Cone Above the Clouds

Since the non-winter travel season in the Sierra ended I’ve been fairly active in Big Sur but have not blogged on those trips, partially due to time constraints, but mostly because I have already posted on these particular routes many times in the past. The Soberanes Fire burned a good deal of the Ventana Wilderness and the resultant closure means a lot of potential new and interesting routes and waterfall explorations will have to wait until the closure is lifted. As I will explain, this doesn’t mean there won’t be any new Big Sur adventures and I’m also looking forward to winter adventures to the Sierra now that we’re finally building a good snowpack of years of snow drought.

The Soberanes Fire was the most expensive in U.S. history and caused a great deal of damage to homes and structures in the north part (outside the wilderness) where it burned through decades old chaparral fast and hot. However, from what I have seen of the burn scar in the Ventana, it looks patchy which generally reflects the fire’s slower moving, lower-intensity nature once it crossed into the Basin Complex footprint where the fuels were only 8 years old vs decades old. Make no mistake, some hillsides and ridge lines in the Ventana burned severely, but the canyons look surprisingly green. From what I can see, the ever-resilient redwoods that survived the Basin Complex in 2008 appear to have largely made it out of the Soberanes Fire as well. I am hopeful many of my favorite ponderosa pines in Pine Valley and near Pat Springs also survived. I’m also hopeful groves of the endemic Santa Lucia Fir that were fireproof enough to withstand the Basin fire also survived the Soberanes. The worst burn areas seem to be where the burnout operations took place and a “scorched-earth” strategy was intentionally implemented by fire managers to contain the fire’s spread. Other zones badly effected look like mostly south facing chaparral zones which are basically evolved to burn vigorously and grow back even more vigorously in the years after fire. It should not be forgotten that only a few years after the Basin Complex fire in 2008 many of these chaparral communities were already firmly reestablished and I have no doubt these plants will come back even more vigorously this year, especially with the very promising start to the rainy season. Overall, my initial impression is that the fire did not leave a moonscape and I’m hopeful nature will bounce back fast as it has done in the past in these mountains.

I’ll have more on my thoughts on the fire in posts to follow, but suffice to say that explorations into the wilds of the Ventana will be limited this year. I say limited because unlike the Basin Complex/Chalk Fire in 2008 which closed the entirety of the Ventana, the southern part did not burn in the Soberanes Fire leaving plenty of opportunities for adventure. This unburned region includes Cone Peak, the King of Big Sur, which is the mountain that has captivated me more than any other mountain on the planet. In addition, the South Coast/Silver Peak Wilderness was also spared fire as the Chimney Fire by Lake Nacimiento was stopped before reaching the Silver Peak Wilderness. I’ve already got a number of adventure ideas in these regions unaffected the fire.

I’ve blogged on Cone Peak many times, so there are several trips that feel similar enough to past posts that it’s not worth sharing again. However, on New Years day I joined Joey Cassidy for a unique day on the mountain that will certainly be remembered for a long time. Instead of the usual sunny and clear conditions with vistas of the deep blue Pacific, we had a dynamic scene with a relatively stable 4,000 ft cloud layer swirling around the canyons and peaks. It’s not like the clear views of the ocean aren’t stunning, but we’ve seen that dozens of times and taken thousands of photos. This was something different. The cloud layer was constantly changing and dynamic and at the perfect elevation to be dramatic from the mountain tops. Climbing up Stone Ridge in the morning we entered into the cloud layer at ~3,000 ft. Joey felt confident we would emerge from the cloud based on cloud experiences and I was a little more suspicious. There’s been plenty of times where I’ve been caught on a summit not quite high enough to emerge from the clouds. It turns out Joey was right and we emerged from the clouds into the blue sky at around 4,000 ft. While Joey called the breakout, neither of us could anticipate how the cloud layer would transform familiar sights in the high country into dramatic and constantly evolving scenes. This was a day that demanded a lot of photography and while most of the photos I’m sharing are from iPhone, Joey’s album includes amazing shots from his DSLR and it’s worth checking out every photos in the album which I’ve shared on Facebook page. To help organize those memories and share the experience the following is a photo blog of my favorite photos from the trip and a few time lapse scenes along the way. Full photo album here.

