The Desolation Seven Summits loop offers the best showcase of the Desolation Wilderness I can think of and arguably contains the most rugged and impressive mountain scenery of any route in the Sierra Nevada north of Sonora Pass. The aesthetic loop climbs seven of the high points in the Desolation circumnavigating Lake Aloha and also providing grand vistas of Lake Tahoe. The loop contains a nice mixture of big climbs, scrambling and trail miles. Total mileage is close to 30 miles with nearly 10,800 ft of elevation gain. Considering the vast majority of the elevation gain is off-trail on often arduous terrain, this is a great workout.
The Desolation Wilderness is located west and southwest of Lake Tahoe and is known for the granite landscape created by the Crystal Range with its beautiful lakes and views. It is easily the most rugged area of the Tahoe basin. With such beauty and relative close proximity to the Sacramento metro area and South Lake Tahoe comes over-appreciation in the form of crowds and trail quotas. However, this route explores sections of the wilderness that still feel wild, largely owing to the fact that the heart of the route between Pyramid Peak and Dicks Peak is entirely off trail. You won’t see many other people on this section, if any. I personally have yet to see anybody in the Desolation off a trail. It is this off-trail section that also provides the most spectacular views of Lake Aloha, the crown jewel of the Desolation, and the Crystal Range. Last summer when I did this loop I skipped Ralston Peak (it was the Desolation six summits; photo album with ideal photography conditions in 2012 here) but tagged it on the way out this time. I found Ralston to be a worthy addition with great views of Echo Lakes and a different perspective on the Crystal Range and Lake Aloha. Even with the addition of Ralston, I managed to go 40+ minutes faster than 2012 finishing in around 11 hours total. The faster time is attributed to (1) better navigation between Pyramid Peak and Mount Agassiz, (2) better route up Jacks Peak, and (3) taking the Tahoe Rim Trail to Gilmore Lake and Mount Tallac from Dicks Pass instead of the off-trail ridge. Without taking hundreds of photos and nursing a nagging injury, I imagine this loop would go in less than 8 hours. Strava route here.
An Onion Valley to South Lake trip has been on my list for a number of years. The route largely follows the JMT on arguably one of the most scenic stretches of the trail and includes Pinchot Pass and Mather Pass (and Glen Pass if all trail is taken). The trip is 65 miles all on trail, but I cut off 5 miles by taking Gould Pass over the crest directly into the Rae Lakes basin instead of Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass. While the off-trail route was shorter, it did not save much time (probably added time) and certainly required more energy. Gould Pass is rated at class 2, but it’s arduous travel beyond Golden Trout Lake. On top of that I made some small route finding errors that cumulatively cost time and energy. Once at Gould Pass, it’s not a cake walk descending into the Rae Lakes basin either. First, there is a steep and loose gully to negotiate and then a lot of cumbersome boulder hopping through an old glacier moraine down to Dragon Lake. From Dragon Lake, a faint use trail heads down to beautiful Rae Lakes where I was excited to finally hit a trail. I don’t regret taking this route with stunning views from Dragon Lake and one of the best photography angles I have seen of Rae Lakes, but next time I will likely utilize Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass to save that energy for all the running that follows on the JMT.
It’s hard to resist not taking a lot of photos and enjoying the spectacular scenery at Rae Lakes, one of the my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra. Once I finally exited the basin I made good progress down Woods Creek and the climb to Pinchot Pass. This was my first time up Pinchot Pass and it’s a long, but gradual climb. From Pinchot Pass I continued toward Upper Basin and the final slog up to Mather Pass. At Mather Pass I enjoyed the beautiful view of the Palisades and then made the descent to Palisade Lakes. From these lakes, I had initially planned to scramble up to Palisade Basin and cross over into Dusy Basin via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass, but extensive off-trail travel no longer seemed appealing so I continued down to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. This was a long way on trail and although I was moving fine, it still took a long time. By the time I got to the final climb up to Bishop Pass I was growing tired and as the sun set over Dusy Basin my energy levels had sunk. After hydrating and eating I eventually I made it up to Bishop Pass and down to the South Lake trail head. It was close to 11 pm when I arrived; 18 hours after starting. A “head down” approach could probably yield a time of under 14 hours for the route, but in all the times I’ve visited Rae Lakes, I still can’t keep my head down! This is a classic segment of the JMT and I will definitely return. Next time I will do Kearsarge Pass and pick up the JMT at Charlotte Lake. I will also aim to use the cross-country route to Dusy Basin and Bishop Pass via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass. Either way you slice it (trail or cross-country variations), this is a challenging route for a single day adventure run, but well worth the efforts with the amazing scenery.
