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 Map My Fitness 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.

2014 Adventure Run Ideas

It should come as no surprise that I have many ideas for adventure runs (see 2013 post here and 2012 post here).  Listed below are several potential routes in the High Sierra, Trinity Alps and Coastal Region (mostly Big Sur/Ventana, but some Lost Coast).  Many of these ideas are rather obscure, but the Ventana Wilderness and Sierra Nevada are filled with hidden gems and I expect all of these will be aesthetic routes with outstanding scenery. Hopefully I’ll get to several of these ideas this year and several more routes that I haven’t thought about yet!  I also hope to visit the North Cascades in Washington State at some point, but since my opportunities to travel up north are limited I won’t dedicate a special ideas post to the Cascades this year.  All photos by me from adventures in 2013 and 2014.

Sierra: 

  • Mount Kaweah and Second Kaweah: Fantastic views from the summits compensate for otherwise chossy climbing. The approach is also highly scenic through Little Five Lakes.
  • Whitney Zone Loop: Full meal deal with the Cleaver, Tunnabora, Carillon, Russell, Whitney, Muir, and maybe some of those other pinnacles between Whitney and Muir. 
  • Tyndall & Williamson: Double the fun for these two fourteeners via Shepherd’s Pass and Williamson Bowl.
  • Mount Rixford, Dragon Peak & University Peak: These all look like fun peaks to ascend. Mount Rixford, with its position west of the crest, is a particularly good viewpoint. Dragon Peak looks impressively rugged from the Rae lakes Basin. I’d also like ascend Mount Bago via its walk-up side.   
  • Comb Spur & Goat Mountain: Great early season route with huge views.
  • Cirque Crest Loop: An area I have yet to explore with some cool peaks I’d like to climb including Mount Ruskin and Observation Peak. This region also contains some of the range’s most remote basins including Dumbell Basin, Lake Basin and Amphitheater Lake.
  • Arrow Peak and Bench Lake: An adventure via Taboose Pass that has been on the list for many years, but I haven’t made it out yet to see the classic Sierra view of Arrow Peak from Bench Lake. Perhaps this trip could be combined with the Cirque Crest Loop described above.
  • Ionian Basin – Scylla & Hansen: Accessed via Sabrina Basin and Echo Col, this region is near Muir Pass and the JMT, but far away from the beaten path and features spectacular peaks and many high lakes amid one of the most rugged and strikingly desolate settings in the High Sierra.
  • The Black Divide Loop – Charybdis, Black Giant, McDuffie: A three peak loop tour of of the Ionian Basin, accessed via Bishop Pass and South Lake.
  • Bench Valley: Another western approach to the LeConte Divide, featuring a string of remote high alpine lakes off-trail.
  • Mt. Henry, Red Mountain and Hell for Sure Lake: A beautiful area with lots of easy cross country terrain.
  • Evolution Loop:  Last time I did the horseshoe loop from north to south, but I’m wondering if south to north is actually faster. The argument for south to north is that most of the steep climbing is completed earlier rather than later, which may work better for me as I’ll be able to attack the long and at times steep climb out Pate Valley to Muir Pass early in the route.  Despite it being a long uphill slog from the JMT junction to Piute Pass, it’s fairly gradual and I think most of it is runnable for me if I’m feeling good at that point in the run, whereas the climb from Pate Valley to Bishop Pass is too steep for any running late in the run. I also like the idea of running down through Evolution Basin and Valley.  Finally, the South Lake trailhead is also marginally higher by about 500 feet.  I guess I’ll have to find out if south to north is faster. 
  • Bench Canyon Loop: At the remote headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River this loop entails a section of the Sierra High Route from Thousand Island Lake to Tuolumne Meadows.
  • Northern Yosemite 50 miler: This is a fantastic loop including Peeler Lake, the Benson Lake riviera, Smedberg Lake, Matterhorn Canyon and Burro Pass.
  • Boundary Lake and Cherry Canyon: In northwest Yosemite and the Emigrant Wilderness.
  • John Muir Trail: The classic trail through the range of light. I’ve seen most of the trail over the years so it’s my hope to put it all together. 
  • Sierra High Route: Another big project. Over 195 miles, largely off trail through some of the best scenery the High Sierra has to offer.