After emerging from the cloud layer on the high slopes of Twin Peak we traversed over to Cone Peak finishing off with the West Rib scramble route which is a short and sweet scramble in an amazing setting perched above the South Fork Devils Canyon. The clouds filling the canyon and surrounding Twin Peak only enhanced the scramble and we took turns photographing each other as we climbed the pitch. At the summit we sought shelter from the fiercely cold winds by hanging out on the south side of the lookout building. This was a rare time when I actually appreciated the building as a wind blocker. Most of the time it looks like a metal trash that I’d rather see removed. After pausing for some time lapse photography we continued down the North Ridge. As we descended the wind abated and it became pleasant once again encouraging even more photography. I always marvel at the beautiful stand of Sugar Pines, Coulter Pines and Santa Lucia Firs along this narrow ridge with tremendous views of the South Fork Devils Canyon on one side and the upper San Antonio River watershed on the other side. The cloud play also continued with a tendril from Devils Cranyon cresting over the low point in the ridge. From the end of the north ridge we took the North Coast Ridge Trail to the Carrizo Trail. The upper part of the Carrizo Trail has seen a lot of brush growth since I last visited (spring 2016) with quite a bit of tall brush now encroaching. Eventually we rounded the corner into the Sugar Pine forest and left the Carrizo Trail for the Cook Spring connector use trail which passes through a lovely section of the forest. This area around Cook Spring is is a large north facing bowl, perfect growing habitat for the Sugar Pine which prefers cooler conditions and naturally resistant topography to fire. The result is the most impressive grove of Sugar Pines in the Ventana with many large and tall trees (Sugar Pines are only found in the Cone Peak region and on top of Junipero Serra Peak). Unlike the forest in the Sierra Nevada where the Sugar Pine is often a cohabitant with other species of pine, the forest here is almost purely Sugar Pine. The stately tree is tall and bears the longest cones of any conifer in the world. The weight of the cones on the trips of branches pulls branches downard resulting in horizontal branches or even download sloping branches on mature trees. The Sugar Pine was considered by John Muir to be the “King of Conifers” and I have to agree. Save for a few Santa Lucia Firs and incense cedars mixed in it’s nearly a pure stand of this magnificent tree. It’s always a pleasure to walk among the giants in this forest.

From Cook Spring we connected back to the North Coast Ridge Trail and made an out-and-back to Tin Can Camp where one can gaze across the Arroyo Seco River headwaters to the Indians and Junipero Serra Peak. The west side of the ridge features a wonderful view of the Middle Fork Devils Canyon with it’s own stands of Sugar Pines and Santa Lucia Firs. We returned along the North Coast Ridge Trail and took the Gamboa Trail down to Trail Spring reentering the cloud layer. Trail Spring flows more like a creek after winter rains and after drinking the delicious water we headed up the Cone Peak Trail back toward Cone Peak. We traversed the Cone to Twin ridge in evening light and another extensive photography session we headed back down Stone Ridge heading back into the cloud layer and leaving the amazing world above the clouds for good, but the excitement of what we saw will stay with us much longer! 

 

 

