Adams Minaret & Starr Minaret

The Minarets are a jagged collection of peaks in the Ansel Adams Wilderness north of Mammoth Lakes. The name is derived from their resemblance to the minarets of Islamic mosques. The scenery surrounding the Minarets, including the trio of lakes beneath them – Iceberg Lake, Cecile lake and Minaret Lake – is incredibly dramatic and inspiring. Most of the Minarets reside along a single ridgeline collectively forming a tremendously narrow and exposed arête.  There are 17 named summits, each honoring one of the first ascentionists. Clyde Minaret, named after sierra legend Norman Clyde who climbed it in 1928, is the highest minaret and most often climbed. There is much mystique surrounding the Minarets, partially due to their striking beauty and precipitous relief, and partially due to their notorious looseness as the rock is of volcanic origin.  Complete photo album here (images taken in mid-August, 2017).

Despite topping out at 12,000 feet, Adams Minaret is perhaps the shyest of the 17 named minarets owing to the fact that it lies behind the primary arête and is not easily identifiable from the east. Adams Minaret was named in honor of the famous photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams, who first climbed the peak with Rondal Partridge on July 15, 1937.  Due its location off the main arête, Adams Minaret sees few visitors (including most of the climbers who traverse the Minarets), as evidenced by the register which contains only one to two parties per year on average.  The most efficient route to Adams Minaret crosses over South Notch from Cecile Lake and traverses toward Amphitheater Lake before ascending a broad class 2 chute topped off with a few class 3 moves to gain the summit ridge. The chute has copious loose rocks so any parties with multiple climbers should be extra careful.  After traversing the summit ridge a few class 3 moves are required to reach the highest rocks where an old register commemorates the naming of the peak after Ansel Adams. The route up and over South Notch is fairly straightforward, but the angle of the slope becomes quite steep near the top and crampons and ice axe are likely required.  At South Notch, enjoy the impressive view of Ken Minaret and Clyde Minaret immediately above.  Adams Minaret has a commanding angle of the backside of the Minarets, particularly Michael Minaret and Clyde Minaret, and a nearly vertical view down to Amphitheater Lake. Any trip too Adams Minaret should also include a slight detour to see the aptly named Amphitheater Lake, which is surrounded by the Minaret towers with Michael Minaret the most striking feature at the head of the cirque. Amphitheater Lake is a desolate spot with nothing but boulders and cliffs surrounding it and often remains covered in ice well into summer. For photogenic qualities I prefer the three lakes on the east side of the Minarets which hold at least some vegetation, but Amphitheater Lake is well worth a visit to see in person as the enormity of the surrounding towers is difficult to capture in photos.

Starr Minaret was named after Walter “Pete” Starr who was an attorney and famous for his adventures into the Sierra Nevada during a time when large parts of the range were still relatively unknown.  Starr went missing while climbing in the Minarets and the story of the search to find him is a riveting story. He was ultimately found by climbing legend Norman Clyde on nearby Michael Minaret. After his passing, Starr’s Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region was published and it was the de facto guide to the John Muir Trail for decades and is still in circulation.  Starr Minaret is a 11,512 ft summit that is a class 2/3 scramble from Kehrlein-Starr notch – one of the easier Minarets to ascend. The most efficient access to Starr Minaret is likely still South Notch unless snow conditions on the east side of the Kehrlein-Starr notch allow for easier access down toward Deadhorse Lake. When the snow melts accessing this notch could become a more technical climb. Starr Minaret also has a lovely view of the surrounding region including Iron Mountain to the south, Deadhorse Lake below, and Mammoth Mountain in the distance.  The higher Minarets are not as dramatic from this angle owing to the southerly view which is not ideal for viewing a south-north oriented arête.