Trinity Alps:

  • Sawtooth Mountain & Smith Lake: Easily the most rugged peak in the Trinity Alps and ironically it’s also arguably the most rugged mountain north of Sawtooth Ridge in the High Sierra (Yosemite/Hoover Wilderness). This route will include the remote Smith Lake nestled in a granite basin underneath Sawtooth Mountain, which is accessed via Alpine Lake, another fitting spot for an afternoon swim.
  • Caesar Peak via Stuart Fork: A trip up the Stuart Fork Trinity River to Emerald, Sapphire and Mirror Lakes finishing with a climb of Caesar Peak.
  • Caribou Mountain and Sawtooth Ridge: Beautiful views overlooking the Caribou Lakes basin, Stuart Fork Canyon and the Trinity Alps.

Coastal

  • Lost Coast: I have done the entire Lost Coast from the Mattole River to Usal Beach twice over two days each. The idea is to do the entire 53 mile stretch of the coast in one single day push.
  • King Crest 50: A 50 mile route in the King Range portion of the Lost Coast, including the entire King Crest, the Cooskie Creek route to Gorda 2, and a spectacular section of the Lost Coast beach walk [completed March 23rd, blog post coming soon].
  • Pico-Cabezo Route: A point-to-point tour of the peaks from Bottcher’s Gap to Pfieffer Big Sur State Park, incluidng Pico Blanco, South Fork Little Sur River, East Molera Ridge, Post Summit, Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. 
  • Ventana Loop: Finding some inspiration in my La Ventana Loop report, Sachin and Toshi put up an awesome variation by descending into the rugged cirque between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone and then ascending the rugged west ridge of Ventana Double Cone via what appears to be an instant classic scramble route.This is an awesome region with a lot left for me to explore.
  • Mocho Falls along the South Fork Big Sur River: A trail run to Sykes Hot Springs and then a creekwalk along the Big Sur River and then the South Fork Big Sur River to an enigmatic waterfall that is apparently 80 feet tall on the main stem of the south fork, but has seen few visitors and no photographs that I can find.
  • South Big Sur Coast Adventures: I have done several trips in the Silver Peak Wilderness recently, including the South Coast Adventure point-to-point and the Silver Peak Wilderness Loop, but it’s got some of the best scenery along the entire Big Sur coast so I look forward to returning for more exploration.
  • Arroyo Seco River Gorge: For a hot day in the summer I would like to see the entire Arroyo Seco Canyon from top to bottom in a ~25 mile loop, 13 miles on old road and the balance walking in and swimming the Arroyo Seco.

Santa Lucia Three Peaks

The Santa Lucia Three Peaks is classic route that includes the summits of three major peaks in the Ventana Wilderness – Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. Along the way there are great views of both the Big Sur Coast and the interior Ventana Wilderness. While mostly utilizing trails, the route does feature three prominent cross-country ridges, the North Ridge of Cone Peak, the traverse between Cone Peak and Twin Peak, and the West Ridge of Twin Peak.  These prominent off-trail ridges are probably the highlight of the route and make it an adventure.  With the exception of redwoods, the route contains the entire array of Ventana vegetation, including perhaps the best Santa Lucia fir forest in existence, the most extensive stand of old growth Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucia Mountains, and rare grove of incense cedars in the Arroyo Seco river canyon. It’s a big route coming in over 32 miles with nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain and the off-trail portions are fairly arduous and slow compared to the trails.  Strava route here.

The route starts at Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground after a drive through Fort Hunter Liggett (note: Del Venturi Road is closed after heavy rain). From Memorial Park, the Arroyo Seco Trail provides quick access to the North Coast Ridge Trail on a great single track.  This upper section of the Arroyo Seco canyon is surprisingly lush and enchanting with madrone, oak, Santa Lucia Firs and a rare grove of Incense Cedars. Climbing out of the canyon, the vegetation turns more chaparral with a young forest of knobcone pine. On the north coast ridge, the trail climbs to Tin Can Camp with a great view looking back to Junipero Serra Peak and an awesome stretch through Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine forest.  At the junction with the Gamboa Trail, veer left to continue on the North Coast Ridge Trail. Cross a rocky slope and then begin descending on the east side of Cone Peak before finding an easy gap to gain the crest of the north ridge of Cone Peak. The first part of the north ridge is easy open terrain with a use path in sections. The second part of the north ridge becomes more rugged with bits of scrambling in spots and a couple places where you must come off the ridge to the west side to avoid loose rock formations on the ridge crest proper. This second part of the north ridge has phenomenal views and an airy feeling with lots of relief on both sides of the serrated rocky ridge, especially on the east side where cliffs plunge several hundred feet. Old growth Santa Lucia Firs and Sugar Pines are at home in this environment clinging to the cliffy slopes and thereby avoiding the periodic wildfires that sweep through these mountains. The scrambling is very enjoyable on the north ridge, but it doesn’t last long before the familiar fire lookout atop 5,155 ft Cone Peak comes into view. Cone Peak is the King of the Big Sur Coast and third highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains. It features the most dramatic relief from the ocean in the contiguous United States as only 3 miles separate its summit from the sands. After enjoying the marvelous views from Cone Peak, descend the Cone Summit Trail for a short distance and take the ridge connecting Cone Peak to Twin Peak. This cross country route features a couple scrambling moves but is largely a use path along the ridge.  

