Glacier Point & Sentinel Dome Winter

This is the second in a series of three winter routes in Yosemite National Park (for the first, see Mount Watkins Winter). Glacier Point is one of the great viewpoints in Yosemite and it’s even better in winter for a couple reasons. First (and foremost), peace and solitude can be found. There’s no tourist buses and no tourists. If you’re doing Glacier Point in a day, the folks who spend the night at the hut are on their way back or yet to arrive so there’s a good chance you have the vista all to yourself. Second, a snow-capped Half Dome and surrounding high country seems to add another layer the dramatic vista. It’s been since 2013 since I was at Glacier Point in the winter. That time it was a cross country ski and very cold after a big storm cycle so the winter wonderland was in full effect. Unfortunately the spigot largely turned off the second half of that winter as the multi-year drought commenced.  This year the snows are back and California experienced a real winter so it was time to revisit Glacier Point. This time I would bring my snowshoes instead of skiing. It turns out the Glacier Point Road is groomed to the point that snowshoes are usually not necessary in the morning. However, I would make a side trip to Sentinel Dome and for that snowshoes are definitely required as the snow was deep and unconsolidated. Whether it’s worth carrying snowshoes for the short side trip Sentinel Dome is up for debate. If I bring snowshoes again I will likely add on another viewpoint like Taft Point to make better use of the gear. Otherwise, an out-and-back to Glacier Point is largely doable as a run on the hard packed groomed surface with possibly some slip on traction device on the shoes and possibly some hiking instead of running in the afternoon if the snow becomes soft. Compared to the very cold weather four years ago this time it was comparatively balmy so there was no snow on the vegetation but several more feet of snow at Glacier Point and the high country reflecting the big snow pack this year, especially at 7,000 feet and above.

From Badger Pass to Glacier Point is a straightforward 11 mile each way or 22 miles round trip. As would be expected, the road is graded very well with relatively gradual ascents and descents. There’s a short climb at the beginning before a couple miles of gradual descent to Bridalveil Creek. This descent is not noticeable on the way out but more noticeable on the way back when it’s uphill. There’s a rolling section around Bridalveil Creek before a consistent (but gradual) climb begins after the turnoff to Horizon Ridge at mile 4.5. This climb continues for around 3 miles. There’s some more rolling on the ridge before the road begins it’s descent to Glaicer Point at around mile 9. Washburn Point is reached just after mile 10 and Glacier Point at mile 11. If Glacier Point is the destination, I’d definitely plan on reaching it since there aren’t many views along the way – the reward is at the turnaround point. The Clark Range view is at mile 6.25 but it pales in comparison to the views at Washburn Point and Glacier Point. The road largely spends it time traversing through a montane forest, which is very beautiful after a fresh snow but does not offer many views. The destination at Glacier Point is easily the highlight and it’s worth every bit of the effort.

For Sentinel Dome snowshoes are almost always required in the winter. It’s under a mile roundtrip from the road to the dome and back. Sentinel Dome offers a spectacular 360 degree view and a higher perspective on Half Dome across the Valley. I personally think the view from Glacier Point is more dramatic to Half Dome but Sentinel Dome is definitely worth the side trip if you’ve brought snowshoes and includes a wider vista taking in the Clark Range and El Capitan. If I bring snowshoes next time I will also include a visit to Taft Point, but it looks like this point is rarely visited so deep snow and potentially slow going with trail breaking seems like it would be encountered. Overall, the vast majority of visitors go to Dewey Point which is only 4 miles from Badger Pass (8 miles round trip). Dewey is a fantastic vista, particularly for El Capitan, but for Tenaya Canyon and Half Dome Glacier Point takes the win.

Full albums:

Watkins Winter

In my opinion Mount Watkins has one of the best views in the Yosemite Valley region. Unlike some of the more famous vistas which have a road or a designated trail leading to them (and associated crowds), Mount Watkins has neither and this largely explains its relative obscurity both in summer and especially in winter. I won’t deny, the solitude one can experience from this majestic perch is part of the allure for me. What’s certain is from the end of the Watkins Ridge one receives the best view of the massive granite apron that constitutes the northwest face of Clouds Rest. The vista also includes an excellent vantage of Half Dome as it towers above Yosemite Valley. The stunning panorama encompasses a good chunk of the National Park including Mount Starr King, the Clark Range, North Dome, Basket Dome, Mount Conness, Mount Hoffman and Glacier Point.  In the summer it’s merely a 4 mile jaunt down from the Tioga Pass Highway to the edge of Watkins Ridge (where the best views are located) but in the winter it’s a more arduous trek up from Yosemite Valley via the switchbacks of the Snow Creek Trail and then off-trail from the vicinity of the Snow Creek Cabin up to the Watkins summit and down the ridge. However, the extra effort to reach Mount Watkins in the winter is richly rewarded with an experience is enhanced by snowy winter conditions.

