Wildcat Point & Cold Mountain

Wildcat Point and Cold Mountain are two fairly remote and obscure destinations north of Tuolumne Meadows between the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and canyon country of northeast Yosemite. The scenery at both locations is stunning. Wildcat Point is to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne what Clouds Rest is to Tenaya Canyon; a lofty viewpoint perched thousands of feet above a rugged granitic canyon. The primary difference between the two is that Wildcat Point does not have a trail and it’s rarely visited. Meanwhile, Cold Mountain is not a high or remarkable summit by most standards, but its isolated and central position surrounded by deep canyons provides a spectacular 360 degree view, especially into northerneast Yosemite’s canyon country to Sawtooth Ridge. Just to the north of Cold Mountain is a subsidiary peaklet I dubbed “Cold Point” which contains an amazing view of rarely seen Virginia Lake with a sea of granite peaks and domes in the background.  Starting at Tuolumne Meadows I started by taking the trail to Glen Aulin. I ran into quite a bit of snow and ice covering the trail which slowed things down; it was November after all. From Glen Aulin I started down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne but soon turned off the trail to head up beautiful smooth granite slabs toward Wildcat Point. Views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne opened up with each step. About halfway up the side of the canyon I took a shallow gully with a little bit of brush to the upper granitic slopes that were more moderately sloped with easy terrain leading to the base of Wildcat Point, which is more of a dome. After some brief scrambling I was at the top marveling at the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne several thousand feet below. The views are excellent from the top of the dome, but the best views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne are further down the ridge at a point where the gentle granite slabs end and a sheer drop into the canyon begins. From this point one can gaze from Tuolumne Meadows to all the way down the Canyon to Pate Valley. Wildcat View provides perhaps the best view of Tuolumne Peak as it rises impressively on the south side of the canyon with cliffs and buttresses leading all the way down to the canyon bottom. From Wildcat Point I traversed a pleasant alpine basin to Cold Mountain, which included beautiful Mattie Lake and another unnamed alpine lake directly below Cold Mountain. The final ascent to Cold Mountain was on friendly granite slabs. Ironically, the summit of Cold Mountain was warm for November. I enjoyed the view over lunch with calm winds and blazing sunshine. Gazing over miles of wilderness in all directions I experienced true solitude as the snowy trail conditions and late season meant that I was the only human around for miles. After my summit break I explored the area, including a visit to a peaklet north of the summit I dubbed “Cold Point.” This spot had perhaps my favorite view of the day with a spectacular vantage of rarely seen Virginia Lake and a sea of granite domes in the background culminating in rugged Sawtooth Ridge and Whorl Mountain above Matterhnorn Canyon. From Cold Mountain I descended forested slopes to Cold Canyon where I found the trail back to Glen Aulin. On the way back from Glen Aulin, instead of returning by trail, I visited a number of domes with excellent views of Tuolumne Meadows and the Cathedral Range. The day finished with an delightful sunset from Olmstead Point (the actual point, not the parking lot). Full album here and GPS route here

Red Mountain Basin Loop

I visited Red Mountain and Hell for Sure Lake around the same time of year in 2012 and had an awesome time so I was looking forward to returning. This time I would ascend Mount Henry at the northern end of the Le Conte Divide with a striking vantage into Piute Canyon and the rugged section of the Sierra Crest in the John Muir Wilderness. As I wrote in 2012, the Le Conte Divide is an often overlooked area west of the Sierra Crest that features spectacular scenery and numerous opportunities for off-trail exploration making this region particularly suitable to adventure running. The divide forms the boundary between the John Muir Wilderness to the west and Kings Canyon National Park to the east. Geographically, to the east is the impressive Goddard Canyon and to the west is a series of spectacular granitic basins with dozens of pristine alpine lakes including Red Mountain Basin, Bench Valley and Blackcap Basin. The peaks on the divide are quite rugged, especially on their north and east sides, which belies the fact that these summits are only around 12,000 feet in elevation and higher neighbors to the east are well over 13,000 feet. Once again, elevation is not everything. The Le Conte Divide also one of the more remote sections of the range and therefore solitude can easily be achieved. The region is guarded by a long approach most often reached from Courtright Reservoir with a minimum of 15 miles on trail just to reach the basins. The long approach is ideal for adventure running as they are fairly moderate (runnable) and are within the pleasant montane forest zone for a large portion. Since the LeConte Divide is so remote, only a handful of peaks have names and the remainder are simply identified by their altitude. The basins to the west of the divide are quintessential Sierra scenery with dozens of gorgeous alpine lakes, tarns and meadows. GPS route here.

