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 Turbo 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.

Big Creek Reserve

Between Julie Pfieffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park is a long stretch of amazingly beautiful Big Sur coastline that unfortunately lies on private land precluding exploration beyond the turnouts along Highway 1.  However, on one day of the year a section of this coastline opens to the general public at the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. This reserve is part of the University of California Natural Reserve System with a mission to further university-level teaching, research and public service at protected natural areas.  In order to foster the on-site research and education principles, the reserve is closed to the public for all but one day of the year (usually the second Saturday in May). The Big Creek reserve encompasses rugged canyons that drain the region to the north and west of Cone Peak, the King of Big Sur, and is located within arguably the most scenic region in all of Big Sur.  Extremely intrigued, I made sure to circle my calendar for the date of the “open house” and Erica and I maximized the few hours it was open. We found a wonderful network of single track trails showcasing virtually all of the greatness that is Big Sur, from lush redwood-filled canyons to grassy ridges covered in spring wildflowers with outstanding coastal views. Moreover, the reserve contained unique aspects, including one of the most stunning waterfalls in the Santa Lucia Mountains and a large hot spring pool.  The variety of flora is impressive reflecting the diversity and richness of the environments and habitats in the reserve, including chaparral, redwoods, oak woodland, grassland, pine and even a grove of Santa Lucia Firs near Highlands Peak.

Two of the most important streams in the region flow through the reserve, Big Creek and Devils Canyon Creek. The streams meet in the reserve and flow as one stream for the last mile into the Pacific Ocean at Big Creek Cove.  Along Big Creek is a natural hot spring pool, which is many times larger than the popular Sykes Hot Springs along the Big Sur River. Along Devils Canyon creek is perhaps the most striking feature, the remote Canogas Falls, which tumbles over 60 feet in a series of three steps with turquoise pools in between each step. The setting of the falls nestled between rugged cliffs with a lush redwood forest is magical. I couldn’t resist taking a swim in the frigid waters in the lower of two intermediary pools. The reserve also features two prominent grassy ridges with stunning views: Dolan Ridge and Highlands Ridge. Dolan Ridge provides an outstanding vista north up the coast toward Boronda Ridge and also south looking into Devils Canyon with Cone Peak and Twin Peak towering above.  On this day Dolan Ridge was covered in a spectacular lupine bloom, the likes of which have not been seen since 1999.  Highlands Ridge, including Gamboa Point, features excellent views back to Dolan Ridge, the Big Creek Bridge, and the turquoise waters off the coast. Big Creek is a treasure and well-deserving of its protection. It was great to explore a section of the Big Sur coast that I have never seen and I look forward to returning next year.    

Stone Ridge Descent

On the last post, I mentioned (many) more Stone Ridge photos were coming so here they are! Despite this being my fifth time travelling the ridge, the views were just as inspiring. Stone Ridge is a spot I could return over and over again; a truly magical place! These photos were taken after an FKT run up Cone Peak via Kirk Creek and Vicente Flat (1h50m). While I have climbed Cone Peak over a dozen times by various routes, I have never really done it for speed, so I figure there is room for some personal improvement. Obviously a race-like effort by talented mountain runners could knock down the time more substantially. Nonetheless, it’s close to 6,000 feet of elevation gain in just over 11 miles to ascend Cone Peak via Vicente Flat (including a couple steep pitches) so it will always be a challenging run. After traveling through a thick fog layer in the upper reaches of Cone Peak, the views opened up near the summit.  It was awesome to see low clouds riding over the ridge between Cone Peak and Twin Peak. These clouds dissipated as I made my way over Twin Peak producing brilliant sunshine and spectacular clarity on the way down Stone Ridge. The turquoise blue water along the coast juxtaposed with the green grass was fantastic.   I was waffling on whether to carry a camera or not, but very happy I wound up carrying it.  I placed the camera in the water resistant pouch of the Ultimate Direction Jurek Essential, I hardly noticed it!  I chose a cool day for the quick run up the mountain so I only needed the Jurek Essential and the Fastdraw 20 for hydration. Prior Stone Ridge Posts:

Cone Peak via Stone Ridge Direct 2014

What’s the most impressive and prominent grassy ridge in all of Big Sur? The answer, without question, is Stone Ridge. I’ve featured this striking ridge on my blog several times so what haven’t I already said about Stone Ridge? Nothing (see links to prior posts below). That being said, here are a few thoughts and many more photos from one of my favorite spots in Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness.

