Miller Santa Lucia Fir Grove

I’ll admit it: I’m enamored with the majestic Santa Lucia Fir, Abies bracteata. The species is the rarest fir on the earth and can only be found on the rocky peaks or canyon bottoms in the Santa Lucia mountain range. Even within the mountain range it’s not a common tree and is limited to around two dozen groves sprinkled throughout the mountains. It’s a proud tree with a tall, narrow crown that is spire-like and sharply pointed, reminiscent of the subalpine fir in the mountainous regions of the Pacific Northwest but much larger, taller (up to 100 ft) and well adapted to survive in a region where severe drought, heavy winter rains, and fire are a regular occurrence.

  • How does a non-fire resistant conifer survive in the coastal mountains of California where fire is a regular occurrence? The answer is in the topography. The location of the Santa Lucia Firs groves is largely dictated by fire. Unlike the redwoods with fire resistant bark, the Santa Lucia Fir has thin bark and keeps its lower branches making it non-resistant to fire and susceptible to fire injury. However, the tree is remarkably adapted to the reality of periodic fires through these mountains. Virtually all of the groves are found in “fire-proof” locations, either on precipitous cliffs or at the bottom of steep, rocky canyons that preclude the accumulation of plant litter and the growth of grass and brush that fuel fires. Thus, fire embers are limited in their penetration into the groves. The result is that most fires skip over the Santa Lucia Fir groves and they have survived in these mountains despite numerous fire episodes that have engulfed surrounding terrain.
  • But how does a conifer that looks like it belongs in a cold weather climate survive the droughts and hot summers of the Santa Lucia Mountains? The answer is also in the topography. Stands of Santa Lucia Firs located on high peaks are typically found on north or northeast facing slopes that are sheltered from the rays of the sizzling summer sun. Similarly, canyon-bottom groves are situated in locations that provide ample shade, cool air flow and a source of moisture during the hot and dry summer months.
  • Why is the Santa Lucia Fir endemic to the Santa Lucia Mountains?  Did it once have a wider range? From my research, the history of the Santa Lucia Fir and how it arrived to the Santa Lucia Mountains is somewhat of a mystery, but the reason why it does not have a wider range is, you guessed it, also the result of topography. The following quote sums it up nicely: “As to why [the Santa Lucia Fir] is not found elsewhere in the West today we can ask ourselves: Where else can high equability, heavy winter rains with long dry summers, and large areas of fireproof topography be found. The answer is nowhere but the Santa Lucia Mountains for all of western North America” (Talley, Steven N. 1972.06.08. Notes concerning the status of ecological studies on Santa Lucia fir, Abies bracteata. http://www.conifers.org/pi/Abies_bracteata.php). The Santa Lucia Mountains are indeed unique and special, and the Santa Lucia Fir is but one of the many magical aspects of these mountains. Note that “high equability” refers to the close range of temperatures throughout the year that is characteristic of Mediterranean climate.
  • Most agree the Santa Lucia Fir is a majestic tree and it’s now widely distributed in botanical and private gardens, but why is the narrow, spire-like crown not present in these plantings? The spire-like crown is immediately recognizable in the wild groves and it’s what makes the Santa Lucia Fir so magical. Age of the tree is almost certainly a factor as ornamental plantings are still generally young trees and the narrow crowns are almost exclusive to old-growth trees. Even in the wild, the young trees do not have the narrow crown and only the older trees take on the quintessential spire-like shape. However, even some older plantings of Santa Lucia Fir fail to take on the spire-like shape. For this reason I suspect topography is also a factor.  The wild Santa Lucia Fir groves are located on precipitously steep slopes or deep, shady canyons which cause adaptations in the growth patterns, often forcing the firs to lean over and reach for the sky in search of sunlight.