The Snow Creek Trail is south facing and the lower part typically melts out a few days after snowfall (at least to the point snowshoes are not required; though some snow and ice may remain). After a fairly level trek to Mirror Lake and about a mile beyond, the trail gets to business with a long series of rocky switchbacks. Fortunately, views open up pretty quick and they only improve as one ascends. The most spectacular feature during this ascent is Half Dome, directly across the canyon, but in my opinion, the view across Tenaya Canyon to the Quarter Domes is equally impressive. Unless a heavy low elevation snowfall just occurred, snowshoes are typically only required near the top of the Snow Creek climb at ~6,500 ft where the gradient begins to flatten. The trail follows close to picturesque Snow Creek for a short distance before crossing the creek using a bridge. After the crossing the trail resumes a gradual climb through the forest up to a meadow area. Trees are marked with blazes to guide the direction if you happen to be breaking trail. The stretch from the Snow Creek crossing to the cabin passes through a forest that turns into a winter wonderland with an excellent mixture of large and small trees along with a diverse variety of pines and firs. The Snow Creek Cabin is just off the trail on the opposite side of a meadow. Topo maps have the cabin marked relatively close to its actual location and there are plenty of posts on the internet providing GPX tracks and specific directions. The cabin used to be somewhat of a secret as it’s open to the public for overnight stays during the winter, but word has gotten out and the internet is not helping. Staying at the cabin in the winter used to be unrestricted but unfortunately, too much demand has caused the park service to get out their free-flowing ream of red tape to implement yet another quota. Now one must either pick up a permit the afternoon before the trip (and arrange for accommodation or camping int he Valley) or the morning of the trip when the visitor center opens with no guarantees any spots are remaining. Neither option is convenient and makes heading up there for a day trip much more appealing. It turns out climbing up the steep Snow Creek trail to the Snow Creek Cabin and beyond to Mount Watkins is much more pleasant without overnight gear anyway. Perhaps if one wanted to continue beyond for a winter ascent of Mount Hoffman or Tuolumne Meadows I would consider a night at the cabin.     

Complete Photo Albums:

Although off trail, reaching Mount Watkins is fairly straightforward from the cabin. From the Snow Creek Cabin head southeast through open forest and then make a short but steep climb directly to the high point of Mount Watkins at 8,500 ft. The summit area is quite broad and therefore the high point does not have the best view. Instead, I highly recommend continuing down southwest from the summit around a half mile along the gently-sloping granite ridge studded with occasional pines. Eventually at around 8,200 ft the ridge becomes narrower and steeper and at this point the superior views are realized as one can gaze down into the depths of Tenaya Canyon all the way up the granite face to the summit of Clouds Rest. The sweeping panorama takes in everything from Mount Conness to the Yosemite Valley floor. The ridge is quite exposed to the elements and the stunted pines and junipers growing here are particularly picturesque making for some great photography subjects to pair with the magnificent view. 

The Science of Snow Cone

The “Snow Cone” is somewhat of a mythical event to experience. A snow on Cone Peak is not rare in itself, but rather the ability to experience and capture a fresh snow. Most years have snow on Cone Peak, and sometimes multiple times per year, but as I will describe, they are virtually always difficult to forecast more than a day in advance and the snow is fleeting and hard to capture. Timing is therefore very important to get the full winter wonderland effect (with trees and vegetation cloaked in snow) above the spectacular Big Sur coast. When it all comes together, standing in fresh snow while marveling at the turquoise and blue waters of the Pacific Ocean thousands of feet below indeed feels like something out of a dream or mythology! The challenges of timing a Snow Cone reminds me of growing up in the Seattle area wishing for lowland snow. As with the Snow Cone, there were many more teases than actual snow storms in the Seattle area, but when the ingredients came together it was always magical.  In many ways, the forecasting challenges for lowland snow in Western Washington and Cone Peak are similar and I’m just as fascinated now as when I was young.

