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 here. The 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 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.
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.
Mount Eisen and Lippincott Mountain are two peaks along a remote stretch of the Great Western Divide between Black Rock Pass and Kaweah Gap. Both peaks are perfectly situated to provide jaw-dropping views of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge that dominate the view to the east. As Bob Burd showed in 2007, a fairly efficient traverse can be made between Eisen and Lipppincott enabling both peaks to be climbed in a long day from Mineral King. My last visit to Mineral King was way back in 2007 for a climb of Black Kaweah. I had been wanting to climb Eisen & Lippincott every since, but was deterred by the infamous Mineral King marmots that eat through hosing and have disabled cars from spring through August. I had pegged a late season visit when the marmots were gone, but each time other parts of the range called me elsewhere.
Nine years later, I was ready to drive the very curvy road up to Mineral King and climb Eisen & Lippincott. My route taken largely follows Bob’s 2007 trip. The only non-minor deviation was cutting over toward Eisen half way up the switchbacks to the Black Rock Pass. This allowed me to avoid some of the ridge traverse and extra elevation gain, likely saving a few minutes. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge commands attention for most of the day and this collection of rugged rocks is so inspiring that I easily took over 1,000 photos of it with my iPhone and dedicated camera. Despite culling the majority, there’s probably still way too many Kaweah photos posted here. The following day I did a very nice loop including Mineral Peak, Needham Mountain, Amphitheater Lake and Sawtooth Peak which I look forward to sharing on the blog soon. It took nine years between visits to Mineral King and I hope the next time will be much sooner! Full photo albums: Camera; iPhone
The route to reach Eisen & Lippincott begins in the charming Mineral King valley. After an initial climb on the Sawtooth Pass Trail, the most efficient route to Glacier Pass leaves the maintained trail at a small meadow and begins a traversing climb on an old unmaintainted trail. There’s some brush and some boulder hoping in sections, but the old path is followable all the way up to another meadow area above a headwall of Monarch Creek. The path disappears in this meadow, but veer left into a broad gully that leads toward Glacier Pass. On the left side of this broad gully the use path can be regained. With careful routefinding the use path can be followed most of the way to Glacier Pass. Alternatively, one may stay on the maintained Sawtooth Pass Trail which reaches the Glacier Pass vicinity after a long series of gradual switchbacks, a circuitous trip to the lower Monarch Lakes and an annoyingly sandy climb. The correct crossing of Glacier Pass is slightly south and above the low point.
After passing over Glacier Pass, a use path descends to the gorgeous headwaters of Cliff Creek, one of the most enchanting places in the Sierra. The descent features picturesque small tarns and grizzled Southern Foxtail Pines with increasingly closer views of exquisite Spring Lake, which sports a spectacular blue color, particularly when contrasted with the red bark of the foxtail pines. Rising from Spring Lake’s shores is a impressive granite buttress which is the terminous of Sawtooth Peak’s north ridge. For Mount Eisen, follow Cliff Creek downstream from Spring Lake moving through a talus field and then easy meadows to join the Black Rock Pass trail. One may ascend the Black Rock Pass Trail all the way to the Pass or depart about halfway up the slope and angle toward Mount Eisen to save some time and extra elevation gain. Once the ridge is gained a false summit is reached with one of the most memorable views of the Kaweahs as Lake 10410 (one of the Little Five Lakes) is perfectly framed. Some scrambling leads down to a pass between the false summit and Mount Eisen before the final scramble up Mount Eisen commences. Pursuing the summit register I learned that a ridge traverse from Eisen to Lippincott has been done in the past by staying right on the crest, but the easiest and most efficient route follows a route underneath the ridge.
From Eisen retreat back to the pass between Eisen and the false summit before picking one of many class 3 possibilities down the east side of the ridge to friendly granite slabs below. Traverse north to a gap along Eisen’s east ridge with a distinctive horn to the east of the gap and then descend a gully (likely containing snow) to a rockbound tarn. From here aim for a pass between the two unnamed peaks on the Great Western Divide that are between Eisen and Lippincott. There’s some slabs to descend followed by a large talus fields that leads to the pass. On the other side of this pass one is on the west side of the Great Western Divide and the traverse to Lippincott’s southeast ridge is fairly straightforward. It is recommended to loose some elevation to reach easier terrain versus remaining high. Lippincott’s southeast ridge is a fun class 3 scramble with lots of options to make it interesting on the ridge proper or tone down the difficulty by moving left off the ridge. Lippincott’s summit is a wonderful perch with views toward the Tablelands, Nine Lakes Basin and the Great Western Divide stretching to the north all the way to Mount Brewer and North Guard. The Kaweahs continue to command the greatest attention, particularly Black Kaweah and Red Kaweah, but with an added twist: at the base of Lippincott’s precipitous north face is an unnamed lake (“Lippincott Lake”) with a wonderful deep blue center ringed by a turquoise shoreline.
