Junipero Serra Peak

It’s fairly rare for a modified arctic cold front to sweep into central California. However, in early December a cold, dry continental airmass overspread the region. With the cold air in place, attention turned to the possibility of low elevation snow on local mountains. All we needed was moisture. It seemed like wishes would come true with a system coming in from the north late in the week. In fact, the National Weather Service office in Monterey issued a winter weather advisory two days out from the event, specifically calling out the Santa Lucia Mountains for up to 6 inches of snow. Stoke level was high for a snow day on Cone Peak’s Stone Ridge. Well, things didn’t turn out as initially forecasted and the winter weather advisory did not verify. Snow levels wound up being much higher and only the highest peaks in the Santa Lucia Mountains received snowfall (>4,500 ft). Why?  The low pressure tracked from near Crescent City, California to Lake Tahoe placing the central coast on the south side of the low. In this sector, onshore winds brought in relatively mild air off the Pacific Ocean just as the heaviest precipitation arrived. In fact, temperatures increased as the event unfolded despite it being in the middle of the night. Once the cold front passed, snow levels plummeted once again, but by then very little moisture was left. All things considered, it seemed highly unlikely snow accumulated on Stone Ridge between 2,500-3,800 ft (we were right).  At this time Joey came up with a plan B – Junipero Serra Peak. As the highest point in the Santa Lucia Mountians at 5,862 ft, Junipero Serra Peak stood the best chance of having some snow accumulation. The route would be only 12.4 miles roundtrip but feature over 4,000 ft of climbing.  It turned out to be a great idea!   Strava route here

The group for this adventure included Joey Cassidy, Flyin’ Brian Robinson and Brian Rowlett. From the trailhead we could see some snow accumulation on the summit, but we were not prepared for how remarkably awesome the wintry scene would become on the last thousand feet of vertical on the mountain.  As we ascended above the snow line, we found a unique combination of snow, rime ice, and glaze ice (from freezing rain).  It felt as if we were entering an ice box as everything was glazed in ice, sometimes approaching over an inch thick.  I have never seen so much ice accumulation!  After ascending to the summit ridge, we traversed to the north side where we hiked through a coniferous forest which had become a winter wonderland with snow and ice covered Coulter Pines (largest pine cones in the world, weighing up to 8 pounds!) and Sugar Pines (the longest pine cones in the world, growing up to 24 inches long).  The entire mountain was burned in the Basin Complex Fire in 2008, but it’s good to see a large portion of the conifer grove survived the fire. In fact, Coulter Pine saplings were thick in spots. The chaparral slopes on the mountain did not fare as well with virtually all of the older woody chaparral charred. Five years later new chaparral vegetation is growing back aggressively, but the old burned snags remain making for an interesting sight when glazed with ice.

The flora and fauna of the Santa Lucia Mountains is often rare and fascinating. The pine forest of Coulter Pines and Sugar Pines atop Junipero Serro was so striking I decided to do a little research. It turns out Sugar Pines are not common in the Santa Lucia Mountains and can only be found on a few of the tallest peaks in the range, including Cone Peak and Junipero Serra Peak. The grove at Junipero Serra is particularly large with several tall old-growth trees.  Interestingly, the Sugar Pines in the Santa Lucias are genetically distinct from other populations of Sugar Pine due to large geographic separation. The two populations cannot mix. I wonder how these trees got the summit area of Junipero Serra in the first place as everything surrounding the grove is either chamise or montane chaparral. 

Another favorite topic of mine is meteorology. What caused such an impressive accumulation of glaze ice on Junipero Serra? As mentioned above, the weather system that pulled in some relatively warmer air off the Pacific in the middle and upper levels of the atmosphere, but colder air lingered at the lower levels of the atmosphere. Rain droplets formed in the warmer clouds but then became supercooled when they descended into the colder air below and froze upon contact with any object on the upper part of the mountain. This is freezing rain. The resulting ice from freezing rain is aptly named glaze ice and was at least an inch thick in spots. After the cold front passed on Saturday night, the entire atmosphere became cold enough to support snowfall on the highest elevations of Junipero Serra. This phase of the storm dropped 3+ inches of snow to complete the unique winter wonderland scene.  

While I’m a big fan of winter sports in general, seeing places snowcovered that don’t typically receive much snow is always a special experience. After this adventure I’m even more pumped for the winter season and the potential for a few more chances to see local mountains snowcovered. You can bet I’ll be chasing the snow!   

Buena Vista Peak, Horse Ridge & Ostrander Snowshoe

I had a great visit to Badger Pass at New Years so I was excited to return for a new objective – Ostrander Lake, Horse Ridge and Buena Vista Peak (see Glacier Point XC ski here and Dewey Point Snowshoe here). This is a fantastic route with stupendous views. The total mileage was 26.5 miles according to GPS (Strava route here, and first 4.2 miles here).

