The Lyell Fork of the Merced River is one of the most remote and rugged regions in Yosemite National Park. Any approach requires many miles on trail followed by off-trail travel. The lower part of the drainage features a splendid series of meadows as the river snakes through a grassland with an amazing view upstream to the chiseled rideline including Mount Ansel Adams and Electra Peak. Higher up in the basin, the forest thins and the terrain transitions to a granite playground with a series of spectacular alpine lakes. It seems as if each lake has a different color, from midnight blue to milky turquoise. It’s not entirely clear to me what is responsible for producing the different colors when the lakes are all connected and in such close proximity, but the resulting palette is magical. At the highest reaches of the basin the terrain is entirely devoid of vegetation and the uppermost lakes sit in a strikingly barren landscape of talus and granite. Above these uppermost lakes is the roof of Yosemite, Mount Lyell, at 13,120 feet above sea level and the highest point in the national park. I have looked down into the Lyell Fork of the Merced River from numerous points including Mount Lyell, Foerster Peak and Rodgers Peak and I have always wanted to explore the basin. In order to accomplish this goal, I designed an aesthetic loop out of Tuolumne Meadows that would include the Lyell Fork of the Merced River and also the summit of Electra Peak, one of the more remote summits in Yosemite with a grand view of the region. Since Electra Peak is the central feature of the route I called it the “Electra Loop” and entails nearly 44 miles and close to 10,000 feet of elevation gain. The loop is similar to the Roof of Yosemite Loop I did earlier this year but is a bit longer to incorporate the Lyell Fork Merced River and Electra Peak. GPS route info here.
The route starts with a trek up Lyell Canyon on the John Muir Trail, one of the most runnable stretches of trail in the High Sierra. At the head of the canyon is a climb up to Donohue Pass with an excellent view of Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure. Soon after Dononhue Pass leave the trail and head south through easy alpine terrain to the meadows beneath Marie Lakes where the Marie Lakes trail is intersected. A short climb on this trail brings one to Lower Marie Lake. From here continue cross country up a ridge on the south side of the lake and then traverse granite and talus slopes to North Clinch Pass. Lower Marie Lake is a large body of water and includes stupendous views of Mount Lyell and also across Rush Creek basin to Donohue Peak and Mount Andrea Lawrence. The narrow ridgeline is particularly scenic with a “secret Marie Lake” visible deep in a granite bowl. The direct route over North Clinch Pass includes some class 3 scrambling on its south side but it looks like a somewhat circuitous detour south along the ridge could eliminate the class 3 altogether. Passage through North Clinch Pass brings one into the remote upper reaches of the North Fork San Joaquin River. This drainage, like the Lyell Fork of the Merced River, is rarely visited but a real gem of the High Sierra. My passage through this basin was at its uppermost reach via a high traverse to Electra Peak on talus and granite slabs. I could see the numerous inviting lakes below, but my path would remain above them. I look forward to visiting these lakes in the future. in fact, the High Sierra Route passes through perhaps the most dramatic part of the North Fork San Joaquin River drainage as it descends from Lake Catherine and traverses to Twin Island Lakes with wild views of the North Fork San Joaquin River Canyon and Mount Ritter and Banner Peak towering above. After the traverse of the headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River to Lake 11,815, the climb of Electra Peak’s north ridge is a straightforward scramble on talus and then some rock on the final portion on the ridge. The view from the summit is incredible and takes in a 360 degree panorama encompassing everything from Half Dome to the Clark Range to Mount Lyell to Ritter and Banner. The best view in my opinion looks down the Lyell Fork of the Merced River with it’s numerous colorful lakes and beautiful meadows. From the summit, descend Electra’s northwest slope (talus and slabs) to Lake 10,999, a deep blue lake situated in a barren granitic landscape. Descending down the drainage from Lake 10,999 leads to Lake 10,702 tucked in beneath a rugged ridge extending to Mount Ansel Adams. A descent down a minor headwall beneath Lake 10,702 leads to a lake with striking bright turquoise color. This lake is not even assigned an elevation on the topo maps, but is one of the unique highlights of this region. The next lake on the trip down the Lyell Fork is perhaps the most spectacular and is labelled as Lake 10,217 on the topo map. This lake retains some of the turqouise color as the previous lake but has a bit more of a blueish tint. The lake also includes more vegetation along its shores, an alpine beach, and an elongated shape that makes it look like a swimming lane with Mount Ansel Adams and Foerster Peak towering above. This is certainly a spot I could spend some time relaxing! Below Lake 10,217 is the primary headwall of the drainage and includes a fair amount of micro-navigating to avoid small cliff bands (although numerous routes are available). Below the headwall, travel becomes easier through open forest eventually reaching the splendid meadows. From the meadows it’s about a mile downstream through forest and granite slabs to the Isberg Pass Trail which is taken north to the Lewis Creek Trail. The ascent up the Lewis Creek Trail leads to Vogelsang Pass and then down the Rafferty Creek trail back to Tuolumne Meadows. GPS route info here.