Of course, the best part of any visit to the Minarets is the spectacular lakes. All three  lakes on the east side of the Minarets are gems of the Sierra and I couldn’t really say which one would be my favorite! Each possesses unique qualities and a different angle of the Minaret spires. Minaret Lake has the most meadows and vegetation while Cecile Lake is most desolate. Cecile Lake has the most complete view of the Minarets and also a great view too Mts. Ritter and Banner, while Minaret Lake has the most dramatic view of Clyde Minaret, the highest and most famous of the Minarets.  Iceberg Lake is cradled in a deep granite bowl with the Minarets towering above and often contains icebergs late into summer, hence the apt name.  An official trail does not connect the lakes; instead use trail leads from Minaret Lake north to Cecile Lake and another use trail leads from Iceberg Lake south to Cecile Lake. Getting around Cecile Lake requires some talus hopping. In early season or a heavy snow year like this year, the route from Iceberg Lake to Cecile Lake may be covered in snow and require ice axe and/or crampons.  Complete photo album here.

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Matthes Peak

Matthes Peak lies along Glacier Divide which separates the Piute Creek watershed from the Evolution Creek drainage, and at its western terminus, Piute Creek from the South Fork San Joaquin River. The long ridge also serves as the border between Kings Canyon National Park and the John Muir Wilderness. The mountainous terrain surrounding Matthes Peak encompasses some of the most spectacular scenery in the High Sierra and that scenery is pretty much all visible from this lofty perch. You won’t find Matthes Peak on a map as it’s an unofficially named peak, but as the second highest summit along Glacier Divide (just shy of 13,000 feet; 12,980 ft to be exact) with quite a bit of prominence and a stellar view, it’s certainly worthy of a name. From the south Matthes Peak and much of Glacier Divide looks mostly benign as large mounds of talus, but from the north Glacier Divide has an exceptionally rugged character as glaciers carved up the terrain resulting in towering cliffs and beautiful lakes nestled in deep polished granite basins. A collection of pocket remnants of once proud glaciers remain today and are known as the Matthes Glaciers, hence the adoption of the name Matthes to this summit. Unfortunately, the Matthes Glaciers appear largely stagnant and during the drought melted all the way back to the shadiest locales immediately below the north facing cliff faces. In the current regime of our warming climate, it won’t be long (i.e. the next drought) before these glaciers disappear entirely 😦  The Matthes Glaciers and the Matthes Crest in Yosemite National Park received their names in honor of Francois Emile Matthes, a USGS geologist for 51 years who made extensive studies in the Sierra Nevada. Mr. Matthes now has an additional unofficial name in his honor too!  Full photo album here (note photos are from mid July on a snowy year).  

Matthes Peak can be climbed from the southwest via a class 2 talus hop, but the more scenic routes climb from lovely Packsaddle Lake on the north side of Glacier Ridge. In order to access Packsaddle Lake, the easiest access is via North Lake and Piute Pass, which features lovely scenery along the entire route.  From Piute Pass, continue along the trail past Summit Lake. At an unsigned junction, one may either take a usepath left toward Golden Trout Lake or stay on the main trail as it passes through the lower part of Desolation Basin and then descends into the Whitebark pine forest. Either route works, but note that in early season Piute Creek is functionally more like a river so care must be taken to find a safe crossing. In very high snowmelt flows, I found an easy crossing near the outlet of Golden Trout Lake where the stream braids resulting in low depth. In addition, taking the usepath provides an upclose view of the Golden Trout Lakes which are pretty.  By either route, once across Piute Creek it’s a pleasant off trail walk through the pines and then meadows to the shores of Packsaddle Lake. Nestled beneath the cliffs of Glacier Divide with the Matthes Glaciers gleaming, it’s a wonderful spot!