Some class 3 downclimbing is required on the upper part of the Lippincott’s east face, but it soons transitions into pleasant granite slabs. Following the drainage down leads to a wonderful parkland of Southern Foxtail Pines and small lakes. At the outlet of lake 10,295 curve to the south to reach the Big Arroyo Trail. The Big Arroyo Trail passes through one of the most pristine Southern Foxtail Pine woodlands in existence with some truly amazing trees. The scientific name for Southern Foxtail Pine is Pinus balfouriana subspecies austrina and it is endemic to the high country of the Southern Sierra Nevada. Most of the groves are within Sequoia National Park and the Big Arroyo and Upper Kern River watersheds contain the highest concentration of Southern Foxtail Pines anywhere. This fascinating tree occurs in nearly pure stands of widely spaced woodlands and the bark has a distinctive reddish color which is particularly striking in sunlight. The Foxtail Pine is slow growing and the arid, high-elevation conditions also mean it is slow to decay. Some living trees are thousands of years old and woody crowns can persist for much longer. In exposed places near tree line, numerous winter storms with high winds and ice sculpt and twist the trunk and branches into picturesque snags peeling away the bark to expose complex inner layers and striking colors.
After some rolling hills through the Southern Foxtail Pine forest, the trail reaches Little Five Lakes with more great views of the Kaweahs. The shortest route back to Spring Lake and Glacier Pass is via an off trail traverse to Cyclamen Pass (point 11,145 on USGS). The east side of the pass is fairly straightforward with wonderful views down to the Big Five Lakes while the west side of the pass is a fairly arduous descent with sand in the upper part that transitions to talus below. Ultimately, one returns to beautiful Spring Lake where a use trail leads up to Glacier Pass. Here, the climbing is done for the day and it’s all downhill to Mineral King.
The easternmost part of the Trinity Alps is informally known as the Red Trinities due to the distinctive red rock present in this region. However, within the red rock is a section of white granite that is akin to the White Trinities to the west. This white rock stretches from Granite Lake to Gibson Peak to Siligo Peak, and not surprisingly, this area of white rock is also the most rugged part of this region. The transition between the red and white rock is very well defined creating a fantastic juxtaposition. The Four Lakes Loop is located in the heart of the Red Trinities and offers a particularly striking tour of this geologically complex region. The loop is essentially a circumnavigation of Siligo Peak passing by four alpine lakes that surround the mountain. The loop itself is only around 6.5 miles but the entire loop is deep within the Trinity Alps Wilderness and access to the loop is through one of five trails. The shortest and most efficient is the Long Canyon Trail at 6 miles (18+ miles total for the loop and access), but other options include the Stoney Ridge Trail, Granite Lake Trail via Swift Creek, Deer Creek Trail via Stuark Fork Trinity River, and Bear Basin. The land is not as rugged as the neighboring White Trinities, but it has a unique and charming character that is spectacular in its own right. The Four Lakes Loop is a wonderful introduction to the region and has new and spectacular scenery around seemingly every corner.
The author accessed the Four Lakes Loop via the Long Canyon Trail so the following is a description of that route. The Long Canyon Trail is a steady climb through conifer forest before emerging into meadows beneath striking Gibson Peak. It is here where one may encounter fields of Anemone occidentalis, or the western pasqueflower. The pasqueflower produces a fruit called an achene that is ellipsoid in shape and feather-like. This furry fruit reminds people of the truffula trees in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. The flower and its whimsical late summer fruit can be found in open rocky slopes and alpine meadows in the trinity alps and one of the best places is the meadows in upper Long Canyon and the slopes above Deer Lake. The meadows continue all the way to Bee Tree Gap, where one obtains a view of Siligo Meadows and the spires along Gibson Peak’s west ridge. After about a mile traverse above Siligo Meadows one arrives at Deer Creek Pass and is treated to a wonderful view of Deer Creek and the glacier carved U-shaped valley of Deer Creek. Here the striking juxtaposition of red and white rocks becomes apparent as red rocks fill the basin around Deer Lake but Siligo Peak possesses a distinctively white summit area.
A switchback beneath Deer Creek Pass is the junction with the Four Lakes Loop. Doing the loop clockwise, one makes a lovely traverse through the red rocks above Deer Lake and up some switchbacks to the south shoulder of Siligo Peak. The trail passes through wonderful meadows stretching down to Deer Lake and including more pasqueflower. At the shoulder of Siligo Peak a use trail departs up the ridge to 8,162 ft Siligo Peak. In only a quarter mile the trail reaches the summit which contains a gorgeous 360 degree panorama of the region. To the west one has a birds eye view of Diamond Lake, the Stuart Fork of the Trinity River canyon, and the White Trinities. All of the major peaks of the White Trinities are visible including Mount Hilton, Thompson Peak, Caesar Peak and Caribou Mountain. Closest and most prominent is Sawtooth Mountain with its distinctive tooth-like summit block and a massive apron of white granite slabs on its east side. To the south is Summit Lake, Red Mountain and Middle Peak. To the east is a striking demarcation between the red rocks of Seven Up Peak and the rugged ridge known as Dolomite Ridge composed of the white rocks. To the north one peers into the glacier-carved Deer Creek canyon with Mount Shasta’s distinctive snow-capped cone rising above the ridges. Suffice it to say, the side trip to Siligo Peak is well worth the extra effort.