Stone Ridge is an awesome place to be any time of the year, but the few weeks during spring when the meadows turn verdant are particularly special.  As Stone Ridge is a south-north oriented ridge, I have learned that the setting photographs best in the afternoon and evening as the coast to south gets better light. This year, Erica and I ascended to Twitchell Flat and lower Stone Ridge, and then took the Stone Ridge Trail and Gamboa Trail around Twin Peak to the summit of Cone Peak. From Cone Peak we traversed to Twin Peak and then descended Stone Ridge from top to bottom during evening light. The advantage of going down Stone Ridge as part of this loop was manifold:  (1) it enabled us to catch evening light on the ridge and still return to the car before dark, (2) by descending you’re looking at the incredible view with each and every step, and (3) it’s easier to descend the steep ridge than ascend it. While I obviously put a lot of thought into when and how do this particular loop, the reality is that Stone Ridge is amazing any time of day, as an ascent, descent, or a destination in itself (I can attest since I have done all of the above). Finally, just in case you haven’t had enough Stone Ridge, I’ve got some more photos from Stone Ridge coming soon.

Prior (and future) Stone Ridge posts:

Boronda Ridge & Marble Peak

Back in January I explored the Boronda-De Angulo Loop and thought it would be fitting to return to Boronda Ridge during the short spring period of green.  Boronda Ridge rises steeply from the ocean with magnificent vistas of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding terrain. It’s one of the most amazing spots in all of Big Sur. The trail is also provides an efficient access point to the central part of the Coast Ridge Road and Marble Peak, with its suburb views of the interior Ventana. I view Boronda Ridge as Stone Ridge’s little sister. While Stone Ridge tops out at over 4,800 ft at the summit of Twin Peak, Boronda ridge reaches just over 3,000 feet at the summit of Timber Top.  Despite its lower vertical, Boronda Ridge rises more steeply immediately from the ocean with truly impressive relief on the lower part of the ridge. From a vista at 1,500 feet above sea level, the topography is so steep that it’s almost as if you could dive into the ocean! The amazing views on Boronda are virtually non-stop owing to the fact that the ridge crest is almost entirely devoid of vegetation other than grass.  The ridge culminates in an elegant arm at the upper part of the ridge. This photogenic rounded arm is separated by deep canyons of oak and redwood with the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean shimmering below. It’s truly a remarkable spot and one of my favorite spots along the Big Sur Coast. The top of Boronda Ridge is a peaklet known as Timber Top, with a camping area (no water) and more phenomenal views. Boronda Ridge also provides efficient access to the middle section of the Coast Ridge Road (a gravel road closed to public vehicles).  Boronda Ridge also provides efficient access to the middle section of the Coast Ridge Road (a gravel road closed to public vehicles).  Heading north from Timber Top, the road passes through more grassy meadows as it gradually descends to the Ventana Inn at Big Sur. To the south, the road gradually gains elevation in a predominantly chaparral and pine forest environment with plenty of interior and coastal vistas along the way. The road skirts Michael’s Hill and then has a dip, followed by an ascent and another dip before the final climb to near the broad summit of Anderson Peak. Anderson Peak itself is property of the federal government and contains some buildings, aviation equipment and weather sensors. The summit area is surrounded by fencing and is closed, but fortunately Marble Peak (of nearly the same height) is only a half mile beyond. In fact, Marble Peak arguably has the better 360 degree view because it is more of a pinnacle. Running down the road from Anderson Peak, turn off just past a sign that says “Marble Peak” and briefly take a trail cuts through a brush tunnel. Near the crest of the ridge, leave the trail and take use paths traversing grass on the west side of Marble Peak until you’re almost beneath the summit. From here, a virtually brush free route to the summit presents itself. Marble Peak has excellent views of the interior Ventana Wilderness. Looking north is an excellent view of the rugged ridge from Kandlbinder to La Ventana to Ventana Double Cone. To the south is Cone Peak, Twin Peak, Mining Ridge, and the Lost Valley. To the east is Junipero Serra Peak, Black Cone and the upper drainage of the South Fork Big Sur River. All told, it’s about 7.5 miles each way from the Timber Top to the summit of Marble Peak for a 15 mile roundtrip. Combined with the 6 miles round trip to Timber Top up Boronda Ridge, the route becomes a 21 miles total. The extension to Marble Peak is an excellent way to tack on some miles on relatively fast runnable road, but still enjoy grand views along the way.  