I’ve been captivated by the possibility of a Snow Cone for some time. I’d seen enough from others who’d witnessed past events to know that it was something special and an event that I wanted to experience for myself but I also knew that if timed correctly it could be that much more amazing. Along the way I’ve sought to understand what weather patterns might make for a good Snow Cone in order to be at the right place at the right time when an opportunity presents itself. The drought got in the way of my plans for a few years but I finally got the opportunity to implement some of this knowledge during Snow Cones on January 21st and January 24th. In particular, the snow on January 24th measured 15 inches on the summit with snow down to 2,500 feet, the most significant snow in many years. The winter wonderland we encountered even exceeded my dreams. The following is a discussion of some of the science behind what it takes to get a Snow Cone. Note that these are just the thoughts and observations of a weather enthusiast and I have no formal training in meteorology. Also please note that all photos are © Leor Pantilat, All Rights Reserved. Please request permission for any use.

At 5,164 feet one might guess that the summit of Cone Peak receives quite a bit of snow, both in terms of number of events per year and aggregate number of inches. However, this is not the case since there are many counteracting factors that turn many promising snow events into merely teases. For a Snow Cone you need the ingredients – namely cold air and moisture – to come together just right. If you continue reading, you’ll see there are a number of moving parts that make it challenging to get these two ingredients together at the same time. Then, assuming a snow does happen, it’s sometimes a challenge to obtain the visibility of the coast from the summit. In my opinion, it’s not the same if the mountain is stuck in a cloud. What makes a snowfall on Cone Peak so unique is the ocean vistas and while certainly not a requirement of a Snow Cone, having visibility of the coast elevates the experience to another level.

Snow Cone is a fairly infrequent event. I’d estimate that a “normal” season probably sees a handful of times where the summit receives more than a dusting and one to two events in the 6-8 inch range on the summit. Any event that exceeds 8 inches on the summit or drops snow below 3,000 ft happens much less frequently and cannot be counted on every season. In fact, using the term “normal” may be somewhat of a misnomer considering California’s climate which swings wildly between drought and big winters. In fact, one of the winters in the recent drought likely did not even have one snow event the entire season. On the other hand, “big” winters with a persistent flow out of the Gulf of Alaska may see several good snow events.  A snow Cone is possible as early as the end of November, but the season really only gets started in January with the best possibilities residing in January through mid March.

Any discussion of Snow Cone needs to start with geography. The summit of Cone Peak is only 3 miles from the coast making it the steepest gradient from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. This topography is what makes Cone so special. However, since the mountain is essentially right over the ocean that is a problem for snow prospects. Even in January the ocean temperature is typically in the mid 50s. Water holds heat better than land does and it therefore warms the air above it. Thus, the Pacific Ocean has an enormous moderating effect on coastal temperatures. Right at the coast temperatures are very mild even in the heart of winter and also mild in the middle of summer with a persistent marine layer. With onshore flow out of the south or southwest, warmer maritime air envelops the summit and snow is out of the question.  

The next problem is that Cone Peak is not a naturally cold spot. Colder air from elsewhere is needed. Cone Peak resides at a relatively south latitude with a Mediterranean climate characterized by hot, dry summer and cool, wet winters. I would go so far as to say that most of the year is warm to hot on Cone, especially on its sun-baked south facing slopes. Even during the winter it’s rarely cold. Most of the precipitation that falls on Cone occurs during warmer “Atmospheric River” events that pull in copious moisture from the subtropics and raise snow levels well above the summit. The vast majority of snow events are “fringy” meaning that the temperature on the summit is just barely cold enough to snow. Even when it does snow, it is almost always very fleeting. Once the sun comes out it’s only a matter of hours before the south facing slopes melt out and the snow and ice drop from the trees and chaparral. With a big enough snow the north facing slopes will hold onto snow on the ground quite a bit longer, but the chaparral vegetation and trees will start dropping snow from their limbs as soon as the sun comes out and temperatures rise above freezing. 