Back on the Four Lakes Loop one may make a side trip to Summit Lake which is the largest of the four lakes on the Four Lakes Loop. Continuing on, the loop drops into the Salt Creek drainage and switchbacks down toward Diamond Lake, which sits on a meadowy bench with the White Trinities towering across the Stuart Fork Canyon. This is lovely country with bountiful summertime wildflowers and outstanding scenery. From Diamond Lake it’s a gradual climb up to the northwest shoulder of Siligo Peak where one crosses into the Deer Creek drainage. From here the trail traverses above astonishingly beautiful Luella Lake which sits right at the line between red and white rock with Seven Up Peak and Dolomite Ridge making a dramatic background. Colorful Luella Lake sits at the base of the north face of Siligo Peak which contains mountain hemlocks and rugged cliffs. This steep north-facing topography enables snow to collect around Luella Lake and persist into late summer and sometimes year around. Beneath Luella Lake the trail descends into a valley in the upper reaches of Deer Creek Canyon. At the valley floor is the junction with the trail that goes down Deer Creek Canyon, which also provides access the route from Granite Lake and Swift Creek. Staying right to stay on the Four Lakes Loop, the trail makes a steep ascent up the headwall of Deer Creek through meadows and clumps of Mountain Hemlock to Deer Lake. The imposing cliffs of Dolomite Ridge dominate the view are along this section. From Deer Lake there’s one final climb to complete the loop and then reach Deer Creek Pass before a mainly flat traverse back to Bee Tree Gap and virtually all downhill through Long Canyon back to the trailhead. Total mileage of the Four Lakes Loop via Long Canyon is around 18 miles.
The area has numerous opportunities for exploration and one option is the following tour of three additional off-trail lakes that connects back to the Long Canyon trail. Instead of returning back to Deer Creek Gap, one may take the trail down to Siligo Meadows and then up to Little Stonewall Pass. Just beyond Little Stonewall Pass a usetrail branches out to Echo Lake, one of the more charming lakes in the region. Circle Echo Lake on either side and then ascend a chute with some loose rocks (off-trail) to a col on the crest. Descend talus and then traverse slopes north to Billy Be Damned Lake. From Billy Be Damn Lake it’s a short climb up and over to the magnificent Anna Lake, situated in a bowl of red granite slabs and mountain hemlock. From Anna Lake a faint use trail heads down a steep gully down to Long Canyon. The use trail ultimately disappears in the meadows, but the Long Canyon trail is visible below and the way is unambiguous. GPS route here.
I seem to be drawn back to Lake Reflection every year, one of my favorite lakes in the High Sierra. The lake sits in a bowl underneath the high peaks of the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide. Cliffs tumble to near the water’s edge and beautiful glacier polished granite slabs line the shoreline. The lake has just enough pines and foliage to give it an alpine charm that is not found at higher lakes devoid of vegetation. On the way to the wonderful Lake Reflection one passes by East Lake, another Sierra gem. On a calm morning the surrounding peaks reflect in the still waters creating a classic Sierra scene. It’s tough to beat the beauty of these two lakes and that’s the reason why I keep coming back. Full photo album here. The album and photos here are all iphone – maybe I’ll get to the photos from the dedicated camera someday!
Fortunately, there are enough high peaks in the area that I’ve been able to climb something new each time I’ve visited Lake Reflection. Aside from another opportunity to photograph and enjoy the lakes, the objective this time was 13,550 ft Thunder Mountain, a spectacular peak at the north end of the highest section of the Great Western Divide including Milestone Mountain, Midway Mountain and Table Mountain. The mountain is particularly striking when viewed from the north and is one of the more remote peaks in the High Sierra. I’ve looked at the mountain from all different angles and it was somewhat surprising to me that I hadn’t climbed it until now, but I’m glad I reserved this magnificent peak for a picturesque and crisp late summer day.
From Road’s End it would be over 19 miles each way to the summit of Thunder Mountain and nearly 9,500 feet of cumulative elevation gain (Strava route here). After 15 miles on trail to the outlet of Lake Reflection from Road’s End, it’s only about 4 miles from there to the summit, but it’s all off-trail and includes some navigation through steep granite slabs and a lot of slow going, arduous talus hopping. While the talus is difficult, the scenery continues to impress and more than compensates for the tediousness. The initial climb up from Lake Reflection reveals awesome views looking back at the lake and Deerhorn Mountain’s rugged north face. Farther up, the dramatic east face of Sky Pilot Peak dominates the view. Upon rounding a corner, one is treated to a fantastic series of rockbound lakes. Unlike Lake Reflection 2,000 feet below, these lakes have virtually no vegetation, but each posses beautiful clear waters with the pyramidal-shaped Thunder Mountain towering above.
The standard route to climb Thunder Mountain from Lake Reflection ascends to Thunder Pass which is an absolute mess of loose rock, gravel and sand, followed by somewhat more solid class 2 terrain to the south summit and then some exposed class 3 traversing to the summit block on the north summit. In 2008, Bob Burd pioneered a new route up Thunder Mountain that would avoid the tedious climb up to Thunder Pass and deposit one at a notch between the south and middle summits. This notch includes a unique rock bridge/window. Bob’s “east face/east chute” route uses a right hand chute on the east face of the mountain to ascend above the initial cliffy headwall and utilizes some ledges to move into the central/main chute which goes all the way up to the notch. From the lakes beneath Thunder Mountain this route looks steep and improbable for class 3 but once on the route it’s surprisingly straightforward and goes at class 3. Kudos to Bob Burd for trying this route. As a first ascentionist I can understand why there would have been some uncertainty that the route would go as a scramble. I also second Bob’s conclusion that this is a far superior ascent route versus the extremely tedious climb up to Thunder Pass. From the rock bridge some exposed class 3 scrambling brings one to the summit block which has a class 4 move using a chock stone in a crack. As expected, the summit views from Thunder Mountain are awesome and include everything from the Goddard Divide to the Palisades to Mountain Whitney. I particularly enjoyed the views to Cloud Canyon, the Whaleback and Glacier Ridge. On the way back I crossed over the rock bridge and traversed over the south summit which has nice unobstructed views to a lake south of Thunder Pass with Sierra Crest from Mount Williamson to Mount Whitney rising behind. The south summit also has a nice view looking back to the middle and north summits and the high peaks of the Great Western Divide. In particular, one can grasp just how big Table Mountain is – flattish at the top but surrounded by a myriad of complex cliffs and chutes on all sides.