 

Cone Peak’s North Ridge & Lost Valley

This was an excellent route linking the spectacular North Ridge of Cone Peak and the remote Lost Valley.  I have been wanting to visit Lost Valley for some time so it was great to finally make it out there and also incorporate the excellent scenery of Cone Peak and South Fork Devils Canyon. We started from Memorial Park campground and went up the Arroyo Seco Trail. There is quite a bit of new downfall from a winter storm in February with one particularly cumbersome tree, but the canyon forest of incense cedar and Santa Lucia Fir was as beautiful as I remembered from the Santa Lucia Three Peaks adventure. Once on the North Coast Ridge, we made good progress to Cone Peak’s amazing north ridge where we left the trail.  The ridge has awesome views in all directions, including the rugged South Fork Devils Canyon and the upper reaches of the San Antonio River. It’s also great to climb amid sugar pines and Santa Lucia Firs. After summiting Cone, we took the Cone Peak Trail back to Trail Springs and then up the Gamboa Trail to complete the small lollipop loop. We then took the North Coast Ridge Trail all the way to the junction with the Rodeo Flats Trail where Erica turned off to head back down to Memorial Park while I continued along the ridge to the Lost Valley Connector Trail. Continued below… The Lost Valley Connector is marked by a stake where the old road bed of the North Coast Ridge Trail emerges onto the firebreak. The first part is single track with some encroaching brush and the next part is on an old firebreak that is quickly narrowing into single track as brush fills in. It is important to carry and study a map for the Lost Valley Connector as I saw a backpacking group heading down a wayward ridge and experiencing difficulties in thick brush. As long as you stay on the route, the trail is in fair condition and an efficient way to get form the coast ridge to Lost Valley. Lost Valley is a beautiful, peaceful spot with grassy meadows, pines, and chaparral covered hillsides. The best meadows are beyond the Lost Valley camp and a crossings of both Lost Valley Creek and Higgins Creek. This stretch of meadows is nearly a mile long and picturesque.  While the meadows are beautiful, it is prime tick territory and I removed a number of them from my socks. After my out-and-back through Lost Valley I returned via the Lost Valley Trail which was recently brushed and cleared by a crew. The trail is in good shape except for a few new downfalls from the February storm. From 1,800 ft in Lost Valley, the trail climbs over 1,000 feet to a pass at ~2,900 ft that provides access back to the main stem Arroyo Seco drainage. Part of the way up to this pass is a pretty waterfall known as Pothole Slide Falls. The waterfall is a series of two slides down a smooth rock face with a pool in between, the “pothole.”  Beyond the pass is a steep descent to the Arroyo Seco River. After crossing the river an 500+ ft vertical ascent leads to Escondido Camp where the trail concludes. From Escondido Camp it was a run along the Indian Rd. dirt track back to Memorial Camp. Stava route here, but note that actual mileage is 33+ miles.