On this trip I covered familiar ground for the first 12 miles to the junction with the Hell for Sure Pass Trail. Instead of turning right I continued straight covering new trail to Indian Lakes. From Indian Lakes I headed off cross country through forest that transitioned to grassy benches and granite slopes that led to the West Ridge of Mount Henry. Staying on the crest of the ridge yields some class 3 scrambling. An easier route that I took on the descent is to utilize a chute to access the West Ridge further up. Either way, all of the scrambling is on the lower part of the West Ridge as the upper part transitions to easy talus hopping. Mount Henry’s position at the northern end of the Le Conte Divide provides a stellar view of surrounding mountains, especially looking west into Piute Canyon and the range of peaks from Seven Gables to Bear Creek Spire to Mount Darwin.  I would put htis view up among the classics, with incredible relief from canyon to peak and lots of intricate layers in the terrain. Moreover, remote Lake 10,223 provides makes for a beautiful subject in the foreground. I spent a lot of time photographing and enjoying the marvelous vantage. On the descent I veered off the west ridge at its low point via a loose chute and then easy grass terrain down to aptly-named Turf Lakes with an expansive chunk of tundra between the lakes. From Turf Lakes, I embarked on an easy cross country traverse to Davis Lake and up Red Mountain. On Red Mountain I took the north ridge which had some fun solid scrambling instead of the loose west slopes which looked like a real slog. Red Mountain had the same great views I remembered from 2012, especially looking up Goddard Canyon to Mount Goddard and the Hell for Sure Lake Basin. A use path exists from Red Mountain down to Hell for Sure Pass and from there it was all trail back to Courtright Reservoir. In the future I hope to revisit the Le Conte Divdie for explorations of Bench Valley and Blackcap Basin. I would also like to revisit Red Mountain basin for further exploration including an ascent of Mount Hutton and stops at Devils Punchbowl, Little Shot Lake and Big Shot Lake. GPS route here

Ericsson & Genevra

Mount Ericsson and Mount Genevra are two points along the rugged and immensely scenic Kings-Kern Divide which is a high barrier between the Kern River watershed and the Kings River watershed, two of the three important watersheds in the Southern High Sierra (the other being the Kaweah River). The point separating these three watersheds is aptly-named Triple Divide Peak along the Great Western Divide, which I visited last year. The Kings-Kern divide also serves to connect the Sierra Crest with the Great Western Divide and marks the border between Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. Foerster Pass, the highest point along the Pacific Crest Trail at over 13,000 feet, is the only trail that crosses the Kings-Kern Divide, although there are a number of other cross country passes of varying difficulty. I have spent quite a bit of time in this area. In 2009 I did an aesthetic loop crossing through Milly’s Foot Pass to visit Upper Kern Basin and Lake Reflection for the first time. Last year, I climbed Mount Stanford, the highest point on the Kings-Kern Divide via Harrison Pass. On this trip I gained the divide via a little known route from Lake Reflection and then climbed Mount Ericsson. I then traversed the upper reaches of Kern Basin to Mount Genevra and descended Milly’s Foot Pass back to Lake Reflection, a jewel of the High Sierra. The route also included passage by lovely East Lake. GPS route here.While numerous cross country passes cross the Kings-Kern Divide, perhaps the second easiest route over the divide (after the Foerster Pass trail) is not a pass at all but a little known route over a high shoulder east of Lake Reflection, an unnamed point I like to call “Reflection Point”. This route takes an efficient class 2 avalanche chute all the way up and over the divide, lacking the unstable talus, scree and sand of the nearby passes, including Harrison Pass, Lucy’s Foot Pass, and Milly’s Foot Pass. More importantly, the Reflection Point route affords astounding views of Lake Reflection the Great Western Divide for its entire length. Mount Brewer and the Guards rise sharply above Lake Reflection with granite virtually everything in sight. A high shoulder marks the top of the chute where the climber is steps away from Reflection Point and a marvelous view that is better than most named summits. The south side of the pass is an easy descent into Kern Basin on gravel and meadows. The key to the Reflection Point route is finding the correct chute since more difficult terrain lies nearby and technical terrain is not much further.  Once in the chute, the terrain is mostly slabs all the way up (make sure to stay in the central wide chute) and goes as class 2 the entire way. On this day I used this route to access Mount Ericsson, centrally located on the Kings-Kern Divide with an excellent 360 degree view including the entire Sierra crest from the Palisades to Mount Whitney and the Great Western Divide from North Guard to Milestone Mountain. Once at the top of the route, it’s an easy stroll down to the top of Lucy’s Foot Pass with stunning views of the jagged Ericsson Crags.

