Observation Peak & Palisades Sierra High Route

Aptly named Observation Peak, one of the most remote points in the High Sierra, contains an astounding view of an incredibly wild and rugged region of the range including the Palisades, the Middle Fork Kings River canyon, and the Black Divide. Observation is not a technical ascent, nor is it particularly high summit reaching only 12,362 ft, but its wonderful panorama is one of the finest in the Sierra and makes the long approach well worth the effort. On the way in I decided to utilize mainly trails by running and hiking from South Lake to LeConte Canyon and down the JMT to Deer Meadow, 20 miles of maintained trails just to reach the start of the route up Cataract Creek. On the way back I decided to extend the trip by ascending to Palisade Lakes and returning via a rugged and spectacular section of the Sierra High Route between Palisade Lakes and Dusy Basin passing through Cirque Pass, Potluck Pass, Palisade Basin and Knapsack Pass. The combination of the stellar views from Observation Peak and its namesake lake, and the Sierra High Route underneath the towering Palisades proved to be one of my most favorite routes I have done in the High Sierra. GPS route here.      

There are a several ways to access Observation Peak, but I decided to go from South Lake by ascending to Bishop Pass and then descending from Dusy Basin down to LeConte Canyon. The early morning views of the Citadel and Grouse Meadows were spectacular. I followed the John Muir Trail south to Deer Meadow where I crossed Palisade Creek and made an ascending traverse through an old burn scar to reach Cataract Creek. A little ways up Cataract Creek I found remains of old abandoned trail marked on the USGS map and I was able to follow the faint path most of the way up the drainage until it turns slabby below stunning Amphitheater Lake, one of the great gems of the Sierra and also aptly named. The precipitous cliffs of unnamed Peak 12,141 ft rise immediately from the shores of the lake with its clear blue waters. On this drought year, the traverse above Amphitheater Lake to Cataract Creek Pass was straightforward but on snowy years or earlier in the season the snow slopes leading up to the pass can be very steep. The final slopes up to Observation Peak are largely talus blocks with a few sections of scrubby pine trees. I spent nearly an hour on the summit marvelling at the incredible 360 degree views before returning down Cataract Creek the way I came. Near the bottom, I crossed to the south side of Cataract Creek and descended meadows and open forest back to the JMT, where I ascended the Golden Staircase up to Palisade Lakes. From Palisade Lakes I followed Roper’s route description through a splendid section of the Sierra High Route passing through a series of passes below the mighty Palisades including Cirque Pass, Potluck Pass and Knapsack Pass. Particularly memorable aspects of this traverse were the deep blue waters of Lake 3559m at the headwaters of Glacier Creek and the lovely Palisade Basin including the beautiful Barrett Lakes.

Annotated panorama of the Palisades from Observation Peak (click for larger version): 

Transportation to this adventure run was provided by Buick (General Motors) with a loan of the Verano Turbo model as part of the Buick MapMyFitness Runs Worth the Drive Challenge that continues through the end of August. The Verano Turbo is sporty and sleek but yet compact with a whole lot of power and surprisingly useful bells and whistles. It masterfully handled the curvy mountain roads and I was able to pass the copious number RVs within and outside of Yosemite with ease. It was definitely a fun drive to the mountains to complement and amazing adventure run. This was a “Run Worth The Drive!”   

Goat Mountain

What do do in the afternoon before Bago & Rixford the next day?  Goat Mountain is a classic big and sustained Sierra hill climb with an outstanding panoramic view of the High Sierra at the top.  From Road’s End in Kings Canyon to the summit is 7,000 ft of vertical in around 11 miles and the grade is steep at times. The majority of the gain is accomplished on the well-traveled Copper Creek Trail departing from Road’s End. The first switchbacks can be quite hot midday as I discovered, but there are excellent views of Kings Canyon including the Grand Sentinel immediately across the Canyon. As one ascends, the vegetation gradually changes to pine and fir trees and the temperature cools.