Packsaddle Lake is most easily rounded on its west side. From the south end of the lake continue up loose talus and scree (or snow in early season) or scramble up slabs to climbers left. The system of ledges and slabs can be preferable to the loose mess after the snow melts. After ascending the slabs or talus the easiest route traverses across the glacial moraines toward a small bowl which holds snow late into summer. An alternative steeper route, only recommend when adequately snow-covered, ascends an obvious chute directly above and deposits one along the Glacier Divide crest to the east of the Matthes Peak summit. If taking the easier route, after traversing the glacial moraine west a broad saddle comes into view, known as Packsaddle Pass. Most of the way to the pass is either straightforward snow or glacial boulders, but the final couple hundred feet up to the pass is quite steep and likely requires ice axe and crampons whenever it’s snow covered. From Packsaddle Pass, turn east and climb talus for several hundred vertical feet to the summit, which is situated on a plateau with gravel interspersed with rocks. This plateau contains lovely alpine flowers in season with Alpine Gold and Sky Pilot particularly prominent. The east end of the plateau contains the feature view above lake Frances Lake with Evolution Valley and the many peaks of the Evolution Basin area in the background. To the west is the Le Conte Divide and to the east is Mount Humphreys towering above Desolation Basin. Immediately below the summit is Packsaddle Lake and to the north are views to Lobe Lakes and Bear Creek Spire group of peaks. It’s an excellent view and worth spending some time on a local flat rock to admire the surroundings!  Numerous options exist from the summit besides simply retracing steps, including descending toward Frances Lake and out via Darwin Bench and Lamarck Col and further explorations into Evolution Basin. Full photo album here

Bear Creek Spire & Dade

Bear Creek Spire rises above one of the most scenic alpine valleys in the Sierra dotted with wonderful alpine lakes and meadows. Its chiseled profile and position above the valley make it one of the most photogenic peaks in the range of light.  The easiest route up Bear Creek Spire starts at the Mosquito Flat Trailhead and takes the trail through gorgeous Little Lakes Valley. Starting early avoids the crowds and also provides a better opportunity to catch a clear reflection of Bear Creek Spire in one of the many lakes in the valley.  After Long Lake the main idea is to reach the vicinity of Dade Lake and there are many possible routes through easy cross country terrain to accomplish this objective. At Dade Lake continue into the bowl below Bear Creek Spire and then angle west toward Cox Col. The angle steepens toward the high notch and when snow covered this slope could require crampons and ice axe, especially in the morning or later in the season when freeze thaw cycles have turned the slope into hard neve or ice.  From Cox Col, a short talus hop commence with a relatively short class 4 finish to reach the summit pinnacle. Bear Creek Spire has a commanding 360 degree view of everything from the Evolution Region to Ritter and Banner. The triumvirate of Merriam Peak, Royce Peak and Feather Peak are particularly stunning, as is Seven Gables to the southwest and Mount Goddard rising above the rugged Glacier Divide.  Little Lakes Valley is spread out at ones feet and to the west is an excellent view of Lake Italy.  Full photos album here.

After returning to Cox Col, one can traverse along the west side of the crest and take a class 2 ramp up to the low point between Mount Dade and Pipsqueak Spire. This ramp allows for efficient passage over the crest to climb Mount Dade in connection with an ascent of BCS.  From the notch, traverse snow slopes to the final talus climb up Mount Dade. In early season this final talus climb features a marvelous high alpine garden of sky pilot and alpine gold flowers. Between Mount Dade and Pipsqueak Spire also resides a landlocked bowl that contains ice and snow for most of the year but becomes an high tarn in middle to late summer depending on the prior winters’ snowpack. If timed correctly, one can witness a magical display of blue ice as the snow sinks into the water and turns into a giant ice cube. The easiest descent off Mount Dade is the hourglass couloir which holds snow well into summer on a normal snow year but the best coverage is obviously earlier in the season. Later in the season or on a dry year the hourglass turns into a steep climb of loose gravel and scree, which may still work as a descent but would be crappy to ascent.  The hourglass couloir deposits one at the beautiful Treasure Lakes, a collection of four lakes with tremendous views of the headwall of the Little Lakes Valley. A usetrail begins at the lowest Treasure Lake and leads all the way down to the south end of Long Lake. For grand High Sierra scenery that is quite accessible it’s tough to beat Rock Creek Canyon, Little Lakes Valley and surrounding peaks!  Full photos album here

 

Sawtooth Loop

Catching up on a route from July 4th that was a variation of the Sawtooth Loop I did back in 2013.  The “Sawtooth Loop” is a spectacular route through one of the most scenic regions of the High Sierra and a personal favorite. I’ve come back to this area many times over the years and can’t seem to get enough of the scenery.  I call this loop the Sawtooth Loop since it circumnavigates the impressively rugged subrange of the Sierra crest known as Sawtooth Ridge that straddles Yosemite national park’s northern boundary and the Hoover Wilderness.  The base loop utilizes Horse Creek Canyon, Slide Canyon and Little Slide Canyon. This deeply serrated Sawtooth Ridge resembles a sawblade and contains features with enchanting names like Three Teeth, The Doodad, Dragtooth and Sawblade. Full photo album here.

