Whorl Mountain & Sawtooth Loop

Continuing with the focus on Northeast Yosemite’s Canyon Country, this post describes a climb of Whorl Mountain, which is immediately across Spiller Canyon from Virginia Peak, and a tour of the Sawtooth Ridge region including Matterhorn Pass, Burro Pass and Ice Lakes Pass. I had done a similar Sawtooth Loop last year including climbs of Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak. It’s such a fantastically scenic area I have no qualms about returning here year after year or even multiple times in the same year. Whorl Mountain is an impressive granite massif composed of three summits (the middle being the highest) sharply dividing Mattherhorn Canyon and Spiller Canyon. The rugged ridgeline reminds me of the Matthes Crest in the Tuolumne Meadows area with similar rock patterns, spectacularly steep relief and awesome scenery. The main difference is Whorl sees a small fraction of the visitors when compared with the popular and easily accessible rock climb on the Matthes Crest. From a distance, it looks like technical rock climbing is required to reach Whorl’s summit, but a fairly straightforward, albeit convoluted, scrambling route exists. My route finding was spot on and the crux for me was passage underneath the chockstone, which surprisingly still contained snow and ice in mid-summer (beware in a high snow year). After contemplating turning around, I decided to give it a try. To make space for me to crawl through I needed to remove some snow and ice. Using my hand turned out to be a bloody mess, but bashing the icy snow with a rock proved effective. Once past the chockstone it was a matter of minutes before I was on the summit. Any earlier in the season and the passage underneath the chockstone would have been completely choked and the alternatives are exposed. After Whorl Mountain I went over Matterhorn Pass and traversed the upper portions of Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon. This is one of my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra with amazing rugged scenery of Sawtooth Ridge. I completed the loop by going over Ice Lake Pass to the foot of the Incredible Hulk with amazing views to Ice Lake and Maltby Lake, and then down the climbers use path in Little Slide Canyon to the Barney Lake Trail.  GPS route here.

The easiest approach to Whorl is via the Horse Creek drainage to Horse Creek Pass. This is a direct and straightforward route and if you are able to find and utilize little use paths it will help expedite passage through the talus fields in the upper portion of the drainage. Most times a snow tongue remains near the narrow pass which is an extension of a relic ice patch, but this likely disappears by late season. Travel across upper Spiller Canyon is a pleasure with beautiful meadows, gradual terrain and awesome scenery. Continue along a prominent bench below Whorl to its end and then make an ascending traverse across Whorl’s east face. There are several shallow chutes along the face, but the key is continue farther than you think and beyond a couple patches of small pine trees (see annotated photo above). Once in the correct chute, it’s a pretty straightforward ascent up class 2 and 3 slabs and talus. Near the top of this first chute, move climber’s right into a second chute. Once in the second chute ascend 3rd class blocks about 100 vertical feet to find a convenient ledge that provides relatively easy access to a third chute. The third chute contains an impressive chockstone that must be climbed underneath and through.  As described above, the chockstone is likely chocked with snow and ice until well into the summer season and the alternatives to get around the chockstone entails some exposed 4th class scrambling. Once through the chockstone there is a little more scrambling before an obvious wide ledge is found that cuts across the entire west face of the middle peak and emerges near the summit. This ledge is quite miraculous since the face is otherwise nearly vertical granite and without it this would surely be a technical climb. At the end of the ledge, a few more class 3 moves deposits one on the summit.  As Whorl is essentially a giant granite wedge between Spiller Canyon and Matterhorn Canyon, the views are stellar and include the Sawtooth Ridge, Virginia Peak, Mount Conness and the Roof of Yosemite at Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure.  The fun does not need to end with Whorl. On the way back to Horse Creek Pass, turn uphill and ascend to Matterhorn Pass to make a loop including Burro Pass and Ice Lakes Pass. Matterhorn Pass is a little tricky to approach from the south as you must ascend a gully to a point above the pass before exiting the gully and descending the ridge back to the low point at the pass. The north side of Matterhorn Pass is easy and the descent into upper Matterhorn Canyon is gorgeous. Once in the canyon, intersect the trail and soon after reach spectacular Burro Pass. The views of Sawtooth Ridge only improve as one descends into the upper reaches of Slide Canyon. The meadows here are among my favorite in all of the High Sierra. Instead of ascending up to Mule Pass, head cross country to Ice Lakes Pass to get close-up views of Ice Lake, Maltby Lake, and the granite monolith of the Incredible Hulk. This is really an amazing area! The descent through Little Slide Canyon is arduous and takes some time, but once on the Barney Lake Trail it’s smooth sailing back to Twin Lakes. Alternatively, keeping to the maintained trail out of Slide Canyon includes an ascent to Mule Pass with fantastic views and pretty lakes. You really can’t go wrong in this region!  GPS route here.