About 7.5 miles from the trailhead just below the pass that drops into Granite Basin, leave the trail and take a faint use path north (or go cross country) toward a meadow area containing the fork of Copper Creek that drains Grouse Lake. Along this traverse there are lovely views of Mount Clarence King and Mount Gardiner. A short ascent from this meadow leads to beautiful Grouse Lake which is surrounded by granite slabs and clumps of pine trees in quintessential Sierra fashion. From above Grouse Lake there are nice views of the Great Western Divide. It’s all cross country past Grouse Lake up the basin, but the terrain is easy with friendly, low angle granite slabs virtually the entire way up to the foot of Goat Mountain.  The lower part of the final ascent up Goat is loose but becomes more solid in the upper portion with large talus blocks near the top. The view from Goat Mountain’s summit is simply amazing and worth the return trip so soon after my climb last October as part of the Monarch Divide Semi-Loop. It’s truly a remarkable point with a sweeping panorama from the Evolution area to the Kaweahs. The centerpiece of the view overlooks the South Fork Kings Canyon and the Muro Blanco with the peaks of the King Spur most prominent, including Mount Clarence King, Mount Cotter and Mount Gardiner. I also enjoyed the view looking to the Kings-Kern Divide including Mount Stanford, Caltech Peak and Mount Ericsson. Beyond the Kings-Kern Divide Mount Williamson and Mount Whitney were clearly visible. The good news is that once you’re on top of Goat Mountain, it’s virtually all downhill back to Road’s End. The Copper Creek Trail is fairly nice for downhill running with no brush and less rocks than some of the other trails out of Kings Canyon. GPS route here.

Bago & Rixford via Road’s End

Despite an exceptionally dry winter with a meager snowpack there was still substantial snow on northern aspects above 10,000 feet in the first weekend of June.  For my first weekend in the High Sierra in 2014 I decided to go for some exceptional viewpoint peaks that would be virtually snow-free and thus preclude carrying ice axe and/or microspikes for the long approach out of Road’s End in Kings Canyon. Joey Cassidy and Michael Jimenez joined me for this memorable run on a picturesque late spring day. The objectives were Mount Bago and Mount Rixford, both in the area near Kearsarge Pass but west of the Sierra Crest.  Both peaks are much more easily accessed via Onion Valley on the eastside, but I’ve come to enjoy the run up the relatively lush environs of the glacier-carved Bubbs Creek canyon and the incredibly scenic section above Vidette Meadows.

One would not expect such a marvelous view from Bago’s statistics  – only 11,870 ft in elevation with a straightforward scramble on its north and east side – but the panorama is truly astounding.  Perched above Bago’s precipitous cliffs that tumble nearly 4,000 ft vertically to Junction Meadows, one gazes over to the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide, one of the most rugged sections of the High Sierra. The highlight is the view of East Creek canyon to East Lake and Lake Reflection with towering, jagged summits surrounding the canyon like an amphitheater. I spent a full hour on the summit of Bago relishing the stellar vista with Joey and Michael. After Bago I crossed the basin to climb the south slopes of Mount Rixford. The sandy and loose slopes were rather unaesthetic for an ascent, but the views more than compensated. From Rixford’s south slopes, Bullfrog Lake is ideally nestled with an awesome background of the Kearsarge Pinnacles, East Viddette, Deerhorn Mountain and West Vidette. The views grow wider as one ascends up Rixford, providing inspiration in what is otherwise a slog. Upon reaching the summit of Rixford I was treated to a great view to the north and west, including the Rae Lakes region, Painted Lady and Mount Clarence King. After another extended stay on the summit, I cruised down the now friendly sandy slopes and made a short diversion to the shores of Bullfrog Lake with its classic view of East Vidette and Deerhorn Mountain. Below are some annotated panoramas from the summits of Mount Bago and Rixford. The GPS route is here.

