Check out the complete set of Annotated Panoramas on Flickr.
The region between Rock Creek and Mammoth Lakes hasn’t drawn my attention in the past. I’ve always thought the peaks in this sector of the High Sierra are loose choss piles (at least that’s how they look from Hwy 395), devoid of the granite ruggedness found in other parts of the range. While Red Slate Mountain is arguably a choss pile, I was pleasantly surprised on my first visit to this region finding gorgeous scenery and many options for future trips. The geology of this area is especially fascinating with a palette of rock colors ranging from blazing red to pale white. Along the way we even spotted purple and green rocks. The interesting geology of the region is reflected in the series of photos below. In fact, Red Slate Mountain’s neighbor is aptly name Red & White Mountain with red and white striations throughout its face. Just to the west is the Silver Divide with quintessential gray and white granite I am accustomed to in the High Sierra. While Red Slate Mountain is not an interesting climb via the class 2 route from McGee Pass, the view from the summit is outstanding. My favorite vantage was looking down at Lake Dorothy, Constance Lake, and the many other lakes of the Convict Creek basin. The other highlight of the trip was passing by a triumvirate of lakes leading up to McGee Pass, each becoming progressively smaller and more desolate as one ascends toward the pass. Big McGee Lake is by far the largest and most scenic with clumps of alpine trees surrounding its shores and Mount Crocker’s north face in the background. Gorgeous wildflower meadows above Big McGee Lake lead to Little McGee Lake tucked in beneath the cliffs of Red & White Mountain. “Mini” McGee is the final tarn below McGee Pass, a desolate place with virtually no vegetation to speak of. This 20 mile roundtrip route would make for an excellent high altitude run as a “one-up” with 6,200+ foot gain, but all downhill on the way back. Strava route here.
Mount Hoffmann is geographically near the center of Yosemite National Park. Along with Tuolumne Peak, it forms a small subrange between Tenaya Canyon and Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne with impressive prominence from other high regions of Yosemite. It therefore comes as no surprise that Mount Hoffman’s 10,850 foot summit has one of the best views in the park. The 360 degree panorama (only interrupted by radio tower equipment) includes the Cathedral Range, Tuolumne Meadows, Northern Yosemite, Tenaya Lake, and a view down Tenaya Canyon to Half Dome. Close at hand is an interesting rock pinnacle known as Hoffmann’s thumb. When the May Lake road is open, it’s merely a 3 mile hike to the summit with around 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The first 1.2 miles is along a well maintained trail (part of the High Sierra Camps Loop) to lovely May Lake. From May Lake, the trail becomes more of a use path, although still very well defined as Hoffmann is a popular destination. The views continue improve as one ascends with subalpine slopes opening up to broad wildflower meadows beneath the summit. The final summit area is achieved via a brief scramble. On this day there was a group of senior women hikers from Nagoya, Japan who reached the summit just after we arrived. We helped celebrate with them (see last photo).
The “Sawtooth Loop” is a spectacular route through one of the most scenic regions of the High Sierra and a personal favorite. I call this particular route the Sawtooth Loop since it circumnavigates an impressively rugged subrange of the Sierra crest known as Sawtooth Ridge that straddles Yosemite national park’s northern boundary and the Hoover Wilderness. This deeply serrated ridge resembles a sawblade and contains features with enchanting names like Three Teeth, The Doodad, Dragtooth and Sawblade. On my route I chose to climb Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak, but there are numerous other variations and objectives in the region to include on such a 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. Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon are spectacular glacier carved canyons lined with smooth granite walls and lovely meadows. A carry-over Matterhorn Peak, the highest point on the ridge, is an excellent way to access the outstanding scenery and wilderness of this region south of Sawtooth Ridge. Strava route here.