One of the first things noticed when standing by a Santa Lucia Fir is its persistent lower branches which help to give the fir its beautiful conical shape. Moving closer to a branch, one must be careful not to touch the needles carelessly since they are unusually large (2 inches) and sharp-tipped. In fact, the tips are so sharp they can pierce the skin. The Santa Lucia Fir groves have a diverse set of neighboring trees and each grove seems to have different set of cohabitants making them even more unique and special. For instance, groves in the Big Sur River drainage often grow among redwoods while the groves on Cone Peak share the rocky slopes with Sugar Pines and Coulter Pines. In a few locations the fir can be found alongside incense cedars. In the Carmel River watershed, heritage oaks, sycamores and big leaf maples are common next to the firs and sometimes there are ponderosa pines.

Over the course of my travels in the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness I’ve seen many of the existing groves, but an expansive grove tucked into a rugged canyon of the Miller Fork is perhaps the finest of all. It’s my understanding that a larger grove once covered the flanks of Ventana Double Cone, but many of the trees were taken out in the Basin Fire of 2008. While large portions of the Ventana Double Cone grove were untouched in the fire (the especially fire-proof spots), the surface area of the grove was substantially reduced. Meanwhile, it appears the Miller grove was largely untouched by the fire. This deep, rocky canyon provides ideal conditions for the trees to thrive with moisture, shade and protection from fires. The result is a fantastic display of elegant old growth Santa Lucias with density that is rivaled by few other places in the range. It came as no surprise that the rugged, deep canyon where the Santa Lucias Firs thrive contains a pretty gorge  where the canyon walls come in to the watercourse. This narrows feature is worthy of the trip in itself, but when combined with the old growth Santa Lucia Firs soaring above the canyon it makes for a magical experience.  All photos are from Miller Canyon except photo 2 (Ventana Double Cone), photo 3 (Cone Peak) and photo 5 (Kandlbinder). Complete photo album here

On FKTs

The Fastest Known Time concept has gained some popularity recently. I’ve been an enthusiastic participant for many years setting a few FKTs of my own, some of which have since been eclipsed and others remain as of this writing.  As the sport grows and FKTs become more competitive I’d like to share some of my thoughts on FKTs. I likely haven’t made my last serious attempt at an FKT, but it may come as a surprise that achieving maximum speed in wild and rugged places has never been my priority and likely won’t become my style moving forward. My mentality has always been to enjoy the scenery as much as possible and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For me this means I’m achieving times that are substantially slower than if I were actually racing, and this trade off is fine with me. The volume of experiences I’ve had in rugged and wild places in the mountains far surpasses the temporary satisfaction I get from setting a fast time. In virtually all cases I’ve eschewed focusing on the granular details of splits and time goals, and instead focused on things like where is the most dramatic angle or when and where will the best light be for photography. Aside from one FKT, I’ve always carried a camera and used it liberally. Anybody who follows my adventures understands that photography is a huge part of my enjoyment in the mountains and good photography takes time. For example, on the High Sierra Trail and Rae Lakes Loop FKTs I took hundreds of photos. If I wanted to go much faster I would start be leaving my camera at home. However, when it comes to making that decision, I’ve always chosen to spend my time adventuring to new places with my camera and spending the time to take good (in my biased opinion) photos.  In other words, I would rather spend my time designing new routes than follow in somebody else’s footsteps. “Beating” a time, whether it be my own or somebody else’s, has never really been a great motivator for me and it’s something I spend less and less time thinking about the more I’m inspired by visiting places that are off the beaten path.  Make no mistake, moving fast in the mountains is an essential part of my style. It enables me to experience as much wild and rugged scenery as possible. However, the journey itself is my award and if I were to pass through each adventure with my head down only seeking a time at the end, the visceral experience between me and nature would be lost. Turning wilderness routes into hyper competitive exploits runs counter to most of the reasons why I go to the mountains in the first place. If I were into beating other people for the sake of athletic competition, it seems the appropriate place is always going to be an organized race competing against peers in an environment where the variables for each participant are the same. I’ve raced extensively in the past but in recent years I’ve chosen to pursue the adventures with all of my free time (when I’m not working full time as an attorney). It took me awhile to discover that my competitive fire does not match my fire to explore and adventure to remote and wild places. They likely never matched, but once I understood this about myself, the races started to feel predictable and domesticated. After taking time to prepare for a race I needed to get back to the wilderness to experience the kind of personal inspiration that racing could not provide. For me, battling brush, creek walking and scrambling up peaks, all of which contain little actual running, are not ideal preparation for a trail or ultra race, but it’s what I wanted to do. To perform to my capabilities I knew that I needed to train specifically by running on trails. However, this type of preparation for a race and the race itself started to feel like a sacrifice when my heart wanted to be out exploring remote and wild corners. If I wanted to travel, it wouldn’t be to a new race venue, but instead to a new corner of the Sierra or the Ventana. Eventually the realization was that I should do what makes me most happy with my free time, which in my case is exploring and adventuring in the mountains. 