There are numerous variations and objectives in the region to include in the Sawtooth loop, including the aforementioned points along Sawtooth Ridge, Eocene Peak, Crown Point and Slide Mountain. The north side of Sawtooth Ridge is conveniently close to Twin Lakes and Mono Village, even allowing for straightforward access during the winter months. This area has numerous popular destinations like Barney Lake and Peeler Lake for hikers and the world famous Incredible Hulk for climbers. However, the south side of Sawtooth Ridge, located in northern Yosemite, feels remote and wild with comparatively a small fraction of the visitors. All of the canyons that surround Sawtooth Ridge are glacier-carved and spectacular with smooth granite walls and lovely meadows. On this day I chose to climb Matterhorn Peak and Finger Peaks, both summits I had climbed previously (Matterhorn several times) but the extensive snow cover from the unprecedented winter it made the experience different. In addition, this was an opportunity to climb Matterhorn’s east couloir again, my first climb in the High Sierra back in May 2007 (10 year anniversary climb!). The loop starts at the Twin Lakes resort and ascends Horse Creek Canyon, first on well maintained trail and then a use path with wonderful scenery. At the first headwall, the trail disappeared for good under deep snowpack and it was time to put on crampons. Instead of continuing up Horse Creek Canyon, I turned right to head towards the Matterhorn glacier. On the way I passed a stunning ice pool with a light blue color and spent quite a bit time photographing this gem with the spires of Sawtooth Ridge in the background. From this tarn it was all snow up the snow covered glacier to the east couloir which made for an efficient ascent. The snow steepens in the couloir requiring ice axe and crampons. This is not a fun climb after the snow melts as it becomes a combination of loose rocks and gravel. I got to experience a bit of the loosness on the top 30% of the couloir which had already melted out.  That being said, it was amazing how much snow remained in the region for July 4th.  From the top of the couloir it’s a short climb with a few class 3 moves to the summit, with its wonderful 360 degree view of the region from Mount Ritter and Banner Peak to the south to Tower Peak to the north. In addition, alpine gold wildflowers were in full bloom and put on quite a show on rock ledges near the summit. A carry-over Matterhorn Peak, the highest point on the ridge, is an excellent way to access the outstanding scenery and wilderness of the rrapidemote region south of Sawtooth Ridge.  The SW chute/slope of Matterhorn Peak offer a straightforward class 2 descent toward Burro Pass on the remote south side of Sawtooth Ridge. With the abundant snow cover I was able to angle over to the ridge descending from Matterhorn summit which separates Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon and take that scenic ridge all the way to Burro Pass. From Burro Pass I traversed more snow to a couloir beneath the East and Middle Finger Peaks. After a moderately steep snow ascent the east peak is a short scramble. The East Peak has the best view of the ridge to Burro Pass and close-up views of Sawtooth Ridge. It also has an excellent angle on the precipitous east face of the Middle Finger Peak. Finally, it’s got a broad flat top which provides many spots for an alpine nap. A worthy summit despite being lower than the higher Middle Peak.  After a nap I traversed around to the Middle Peak and climbed the fun class 3 route to the Middle Peak, including the improbable ledge that cuts across the face that keeps the climbing to class 3 versus a harder grade. The Middle Finger Peak is the highest and therefore has the best overall view of the region with the entire Sawtooth Ridge, Whorl Peak and much of northern Yosemite in view. After enjoying the summit I took the snow slope down between Middle and West Finger Peak to Upper Slide Canyon. This area has wonderful meadows later in the season, but the views of Sawtooth Ridge were equally impressive despite everything still snow covered.  The heavy snowpack made finding the trail difficult so I went cross country for the most part.  The approach to Ice Lake Pass included abundant, deep sun cups which were draining. Ice Lake was partially melted and beautiful while the Incredible Hulk was stunning as ever. Heavy snow in Little Slide Canyon made the descent quite a bit easier than normal as snow covered much of the talus. There was plenty of avalanche evidence with trees toppled over like toothpicks and deposited far down the canyon from where they once stood.  Full photo album here