Mount Florence is one of the most prominent peaks in the Yosemite high country visible from many spots along Yosemite Valley’s rim. The peak has a sweeping 360 degree panorama of virtually the entire park. While there are several routes to climb Mount Florence, the easiest and quickest route utilizes the Rafferty Creek Trail and Lewis Creek Trail via Tuolumne Pass and Vogelsang Pass. After ascending Vogelsang Pass, one descends around 1,000 feet along the Lewis Creek Trail before setting off cross country to beautiful Lk 10,541 (around 10.5 miles from Tuolumne Meadows). The cross country travel to Lk 10,541 is fairly straightforward with some boulders and slabs. Lk 10,541 is at the foot of Mount Florence with a stellar view up a remote valley to Mount Simmons, Mount Florence and other rugged unnamed points along the ridge. Beyond Lk 10,541 is a short steep section of talus up to the ridge crest at 11,000 feet. From the ridge, it’s a straightforward class 2 scramble up another 1,600 feet to Mount Florence’s summit – a great workout.
One of my favorite photos of the day was a 360 degree annotated view from the summit of Mount Florence.
I enjoyed the summit for well over a half hour, enjoying the views, which include the heart of the “roof” of Yosemite at Mount Lyell and Maclure and the entire Cathedral Range. Mount Florence also provides a clear vantage of the Merced River Valley to Half Dome, Clouds Rest and points along Yosemite Valley’s rim. After the summit rest, I retraced my steps back to Tuolumne Meadows. Instead of an out-and-back, one may descend Florence’s south ridge and traverse cross-country up and over the ridge to Lewis Creek Basin and then the pass near Parsons Peak to Ireland Lake. This scenic route would form an aesthetic loop, but includes a substantial amount of tedious off-trail travel. Since I had a very long day planned for the following day, I decided to leave this loop for next time. Even with climbing Mount Florence as an out-and-back, the route comes in at nearly 14 miles each way (28 miles total) with over 7,000 feet of elevation gain. Below are some photos from Florence’s summit, Lk 10,541 and Vogelsang Pass. Strava route here.
I joined Joel for a two day fastpacking adventure to one of the most remote and incredible regions in the High Sierra. The route included Mount Reinstein, Mount Goddard, Ionian Basin, Goddard Creek, Finger Basin, and Cathedral Lake. We accessed from the westside via Courtright Reservoir/Maxson Trailhead which entailed many trail miles. On the way in, we approached via Guest Lake and Blackcap Pass (easy class 3). Beyond the pass, we traversed through gorgeous Lightning Corral Meadow with streams, tarns, wildflowers and views to the White Divide including Mount Reinstein and Finger Peak. We ascended Mount Reinstein via its easy class 3 southwest slopes. Reinstein provides a fine vantage including Goddard Canyon, the White Divide, Martha Lake, Ambition Lake, and Lake 10,232. After enjoying the awesome view from Reinstein, we descended class 3 slopes on its northeast side and skirted an extremely loose chute to end up near Reinstein Pass. From there, I continued on to Martha Lake and Mount Goddard via its west chute and southwest slopes. This climb was striaghtforward and proved to be a good workout with 2,600+ gain and inspiring views the entire way. As I had remembered from my climb of Goddard in 2007, the summit’s position west of the crest provides a panorama of the high Sierra that is simply spectacular and among the best.
Descending off Goddard I passed through desolate Ionian Basin with it’s numerous lakes. Travel through the basin is not technically difficult, but tedious with numerous impediments. After a tour through Ionian Basin, I continued down to Goddard Creek Canyon and Lake 10,232. The waterfalls on the granite slopes were amazing. I must have been distracted by these falls as I descended a bit too far into the drainage where there is a deep chasm where the water flows into Lake 10,232. Fortunately, I was able to climb out of the chasm without too much trouble and complete the descent to Lake 10,232. The lake was quite mosquito infested, although still beautiful. This is impressively remote country with essentially no evidence of human impact. I wonder how many make it into this remote canyon each year. The following morning my expectations were blown away on our ascent through gorgeous Finger Basin, which contains a chain of spectacular alpine lakes that reflect the rugged granite walls of Finger Peak. We made our way up the basin taking many photos and ultimately arrived at Finger Col, an improbable window in an otherwise solid cliff band. Descending from Finger Col is tedious on massive talus blocks but we we arrived at Cathedral Lake in due course, another highlight spot of the loop. From Cathedral Lake, the most straightforward route to Portal Lake is to head north to Chapel Lake and descend easy slopes to a use path heading to Pear Lake. We had initially tried to descend directly to Portal Lake from Midway Lake but found the down climbing tricky without seeing the route from below. After Portal Lake, we began a long trip back to Courtright Reservoir. After being ambushed by mosquitoes in the upper part of the canyon, the bugs tapered off and the miles clicked off quickly. Overall, a great fastpacking experience and I’m already looking forward to more. The photos below are some of my favorites from the trip. Route on Strava here(missing last 10 miles).