My journey continues and I’m sure it will evolve and manifest in different ways which is exciting. For instance, I’ve taken great enjoyment in a recent project to explore and catalog the hidden waterfalls of Big Sur. In many ways this project is an ideal expression of my desire to explore as many of these falls are undiscovered or have not been visited by humans in decades. Everybody has different reasons for racing or attempting FKTs and I’m not judging anybody’s reasons or decisions, only sharing my own personal perspective and what motivates me to get out into the mountains. If I were to give any advice, it would be to care less about the affirmation of others and what they think you should be doing and instead follow where your heart leads you.    

Lion Creek Adventure

There are many magical canyons in the Ventana Wilderness and Lion Creek is definitely one of them. The creek drains the southern slopes of Ventana Cone, “Lion Rock” and “Ventana Knob”, a vast expanse of exceptionally rugged and wild terrain that is some of the most remote and pristine in all of the coastal ranges along the U.S. West Coast. In fact, parts of the Lion Creek headwaters have likely never seen human eyes. I joined Flyin’ Brian Robinson for an introductory adventure up this canyon to visit a pair of picturesque waterfalls. The lower falls is a single 40+ ft drop into a large circular pool while the upper falls has two segments with two large pools (main segment 50 ft and lower segment 20 ft).

The entrance to the creek features a very cool twisty gorge culminating in a pair of circular pools separated by a 15 ft falls and some required wading through pools. A fortuitous old growth redwood log stuck in place enables passage from the first pool to the second. The creek then passes through a flatter area with burned old growth redwoods that were sizzled in the Basin Fire in 2007 but appear to have largely survived. These redwoods have sprouted new branches and at this stage look like tall, regal columns. The lower falls seemingly appears out of nowhere and it’s a lovely sight with a consolidated drop fanning out into a horsetail. The lower falls features a lovely bedrock section above the drop including a series of mini pools, aka tea cups. The creek walking above the Lower Falls becomes more arduous leading to the upper falls which flow over a smooth rock face in a spectacular cirque. Our visit came on one of the last days suitable for swimming in the pools and we made sure to take a couple swims underneath the falls. There is much to explore upstream of the waterfalls and also on the tributaries of the main stem creek where perhaps more waterfalls reside. Access is likely very difficult in the winter with some hypothermic swimming becoming a necessity in higher flows. Full Photo album. 

Buckeye Loop in Hoover Wilderness

Another post from the fall season in the High Sierra, this time from the Hoover Wilderness to the north and east of Yosemite. The Hoover Wilderness and adjacent northern part of Yosemite is largely overlooked for the higher peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the south but features outstanding scenery and tremendous opportunity for adventure where few, if any, other people will be seen. The Hoover Wilderness is characterized by a series of deep canyons draining the east side of the Sierra Crest. The Buckeye Loop visits two of these canyons – Robinson Creek Canyon and Buckeye Canyon. The centerpiece feature of the loop is stunning Peeler Lake which is an alpine paradise of polished granite and clear blue water. Both canyons are extremely pretty with phenomenal vistas, meadows and aspen groves. The Buckeye Loop comes out to around 35 miles including several miles of dirt road from Buckeye Campground to the Twin Lakes road and then a stretch of pavement to the roads end at the Mono Village resort. A car shuttle would shorten the route considerably and avoid some of the miles along dirt and paved roads, but the road running to make a complete loop is tolerable since the views are decent throughout the road section.  Complete photo album here