“Window Peak Lake” is a spectacular granite-encased lake tucked in underneath rugged Window Peak. While only a couple miles off the John Muir Trail, there is no trail or use paths to negotiate the 1,800 foot vertical ascent to the lake which is steep and rocky. The lake is also situated in one of the more remote spots in the range with all access options entailing many trail miles and lots of elevation gain. The lake is not officially named on any maps, but its proximity directly underneath Window Peak makes Window Peak Lake an appropriate unofficial name. The difficult accessibility combined with very little information on this region makes this a pristine and unfettered setting with virtually no human impact. I hope places like this stay that way and in future years I hope to find the same unspoiled setting!
Erica and I accessed the area via Road’s End passing by Mist Falls and then running up Paradise Valley and the Castle Domes to the John Muir Trail at the Woods Creek junction. After some photographs on the suspension bridge we continued northbound up the JMT for one mile before turning off and heading up the rocky and steep slopes. The general idea is to stay on the north side of the stream draining Window Peak Lake ascending talus, steep meadows and the occasional patch of pine trees. Virtually all brush can be avoided with careful navigation. A headwall is passed about halfway up where the outflow water from Window Peak Lake tumbles over a cliff producing a waterfall that is surely impressive in the early summer when snows from above are melting. Prior to reaching Window Peak Lake there is a smaller lake, aka mini-Window Peak Lake, but be sure to continue up to the much larger and scenic main lake. After a short break at Window Peak Lake, I continued up along granite slabs to Pyramid Peak. Most of the route is on friendly slabs with only a little bit of talus to negotiate. A small col must be gained to ascend the south ridge of Pyramid Peak that includes some class 3 scrambling. The summit of Pyramid Peak features an outstanding view looking south to the King Spur, Window Peak, Rae Lakes and a sea of peaks all around. Mount Whitney, Mount Williamson and Mount Tyndall are clearly visible to the south along with the Palisades to the north. The descent from Pyramid Peak was just as spectacular as the afternoon sun angle produced a beautiful blue color on Window Peak Lake. This view was one of my favorites in all of my adventures in the High Sierra. I met up with Erica at mini-Window Peak Lake and we continued down together to the JMT enjoying the stupendous views of the Woods Creek drainage up to the peaks surrounding the Rae Lakes including Painted Lady, Mount Rixford and Dragon Peak. Once on the JMT, we continued on to the Castle Domes valley where beautiful afternoon light illuminated the impressive granite towers. GPS route here.
