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 Turnbo 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!”   

Mount Winchell & Mount Robinson

The North Fork Big Pine Creek is one of the most scenic areas in the High Sierra including a collection of picturesque alpine lakes, the largest glacier in the range, and some of the most rugged terrain in the Sierra in the Palisades subrange. I have visited the North Fork Big Pine twice before to climb Mount Sill. This time, instead of taking the glacier trail all the way to Palisade Glacier, I veered off at Sam Mack Meadow for climbs of Mount Winchell and Mount Robinson. Both peaks possess amazing viewpoints of the surrounding region. The biggest surprise of the route was spectacular Sam Mack Lake, positioned in a desolate, ice-polished granite bowl with a stunning view of the Palisades including Mount Gayley, Mount Sill, Polemonium Peak, North Palisade, Starlight, Thunderbolt, Mount Winchell and Mount Agassiz. Strava route here.


The route to Sam Mack Lake follows a use path above Sam Mack Meadows to a headwall where one most turn right to avoid cliffs. Beyond the headwall, it’s a straightforward ascent through talus and granite slabs to gorgeous Sam Mack Lake. Beyond Sam Mack Lake I traversed some talus but then found a very efficient route along granite slabs up to the foot of the Winchell scramble. Along the way I passed a high glacial lake tucked in between Winchell and Agassiz with silty glacial waters and some measuring equipment. While the more direct route to Winchell would avoid Sam Mack Lake all together, I feel like you’d be missing out on the great view and also I don’t think it’s any faster since the standard route entails much tedious boulder hoping. The climb up the east arete of Winchell is a fun, straightforward route. The rock becomes more solid as one ascends for some fun scrambling for the last few hundred vertical feet. The summit of Winchell has a spectacular view into Dusy Basin and the Black Divide across LeConte Canyon. The towering cliffs of Thunderbolt, North Palisade and SillI are close at hand.  In addition, there are some unique rock formations on Winchell’s west side that are interesting to look at. Retracing my route from Winchell back to Sam Mack Lake, I was ready for the ascent up to Mount Robinson. This class 3 route had more great views the entire way. There are a number of false summits near the top requiring some bouldering work, but I was soon at the high point admiring another spectacular view. For the descent off Robinson I decided to try a different route down the south slopes. This route started out reasonable but turned very loose and steep in its mid section; not an advisable ascent route but ok for descending. Back at Sam Mack Lake for the third time I enjoyed the view and photographed once again before beginning my return through the North Fork Lone Pine. On the way out the light over Second Lake, one of the gems of the Sierra, was amazing and I snapped many photos of the silty turquoise waters with Temple Crag in the background. Below the lakes I passed through a magical display of fall color along the trail that I will feature in the next blog post.  An awesome day in the Palisades!  Strava route here.

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.  

Tour de Dusy Basin

While I have made the trek from South Lake to Bishop Pass and into Dusy Basin several times, the magnificent views of the Palisades never cease to inspire. Mount Agassiz, Mount Winchell, and North Palisade collectively form a wall of granite that towers above the basin filled with numerous alpine lakes. Aptly named Isosceles Peak is especially striking from the southern part of the basin and perfectly frames the Palisades “wall.” Columbine Peak and Giraud Peak complete the 360 panorama of rock and ruggedness. On this day, the concept was to do a loop through the upper part of the basin, a “tour de Dusy” and hit some of my favorite photography spots in the process. Complete photo album here.

The weather on this autumn afternoon was perfect – a light breeze, sunny skies, and excellent clarity. We made it up to the foot of Bishop Pass in good time and negotiated some snow and ice over the trail on the final rocky switchbacks to the Pass. The south side of the Pass was snow-free and we ran into the Basin and headed cross country for the highest lake, which also happens to be the largest, but conspicuously tucked in a bowl underneath the Palisades and not visible until you crest a minor ridgeline. Additional scenic lakes lie just below with Isosceles Peak towering above. We completed the tour by passing around a few more lakes lakes before returning to the Bishop Pass trail. Complete photo album here.