From the Mono Village, find your way through the maze of RVs to the Barney Lake Trail. This trail is heavily used as the starting point for many trips into the wilderness. The trail ascends fairly gradually through conifer forest and then aspen groves to a nice meadow where one can look up the dramatic Little Slide Canyon to the Incredible Hulk rock feature, one of the most impressive walls in the High Sierra. At this point, the trail begins a moderate ascent to Barney Lake and passes through a lovely old-growth aspen grove that is spectacular during the fall color season. Beyond Barney Lake, the trail begins a more rapid ascent with numerous switchbacks. Once past the turnoff to Robinson Lakes and Rock island Pass, Peeler Lake is close at hand. Peeler Lake is a remarkably beautiful spot with granite slabs descending into the sapphire blue waters. The lake sits exactly on the crest of the Sierra Nevada and has the unique attribute of dual outlets on either side of the lake – one flowing to the Great Basin and another to the Pacific Ocean via the Tuolumne Watershed/Hetch Hetchy. Water from the same source ends up in vastly different places!! From Peeler Lake, enter Yosemite National Park and descend gradually to the northern end of Kerrick Meadow.

The duration in Yosemite is short as the route exits the national park and reenters Hoover Wilderness after a gradual climb to Buckeye Pass. Compared to the trail to Peeler Lake, the Buckeye Trail gets a fraction of the visitation. In fact, the author did not see any humans from Peeler lake all the way to the Buckeye Campground. The trail becomes faint in spots, but the way was never in doubt. Descending from Buckeye Pass into the South Fork Buckeye Creek Canyon includes beautiful views of Center Mountain, Cirque Mountain and Grouse Mountain. At the junction with the trail to Piute Meadows is an old cabin. Downstream of the trail junction is a rugged section of the creek known as “The Roughs.”  After this section, the trail makes a final descent into the Big Meadow of Buckeye Creek. The meadow is aptly-named as it is immense in both length and width. The meadow includes numerous patches of aspen with some old growth groves. The creek meanders through the meadows affording lovely views of the canyon, particularly the rugged flanks of Hunewill Peak, Victoria Peak and Eagle Peak. While the last few miles to Buckeye Camp seem to drag a bit, a hot spring along Buckeye Creek can refresh spirits. The final portion of the loop along the dirt road back to the Twin Lakes Road features nice views overlooking the Bridgeport Valley.  Complete photo album here

McGee Creek & Red Slate Mountain

Fall color has long been replaced by snow in the High Sierra, but this post looks back on a great trip at the height of fall color in McGee Creek Canyon. The word colorful best describes this outing from the yellow, orange and red aspen groves in the lower canyon to the sapphire blue of Big McGee Lake, the turquoise of the tarn beneath McGee Pass and the stunning geology of red, white and gray rock of the peaks. On top of all the color was a dusting of snow on the high elevations. It was a fantastic and memorable day in the mountains on a perfect autumn day! Complete photo album here (I’m now only posting a fraction of the photos on the blog).

