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.
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.
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.
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.