Papoose Lake via Canyon Creek

Geographically located between the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades, it makes sense that the Trinity Alps look and feel like a mixture of the two mountain ranges, yet the sum of the parts creates something distinctly unique.  The Trinities are a granite playground with glacier sculpted canyons, rugged spires, gushing waterfalls, clear lakes and wildflower meadows. The diversity of conifers is among the most in the world (36 by one count) with several species at the limit of their respective ranges resulting in species from the north and south coexisting, and including several that are endemic to the region like the Northern Foxtail Pine and Brewer’s Weeping Spruce. While the Trinities are a “pocket” range that are only a tiny fraction of the size of the vast Sierra Nevada to the southeast, there are so many hidden gems in these mountains that keep me coming back to explore more.  Papoose Lake is one such gem.  Surrounded by a nearly perfect circular amphitheater of cliffs, snowfields and waterfalls, it’s a spectacular sight and a place that I had wanted to visit for some time. The remote lake is trail accessible by around 12 miles each way from the Hobo Gulch Trailhead and up Rattlesnake Creek (apparently aptly named due to the healthy rattlesnake population along the creek). The long drive to the trailhead and many miles of lower elevation trail contribute to the fact that Papoose Lake is not visited very much, especially when compared to the ultra popular Canyon Creek Lakes or the Four Lakes Loop. You can likely find solitude (or close to it) at this lake and I was the only person there on a Sunday.  However, instead of taking the trail to Papoose Lake, I decided to combine it with a visit to the Canyon Creek Lakes and climb up and over the rugged ridge that separates the Canyon Creek drainage from Papoose Lake via Gray Rock Pass. While Papoose Lake itself was magnificent, the route to reach Papoose Lake was even more scenic and included excellent views of the heart of the Trinity Alps and stellar “aerial” vistas of both the Canyon Creek Lakes and Papoose Lake that were likely the highlights of the day. Photo album here.

For the scenic off-trail route to Papoose Lake, take the popular trail from the Canyon Creek Trailhead to the beautiful Canyon Creek Lakes. Backpackers and hikers at Canyon Creek Lakes are likely the last people you’ll see for awhile. Follow cairns up and around Lower Canyon Creek Lake to Upper Canyon Creek Lake. At the Upper Lake, instead of traversing around the upper lake, a convenient talus gully provides a shortcut up to the ridge above. Traverse the west shoreline of the upper lake and as you approach the vertical cliff that descends right into the lake a steep talus gully presents itself.  Ascend this mostly stable talus gully. Toward the top of the gully the talus transitions to steep dirt between firs. Virtually all of the brush can be avoided. From the top of the gully one is treated to a magnificent view of Canyon Creek Lakes below, particularly if one descends slightly on the granite arm that plunges precipitously down to the upper lake. This area contains a stellar grove of Brewer’s Weeping Spruce (Picea breweriana), which is endemic to the Klamath Mountains of northwest California and southwest Oregon. The common name is fitting as this large coniferous tree has drooping twigs from each branch that form curtains of needled foliage. While one of the rarer conifers with its small natural range, the weeping spruce is highly prized as an ornamental in gardens. However, nothing can beat seeing these trees in their rugged mountainous habitat and this bench above Canyon Creek lakes is one of the finest stands that I have seen with weeping spruces of all shapes and sizes. Moving up the granite arm, a steeper step has some scrambling on granite slabs before the terrain eases. Continue ascending up the arm and then veer to the right when spires block progress on the crest of the ridge. Here the Brewer’s spruce transitions to mountain hemlock and ultimately to wide open granite slabs. This beautiful granitescape enables relatively easy off-trail travel and one can make an ascending traverse around the cirque aiming for Gray Rock Pass. The rugged ridgeline is serrated and contains numerous spires and unnamed peaks, but Gray Rock Pass provides a relatively easy and safe passage over the crest.  The pass was named as such due to an identifiable strip of gray rock that passes right through the col. Unlike the solid white granite that surrounds the col, the gray rock is incredibly brittle (annotated photo of pass location coming soon).  If snow covered, the final slope up to the Gray Rock Pass becomes steep so traction device and ice axe may be required in early season.