 

Virginia Peak

Northeast Yosemite is one of my favorite places in the Sierra Nevada. The peaks are not as high as the Southern Sierra, but it’s a distinctly alpine region characterized by a series of long glacier-carved canyons separated by sharp granitic peaks and ridgelines. The numerous canyons (from east to west) include Virginia Canyon, Spiller Canyon, Matterhorn Canyon, Slide Canyon, Rock Canyon, Kerrick Canyon, Thompson Canyon, Stubblefield Canyon, Tilden Canyon and Jack Main Canyon (see annotated satellite image of the canyons). All of the canyons flow into the Tuolumne River watershed and provide virtually limitless opportunities for exploration, and several of the canyons are completely trail-less canyons.  The entire region offers some of the best wilderness terrain to wander off the beaten path in solitude. On this day I was looking for a relatively quick afternoon warm-up (post drive from the Bay Area) before my trip to Arrow Peak’s northeast ridge so I decided to do Virginia Peak, a striking peak that rises between the deeply-carved Spiller Canyon and Virginia Canyon. From the summit of Virginia Peak there is a magnificent view in all directions, including the impressively steep Whorl Mountain across picturesque Spiller Canyon, Matterhorn Peak at the head of the canyon, Mount Conness and Shepherd Crest to the south, and the Roof of Yosemite including Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure and Mount Florence.

The shortest and likely quickest access to Virginia Peak is via the Green Lake Trailhead, but I decided to access via Virginia Lakes, a pretty chain of alpine lakes I had never seen with trailhead access that is almost all on paved road (the Green Lake TH is a long dirt road). Moreover, the Virginia Lakes TH starts a bit higher. The downside is the approach builds in an extra climb over a saddle that is over 11,000 ft resulting in a decent climb on the way back. On balance, the extra distance to the peak seemed worthwhile.  I used maintained paths to below Summit Lake and then set off cross-country traversing across the lowest slopes of Camiaca Peak to Upper Virginia Canyon. A trail once existed in upper Virginia Canyon but I could only find bits and pieces of it in the meadows. Either way, travel is easy in the canyon and the main objective is to avoid brush patches that tend to grow near the watercourse. At the highest reaches of Virginia Canyon a headwall is reached with a waterfall. Apparently an easy route exists to bypass the waterfall and continue along the main drainage, but I found a nice gully to the right that provided an easy “staircase” up to the granite benches and talus fields below Virginia Peak and Twin Peaks Pass. The final ascent to the pass entailed some loose rock, but I was soon traversing over to the start of the scramble.  The final scramble up Virginia Peak’s northeast ridge is short and mostly class 2 with a couple class 3 moves.  The view from the top is awesome and I soaked in the scenery for nearly an hour before returning to the Virginia Lakes TH with plenty of time to drive south for the next day’s adventure. GPS 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.    

Mount Florence

Mount Florence is one of the most prominent peaks in the Yosemite high country visible from many spots along Yosemite Valley’s rim. The peak has a sweeping 360 degree panorama of virtually the entire park. While there are several routes to climb Mount Florence, the easiest and quickest route utilizes the Rafferty Creek Trail and Lewis Creek Trail via Tuolumne Pass and Vogelsang Pass. After ascending Vogelsang Pass, one descends around 1,000 feet along the Lewis Creek Trail before setting off cross country to beautiful Lk 10,541 (around 10.5 miles from Tuolumne Meadows). The cross country travel to Lk 10,541 is fairly straightforward with some boulders and slabs. Lk 10,541 is at the foot of Mount Florence with a stellar view up a remote valley to Mount Simmons, Mount Florence and other rugged unnamed points along the ridge. Beyond Lk 10,541 is a short steep section of talus up to the ridge crest at 11,000 feet. From the ridge, it’s a straightforward class 2 scramble up another 1,600 feet to Mount Florence’s summit – a great workout.