After summiting Twin Peak, continue down the West Ridge of Twin. At first, it is best to stay on the north side of the ridge in old growth Sugar Pine forest with an open understory. Some large downfalls slow travel but ultimately you reach the grassy slopes of the lower part of the ridge. The only paths on this ridge are made by game and their feet are much narrow than humans. The result is steep sidehilling than can become tiring but the views more than compensate. Eventually the grassy ridge terminates at the Stone Ridge Trail-Gamboa Trail junction at Ojito Pass. From Ojito Pass take the Gamboa Trail as it traverses through the headwaters of the South Fork Devils Canyon passing through arguably the most complete Santa Lucia forest in existence. A reliable spring is located at Trail Spings (can be a seep in late summer and fall). Continue along the Gamboa Trail past Trail Springs and climb to the junction with the North Coast Ridge Trail. From this junction retrace steps back to Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground.

From Memorial Park, head south down the road a short distance and find the Santa Lucia Trail/Junipero Serra Peak Trailhead. For the first couple miles, the Santa Lucia Trail is very runnable as it undulates through grassland and oak woodland. However, the final four miles to the summit of Junipero Serra Peak become steep rising over 3,500 feet over that distance. This climb is a real challenge after the preceding climbs of Cone Peak and Twin Peak. It is not advisable on a warm day, especially in the afternoon since most of the climb is exposed south-facing chaparral. The vegetation changes in the last mile to the summit when the trail rounds a corner onto the north side of the peak where there is a pleasant forest of Sugar Pine and Coulter Pine. The broad summit of Junipero Serra Peak (aka Pimkolam by the Native Americans) is the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountains at 5,862 feet. The summit has a nice vista looking west to Cone Peak, the Silver Peak Wilderness region, and also north to Ventana Double Cone. If Cone Peak is the King of Big Sur and Ventana Double Cone is the Queen of the Ventana, Junipero Serra is the grandfather of the Santa Lucias (Pico Blanco is the prince of Big Sur and Silver Peak is the princess of the South Coast). There is a summit a register on the east side of the ridge located on a cement foundation. The old dilapidated fire lookout on the west side of the ridge has virtually nothing left but its steel frame. There are also some old artifacts on the ridge, including an old cot frame. Enjoy the descent, which is virtually all downhill to the finish at Memorial Park; you will have earned it!  Strava route here.

La Ventana Loop: Kandlbinder – La Ventana – Ventana Double Cone

The La Ventana Loop is a tremendous route that was as difficult as it was beautiful. To my knowledge Kandlbinder, La Ventana (aka The Window), and Ventana Double Cone have never been climbed together as a day trip. It took Brian Robinson, Whit Rambach, Joey Cassidy and me a little over 13 hours to complete the loop (start at 6:40 a.m. and finish at 7:50 p.m.).  The route had a little bit of everything: spectacular scenery (including coastal Big Sur and interior Ventana), remoteness, ruggedness, hideous brush, stream crossings by the dozen, waterfalls, old growth redwood groves, old growth Santa Lucia Firs, exposure, commitment, rock scrambling, treacherously loose rock, and a beautiful sunset. In all, the La Ventana Loop is around 30 miles with 9,500 ft of elevation gain, but the stats belie the difficulty of the 3 mile traverse between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone. Garmin Connect Data: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/430728534

Back in December on the Ventana Double Cone trip, I was captivated as I gazed across the immensely rugged cirque to La Ventana and Kandlbinder and hoped to one day stand on those points. I recalled hearing about a route up Jackson Creek that provided direct access to La Ventana and wondered if a giant loop could be made that would include the summits of Kandlbinder and Ventana Double, essentially encircling the Little Sur drainage. In order to make the loop a reality, one must traverse between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone, a stretch that has virtually no recent information and looked like brush hell on satellite. For a couple weeks I focused more on ascending Kandlbinder as an out-and-back via the Jackson Creek Route which has some recent route beta, but discussion with Joey reignited my interest in tackling the La Ventana Loop sooner rather than later. In a matter of days I was ready to tackle the challenge after discussion and careful satellite analysis. With a great weather forecast, the team of four was assembled at Bottcher’s Gap in the pre-dawn hours and pumped to give the La Ventana adventure a go.

