Monarch Divide Semi-Loop

The Monarch Divide is a region of the High Sierra that is easily overlooked. Topping out below 12,000 feet, the peaks along the divide are not as impressive as nearby zones to the north, east and south. The most used trail into the Monarch Divide is the Copper Creek Trail to Granite Lake and Granite Pass, starting at Road’s End in Kings Canyon. This trail is well-maintained and includes some fantastic views of Kings Canyon right from the start and much of the way up. The other access trail is the Lewis Creek Trail which is near Cedar Grove. This trail is used infrequently resulting in some sections of narrow tread and brushy sections. Either way, it’s a long way from the canyon floor to the Monarch Divide with over 10 miles and 6,500+ feet of elevation gain either way you go. Looking at the maps, my first desire was to climb Goat Mountain and see the panoramic views from its summit. Upon further inspection, it seemed like a point-to-point semi-loop was possible utilizing both the Copper Creek and Lewis Creek trails and including the summits of Kennedy Mountain, Munger Peak and Goat Mountain and a traverse through Volcanic Lakes. The section from Kennedy Pass to Granite Pass would be off-trail but the terrain seemed favorable to easy wandering. This last minute itinerary design turned out to be fantastic. I found an adventure running playground that exceeded my expectations with stellar scenery and opportunities for off-trail exploration. Strava route hereThe next image is an annotated panorama from the summit of Kennedy Mountain which shows virtually the entire drainage basin of the Middle Fork Kings River from Finger Peak to Mount Bolton Brown to the Monarch Divide, arguably the most rugged and wild watershed in the High Sierra. Click on image or here for the full high resolution version. 

I started out up the Lewis Creek Trail with some pre-dawn running making way into a pleasant pine forest for a few miles. Eventually, the forest became more alpine in character before opening up into a long avalanche scoured hillside with a forest of miniature aspens (except a handful of large aspens). I was about a week too late to see the fall color through this section but I imagine it to be awesome if timed correctly. After a long traverse through the avy slope I made my way up the final switchbacks to Kennedy Pass and then continued up the ridge through easy off-trail terrain to the summit of Kennedy Mountain where I was greeted with a lovely view to the Middle Fork Kings Canyon, the Palisades, Goddard Divide, Black Divide and White Divide. From Kennedy Mountain, I returned to Kennedy Pass and dropped down the Pass’s north side through a section of snow. I mistakenly turned off the trail a bit too soon, but scrambled down some steep grass and granite slabs to rejoin the trail near a small tarn. At the tarn I left the trail for good and headed up to East Kennedy Lake, a Sierra gem with pristine blue waters and a beautiful backdrop of cliffs along the Monarch Divide. The surreal setting was highlighted by the recent snow on the granite cliffs.

From East Kennedy Lake, I ascended steep grassy slopes up to a small saddle high on Dead Pine Ridge that provided access to Volcanic Lakes, a glorious granitic basin with a series of large alpine lakes. The origin of the name “Volcanic” perplexed me as this area seem far from volcanic in character. Descending to the largest Volcanic Lake (10,199 ft) via meadows and granite slabs, a tremendous view of the Palisades above the lake came into focus. The setting was so impressive I could hardly take a few steps without stopping to photograph and admire the picturesque scene. At the shores of Lk 10,199 I ascended more slabs to a knob with a centralized vantage where I could see five of the lakes surrounding me (there are at least eight large lakes in the basin). From the knob I crossed between Lk 10,284 and Lk 10,288 and then ascended yet another grassy gully to a broad area of meadows and slabs which took me to Granite Pass. In my entire time from East Kennedy Lake to Granite Pass I saw no evidence of human impact. From Granite Pass, I crossed the Copper Creek trail and traversed slabs and more meadows into the basin below Munger Peak. Munger Peak and Goat Mountain lie along the Goat Crest, a short north-south oriented spur between the Monarch Divide to the west and the Cirque Crest to the east. I chose to climb over Munger Peak from the north and found slippery snow on the talus in the final few hundred feet which made things slower than I otherwise would have expected. With conditions as they were, it would have probably been more efficient to cross over to Munger’s dry south side and tag the summit as an out-and-back. At any rate, I eventually made the summit of Munger and snapped some photos before heading down to the gap between Munger and Goat for the much-anticipated last climb of the day up Goat Mountain. The ascent up Goat Mountain was loose in the lower part but became more solid in the upper portion with a finish through large talus blocks near the top. The view from Goat Mountain’s summit was all that I had expected and more. 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 Murro 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. At this point in the afternoon clouds were beginning to gather to the south and chilly winds were increasing, but I spent quite a bit of time on the summit admiring the stupendous panorama. The afternoon light along with some the cumulus clouds enhanced the photography.