Robinson Slide Loop

Robinson Creek canyon is a prominent U-shaped glacier carved valley spilling into Twin Lakes outside of Bridgeport. Sawtooth Ridge towers above the canyon, and despite being relatively lower in elevation than peaks to the south, it’s one of the most rugged segments of the High Sierra. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I also appreciate the comparatively lush environment including extensive stands of mountain hemlock. It’s no wonder I’m a regular visitor to this corner of Sierra. On my several visits to the region I made note of the aspen groves in the canyon and a point to return during fall color. Last year was a drought year and while there was some color, I knew that it wasn’t near its potential as there was extensive leaf spot caused by winter drought and then a very rainy summer. This year was much more normal with average snowpack and a drier summer. The result was a phenomenal fall color show that was virtually unabated from just outside the Twin Lakes trailhead all the way to a mile beyond Barney Lake. That’s 5+ miles of virtually non-stop fall color. What I love about the fall color show here is the exceptionally rugged setting and the fact that the best stuff is not roadside. You’ve got hike at least a couple miles to find the better groves and it only gets better the farther you go. The result is a peaceful experience without the tourists and without the tripod-toting shooting gallery. The most mature old-growth aspen stand is just before Barney Lake but some of the best colors can be found in the “fields” of stunted slide aspen. Unlike many other regions where aspen are usually very straight in stature, the aspen in the Sierra Nevada are often contorted due to the harsh growing environment with high winds, deep snowfall, and in this location, avalanches. When combined with the dramatic peaks rising above the canyon and the wilderness character, this fall color show is tough to beat. Perhaps my favorite grove is at the base of Little Slide Canyon (first picture below) where one can obtain a nicely framed shot of the aspen and the rugged backdrop of Little Slide Canyon including the Incredible Hulk and Kettle Peak. GPS route hereThe focus of this trip was the outstanding fall color in Robinson Creek canyon but I also found the loop of Robinson and Little Slide canyons to be an excellent run or hike any time of the year with scenery including several charming lakes and panoramic views. In addition, there are opportunities to scramble many nearby peaks including Crown Point, Eocene Peak and Kettle Peak. I chose to make the quick trip up Slide Mountain this time as I had never been there before. At the head of the valley beyond Barney Lake, the trail leaves the aspen and switchbacks up a slope toward Peeler Lake. Shortly before Peeler Lake is a junction: veer left to head toward Rock Island Pass. The trail climbs through an old-growth Mountain Hemlock forest before reaching a magical emerald tarn with hemlocks surrounding and Crown Point looming above. Right after the tarn are the Robinson Lakes nestled within the granite rocks. The incredible scenery continues at Crown Lake with granite buttresses descending into the water and picturesque mountain hemlocks and whitebark pines sprinkled about the lakeshore. The trail climbs once again above Crown Lake before reaching a pleasant meadow and another trail junction. Head left to take the trail to Mule Pass. This stretch of trail switchbacks up a north facing slope and often holds snow until well into summer on a normal snow year. In fact, it might be one of the latest melting stretches of trail in the high Sierra. The terrain flattens out next to a tarn with a thick krummholz stand of Whitebark Pines. From this tarn it’s a fairly gradual finish to Mule Pass. While Mule Pass has an excellent view in its own right, the quality of the vista improves greatly if one ascends to Slide Mountain, which is the high point above a distinct feature known as “The Slide.”  Slide Mountain is a fairly nondescript summit with several rock outcroppings vying for the highpoint, but the grand view is essentially the same and includes the Incredible Hulk, Sawtooth Ridge, Finger Peaks, Whorl Mountain and Mount Conness. One can reach Slide Mountain directly from the tarn below Mule Pass by taking a steep rock and snow gully or the more moderate route ascends sand and granite slabs from Mule Pass. Back at Mule Pass follow the trail down as it traverses through lovely parkland with meadows mixed with granite slabs. At a flat area, leave the trail and walk through meadows and tarns toward Ice Lake Pass. Ice Lake can be traversed either on its west or east side, but both sides require some climbing to get up and around granite cliffs that descend into the lake. While the eastern traverse may be easier, my preference is the west side traverse since from this route one obtains a breathtaking view of Maltby Lake nestled among reddish slabs that precipitously descend into its waters with Kettle Peak to the left, the Incredible Hulk to the right and Little Slide Canyon below. On the north side of Ice Lake a use path appears in the sand and can be followed toward the base of the Incredible Hulk with some intermittent talus fields to cross. The Incredible Hulk is one of the most amazing rock features in the high Sierra. Words and photographs do not do this gleaming 1,200 ft face justice. Every time I pass underneath the cliffs I’m in awe of the striking white cliffs contrasting with the deep blue Sierra skies. Below the Hulk, the use path descends into Little Slide Canyon utilizing small gullies and then crossing some talus fields. While there is a path that is followable, it’s a fairly rugged descent all the way to the base of Little Slide Canyon where it crosses Robinson Creek. On the north of Robinson Creek the climbers path quickly joins the Barney Lake Trail and from there it’s only a couple miles back to Twin Lakes. This post describes only one potential loop and it’s impossible to go wrong in this region, but I feel like this loop does a great job hitting many of the scenic highlights in the area. When combined with fall color at its peak it was one of my most memorable days in the Sierra all year. 