Coming down from Thunder Pass I tried to find some terrain that was conducive to plunge stepping and was successful for a couple hundred vertical before the terrain turned into loose rocks. Fortunately some remaining snow patches helped with some of the descent. The descent down to Lake Reflection in afternoon light was delightful and I soon found myself doing the familiar run down Bubbs Creek with evening light on Mount Bago, Bubbs Creek Wall and Charlotte Dome. As darkness closed in on the canyon I was already dreaming up more reasons to come back Lake Reflection🙂
Full photo album (iphone) here. I brought my dedicated camera and took a lot of photos with it as well but who knows when I will get to looking at those photos.
Note: All photos from iPhone SE – complete photo album here.
[Updated August 22, 2016 to add Special Note on Inaccurate Free Maps]
The Sierra High Route has intrigued me ever since I heard of the fabled 195 mile trek almost a decade ago. The SHR parallels the John Muir Trail but about 60% of it is off-trail, opting for higher passes instead of diving down into the forested canyons. The route visits some of the most wild and remote corners of the range and entails some arduous terrain, including much talus hoping, but also plenty of the friendly granite terrain and alpine meadows that make cross country travel in the Sierra Nevada high country so feasible. In all the SHR gains about 60,000 feet of elevation while traversing through 33 passes and most of that elevation gain comes off-trail. Steve Roper designed the SHR and provides great detail about the route in his book, Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, first published in 1982 and now in its second edition available on Amazon (see special note at the bottom of this post on the perils of using “free” maps). Roper divided the SHR into sections so trekkers can tackle sections at a time. It appears this mode of completing portions the SHR has become increasingly popular while thru hiking the entire route in one trip is still a rather rare occurrence. Anecdotally, only about a dozen folks thru hike the complete SHR each year. The SHR also does not lend itself to supported efforts. For one, it’s even more remote than the JMT posing extra difficult logistical complexities. Second, it just doesn’t comport with the ethos of the route. The SHR is intended to be a conduit where one gets off the JMT wilderness freeway and acquires a more intimate experience with the range in remote and wild places. An unsupported SHR feels like the only way to do the SHR in my opinion.
Through my various adventures over the years in and around the SHR I’ve accumulated a wealth of knowledge and finally felt familiar enough with the terrain and the new (for me) complexities of ultralight, unsupported multi-day travel to attempt the route last summer. However, I had a vision for how I wanted my trek to look. Much more than any fast time, I wanted clear, crisp days with excellent visibility. Above anything else, I wanted to experience and enjoy the scenery when it was at its finest, and not dulled by wildfire smoke or obscured by afternoon thunderstorms. When the time came to set out for the route in the summer of 2015, the historic Rough Fire was poised to explode in Kings Canyon and become the largest fire ever in the Southern Sierra. I held strong to my vision and opted not to join Brian Lucido on his SHR trip which included thick afternoon smoke during the first couple days and cars trapped at Roads End for weeks. Unfortunately, the Rough Fire continued to burn into autumn and the starting point of the SHR at Kings Canyon remained closed through spring 2016. I would have to be patient and wait until summer 2016 to make my SHR vision come to fruition.
Fast forward to spring 2016 and the SHR continued to intrigue me as much as ever. After a few successful overnight trips honing in on my gear and nutrition plan I was ready once again. After waiting patiently, the weather pattern I had envisioned appeared. There would be no chance of afternoon thunderstorms, and most importantly, there would be no wildfire smoke to reduce visibility. I had done the preparation and now it was time to enjoy the route.
Focusing on the drama or giving a play-by-play is not my writing style so I wont attempt to do either with this write-up. Instead I hope to focus on aspects that I think are interesting and hopefully useful. For a detailed description of the route, it’s essentially a requirement that one purchases Steve Roper’s book which does a fantastic job describing the SHR in detail including an excellent account of the history of exploration in the Sierra Nevada.
My preparation for the trip entailed many weekends in the Sierra Nevada climbing peaks and gaining acclimation. I did a few overnight trips to become familiar with my gear setup and nutrition needs. Many of the outings included climbing peaks with more technical scrambling and more rigorous off-trail travel as compared with the SHR. Thus, when I was doing the SHR, I often felt like the route was less taxing than my normal weekend routes.