Complete Lost Coast

The Lost Coast is a spectacular meeting of land and ocean along the most undeveloped, remote and rugged stretch of coastline along the U.S. West Coast. I was eager to return here to attempt the Complete Lost Coast from Mattole River to Usal Beach in a single day after amazing two-day experiences in 2010 and 2012 (see 2010 TRs: King Range,Sinkyone; July 2012 album here) and also an awesome loop through the King Range portion in March 2014 that included the beach section, Cooskie, and the Kings Crest – a route I called the King Range 50 since its distance came in just above 50 miles. Rickey Gates and I had been talking about doing the Complete Lost Coast in day for several months and it seemed like scheduling was a persistent conflict until this weekend. It was awesome to share these beautiful miles with Rickey and experience the entire Lost Coast in a single day, or more accurately, 13h47m. The 57+ mile point-to-point route has astounding variety, from rugged coastal beach in the north to redwood glens, sweeping vistas atop bluffs, and elk herds in the southern portion. In essence, the Complete Lost Coast is one of the greatest coastal adventure runs in the United States, and perhaps the world. It’s rare to find such unfettered, wild and rugged coastal scenery with no nearby roads, no established campgrounds, and no other facilities to speak of. It’s a special place and a treat to see this entire stretch of coastline unfold as you’re running down the coast. Our goal was to immerse ourselves in the coastal scenery so while moving swiftly over the terrain was an essential part of the flow for us, speed was not the top priority.  Many many thanks goes to Rickey’s girlfriend Liz who helped us avoid a long car shuttle by dropping us off at Mattole and driving curvy mountainous roads to Shelter Cove and Usal Beach.

The northern portion of the Lost Coast is protected by the King Range National Conservation Area and 42,585 acres received Federal Wilderness designation on October 17, 2006. The southern portion is protected in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, named after the Sinkyone Indians that lived on this part of the coast. The two sections are split by Shelter Cove, a small community of mainly vacation homes, but the parts are completely different in terms of their overall feel and experience. The northern section of the Lost Coast in the King Range NCA from the Mattole River to Black Sands Beach at Shelter Cove features a famous 24.5 mile beach walk with two-thirds of the distance spent on sand, gravel, and rock-hopping and the remaining third on trails just above the beach on coastal plains. The southern section took us from Hidden Valley in the King Range up and over Chemise Mountain and down into the Sinkyone Wilderness continuing all the way to the southern end of the Lost Coast Trail at Usal Beach for a total distance of 29 miles from Hidden Valley to Usal Beach. Joining these two sections was a 3.5 mile climb on Shelter Cove Road resulting in aggregate distance of 57+ miles for the Complete Lost Coast from the Mattole River to Usal Beach.  It should be noted that the last 16 miles to Usal Beach from Bear Harbor are along an arduous narrow trail that is relentless in its steep ups and downs (6,000+ elevation gain), and includes sections of thick brush and often poor footing on very eroded slopes. Whether this challenging stretch is done at the beginning or end of the journey, it will require a good amount of time and energy. While I have been on this section of trail now three times, it seems to only get slightly easier each time!  I should also note that special attention must be paid to the tide schedules in the northern King Range beach walk portion.  There are long sections of the coastline that are impassable in high tides when the waves come right up to the cliffs.  It would be extremely dangerous to be stranded in one of these sections during or approaching high tide. Careful preparation with the park BLM park map and a tide schedule is essential. In fact, our decision to go from north to south was chiefly dictated by a low tide in the morning.  GPS route here

Boronda and Prewitt Lupine Bloom

The mother of lupine blooms!  Around Mother’s Day of this year a prolific and memorable bloom of lupine peaked along the Big Sur coast. Locals told me that the last time the hillsides were covered with such density of lupine was back 1999, fifteen years prior. Perhaps the amazing display can be explained by the unprecedented weather conditions of the past year. A record dry 2013 was followed by an extremely dry January and February of this year. Hills that typically sprout with green grass by January remained golden well into February. In late February an impressive storm system dropped over a foot of rain along the Big Sur Coast. This storm only put a small dent in the ongoing exceptional drought conditions, but was enough to enable the lupine plants to sprout en masse.  My hypothesis is the antecedent dry conditions prevented grasses from germinating and when the heavy rains arrived in late February the lupine were able to proliferate without being crowded out by other grasses which were unable to take hold over the winter. Additional rainfall in late March provided just enough water to keep the lupine growing and by early May entire hillsides were covered with amazingly dense gardens of lupine.