After over 30 minutes on the summit, I descended Goat Mountain and headed down down to Grouse Lake with straightforward and efficient cross country travel en route. Below Grouse Lake I located a use path which deposited me at the Copper Creek Trail. Along this use path there were some phenomenal views of Mount Clarence King and Mount Gardiner. After a break, I started running down the well-maintained Copper Creek trail which is excellent for a descent since its fairly non-technical. I caught up to Erica part of the way down, the only person I would see all day (Erica enjoyed the day at Granite Lake). Towards the bottom of the trail there was some great evening light through Kings Canyon and the Grand Sentinel rock feature (aka the El Capitan of Kings Canyon). Both Erica and I made it back before dark and we both agreed it was a fine late-season day to be in the Sierra. I’ll definitely be back for further exploration in this area and I’m especially keen on ascending Goat Mountain in the spring when the snow-capped peaks will offer a different perspective of the panorama; one of the best in the Sierra. The Copper Creek Trail to Goat Mountain segment is also the beginning of the Sierra High Route, which I aspire to do someday as well.

Tuolumne Meadows to Devils Postpile via the Minarets and Donohue Peak

The point-to-point route from Tuolumne Meadows to Agnew Meadows or Reds Meadow/Devils Postpile is well established among trail runners. However, I haven’t heard of anybody extending the point-to-point into the Minarets and including a summit of Donohue Peak. Both of these additions substantially enhance the aesthetics of the route making it a complete highlight tour of an immensely scenic region spanning Yosemite National Park and Ansel Adams Wilderness. This objective has been high on my list for some time and I was happy to run it in perfect autumn weather. It was great to enjoy many familiar sights, some of the best scenery the High Sierra has to offer, all in a single day. This is an instant classic and I look forward to doing this route and/or variations of it next year!

A sweeping 360 degree annotated panorama from the summit of Donohue Peak can be found here or be clicking on the image below for a much larger image. 

The first 8 miles are along nearly flat Lyell Canyon. Cool air tends to pool in the canyon and temperatures were in the low-20s, but with calm winds the running felt comfortable. Just before Donohue Pass, I peeled off the trail and headed up toward Donohue Peak. The final bit of scrambling took a bit longer than anticipated as the high point of Donohue is at the eastern end of the ridge and entailed some traversing of talus covered with snow. The view from the summit is incredible and includes most of the Cathedral Range and Ritter Range, a mirror view of the panorama I saw from Foerster Peak just a few days prior. A small tarn below Donohue Peak is particularly photogenic with Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure towering in the background. From the tarn I took a cross country route down slabs and grassy slopes to reconnect with the John Muir Trail in Rush Creek Basin. This beautiful basin was largely dry but still featured excellent views of Donohue Peak, Mount Andrea Lawrence and Koip Crest.

Beyond Rush Creek Basin I made quick time up to Island Pass. After a stop to photograph Banner Peak reflecting in the tarns near the pass, I met Joel and we descended to Thousand Island Lake soaking in the amazing scenery. The beautiful views continued as we made our way to Garnet Lake. At the Shadow Lake junction, I turned upstream to gorgeous Lake Ediza and then made the ascent to Iceberg Lake. From Iceberg Lake I encountered fairly deep snow up to Cecil Lake, but fortunately somebody had kicked steps before me so the micro spikes were not necessary. It was an ethereal view from Iceberg Lake and Cecile Lake with the jagged spires of the snowy Minarets backlit by the afternoon sun. After the traverse around Cecile Lake, I descended to Minaret Lake where I enjoyed more awesome afternoon views. Beyond Minaret Lake I was back on maintained trail and made quick time over the last 7.5 miles to Devils Postpile. Total time for the 38 mile point-to-point was 11:19 including hundreds of photos (nearly 800!), a selection of which follows. Strava route here

Foerster Peak

Fall is one of my favorite times of the year in the Sierra. This time of year comes after the summer monsoon thunderstorm season but before winter storms roll in off the Pacific burying the high country in snow. The result is weather that is characterized by numerous clear and crisp days interspersed with the occasional light snowfall.  Mosquitoes and crowds are non-existent, and the trails are in great condition.  Foerster Peak hadn’t really been on my radar, or the entire region for that matter, but while looking at the maps midweek it looked like a nice objective and I’m always interested in visiting new spots off the beaten path. Joey joined me for this trip and we both agreed this adventure far exceeded expectations entailing a beautiful off-trail approach through Long Creek to Rockbound Lake and the exquisite Blue Lake, and a stellar 360 degree summit panorama including the entire Clark Range and much of the Cathedral Range and Ritter Range. My favorite view was the rarely seen west side of the jagged Minarets. Strava route here.