Tower Peak is a remote and impressive summit at the northern end of the High Sierra. The peak lies at the headwaters of the West Walker River that was included in the substantial expansion of the Hoover Wilderness in 2009. The usual route entails many miles of trail along the Walker River Trail from Leavitt Meadows to Tower Lake. The trail is generally pleasant and virtually all runnable for the first 12 miles through Upper Piute Meadows as it is largely non-technical and elevation gain is gradual. Along the way there are several aspen groves that would enhance the trip in the fall season and pretty meadows at Lower and Upper Piute Meadows. The only downside to the trail is that it is very sandy and/or dusty in sections due to its heavy use by the horse pack station at Leavitt Meadows. Travelling through the lower portion where sand and dust is most prevalent on a hot summer day would only make matters worse. Fortunately, the tread improves as one progresses further toward Tower Lake. At around 11.5 miles the trail reaches Piute Meadows. At the north end of Piute Meadows is the Piute Cabin, a nice backcountry ranger cabin that was not occupied on my visit. The cabin has a very nice view looking across the meadows to the peaks at the head of the valley. From the end of Piute Meadows, the trail climbs for a couple more miles to remote and beautiful Tower Lake (~15 miles from the trailhead), situated in a bowl surrounded by granite slopes. The most impressive rock feature is known as “The Watchtower,” which looks like it contains some fine climbing routes on it’s smooth granite face. The vegetation around Tower Lake includes mountain hemlock and alpine firs which are more reminiscent of the Tahoe alpine manifesting Tower Lake’s northern location and correspondingly wetter climate than points further south. From Tower Lake, ascend to Tower Pass through a mix of gravel, talus, and patches of grass. At Tower Pass, Tower Peak comes into view and the route is obvious. Traverse through a shallow basin of meadows (which can have some lovely wildflowers in summer) that transitions to granite slabs near a remnant ice patch. Ascend the granite slabs beside and above this ice path to the northwest ridge with a great view of the “tower” of Tower Peak. Follow the northwest ridge until it becomes steeper and more technical. One can continue along the ridge for a more challenging scrambling experience, but the path of least resistance comes off the ridge onto its west side and traverses underneath the ridge to a wide chute that contains fun class 3 scrambling known as “the staircase” that leads directly to the summit block. Tower Peak provides an excellent vantage of the surrounding region including the Hoover Wilderness and northern Yosemite with close-up views of the relatively large and sky blue Mary Lake and the Saurian Crest immediately above. To the south and east lies the remote Stubblefield Canyon and Sawtooth Ridge. A small glacial remnant on the steep slopes off the summit’s east and north side was entirely exposed and as the permanent ice is diminishing rapidly in these consecutive drought seasons. On this day, I chose Tower Peak after analyzing and balancing the wildfire smoke from nearby fires and thunderstorms expected in the southern part of the range. The decision proved correct as skies overhead remained relatively clear of smoke or clouds all day. My favorite view from the summit was down to Mary Lake, although views to the south and east were obscured by smoke and haze from the fires and I will have to return at some point on a clear day. Total roundtrip out of Leavitt Meadows is ~34 miles to Tower Peak and 30 miles to Tower Lake. All told, the primary climbs are a 1,300 foot trail climb from Upper Piute Meadows to Tower Lake and a 2,250 ft off-trail climb from Tower Lake up to Tower Peak via Tower Pass. On my trip wildflower meadows were in full bloom above Tower Pass and also in Piute Meadows. GPS route here (missing last 11 miles).
Aptly named Granite Dome is an immense granite massif with numerous micro-basins occupied by a series of stunning alpine lakes. The lakes are set amid granite cliffs that afford stunning vistas of the pristine lakes from above. As the adventurer gazing over these magnificent lakes is the audience to a stunning natural performance, I like to describe this region as the “Granite Balconies.” All of the lakes are located on the northern side of a massive ridge that culminates in the summit of Granite Dome. The region is characterized by ubiquitous ice polished granite carved into its present form by glaciers that blanketed this region over millennia. No trails travel into this area making it a relatively infrequently visited spot where solitude and ample room for exploration can be found. While the northern side of Granite Dome is rugged, the south side features more subdued terrain and no lakes until further down in the Emigrant Wilderness. The region is accessed via Kennedy Meadows off of the Sonora Pass Highway and includes a moderately steep trail to reach Relief Reservoir and beyond. The off-trail travel is fairly easy with navigation on friendly granite slabs. The primary objective in route finding on this terrain is to avoid steeper sections of granite that can become cliffs. The named lakes of the region include the Lewis Lakes (lower, middle, upper), Sardella Lake, Ridge Lake and Iceland Lake with a numerous other smaller tarns. Ridge Lake is arguably the centerpiece nestled beneath the towering cliffs of Granite Dome with waterfalls splashing down into the lake from the upper reaches of the peak. However, Middle Lewis Lake is perhaps the most dramatic with towering granite cliffs surrounding its shores like an amphitheater. Furthermore, the view overlooking Iceland Lake from the south is fantastic. GPS route here.