Mineral, Needham, Sawtooth Loop

Mineral King is a high glacial valley at the south end of the Sierra Nevada nestled beneath the Great Western Divide. The valley has a long history of human interaction dating back to 19th century silver mining, and more recently, aspirations to turn the valley into a ski resort by Walt Disney. Fortunately, preservationists won this battle and Mineral King was protected for future generations by adding it to Sequoia National Park in 1978. While the entire valley is now a within the park, many structures remain as descendants from the original mining families continue to inhabit cabins. Fortunately, the cabins do not distract from the remote and wild feeling of the valley with its spectacular meadows and prominent granite peaks. Through late July, the valley is teaming with hungry marmots that have unfortunately developed an appetite for antifreeze fluid and it’s strongly recommended that all visitors wrap their car with a tarp. This is still a beautiful time to visit, but be mindful of the extra hassle.  In late summer the marmots are no longer a problem.  In late September and early October, groves of aspen which are fairly rare on the west side of the Sierra provide lovely fall colors. Gone are the days when of mining and ski resort speculation, Mineral King is now most popular with hikers and backpackers who are willing to brave the 20+ mile narrow and winding road to enjoy the natural splendor of the valley and the rugged granitescape beyond. There are many options for on-trail and off-trail hikes and numerous objectives in the region, but the following describes a very aesthetic loop including Mineral Peak, Needham Mountain and Sawtooth Peak.  More photos here.    Beginning at the Sawtooth Peak Trailhead take the trail up to the turnoff for Crystal Lake. The Sawtooth Peak Trail was cut along a forested hillside with very gradual switchbacks. The moderate grade makes for a pleasant run of what would otherwise be a frustratingly slow walk. Open meadows and firs at the bottom transition to southern foxtail pines which are always a pleasure to walk among. The Crystal Lake Trail gets much less use than the Sawtooth Peak Trail that leads to the Monarch Lakes and after a traverse begins a moderately steep climb up to a small notch along the west ridge of Mineral Peak. From this notch, the trail traverses into meadows above Crystal Creek before making a series of switchbacks up the final headwall to Crystal Lake. Crystal Lake is not conveniently walked along it’s shores; instead a pass north of the lake leads to a small tarn beneath Mineral Peak. The climb up to Mineral Peak is fairly straightforward with a mix of sand, talus and a short scramble that is mostly class 2 with a few class 3 moves depending on the exact route chosen. Aptly-named Mineral Peak is a relatively small mountain composed of several different colors of rock ranging from red to white. Owing to its centralized location, the view from the summit is fantastic and includes Sawtooth Peak rising steeply above Monarch Lake, Crystal Lake, the Mineral King Valley and the southern end of the Great Western Divide around Mount Florence. From Mineral Peak retrace steps down the scramble portion to the sandy slopes above the Crystal Lake tarn and then traverse slabs and sand to a broad pass above Amphitheater Lake. A few easy class 3 moves are found on either side of this pass. Take a moment at the pass to marvel at the striking curvature of the granite along the crest of the ridge. The descent to Ampitheater Lake is somewhat tricky as direct access to the lakeshore below is barred by steep and smooth granite slabs. Instead making a direct descent to the lake, traverse in a southerly direction along talus staying below cliffs of the crest and above the steep slabs descending to the lake. Eventually a small gully with grass patches and talus enables a descent down to the southwest corner of Ampitheater Lake.      Ampitheater is a somewhat common name in the Sierra and the Amphitheather Lake of Sawtooth Peak is not to be confused with the Ampitheater Lake which lies beneath Ampitheater Peak at the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Kings Canyon. What these two Ampitheater Lakes share in common is striking beauty and both are gems of the Sierra Nevada. As one would expect, there is definitely an amphitheater feeling with the rugged ridge from Needham Mountain to Sawtooth Peak and down to Peak 12,109 surrounding the lake. Rounding the south and east shores of Ampitheater Lake, one obtains a close up view of picturesque granite islands with such clear waters that one can easily see rocks at the lake bottom. From Ampitheater Lake pleasant slabs and meadows lead to the base of Needham Mountain. From here, Needham Mountain becomes a bit of a slog with some sandy slopes and loose rocks. Staying near the ridge crest on more solid rocks eliminates some of the slog but it’s not a very stimulating climb. The summit block is a somewhat nondescript with several different pinnacles vying for the highest point. What Needham lakes in climbing aesthetics it makes up with excellent 360 degree views including the Whitney Zone area, the Kaweah Peaks Ridge and the Great Western Divide. Moreover, the sandy slopes make for a enjoyable plunge step descent.To continue the loop to Sawtooth Peak, traverse sand and slabs and then climb talus slopes up to Sawtooth Peak, the most famous and most sought after summit in the region. Sawtooth has equally impressive views, particularly of the many lakes that surround its rocky slopes including Ampitheater Lake, Crystal Lake, the Monarch lakes to the south and the large Columbine Lake to the north. Mineral Peak takes on a particularly impressive profile from this angle. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge continue to play a star role in the view, as they do from virtually any high point in the southern part of the Sierra Nevada. From Sawtooth Peak I’ve found it’s best to descend below the crest of the ridge and take sandy use paths toward Sawtooth Pass. Unfortunately this sandy open terrain promotes a lot of braiding paths and even the designated trail is somewhat difficult to spot and stay on as there are so many different interconnecting paths.  The good news is one does not even need to find the Sawtooth Pass trail as the most efficient way down to Mineral King is directly down from Glacier Pass to Monarch Creek. The beginning of this descent is largely cross country but bits of old trail become more defined as one descends. At meadows ~9,600 ft, the old trail becomes much more defined as it traverses the final headwall down to the designated Sawtooth Peak Trail where the loop is complete and only a short bit of trail leads back down to the trailhead.   

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San Joaquin Mountain

San Joaquin Mountain is among the best routes for high scenic reward for relatively low effort in the Sierra. It’s just over six miles each way from Minaret Summit to San Joaquin Mountain but reaching the peak is basically just the turnaround point as the views are tremendous virtually the entire way. In fact, the views are awesome right at the Minaret Summit trailhead and only get better as one ascends the ridge. The Minaret Summit trailhead is at 9,265 ft and San Joaquin Mountain is 11,601 ft, but there are a few humps along the way resulting in total roundtrip elevation gain of about 3,600 ft.

