Sawtooth Loop

Catching up on a route from July 4th that was a variation of the Sawtooth Loop I did back in 2013.  The “Sawtooth Loop” is a spectacular route through one of the most scenic regions of the High Sierra and a personal favorite. I’ve come back to this area many times over the years and can’t seem to get enough of the scenery.  I call this loop the Sawtooth Loop since it circumnavigates the impressively rugged subrange of the Sierra crest known as Sawtooth Ridge that straddles Yosemite national park’s northern boundary and the Hoover Wilderness.  The base loop utilizes Horse Creek Canyon, Slide Canyon and Little Slide Canyon. This deeply serrated Sawtooth Ridge resembles a sawblade and contains features with enchanting names like Three Teeth, The Doodad, Dragtooth and Sawblade. Full photo album here.

There are numerous variations and objectives in the region to include in the Sawtooth loop, including the aforementioned points along Sawtooth Ridge, Eocene Peak, Crown Point and Slide Mountain. The north side of Sawtooth Ridge is conveniently close to Twin Lakes and Mono Village, even allowing for straightforward access during the winter months. This area has numerous popular destinations like Barney Lake and Peeler Lake for hikers and the world famous Incredible Hulk for climbers. However, the south side of Sawtooth Ridge, located in northern Yosemite, feels remote and wild with comparatively a small fraction of the visitors. All of the canyons that surround Sawtooth Ridge are glacier-carved and spectacular with smooth granite walls and lovely meadows. On this day I chose to climb Matterhorn Peak and Finger Peaks, both summits I had climbed previously (Matterhorn several times) but the extensive snow cover from the unprecedented winter it made the experience different. In addition, this was an opportunity to climb Matterhorn’s east couloir again, my first climb in the High Sierra back in May 2007 (10 year anniversary climb!). The loop starts at the Twin Lakes resort and ascends Horse Creek Canyon, first on well maintained trail and then a use path with wonderful scenery. At the first headwall, the trail disappeared for good under deep snowpack and it was time to put on crampons. Instead of continuing up Horse Creek Canyon, I turned right to head towards the Matterhorn glacier. On the way I passed a stunning ice pool with a light blue color and spent quite a bit time photographing this gem with the spires of Sawtooth Ridge in the background. From this tarn it was all snow up the snow covered glacier to the east couloir which made for an efficient ascent. The snow steepens in the couloir requiring ice axe and crampons. This is not a fun climb after the snow melts as it becomes a combination of loose rocks and gravel. I got to experience a bit of the loosness on the top 30% of the couloir which had already melted out.  That being said, it was amazing how much snow remained in the region for July 4th.  From the top of the couloir it’s a short climb with a few class 3 moves to the summit, with its wonderful 360 degree view of the region from Mount Ritter and Banner Peak to the south to Tower Peak to the north. In addition, alpine gold wildflowers were in full bloom and put on quite a show on rock ledges near the summit. A carry-over Matterhorn Peak, the highest point on the ridge, is an excellent way to access the outstanding scenery and wilderness of the rrapidemote region south of Sawtooth Ridge.  The SW chute/slope of Matterhorn Peak offer a straightforward class 2 descent toward Burro Pass on the remote south side of Sawtooth Ridge. With the abundant snow cover I was able to angle over to the ridge descending from Matterhorn summit which separates Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon and take that scenic ridge all the way to Burro Pass. From Burro Pass I traversed more snow to a couloir beneath the East and Middle Finger Peaks. After a moderately steep snow ascent the east peak is a short scramble. The East Peak has the best view of the ridge to Burro Pass and close-up views of Sawtooth Ridge. It also has an excellent angle on the precipitous east face of the Middle Finger Peak. Finally, it’s got a broad flat top which provides many spots for an alpine nap. A worthy summit despite being lower than the higher Middle Peak.  After a nap I traversed around to the Middle Peak and climbed the fun class 3 route to the Middle Peak, including the improbable ledge that cuts across the face that keeps the climbing to class 3 versus a harder grade. The Middle Finger Peak is the highest and therefore has the best overall view of the region with the entire Sawtooth Ridge, Whorl Peak and much of northern Yosemite in view. After enjoying the summit I took the snow slope down between Middle and West Finger Peak to Upper Slide Canyon. This area has wonderful meadows later in the season, but the views of Sawtooth Ridge were equally impressive despite everything still snow covered.  The heavy snowpack made finding the trail difficult so I went cross country for the most part.  The approach to Ice Lake Pass included abundant, deep sun cups which were draining. Ice Lake was partially melted and beautiful while the Incredible Hulk was stunning as ever. Heavy snow in Little Slide Canyon made the descent quite a bit easier than normal as snow covered much of the talus. There was plenty of avalanche evidence with trees toppled over like toothpicks and deposited far down the canyon from where they once stood.  Full photo album here