The region between Rock Creek and Mammoth Lakes hasn’t drawn my attention as much as other parts of the range, but I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Red Slate Mountain in the summer of 2013 and I’ve come to appreicate the unique features of this region. While Red Slate Mountain is arguably a choss pile, I was pleasantly surprised on my first visit to this region finding gorgeous scenery so I was eager to return and see the route in the autumn. 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 360 degree 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 but entire panorama is breathtaking. To the east the white mountains can be seen and to the south the high peaks of the Bear Creek Spire Group and Red & White Mountain. To the west lies the Silver Divide and to the north the Ritter Range. It’s a sweeping panorama and worthy of a long summit stay to soak in all of the fantastic terrain. The other highlight of the route is 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. In the spring 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 and crystal clear turquoise waters. This 20 mile roundtrip route makes for an excellent high altitude run as a “one-up” with 6,200+ foot gain, but all downhill on the way back. Complete photo album here

Mount Stewart & Eagle Scout Peak

The Hamilton Lakes and Kaweah Gap region is one of the most dramatic and inspiring spots in the High Sierra. Considering how many times over the years I’ve visited the area it’s easily among my favorite spots to explore. I consider it one of the best spots for adventure running in the Sierra Nevada with a long runnable approach, fun scrambles and most importantly, jaw-dropping scenery. I’ve climbed most of the named summits in the region over the years, including Eagle Scout Peak and Mount Stewart on separate trips, but this time I would tag both summits together since they make logical sense as a pair. While it makes for a long day, both summits are class 2 scrambles and not very far apart. On this visit I paid particular attention to timing of best light for photography and made sure to be at the right place at the right time.  I spent several hours shooting photos and I hope the results reflect my efforts. On this post I’m introducing a new format for this blog – from now on I’m going to only post a few highlight photos from each adventure in the body of the post with a link to a full album on Google Photos where it’s easier to navigate through the larger set of photos and see full size versions. The complete photo album for this trip is hereTotal mileage for Eagle Scout and Mount Stewart was 50 miles, of which 40+ miles was out-and-back on the High Sierra Trail from Crescent Meadows to Kaweah Gap. The first 11 miles to Bearpaw Meadows is on well groomed trail with gentle ups and downs making it very runnable. Beyond Bearpaw Meadows the trail descends to cross Lone Pine Creek before ascending in a rocky stretch of trail to round a shoulder into the Hamilton Lakes drainage. After crossing Hamilton Creek the trail is in ascent mode all the way to Kaweah Gap but the incline is fairly moderate throughout. The Hamilton Lakes amphitheater is one of the most scenic areas in the High Sierra with towering granite faces of the Valhallas including the famous Angel Wings rock wall, Cherubim Dome, Hamilton Dome and many other sweet rock features. At the head of the amphitheater on opposite ends lies Mount Stewart and Eagle Scout Peak making them a perfect pair to tag on the same day. The area is so beautiful I haven’t figured out how to spot taking photos each time I visit, including nearly 200 photos when I did the complete High Sierra Trail for an FKT. From the beautiful sapphire blue waters of Upper Hamilton Lake the trail switchbacks before traversing to a spectacular view overlooking the lake and Angel Wings. The trail then reaches a picturesque tarn and then Precipice Lake.  At aptly-named Precipice Lake, the sheer cliffs of Eagle Scout Peak tumble right into the waters of the remarkably clear lake. This stunning view was immortalized by Ansel Adams in 1932 with his shot “Frozen Lake and Cliffs.” Shortly after Precipice Lake, one reaches Kaweah Gap which opens up a new world of scenery in the upper Big Arroyo River drainage including the Nine Lake Basin and the Kaweah Range. From Kaweah Gap, go south for Eagle Scout Peak and north for Mount Stewart. Both climbs are straightforward and offer different, but both marvelous, perspectives on the Hamilton Lakes and Nine Lakes Basin areas. The view of Precipice Lake from the summit of Eagle Scout Peak is particularly inspiring. The overhanging summit block of Eagle Scout Peak is indeed the precipice with the clear blue waters of Precipice Lake 2,000 feet below the sheer cliffs. Meanwhile, Mount Stewart offers an amazing view of Sabertooth Ridge, Tamarack Lake, and the rugged north side of Black Kaweah.  The complete photo album for this trip is here. 