The first couple miles are along a 4wd track. After briefly passing through a fir forest, the track emerges into the windswept tundra with occasional clumps of hardy trees. This trail is exposed to the elements virtually the entire way so this is not recommended on a windy day which in all honesty would be brutal. It should also be noted that there is no water on the route so plan accordingly.  At the end of the 4wd track the route transitions into a usetrail that immediately descends to Deadman Pass, the most substantial descent on the way out and the biggest ascent on the way back. At this point the lovely geology of the region presents itself with passage through several different colors of volcanic rock from here to the summit. From Deadman Pass the use trail makes a series of short climbs followed by flatter sections. Most of the steep sections are loose with gravel and sand making the climbs not particularly conducive to running as an ascent but pretty fun for plunge step running on the way down. The trail reaches an intermediary summit (Pt 10,895 ft) with particularly nice views over the ridge with stunted Whitebark pines in the foreground and the peaks of the Ritter Range towering across the Middle Fork San Joaquin River canyon in the background. After the intermediary summit the use trail becomes faint in some sections of talus or weaving around krumholz Whitebark Pine patches, but it’s never in doubt to stay on the ridge. The penultimate climb to the summit leads to a high pass between the Two Teats which are a pair of prominent volcanic rock pinnacles. The view of Shadow Lake with the Minarets towering above is fantastic along this sandy climb. From the Two Teats pass one has a great view of the final stretch to the summit, which is closer than it looks. Along the spine of the ridge and especially on the east side are numerous interesting volcanic rock pinnacles. Descend to the saddle between Two Teats and San Joaquin Mountain noting that the trail sticks to the west side of the ridge through this part. From the saddle make a short climb to the summit where USGS placemarkers and a summit register can be found. Based on the summit register, San Joaquin mountain is climbed much less frequently than I would have imagined due its close proximity to Mammoth Lakes and outrageous views. In turns out this is one of many peaks in the Sierra that flies under the radar. From this vantage the heart of the Ansel Adams Wilderness is at ones feet. The view is so grandiose and expansive that it’s almost as if one were flying in an airplane. The most inspiring view to the west takes in the entire eastern front of the Ritter Range from Iron Cap Mountain to the jagged spires of the Minarets to the collosal massif of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. Beneath the peaks and seemingly close at hand, Garnet Lake, Thousand Island Lake and a half dozen smaller lakes dot the granite landscape across the Middle Fork San Joaquin River Canyon. To the northwest are the distinctive summits of Mount Davis, Rodgers Peak and Mount Lyell. To the north lies Rush Creek Basin, Donohue Peak and Mount Andrea Lawrence. To the east the view takes in everything from June Mountain to White Mountain. The southern view features Mammoth Mountain and the Silver Divide. It’s an awesome spot to find a comfortable rock and admire nature’s creation. The view from San Joaquin Mountain is so great that I’m already looking forward to visiting again. It would be awesome to see the same views as a winter wonderland and make it a ski or snowshoe. 

Eisen & Lippincott

Mount Eisen and Lippincott Mountain are two peaks along a remote stretch of the Great Western Divide between Black Rock Pass and Kaweah Gap. Both peaks are perfectly situated to provide jaw-dropping views of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge that dominate the view to the east. As Bob Burd showed in 2007, a fairly efficient traverse can be made between Eisen and Lipppincott enabling both peaks to be climbed in a long day from Mineral King. My last visit to Mineral King was way back in 2007 for a climb of Black Kaweah. I had been wanting to climb Eisen & Lippincott every since, but was deterred by the infamous Mineral King marmots that eat through hosing and have disabled cars from spring through August. I had pegged a late season visit when the marmots were gone, but each time other parts of the range called me elsewhere.

Nine years later, I was ready to drive the very curvy road up to Mineral King and climb Eisen & Lippincott. My route taken largely follows Bob’s 2007 trip. The only non-minor deviation was cutting over toward Eisen half way up the switchbacks to the Black Rock Pass. This allowed me to avoid some of the ridge traverse and extra elevation gain, likely saving a few minutes. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge commands attention for most of the day and this collection of rugged rocks is so inspiring that I easily took over 1,000 photos of it with my iPhone and dedicated camera. Despite culling the majority, there’s probably still way too many Kaweah photos posted here. The following day I did a very nice loop including Mineral Peak, Needham Mountain, Amphitheater Lake and Sawtooth Peak which I look forward to sharing on the blog soon. It took nine years between visits to Mineral King and I hope the next time will be much sooner!  Full photo albums: Camera; iPhone 

The route to reach Eisen & Lippincott begins in the charming Mineral King valley. After an initial climb on the Sawtooth Pass Trail, the most efficient route to Glacier Pass leaves the maintained trail at a small meadow and begins a traversing climb on an old unmaintainted trail. There’s some brush and some boulder hoping in sections, but the old path is followable all the way up to another meadow area above a headwall of Monarch Creek. The path disappears in this meadow, but veer left into a broad gully that leads toward Glacier Pass. On the left side of this broad gully the use path can be regained. With careful routefinding the use path can be followed most of the way to Glacier Pass.  Alternatively, one may stay on the maintained Sawtooth Pass Trail which reaches the Glacier Pass vicinity after a long series of gradual switchbacks, a circuitous trip to the lower Monarch Lakes and an annoyingly sandy climb. The correct crossing of Glacier Pass is slightly south and above the low point.