Click for a full-size annotated view from Kandlbinder PeakLa Ventana Altitude

There is little information on this wild and rugged area of the Ventana Wilderness and virtually no information about the traverse between La Ventana and Ventana Double Cone. It’s a committing route that is extremely arduous, requiring advanced navigational skills and wherewithal to persevere through extremely difficult terrain and hideous brush. That being said, here are my thoughts on the segments of the La Ventana Loop:

  1. The Little Sur River: After a 3.5 mile run down the dirt road to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp from Bottcher’s Gap, we took the Jackson Camp Trail to Jackson Camp. This trail is in good condition and a pleasant run through lush redwoods. Beyond Jackson Camp there are numerous crossings of the Little Sur River and we walked right through the water in the interest of time (although rock-hopping is possible in low flow). The use path is fairly easy to follow between crossings and most of the crossings are flagged. 1.3 miles from Jackson Camp is Fox Usecamp, a nice flat spot amid redwoods where Jackson Creek flows into the Little Sur River. At Fox Usecamp, we turned up Jackson Creek and soon came across a pretty waterfall known as Firehose falls.
  2. Jackson Creek:  The Jackson Creek route proved highly enjoyable. The old growth redwoods in the canyon were amazing and the stream was pretty with small cascades and pools. By taking the path of least resistance we were able to make decent progress. There are lots of down trees to go under, over and across. Beyond Happy Fork Camp, we traversed a little above the stream before heading up grassy slopes in oak woodland to a small saddle above Jackson Creek. A quick descent from the saddle brought us to a dry streambed that drains the slopes of La Ventana and Kandlbinder in periods of heavy rain.  This area had plentiful poison oak but travel through the brush was reasonable.
  3. Kandlbinder Direct:  We took a talus gully up ~1,400 feet from the bottom of the canyon below La Ventana directly to the summit of Kandlbinder. The climbing was sustained and sometimes loose, but brush-free. This is a phenomenal route amid old growth Santa Lucia Firs and the view from Kandlbinder is amazing, perhaps the best in all of the Ventana Wilderness. We arrived at Kandlbinder in under 5 hours from Bottchers Gap. This turned out to be the easy part.
  4. Kandlbinder to La Ventana: From Kandlbinder, we stayed below the ridge crest to avoid copious deadfall from the Basin Complex fire immediately on top of the ridge. While the terrain is mostly brush-free, it is very steep with cliff bands and the rock is treacherously loose requiring care and extreme caution.
  5. La Ventana:  We traversed around some cliffs and ascended the final slopes (much poison oak) to the famous notch known as La Ventana (aka the Window) for which the Ventana Wilderness is named. La Ventana is a fascinating spot, although it’s largely filled with brush these days. 
  6. The Impasse: The cliffs on the east side of the La Ventana notch are a formidable obstacle to continuing the traverse to VDC. Such an impasse is something I would expect in the High Sierra, not the Santa Lucias. We couldn’t find any safe ledges (without technical gear) in the vicinity of the notch and descended several hundred feet where we found a safe passage with some class 3 moves. 
  7. The Crux: Once we got through the cliff band, we encountered fairly thick brush as we made an ascending traverse back to the ridge crest. From here to the next high point on the ridge had truly hideous, atrocious brush. The dead manzanita and other spiny vegetation combined with the flourishing new brush growth made travel extremely arduous and slow. The brush was worst right on the ridge crest where deadfall was abundant. After careful investigation of satellite imagery before and after the trip, I’ve concluded that this section is a slog no matter which way you cut it.  
  8. The Ridge Traverse: From an intermediate high point along the ridge, the next section was rocky with little brush and we made good progress for awhile and enjoyed the exposure on both sides of the ridge.  However, we soon encountered another wall of brush and deadfall. We descended off the ridge a couple hundred feet down extremely steep and loose slopes to traverse around this brush. We ascended back to the ridge via another talus gully that was brush-free. Now back on the ridge, we enjoyed another nice rocky section with amazing views into Ventana Creek and VDC. After this point we made a direct line across the basin to the Ventana Double Cone trail. The brush in this final portion is much more manageable.
  9. Ventana Double Cone: Elated to be back on the trail, we ran up to the top of VDC and enjoyed the late afternoon views from this awesome summit. In all, it took over 3.5 hours to complete the traverse from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to VDC. 
  10. Completing the Loop: From VDC we took the trail back to Pat Springs and Bottchers Gap. We had a spectacular sunset from Little Pines overlooking Pico Blanco and drank up the cool, fresh waters in Pat Springs. A full moon and warm evening temps made the last 7 miles from Pat Springs a pleasant night run. The trail is getting some more work and is in decent shape, or maybe it just felt like a highway compared to the brush we endured on the traverse. 