One of my favorite photos of the day was a 360 degree annotated view from the summit of Mount Florence.

I enjoyed the summit for well over a half hour, enjoying the views, which include the heart of the “roof” of Yosemite at Mount Lyell and Maclure and the entire Cathedral Range. Mount Florence also provides a clear vantage of the Merced River Valley to Half Dome, Clouds Rest and points along Yosemite Valley’s rim. After the summit rest, I retraced my steps back to Tuolumne Meadows. Instead of an out-and-back, one may descend Florence’s south ridge and traverse cross-country up and over the ridge to Lewis Creek Basin and then the pass near Parsons Peak to Ireland Lake. This scenic route would form an aesthetic loop, but includes a substantial amount of tedious off-trail travel. Since I had a very long day planned for the following day, I decided to leave this loop for next time. Even with climbing Mount Florence as an out-and-back, the route comes in at nearly 14 miles each way (28 miles total) with over 7,000 feet of elevation gain. Below are some photos from Florence’s summit, Lk 10,541 and Vogelsang Pass. Strava route here.

Tuolumne Explorations

One of the finest views in the Tuolumne Meadows area is from an unnamed dome between Pothole Dome and Glen Aulin, a dome we dubbed the “Mystery Dome.”  This rarely visited vantage frames the peaks, granite and forest of the Tuolumne Meadows area to perfection. The Mystery Dome is accessed via use paths and easy cross country hiking through pine forest and granite slabs from Pothole Dome. While not far from Tioga Road, there is a feeling of solitude and remoteness that provides a unique perspective of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding peaks and domes. None of the infrastructure of the area is visible so it’s easy to imagine what the first explorers encountered on their trek to Yosemite’s high country.

The 360 degree panorama from Mystery Dome includes:

  • Cathedral Range and Fairview Dome
  • Mount Hoffman and Tuolumne Peak
  • Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne
  • Cold Canyon, Matterhon Peak and Sawtooth Ridge
  • Mount Conness and North Peak
  • Mount Dana and the Kuna Crest
  • Lower Tuolumne Meadows

I could spend hours admiring this view!  One the way back we ascended the back side of Pothole Dome which features an awesome field of glacial erratic boulders on the flat granite and more excellent views of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding peaks. Pothole Dome is a popular viewpoint, but after all these years driving through Tuolumne Meadows it was my first time ascending its gentle granite slopes. I discovered it’s worth the stop and I will definitely plan to hang out on Pothole Dome Again, perhaps to coincide with the glow of evening light. We wrapped up the day by taking a refreshing swim in Tenaya Lake. Below are some photos from Mystery Dome, Pothole Dome and Tenaya Lake.

High Sierra Camps Loop

At 48+ miles, the High Sierra Camps Loop covers a lot of ground and in the process showcases the spectacular Tuolumne Meadows area and Yosemite high country. The route includes a great mix of scenery characteristic of the region including lakes, waterfalls, meadows, granite and views. It’s one of the most popular circuits in all of the Sierra Nevada, largely owing to six conveniently spaced wilderness accommodations along the route. These fully-stoked camps allow patrons to travel without the burden of an overnight backpack and eat cooked meals every night and morning; a relaxing way to enjoy the scenery for some. A couple weeks ago I hiked and jogged the High Sierra Camps Loop as a day-trip and I included a few worthwhile side excursions that I had scoped out before. I intentionally aimed to do this loop before the camps opened for the summer so crowds were minimal. Strava route here. Following are photos and a video from the outing, a beautiful late spring day in Yosemite!

