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!   

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.

Mount Silliman Snowshoe Climb

Mount Silliman rises 11,188 feet with over 4,500 feet of vertical  in a short distance from Lodgepole Visitor Center in Sequoia National Park. As its position is to the west of the main concentration of peaks along or near the Sierra Crest, the summit provides an amazing vantage of the range from the Yosmite high country all the way down to the end of the Great Western Divide. The view across Kings Canyon to the Palisades is particularly impressive, along with Mount Brewer and the line of peaks from Thunder Peak to Milestone Mountain.

In the summer, a use trail apparently leaves the Twin Lakes trail and provides relatively easy access up the drainage and to the peak. In the winter, however, no such trail exists. I started off at Lodgepole along a snowshoe track that was excellent for the first 2.0 miles as the trail slowly gained elevation. A (less defined snowshoe) track continued beyond the turnoff for Silliman Creek and I was optimistic somebody had kicked steps up to the summit or at least up the basin. No such luck. At a clearing in the trees at 8,200 ft, the tracks finished near a spot where a party had snow camped. It was all deep powder and trailblazing from here up another 3,000 feet to the summit. We had driven from the Bay Area that morning resulting in a start just after noon and it was fairly warm by this point (40s) so the snow was wet and heavy with resultant post-holing even with snowshoes. Each step was heavy and travel became exceptionally arduous until 10,000 feet when a thick crust on the snow supported my snowshoes. I made my way up to a sub-peak of Silliman with an amazing view down the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River and the Alta Peak massif that I would ascend the following day.

From the subpeak I made a quick descent down into Silliman Bowl and then climbed the final slopes up to Silliman’s summit. The southern foxtail pine forest near the top is one of the best I have seen with exquisite trunk formations and positioning. I enjoyed the 360 degree view from the top taking video and many photos before beginning my descent. Going downhill through the deep snow was a pleasure and it almost felt like jumping on pillow. I took many photos of Silliman Bowl and the high meadows. After entering the forest, the goal was to get back to Lodgepole before darkness and I was just able to make it in time. This is a fantastic snowshoe climb. If you’re prepared to break trail, you’ll be rewarded with awesome views and rugged scenery.