We stayed at Mariposa the night before and drove into the park with great anticipation as skies were clear and fresh snow coated the fir trees. We enjoyed a cup of coffee and breakfast snacks at the Badger Pass lodge before setting off down the Glacier Point Road at 8:30 a.m. I strapped on the microspikes for this four mile stretch which helped with traction while running. At the junction with the Bridalveil Creek trail, I switched to snowshoes and soon turned onto the Horizon Ridge trail. I was the first to travel this trail in several days, but the prior tracks were still easy to follow. While it was still only 10:00 a.m. the sun exposure on Horizon Ridge was already making it feel hot. Some sections of snow were getting thin, manifesting the warm nature of this ridge. As I ascended up Horizon Ridge proper, views of Yosemite opened up, including a fantastic and unique angle on Half Dome and Mount Starr King. I took photos from the top of Horizon Ridge and then descended to the junction of Bridalveil Creek trail (which I would descend). I continued up for 1.5 miles to the Ostrander Hut. I had passed a large group of skiers departing the hut and their turns in the powder were evident on the slopes above Ostrander Lake.

Continuing beyond Ostrander, the climbing became steeper on the final slopes approaching the summit of Horse Ridge. The breezes also began to pick up near the summit. Horse Ridge is a fascinating escarpment feature. It’s quite long and the ridge is a tale of two sides: the north side has a consistent cliff drop and steep open slopes below while the south side is gentle sloping with a forest of large trees. I enjoyed the panorama from Horse Ridge, including Half Dome, Tuolumne area peaks, the Clark Range, Buena Vista Crest, and even distant peaks like Mount Conness and Tower Peak. I gazed over at Buena Vista Peak as I checked my watch and figured I had enough time to at least attempt to reach Buena Vista so I set off down the south forested side of Horse Ridge. I soon found myself at a saddle between Horse Ridge and Buena Vista. It began to feel like true wilderness on this side of Horse Ridge since few people venture beyond Horse Ridge’s summit. I began climbing up the open slopes of Buena Vista with views opening up once again. The climbing was pretty straightforward until I reached the point where I had to access the northwest ridge of Buena Vista. Here the snow became step and icy for a small section and an ice axe would have been beneficial. A few steps later I was happy to be on the ridge snowshoing up the final part of the ridge to the summit. All in all, it took a little over an hour to go from Horse Ridge to Buena Vista Peak.

Buena Vista Peak is aptly named with a magnificent 360 degree view. The panorama also includes a impressive views of Gale Peak and Sing Peak on the southern border of the national park. In addition, there was a great vista of the high Sierra to the south including the evolution area of Mount Goddard and Mount Darwin. On the way down from Buena Vista, I went further down the northwest ridge before angling off which was an easier route and retraced my steps down to the saddle and then up to Horse Ridge, taking many photos along the way. On the way down from Horse Ridge, Half Dome was uniquely photogenic with a tongue of clouds surrounding its lower slopes. After some snacks at Ostrander Hut, I made my way down to the Bridalveil Creek trail. This route felt much longer than Horizon Ridge, partly because it is in fact 1.5 miles longer, and also because it’s quite monotonous meandering through the woods with not much to look at. I finally reached the Glacier Point Road and traded snowshoes for microspikes for the last 4.2 miles. I soon caught up to Erica and we traded photos before making the last push to the car. We both made it back to Badger Pass before dark with big smiles, extremely satisfied with the day’s adventure (Erica made it to Ostrander Hut for a 19.5 mile snowshoe).

Winter Alta & Moose Lake Snowshoe

I had a great memories of a climb of Winter Alta in 2011 so I was excited to come back and this time I ventured further to remote Moose Lake (see route on Strava here).  The view from Winter Alta is simply outstanding. Overlooking Moose Lake and the Great Western Divide, it seems as if the entire range is at your feet.  At around 10,500 feet in elevation, Moose Lake is one of the largest high alpine lakes in the region. Nestled in a shallow bench, the lake is well above tree line which provides an unobstructed view of a large portion of the Great Western Divide and Black Kaweah.  The panorama of Moose Lake and all the peaks in the background is one of the greatest in all of the High Sierra. Complete photo album here.