So how does it get cold enough to snow?  The answer is usually not arctic air. It is very rare for continental arctic air masses originating in Canada to reach Cone Peak’s latitude on the central California coast. The path of least resistance for these air masses is east of the Rocky Mountains, but even when the cold air manages to sneak through the Rockies, it still has to get over the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada. That means there are several barriers impeding the progress of these cold air masses. Due to these challenges, I’d estimate that a modified arctic front only reaches Cone Peak once every five years or so. When these fronts do reach central California the next problem is moisture. These systems tend take an inland trajectory more often than not which usually means they are moisture starved. The northern end of the Santa Lucias can be efficient at squeezing out snow in these scenarios, but Cone lies in an unfavorable “snow shadowed” position in this situation. When the already-rare arctic front happens to swing off the Northern California coast and gather moisture off the Pacific, this becomes the textbook setup for low elevation snowfalls in coastal California. However, there’s a reason snow is so rare in San Francisco and Monterey. That’s because arctic fronts are rare as-is and then to have them swing offshore just enough to gather moisture (but not too much to warm the air up) is even more rare. Despite the rarity, history has been marked with just this sort of event many times, and it seemingly happened more in the past with several records of measurable snow in downtown San Francisco in the late 1800s, 1951 and 1976 from just this sort of pattern. While it’s been 40 years since this pattern came together just right to produce snow in San Francisco, arctic fronts are always something to watch for and the December 2008 snow was associated with an arctic front.  That said, arctic fronts do not happen frequently enough to be considered the primary producer of a Snow Cone.

So if it’s not from the arctic where do the ingredients for a Snow Cone usually come from? The answer is the Gulf of Alaska. These systems tend to be much more reliable in the moisture department as they take an over-water trajectory. They also tend to occur with much greater frequency in a normal winter (the drought years were a notable exception when it seemed like years passed without a strong Gulf of Alaska storm). However, with Gulf of Alaska systems, since the cold air is of maritime origins it’s usually more cool rather than cold.  In most cases this takes lowest elevation snow out of the equation, but the snowline with these systems is more nuanced as a strong enough Gulf of Alaska system with a low pressure tracking to just the right spot can lower the snow level to 2,500 feet or even lower.

Gulf of Alaska systems come in many flavors that have consequences on snow possibilities. These systems typically include a cold front moving down the coast which will draw up warmer air ahead of the front from the south and southwest. Most of the heavier precipitation usually resides ahead the frontal band and, frustratingly, it’s going to be too warm in this sector of the storm. Once the frontal band passes the wind direction turns to northwesterly and this allows the cooler air out of the Gulf of Alaska to filter in. Within this cool, unstable air resides cumulus and showers. If this transition to cooler air is prompt, then these showers can start producing snowfall over the summit soon after frontal passage. It helps if there has been preceding systems already establishing cool air over the region so the warm sector of the system is brief. If the cooler air takes its time to arrive it’s likely not a good sign for a Snow Cone. Once the front passes and the cooler air has arrived attention turns to the “shower game” which can be equally frustrating. Not all Gulf of Alaska systems have a deep reservoir of showers after the front passes. Many times there isn’t enough moisture in the post-frontal airmass to produce more than hit and miss showers once the cool air has arrived. Other times the trajectory of the shower flow is out of the northwest which is a great setup for the northern Santa Lucias like Ventana Double Cone and Chews Ridge, but once again Cone Peak is “snow shadowed” by these peaks to its north. For post-frontal showers to be successful for Cone Peak the flow of showers needs to be more from the west and it needs to be fairly strong with a lot of post-frontal shower activity.

After the frontal band passes things get more interesting when discussing the track of the low pressure. Most times the parent low will track north into the Pacific Northwest but sometimes with a deep and digging trough over the western United States the low will descend into the base of the trough by sliding down the coast and moving inland over Big Sur or to the south. The low serves as a mechanism to organize shower activity and produce heavier snowfall and is entirely within the cold part of the system. The success of this type of setup is highly sensitive to the track of the low. A track too far north may draw up warmer from the south and southwest and raise snow levels too high.  A track too far south or offshore will take away the moisture to make snow. Thus, a track that either closely parallels the coast or comes in just to the south is likely ideal. This Goldilocks setup does not happen very often but when it does you can get lower elevation snowfall and heavier snow totals up top.

