Granite Dome and its lakes

Aptly named Granite Dome is an immense granite massif with numerous basins occupied by stunning alpine lakes. All of the lakes are located on the northern side of the massive ridge that culminates in the summit while the south side features much less rock and more meadows. The region is accessed via Kennedy Meadows and features a moderately steep trail to reach Relief Reservoir and beyond, and then off-trail travel along granite slabs to reach a series of lakes including Lewis Lakes (lower, middle, upper), Sardella Lake, Ridge Lake and Iceland Lake. In my opinion Ridge Lake is the centerpiece nestled beneath the towering cliffs of the Granite dome summit. Many photos can be found here.

The cross-country travel to reach the lakes from Summit Creek was straightforward and I soon found myself at Sardella Lake with an awesome backdrop of Granite Dome. I continued up to Upper Lewis Lake which was still 80% frozen. I made a slight diversion to see Middle and Lower Lewis Lakes from above. Middle Lewis Lake is spectacular with towering granite cliffs and I definitely want to visit it at shore level in the future. Continuing up the slopes above Upper Lewis Lake, I encountered consistent snow and put on my Khatoola microspikes. These proved to be essential as the slope steepened and the snow became harder, if not icy in spots, on the north facing aspect below the ridgeline.  Once atop the ridge, the slope eased and I was soon traversing the broad summit ridge to the actual summit. I enjoyed awesome views in all directions, in particular a pillar protruding from the main granite wall of the Dome afforded a great aspect of the Granite Dome and lakes below.

On the way down, I veered toward Ridge Lake where I also encountered sections of firm snow to carefully navigate. Finally at Ridge Lake, I spent time enjoying this paradise characterized by deep blue waters, clumps of vegetation, and polished granite. I explored the area and climbed some slabs for a great view of Iceland Lake and then descended to Iceland Lake, another gorgeous alpine lake. Instead of returning to the trail the same way I had come, I decided to make a loop and follow the canyon draining Ridge Lake. None of the travel was technical, although it was definitely more time consuming than the way I had come. Once at the bottom of the canyon, I crossed a swampy Relief Meadows to join the Relief Meadows trail and ultimately made my way back to the main trail followed by a quick run downhill to Kennedy Meadows.  

More photos here.

Sister Lakes & Forsyth Peak

The Sister Lakes region describes a chain of lakes that straddle the northern border of Yosemite National Park and Hoover Wilderness. The name “Sister” aptly describes the names of these lakes, which include Stella, Harriett, Helen, Ruth, Bonnie, Cora and Dorothy. Forsyth Peak serves as a rugged backdrop for all of these lakes with its permanent snowfields and impressive north face. Dorothy Lake Pass (on the Sierra crest) marks the actual boundary line between Yosemite and Hoover and Dorothy Lake is the only lake that actually lies in the national park (south of the pass) and flows into the Hetch Hetchy drainage and ultimately the Pacific Ocean. The other lakes (north of the pass) drain into the Walker River and the Great Basin. Here are some photos with many more here.

The Pacific Crest Trail travels through this area and since these lakes are a minimum 15 miles from the nearest trailhead, most visitors to this region are thru-hikers or backpackers. We took the shortest route to reach these lakes, which begins at Leavitt Meadows off the Sonora Pass highway (108) and follows the West Walker River up 10 miles to a junction where the West Walker is crossed (via log or wade). This first part along the river is pleasant and very runnable with nice non-technical stretches to keep a consistent pace going. From the West Walker crossing begins a moderately steep climb above the valley to join the Pacific Crest Trail. A couple miles beyond the PCT junction lies the first lake, Lake Harriett, and another mile later is Stella Lake, with it’s intricate inlets and peninsulas interspersed with alpine firs and pines. Dorothy Lake is the largest lake by far with an azure color and lovely views down the valley. Fortunately, there was a breeze all day which kept the mosquitoes at bay and the temperatures reasonable for the run along the West Walker River (I can imagine this can get quite hot). 

I climbed Forsyth Peak as part of this trip. The route I took left the trail just after the outlet of Dorothy Lake (~17 miles from the trailhead) and ascended the steep ridge to a flatter area of granite slabs.On the way to the summit I stayed closer to the ridgeline and wound up ascending several false summits with ultra thick pine vegetation. On the way back, I chose a talus slope to descend back to the granite slabs which worked out better. The views from the top of Forsyth included the Sister Lake basin immediately below, the expanse of the Emigrant Wilderness to the West, the Hoover Wilderness, and Yosemite National Park. Specifically, Tower Peak looked very impressive close by and I could easily spot Mount Lyell, Mount Ritter, and Banner Peak in the distance.