Luckily there was very little drama on my trip, and that was by design. I’d like to think that my meticulous, some might say excessive, preparation is responsible for eliminating most of the drama. However, my trip was not without problems as there are almost always glitches on multi-day trips for which one must adapt. At the end of Day 1 I turned my ankle and the zipper on my sleeping bag broke. The ankle turn was only a grade 1 sprain and my walk down from Dusy Basin to LeConte Canyon the morning of day 2 was painful, but without swelling or discoloration I knew that it would ultimately be ok. Once I started ascending toward Muir Pass and the pressure was taken off the impacted ligament I became more confident that this ankle turn would not impact the trip. This close call may have even been a blessing in disguise proving to me that I was one careless step away from having to abandon the route. If I wanted to see all of the beautiful scenery that the SHR has to offer and complete my multi-year vision, I would need to make sure that I did not injure myself! From that moment on, I maintained a laser focus when rock hoping on the often unstable talus rocks. The broken sleeping bag zipper was something that I had to adjust to. I wrapped my bivy sack tighter and made my sleeping bag into more of a quilt to negate the drafting of cold air. It was not ideal but it would make do. That just about sums up the drama!
A big part of the puzzle of undertaking something like the SHR fast is dialing in on nutrition. One must carry enough calories, and the right kind of calories, to negotiate the dozens of passes and arduous off-trail terrain. My food for the trip would be a mix of high calorie to weight ratio solid foods combined with more traditional energy gels and chews for endurance activities. I would start with ~20,000 calories which equates to around 9.5 pounds.
Dinner and breakfast:
- I relied heavily on a granola mix including pumpkin seeds, pecans and cashews. This amounted to 5000 calories, or a quarter of all calories I carried.
- Sunflower seed butter
- Norwegian flat bread, a seed-filled, dense cracker
- First Endurance Ultragen for a recovery drink each night
During the day:
- Picky bars, Epic bars, energy waffles, Gu gels and Clif shot blocks. This mix of energy foods was easy to consume on the go and would provide the necessary carbs and fat to power me throughout the long days.
- Nuun and Gu Hydration Tabs
- Gu Electrolyte Capsules
Gear Considerations and Night Travel:
In particular for a fast attempt at the SHR (vs. multi-day efforts on trails), one must carry the appropriate gear to enable some rest and relaxation at night. First, a lot of the SHR is not efficiently navigable in the dark so there is some built in down time during the “cold hours.” On many sections traveling at night would result in more energy wasted than progress made. Even more importantly for me, I was there to enjoy the scenery first and foremost and I wouldn’t be able to do that in the dark. I didn’t want to miss ANY of the scenery! What would be the point passing through some of my favorite parts essentially blindfolded? Thus, I would reserve any night travel for sections of mundane trail.
Second, the SHR mostly travels above 10,000 feet so even in the warmest periods of the summer it gets rather chilly at night, often into the 30s and even below freezing. This fact, coupled with the tendency for my core temperature to plummet immediately after stopping at the conclusion of a long day, meant that carrying the appropriate gear to get my core temperature back up was critical. I also new that the crisp and pleasantly cool (below average) afternoon temps that would be to my advantage while moving during the day would also produce colder nights. Thus, I needed to prepare for overnight temps below freezing. Indeed, I would find frost next to my bivy on most mornings.
Third, the arduous off-trail nature of the SHR does not lend itself to efficient round-the-clock travel. Too much strain on the muscles without appropriate recovery in the early stages, both in terms of duration and intensity, could spell extreme difficultly on the many difficult passes that appear in the later stages of the route. Much more than any on-trail adventure like the JMT, one must be strategic when and how to up the intensity. Instead I took a more balanced approach focusing on sustained, moderate intensity movement. The pace I attempted to establish was by no means pedestrian, but it was also not at a level that I knew could become problematic to maintain, and in the worst case, potentially result in a blow up (exhaustion, muscle cramps, etc.). I also planned to build in a considerable amount of rest in the early stages of the trip to ensure that my legs would remain reasonably fresh to enable me to maintain the same pace into the later stages of the route. If I felt good towards the end I would be able to up the intensity and put in some longer days. After all, I always prefer to finish strong!
My sleep setup included the following:
- Mountain Hardwear Mountain Speed sleeping bag: overall I was pleased with the performance of the bag but the zipper is just awful: always getting caught and, as I found, liable to simple break in the field!
- Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer hooded down jacket: I love this jacket. It kept me warm and the hood over my head was key to getting my core temperature back up.
- Ultimate Direction Marathon Jacket: I used the marathon jacket extensively during the trip and for only 3.3 ounces it did an amazing job keeping me warm. In the evenings I would put it on top of my shirt and in the sleeping bag I would put it on top of my down jacket to provide that extra warmth. (note: if any chance of rain was in the forecast I would have replaced the UD Marathon Shell with the UD Ultra Jacket, which comes in at only ~2 ounces heavier but provides much more protection from wind and rain).
- SOL Escape Lite Bivvy: The purpose of the bivy was to give me another 10 degree temperature rating on my sleeping bag. Without this bivvy I would have almost certainly been cold most nights. With the bivy I was comfortably warm.
- Thermarest Neoair Xlite: The gold standard for light inflatable mattresses. Perhaps just as important as sleep was giving my muscles a few hours to relax and recover for the next day of movement. Sleeping on hard, cold ground would make that difficult to accomplish. The Neoair weighs about as much as a non-inflatable pad, packs down smaller and would give me a cushy surface to rest on any surface, including rock slabs.