Save for a few miles between May Lake and Glen Aulin, there is virtually always new scenery around the corner to inspire and motivate. There are numerous variations of the base route and several worthwhile side trips that provide a lot of bang for the buck in terms of effort to reward payoff. These side excursions include gorgeous Townsley Lake below the rocky buttresses of Fletcher Peak (near Vogelsang Camp), pristine Emeric Lake situated in a grassy meadow with a backdrop of granite cliffs (between Vogelsang and Merced), and Sunrise Ridge with 360 degree views including the Cathedral Range and Tenaya Canyon  (near Sunrise Camp).  A great summit near the route is the popular Vogelsang Peak with close views of the “roof of Yosemite” – Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure and Mount Florence. One can continue to Vogelsang Pass and descend Lewis Creek to Merced Lake instead of the standard route along Fletcher Creek. Another summit near the route is Mount Hoffman, geographically at the center of Yosemite with great panoramic vistas. Maximum elevation for the standard 48-49 mile route is just over 10,000 feet so altitude is largely not an issue.  Moreover, the low point at Echo Valley is only around 7,000 feet so elevation change is not daunting. The greatest climbing is into and out of Echo Valley/Merced Lake.  While it’s fairly gradual in nature, this portion can be quite hot owing to it’s exposed nature. Furthermore, the trail descending from Fletcher Creek to Merced Lake is a “cobblestone” path of uneven rocks so it’s an arduous and technical section if you’re trying to run downhill. Overall, the High Sierra Camps Loop is a great route, both for multi-day backpacks and for single-day trail runs. I would definitely consider checking out some of the attractions off the beaten path, which are relatively close but are real gems.

Tenaya Rim Loop

The “Tenaya Rim Loop” is an outstanding and aesthetic 45+ mile circumnavigation of Tenaya Canyon along its south and north rims passing through most of the highlights of Yosemite Valley including Clouds Rest, Panorama Point, Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Point and North Dome. Total elevation gain for the route as presented is 14,500 feet. It was amazing to see Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon from all directions as the day progressed.  Side excursions for next time include Sentinel Dome and Mount Watkins to make it a round 50 miles. I chose my starting point (Tenaya Lake) and direction to optimize light for photography. An option to shorten the loop is to skip Glacier Point and instead head down into Yosemite Valley via the Mist Trail.  However, by cutting out Glacier Point you lose an immensely scenic stretch with unique views of Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon that are not achieved at other points of the route.  Overall, this is an awesome loop that hits most of the highlights of Yosemite Valley that I will surely do again.  Strava route here.

The route started with a frigid thigh-deep crossing of Tenaya Creek. The legs did not get a chance to warm up before climbing snowy switchbacks up to the junction with the Sunrise Trail. Beyond this point the trail was wet in spots with some more snow patches, but I soon found myself on the final summit ridge up Clouds Rest enjoying the spectacular views from the summit. Heading down from Clouds Rest to the Nevada Falls bridge is mostly downhill and fairly fast. Beyond the Nevada Falls bridge is one of my favorite views in Yosemite including Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick and Half Dome all in the same frame. Panorama Trail featured more views into Yosemite Valley and Illilouette Falls is spectacular. Panorama Point is particularly impressive perched on top of a precipitous cliff. This point is not marked on the trail and is a short distance off-trail via a use path. The final climb up to Glacier Point is one of the most beautiful stretches of trail in the park with awesome views of Nevada and Vernal Falls and Little Yosemite Valley. After seeing hardly any other visitors the entire morning, the stream of hikers increased as I approached Glacier Point. The Point itself contained the expected bus loads of tourists, but the view is incredible despite the crowds.

I had never done the Four Mile Trail before and it was a beautiful descent into the Valley with excellent views of Sentinel Rock, El Capitan, and Cathedral Rocks. The Four Mile Trail is an example of a trail that was once paved by the park service, presumably in an era long ago when it was determined that paving was beneficial. Big parts of the pavement have since eroded away leaving uneven chunks on the trail – proof that paving should have never happened.  Finally at the bottom of the Valley, I crossed the Swinging Bridge and envied the rafters on the Merced River. It was getting hot and I made sure to rehydrate at Camp Four before beginning the ascent up Yosemite Falls. Fortunately, the Yosemite Falls trail enjoys considerable shade in the afternoon hours and the climb was not that bad. I made my way up to Yosemite Point and enjoyed a snack enjoying another awesome vista of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley. Next up was North Dome with it’s unrivaled view of Half Dome’s North Face and close looks into Tenaya Canyon. The route into and out of Snow Creek is not as interesting, but still pleasant montane forest. On a saddle near Mount Watkins I enjoyed more views of Tenaya Canyon, Pywiack Cascade, the immense granite massif of Clouds Rest. The final view of the route is at Olmstead Point, where I was greeted with evening light on Half Dome and Clouds Rest.

And finally, a fun comparison of the winter and summer view from Glacier Point: