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!”
The North Fork Big Pine Creek is one of the most scenic areas in the High Sierra including a collection of picturesque alpine lakes, the largest glacier in the range, and some of the most rugged terrain in the Sierra in the Palisades subrange. I have visited the North Fork Big Pine twice before to climb Mount Sill. This time, instead of taking the glacier trail all the way to Palisade Glacier, I veered off at Sam Mack Meadow for climbs of Mount Winchell and Mount Robinson. Both peaks possess amazing viewpoints of the surrounding region. The biggest surprise of the route was spectacular Sam Mack Lake, positioned in a desolate, ice-polished granite bowl with a stunning view of the Palisades including Mount Gayley, Mount Sill, Polemonium Peak, North Palisade, Starlight, Thunderbolt, Mount Winchell and Mount Agassiz. Strava route here.
The route to Sam Mack Lake follows a use path above Sam Mack Meadows to a headwall where one most turn right to avoid cliffs. Beyond the headwall, it’s a straightforward ascent through talus and granite slabs to gorgeous Sam Mack Lake. Beyond Sam Mack Lake I traversed some talus but then found a very efficient route along granite slabs up to the foot of the Winchell scramble. Along the way I passed a high glacial lake tucked in between Winchell and Agassiz with silty glacial waters and some measuring equipment. While the more direct route to Winchell would avoid Sam Mack Lake all together, I feel like you’d be missing out on the great view and also I don’t think it’s any faster since the standard route entails much tedious boulder hoping. The climb up the east arete of Winchell is a fun, straightforward route. The rock becomes more solid as one ascends for some fun scrambling for the last few hundred vertical feet. The summit of Winchell has a spectacular view into Dusy Basin and the Black Divide across LeConte Canyon. The towering cliffs of Thunderbolt, North Palisade and SillI are close at hand. In addition, there are some unique rock formations on Winchell’s west side that are interesting to look at. Retracing my route from Winchell back to Sam Mack Lake, I was ready for the ascent up to Mount Robinson. This class 3 route had more great views the entire way. There are a number of false summits near the top requiring some bouldering work, but I was soon at the high point admiring another spectacular view. For the descent off Robinson I decided to try a different route down the south slopes. This route started out reasonable but turned very loose and steep in its mid section; not an advisable ascent route but ok for descending. Back at Sam Mack Lake for the third time I enjoyed the view and photographed once again before beginning my return through the North Fork Lone Pine. On the way out the light over Second Lake, one of the gems of the Sierra, was amazing and I snapped many photos of the silty turquoise waters with Temple Crag in the background. Below the lakes I passed through a magical display of fall color along the trail that I will feature in the next blog post. An awesome day in the Palisades! Strava route here.
An Onion Valley to South Lake trip has been on my list for a number of years. The route largely follows the JMT on arguably one of the most scenic stretches of the trail and includes Pinchot Pass and Mather Pass (and Glen Pass if all trail is taken). The trip is 65 miles all on trail, but I cut off 5 miles by taking Gould Pass over the crest directly into the Rae Lakes basin instead of Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass. While the off-trail route was shorter, it did not save much time (probably added time) and certainly required more energy. Gould Pass is rated at class 2, but it’s arduous travel beyond Golden Trout Lake. On top of that I made some small route finding errors that cumulatively cost time and energy. Once at Gould Pass, it’s not a cake walk descending into the Rae Lakes basin either. First, there is a steep and loose gully to negotiate and then a lot of cumbersome boulder hopping through an old glacier moraine down to Dragon Lake. From Dragon Lake, a faint use trail heads down to beautiful Rae Lakes where I was excited to finally hit a trail. I don’t regret taking this route with stunning views from Dragon Lake and one of the best photography angles I have seen of Rae Lakes, but next time I will likely utilize Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass to save that energy for all the running that follows on the JMT.