- Gossamer gear polycro groundsheet: This sheet of plastic doesn’t look like much, but it’s remarkably strong and extremely important to protect the inflatable mattress and otherwise keep gear off the ground surface and clean.
- Liner gloves: These were useful on the cold mornings to keep my fingers warm.
- Ultimate Direction Midcap: coming in at only 0.5 ounces, it seems like a no-brainer to carry this little beanie. I wore this hat every night and every morning. It kept my head toasty. Like my mom always says, staying warm starts first with the head!
Other gear included the following:
- Black Diamond Distance Z-Poles: These poles are extremely versatile and were up to the task of the rugged SHR. I was able to easily pack them away when I did not need them and the tougher aluminim build (vs the lighter carbon fiber ultra distance) was worth the extra weight. The ultra distance pole is not really designed for off-trail travel and a broken pole is just extra weight. The distance pole performed well.
- Black Diamond SPOT headlamp 2016: This headlamp was lightweight and provided more than enough light for my few hours of use during the night.
- Hydrapak Ultraflask XL 20 oz: This large soft bottle fit perfectly into the front pocket of my Ultimate Direction 30 Fastpack. The tube and bite valve meant only needed to turn my head to get a sip. Unlike a water reservoir, the Ultraflask was super easy to take out and refill.
- Water bottle: I wasn’t ready to rely on a soft bottle entirely in case it sprung a leak so I brought a hard water bottle. It turns out the soft bottle held up fine and 95% of the water I drunk was from the Hydrapak Ultraflask. I basically only used the water bottle for mixing recovery powder.
- Anker 10000 mAh portable charger: Used for recharging electronics including my Suunto Ambit 3 Peak watch and iPhone. This was more than enough charging capacity for my needs.
- iPhone SE: Used for photography and navigation as necessary (with GAIA GPS App downloaded)
- SPOT Receiver: The SPOT custom and OK buttons worked fine when engaged but I was quite disappointed with the performance of the tracking feature on this trip. There were a couple erroneous tracks and sometimes there was hours between tracks even though I set it to fix every 30 minutes. I obviously did not know about this shortcoming when I was out there which is even more frustrating. This failure is a little bit of a head scratcher: my iPhone can triangulate GPS to within 16 ft in a matter of seconds but the SPOT can be miles off or not even obtain a fix for hours at a time. The technology is obviously there but SPOT remains spotty…
- Miscellaneous items: sunscreen, lip balm, insect repellent, small first aid kit, blister kit, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.
So how would I carry all this food and gear comfortably?
- Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30: The Fastpack 30 has plenty of space (and more) to carry all my food and gear for at least 5 nights. The integrated vest structure allows for comfortable transport and the numerous front pockets provide for easy access to items during the day including the Hydrapak Ultraflask XL, energy food, sunscreen, chapstick, iphone, SPOT receiver, etc. While all my gear fit into the Fastpack 20, I preferred the Fastpack 30 since it has a foam back panel that provided me some structure to comfortably carry the load, which was around 17 pounds at the beginning of the trip. For lighter loads less than 14 pounds I would likely use the Fastpack 20.
And now, for the perhaps the most important piece of gear: footwear!
- La Sportiva Akasha: The sticky, rugged outsole provided the traction I needed on slabs and talus while the cushioning gave my feet the comfort they needed to keep moving without any pains for the entire day. The roomy fit also kept blisters to a minimum and any shoe that can survive the rigors of the SHR is a winner!
- La Sportiva Long Distance Sock: A new product for La Sportiva this year, these socks were extremely comfortable and were up to the task of protecting my feet and keeping blisters to a minimum.
- Injinji Compression Toesocks: Provide a ton of compression to help reduce muscle soreness. My calves in particular are susceptible to becoming tight during long days of intense activity and these socks were able to provide the level of compression that would alleviate tightness.
My plan for the SHR was loose and flexible. I would basically keep moving during the daylight hours and rest during the night. I had no specific destination to reach each day, only to keep moving until ~8 pm when I would find a suitable place to rest overnight. For the reasons described above, I knew that rest would be critical and I did not want to miss any highlights by bumbling around at night. When my energy levels during the day lowered, I would tell myself that it’s all about movement. If I kept moving as much as possible during the day, even at a pace that felt sluggish, I would still make substantial progress by the end of the day. The periods of low energy often happened during the heat of the day and made me thankful that I picked a relatively cool weather pattern to do the SHR (I don’t like heat). Thankfully, these periods of low energy would be relatively short since the temps would cool quickly in late afternoon with a breeze and I was diligent about eating food and drinking water with electrolytes. My goal was to smooth out the highs and lows that are inevitable on multi-day efforts and I feel like I was effective in execution.