At Lucy’s Foot Pass, you’re at the base of Mount Ericsson which goes as a class 2 talus slog with a little bit of class 3 at the top.  Mount Ericsson’s central location affords an amazing view of the entire southern Sierra. Ericsson’s most distinctive feature is its serpentine south ridge with numerous rocky ribs extending deep into Kern Basin. Of the sea of peaks surrounding Mount Ericsson, the closest and easiest is Mount Genevra across the upper reaches of Kern Basin. Mount Genevra also happens to be above Milly’s Foot Pass which provides passage through the Kings-Kern Divide back to Lake Reflection. Milly’s Foot Pass includes a sketchy 3rd class chute at the top where one must be cautious of kitty litter over the rocks, especially while descending. The remainder of the descent from Milly’s to Lake Reflection involves plenty of arduous talus, but there are some pretty alpine tarns midway down the descent. While Mount Genevra is much lower than Ericsson, its position provides very nice views to the Mount Whitney region and the Great Western Divide. My favorite angle was down the East Creek drainage including Mount Bago towering above East Lake. Perhaps the most endearing location on this route is Lake Reflection, one of the greatest gems in the Sierra. While I have visited Lake Reflection twice before, this was my first time for early morning light to see the exquisite reflections for which this lake is named. The early morning reflections did not disappoint and some new snow lining the cliffs of Mount Genevra and Mount Jordan only added to the tremendous setting. East Lake, located a couple miles before Lake Reflection, is also an excellent destination with beautiful views and reflections. It’s about 11 miles to Junction Meadow along the Bubbs Creek Trail. At the meadows, turn right onto the East Lake Trail which shortly crosses Bubbs Creek (can be hazardous in early season) and then begins and ascent to East Lake, reaching East Lake about 13.5 miles from Road’s End. After East Lake the trail becomes faint in spots manifesting the lack of visitation to this region, but the idea is to generally follow the watercourse upstream and in a couple miles the outlet of Lake Reflection is reached. At first glance, Lake Reflection might seem small, but this is only the outlet bay. A few meters away lies a log jam and views of the expansive alpine lake. GPS route here.

Black Giant, Charybdis & Evolution

The Ionian Basin is one of the more remote and striking regions in the High Sierra. The feature names within the basin – Charybids, Three Sirens and Scylla – take on a Greek Mythology theme making it all the more intriguing. While the John Muir Trail crosses Muir Pass just to the northwest, few seem to venture into this trail-less region characterized by lots of talus and desolate lakes. A glance at the USGS Mount Goddard Quadrangle, within which the Ionian Basin is located, shows a map with essentially no green manifesting a region virtually devoid of vegetation. While I usually prefer some alpine vegetation, this stark landscape is unique and beautiful. The Ionian Basin is framed by the Goddard Divide to the north, the White Divide to the west and the Black Divide to the east. To the south is the rugged and wild Middle Fork of the Kings River. The basin is drained by a pair of deep canyons, Enchanted Gorge and Goddard Creek, separated by aptly-named Ragged Spur. These canyons are among the most remote and least visited spots in the Sierra. Mount Goddard presides over the basin and dominates the region from all angles. Numerous lakes occupy the Ionian basin, some of which are quite large, but only Chasm Lake has been assigned a name. The remainder of the dozen plus lakes are marked only be elevation. Last year I visited the west end of Ionian Basin on the way down from Mount Goddard to Lake 10,232. On this trip I traveled through the eastern portion and climbed Black Giant and Mount Charybdis. Both peaks featured tremendous views of the surrounding region. On Black Giant, I was particularly impressed with the sweeping view of Le Conte Canyon from Helen Lake to the Palisades. On Charbydis, my favorite view was down to Chasm Lake and the numerous lakes of the Ionian Basin. Charybdis is also a beautiful peak in itself including a fine scramble up its northeast ridge. I look forward to further exploration in Ionian Basin including visiting the shores of Chasm Lake and getting a close-up view of the The Three Sirens across Enchanted Gorge from Charybdis.  GPS route here.   