A sweeping 360 degree annotated panorama from the summit of Foerster Peak can be found here or be clicking on the image below for a much larger image. 

Clark Range Panorama (click image for larger version): 

We started the trip from Isberg Pass Trailhead after a long, bumpy ride on the Beasore Rd. While this route is shorter, the pavement on Beasore road is so badly eroded it’s actually worse than if the road had been all gravel.  We parked about 0.6 miles from the trailhead to avoid a rocky section of road (the reality of driving low clearance cars). On the way back we took the Minaret Road which is substantially longer in distance, but a much better drive due to its smooth pavement. We followed the Isberg Pass Trail through the Niche and shortly thereafter broke off on the Chetwood Cabin Trail. The montane forest and meadows were so pleasant for running we passed the dilapidated Chetwood Cabin without even noticing it, which meant we also passed the location where we were supposed to turn off. On the way back we took the old use trail that we were supposed to take in the morning and came to the conclusion that trying to follow this path is essentially useless and our unintended off-trail route in the morning was more efficient. A couple years ago a major windstorm blew through the forest and toppled countless trees over the old trail. Combined with lack of use, the old path has grown very faint and difficult to follow.

Back to the morning, we discovered our “error” of overshooting Chetwood Cabin when we came to a second junction for Cora Lakes. Instead of backtracking we headed uphill cross country to a saddle on the east side of Sadler Peak. The cross country travel proved to be very efficient and straightforward and it turns out this is my recommended route versus the route we took in the afternoon. Thus, for the most direct route into Long Creek I would stay straight past the Niche heading to Cora Lakes and then head cross country from the second junction with the Chetwood Cabin trail.  Beyond the saddle on Sadler Peak’s east side, the use trail can be picked up again with numerous cairns and followed down to Long Creek where the trail ends for good. Travel up the granite canyon of Long Creek is a pleasure with a babbling stream, grassy meadows and clumps of trees amid a setting that is predominantly ice-polished granite. At the headwaters of Long Creek we turned east ascending slabs and grass over a ridge to spectacular Blue Lake with a perfect backdrop of Mount Ritter, Banner Peak and the Minarets. At Blue Lake, Foerster Peak is finally within striking distance. The final scramble starts with an ascent up a grassy ramp, followed by granite slabs, and finally some talus hoping to the summit.


The challenge of Foerster Peak is clearly its remote location and not the straightforward scramble. The reward for reaching the summit is a truly remarkable vista, which was enhanced for us by a perfect fall day. We could see virtually all of the headwaters of the Merced River and the top of Half Dome. Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure (the roof of Yosemite) stood tall across the Lyell Fork of the Merced River with a series of high alpine lakes visible in the granite basin.  Close at hand was the rugged west face of Ansel Adams Peak and the ridge crest to Electra Peak and Rodgers Peak.  To the south, the rugged Ritter Range dominated the skyline with impressive views of the west side of the Mount Ritter and Banner Peak massif and the intricate spires of the Minarets. Over our stay at the summit, we watched the light on the Ritter Range become increasingly better. After spending over 45 minutes on top, we retraced our steps to Blue Lake and stopped for a photography extravaganza along its blue shores… just great!

The final views of the day (before entering forest) were near Sadler Peak with excellent afternoon light on the Minarets and the North Fork San Joaquin River canyon. I look forward to climbing to the summit of Sadler and taking the 2 mile ridge to Long Peak in the future. This ridge is sure to have excellent views for its entire length. Enjoying this last view, we thought we were set for a fairly easy last 8 miles back to the trailhead, but we were wrong.  The old use path we were supposed to take in the morning from Chetwood Cabin proved extremely challenging to follow with copious downfall to navigate. In fairness, the Tom Harrison Map does not show this trail at all and we were relying too heavily on outdated USGS topo maps. This region has seen more foot traffic in the past.  In the end, we decided the unintended cross country route taken in the morning was now a more efficient, superior access route to Long Creek and Foerster Peak. After what seemed like a long time, we finally popped out into a meadow and saw the ruins of the Chetwood Cabin indicating we were back on familiar ground and maintained trail. From this point we made good time back the trailhead. Foerster peak and this remote region far exceeded expectations and I will definitely be back for further exploration!