This area is accessed via the Pear Lake ski hut and a marked winter trail from Wolverton.  The path from Wolverton to the ski hut is challenging for a snowshoe hike with lots of elevation gain but well worth the efforts. The slopes near the hut are fairly popular with backcountry skiers, but I found few tracks beyond a couple hundred feet above the hut and no tracks beyond Winter Alta.  Prior to summiting Winter Alta, I decided to continue further along the Tablelands to Moose Lake. The lake is about 850 feet below 11,328 foot Winter Alta which apparently deters most people from visiting. The snow conditions on this day oscillated between a stable crust and deep powder, but overall not bad for efficient progress. I made my way down some moderately sleep slopes and soon found myself walking across the tundra that is a frozen Moose Lake. I crossed the lake at its center and my poles hit a solid ice platform about a foot and half underneath the top of the powder. From the far end of the lake, I admired the view down the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, the Kaweah Gap area, and the line of peaks that stretched as far as the eye could see.

I recrossed the lake at a different point and headed up for the summit of Winter Alta taking many photos and video clips along the way. Calm conditions on the summit provided an incentive to stick around and enjoy the scenery for a bit. Once I packed up, the descent went fast and I decided to come down through Pear Lake. After some moderately steep (but soft) slopes, I was on top of frozen Pear Lake, which is located in a rugged granite cirque beneath the Alta Peak massif.  After some more photography and video, I headed down the slopes to the Pear Lake ski hut and started my return to Wolverton.  This proved to be another fantastic snowshoe outing in Sequoia National Park!  I look forward to coming back and exploring further along the Tablelands in the winter, perhaps all the way to Big Bird Peak for views down to Big Bird lake and closer views of the Great Western Divide.

Snowshoe Ideas!

A good snowpack is far from a guarantee in California and not to be taken for granted. The high elevations have already accumulated a nice base this fall and the forecast for the second half of December has the potential to provide a series of cool and wet systems through the new year.  This forecast would give any snow-sports fan a wide grin, and if it materializes, it would provide a phenomenally great start to the season.

With all the excitement, I’ve been thinking about some snowshoe adventure ideas that would be awesome to check out this winter, some of which are located below from north to south:

  • Mount Lassen, Lassen Volcanic National Park: A 20 mile roundtrip to climb this peak that seems much more aesthetic in the winter when snow covered (as opposed to a pile of volcanic pumice).
  • Castle Peak & Peter Grubb Hut: Easy access off Interstate 80 with nice views of the peaks of north Lake Tahoe.
  • Mount Rose, Mt. Rose Wilderness: Gorgeous views of the second highest point in Tahoe.
  • Pyramid Peak, Desolation Wilderness: The highest point in the Desolation Wilderness and the views looking over a snowy Lake Aloha would be amazing to see.
  • Mount Tallac, Desolation Wilderness: One of the best views of Lake Tahoe, with a great climb.
  • Freel Peak & Trimmer Peak: The highest point in Tahoe with a fantastic view of the lake.
  • Round Top, Mokelumne Wilderness: A classic snowshoe route from Carson Pass with great views of the surroudning wilderness.
  • Horse Ridge & Ostrander Hut, Yosemite National Park: I have never been to this corner of Yosemite National Park and it looks beautiful, especially in winter conditions.
  • Winter Alta, Pear Lake Hut & the Tablelands, Sequoia National Park: A visit in 2011 to the summit of Winter Alta was amazing. This time I hope to explore further along the Tablelands with a summit of Big Bird Peak and close views of the Great Western Divide.
  • Mount Williamson, John Muir Wilderness: Lots of vertical to reach the summit of the second highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the state of California. Williamson also has one of the best views of the Kaweah Range and the Great Western Divide.
  • Mount Whitney, John Muir Wilderness: It would be great to ascend the highest point in the contiguous United States in winter conditions.

Hopefully I will get to a few of these this winter!

Dinkey Lakes Wilderness & Three Sisters

The afternoon prior to the Hell for Sure Lake & Red Mountain adventure run, I decided to make a quick exploration to the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness area to the west of Courtright Reservoir. This 30,000 acre wilderness area was added to the National Wilderness Preservation system in 1984 and features numerous alpine and subalpine lakes and a granitic crest with several peaks over 10,000 feet. I decided to make a small tour of the region including Cliff Lake, Rock Lake, Second Dinkey Lake and Island Lake. The trails in this region are moderate and very runnable. I also climbed the highest point in the wilderness, Three Sisters, at 10,619 feet. This climb was not without complexity for me as deep and slippery snow on the north slopes caused me to misjudge my route and ultimately retreat off a precarious position on icy granite cliffs. After adjustment, I made my way to the summit of Three Sisters via a more circuitous but safer route. The panoramic views of the entire High Sierra to the east are breathtaking. However, since the Dinkey crest is so far removed from the High Sierra, the distant view of the mountains is diminutive compared to the close encounters I am accustomed to on my adventures immediately beneath the peaks. The whole outing was only a bit over 4 hours, but it became cold and dark for the last 4 miles of running back to the reservoir. The snow definitely enhanced the scenery and my favorites are below with more here.

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