The most straightforward ascent of Matterhorn is via Horse Creek Pass. The going is very reasonable up to a shoulder above Horse Creek Pass, but once around the corner there is a section of tedious gravel slopes on Matterhorn’s southeast slopes (two steps up, slide a step back). The east couloir route, which I did on my first trip ever in the Sierra, is the preferred early season route when the couloir is still snow covered. Right now it looks like a loose, steep mess for a taxing ascent (i.e. more tedious than the Horse Creek Pass route). After enjoying the view from the summit I scrambled down to a small col where a sandy chute provides access to Matterhorn Peak’s southwest slope and Matterhorn Canyon. The descent through the chute is loose and also much preferable as a descent route. The chute deposited me fairly rapidly into the headwaters of Matterhorn Canyon. From upper Matterhorn Canyon I traversed over to Finger Peaks and scrambled up the east Finger. I wound up in hard class 3 and class 4 but it probably could have been easier if I was more careful with my route selection. I traversed the south side of the middle Finger and then ascended it via the class three route (starting from the notch between Middle and West Fingers) to gain summit and the highest point of Finger Peaks. This class 3 route seems improbably with a narrow natural ledge cut into a steep and smooth granite face piecing together two class 3 scramble portions. Without this ledge, the scramble looks like it would be at least class 4. The view of Sawtooth Ridge, Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon from both the east and middle Fingers are stupendous – one of best panoramas I have seen in the Sierra. I was happy to see the couloir west of the middle Finger was largely snow free so I descended more steep and loose slopes (carefully skirting around ice) and then pleasant alpine meadows down to the Burro Pass Trail. After a couple miles of running along the Burro Pass Trail, I headed cross country through meadows and granite benches to Ice Lakes Pass where I continued up to Kettle Peak. I had initially thought about tagging Eocene, but the route looked to require a bit more time than I had on this day. Kettle Peak was an awesome replacement objective with arguably the best view of the Incredible Hulk rock wall. From the summit, it’s as if you’re in a helicopter staring down at the sheer rock with climbers that look like specs on the immense granite face. Descending from Kettle Peak the views of the Incredible Hulk and Maltby Lake continued. I passed by some climber camps and then picked up the good use path through Little Slide Canyon. It’s an arduous climbers path to be sure, but it would be an incomparably more arduous trek through Little Slide Canyon without this path. The Incredible Hulk is all that I imagined it to be and more – a precipitous rock spire rising nearly vertically from the talus slopes below. It’s quite awe-inspiring to stand beneath this rock, especially in the afternoon with ideal lighting. It goes without saying that I’ll be back for more adventures to this wild and remote corner of northern Yosemite. Strava route here.
The Desolation Seven Summits loop offers the best showcase of the Desolation Wilderness I can think of and arguably contains the most rugged and impressive mountain scenery of any route in the Sierra Nevada north of Sonora Pass. The aesthetic loop climbs seven of the high points in the Desolation circumnavigating Lake Aloha and also providing grand vistas of Lake Tahoe. The loop contains a nice mixture of big climbs, scrambling and trail miles. Total mileage is close to 30 miles with nearly 10,800 ft of elevation gain. Considering the vast majority of the elevation gain is off-trail on often arduous terrain, this is a great workout.
The Desolation Wilderness is located west and southwest of Lake Tahoe and is known for the granite landscape created by the Crystal Range with its beautiful lakes and views. It is easily the most rugged area of the Tahoe basin. With such beauty and relative close proximity to the Sacramento metro area and South Lake Tahoe comes over-appreciation in the form of crowds and trail quotas. However, this route explores sections of the wilderness that still feel wild, largely owing to the fact that the heart of the route between Pyramid Peak and Dicks Peak is entirely off trail. You won’t see many other people on this section, if any. I personally have yet to see anybody in the Desolation off a trail. It is this off-trail section that also provides the most spectacular views of Lake Aloha, the crown jewel of the Desolation, and the Crystal Range. Last summer when I did this loop I skipped Ralston Peak (it was the Desolation six summits; photo album with ideal photography conditions in 2012 here) but tagged it on the way out this time. I found Ralston to be a worthy addition with great views of Echo Lakes and a different perspective on the Crystal Range and Lake Aloha. Even with the addition of Ralston, I managed to go 40+ minutes faster than 2012 finishing in around 11 hours total. The faster time is attributed to (1) better navigation between Pyramid Peak and Mount Agassiz, (2) better route up Jacks Peak, and (3) taking the Tahoe Rim Trail to Gilmore Lake and Mount Tallac from Dicks Pass instead of the off-trail ridge. Without taking hundreds of photos and nursing a nagging injury, I imagine this loop would go in less than 8 hours. Strava route here.
The Whatcom Pass and Tapto Lakes area is one of the most scenic in all of the North Cascades. It’s a bit of a schlep to get there by any approach so it comes as no surprise that this is an infrequently visited corner of the range. From the west it’s 18+ miles via Hannegan Pass and down the Chilliwack to Brush Creek. From the east it’s 17+ miles along Little Beaver Creek. By either approach, it’s a long way in the woods with relentless flies and mosquitoes along with a healthy dose of quintessential North Cascades brush. I last visited Tapto Lakes eight years ago and it was one of the fondest memories in all of my travels in the North Cascades (which have been fairly comprehensive). Coming away from this trip I found the basin to be just as spectacular as I had remembered. As with eight years prior, we found a true wilderness with nobody else at the lakes, Whatcom Pass or even miles from the pass.