After passing over Glacier Pass, a use path descends to the gorgeous headwaters of Cliff Creek, one of the most enchanting places in the Sierra. The descent features picturesque small tarns and grizzled Southern Foxtail Pines with increasingly closer views of exquisite Spring Lake, which sports a spectacular blue color, particularly when contrasted with the red bark of the foxtail pines. Rising from Spring Lake’s shores is a impressive granite buttress which is the terminous of Sawtooth Peak’s north ridge. For Mount Eisen, follow Cliff Creek downstream from Spring Lake moving through a talus field and then easy meadows to join the Black Rock Pass trail. One may ascend the Black Rock Pass Trail all the way to the Pass or depart about halfway up the slope and angle toward Mount Eisen to save some time and extra elevation gain. Once the ridge is gained a false summit is reached with one of the most memorable views of the Kaweahs as Lake 10410 (one of the Little Five Lakes) is perfectly framed.  Some scrambling leads down to a pass between the false summit and Mount Eisen before the final scramble up Mount Eisen commences. Pursuing the summit register I learned that a ridge traverse from Eisen to Lippincott has been done in the past by staying right on the crest, but the easiest and most efficient route follows a route underneath the ridge.

From Eisen retreat back to the pass between Eisen and the false summit before picking one of many class 3 possibilities down the east side of the ridge to friendly granite slabs below. Traverse north to a gap along Eisen’s east ridge with a distinctive horn to the east of the gap and then descend a gully (likely containing snow) to a rockbound tarn. From here aim for a pass between the two unnamed peaks on the Great Western Divide that are between Eisen and Lippincott. There’s some slabs to descend followed by a large talus fields that leads to the pass. On the other side of this pass one is on the west side of the Great Western Divide and the traverse to Lippincott’s southeast ridge is fairly straightforward. It is recommended to loose some elevation to reach easier terrain versus remaining high. Lippincott’s southeast ridge is a fun class 3 scramble with lots of options to make it interesting on the ridge proper or tone down the difficulty by moving left off the ridge. Lippincott’s summit is a wonderful perch with views toward the Tablelands, Nine Lakes Basin and the Great Western Divide stretching to the north all the way to Mount Brewer and North Guard. The Kaweahs continue to command the greatest attention, particularly Black Kaweah and Red Kaweah, but with an added twist: at the base of Lippincott’s precipitous north face is an unnamed lake (“Lippincott Lake”) with a wonderful deep blue center ringed by a turquoise shoreline.

Some class 3 downclimbing is required on the upper part of the Lippincott’s east face, but it soons transitions into pleasant granite slabs. Following the drainage down leads to a wonderful parkland of Southern Foxtail Pines and small lakes. At the outlet of lake 10,295 curve to the south to reach the Big Arroyo Trail. The Big Arroyo Trail passes through one of the most pristine Southern Foxtail Pine woodlands in existence with some truly amazing trees. The scientific name for Southern Foxtail Pine is Pinus balfouriana subspecies austrina and it is endemic to the high country of the Southern Sierra Nevada. Most of the groves are within Sequoia National Park and the Big Arroyo and Upper Kern River watersheds contain the highest concentration of Southern Foxtail Pines anywhere. This fascinating tree occurs in nearly pure stands of widely spaced woodlands and the bark has a distinctive reddish color which is particularly striking in sunlight. The Foxtail Pine is slow growing and the arid, high-elevation conditions also mean it is slow to decay. Some living trees are thousands of years old and woody crowns can persist for much longer. In exposed places near tree line, numerous winter storms with high winds and ice sculpt and twist the trunk and branches into picturesque snags peeling away the bark to expose complex inner layers and striking colors. 

After some rolling hills through the Southern Foxtail Pine forest, the trail reaches Little Five Lakes with more great views of the Kaweahs. The shortest route back to Spring Lake and Glacier Pass is via an off trail traverse to Cyclamen Pass (point 11,145 on USGS). The east side of the pass is fairly straightforward with wonderful views down to the Big Five Lakes while the west side of the pass is a fairly arduous descent with sand in the upper part that transitions to talus below. Ultimately, one returns to beautiful Spring Lake where a use trail leads up to Glacier Pass. Here, the climbing is done for the day and it’s all downhill to Mineral King.   

Four Lakes Loop

The easternmost part of the Trinity Alps is informally known as the Red Trinities due to the distinctive red rock present in this region. However, within the red rock is a section of white granite that is akin to the White Trinities to the west. This white rock stretches from Granite Lake to Gibson Peak to Siligo Peak, and not surprisingly, this area of white rock is also the most rugged part of this region. The transition between the red and white rock is very well defined creating a fantastic juxtaposition. The Four Lakes Loop is located in the heart of the Red Trinities and offers a particularly striking tour of this geologically complex region. The loop is essentially a circumnavigation of Siligo Peak passing by four alpine lakes that surround the mountain. The loop itself is only around 6.5 miles but the entire loop is deep within the Trinity Alps Wilderness and access to the loop is through one of five trails. The shortest and most efficient is the Long Canyon Trail at 6 miles (18+ miles total for the loop and access), but other options include the Stoney Ridge Trail, Granite Lake Trail via Swift Creek, Deer Creek Trail via Stuark Fork Trinity River, and Bear Basin. The land is not as rugged as the neighboring White Trinities, but it has a unique and charming character that is spectacular in its own right. The Four Lakes Loop is a wonderful introduction to the region and has new and spectacular scenery around seemingly every corner.