Note: The following photos are in chronological order from the Little Sur River at daybreak to the group shot at Bottcher’s Gap after finishing in the dark.

Into the Wild on the Big Sur Trail

The Big Sur Trail is a rugged, overgrown trail, but the reward for the arduous effort is passage through the remote north and south forks of the wild and scenic Big Sur River. We also visited Rainbow Falls along the South Fork Big Sur River, rock hopping through the spectacular stream bed to reach this remote, hidden waterfall. Perhaps only in the bottom of the South Fork Big Sur River canyon can one find a forest composed of redwoods, Santa Lucia Firs and Coulter Pines, all living side by side. The wilderness feeling in these canyons is unparalleled.  It was a treat to see the wild and scenic canyons of the Big Sur River, arguably the heart of the Ventana Wilderness. It’s no wonder the trail posses the name “Big Sur,” the descriptive name for this rugged section of California coastline. The Basin Complex Fire in 2008 served to temporarily clear out the brush, but 5 years later the vegetation and impediments have returned with a vengeance. The remote nature of the route, and its reputation for brush, blowdowns and route finding issues explains why so few people venture into these canyons. The grand finale was a run down Boronda Ridge in evening light with an amazing sunset over the golden hills and Big Sur coastline. I had the pleasure of joining Brian Robinson for this adventure. Brian knows this trail well and spoke highly of the beauty of this region which got my imagination going and was the impetus for this trip. After seeing the Big Sur Trail for myself, I agree that it’s a gem and worth the effort. I will definitely be returning for further exploration. Strava route here.

We began by running up the Pine Ridge Trail to Sykes Hot Springs. Unlike most of the Ventana trail network, the 10 mile stretch of the Pine Ridge Trail is a well-maintained wilderness freeway with no severe ups and downs making it an enjoyable trail run. Beyond Sykes Hot Springs, the terrain was new for me and the quality of the trail decreased. After some switchbacks above Sykes, the trail traverses a steep slope (erosion in spots) with excellent views down to the confluence of the south and north forks of the Big Sur River and up the rugged canyon of the north fork. Rounding a corner in to the Redwood Creek drainage is an excellent view of an ancient redwood grove that was miraculously spared in the Basin Complex Fire. The trail descends into this beautiful grove where an excellent camp spot is located among towering redwoods and a verdant stream. Emerging from this redwood grove, one begins to see more evidence of the devastation of the 2008 fires. Along most of the Big Sur River, the redwoods have filled in and the scars of fire are becoming less striking. However, in the section from redwood camp to Cienega Creek the fire burned hot and the survival rate much less. The trail descends down the brushy and fire-scarred Cienega Creek drainage to the North Fork of the Big Sur River.

Beyond the North Fork, the trail begins many brushy switchbacks up to a small pass along a ridge that separates the north and south forks of the Big Sur River. The top of this pass represents a dividing line in fire behavior. On the south fork side, the vegetation was much less impacted with pines and oak woodland seemingly unharmed. I very much enjoyed the descent into the South Fork of the Big Sur River with some brush-free stretches of trail and excellent views into the wild and remote south fork canyon.  At the bottom of the canyon is a spectacular forest of redwoods, pine trees, and Santa Lucia Firs. It’s an ethereal scene seeing Santa Lucia Firs standing proud at the bottom of the canyon when I’m more accustomed to seeing them high on rocky ridges. At Rainbow Camp along the South Fork Big Sur River we took the remnants of the South Fork Trail to a sport where we could descend back to the river. From here, we rock hopped downstream to a small tributary that I guessed (correctly) was flowing from Rainbow Falls. We scrambled a short distance up this tributary and were treated to an awesome 55 foot drop of Rainbow Falls with a gorgeous amphitheater setting of rock and hanging gardens. The environment was relatively dry and water volume low due to the drought, but it was an awesome sight to see.  After the waterfall, we rocked hopped all the way back to Rainbow Camp. Along this stretch of the river I felt the genuine wilderness feeling in this rarely trodden canyon. It was as if we were traveling into the wild of the Ventana Wilderness. Back at Rainbow Camp, we had a snack and then continued on the Big Sur Trail to Mocho Camp about 0.5 miles distant.