My first time visiting this region included a hike to the top of Granite Dome with excellent 360 degree views, especially down to the lakes below. Photos from my prior visit to Granite Dome can be found here. This time, instead of going to Granite Dome I explored the Lewis Lakes basin with Erica. We ascended beautiful granite slabs into the Lewis Creek Basin with clumps of pine trees and waterfall cascades. We made our way up steeper slabs to Middle Lewis Lake, the largest lake in the Granite Balconies region. Middle Lewis is an incredible lake that sees little traffic and is a true Sierra gem with top notch scenery. From Middle Lewis Lake, the easiest way to Upper Lewis Lake requires traveling north from the end of the Middle lake to easier slabs before turning left and heading west and southwest to Upper Lewis Lake. The direct route from Middle to Upper Lewis Lake contains some steep granite slabs that may prove too steep for many without rock gear or snow/ice gear in early season. Similar to my prior visit, Upper Lewis Lake was still partially frozen. We ascended a small rise near Upper Lewis Lake to our first “balcony” of the day overlooking the natural amphitheater surrounding Middle Lewis Lake. This tremendous vista is one of my favorites. From this viewpoint, we traversed around the end of Upper Lewis Lake and continued to stunning Ridge Lake. Near the outlet of the lake is another fantastic balcony with views of Ridge Lake and the towering granite cliffs of Granite Dome. From Ridge Lake we ascended the rise above Iceland Lake with a gorgeous panorama from yet another balcony. I recommend accessing the lakes via the east like we did by taking advantage of more maintained trail and avoiding the gullies and steeper granite slopes from Relief Meadows. On my prior visit to this region I descended to Relief Meadows, and while numerous routes are feasible, they require micro-navigating and almost certainly take longer than continuing up the main trail past Saucer Meadow and back down to Summit Creek where you can cross the creek and find easier slabs into the Granite Balconies region.
Higher is not always better. I’ve been to several peaks recently that are only modest in elevation but contain outstanding views. It many ways, being surrounded by impressive peaks of equal or greater height provides a more dramatic perspective. Mount Davis is one of these peaks. While relatively remote and obscure, the views are breathtaking and include taller and well known neighbors to the north (Mount Lyell and Rodgers Peak) and south (Mount Ritter and Banner Peak). To the west is the rugged and wild headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River, including the enchanting Twin Island Lakes, and to the east is spectacular Thousand Island Lake and the Davis Lakes. On my way to Mount Davis I visited the always-beautiful Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake, making sure to time my passage with idyllic morning light. While the shortest route to Mount Davis is via Silver Lake trailhead, I prefer the route from the Agnew Meadows trailhead which is more scenic in my opinion. This route also enabled me to easily include a morning visit to Garnet Lake, one of the prettiest lakes in all of the Sierra. GPS route here.I continued up from Thousand Island Lake to North Glacier Pass, a route that seems more efficient each time I get the chance to visit the pass. The pass is a worthy destination in itself with a commanding view of the deep blue Lake Catherine situated below the rugged north faces of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. The view includes the glacial remnant that flows between these two impressive peaks. From North Glacier Pass, it seems as if Davis would be close, but quite a bit of leg work remains. One can either descend to the rocky shores of Lake Catherine or traverse higher up to avoid losing elevation. Both require some travel through cumbersome talus, but the beautiful clear waters of Lake Catherine are a great distraction.Higher up above Lake Catherine the terrain transitions to friendly granite slabs that lead to the “Davis Plateau,” a broad area of high elevation between North Glacier Pass to the south and the summit of Mount Davis at the north end of the plateau. While the summit of Davis has some prominence, there are numerous ridgelines and points along the plateau that are not that much lower in height. In this regard, Davis is more of a massif. In order to reach the high point, which includes the best views looking north along the crest toward Mount Lyell, an expansive glacial bowl must be crossed with copious talus and some interesting ice remnants (sadly it’s doubtful this ice makes it through this exceptionally dry and warm year). After crossing the bowl, the summit of Davis is an easy talus hop. On the way back I made a slight diversion to a small point at the south end of the Davis plateau that features an amazing view overlooking the deep blue waters of Lake Catherine and the multi-colored Ritter Lakes, nestled underneath the rugged buttresses of Mount Ritter with colors ranging from deep blue to turquoise. I have probably spent more time in the Ansel Adams Wilderness region exploring the area around the Minarets and Ritter/Banner than anywhere else in the High Sierra but the scenery never ceases to amaze and inspire. GPS route here.
Continuing with the focus on Northeast Yosemite’s Canyon Country, this post describes a climb of Whorl Mountain, which is immediately across Spiller Canyon from Virginia Peak,and a tour of the Sawtooth Ridge region including Matterhorn Pass, Burro Pass and Ice Lakes Pass. I had done a similar Sawtooth Loop last year including climbs of Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak. It’s such a fantastically scenic area I have no qualms about returning here year after year or even multiple times in the same year. Whorl Mountain is an impressive granite massif composed of three summits (the middle being the highest) sharply dividing Mattherhorn Canyon and Spiller Canyon. The rugged ridgeline reminds me of the Matthes Crest in the Tuolumne Meadows area with similar rock patterns, spectacularly steep relief and awesome scenery. The main difference is Whorl sees a small fraction of the visitors when compared with the popular and easily accessible rock climb on the Matthes Crest. From a distance, it looks like technical rock climbing is required to reach Whorl’s summit, but a fairly straightforward, albeit convoluted, scrambling route exists. My route finding was spot on and the crux for me was passage underneath the chockstone, which surprisingly still contained snow and ice in mid-summer (beware in a high snow year). After contemplating turning around, I decided to give it a try. To make space for me to crawl through I needed to remove some snow and ice. Using my hand turned out to be a bloody mess, but bashing the icy snow with a rock proved effective. Once past the chockstone it was a matter of minutes before I was on the summit. Any earlier in the season and the passage underneath the chockstone would have been completely choked and the alternatives are exposed. After Whorl Mountain I went over Matterhorn Pass and traversed the upper portions of Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon. This is one of my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra with amazing rugged scenery of Sawtooth Ridge. I completed the loop by going over Ice Lake Pass to the foot of the Incredible Hulk with amazing views to Ice Lake and Maltby Lake, and then down the climbers use path in Little Slide Canyon to the Barney Lake Trail. GPS route here.
The easiest approach to Whorl is via the Horse Creek drainage to Horse Creek Pass. This is a direct and straightforward route and if you are able to find and utilize little use paths it will help expedite passage through the talus fields in the upper portion of the drainage. Most times a snow tongue remains near the narrow pass which is an extension of a relic ice patch, but this likely disappears by late season. Travel across upper Spiller Canyon is a pleasure with beautiful meadows, gradual terrain and awesome scenery. Continue along a prominent bench below Whorl to its end and then make an ascending traverse across Whorl’s east face. There are several shallow chutes along the face, but the key is continue farther than you think and beyond a couple patches of small pine trees (see annotated photo above). Once in the correct chute, it’s a pretty straightforward ascent up class 2 and 3 slabs and talus. Near the top of this first chute, move climber’s right into a second chute. Once in the second chute ascend 3rd class blocks about 100 vertical feet to find a convenient ledge that provides relatively easy access to a third chute. The third chute contains an impressive chockstone that must be climbed underneath and through. As described above, the chockstone is likely chocked with snow and ice until well into the summer season and the alternatives to get around the chockstone entails some exposed 4th class scrambling. Once through the chockstone there is a little more scrambling before an obvious wide ledge is found that cuts across the entire west face of the middle peak and emerges near the summit. This ledge is quite miraculous since the face is otherwise nearly vertical granite and without it this would surely be a technical climb. At the end of the ledge, a few more class 3 moves deposits one on the summit. As Whorl is essentially a giant granite wedge between Spiller Canyon and Matterhorn Canyon, the views are stellar and include the Sawtooth Ridge, Virginia Peak, Mount Conness and the Roof of Yosemite at Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure. The