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.

 

 

Tableland & Winter Alta Snowshoe

The Tableland is a broad granite plateau in Sequoia National Park along the Kings-Kaweah Divide. While not flat like a table, the topography is relatively gradual and the terrain is almost entirely granite slabs so the name is fitting. Access is from the west side at the Wolverton trailhead and the Lakes Trail. Wolverton is a relatively short and straightforward drive from the SF Bay Area and the Lakes Trail is efficient at getting one up into the alpine (relative to many westside approaches) while passing by some very pretty scenery including Pear Lake and Aster Lake. Once above treeline, it’s a beautiful walk along miles of user-friendly granite slabs to more rugged and remote parts of the Great Western Divide to the east. The open terrain and granite slabs facilitate easy cross country travel. In the winter when everything is snow covered it’s arguably even more efficient! Along with the amazing views, these factors make the Tableland one of my favorite spots in the Sierra and I have visited many times over the years in all seasons.

What makes the Tableland so special is the dramatic 360 degree vistas taking in much of the High Sierra. On a clear day one can pick out familiar features including the Palisades, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak far to the north, and Mount Goddard rising above the Evolution area peaks. Closer at hand is a sweeping view of the Great Western Divide from its northern terminus at Mount Farquhar and North Guard all the way down to Farwell Gap (the end of the rugged portion of the Great Western Divide). In particular, the area around Hamilton Lakes and Kaweah Gap is particularly striking with numerous domes and jagged crags. The Kaweahs rise behind the Great Western Divide adding another layer of ruggedness. One of the best views of the Tableland and surrounding terrain is from Alta Peak. In summer a trail leads from Wolverton to Panther Gap and on to Alta Peak’s summit. However, in the winter the preferred summit is the higher Winter Alta (peak 11,328) which is accessed from the Pear Lake hut vicinity.  The Pear Lake ski hut is a popular ski and snowshoe destination and skiers enjoy the slopes above the hut all the way to Winter Alta. The hut is open to the public during the winter, but reservations are required via a lottery system. If you can’t snag a place at the hut, the winter route to Pear Lake cuts off all the switchbacks and comes in at only 5 miles each way (10 miles roundtrip). After a fairly steep climb up to “The Hump” the Lakes Trail drops into the basin and traverses by Heather Lake. At this point one is presented with options: either stay high and traverse to Aster Lake and Emerald Lake or drop down lower and traverse directly to Pear Lake Hut. The former is much more scenic as the Aster Lake area is very pretty but the latter is quicker and avoids the sidehilling often encountered on the route around Aster Lake. The Pear Lake Hut is not at Pear Lake itself but about a half mile downstream. If heading for Winter Alta, one can either ascend slopes directly above the hut or continue up to Pear Lake before taking relatively steep slopes up to the ridge. Winter Alta is certainly a dramatic destination because it is not until one reaches very close to the top that most of the Great Western Divide is revealed. Beyond Winter Alta most of the winter visitors are skiers doing the Winter Sierra High Route from Shepherds Pass to Wolverton, although the established Skiers High Route goes to Table Meadows and follows the headwaters of the Marble Fork Kaweah River instead of the traverse to Moose Lake Winter Alta (which is far more scenic). I’d like to do the full Winter High Route someday, but it’s certainly a long car shuttle to organize!  I have made three snowshoe visits to Winter Alta. On my first snowshoe out of Wolverton in 2011 I just visited Winter Alta as an out-and-back. On the second trip in 2013, I continued on to a snowbound Moose Lake and crossed the lake on snowshoes. Moose Lake is a large alpine lake with a grand view of the Great Western Divide. It’s among my favorite Sierra lakes and to walk across it was surreal. Unfortunately, the drought happened and winter conditions never came together for a couple years to repeat that trip until this historic snow season. It was time to visit again and adventure beyond Moose Lake. This year I trekked across the Tableland to the east end of the Tableland rim and crossed Moose Lake on the way back. I had initially hoped to reach the summit of Big Bird but found that I needed crampons and ice axe to ascend the final hundred feet of the very icy ridge (and more importantly, for the descent!). For most of the day I had been plowing through 6-8 inches of unconsolidated snow that had recently fallen over a base that was only partially consolidated (so snowshoes were essential) but that same storm also came with strong winds and the snow off exposed ridges leaving a sheet of ice. Without snow Big Bird is a very straightforward talus hop, but with icy conditions a fall on either side of the ridge would be serious (particularly on the east side with sheer cliffs of several hundred feet topped with 50+ ft cornices). After resolving to come better prepared next time, I traversed to Pterodactyl Pass where I enjoyed a similar view, albeit at a slightly lower elevation and with ample room to sit down and eat lunch. After a long break I ascended a high point north of Big Bird for excellent views down to Big Bird Lake, Glacier Ridge, and Mount Brewer. Next time with an earlier start I’d like to snowshoe farther along the Winter Sierra High Route to Horn Col and Copper Mine Peak. This is a route I’m very familiar with during the summer but it would be awesome to see the tremendous view from Copper Mine Peak in winter.

What made this year’s visit to the Tableland so special was the immense, historic snowpack present in the high county. It’s estimated that the high country above 10,000 feet was over 200% of average. Parts of the Tableland looked more like a scene from the arctic than the Sierra with all land features buried in many feet of snow. The snow was so deep over Moose Lake that it had formed snow dunes over the shallower east end of the lake and Alta Peak was like a nunatak rising out of the snowbound plateau.

Full albums: 

Kalalau Trail

The Nā Pali coast on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai is one of the most rugged and spectacular meetings of land and ocean on earth. Millions of years of erosion have created soaring cliffs, knife-edge ridges and hanging valleys rising immediately from the pounding surf that relentlessly smashes into the rocky shore. This stretch of picturesque coast is protected by Nā Pali Coast State Park and is inaccessible to motorized vehicles but the famous Kalalau Trail enables access on foot. The rugged 11 mile trail stretches from the end of the road at beautiful Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach, which is the turnaround point where the coast becomes even too precipitous for a trail. The full Kalalau Trail is a 22 mile out-and-back but I highly recommend the 1 mile roundtrip side hike to Hanakoa Falls and the 4 mile roundtrip side hike to Hanakapi’ai Falls. Thus, the grand tour of the Nā Pali is around 27-28 miles.  Hanakoa Falls is a taller and thinner falls while Hanakapai’ai Falls is a shorter (but still quite tall) and higher volume falls. Hanakapi’ai Falls is closer to the trailhead at Ke’e Beach (4 miles each way; 8 miles roundtrip) and is accessible without a permit so it is very popular with day hikers. Meanwhile, Hanakoa Falls is much farther beyond the point where permits are required and therefore sees much less visitation with a more wild and peaceful feeling. Both falls have their merits and if you can I would make the side trips to see both.  As the Kalalau Valley and Beach are fragile and sacred lands, a permit system limits the number of visitors beyond Hanakpi’ai beach. These permits are easily obtained online but must be reserved well in advance as the quota can fill up months in advance. The vast majority of folks beyond Hanakpi’ai beach are backpackers headed for overnights at Hanakoa Valley and Kalalau beach. The park seems to have a policy against day trips in the permit zone, undoubtedly due to hikers and/or trail runners that were ill prepared for the rugged trail and/or conditions and had to be rescued. However, if weather and trail conditions are fine it is very possible to hike the entire trail in a day and run the entire trail in a matter of hours. A more casual trail run that allows one to fully enjoy the surrounding scenery and make side trips to the waterfalls might be an ideal itinerary. Either way, a permit is required for all trail users beyond Hanakapi’ai beach so advance planning is necessary to obtain the permit before the quota fills up.          The first two miles of the trail from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai Beach are wide and well trodden. After crossing Hanakapi’ai Creek the trail forks with the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail going straight and the Kalalau Trail heading right and up the hill. Both trails become much narrower and more rugged than the first two miles. The four mile out-and-back to Hanakpai’ai Falls from Hanakapi’ai Beach is a wonderful walk in a lush jungle including bamboo groves, a lush under story of ferns, (often) wet creek crossings and some rock scrambling. The falls itself is in a spectacular amphitheater and one of the classic sights of Kauai. Back on the Kalalau Trail, the four mile stretch from Hanakapi’ai Beach to Hanakoa Valley is probably the most rugged of the entire trail with some encroaching brush, slippery sections, and several climbs up and over ridges. Most of this section is under beautiful forest canopy but there are still some amazing vistas.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Kalalau Trail is the changing flora, which starts out with tropical rainforest and progresses to a drier regime as one progresses toward Kalalau Beach, particularly after Hanakoa Valley (at mile 6).  In addition, the trail becomes easier after Hanakoa Valley with more gradual ascents, less overall climbing and less brush. The final three miles to Kalalau Valley and Kalalau Beach are a pleasure with wide open trail and continuous amazing vistas with open red rock surface and grassland versus the thick forest canopy of the first 7 miles. While the entire trail is gorgeous, it seems to get better and better as one moves toward Kalalau Valley, which is a magical and special spot with amazing views in all directions and towering ridges immediately overhead. This area is a treasure and worthy of high levels of protection and conservation. As such, state parks has implemented the permit system to limit the impacts of humans. If you wish to continue beyond Hanakapi’ai beach, it pays to plan well in advance and reserve a permit at least a month or two before you plan to hit the trail. The main destination for backpackers on the Kalalau Trail is Kalalau Beach. The park recognizes that setting up and using a camp is perhaps the highest impact activity of backpackers so they have designated a specific area for camping near Kalalau Beach and explicitly prohibit camping beyond this point. Unfortunately, some selfish people either feel that the signs and regulations don’t apply to them or that their camping activities will not have the same impact as others (not) and choose to camp in illegal spots. All of these folks are missing out on the tenets of respect and utmost care for the Kalalau Valley and are not doing their part to preserve this magical spot for future generations. Please don’t think you’re entitled; make your camp in the designated camping area! Perhaps the most important advise for the Kalalau Trail is to monitor weather conditions and resist the urge to the do the trail in poor weather conditions (even if you had planned a specific date long in advance). First and foremost, the whole point of the trail is to see the amazing vistas. If the coast is being battered by a storm you can’t see anything and it will be miserably wet. As the lush vegetation manifests, it rains a lot here! Second, the trail is slippery enough as-is and doing it on a rainy day would be a sucky slip and slide. Third, heavy rain can make the trail dangerous and life-threatening. The park closes down the trail during and after heavy rain since flash flooding is a real danger as Hanakapi’ai creek becomes impassable. By selfishly ignoring the closure signs you put yourself and rescuers in danger. If you are planning a backpacking trip and you decide to embark with rain in the forecast, prepare to spend an extra night or two with sufficient additional food since you may not be able to exit the trail until waters have sufficiently receded after a rain.   Kauai is an extremely popular tourist destination and not everybody can or wants to hike the Nā Pali coast so this has a created a thriving helicopter tour industry for folks to see the coast from the air. Unfortunately, these helicopters create substantial noise pollution and they travel much too close to the land. It’s sad that the ethos of respect and utmost care for this sacred land is being challenged by the reverberating noise of helicopters on a daily basis. If anything diminishes the Kalalau Trail and Nā Pali coast compared to some other iconic wilderness trails it would be the unnerving sound of the barrage of helicopters that traverse the coast during peak hours. If it were my decision I would ban the helicopter entirely. Otherwise, I strongly believe Hawaii should implement regulations that extend into the airspace above the land to keep the helicopters from traveling into the canyons which amplifies the sound and diminishes the experience for tourists on the ground. In addition, just as there is a limited quota for hikers there should be a limited quota for helicopters. Assuming there is already a quota for helicopters, it is WAY too high. Again, I would ban them entirely but if there must be a “balance” the helicopter numbers should come way down. Unfortunately, the draw of tourist dollars may be too much to force meaningful change 😦   There is also a lot of boat tour traffic along the Nā Pali, but the boats are less of an eye sore and don’t make much noise. My gripe is with the helicopters. As it stands, it appears there is a morning session of helicopters with greatest frequency from around 9 am to 11 am and then an afternoon session from 2 pm to 4 pm. This is based on experience in early February and flying times may change depending on the season. When the helicopters are not buzzing overhead one can best enjoy the spectacular scenery in peace and quiet.As with any spectacular and accessible trail, there are unfortunately some side effects of the popularity. In the case of the Kalalau, it’s loud helicopters and some backpackers that feel entitled to camp in illegal spots. Despite these issues, the Kalalau is still one of the most amazing trails I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing and I look forward to my next visit!   

Clouds Rest Winter

This is the third a series of posts on winter adventure in Yosemite. The first post was about Mount Watkins and the second about Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome. I have been to Clouds Rest in all seasons except winter and took the opportunity this past March to visit the mountain in genuine winter conditions thanks to the record setting snowpack. It’s a much more arduous snowshoe climb with everything covered in many feet of snow, but the views of the snowcapped high country are well worth the effort. In the summer the shortest route is a relatively easy <7 miles each way from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead at Tenaya Lake with less than 2,000 ft of elevation gain. However, I’ve always preferred visiting Clouds Rest before or after the Tioga Pass road closes since it significantly reduces the amount of visitors and solitude can be found on the summit to enjoy the magnificent 360 degree panorama. However, this means that the peak must be ascended from Yosemite Valley with substantially more mileage and elevation gain. Depending on whether the winter closure of the Mist Trail is in effect, the total mileage each way from Happy Isles is between 9.5 to 10.5 miles with 6,000 ft+ of elevation gain. However, climbing Clouds Rest from the Valley seems like the proper route in my opinion with passage by the iconic Vernal and Nevada Falls along with close views of Half Dome and Liberty Cap from below.