On this trip we took the boat shuttle from Ross Lake and hiked in via Little Beaver Creek. Progress along the first 10 miles to the junction with the Big Beaver Trail was reasonable as most of this stretch had recently been brushed out and the trail is fairly flat. Moreover, there are several sections in ancient cedar forest that are breathtaking. The upper part of Little Beaver, however, was chocked with waist-deep brush, including copious scratchy salmonberry (i.e. very slow going). Virtually all of the elevation gain on the Little Beaver occurs in the last couple miles to the pass; a 2,500 ft gain along steep switchbacks. Compared to the western approach via Hannegan Pass, the Little Beaver is much more scenic with excellent views of the “wall of thousand falls,” Mount Challenger and the immense Challenger Glacier. Whatcom Pass itself is very small and shielded from most of the views, but a short walk above the pass in either direction reveals sweeping views. If flies, mosquitoes and brush are the price to pay, then it’s worth it. Ascending north from Whatcom Pass on a rugged use path, one enters the alpine zone complete with wildflower meadows and clumps of picturesque alpine firs with Challenger Glacier gleaming in the background. Cresting the ridge, a magical basin of alpine lakes is found. There are at least four lakes in the Tapto Lakes basin and the lake furthest West provides the best view in my opinion. To the east lie Middle Lakes and East Lakes, but from my experience the Tapto Lakes basin is the most scenic. While I spend most of my time in the high Sierra since I live in California, it’s always great to return to the range that inspired me as a youngster. I look forward to many more adventure in the North Cascades.
An Onion Valley to South Lake trip has been on my list for a number of years. The route largely follows the JMT on arguably one of the most scenic stretches of the trail and includes Pinchot Pass and Mather Pass (and Glen Pass if all trail is taken). The trip is 65 miles all on trail, but I cut off 5 miles by taking Gould Pass over the crest directly into the Rae Lakes basin instead of Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass. While the off-trail route was shorter, it did not save much time (probably added time) and certainly required more energy. Gould Pass is rated at class 2, but it’s arduous travel beyond Golden Trout Lake. On top of that I made some small route finding errors that cumulatively cost time and energy. Once at Gould Pass, it’s not a cake walk descending into the Rae Lakes basin either. First, there is a steep and loose gully to negotiate and then a lot of cumbersome boulder hopping through an old glacier moraine down to Dragon Lake. From Dragon Lake, a faint use trail heads down to beautiful Rae Lakes where I was excited to finally hit a trail. I don’t regret taking this route with stunning views from Dragon Lake and one of the best photography angles I have seen of Rae Lakes, but next time I will likely utilize Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass to save that energy for all the running that follows on the JMT.
It’s hard to resist not taking a lot of photos and enjoying the spectacular scenery at Rae Lakes, one of the my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra. Once I finally exited the basin I made good progress down Woods Creek and the climb to Pinchot Pass. This was my first time up Pinchot Pass and it’s a long, but gradual climb. From Pinchot Pass I continued toward Upper Basin and the final slog up to Mather Pass. At Mather Pass I enjoyed the beautiful view of the Palisades and then made the descent to Palisade Lakes. From these lakes, I had initially planned to scramble up to Palisade Basin and cross over into Dusy Basin via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass, but extensive off-trail travel no longer seemed appealing so I continued down to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. This was a long way on trail and although I was moving fine, it still took a long time. By the time I got to the final climb up to Bishop Pass I was growing tired and as the sun set over Dusy Basin my energy levels had sunk. After hydrating and eating I eventually I made it up to Bishop Pass and down to the South Lake trail head. It was close to 11 pm when I arrived; 18 hours after starting. A “head down” approach could probably yield a time of under 14 hours for the route, but in all the times I’ve visited Rae Lakes, I still can’t keep my head down! This is a classic segment of the JMT and I will definitely return. Next time I will do Kearsarge Pass and pick up the JMT at Charlotte Lake. I will also aim to use the cross-country route to Dusy Basin and Bishop Pass via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass. Either way you slice it (trail or cross-country variations), this is a challenging route for a single day adventure run, but well worth the efforts with the amazing scenery.