Annotated view of Le Conte Canyon from Black Giant (click for large version): The route starts with a run through Sabrina Basin, including one of my favorite views in the High Sierra at Sailor Lake with aptly-named Picture Peak towering above. Continue off trail beyond Sailor Lake to Moonlight Lake and then up easy terrain to Echo Lake, situated in a bowl beneath the Clyde Spires, Mount Wallace and Mount Powell. Travel becomes more arduous along a traverse above Echo Lake and the final glacial moraine slopes up to Echo Col. The south of side of Echo Col includes a spectacular view of Lake 11,428 with Black Giant’s rugged east face dominating the background.  Traverse the west shore of Lake 11,428 and descend slabs to the JMT.  Ascend the JMT northbound toward Muir Pass, but leave the trail just past Helen Lake and ascend talus fields toward Black Giant’s summit which is rather nondescript from a western perspective. What Black Giant lack’s in quality scrambling it makes up with fantastic views in all directions. From Black Giant, descend directly to “Black Giant Pass” which leads into the Ionian Basin. It may be tempting to descend toward Lake 11,828 before reaching the pass, but hidden cliffs likely make this more time consuming than the  more circuitous route all the way down to the pass. Charbydis is the most prominent peak as viewed on the descent from Black Giant and the Northeast ridge route is obvious. From Lake 11,828 the ridge starts out as granite slabs but transitions to talus and rock near the top. The rock is loose in spots but the scrambling is straightforward. After a false summit is reached there is a tricky sequence of third class descent moves that from my experience is much easier on the return as an ascent. The actual summit is just a couple minutes beyond this section.  From Charbydis retrace steps over Black Giant Pass and either return to Sabrina Basin via Echo Col or make a loop by traversing to Muir Pass and taking the JMT through gorgeous Evolution Basin. Numerous routes exist from Evolution Basin over the crest and back to the Lake Sabrina including Haeckel-Wallace Col, Haeckel Col and Lamarck Col. Lamarck Col is the easiest but also the longest option by a significant margin. On this day I wanted to run alongside Sapphire Lake and Evolution Lake so I selected Lamarck Col. Evolution Basin is spectacular and often the favorite section of the JMT for thru-hikers. The route to Lamarck Col leaves the JMT at the first switchback below Evolution Lake. A use path leads to Darwin Bench and Darwin Canyon where a series of lakes are passed. The ascent up to Lamarck col is arduous but fairly straightforward. However, I do not recommend travel over the pass at night. Unfortunately, I had lost daylight and the ridge upon which Lamarck Col is located is nondescript with sand and rock throughout. After wandering and scrambling the ridge for over an hour I was able to finally locate Lamarck Col. The path on the other side is in the sand and difficult to follow at night resulting in further delay. While it was probably not as important to be on the trail in the upper part, I needed to follow the path in order to make sure that I was on the trail when it cuts over a ridge and begins it’s descent to Upper Lamarck Lake. All of this is straightforward in the daylight, but not in the dark! The descent to Lamarck Lakes and North Lake is not a scenic as the prior sections, but it’s an efficient way up and over the crest provided there is daylight. The loop is completed by walking the gravel road from North Lake to Hwy 168. The alternative cols – Haeckel and Haeckel-Wallace – entail substantial off-trail travel along with steep terrain with loose rocks and talus fields. I have yet to cross these cols, but look forward to checking them out on my next routes over the crest from Lake Sabrina.   