In late winter and early spring instead of frontal bands coming out of the Gulf of Alaska, the systems sometimes take on the form of a cutoff low, which is a low that has been cutoff from the basic westerly flow. Instead of a widespread precipitation event with a well-defined frontal band, these cutoff lows can sit off the coast quasi-stationary for a day or longer and spin up showers. It can be quite cold underneath these lows and if they are positioned correctly they can result in substantial snow over Cone Peak along with hail and thunderstorms at lower elevations. In fact, these cutoff lows are responsible for many of the late season snows in March and April. Since the cold air is typically confined to right underneath the low, once the low does “eject” the temperatures usually warm up rapidly.

The final type of Snow Cone doesn’t originate in the Gulf of Alaska or the arctic. Sometimes systems will come directly out of the west with a low making landfall somewhere on the central coast. As Cone Peak is on the cooler north side of such a system and the air flow can become weakly offshore (cutting off the moderating influence of the Pacific) the air can be marginally cold enough for a higher elevation snow event (generally above 4k) and possibly lower if there is some antecedent cooler air in place.

If all of the ingredients line up correctly then Cone can be an efficient snow producer and create a unique and magical winter wonderland. In a matter of hours 6-8+ inches can accumulate. The northwest facing Devils Canyon is masterful at orographically enhancing precipitation and generating clouds. If it’s below freezing and the mountain is in a cloud rime ice begins to build up on vegetation within these clouds despite the fact that there are no higher based clouds and precipitation. After several hours the ice can accumulate to impressive amounts, particularly on the very exposed ridge lines, as manifested by an event on January 21st that produced 2-3 inches of ice accumulation.

Let’s assume the ingredients came together and a snowfall happened. The next problem is visibility and whether there will be any. Being so close to the moist environment of the Pacific Ocean, it’s often a difficult task to clear the mountain of clouds. Even if the mountain is clear in the morning, cumulus development in the afternoon is a good bet if a substantial snow has occurred and onshore flow persists. On some occasions a dry northerly wind will follow a snow and blow away all the clouds, but these winds might also blow the snow off the vegetation. Other times the mountain is socked in for the entire day after a snow. For me personally, what makes a  Snow Cone so special is the proximity to the ocean and having the visibility to the ocean takes it to another level. Thus, not only is timing the snow important, but also timing the breakout from the clouds! 

The January 24th snow event produced 15 inches of snow on the summit of Cone Peak with spots along the north ridge approaching 2 feet. These totals are significant and have not been seen in several years (likely back to 2011 or 2008). This was a classic Gulf of Alaska storm that was the the final system of three. The preceding two systems served to progressively cool the atmosphere. In fact, it was already cold enough to produce 2-3 inches of rime rice and 4+ inches of snow with the second storm on January 21st. On Saturday evening, January 21st, the frontal band with third storm approached but precipitation fell as rain in the pre-frontal band with strong onshore flow out of the south and southwest drawing up warmer air. However, temps on the summit only rose into the mid 30s as the warm sector was brief and once the front passed early Sunday morning it did not take much to lower the snowline back below the summit. In addition, the post-frontal shower game with this third system was especially strong. There would be a constant stream of moisture flowing into the Santa Lucias in the cold and unstable environment. The topography of Cone Peak would only serve to enhance these showers and since the showers were coming out of the west the mountain would not be “snow shadowed” by peaks to the north.     The showers in the post-frontal environment were most numerous Sunday night when around 1 inch of liquid precipitation fell as snow on the summit (~10 inches). Snow levels during this part of the storm were around 4,000 feet. There was a bit of a break during the day Monday, January 23rd, but the snow was not done. The parent low would track down the coast during the day and spread showers back over Cone Monday night. The track of this low and the timing at night allowed snow levels to come down to 2,500 ft. Showers produced snow accumulations of 2 inches at 3,000 feet and around 5 inches on the summit (on top of the 10 inches already fallen). Chilly temperatures at around 26 degrees on the summit (as determined by the temperatures recorded at the comparable Chews Ridge weather station) allowed for higher snow to liquid ratios with unusually light and fluffy snow for the Ventana. This final burst of snow on Monday night was largely responsible for creating the winter wonderland scene that we experienced on Tuesday morning. The low ended up weakening as it continued south and largely stayed offshore during the day Monday resulting in clearing skies on Tuesday morning. Had the low stayed closer to the coast or swung inland over Big Sur snow totals would have likely been even higher, but then we wouldn’t have had the beautiful clear skies in the morning

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.