The lupine bloom was not specific to a particular location along the coast as we enjoyed spectacular displays at Prewitt Ridge, Boronda Ridge and Dolan Ridge (Dolan lupine photos here). The meadows were generally found between 800 feet to 2,000 feet in elevation.  Prewitt Ridge was unique in that the lupine fields were interspersed with yellow poppies creating a fascinating mixture of colors in the foreground with Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast, looming in the background. Boronda Ridge featured perhaps the most impressive display with homogeneous, lush and dense lupine covering the spectacularly steep relief to the Pacific Ocean. The bloom was so prolific that the scent of lupine could be identified several hundred meters away from the flowers, a smell that became more pungent as one neared the meadows. This lupine bloom was an amazing sight to see and these photos are unaltered from what my camera captured.


Big Creek Reserve

Between Julie Pfieffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park is a long stretch of amazingly beautiful Big Sur coastline that unfortunately lies on private land precluding exploration beyond the turnouts along Highway 1.  However, on one day of the year a section of this coastline opens to the general public at the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. This reserve is part of the University of California Natural Reserve System with a mission to further university-level teaching, research and public service at protected natural areas.  In order to foster the on-site research and education principles, the reserve is closed to the public for all but one day of the year (usually the second Saturday in May). The Big Creek reserve encompasses rugged canyons that drain the region to the north and west of Cone Peak, the King of Big Sur, and is located within arguably the most scenic region in all of Big Sur.  Extremely intrigued, I made sure to circle my calendar for the date of the “open house” and Erica and I maximized the few hours it was open. We found a wonderful network of single track trails showcasing virtually all of the greatness that is Big Sur, from lush redwood-filled canyons to grassy ridges covered in spring wildflowers with outstanding coastal views. Moreover, the reserve contained unique aspects, including one of the most stunning waterfalls in the Santa Lucia Mountains and a large hot spring pool.  The variety of flora is impressive reflecting the diversity and richness of the environments and habitats in the reserve, including chaparral, redwoods, oak woodland, grassland, pine and even a grove of Santa Lucia Firs near Highlands Peak.

Two of the most important streams in the region flow through the reserve, Big Creek and Devils Canyon Creek. The streams meet in the reserve and flow as one stream for the last mile into the Pacific Ocean at Big Creek Cove.  Along Big Creek is a natural hot spring pool, which is many times larger than the popular Sykes Hot Springs along the Big Sur River. Along Devils Canyon creek is perhaps the most striking feature, the remote Canogas Falls, which tumbles over 60 feet in a series of three steps with turquoise pools in between each step. The setting of the falls nestled between rugged cliffs with a lush redwood forest is magical. I couldn’t resist taking a swim in the frigid waters in the lower of two intermediary pools. The reserve also features two prominent grassy ridges with stunning views: Dolan Ridge and Highlands Ridge. Dolan Ridge provides an outstanding vista north up the coast toward Boronda Ridge and also south looking into Devils Canyon with Cone Peak and Twin Peak towering above.  On this day Dolan Ridge was covered in a spectacular lupine bloom, the likes of which have not been seen since 1999.  Highlands Ridge, including Gamboa Point, features excellent views back to Dolan Ridge, the Big Creek Bridge, and the turquoise waters off the coast. Big Creek is a treasure and well-deserving of its protection. It was great to explore a section of the Big Sur coast that I have never seen and I look forward to returning next year.    

East Molera Wildflowers

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. I enjoyed these meadows last year so it was high on my list to return this spring. The wildflower meadows were similar to 2013, except perhaps more poppy this year (a prolific lupine bloom in certain spots of Big Sur would follow in a few weeks). The East Molera Ridge Trail begins either along a dirt road behind a white barn at the main parking area for Andrew Molera State Park or at a newly rehabilitated trailhead a couple hundred meters past the main Andrew Molera entrance along the highway one (there are a couple parking spots in a gravel turnoff). The path starts out as a fire road and narrows to single track at the base of East Molera Ridge. 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, a well-used path continue south along grassy ridges and wonderful meadows for a couple miles. A one point you can either continue to follow the gradual path around a hillside, or take a steep shortcut straight up the hillside. 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. 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 firebreak that has narrowed to a path through light brush (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 enjoying the views. One can continue along use paths to Manuel Peak and Pfieffer Big Sur State Park via Cabezo Prieto, which I have documented in the Cabezo Molera Loop post and also in photo album from a subsequent tripFull wildflower photo Album; Panoramas.