It’s hard to resist not taking a lot of photos and enjoying the spectacular scenery at Rae Lakes, one of the my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra. Once I finally exited the basin I made good progress down Woods Creek and the climb to Pinchot Pass. This was my first time up Pinchot Pass and it’s a long, but gradual climb. From Pinchot Pass I continued toward Upper Basin and the final slog up to Mather Pass. At Mather Pass I enjoyed the beautiful view of the Palisades and then made the descent to Palisade Lakes. From these lakes, I had initially planned to scramble up to Palisade Basin and cross over into Dusy Basin via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass, but extensive off-trail travel no longer seemed appealing so I continued down to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. This was a long way on trail and although I was moving fine, it still took a long time. By the time I got to the final climb up to Bishop Pass I was growing tired and as the sun set over Dusy Basin my energy levels had sunk. After hydrating and eating I eventually I made it up to Bishop Pass and down to the South Lake trail head. It was close to 11 pm when I arrived; 18 hours after starting. A “head down” approach could probably yield a time of under 14 hours for the route, but in all the times I’ve visited Rae Lakes, I still can’t keep my head down! This is a classic segment of the JMT and I will definitely return. Next time I will do Kearsarge Pass and pick up the JMT at Charlotte Lake. I will also aim to use the cross-country route to Dusy Basin and Bishop Pass via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass. Either way you slice it (trail or cross-country variations), this is a challenging route for a single day adventure run, but well worth the efforts with the amazing scenery.
Sky Haven is not particularly high nor is the route aesthetic, but its perch across the North Fork Big Pine Creek provides one of the most outstanding views in all of the High Sierra. The breathtaking panorama includes the entire Palisade Range with venerable fourteeners Split Mountain, Middle Palisade, Mount Sill and North Palisade all in view. At the center is the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada Range, the Palisade Glacier, with its impressive cirque of rock and gleaming snow captivating attention. Three additional fourtneeners with less than 300 feet of prominence join Sill and North Palisade to form this cirque and include Thunderbolt Peak, Starlight Peak and Polemonium Peak. In front of the jagged peaks lies the entire chain of lakes composing the Big Pine Lakes basin, including First through Seventh lakes along with Black Lake, Summit Lake, and Sam Mack Lake. A truly amazing and inspiring view!
The shortest and easiest route to reach Sky Haven is via South Lake via the pipeline and then an ascent to Green Lake. Beyond Green Lake is a spectacular high tundra-like pass. Descend from this pass to a natural spring and then begin a cross country scramble through boulders up to the ridge. For those unwilling to engage in more technical scrambling and the effort it entails, Point 12,688 ft along the ridge provides essentially the same view as the true summit of Sky Haven. In order to reach the true summit, travel to the east through quite a bit of tedious class 3 scrambling to the true summit at 12,860 ft. Sky Haven can also be reached via the North Fork Big Pine Trailhead via a significantly longer approach with more elevation gain (albeit nontechnical). After enjoying the view from Sky Haven I returned to Point 12,688 where I met Erica. After long admiration of the amazing, I continued along the ridge crest to a small pass near Cloudripper. There is spectacular scenery along the entire route linking Sky Haven to Cloudripper, including close views of desolate Thunder and Lightning Lake. From the pass a straightforward climb leads to the base of Cloudripper and up its final summit block to the 13,525 foot summit. Cloudripper also possesses an amazing view, especially into the South Lake area and points north including Mount Darwin and Mount Goddard. Vagabond Peak was next, but it was more of an obstacle on the way out. I enjoyed the view from Vagabond for a few minutes and then continued down using an arduous descent through boulders down to Green Lake. I figure if I had simply continued along the ridge back to the tundra pass where the trail was located it might have only taken a few minutes longer but would have been more pleasant. I will definitely be returning to Sky Haven in the future, perhaps to view sunrise from this remarkable vantage!
As always, I have many great ideas for adventure runs in the Sierra. Listed below are twenty potential trips organized from South to North. Most of these ideas are rather obscure, but the high Sierra is filled with hidden gems and I expect all of these will not be lacking in outstanding scenery and route quality. Hopefully I’ll get to several ideas this summer! All photos by me from last year’s adventures.
Triple Divide & Glacier Ridge Loop via Wolverton:I’ve scoped out a big loop with big views. The route starts with the Pear Lake Trail up to the Tablelands and Big Bird Peak followed by a high traverse to Coal Mine Pass and across granite slabs to Glacier Ridge. From Glacier Ridge, another crossing of the granite slabs leads to Lion Lake Pass and a scamble of Triple Divide Peak. The descent is through Lion Lake and Tamarack Lake, ultimately down to the High Sierra Trail. I described the loop in one direction although it might make more sense to do the run reverse with the High Sierra Trail portion first thing pre-dawn.