A snowshoe trip up Clouds Rest is a much more challenging endeavor since it’s likely nobody has been up there and trailblazing in deep snow is not easy (the snow was still largely unconsolidated on my trip). The last human tracks ended at the Sunrise Creek Junction but I was able to stay on the buried trail corridor as it passed through pine and fir forest. While the beauty of snowshoeing is you can basically go anywhere in the forest floating on top of buried brush and downed logs, staying on the trail corridor eliminated unnecessary weaving around dense clumps of firs. At the steep slope below the Clouds Rest pinnacles the trail begins a series of well-graded switchbacks, but with these switchbacks completely buried the only feasible option is to just head straight up. It becomes quite steep on this climb of several hundred vertical feet. Aim for the forested bench to the east (right) of the pinnacles and do not follow where the trail ascends which is to the left side of the slope and then does a long traverse back to the right. Traversing steep slopes is not fun in snowshoes and better to aim directly for the forested bench on the right. Once that bench is reached the incline decreases and it’s a pleasant walk through the pines to the final step up to the summit. Here, instead of following the vicinity of where the trail would be below the ridge I climbed up to the SW ridge crest and enjoyed some awesome views looking into Tenaya Canyon on the final approach to the summit block.

Complete Albums:

The summit is essentially a large granite fin that is oriented SW to NE with a couple hundred feet drop on the east side and a few thousand feet drop on the west side into Tenaya Canyon. A fall on either side would not be pleasant, though I have to think falling to the east is the better option. The final climb from the south includes a steep section with some exposure to the cliffs falling into Tenaya Canyon. After the snow melts, the trail provides ample safety, but when snow covered, this pitch gives pause and may require an ice axe and/or crampons depending on conditions. Fortunately, the summit itself is broad enough to relax and enjoy the stunning 360 degree view which takes in most of Yosemite National Park including Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, North Dome, Mount Hoffman, Sawtooth Ridge, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne area domes, the Cathedral Range (including the highest point in the park, Mount Lyell), and the Clark Range including Mount Hoffman. It’s a spectacular vista and even more impressive when it’s all snow covered. The northeast end of the the summit fin narrows into a knife edge. When the knobby granite is exposed this an easy hop and skip but when snow and ice covered it becomes a tricky knife edge requiring ice axe and crampons. All things considered, the south route up the summit block is the better choice in the winter since it does not require dealing with the considerable exposure found on the knife edge north of the summit.

The immense northwest face of Clouds Rest is at an angle that is plenty steep but still enables snow and ice to accumulate throughout winter. On a heavy snow year such as this, several feet of snow and ice accumulate setting the stage for an awesome phenomenon in late winter and spring. When the sun angle increases and temps warm, the snow and ice calves off the granite apron and tumbles down to Tenaya Canyon with amazing speed over wet, slick granite. While I was on top of Clouds Rest I witnessed several amazing calving episodes with thunderous sounds and staggering amounts of snow and ice shooting down into Tenaya Canyon. There were chunks the size of buses sliding down the granite and launched over cliffs like torpedoes. The power of nature is on full display when this calving occurs!     The winter closure of the Mist Trail seems to dissuade many visitors and in both the morning and afternoon I had Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls to myself. In addition, over all these years of doing the John Muir Trail and Mist Trail I had never bothered to do the Clark Point cutoff trail. With the winter closures, this stretch of trail becomes required and it far exceeded expectations. The upper portion includes amazing views of Nevada Falls with Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick and Half Dome. The lower part includes a dramatic birds-eye vista of Vernal Falls that is arguably more impressive than that seen from the Mist Trail. I also found the cutoff trail to be a little icy in the morning, which means that the shaded Mist Trail was probably much more icy. The take away is that the winter route is plenty beautiful and it’s not worth disobeying closures that put yourself and others in harms way. As of this writing, the Mist Trail is open so expect it to be open in Spring.