Pyramid Peak & Window Peak Lake

“Window Peak Lake” is a spectacular granite-encased lake tucked in underneath rugged Window Peak. While only a couple miles off the John Muir Trail, there is no trail or use paths to negotiate the 1,800 foot vertical ascent to the lake which is steep and rocky. The lake is also situated in one of the more remote spots in the range with all access options entailing many trail miles and lots of elevation gain. The lake is not officially named on any maps, but its proximity directly underneath Window Peak makes Window Peak Lake an appropriate unofficial name. The difficult accessibility combined with very little information on this region makes this a pristine and unfettered setting with virtually no human impact. I hope places like this stay that way and in future years I hope to find the same unspoiled setting!

Erica and I accessed the area via Road’s End passing by Mist Falls and then running up Paradise Valley and the Castle Domes to the John Muir Trail at the Woods Creek junction. After some photographs on the suspension bridge we continued northbound up the JMT for one mile before turning off and heading up the rocky and steep slopes. The general idea is to stay on the north side of the stream draining Window Peak Lake ascending talus, steep meadows and the occasional patch of pine trees. Virtually all brush can be avoided with careful navigation. A headwall is passed about halfway up where the outflow water from Window Peak Lake tumbles over a cliff producing a waterfall that is surely impressive in the early summer when snows from above are melting. Prior to reaching Window Peak Lake there is a smaller lake, aka mini-Window Peak Lake, but be sure to continue up to the much larger and scenic main lake. After a short break at Window Peak Lake, I continued up along granite slabs to Pyramid Peak. Most of the route is on friendly slabs with only a little bit of talus to negotiate. A small col must be gained to ascend the south ridge of Pyramid Peak that includes some class 3 scrambling. The summit of Pyramid Peak features an outstanding view looking south to the King Spur, Window Peak, Rae Lakes and a sea of peaks all around. Mount Whitney, Mount Williamson and Mount Tyndall are clearly visible to the south along with the Palisades to the north. The descent from Pyramid Peak was just as spectacular as the afternoon sun angle produced a beautiful blue color on Window Peak Lake. This view was one of my favorites in all of my adventures in the High Sierra. I met up with Erica at mini-Window Peak Lake and we continued down together to the JMT enjoying the stupendous views of the Woods Creek drainage up to the peaks surrounding the Rae Lakes including Painted Lady, Mount Rixford and Dragon Peak. Once on the JMT, we continued on to the Castle Domes valley where beautiful afternoon light illuminated the impressive granite towers. GPS route here

Tower Peak

Tower Peak is a remote and impressive summit at the northern end of the High Sierra. The peak lies at the headwaters of the West Walker River that was included in the substantial expansion of the Hoover Wilderness in 2009. The usual route entails many miles of trail along the Walker River Trail from Leavitt Meadows to Tower Lake. The trail is generally pleasant and virtually all runnable for the first 12 miles through Upper Piute Meadows as it is largely non-technical and elevation gain is gradual.  Along the way there are several aspen groves that would enhance the trip in the fall season and pretty meadows at Lower and Upper Piute Meadows. The only downside to the trail is that it is very sandy and/or dusty in sections due to its heavy use by the horse pack station at Leavitt Meadows. Travelling through the lower portion where sand and dust is most prevalent on a hot summer day would only make matters worse.  Fortunately, the tread improves as one progresses further toward Tower Lake. At around 11.5 miles the trail reaches Piute Meadows.  At the north end of Piute Meadows is the Piute Cabin, a nice backcountry ranger cabin that was not occupied on my visit. The cabin has a very nice view looking across the meadows to the peaks at the head of the valley.  From the end of Piute Meadows, the trail climbs for a couple more miles to remote and beautiful Tower Lake (~15 miles from the trailhead), situated in a bowl surrounded by granite slopes. The most impressive rock feature is known as “The Watchtower,” which looks like it contains some fine climbing routes on it’s smooth granite face. The vegetation around Tower Lake includes mountain hemlock and alpine firs which are more reminiscent of the Tahoe alpine manifesting Tower Lake’s northern location and correspondingly wetter climate than points further south. From Tower Lake, ascend to Tower Pass through a mix of gravel, talus, and patches of grass. At Tower Pass, Tower Peak comes into view and the route is obvious. Traverse through a shallow basin of meadows (which can have some lovely wildflowers in summer) that transitions to granite slabs near a remnant ice patch. Ascend the granite slabs beside and above this ice path to the northwest ridge with a great view of the “tower” of Tower Peak. Follow the northwest ridge until it becomes steeper and more technical. One can continue along the ridge for a more challenging scrambling experience, but the path of least resistance comes off the ridge onto its west side and traverses underneath the ridge to a wide chute that contains fun class 3 scrambling known as “the staircase” that leads directly to the summit block. Tower Peak provides an excellent vantage of the surrounding region including the Hoover Wilderness and northern Yosemite with close-up views of the relatively large and sky blue Mary Lake and the Saurian Crest immediately above. To the south and east lies the remote Stubblefield Canyon and Sawtooth Ridge. A small glacial remnant on the steep slopes off the summit’s east and north side was entirely exposed and as the permanent ice is diminishing rapidly in these consecutive drought seasons. On this day, I chose Tower Peak after analyzing and balancing the wildfire smoke from nearby fires and thunderstorms expected in the southern part of the range. The decision proved correct as skies overhead remained relatively clear of smoke or clouds all day. My favorite view from the summit was down to Mary Lake, although views to the south and east were obscured by smoke and haze from the fires and I will have to return at some point on a clear day. Total roundtrip out of Leavitt Meadows is ~34 miles to Tower Peak and 30 miles to Tower Lake. All told, the primary climbs are a 1,300 foot trail climb from Upper Piute Meadows to Tower Lake and a 2,250 ft off-trail climb from Tower Lake up to Tower Peak via Tower Pass. On my trip wildflower meadows were in full bloom above Tower Pass and also in Piute Meadows. GPS route here (missing last 11 miles).

