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:

Clouds Rest via Yosemite Valley

The second of three posts in a series of outings in Yosemite Valley is a trip to a favorite viewpoint, Clouds Rest. At 9,926 ft, Clouds Rest is not nearly the tallest mountain in Yosemite, but its close proximity and unobstructed perch above Yosemite Valley and Tenaya Canyon provides a spectacular viewpoint. The mountain is a colossal granite formation with striking prominence and a unique vantage of both the high country around Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley. In a 360 degree panorama, one can gaze over to Half Dome, the Clark Range, Tenaya Lake, and the Cathedral Range (including Mount Lyell, the highest point in Yosemite National Park). The most impressive feature of Clouds Rest is its northwest face, an immense granite slab polished by glaciers and descending 5,000 ft below to the base of Tenaya Canyon. One can gain the summit of Clouds Rest by two trail routes:

  • Via the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead (~8,160 ft) along Tioga Road: A 12+ mile roundtrip hike with ~2,500 ft of elevation gain
  • Via Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley (4,105 ft): 20+ miles roundtrip; 6,000+ ft elevation gain.

While the route from Yosemite Valley entails more mileage and much more elevation gain, it is more aesthetic, including the iconic Mist Trail with close views of Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. As one ascends beyond the falls there are great views beneath the towering cliffs of Half Dome. Higher up, there are several spectacular vistas along the ridge to the summit. Clouds Rest via Yosemite Valley is a great route and worth the extra efforts in my opinion. Here are some photos from this trip to Clouds Rest from the Valley. Strava route here.

Yosemite’s North Rim

Yosemite Valley never ceases to amaze. Spring is one of my favorite times of the year to visit the Valley when the waterfalls are flowing strong, the air is clear, and snow cover remains on the peaks of the high country. This post is the first in a series of recent outings in Yosemite Valley, including the North Rim Loop (~22 miles), Clouds Rest (~20 miles), and Tenaya Rim Loop (~45 miles). Here are some photos, a short video, and description of the North Rim Loop; expect photos and descriptions from Clouds Rest and Tenaya Rim Loop to follow.

The North Rim Loop is a classic of Yosemite Valley including the following highlights: Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Point, North Dome, Indian Rock Arch, Snow Creek, and Mirror Lake. The total distance for the loop is around 22 miles with 7,000 feet of elevation gain (and the vast majority of the gain coming on the initial climb up Yosemite Falls). Half Dome is the marquee feature of the route, particularly from North Dome where its sheer North Face dominates the view and captures attention. The views of Half Dome descending the Snow Creek trail are equally inspiring with amazing relief from valley bottom to the top of the iconic granite monolith. Yosemite Falls was near peak flow; it’s remarkable to know that this roaring plume of water will become a trickle in a couple months. The Yosemite Falls trail can be hot and crowded, but know that beyond the Falls, the crowds peter out rapidly and the temperatures cool. In fact, after a short climb above Yosemite Point, the trail enters a beautiful forest of Sugar Pine and Knobcone Pine. North Dome is rarely busy, owing to its fairly long distance from the Valley, but it showcases one of the best views in the park. Beyond North Dome is Indian Rock Arch, a relatively unknown gem in the park. While the arch is the largest in Yosemite, it’s small compared to the arches in the American southwest. However, this “delicate” arch is beautiful with its position on top of a rock formation affording a commanding overlook of the surrounding mountains and Half Dome across Tenaya Canyon. Strava route for North Rim Loop here.

Big Sur Coast

The Big Sur coast is a national treasure. Mountains rise from the oceanside to heights of over 5,000 feet within a matter of miles creating a rugged seascape that inspires with spectacular beaches, picturesque rock formations, and paradisaical turquoise water on sunny afternoons.  The diversity on land is truly remarkable ranging from lush redwood-filled canyons and coastal oak woodlands to grassy meadows and chaparral. Sometimes the contrast in foliage can be found within a few foot proximity. The day after the Stone Ridge climb to Cone Peak, we toured some favorite spots along the coast:

  • Nacimiento-Fergusson Road: the only road across the Santa Lucia Range with stupendous views of the coast
  • Jade Cove: a rugged and rocky cove where you might find some jade
  • Sand Dollar Beach: a spectacular crescent-shaped beach with white sands set below the cliffs of Pacific Valley bluff with numerous rock formations 
  • Pacific Valley Bluff: One of the best short hikes in all of Big Sur with 360 degree views and great wildflowers in the spring 
  • McWay Falls at Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park: Perhaps the most photographed subject in all of Big Sur, the iconic McWay Falls is a special spot
  • Pfieffer Beach: a rugged beach with patches of purple sands and impressive rock formations near Big Sur.

There remains many spots I have yet to visit along the coast so I look forward to returning to Big Sur in the future.  Below are some of my favorite photos from the tour.

Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct

Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct is a tremendous off-trail hike and worthy of the title “Sea to Sky.”  Stone Ridge is arguably the most prominent ridge in all of the Big Sur coast rising nearly 5,000 ft from the Pacific Ocean at Limekiln canyon to the summit of Twin Peak. It’s an extremely aesthetic route remaining on the ridge crest virtually the entire route and featuring outstanding and uninterrupted scenery with a panorama that broadens with each step.  Total mileage from the Pacific Ocean to the summit of Cone Peak at 5,155 ft is only 7 miles via this route, but entails over 6,000 ft of gain (route on Strava). Fortunately, the non-stop views from the ocean at Limekiln Beach to the summit of Cone Peak distract from the difficult nature of this cross-country route.  This route  features amazing diversity of ecosystems including redwoods, grassland, oak woodland, chaparral, Coulter Pines and a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir and Sugar Pine on the north side of Cone Peak. Wildflowers were out in force with fields of lupine and California poppy. This is a route I look forward to doing many times in the future, and especially after a winter snow event when I imagine Stone Ridge becomes even more striking.

The route begins with a touch of the ocean at Limekiln Beach. A short walk along Hwy 1 brought us to an old road which has become an overgrown single track trail. The path gradually ascends and enters Limekiln Canyon, passing through a redwood grove with a marvelous carpet of redwood sorrel.  Evidence of the 2008 fires remains on the trunks, but the forest has largely regenerated.  Beyond the cool and lush redwoods, the track ascends into the chaparral with the foot of Stone Ridge coming into view.  The first climbs pass through steep meadows up to a crossing of the Stone Ridge Trail, which travels perpendicular to the ridge crest. From this point, the remainder of the route up the ridge and over from Twin Peak to Cone Peak was fully in view. This section along the grassy ridge was spectacular with some very steep and sometimes loose “steps.” Ultimately, the meadows ended and we entered into a brushy section for the last push up Twin Peak. This portion also contained a rare and unique pine species, the Coulter Pine, which produces the largest pine cones in the world that can weigh up to 10 pounds.  After a quick stop on Twin Peak, we headed down the ridgeline connecting Twin Peak and Cone Peak.  The easiest way to connect Twin Peak to Cone Peak is to follow the crest of the ridge between the summits beyond the low point between the peaks and then up the ridge towards Cone Peak. Just before the spine of the ridge becomes cliffy, take a steep and open dirt slope on the north side of the ridge down a hundred feet or so to the Gamboa Trail. While the trail is close to the ridge further back, there are lots of down trees and festering poison oak worth avoiding.  We ascended the final half mile up to Cone Peak’s summit via the Gamboa and Cone Peak Trails and enjoyed the 360 degree panorama from the top.  We descended via the Gamboa Trail and Stone Ridge Trail to the lower portion of the Stone Ridge route. The Gamboa Trail and Stone Ridge Trail are in relatively good shape with trail work actively occurring on the Gamboa Trail.  The Gamboa Trail contains a fascinating forest of Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines. The Santa Lucia Fir is the rarest fir in the United States, endemic only to mountaintops of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The firs have a distinctive conical shape and deep green color. While not rare, the Sugar Pine contains the longest pine cone of any pine tree, sometimes over a foot long!  It’s amazing to find the largest pine cones (Coulter Pines) and the longest pine cones (Sugar Pines) within close proximity high on the mountain slopes of Cones Peak. Unlike most of my posts, the following photos are in chronological order. 

Rocky Ridge & Doud Peak

Rocky Ridge is located in Garrapata State Park on the northern end of the Big Sur Coastline. The terrain of the park is characterized by a rugged and rocky coastline with steep mountain slopes rising to over 2,000 ft. The vegetation is predominantly chaparral and coastal scrub with the exception of a pocket of redwoods at the bottom of Soberanes Canyon and some grassy meadows on top of Rocky Ridge to Doud Peak. The aforesaid meadows come to life in the spring with a palette of beautiful wildflowers. Owing to its close proximity to Monterey and Carmel, the Rocky Ridge hike is very popular, especially on weekends. Two routes lead to the ridge crest allowing for a logical loop, but both are quite steep with some loose sections. The grade is so steep in spots that it’s more efficient to power hike than run. The trail heading up to the ridge from Soberanes Canyon is technically closed, although it seems as if people ignore the signs en masse. However, the more scenic route in my opinion is the sanctioned route that follows the ridge from its base and provides continuous sweeping views of the coastline below. Near the top of the ridge there are several rock outcroppings with excellent views to soak in. Once on top of Rocky Ridge, virtually all hikers either turnaround or complete the loop, but few continue on a faint path to Doud Peak. This stretch of trail is particularly pleasant with little elevation gain and wonderful meadows. The panoramic views from Doud Peak are also excellent and look into a redwood canyon and beautiful hillsides along the Malpaso Creek canyon. One can continue beyond Doud Peak on yet fainter paths to the park border where more colorful meadows and great views are found along the way. See my hike route for the day on Strava.