Little Lakes Valley to Morgan Pass

The trailhead at Mosquito Flat in the Rock Creek area is one of the highest trailheads in the Sierra at just over 10,000 feet and provides easy access to wonderful hiking, climbing and trail running at Little Lakes Valley. The visitor less inclined to travel many miles will find quintessential High Sierra scenery within merely minutes from the trailhead. The sublime Little Lakes Valley includes over a dozen alpine lakes, and some are quite large in size belying its name, including Box Lake, Ruby Lake and Long Lake. The centerpiece peak at the head of the valley is impressively rugged Bear Creek Spire which provides a spectacular backdrop from many of the lakes. I have seen some truly amazing reflections in Marsh Lake and Long Lake. The easy accessibility of this area makes it one of the most popular trails in the eastern Sierra for hiking and gateway to many climbs and scrambles. On any nice summer weekend the main parking loop and overflow parking down the road will be filled to the rim. The vast majority of hikers follow the relatively flat trail through Little Lakes Valley to a turn around point at Chickenfoot Lake or Gem Lakes. Beyond, climbing and scrambling opportunities abound on Bear Creek Spire and the many neighboring peaks. Branching off just uphill from Mosquito Flat is the trail to Mono Pass, which is located on the Sierra Crest and includes great views into the rugged stretch of mountains including Mount Dade, Mount Abott, Mount Mills, and Ruby Peak.  Just beyond Mono Pass is an easy scramble through sand and talus to the summit of Mount Starr where there is a grand view of the region, featured on my blog in July. The photos below are from an afternoon trail run to Morgan Pass through Little Lakes Valley. The eight mile out-and-back through Little Lakes Valley to Morgan Pass makes for an excellent easy trail run with little elevation change and largely non-technical trail.  In fact, this is one of the few high elevation trails in the eastern Sierra that are very runnable.

Robinson Peak

The Sawtooth Ridge region is one of the most scenic in all of the Sierra. I visited this area earlier in the summer climbing Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak in an aesthetic loop – the “Sawtooth Loop.”  The highlight view was from Finger Peaks with a complete panorama of impressive Sawtooth Ridge from the south. On this outing I ascended infrequently visited Robinson Peak (10,793 ft) which features the mirror panorama of Sawtooth Ridge from the north. This trip was all about the views and it’s truly a staggering vista with over 5,000 vertical feet of rugged terrain across the Robinson Creek valley.  The climb itself is not aesthetic, but it’s a great workout. I started from a small RV park on the east side of Twin Lakes (~7,100 ft) and took an old 4wd road into a canyon until it ended (~1 mile). From here I continued up the canyon to its head and then up steep slopes with prickly sage and other high desert vegetation. This 3,000+ foot climb over only 2 miles from the start finally deposited me onto Sawmill Ridge where the tremendous views opened up. From Sawmill Ridge, it’s another couple miles of easy cross country hiking along the ridge through grass, sage and patches of pine forest to the foot of Robinson Peak. A final 600 foot climb and I was at the top gazing over Robinson Creek and the jagged crest of Sawtooth Ridge, including Matterhorn Peak, Dragtooth Peak, The Doodad, Three Peaks, the Sawblade, Cleaver Peak, Blacksmith Peak, Eocene Peak, and the Incredible Hulk. There was also some pretty fall color on the mountainsides and in the Robinson Creek drainage. In all, it’s only a bit over 4 miles to the summit of Robinson Peak and took me about 1h40m. After 30 minutes admiring the staggering panorama, I headed down the ridge. On the way back, I took a variation staying on the ridge longer and dropping down the entry canyon on it’s east side. While a bit longer, it was a good descent route and I was back to the car in a little over an hour after departing the summit. Strava route here.

Not to be confused with Robinson Peak, the next day I climbed Mount Robinson (12,967 ft) as part of a trip up the North Fork Big Pine Creek to Sam Mack Lake and Mount Winchell. Mount Robinson has an amazing view of the Palisades from Sill to Agassiz. Both Robinsons are among the finest viewpoints in the High Sierra and it was pleasure to visit both of them on the same weekend. The photo immediately below compares the view from the Robinson summits. More on the North Fork Big Pine trip in a future blog post.