Gray Rock Pass has an amazing view of the surrounding terrain including Sawtooth Mountain, Little Granite Peak, Caesar Peak and Mount Shasta. From the pass to Papoose Lake is a nearly 1500 ft descent and attention is required to avoid brush and cliffs. First, descend down a gravel and talus gully to friendly slabs. From the slabs the main idea is to trend skiers right and aim for the outlet of Papoose Lake. At about 7600 ft cross over from slabs into a strip of trees and descend through these trees before trending right once more to make the final descent down boulders and slabs to the outlet of the lake. Numerous flat granite benches provide many camping options, but there’s sparse wood here so please don’t make fires. Ascend above the lake along the ridge for an excellent vista of the Papoose Lake amphitheater and marvel at the impressive cirque of cliffs and spires that surround the lake. If visiting in early season, hanging snowfields fill the upper cirque and feed waterfalls that bounce off the cliffs into the lower cirque. It’s a beautiful spot!  Photo album here.

Caribou Mountain & Lakes 2017

The Caribou Lakes area is one of the finest regions of the Trinity Alps with fantastic scenery and beautiful alpine lakes. This would be my second visit to the region (first time in 2013) and this time I made a point to visit the summit of Caribou Mountain which provides a commanding view of the Caribou Lakes region and the heart of the Trinity Alps. The trailhead is at the end of a long and slow gravel road that is quite rocky in spots. It’s passable in low-clearance sedans but caution must be exercised and it takes a long time to cover the last 12 miles (1 hour or more). It’s surely a more enjoyable drive in a high clearance vehicle. The extra effort and time required to reach the trailhead makes the Caribou Lakes area less popular than Canyon Creek Lakes, but in my opinion the trail-accessible terrain is more scenic. There are two trails that access Caribou Lakes: the Old Caribou Trail and the New Caribou Trail. In general, the New Caribou Trail is significantly longer but contains a very gradual grade largely traversing the mountainside. In contrast, the Old Caribou Trail is more direct, but steeper and contains more elevation gain reaching a high point that is only a few hundred feet short of Caribou Mountain’s summit. While both trails are worthwhile and make for an excellent figure-8 loop to visit the basin, I personally prefer the New Caribou Trail for the first part, which is smooth and runnable both as an ascent and descent, and the Old Caribou Trail for the second part up and over Point 8,118 into the Caribou Lakes Basin. The views and much shorter mileage on the second part of the Old Caribou Trail more than make up for the steeper gradient in my opinion. Full album here.

This time I made the traverse over to Caribou Mountain from Point 8,118 (the high point of the Old Caribou Trail). This traverse can be accomplished by descending a few hundred feet from Point 8,188 to pass underneath a cliff band or one can stay closer to the ridge crest avoiding loss of elevation. Either way the scrambling stays in the class 2 range, and if one opts for the ridge route, stay on the north side of the ridge to avoid some more difficult scrambling that is found by staying on the ridge crest proper.  The views improve as one traverses the ridge to Caribou Mountain and the panorama from the summit is outstanding and worth the effort to make the somewhat long traverse from Point 8,118. From the rocky peak one has a bird’s eye view of the Caribou Lakes and Snowslide Lake and an excellent vantage into the heart of the Trinity Alps, including Sawtooth Mountain, Mount Hilton, Caesar Peak and Thompson Peak. To the south one can see Josephine Lake and the high summits of the Four Lakes Loop region including Mount Gibson, Seven Up Peak and Siligo Peak. To the northwest Mount Shasta rises proudly. It’s a swell vista and I spent a lot of time taking photos and enjoying the sweet panorama.