Many more photos here.

Emigrant Wilderness

The Emigrant Wilderness is located north of Yosemite National Park and accessed via the Sonora Pass Highway. There are several trailheads that access this vast wilderness of glacier polished granite, lakes and meadows. For my first exploration into this region I decided to do a 30 mile loop out of the Crabtree Trailhead above Dodge Ridge/Pinecrest to visit a series of lakes. It’s nice that this trailhead is under three hours from the Bay Area, probably the closest area of the Sierra mountains from the Bay. Each of the lakes on the route deeper into the wilderness became progressively more scenic starting with Camp Lake, Piute Lake, Gem Lake, Jewelry Lake and the highlight of the loop was Upper and Lower Buck Lakes, which featured a great backdrop of granite walls. I also enjoyed Wood Lake as I began my return via Pine Valley. The elevation of the loop ranged from about 7,500 ft to 9,000 ft although the trails can be rocky with ups and downs so it’s not the fastest running terrain. I also encountered remnant snow on the trail below Wood Lake. A great 10 mile trail extension of the loop would be to Emigrant Lake, Huckleberry Lake and Lertora Lake (40+ miles total). There are numerous other lakes and canyons within the Emigrant to explore (both on and off trail) so I’m sure this is only the first of many adventures in this spectacular region. Here are some photos with many more here.

Several more photos in the complete album here.

Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne 2012

The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is a rugged, wild and remote corner of Yosemite National Park. I completed this point-to-point adventure in 2010 and couldn’t wait to return this year. In 2010, we did the trip in July, but due to the unusually dry winter season resulting in meager snowpack, the trail was snow-free and we found similar water volume this year in late May as we did in mid-July 2010. Due to the fact that White Wolf campground and lodge were not opened yet, we decided to leave the car at Lukens Lake which added a few extra miles to the trip, bonus over the standard 50k distance (~33 miles total). Complete photo album here.

The first part of the route is gorgeous with great views of the Echo Range and the domes of the Tuolumne Meadows as the Tuolumne River graciously meanders through the grassland and forest. The river quickly transitions to rapids and waterfalls and once in the canyon the views are simply spectacular with granite and water everywhere. There are numerous major waterfalls with the highlight in my opinion being Waterwheel Falls.

What I forgot from 2010 is the arduousness of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. First, while it is mostly downhill from the Tuolumne Meadows into Pate Valley 21 miles downstream, it’s impossible to really open up the stride for any significant length due to the rugged, rocky and technical nature of the trail. Moreover, deep inside the canyon the trail becomes faint and difficult to follow at times due to its remote location with blow downs and other obstacles. Finally, and this is the real kicker, once at the bottom of Pate Valley one must ascend 4,000+ ft from the canyon floor all the way up to the rim at White Wolf/Lukens Lake. While this is a point-to-point, the net elevation loss from Tuolumne to Lukens Lake is only a couple hundred feet. The big climb is due to the fact that there is no trail outlet from the bottom of the canyon with the river flowing into the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Thus, the only option is the grueling climb at the end of the day. Fortunately, the weather on this trip was cool which helped immensely, but this climb can be hot, exposed and buggy on a typical summer day, especially the lower portion.

Complete photo album here.

Clouds Rest via Yosemite Valley

Clouds Rest is a colossal granite formation with striking prominence. At 9,926 ft, it is not nearly the tallest mountain in Yosemite, but it’s close proximity and unobstructed perch above Yosemite Valley provides spectacular views and a unique vantage of both the high country and the valley. In a 360 degree panorama, one can gaze over to Half Dome, the Clark Range, Tuolumne Meadows. The most impressive feature of Clouds Rest is its northwest face, an immense granite slab polished by glaciers and descending 5,000 ft below to the base of Tenaya Canyon. One can gain the summit of Clouds Rest by two trail routes:

  1. Via the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead (~8,160 ft) along Tioga Road: A 14.5 roundtrip hike; ~2,000 ft of elevation gain
  2. Via Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley (4,105 ft): 20 miles roundtrip; 6,000+ ft elevation gain.
While the route from Yosemite Valley entails more mileage and much more elevation gain, it is more aesthetic, including the iconic Mist Trail with passage next to Vernal and Nevada Falls. As one ascends beyond the falls there are great views beneath the towering cliffs of Half Dome and higher up, there are several spectacular vistas along the ridge to the summit. I have hiked up Clouds Rest previously via Tioga Rd, but this was my first time via Yosemite Valley and it’s a great route and worth the extra efforts. Here are some photos from this trip to Clouds Rest from the Valley. Many more photos here and here.

Many more photos here and here.