Post Summit & East Molera Ridge

The meadows on East Molera Ridge burst with color during the spring producing one of the best coastal wildflower displays along the Big Sur Coast. The top of Post Summit provides a logical culminating destination with sweeping views of the coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness from a perch 3,455 ft above sea level. The East Molera Ridge Trail begins along a dirt road behind a white barn at the main parking area for Andrew Molera State Park. The trail goes under Highway 1 through a tunnel and then heads uphill, soon joining a wider trail that heads up through oak woodland and then chaparral. The path narrows to single track at the base of the ridge. On this day there was a stunning display of California poppy in incredibly dense patches. The density and vibrant orange color of these flowers was simply amazing. Continuing up, the single track makes a long switchback across the steep slope with views improving with each step.  Ultimately the designated trail ends at a point on top of the ridge with a strip of redwoods and views across the Little Sur Valley to Pico Blanco.

From the end of the official trail, an informal use path continue south along grassy ridges and wonderful meadows for a couple miles. The views of Point Sur, Andrew Molera, the LIttle Sur Valley, and Pico Blanco are remarkable and improve as you progress up the ridge. Pico Blanco, or “white peak,” is aptly named with a large deposit of exposed white limestone composing its distinctive pyramidal summit.  The peak forms an aesthetic background for the wildflowers on East Molera Ridge and begs to be climbed! The grassy meadows end at a knoll (2,500 ft) and the final 1,000 feet of ascent to Post Summit is on a steep path through brush (fairly tame by Ventana standards). Note that there are ticks in this brush so make sure to check your skin and clothing after passage. Soon enough we were on the summit and enjoying the views. One can continue along the use paths via a route to Manuel Peak and Pfieffer Big Sur State Park via Cabezo Preito. This route along the ridge crest was obvious, but a continuation of the tick-infested brush is inevitable. On this day, we decided to forgo the ticks and bushwhacking and returned the way we came, enjoying even better light for photography while coming down through the wildflower meadows. The aesthetic loop to Manuel Peak, down to Big Sur Valley, and back to Andrew Molera is definitely on my list for the future, although the best views and scenery are on the grassy meadows of the East Molera Ridge portion.

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is an amazing display of geology reflecting millions of years of volcanic and tectonic activity that has sculpted the rock into sheer spires, fascinating formations and intricate talus caves. The park has a prehistoric ambiance complete with California condors and stately gray pines.  Pinnacles was elevated from National Monument to National Park status on January 10, 2013 and this was my first visit to the park since its National Park designation. While the inspiring terrain and rock features are the same and park infrastructure is unchanged,  it seems as if the public has taken notice as the park was fairly busy. In fact, on the east side of the park, a shuttle was in operation transporting visitors from a large overflow lot behind the main information center to the trailhead at Bear Gulch. A ranger I spoke to mentioned that this is a particularly busy time of the year at Pinnacles with spring break at the schools and generally favorable weather conditions (the Pinnacles can get unbearably hot in the summer months). Nonetheless, it seems like it’s now a good idea to arrive early at the Pinnacles if you visit during the weekends.

It was early April when I visited, but on the drive down I noticed the south facing hillsides were already golden. The “green” period was unusually short this year due to meager rainfall. In fact, I heard that only 4 inches of rain fell over Pinnacles during the winter months. The result was a virtually bone dry park with streams dried up and limited wildflowers. I have heard the wildflowers can be gorgeous at Pinnacles and hopefully next year will be a more typical winter in this region providing lush greenery and wildflowers more typical of Spring. I started at Bear Gulch and did a hike of the High Peaks Trail, a marquee attraction with sections of the steep and narrow trail chiseled into the hillsides with rock steps and hand rails. The views form the High Peaks trail are breathtaking and on this day Condors were constantly hovering overhead. After the High Peaks Trail I headed down through Tunnel Trail to the Chaparral area on the west side and then a visit to the Balconies Cave. The sheer Machete Ridge is always inspiring, and it was great to follow a pair of climbers attacking a route on the formation’s steepest pitch. After the Balconies I headed back to the Chaparral area and back up towards the High Peaks, finishing out the hike with the Condor Gulch Trail.  Pinnacles National Park is a gem and well deserving of the National Park designation. I look forward to returning there for further exploration, including the North Wilderness Trail and the Chalone Peaks.  

Ohlone Bluffs at Wilder Ranch

The Ohlone Bluffs trail in Wilder Ranch State Park provides access to a gorgeous stretch of coastline just outside of Santa Cruz along Highway 1. The bluffs feature unique sandstone terraces sculpted by powerful ocean forces and sandy beaches. From the park headquarters, the trail stretches around 6.5 miles to the other end of the park, although a mile can be cut at lower tides with a direct crossing of Sand Plant Beach. The trail begins wide and well-trodden but progressively narrows and becomes grassy as you progress away from the park headquarters toward four mile beach. The sections toward Four Mile Beach can become muddy after rains.

Numerous beaches are visible along the way including Wilder Ranch Beach, Strawberry Beach, Sand Plant Beach, Three Mile Beach, and Four Mile Beach.  Great vistas abound at virtually every corner and there are many opportunities for exploration of the terraces and rock formations on the beaches.  Moreover, as an essentially flat trail, you don’t have to work very hard for the views! The Ohlone Bluffs trail is far from a wilderness experience with Hwy 1 nearby and agriculture coming right up to the bluffs, but the intricate coastline and rugged coastal scenery make this a great destination. Here are some photos from a recent run of the Ohlone Bluffs Trail.