fun does not need to end with Whorl. On the way back to Horse Creek Pass, turn uphill and ascend to Matterhorn Pass to make a loop including Burro Pass and Ice Lakes Pass. Matterhorn Pass is a little tricky to approach from the south as you must ascend a gully to a point above the pass before exiting the gully and descending the ridge back to the low point at the pass. The north side of Matterhorn Pass is easy and the descent into upper Matterhorn Canyon is gorgeous. Once in the canyon, intersect the trail and soon after reach spectacular Burro Pass. The views of Sawtooth Ridge only improve as one descends into the upper reaches of Slide Canyon. The meadows here are among my favorite in all of the High Sierra. Instead of ascending up to Mule Pass, head cross country to Ice Lakes Pass to get close-up views of Ice Lake, Maltby Lake, and the granite monolith of the Incredible Hulk. This is really an amazing area! The descent through Little Slide Canyon is arduous and takes some time, but once on the Barney Lake Trail it’s smooth sailing back to Twin Lakes. Alternatively, keeping to the maintained trail out of Slide Canyon includes an ascent to Mule Pass with fantastic views and pretty lakes. You really can’t go wrong in this region! GPS route here.
Northeast Yosemite is one of my favorite places in the Sierra Nevada. The peaks are not as high as the Southern Sierra, but it’s a distinctly alpine region characterized by a series of long glacier-carved canyons separated by sharp granitic peaks and ridgelines. The numerous canyons (from east to west) include Virginia Canyon, Spiller Canyon, Matterhorn Canyon, Slide Canyon, Rock Canyon, Kerrick Canyon, Thompson Canyon, Stubblefield Canyon, Tilden Canyon and Jack Main Canyon (see annotated satellite image of the canyons). All of the canyons flow into the Tuolumne River watershed and provide virtually limitless opportunities for exploration, and several of the canyons are completely trail-less canyons. The entire region offers some of the best wilderness terrain to wander off the beaten path in solitude. On this day I was looking for a relatively quick afternoon warm-up (post drive from the Bay Area) before my trip to Arrow Peak’s northeast ridge so I decided to do Virginia Peak, a striking peak that rises between the deeply-carved Spiller Canyon and Virginia Canyon. From the summit of Virginia Peak there is a magnificent view in all directions, including the impressively steep Whorl Mountain across picturesque Spiller Canyon,Matterhorn Peak at the head of the canyon, Mount Conness and Shepherd Crest to the south, and the Roof of Yosemite including Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure and Mount Florence.
The shortest and likely quickest access to Virginia Peak is via the Green Lake Trailhead, but I decided to access via Virginia Lakes, a pretty chain of alpine lakes I had never seen with trailhead access that is almost all on paved road (the Green Lake TH is a long dirt road). Moreover, the Virginia Lakes TH starts a bit higher. The downside is the approach builds in an extra climb over a saddle that is over 11,000 ft resulting in a decent climb on the way back. On balance, the extra distance to the peak seemed worthwhile. I used maintained paths to below Summit Lake and then set off cross-country traversing across the lowest slopes of Camiaca Peak to Upper Virginia Canyon. A trail once existed in upper Virginia Canyon but I could only find bits and pieces of it in the meadows. Either way, travel is easy in the canyon and the main objective is to avoid brush patches that tend to grow near the watercourse. At the highest reaches of Virginia Canyon a headwall is reached with a waterfall. Apparently an easy route exists to bypass the waterfall and continue along the main drainage, but I found a nice gully to the right that provided an easy “staircase” up to the granite benches and talus fields below Virginia Peak and Twin Peaks Pass. The final ascent to the pass entailed some loose rock, but I was soon traversing over to the start of the scramble. The final scramble up Virginia Peak’s northeast ridge is short and mostly class 2 with a couple class 3 moves. The view from the top is awesome and I soaked in the scenery for nearly an hour before returning to the Virginia Lakes TH with plenty of time to drive south for the next day’s adventure. GPS route here.