Middle Palisade & Finger Lake

The Northeast Face of Middle Palisade is a classic scramble of a 14er within the rugged Palisades subgroup of peaks. The route takes you past stunning Finger Lake, with its turquoise glacial water and towering granite slabs. The route itself is a long and sustained scramble that technically never reaches above third class. The superb views of the surrounding area make up for the chossy loose scrambling in the lower part of the route. I would actually prefer a more technically difficult scramble that is solid but fortunately the rock improves as one ascends. The climb entails about 7,000 feet of vertical gain and 16 miles roundtrip so it packs a punch. The last time I did this route was six years ago and in the interim I have climbed many more peaks and become well acquainted with much of the High Sierra. In 2009 I could only name a few peaks and was more focused on climbing the well known summits. Now in 2015 I’m more focused on finding the hidden gems in the most remote and wild corners of the range. It was fun to return and see all of the peaks and terrain I have covered over the years and name virtually every summit and major feature visible from Middle Palisade.  It was also great to take a more leisurely approach to the climb spending a lot of time at the summit and lovely Finger Lake, one of the most scenic spots in the High Sierra. The South Fork Big Pine Trail travels through a fairly arid environment for a couple miles before reaching the headwall of the South Fork Big Pine Creek. A series of switchbacks commences and when one emerges at the top of the headwall it is a new world of pine trees and spectacular views of the Palisades including Middle Palisade, Norman Clyde Peak, Palisade Crest and Mount  Sill. The trail descends slightly and traverses through forest near Willow Lake before commencing a new climb up to Brainerd Lake. From Brainerd Lake the usual route is to take a use path up through a talus field to Finger Lake and then ascend slabs and talus to gain the ridge on the west side of the lake. An alternate route is to traverse the shores of Brainer Lake and ascend the stream toward another small lake as if one were ascending to Southfork Pass. From the small lake ascend friendly slabs to the ridge east of Finger Lake and traverse talus and granite benches to the glacial moraine. Both approach routes meet near the base of the scramble at the talus rib separating the two lobes of the Middle Palisade Glacier.   The standard route up Middle Palisade begins at the glacier and uses a rock step to gain a chute above. This chute then mergers with a deeper chute that leads to the summit. Glacial recession has caused the access into the “standard” chute to become 4th class or low 5th so the standard route is changing as more climbers opt to take the alternative route which is a reddish white ramp leading to a different chute and does not use the glacier at all. Unfortunately, the reddish white ramp is extremely loose and the lower part of the chute above the reddish white ramp is the fall line (aka bowling alley) for any rock projectiles falling from above.  In other words, the alternative chute carries much greater risk of rock fall hazard, particularly in the lower portion. So while the alternative chute has seemingly become the “standard” it is not without its own risks trading more technical scrambling for loose rock hazard. The good news is when the chutes of the standard and alternative routes merge the rock becomes more solid and the scrambling more enjoyable as one makes the final push toward the summit. It would be ideal to do this route solo or in a small group with no additional parties on the route, but lack of people cannot be assumed on such a popular route so it’s better to come prepared with helmets and anticipate some rock fall hazard. It should be noted that any snow on the rocks within the chutes makes the scramble considerably more dicey. An example of the loose rock hazard was on my climb I reached for what I thought was a hold but was instead a large rock that was precariously balanced. It didn’t take much more than touching the rock for it to dislodge onto my shin. It was too heavy for me to hold and it proceeded to careen down the chute and over the cliff to its final resting place atop the heap of many other rock projectiles on the glacier. While usual rock fall hazard on this route is golfball to softball size rocks, large rocks can and do fall as manifested by the disturbingly large pile of debris on the glacier at the exit point of the chute. In other words, there is clear evidence of copious rock fall coming down in the chute. Wearing a helmet is absolutely imperative on this route if you care about you head. It should also be noted that releasing loose rocks on a route like this can happen to the best of climbers no matter how careful one may be so the best policy is to come prepared with a helmet and put your head down when rock is called from above or you can hear or see it approaching.  On this route it also helps to stay out of the central part of the chute where rock fall is most prevalent and funneled, instead scrambling along the edges of the chute where more solid rock can be found.