After returning from Caribou Mountain to Point 8,118 we continued along the Old Caribou Trail as it makes a series of switchbacks down the hill toward Caribou Lakes and Snowslide Lake.  These switchbacks pass through a mix of meadows and alpine forest with excellent views of the lakes below, which are nestled in a spectacular granite bowl underneath Caribou Mountain. All of the lakes are very inviting for a swim and I did just that in Upper Caribou Lake. As the basin was still covered in snow and the lake has just melted, the water was frigid making for a short swim, but it was still refreshing and the warm July sun provided a quick warm-up once exiting the icy water.  Upper Caribou Lake is the largest lake in the Trinity Alps and is particularly scenic with an amphitheater of white granite surrounding its eastern shore. Last time we continued up from Upper Caribou Lake to a small notch along Sawtooth Ridge which is the top of the Caribou scramble. The view from Sawooth Ridge to Emerald Lake, Sapphire Lake and Mirror Lake is magnificent. The last visit was in the September and the snow had melted so this time we enjoyed similar views but with snow-capped peaks and fields of wildflowers. Once again, the Caribou Lakes area far exceeded my expectations and is a real gem of the Trinity Alps.

Granite Dome & Lakes 2017

This was my third time visiting the exceptionally scenic region beneath Granite Dome. In both 2012 and 2014 visits were in early June and most of the lakes were melted out. This time a full month later in early July the lakes were mostly frozen; a testament to the unprecedented High Sierra snowpack received in the winter of 2017. What made this visit special was the colorful ice pools in the lakes, including a heavenly blue pool in Upper Lewis Lake and a stunning teal turquoise color in Ridge Lake. In addition, Iceland Lake was only partially melted out with icebergs and an array of ice colors from green to blue. Similar to my first visit in 2012, I ascended to the top of Granite Dome which has great views of the Emigrant Wilderness and Northern Yosemite. Tower Peak is particularly striking to the east. The crux of the trip was crossing Summit Creek which was raging like a river. There was one safe log over the creek in the vicinity I needed to cross. It was mostly dry in the morning but by afternoon it was wet and I had to carefully scoot across while keeping my feet sufficiently out of the water so the swift current would not pull me in!  It also didn’t help that I had turned my ankle on trail run in and was relegated to walking (carefully) the rest of the outing. Complete photo album here.  Route on Strava here.

Granite Dome is an immense granite massif with numerous micro-basins occupied by a series of stunning alpine lakes set amid granite slabs and cliffs. I like to describe this region as the “Granite Balconies” since each of the lakes can be viewed from above on granite slabs. All of the lakes are located on the northern side of a broad, massive ridge called Granite Dome. The summit is a fairly nondescript and non-prominent point along the ridge. The region is characterized by ubiquitous ice polished granite carved into its present form by glaciers that blanketed this region over millennia. No trails travel into this area making it a relatively infrequently visited spot where solitude and ample room for exploration can be found. While the northern side of Granite Dome is rugged, the south side features more subdued terrain and no lakes until much farther down in the Emigrant Wilderness. The region is accessed via Kennedy Meadows off of the Sonora Pass Highway and includes a moderately steep trail to reach Relief Reservoir and beyond. The off-trail travel is fairly easy with navigation on friendly granite slabs. The primary objective in route finding on this terrain is to avoid steeper sections of granite that can become cliffs. The named lakes of the region include the Lewis Lakes (lower, middle, upper), Sardella Lake, Ridge Lake and Iceland Lake with a numerous other smaller tarns. Ridge Lake is arguably the centerpiece nestled beneath the towering cliffs of Granite Dome with waterfalls splashing down into the lake from the upper reaches of the peak. However, Middle Lewis Lake is perhaps the most dramatic with towering granite cliffs surrounding its shores like an amphitheater. Furthermore, the view overlooking Iceland Lake from the south is fantastic.

The ascent to Granite Dome’s summit is fairly straightforward from the lakes. On both of my climbs I ascended directly to the ridge from Upper Lewis Lakes. If early in the season (or a heavy snow year like this year when snow will persist through much of summer) consider bringing ice and crampons as the slope to the ridge is moderately steep. Once on the ridge it’s fairly flat with some nice alpine wildflowers amid the volcanic rocks with some interesting rock features as one approaches the summit. Several false summits are passed on what feels like a long ridge traverse before the highpoint is reached. The best views of the lakes are located slightly below the summit where the flatter rocks of the summit area abruptly transition to the precipitous granite cliffs.