Sub 5 Days:
My initial analysis (even before last summer) was that it would be feasible for me to complete the SHR in under 6 days while still enjoying the scenery. Thus, heading into my attempt of the route I figured a finish of around 5.5 days was most likely. I was on track for exactly this type of finish as I came into Reds Meadow and I was actually assuming it would be a 5.5 day finish until the afternoon of day 4 around North Glacier Pass. At this point a light bulb went off in my head. I knew that if I could reach the north side of Blue Lake Pass I could potentially finish in under 5 days. This would require me to complete a difficult off-trail portion before sunset, but once completed, I would be able to cover some distance on the Isberg Pass and Rafferty Creek Trails in the dark. This would set me up for completing the last section of rugged off-trail travel north of Tuolumne Meadows during the daylight of day 5 and ultimately a sub 5 day finish. I was more than OK to cover some miles along the mundane trails at night since they tend to be hot and dusty during the day and there is virtually no scenery to enjoy along them. It seemed like a plan and the seed was planted so I set off around Lake Catherine with renewed vigor. The scenery from North Glacier Pass to Twin Island Lakes is astonishingly wild and rugged – some of the best on the entire route – and just the type of awe-inspiring beauty to get me super excited. I was grateful for the opportunity to be at this spot on such a beautiful day and enjoying every second. For the next few hours I would seek to reach Blue Lake Pass before sunset, inspired and motivated by my surroundings as evening light took hold of the land. I ultimately made Blue Lake Pass well before sunset and traversed the beautiful meadowy benches beneath Foerster Peak depositing me on the Isberg Pass Trail before nightfall.
From this point I would need to do about a dozen trail miles to set me up for a sub five day finish including the steep climb up Vogelsang Pass. I stopped for dinner at the Lyell Fork of the Merced River and then took a second break at Florence Creek to gather myself for a sustained effort up the steep switchbacks to Vogelsang Pass. I was soon over the pass and descending toward Vogelsang Lake. At this point I had a decision to make: keep going through the night or stop to rest for a few hours. If this were an all-trail effort I would have more strongly considered going through the night since I continued to feel good. However, I remembered Brian Robinson mentioning that the last few passes along the SHR were some of the hardest on the route. I knew that the prudent decision was to give my legs some rest in advance of these tough climbs and consume some more calories. I stopped at Vogelsang Lake and rested on a granite bench for a few hours. When I woke up I knew that I had made a good decision as my legs felt light again and I was able to run much of the way from Vogelsang Lake to Tuolumne Meadows. At this point I knew that I would have enough time to negotiate the arduous off-trail section from Great Sierra Mine to Horse Creek Pass entirely in the daylight hours and ensure a sub 5 finish. In fact only the last 2 miles of the SHR are on true maintained trail where running is feasible and I was happy to reach this section with plenty of daylight to spare.
I arrived at Twin Lakes at 8 pm, 4 days, 16 hours and 45 minutes after beginning at Roads End in Kings Canyon. I was obviously tired, but not destroyed. My physical and mental spirits were in remarkably good shape. It appears the worst things that came out of the trip were burned lips (note:you can never use enough lip balm) and tight shoulder muscles. In fact, I had a lot more soreness and mental exhaustion after the JMT FKT a couple years ago. I’m assuming this is due to the fact that the majority of the SHR was fast hiking vs. running and much less night travel compared to the JMT, which can be very taxing mentally and physically. Or perhaps I’ve learned a thing or two about multi-day efforts? My time happens to be a new Fastest Known Time, of which I’m grateful to have obtained. However, I’d be just as a satisfied with my experience had it not been an FKT as I was able to accomplish my top priority of enjoying the stunning scenery even more than I could have ever imagined. I realize that I am lucky to be in an era where I can proceed with my style of enjoyment and photography while still also achieving a benchmark time and redefining what is possible in terms of efficiency for a route like the SHR.
The Sierra High Route is a highlight real with numerous favorite spots along the way. One of the great advantages of multi-day travel is the ability to see sunrise and sunset at many of these remote spots when the “Range of Light” comes to life. Here are some of my favorite sections:
- Windy Ridge and Gray Pass: The view overlooking lake 10236 and the Middle Fork Kings Canyon is astonishing. It’s one of the great views of the high Sierra. In the past I’ve visited Windy Point which is a very worthwhile diversion.
- Marion Lake and Lake Basin: This stunningly blue body of water is tucked in underneath the granite cliffs of the Cirque Crest and Marion Peak. Above Marion lake lies several large bodies of water in Lake Basin that are equally beautiful. With no maintained trails entering the basin one can find solitude among natrual splendor.
- Palisade Basin: The Palisades are the most rugged and alpine subrange within the entire Sierra Nevada. The SHR passes immediately underneath these monolithic peaks crossing over rocky passes, green meadows and lovely lakes. I was able to see evening light as I passed through Palisade Basin on the way to Knapsack Pass on Day 1.
- Evolution Basin: For both the SHR and the JMT, the Evolution Basin is a highlight. Everything from Wanda Lake down to Evolution Lake is marvelous and some of the most classic Sierra scenery available.
- Bear Basin: Bear Basin is among my favorite spots in the entire Sierra Nevada. In particular, Ursa Lake and White Bear Lake are particularly stunning. Both lakes feature the rugged Seven Gables and Gemini peaks towering above their rocky shorelines. It was a treat to pass through Bear Basin during sunrise on Day 3.
- Upper Mills Lake: A pristine lake situated at the foot of the north face of Mount Gabb, the highest peak in the region. The lake is surrounded by an amphitheater of cliffs and is one of the more rugged and wild spots on the route.
- Cotton Lake and Izaak Walton Lake: Cotton Lake sits on a white granite bench which contrasts marvelously with the reddish rock of Red Slate Mountain and Red and White Mountain at the headwaters of Fish Creek. Izaak Walton Lake is situated among steep granite slabs tucked in beneath Mont Izaak Walton.
