Mount Hoffmann

Mount Hoffmann is geographically near the center of Yosemite National Park. Along with Tuolumne Peak, it forms a small subrange between Tenaya Canyon and Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne with impressive prominence from other high regions of Yosemite. It therefore comes as no surprise that Mount Hoffman’s 10,850 foot summit has one of the best views in the park. The 360 degree panorama (only interrupted by radio tower equipment) includes the Cathedral Range, Tuolumne Meadows, Northern Yosemite, Tenaya Lake, and a view down Tenaya Canyon to Half Dome.  Close at hand is an interesting rock pinnacle known as Hoffmann’s thumb. When the May Lake road is open, it’s merely a 3 mile hike to the summit with around 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The first 1.2 miles is along a well maintained trail (part of the High Sierra Camps Loop) to lovely May Lake. From May Lake, the trail becomes more of a use path, although still very well defined as Hoffmann is a popular destination. The views continue improve as one ascends with subalpine slopes opening up to broad wildflower meadows beneath the summit. The final summit area is achieved via a brief scramble. On this day there was a group of senior women hikers from Nagoya, Japan who reached the summit just after we arrived. We helped celebrate with them (see last photo).

Tapto Lakes

The Whatcom Pass and Tapto Lakes area is one of the most scenic in all of the North Cascades. It’s a bit of a schlep to get there by any approach so it comes as no surprise that this is an infrequently visited corner of the range. From the west it’s 18+ miles via Hannegan Pass and down the Chilliwack to Brush Creek. From the east it’s 17+ miles along Little Beaver Creek. By either approach, it’s a long way in the woods with relentless flies and mosquitoes along with a healthy dose of quintessential North Cascades brush. I last visited Tapto Lakes eight years ago and it was one of the fondest memories in all of my travels in the North Cascades (which have been fairly comprehensive).  Coming away from this trip I found the basin to be just as spectacular as I had remembered. As with eight years prior, we found a true wilderness with nobody else at the lakes, Whatcom Pass or even miles from the pass.

On this trip we took the boat shuttle from Ross Lake and hiked in via Little Beaver Creek. Progress along the first 10 miles to the junction with the Big Beaver Trail was reasonable as most of this stretch had recently been brushed out and the trail is fairly flat. Moreover, there are several sections in ancient cedar forest that are breathtaking. The upper part of Little Beaver, however, was chocked with waist-deep brush, including copious scratchy salmonberry (i.e. very slow going). Virtually all of the elevation gain on the Little Beaver occurs in the last couple miles to the pass; a 2,500 ft gain along steep switchbacks. Compared to the western approach via Hannegan Pass, the Little Beaver is much more scenic with excellent views of the “wall of thousand falls,” Mount Challenger and the immense Challenger Glacier. Whatcom Pass itself is very small and shielded from most of the views, but a short walk above the pass in either direction reveals sweeping views. If flies, mosquitoes and brush are the price to pay, then it’s worth it. Ascending north from Whatcom Pass on a rugged use path, one enters the alpine zone complete with wildflower meadows and clumps of picturesque alpine firs with Challenger Glacier gleaming in the background. Cresting the ridge, a magical basin of alpine lakes is found. There are at least four lakes in the Tapto Lakes basin and the lake furthest West provides the best view in my opinion. To the east lie Middle Lakes and East Lakes, but from my experience the Tapto Lakes basin is the most scenic. While I spend most of my time in the high Sierra since I live in California, it’s always great to return to the range that inspired me as a youngster. I look forward to many more adventure in the North Cascades.

Onion Valley to South Lake

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.  

Goddard & Reinstein Fastpacking

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).

Mount Starr & Little Lakes Valley

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.

Rodgers Peak & Thousand Island Lake

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.

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.