Along the way there is a fantastic view looking down the South Fork with Santa Lucia Firs, Redwoods and pines filling the canyon and Ventana Double Cone towering above (first photo below). In my opinion this vista epitomizes the Ventana.  Beyond Mocho Camp is a section known as the Devil’s Staircase, so named after the long and arduous climb up numerous switchbacks from Mocho Creek to Logwood Creek. I had read reports of this section having heinous brush, routefinding problems and lots of blow downs, but I found that while the trail was brushy and difficult, travel was not unreasonable and we actually made good progress the entire way to Cold Springs, the end of the Big Sur Trail. In fairness, we came prepared for the conditions.  I wore gaiters and board shorts while Brian wore pants so our legs were completely covered from the scratchy brush. We also had gloves to push aside anything in our way. I highly recommend an outfit that protects the legs to make the Big Sur Trail an enjoyable experience. After grabbing some water at Cold Springs we took the Coast Ridge Road down to Timber Top just in time for evening light down Boronda Ridge. The run down Boronda Ridge that evening culminating in sunset is about as good as it gets; nothing short of amazing!  Boronda is the most elegant grassy ridge in all of Big Sur and timing was perfect. The clarity down the coast was phenomenal and I soaked it all in as much as I could while filling my cameras with as many photos as could take. It was one of those magical stretches in Big Sur that keep me coming back for more. All I could say upon arriving at the trailhead along Hwy 1 was “Wow!”  Strava route here

Clouds Rest & Yosemite’s Complete South Rim

While I know that Yosemite Valley is beautiful any time of the year, I had not experienced the Valley in the fall and I was eager to see some new trails (for me) on the south rim. A Saturday in early November was a great opportunity with the trails on the rim remaining largely snow-free. I designed a 38+ mile tour of the south rim of Yosemite Valley from Clouds Rest to Wawona Tunnel starting with the classic ascent up the Mist Trail from Happy Isles. The aesthetic point-to-point included a number of famous vistas: Clouds Rest, Panorama Point, Panorama Point Overlook, Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, Taft Point, Dewey Point, Crocker Point, Stanford Point, Inspiration Point and Artist Point. It was amazing to see the changing appearance of Half Dome and El Capitan, the most prominent features in the Valley,  as I made my way west along the South Rim. The biggest climb (6,000+ ft) is right at the beginning from the Valley to the summit of Clouds Rest, but the 2,500 ft of climbing from Illilouette Creek to Sentinel Dome is not easy either. All told, there is probably over 12,000 ft of climbing on the route. Beyond Sentinel Dome, the final 12 miles is largely downhill save for some moderate ascent to Dewey Point after crossing Bridalveil Creek. For a high resolution 360 degree annotated panorama from the summit of Clouds Rest, click on the image below or here. 

We encountered a surprising amount of snow in the shaded forest between Taft Point and Dewey Point, but overall the trails were in good condition. Panorama Point (not to be confused with Panorama Point Overlook) is a short-off trail hike along a ridgeline with nice 360 degree views. The highest point is at the end of the ridge. Panorama Point Overlook is just off the trail about 700 vertical feet below Panorama Point. A use path leaves the main trail at a switchback above Illilouette canyon, but there is no sign. It looks as if Panorama Point Overlook was once a bona fide vista, but the guardrail has since been removed (or fell off the cliff?) and it’s now one of the hidden gems of the Valley. Being late in the season, it was generally dry and the restroom facilities and water fountain at Glacier Point were closed. This means that if you are going out for a long run you must plan ahead for water locations. In fact, after Illilouette Creek, there is only one suitable water source on the route at Bridalveil Creek. Beyond Sentinel Dome, the focal point of the view is the immense granite wall of El Capitan. Taft Point is a tremendous viewpoint with some nice exposure for photogenic photography.  Continuing along the rim, we enjoyed magnificent evening light as we passed Dewey Point, Crocker Point and Stanford Point.  It took awhile to find the unobstructed view, but sunset at Inspiration Point was nice and post-sunset glow at Artist Point wrapped up a great day on the Yosemite trails.    

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!