The author accessed the Four Lakes Loop via the Long Canyon Trail so the following is a description of that route.  The Long Canyon Trail is a steady climb through conifer forest before emerging into meadows beneath striking Gibson Peak. It is here where one may encounter fields of Anemone occidentalis, or the western pasqueflower.  The pasqueflower produces a fruit called an achene that is ellipsoid in shape and feather-like. This furry fruit reminds people of the truffula trees in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. The flower and its whimsical late summer fruit can be found in open rocky slopes and alpine meadows in the trinity alps and one of the best places is the meadows in upper Long Canyon and the slopes above Deer Lake. The meadows continue all the way to Bee Tree Gap, where one obtains a view of Siligo Meadows and the spires along Gibson Peak’s west ridge. After about a mile traverse above Siligo Meadows one arrives at Deer Creek Pass and is treated to a wonderful view of Deer Creek and the glacier carved U-shaped valley of Deer Creek. Here the striking juxtaposition of red and white rocks becomes apparent as red rocks fill the basin around Deer Lake but Siligo Peak possesses a distinctively white summit area.

A switchback beneath Deer Creek Pass is the junction with the Four Lakes Loop. Doing the loop clockwise, one makes a lovely traverse through the red rocks above Deer Lake and up some switchbacks to the south shoulder of Siligo Peak. The trail passes through wonderful meadows stretching down to Deer Lake and including more pasqueflower. At the shoulder of Siligo Peak a use trail departs up the ridge to 8,162 ft Siligo Peak. In only a quarter mile the trail reaches the summit which contains a gorgeous 360 degree panorama of the region. To the west one has a birds eye view of Diamond Lake, the Stuart Fork of the Trinity River canyon, and the White Trinities. All of the major peaks of the White Trinities are visible including Mount Hilton, Thompson Peak, Caesar Peak and Caribou Mountain. Closest and most prominent is Sawtooth Mountain with its distinctive tooth-like summit block and a massive apron of white granite slabs on its east side. To the south is Summit Lake, Red Mountain and Middle Peak. To the east is a striking demarcation between the red rocks of Seven Up Peak and the rugged ridge known as Dolomite Ridge composed of the white rocks. To the north one peers into the glacier-carved Deer Creek canyon with Mount Shasta’s distinctive snow-capped cone rising above the ridges. Suffice it to say, the side trip to Siligo Peak is well worth the extra effort.

Back on the Four Lakes Loop one may make a side trip to Summit Lake which is the largest of the four lakes on the Four Lakes Loop. Continuing on, the loop drops into the Salt Creek drainage and switchbacks down toward Diamond Lake, which sits on a meadowy bench with the White Trinities towering across the Stuart Fork Canyon. This is lovely country with bountiful summertime wildflowers and outstanding scenery. From Diamond Lake it’s a gradual climb up to the northwest shoulder of Siligo Peak where one crosses into the Deer Creek drainage. From here the trail traverses above astonishingly beautiful Luella Lake which sits right at the line between red and white rock with Seven Up Peak and Dolomite Ridge making a dramatic background. Colorful Luella Lake sits at the base of the north face of Siligo Peak which contains mountain hemlocks and rugged cliffs. This steep north-facing topography enables snow to collect around Luella Lake and persist into late summer and sometimes year around. Beneath Luella Lake the trail descends into a valley in the upper reaches of Deer Creek Canyon. At the valley floor is the junction with the trail that goes down Deer Creek Canyon, which also provides access the route from Granite Lake and Swift Creek. Staying right to stay on the Four Lakes Loop, the trail makes a steep ascent up the headwall of Deer Creek through meadows and clumps of Mountain Hemlock to Deer Lake. The imposing cliffs of Dolomite Ridge dominate the view are along this section. From Deer Lake there’s one final climb to complete the loop and then reach Deer Creek Pass before a mainly flat traverse back to Bee Tree Gap and virtually all downhill through Long Canyon back to the trailhead. Total mileage of the Four Lakes Loop via Long Canyon is around 18 miles. 

The area has numerous opportunities for exploration and one option is the following tour of three additional off-trail lakes that connects back to the Long Canyon trail. Instead of returning back to Deer Creek Gap, one may take the trail down to Siligo Meadows and then up to Little Stonewall Pass. Just beyond Little Stonewall Pass a usetrail branches out to Echo Lake, one of the more charming lakes in the region. Circle Echo Lake on either side and then ascend a chute with some loose rocks (off-trail) to a col on the crest. Descend talus and then traverse slopes north to Billy Be Damned Lake. From Billy Be Damn Lake it’s a short climb up and over to the magnificent Anna Lake, situated in a bowl of red granite slabs and mountain hemlock. From Anna Lake a faint use trail heads down a steep gully down to Long Canyon. The use trail ultimately disappears in the meadows, but the Long Canyon trail is visible below and the way is unambiguous. GPS route here.