- The Minarets: Always a favorite, the trio of lakes beneath the striking Minarets are tough to beat. Each of the lakes – Minaret, Cecile and Iceberg – are amazing and I simply can’t rate one above the other. It’s all amazing and always a pleasure to pass by them and gaze in awe at Minaret spires towering above.
- North Fork San Joaquin Headwaters: The entire stretch of the SHR between North Glacier Pass and Blue Lake Pass is features some of the most rugged and wild terrain on the route. This is a land of cliffs, waterfalls and remote lakes. The beauty is austere and surreal and I love it!
- Conness Lakes: Set between Mount Conness and North Peak are a string of magical lakes, each with a different tinge of glacial sediment resulting in a range of colors from blue to bright turquoise. The SHR descends a lovely granite ramp from the East Ridge of Mount Conness down to these lakes providing a swell view of these lakes for the entire duration of the descent.
Thoughts on Speed:
It so happens that the Sierra Nevada is my “home range” and I have spent a considerable amount of time in and around the Sierra High Route. I have climbed most of the local peaks, rested in countless meadows, and swam in many lakes. I am deeply familiar with this country and enjoy the flow of moving fast through this familiar terrain while also taking time to stop and smell the flowers. On my SHR journey, or any trip to the high Sierra for that matter, I do not feel as if I have “bagged” or “tagged” or “crushed” anything. These terms imply that I have somehow conquered the mountains but instead it’s the mountains that have given me everything on my visits to the high Sierra – the inspiration, the motivation and the memories that will last a lifetime. I want these mountains to remain wild forever. There are so few truly wild places remaining in the world, particularly in a populous state like California, where one can find nature in its purest and unfettered form. I am grateful for the opportunity to visit these places that humans will hopefully never “conquer.”
Especially for those who do not get to enjoy this tremendous mountain country on a weekly basis like I do, it is almost a shame to approach the SHR with a singular focus on speed. It’s simply too beautiful with too many opportunities for exploration. In fact, Roper devotes a section of each chapter to local peaks and strongly encourages the SHR traveler to take some (or many) of these tangents. By climbing the peaks and wandering the surroundings one comes away with an even greater appreciation of the Sierra and a greater sense of satisfaction.Through my many travels in the Sierra, I can say with certainty that the precise SHR route is just the beginning and a facilitator of these opportunities and experiences. I highly recommend that one adopts this ethos when planning a trip of the SHR.
With the SHR journey now complete I can say that I am now comfortable with multi-day unsupported efforts and I look forward to doing more of these types of adventures in the future. I have improved my ability to do consecutive long days in the mountains. I know how my body reacts on multi-day efforts, I can recognize the first signs of fatigue, and I can better gauge what type of nutrition I need to keep me going with a sustained effort day in and day out. All of these lessons will surely help me continue to explore the mountains in new ways.
My unsupported journey of the SHR would not be possible without the help of my good friend Will Gotthardt who generously offered his time to help drive me to the start at Roads End in Kings Canyon and pick me up at the finish at Twin Lakes near Bridgeport. Will always puts me at ease before events and has always believed in me so having him there at the start was invaluable. The car shuttle for the SHR is among the longest of all point-to-points and Will made it super easy on my end. Also special thanks goes to my partner girlfriend, Erica Namba, who endured days of me talking about various minutia regarding the route, gear and nutrition selection while providing valuable input on all of the above. She’s also soon to become a physical therapist and provided me with hours of therapy to keep me healthy. A special thanks goes to previous SHR thru-hikers Brian Robinson, Buzz Burrell, Andrew Skurka and Brian Lucido who generously imparted their knowledge and experiences of the route, either publicly on the internet or through direct communication. Finally, thanks to my gracious sponsors La Sportiva and Ultimate Direction. La Sportiva has been supporting my adventures for nearly a decade and their footwear continues to lead the pack when it comes to adventure running! Ultimate Direction makes the best hydration systems, hands down. The immensely successful Signature Series basically invented the running vest category and the Fastpack 20/30 are doing the same for multi-day adventures.
Special Note on Inaccurate OnTheTrail.org Free Maps:
If you’re interested in doing all or part of the SHR, do NOT use the free maps on OnTheTrail.org – do NOT use the overview maps, do NOT use the topo series, and (most importantly) do NOT use the GPX (http://onthetrail.org/trekking/shr/). The line is neither accurate nor efficient; there are at least a dozen errors that obviously deviate from Roper’s description and a few of them are major deviations that will lead you astray and/or not complete the route as Roper described and intended. This information is so bad it’s actually a disservice to those interested in the SHR and there should be a bold disclaimer or, better yet, it should be taken off the internet. These maps show up high in any internet search for the Sierra High Route. I quickly realized they were basically garbage and I did not use them at all in my planning for the SHR.
The SHR Passes (* indicates a trail pass): In chronological order from south to north.
- Grouse Lake
- Glacier Lakes
- Frozen Lakes
- Mather *
- Muir *
- Snow Tongue
- White Bear
- Shout of Relief
- Deer Lakes
- Cecile Lake
- North Glacier
- Blue Lake
- Vogelsang *
- Great Sierra Mine
- Mine Shaft
- East Ridge Conness
- Sky Pilot
- Horse Creek