Little Lakes Valley (aka rock Creek) is one of the easiest spots to access the high country in all of the Sierra. With the Mosquito Flat trailhead over 10,000 feet, one is literally a few minutes walk away from incredible scenery. The Valley is aptly named with a chain of spectacular alpine lakes. The centerpiece feature of the region is Bear Creek Spire with its renowned north arete creating a spectacular backdrop in the lakes and often reflecting in the early morning light (which I have experienced a couple times in the past on climbs of Bear Creek Spire). The Sierra crest at Mono Pass is only a few miles up a smooth, well-maintained trail and views broaden as one ascends toward the pass, including Ruby Lake, Mount Dade, Mount Abott, and Mount Mills. In my opinion, this cluster of peaks is one of the apexes of the Sierra crest. It’s no wonder this is a very popular trailhead. On this day, we only had time for a quick morning trip due to weather rolling in and obligations so I made a quick jaunt beyond Mono Pass to Mount Starr, which is an awesome viewpoint of the region. To the north is a great view of Pioneer Basin, Red Slate Mountain and Red and White Mountain. To the south all of the lakes in Little Lakes Valley are visible along with this rugged section of the Sierra crest to Bear Creek Spire. Beyond Bear Creek Spire, Glacier Divide and Mount Humpreheys can be seen on the horizon. After coming of Mount Starr I toured Ruby Lake and traveled cross country to Long Lake and Chickenfoot Lake, passing through some unnamed lakes along the way.
The Minarets are one of the most scenic and rugged corners of the High Sierra. Ranging from 10,560 ft to 12,261 ft, the peaks that compose the serrated ridge rise impressively from a series of breathtaking alpine lakes, including Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake, Iceberg Lake, and Lake Ediza. Both Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake often harbor snow late into the summer and true to name, Iceberg Lake contains many icebergs during its summer melt-out. The name Minarets is derived from their resemblance to Islamic mosques and seventeen of the pinnacles are named after one of their first ascentionists. Arguably the finest view of this magnificent region can be had from the summit of Volcanic Ridge, which possesses a staggering panorama of most of the Minarets to Mount Ritter and Banner Peak.
The first and only other time I have been in the Minarets was during an ascent of the Rock Route on Clyde Minaret in July 2009. I had great memories of that outing and was eager to return and explore. On this day I climbed Volcanic Ridge as part of a “Minaret Loop” starting and finishing at Devil’s Postpile, passing through the chain of lakes from Minaret Lake to Lake Ediza, and finishing with Shadow Lake and the JMT back to Devil’s Postiple. I ascended Volcanic Ridge first thing in the morning via grass and talus slopes from Minaret Lake. After the enjoying the amazing summit view, I returned to Minaret Lake where I took many photos and met up with Erica. From Minaret Lake, we continued beyond Minaret Lake via use paths and a short bit of scrambling to Cecile Lake. Cecile Lake contained some steep snow patches around its shore where we used ice axe and microspikes. The descent from Cecile Lake to Iceberg Lake contained the usual early season stretch of steep and hard snow (that I recalled from 2009) where we utilized the crampons and ice axe that we brought. At the outlet of Iceberg Lake we ate a snack underneath the towers of the Minarets and took photos of the icebergs floating in Iceberg Lake. Continuing down from Iceberg Lake, we found some more patches of snow and then arrived at always beautiful Lake Ediza. The remainder of the loop is not as scenic although the trail is still pretty. From the highpoint along the segment of the JMT from Shadow Lake to Devil’s Postpile is a nice gradual downhill stretch that brought us back to the trail head. The Minaret Loop itself (without climbing Volcanic Ridge) is around 23 miles with the portion between Minaret Lake and Iceberg Lake generally off-trail. This is a top notch route, one of the best, and I will definitely be returning to this region for further exploration!