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.
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.
Observation Peak and Amphitheater Lake: A remote part of the range also accessed via Taboose Pass. Observation Peak is apparently aptly named as it is a great spot to observe the Palisades.
Josephine Lake:Rarely visited lake tucked in below Glacier Ridge with views to Mount Brewer, South Guard, and North Guard entailing a steep scramble from Cloud Canyon.
Split Mountain: Another fourteener on the list.
Palisade Circumnavigation & Palisade Basin:A great route around the most rugged and alpine region of the High Sierra with lots of arduous talus travel.
Sky Haven & Cloudripper: Just for the tremendous views of Palisades and hopefully an overnight stay for sunrise. Access via South Lake.
Mount Reinstein, Lake 10,232 and Goddard Creek Valley:This loop comes in around 50 miles and looks stunning, passing through some of the most remote and wild terrain in the Sierra.
Ionian Basin, Scylla & Hansen: Accessed via Sabrina Basin, 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.
Charybdis & Black Giant:Two more peak in the Ionian Basin. Perhaps I will combine climbs of these peaks with objectives described immediately above and make it a single night fastpacking outing.
Bench Valley:Another western approach to the LeConte Divide, featuring a string of remote high alpine lakes off-trail.
Evolution Loop: In order to lower the FKT on this 55 mile horseshoe loop, it looks I’m going to have to curtail my photography substantially from the 300+ photos I took last time. 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!
Volcanic Ridge: Easily the best view of the Minarets and another candidate for an overnight bivy to view sunrise and early morning light. Access via Devils Postpile and fantastic scenery including Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake, and Iceberg Lake.
Rodgers Peak: Accessed via Silver Lake, this is a fairly remote major peak in the region and looks awesome from many of the surrounding mountains, therefore spurring interest.
Northern Yosemite 50:Classic loop route all on trails from Twin Lakes, including the Benson Lake riviera, a close view of Matterhorn Peak and Sawtooth Ridge, glacially sculpted Matterhorn Canyon, and the lovely Peeler Lake and Smedberg Lake. I first ran this route in 2011, documented here. The complete loop is close to 50 miles, although a short cut via Ice Lakes Pass (off-trail) would shave off some miles and elevation gain to Mule Pass.
Stubblefield Canyon and Stubblefield Lake: Remote spot in Northern Yosemite for some fun explorations.
Cherry Canyon and Boundary Lake: In Emigrant Wilderness, this area is characterized by smooth granite and clear lakes. A good route for earlier in the season when snow covers higher terrain.
Desolation Seven Summits:The same trip as last year, with the exception of taking the trail to Gilmore Lake from Dick’s Pass (instead of the off-trail segment on the ridge) and including Mount Ralston on the way out. With proper hydration and route knowledge I imagine this loop can be done in under 10 hours without too much trouble.
Finger Lake is a Sierra gem beneath the towering walls of Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak. The aptly named lake is flanked by granite cliffs and features a glacial turquoise color emanating glacial remnants above. The route to Finger Lake starts at the Big Pine Creek Trailhead and follows up the South Fork Big Pine Creek. The first part is a high desert with sage and even cactus. There are clumps of aspens near the stream that on this day were brilliantly yellow. At the headwall of the South Fork, the trail switchbacks beneath an imposing cliffs and at the top of the climb it is as if you enter a new world of peaks and alpine vegetation. A small valley is crossed with a junction for Willow Lake before more switchbacks resume up to gorgeous Brainerd Lake with its amphitheater-like setting. From Brainerd Lake, the way becomes a loosely defined use path to Finger Lake. At the beginning, follow near the north shore of Brainerd Lake before following cairns alongside a talus swatch to the upper path, eventually popping out at stunning Finger Lake. On this day, I ventured onto the cliffs to the south of Finger Lake with great panoramic views of the lake and Middle Palisade and Norman Clyde Peak. To attain these summits, cross Finger Lake at its outlet and head up granite slabs and talus to the base of the remnant glacial ice and rock. The standard route up Middle Palisade is a sustained class 3 scramble while Norman Clyde features some 4th class. Complete photo album here.