Northeast Yosemite is one of my favorite places in the Sierra Nevada. The peaks are not as high as the Southern Sierra, but it’s a distinctly alpine region characterized by a series of long glacier-carved canyons separated by sharp granitic peaks and ridgelines. The numerous canyons (from east to west) include Virginia Canyon, Spiller Canyon, Matterhorn Canyon, Slide Canyon, Rock Canyon, Kerrick Canyon, Thompson Canyon, Stubblefield Canyon, Tilden Canyon and Jack Main Canyon (see annotated satellite image of the canyons). All of the canyons flow into the Tuolumne River watershed and provide virtually limitless opportunities for exploration, and several of the canyons are completely trail-less canyons. The entire region offers some of the best wilderness terrain to wander off the beaten path in solitude. On this day I was looking for a relatively quick afternoon warm-up (post drive from the Bay Area) before my trip to Arrow Peak’s northeast ridge so I decided to do Virginia Peak, a striking peak that rises between the deeply-carved Spiller Canyon and Virginia Canyon. From the summit of Virginia Peak there is a magnificent view in all directions, including the impressively steep Whorl Mountain across picturesque Spiller Canyon,Matterhorn Peak at the head of the canyon, Mount Conness and Shepherd Crest to the south, and the Roof of Yosemite including Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure and Mount Florence.
The shortest and likely quickest access to Virginia Peak is via the Green Lake Trailhead, but I decided to access via Virginia Lakes, a pretty chain of alpine lakes I had never seen with trailhead access that is almost all on paved road (the Green Lake TH is a long dirt road). Moreover, the Virginia Lakes TH starts a bit higher. The downside is the approach builds in an extra climb over a saddle that is over 11,000 ft resulting in a decent climb on the way back. On balance, the extra distance to the peak seemed worthwhile. I used maintained paths to below Summit Lake and then set off cross-country traversing across the lowest slopes of Camiaca Peak to Upper Virginia Canyon. A trail once existed in upper Virginia Canyon but I could only find bits and pieces of it in the meadows. Either way, travel is easy in the canyon and the main objective is to avoid brush patches that tend to grow near the watercourse. At the highest reaches of Virginia Canyon a headwall is reached with a waterfall. Apparently an easy route exists to bypass the waterfall and continue along the main drainage, but I found a nice gully to the right that provided an easy “staircase” up to the granite benches and talus fields below Virginia Peak and Twin Peaks Pass. The final ascent to the pass entailed some loose rock, but I was soon traversing over to the start of the scramble. The final scramble up Virginia Peak’s northeast ridge is short and mostly class 2 with a couple class 3 moves. The view from the top is awesome and I soaked in the scenery for nearly an hour before returning to the Virginia Lakes TH with plenty of time to drive south for the next day’s adventure. GPS route here.
The “Sawtooth Loop” is a spectacular route through one of the most scenic regions of the High Sierra and a personal favorite. I call this particular route the Sawtooth Loop since it circumnavigates an impressively rugged subrange of the Sierra crest known as Sawtooth Ridge that straddles Yosemite national park’s northern boundary and the Hoover Wilderness. This deeply serrated ridge resembles a sawblade and contains features with enchanting names like Three Teeth, The Doodad, Dragtooth and Sawblade. On my route I chose to climb Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak, but there are numerous other variations and objectives in the region to include on such a loop, including the aforementioned points along Sawtooth Ridge, Eocene Peak, Crown Point and Slide Mountain. The north side of Sawtooth Ridge is conveniently close to Twin Lakes and Mono Village, even allowing for straightforward access during the winter months. This area has numerous popular destinations like Barney Lake and Peeler Lake for hikers and the world famous Incredible Hulk for climbers. However, the south side of Sawtooth Ridge, located in northern Yosemite, feels remote and wild with comparatively a small fraction of the visitors. Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon are spectacular glacier carved canyons lined with smooth granite walls and lovely meadows. A carry-over Matterhorn Peak, the highest point on the ridge, is an excellent way to access the outstanding scenery and wilderness of this region south of Sawtooth Ridge. Strava route here.
The most straightforward ascent of Matterhorn is via Horse Creek Pass. The going is very reasonable up to a shoulder above Horse Creek Pass, but once around the corner there is a section of tedious gravel slopes on Matterhorn’s southeast slopes (two steps up, slide a step back). The east couloir route, which I did on my first trip ever in the Sierra, is the preferred early season route when the couloir is still snow covered. Right now it looks like a loose, steep mess for a taxing ascent (i.e. more tedious than the Horse Creek Pass route). After enjoying the view from the summit I scrambled down to a small col where a sandy chute provides access to Matterhorn Peak’s southwest slope and Matterhorn Canyon. The descent through the chute is loose and also much preferable as a descent route. The chute deposited me fairly rapidly into the headwaters of Matterhorn Canyon. From upper Matterhorn Canyon I traversed over to Finger Peaks and scrambled up the east Finger. I wound up in hard class 3 and class 4 but it probably could have been easier if I was more careful with my route selection. I traversed the south side of the middle Finger and then ascended it via the class three route (starting from the notch between Middle and West Fingers) to gain summit and the highest point of Finger Peaks. This class 3 route seems improbably with a narrow natural ledge cut into a steep and smooth granite face piecing together two class 3 scramble portions. Without this ledge, the scramble looks like it would be at least class 4. The view of Sawtooth Ridge, Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon from both the east and middle Fingers are stupendous – one of best panoramas I have seen in the Sierra. I was happy to see the couloir west of the middle Finger was largely snow free so I descended more steep and loose slopes (carefully skirting around ice) and then pleasant alpine meadows down to the Burro Pass Trail. After a couple miles of running along the Burro Pass Trail, I headed cross country through meadows and granite benches to Ice Lakes Pass where I continued up to Kettle Peak. I had initially thought about tagging Eocene, but the route looked to require a bit more time than I had on this day. Kettle Peak was an awesome replacement objective with arguably the best view of the Incredible Hulk rock wall. From the summit, it’s as if you’re in a helicopter staring down at the sheer rock with climbers that look like specs on the immense granite face. Descending from Kettle Peak the views of the Incredible Hulk and Maltby Lake continued. I passed by some climber camps and then picked up the good use path through Little Slide Canyon. It’s an arduous climbers path to be sure, but it would be an incomparably more arduous trek through Little Slide Canyon without this path. The Incredible Hulk is all that I imagined it to be and more – a precipitous rock spire rising nearly vertically from the talus slopes below. It’s quite awe-inspiring to stand beneath this rock, especially in the afternoon with ideal lighting. It goes without saying that I’ll be back for more adventures to this wild and remote corner of northern Yosemite. Strava route here.