Sky Haven is not particularly high nor is the route aesthetic, but its perch across the North Fork Big Pine Creek provides one of the most outstanding views in all of the High Sierra. The breathtaking panorama includes the entire Palisade Range with venerable fourteeners Split Mountain, Middle Palisade, Mount Sill and North Palisade all in view. At the center is the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada Range, the Palisade Glacier, with its impressive cirque of rock and gleaming snow captivating attention. Three additional fourtneeners with less than 300 feet of prominence join Sill and North Palisade to form this cirque and include Thunderbolt Peak, Starlight Peak and Polemonium Peak. In front of the jagged peaks lies the entire chain of lakes composing the Big Pine Lakes basin, including First through Seventh lakes along with Black Lake, Summit Lake, and Sam Mack Lake. A truly amazing and inspiring view!
The shortest and easiest route to reach Sky Haven is via South Lake via the pipeline and then an ascent to Green Lake. Beyond Green Lake is a spectacular high tundra-like pass. Descend from this pass to a natural spring and then begin a cross country scramble through boulders up to the ridge. For those unwilling to engage in more technical scrambling and the effort it entails, Point 12,688 ft along the ridge provides essentially the same view as the true summit of Sky Haven. In order to reach the true summit, travel to the east through quite a bit of tedious class 3 scrambling to the true summit at 12,860 ft. Sky Haven can also be reached via the North Fork Big Pine Trailhead via a significantly longer approach with more elevation gain (albeit nontechnical). After enjoying the view from Sky Haven I returned to Point 12,688 where I met Erica. After long admiration of the amazing, I continued along the ridge crest to a small pass near Cloudripper. There is spectacular scenery along the entire route linking Sky Haven to Cloudripper, including close views of desolate Thunder and Lightning Lake. From the pass a straightforward climb leads to the base of Cloudripper and up its final summit block to the 13,525 foot summit. Cloudripper also possesses an amazing view, especially into the South Lake area and points north including Mount Darwin and Mount Goddard. Vagabond Peak was next, but it was more of an obstacle on the way out. I enjoyed the view from Vagabond for a few minutes and then continued down using an arduous descent through boulders down to Green Lake. I figure if I had simply continued along the ridge back to the tundra pass where the trail was located it might have only taken a few minutes longer but would have been more pleasant. I will definitely be returning to Sky Haven in the future, perhaps to view sunrise from this remarkable vantage!
Rodgers Peak first caught my eye from the summit of Mount Dana with its sharp and rugged profile. Despite rising 12,978 feet, the peak is much less known and climbed than its neighbors to the south (Ritter & Banner) and north (Lyell & Maclure), most likely due to its remote setting. However, the view from Rodgers’ summit is perhaps the best of bunch due to it’s central position between the Ritter Range and Cathedral Range. The trek to reach the summit via the shortest route is nearly 13 miles via Silver Lake. The trail miles at the beginning through Angew Lake and Gem Lake are pretty enough although the human infrastructure (tram lines, dams, etc.) is not my cup of tea. Moving past the last dam at Waugh Lake I started to feel like I was finally entering the wilderness with Lyell and Rodgers forming a snowy backdrop at the head of the valley. After a short walk on the John Muir Trail with views of Davis Peak and Banner Peak, I turned onto the Marie Lakes trail and shortly entered a meadow with stunning scenery. A stream flows through these meadows with cascading pools that have amazing turquoise waters and panoramas of Blacktop Peak and newly named Mount Andrea Lawrence across the basin. On January 13, 2013, President Obama signed into law the Mount Andrea Lawrence Designation act of 2011, naming peak 12,240 near Donahue Pass after the famed conservationist of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains (and two-time Olympic gold medalist in slalom and giant slalom at the 1952 Oslo Games).
Beyond these meadows, snow cover became more prevalent and I traveled cross country through snow and granite slabs to lower Marie Lake, which was still 50% frozen. Beyond the lowest Marie Lake it was primarily a snow climb to the middle and upper lakes with some steep and hard sections in the morning hours. I was happy I brought crampons and ice axe for the early season climb. For the final climb up Rodgers, I chose a loose chute on the north face that made for a much better descent route than ascent. In both cases caution must be taken to avoid high rockfall danger. Once clear of the chute, the final few hundred feet of vertical to the summit is a talus hop. Back at Marie Lakes and the meadows, I enjoyed the beautiful scenery once more and then returned to the JMT. Instead of going back the same route via Waugh Lake, I decided to take the JMT over Island Pass and to Thousand Island Lake. This proved to be a great decision with spectacular vistas of one of my favorite corners of the High Sierra in excellent late afternoon light for photography. Beyond Thousand Island Lake, the remainder of the trip back to Silver Lake was largely uneventful besides refreshing my memory of the rocky and arduous trail descent to Agnew Lake via Clark Lakes/Spooky Meadow. All in all an awesome day in the Sierra! Strava route here.
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 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.