Photo albums: Camera; iPhone 

Thunder Mountain

I seem to be drawn back to Lake Reflection every year, one of my favorite lakes in the High Sierra. The lake sits in a bowl underneath the high peaks of the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide. Cliffs tumble to near the water’s edge and beautiful glacier polished granite slabs line the shoreline. The lake has just enough pines and foliage to give it an  alpine charm that is not found at higher lakes devoid of vegetation. On the way to the wonderful Lake Reflection one passes by East Lake, another Sierra gem. On a calm morning the surrounding peaks reflect in the still waters creating a classic Sierra scene. It’s tough to beat the beauty of these two lakes and that’s the reason why I keep coming back. Full photo album here. The album and photos here are all iphone – maybe I’ll get to the photos from the dedicated camera someday! 

Fortunately, there are enough high peaks in the area that I’ve been able to climb something new each time I’ve visited Lake Reflection. Aside from another opportunity to photograph and enjoy the lakes, the objective this time was 13,550 ft Thunder Mountain, a spectacular peak at the north end of the highest section of the Great Western Divide including Milestone Mountain, Midway Mountain and Table Mountain. The mountain is particularly striking when viewed from the north and is one of the more remote peaks in the High Sierra. I’ve looked at the mountain from all different angles and it was somewhat surprising  to me that I hadn’t climbed it until now, but I’m glad I reserved this magnificent peak for a picturesque and crisp late summer day.

From Road’s End it would be over 19 miles each way to the summit of Thunder Mountain and nearly 9,500 feet of cumulative elevation gain (Strava route here). After 15 miles on trail to the outlet of Lake Reflection from Road’s End, it’s only about 4 miles from there to the summit, but it’s all off-trail and includes some navigation through steep granite slabs and a lot of slow going, arduous talus hopping. While the talus is difficult, the scenery continues to impress and more than compensates for the tediousness. The initial climb up from Lake Reflection reveals awesome views looking back at the lake and Deerhorn Mountain’s rugged north face. Farther up, the dramatic east face of Sky Pilot Peak dominates the view. Upon rounding a corner, one is treated to a fantastic series of rockbound lakes. Unlike Lake Reflection 2,000 feet below, these lakes have virtually no vegetation, but each posses beautiful clear waters with the pyramidal-shaped Thunder Mountain towering above. 

The standard route to climb Thunder Mountain from Lake Reflection ascends to Thunder Pass which is an absolute mess of loose rock, gravel and sand, followed by somewhat more solid class 2 terrain to the south summit and then some exposed class 3 traversing to the summit block on the north summit. In 2008, Bob Burd pioneered a new route up Thunder Mountain that would avoid the tedious climb up to Thunder Pass and deposit one at a notch between the south and middle summits. This notch includes a unique rock bridge/window. Bob’s “east face/east chute” route uses a right hand chute on the east face of the mountain to ascend above the initial cliffy headwall and utilizes some ledges to move into the central/main chute which goes all the way up to the notch. From the lakes beneath Thunder Mountain this route looks steep and improbable for class 3 but once on the route it’s surprisingly straightforward and goes at class 3. Kudos to Bob Burd for trying this route. As a first ascentionist I can understand why there would have been some uncertainty that the route would go as a scramble.  I also second Bob’s conclusion that this is a far superior ascent route versus the extremely tedious climb up to Thunder Pass. From the rock bridge some exposed class 3 scrambling brings one to the summit block which has a class 4 move using a chock stone in a crack. As expected, the summit views from Thunder Mountain are awesome and include everything from the Goddard Divide to the Palisades to Mountain Whitney. I particularly enjoyed the views to Cloud Canyon, the Whaleback and Glacier Ridge. On the way back I crossed over the rock bridge and traversed over the south summit which has nice unobstructed views to a lake south of Thunder Pass with Sierra Crest from Mount Williamson to Mount Whitney rising behind. The south summit also has a nice view looking back to the middle and north summits and the high peaks of the Great Western Divide. In particular, one can grasp just how big Table Mountain is – flattish at the top but surrounded by a myriad of complex cliffs and chutes on all sides. 

Coming down from Thunder Pass I tried to find some terrain that was conducive to plunge stepping and was successful for a couple hundred vertical before the terrain turned into loose rocks. Fortunately some remaining snow patches helped with some of the descent. The descent down to Lake Reflection in afternoon light was delightful and I soon found myself doing the familiar run down Bubbs Creek with evening light on Mount Bago, Bubbs Creek Wall and Charlotte Dome.  As darkness closed in on the canyon I was already dreaming up more reasons to come back Lake Reflection 🙂

Full photo album (iphone) here.  I brought my dedicated camera and took a lot of photos with it as well but who knows when I will get to looking at those photos.