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!”   

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.

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.