek and Foerster Peak. After what seemed like a long time, we finally popped out into a meadow and saw the ruins of the Chetwood Cabin indicating we were back on familiar ground and maintained trail. From this point we made good time back the trailhead. Foerster peak and this remote region far exceeded expectations and I will definitely be back for further exploration!

Little Lakes Valley to Morgan Pass

The trailhead at Mosquito Flat in the Rock Creek area is one of the highest trailheads in the Sierra at just over 10,000 feet and provides easy access to wonderful hiking, climbing and trail running at Little Lakes Valley. The visitor less inclined to travel many miles will find quintessential High Sierra scenery within merely minutes from the trailhead. The sublime Little Lakes Valley includes over a dozen alpine lakes, and some are quite large in size belying its name, including Box Lake, Ruby Lake and Long Lake. The centerpiece peak at the head of the valley is impressively rugged Bear Creek Spire which provides a spectacular backdrop from many of the lakes. I have seen some truly amazing reflections in Marsh Lake and Long Lake. The easy accessibility of this area makes it one of the most popular trails in the eastern Sierra for hiking and gateway to many climbs and scrambles. On any nice summer weekend the main parking loop and overflow parking down the road will be filled to the rim. The vast majority of hikers follow the relatively flat trail through Little Lakes Valley to a turn around point at Chickenfoot Lake or Gem Lakes. Beyond, climbing and scrambling opportunities abound on Bear Creek Spire and the many neighboring peaks. Branching off just uphill from Mosquito Flat is the trail to Mono Pass, which is located on the Sierra Crest and includes great views into the rugged stretch of mountains including Mount Dade, Mount Abott, Mount Mills, and Ruby Peak.  Just beyond Mono Pass is an easy scramble through sand and talus to the summit of Mount Starr where there is a grand view of the region, featured on my blog in July. The photos below are from an afternoon trail run to Morgan Pass through Little Lakes Valley. The eight mile out-and-back through Little Lakes Valley to Morgan Pass makes for an excellent easy trail run with little elevation change and largely non-technical trail.  In fact, this is one of the few high elevation trails in the eastern Sierra that are very runnable.

North Fork Big Pine Fall Foliage

The eastern Sierra has some amazing displays of fall color. The season typically only lasts two to three weeks and it’s one of my favorite times to be in the Sierra. As promised, here are some photos of the awesome color on the North Fork Big Pine Creek. On the two prior occasions that I walked this stretch of trail I thought to myself that it would be great to come back in the fall when the aspens were firing. This year I finally got to experience this grove at the height of fall color. The afternoon lighting was perfect and there was a mix of yellow, orange and green. Taken together, it was a magical scene on the single track.

Mount Winchell & Mount Robinson

The North Fork Big Pine Creek is one of the most scenic areas in the High Sierra including a collection of picturesque alpine lakes, the largest glacier in the range, and some of the most rugged terrain in the Sierra in the Palisades subrange. I have visited the North Fork Big Pine twice before to climb Mount Sill. This time, instead of taking the glacier trail all the way to Palisade Glacier, I veered off at Sam Mack Meadow for climbs of Mount Winchell and Mount Robinson. Both peaks possess amazing viewpoints of the surrounding region. The biggest surprise of the route was spectacular Sam Mack Lake, positioned in a desolate, ice-polished granite bowl with a stunning view of the Palisades including Mount Gayley, Mount Sill, Polemonium Peak, North Palisade, Starlight, Thunderbolt, Mount Winchell and Mount Agassiz. Strava route here.


The route to Sam Mack Lake follows a use path above Sam Mack Meadows to a headwall where one most turn right to avoid cliffs. Beyond the headwall, it’s a straightforward ascent through talus and granite slabs to gorgeous Sam Mack Lake. Beyond Sam Mack Lake I traversed some talus but then found a very efficient route along granite slabs up to the foot of the Winchell scramble. Along the way I passed a high glacial lake tucked in between Winchell and Agassiz with silty glacial waters and some measuring equipment. While the more direct route to Winchell would avoid Sam Mack Lake all together, I feel like you’d be missing out on the great view and also I don’t think it’s any faster since the standard route entails much tedious boulder hoping. The climb up the east arete of Winchell is a fun, straightforward route. The rock becomes more solid as one ascends for some fun scrambling for the last few hundred vertical feet. The summit of Winchell has a spectacular view into Dusy Basin and the Black Divide across LeConte Canyon. The towering cliffs of Thunderbolt, North Palisade and SillI are close at hand.  In addition, there are some unique rock formations on Winchell’s west side that are interesting to look at. Retracing my route from Winchell back to Sam Mack Lake, I was ready for the ascent up to Mount Robinson. This class 3 route had more great views the entire way. There are a number of false summits near the top requiring some bouldering work, but I was soon at the high point admiring another spectacular view. For the descent off Robinson I decided to try a different route down the south slopes. This route started out reasonable but turned very loose and steep in its mid section; not an advisable ascent route but ok for descending. Back at Sam Mack Lake for the third time I enjoyed the view and photographed once again before beginning my return through the North Fork Lone Pine. On the way out the light over Second Lake, one of the gems of the Sierra, was amazing and I snapped many photos of the silty turquoise waters with Temple Crag in the background. Below the lakes I passed through a magical display of fall color along the trail that I will feature in the next blog post.  An awesome day in the Palisades!  Strava route here.