Tulainyo Lake: The Cleaver and Mount Carillon

Tulainyo Lake sits in a desolate bowl 12,828 feet above sea level nestled between four peaks – Mount Russell, Mount Carillon, Tunnabora Peak and The Cleaver. It is one of the highest lakes in the contiguous United States and impressively large for its altitude. Due to its elevation and shadowing effects from nearby peaks, the lake often remains ice and snow covered well into the summer. In late summer and fall, with the ice and snow melted, the lake reveals a cerulean color with turquoise along its shores.  The photogenic setting is stark with the lake’s pure waters set amid granite boulders and cliffs. I have wanted to visit this lake for some time and it did not disappoint.
I accessed Tulainyo Lake via Cleaver Col. I took the North Fork Lone Pine trail to Lower Boy Scout Creek and then headed uphill on easy cross country slopes. As I ascended into the cirque below Cleaver Col, The Cleaver’s immense south face of smooth granite came into view. This amphitheater of rugged granite walls is spectacular. I found the route to Cleaver Col straightforward except for some loose rock and snow in the final chute. After a little over a couple hours I was at Cleaver Col peering over at the broad expanse of Tulainyo lake. While warming nicely on the eastside of the crest, I found a sharp and cold wind blowing over the col and I quickly put on my jacket. It would stay cold and breezy most of the morning, especially in the shade. I descended almost down to the lake shore before heading up to The Cleaver. The Cleaver is mainly a boulder hop except some class three near the top. The summit provides a breathtaking view of Tulainyo Lake framed by Mount Carillon, Mount Whitney and Mount Russell. Coming off The Cleaver I traversed Tulainyo’s east shore and ascended up to Russell-Carillon saddle. From here I made the short hike up to Mount Carillon with its outstanding view of the east ridge of Mount Russell. Back at Russell-Carillon saddle I started my way up Mount Russell’s east ridge. While this route is called the east ridge, it is not possible to stay on the ridge proper without technical climbing and one must drop onto the north side. This shaded north side held new snow and ice from a storm a few days prior. After carefully scrambling through the slippery snow along most of the ridge I got to a point where I did not feel comfortable continuing in the current conditions and I returned back to Russell-Carillon saddle. On the way back to Whitney Portal I stopped at beautiful Upper Boy Scout Lake and then returned down the North Fork Lone Pine Creek. While I did not complete Russell, I achieved my goal of exploring the Tulainyo Lake basin. I will definitely be back to this area to complete my intended route, which includes completing the East Ridge of Russell, an ascent of the North Face of Mount Whitney, and finishing off with a run down the Whitney Trail.

Kaweah Queen & Lawson Peak via Kaweah Gap

Each of the past four years I have run the High Sierra Trail to Hamilton Lakes, Kaweah Gap and nearby Precipice Lake. The rugged beauty of this region never ceases to amaze and inspire, from the sapphire blue of Hamilton Lakes and Precipice Lake to the sheer granite walls of Angel Wings and the Valhallas. This time I decided to head beyond the Kaweah Gap area and across Nine Lakes Basin to the northern end of the Kaweah Range to climb Kaweah Queen and Lawson Peak. These peaks offered unique views into the north side of the Kaweah Range and the remote Kaweah Basin. I also passed through some stunning alpine scenery along a series of rarely visited lakes beneath the towering north face of Black Kaweah. Both Lawson Peak and Kaweah Queen are fairly straightforward climbs with the greatest challenge being the long approach and loose rock in spots. Fortunately, the outrageous scenery en route and panoramic views from the summits make the long distance worthwhile. Strava route here.

I started out just after 4 am from Crescent Meadows with perfect nighttime weather. The High Sierra Trail is an excellent trail for running all the way to the crossing of Lone Pine Creek (~13 miles in) with no major climbs and relatively smooth trail by Sierra standards. Beyond, the trail gains nearly 2,500 feet over the next 7 miles to Kaweah Gap and becomes a bit more rugged. I made it up to Precipice Lake with the first rays of sunlight illuminating the cliffs of Eagle Scout Peak. I reached Kaweah Gap a little over 4.5 hrs after starting and continued on through gorgeous Nine Lakes Basin. Travel through the basin is very straightforward and I was soon at the upper lakes beneath Black Kaweah and beginning the scramble up Lawson Peak. Lawson has great views, particularly the angle of Milestone Bowl and the upper reaches of the Kern-Kaweah River. After Lawson I continued on or near the ridgecrest to Kaweah Queen. Kaweah Queen is arguably the best vantage of the rugged north side of the Kaweah Range with the rugged spires of Koontz Pinnacle and Pyramidal Pinnacle closest at hand. The magnificent panorama also encompasses the elongated Lake 11,692 beneath the sinister north face of Black Kaweah, desolate Kaweah Basin and the Great Western Divide. Across Kern Canyon and Kern Basin I could make out most of the peaks on the Sierra Crest from Mount Keith south to Mount Langley. The descent from Kaweah Queen was extremely loose rock characteristic of the Kaweahs so caution was required. Back at the lakes, it was easy cross country travel back to Kaweah Gap. On the way back I stopped to enjoy lovely Precipice Lake and Hamilton Lakes before completing the run back to Crescent Meadows on the High Sierra Trail.  The following photos are in chronological order. Strava route here.