Mount Davis

Higher is not always better. I’ve been to several peaks recently that are only modest in elevation but contain outstanding views. It many ways, being surrounded by impressive peaks of equal or greater height provides a more dramatic perspective. Mount Davis is one of these peaks. While relatively remote and obscure, the views are breathtaking and include taller and well known neighbors to the north (Mount Lyell and Rodgers Peak) and south (Mount Ritter and Banner Peak). To the west is the rugged and wild headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River, including the enchanting Twin Island Lakes, and to the east is spectacular Thousand Island Lake and the Davis Lakes. On my way to Mount Davis I visited the always-beautiful Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake, making sure to time my passage with idyllic morning light. While the shortest route to Mount Davis is via Silver Lake trailhead, I prefer the route from the Agnew Meadows trailhead which is more scenic in my opinion. This route also enabled me to easily include a morning visit to Garnet Lake, one of the prettiest lakes in all of the Sierra.  GPS route here.I continued up from Thousand Island Lake to North Glacier Pass, a route that seems more efficient each time I get the chance to visit the pass. The pass is a worthy destination in itself with a commanding view of the deep blue Lake Catherine situated below the rugged north faces of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. The view includes the glacial remnant that flows between these two impressive peaks. From North Glacier Pass, it seems as if Davis would be close, but quite a bit of leg work remains. One can either descend to the rocky shores of Lake Catherine or traverse higher up to avoid losing elevation. Both require some travel through cumbersome talus, but the beautiful clear waters of Lake Catherine are a great distraction.Higher up above Lake Catherine the terrain transitions to friendly granite slabs that lead to the “Davis Plateau,” a broad area of high elevation between North Glacier Pass to the south and the summit of Mount Davis at the north end of the plateau. While the summit of Davis has some prominence, there are numerous ridgelines and points along the plateau that are not that much lower in height. In this regard, Davis is more of a massif.  In order to reach the high point, which includes the best views looking north along the crest toward Mount Lyell, an expansive glacial bowl must be crossed with copious talus and some interesting ice remnants (sadly it’s doubtful this ice makes it through this exceptionally dry and warm year). After crossing the bowl, the summit of Davis is an easy talus hop. On the way back I made a slight diversion to a small point at the south end of the Davis plateau that features an amazing view overlooking the deep blue waters of Lake Catherine and the multi-colored Ritter Lakes, nestled underneath the rugged buttresses of Mount Ritter with colors ranging from deep blue to turquoise. I have probably spent more time in the Ansel Adams Wilderness region exploring the area around the Minarets and Ritter/Banner than anywhere else in the High Sierra but the scenery never ceases to amaze and inspire. GPS route here.