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Papoose Lake via Canyon Creek

Geographically located between the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades, it makes sense that the Trinity Alps look and feel like a mixture of the two mountain ranges, yet the sum of the parts creates something distinctly unique.  The Trinities are a granite playground with glacier sculpted canyons, rugged spires, gushing waterfalls, clear lakes and wildflower meadows. The diversity of conifers is among the most in the world (36 by one count) with several species at the limit of their respective ranges resulting in species from the north and south coexisting, and including several that are endemic to the region like the Northern Foxtail Pine and Brewer’s Weeping Spruce. While the Trinities are a “pocket” range that are only a tiny fraction of the size of the vast Sierra Nevada to the southeast, there are so many hidden gems in these mountains that keep me coming back to explore more.  Papoose Lake is one such gem.  Surrounded by a nearly perfect circular amphitheater of cliffs, snowfields and waterfalls, it’s a spectacular sight and a place that I had wanted to visit for some time. The remote lake is trail accessible by around 12 miles each way from the Hobo Gulch Trailhead and up Rattlesnake Creek (apparently aptly named due to the healthy rattlesnake population along the creek). The long drive to the trailhead and many miles of lower elevation trail contribute to the fact that Papoose Lake is not visited very much, especially when compared to the ultra popular Canyon Creek Lakes or the Four Lakes Loop. You can likely find solitude (or close to it) at this lake and I was the only person there on a Sunday.  However, instead of taking the trail to Papoose Lake, I decided to combine it with a visit to the Canyon Creek Lakes and climb up and over the rugged ridge that separates the Canyon Creek drainage from Papoose Lake via Gray Rock Pass. While Papoose Lake itself was magnificent, the route to reach Papoose Lake was even more scenic and included excellent views of the heart of the Trinity Alps and stellar “aerial” vistas of both the Canyon Creek Lakes and Papoose Lake that were likely the highlights of the day. Photo album here.

For the scenic off-trail route to Papoose Lake, take the popular trail from the Canyon Creek Trailhead to the beautiful Canyon Creek Lakes. Backpackers and hikers at Canyon Creek Lakes are likely the last people you’ll see for awhile. Follow cairns up and around Lower Canyon Creek Lake to Upper Canyon Creek Lake. At the Upper Lake, instead of traversing around the upper lake, a convenient talus gully provides a shortcut up to the ridge above. Traverse the west shoreline of the upper lake and as you approach the vertical cliff that descends right into the lake a steep talus gully presents itself.  Ascend this mostly stable talus gully. Toward the top of the gully the talus transitions to steep dirt between firs. Virtually all of the brush can be avoided. From the top of the gully one is treated to a magnificent view of Canyon Creek Lakes below, particularly if one descends slightly on the granite arm that plunges precipitously down to the upper lake. This area contains a stellar grove of Brewer’s Weeping Spruce (Picea breweriana), which is endemic to the Klamath Mountains of northwest California and southwest Oregon. The common name is fitting as this large coniferous tree has drooping twigs from each branch that form curtains of needled foliage. While one of the rarer conifers with its small natural range, the weeping spruce is highly prized as an ornamental in gardens. However, nothing can beat seeing these trees in their rugged mountainous habitat and this bench above Canyon Creek lakes is one of the finest stands that I have seen with weeping spruces of all shapes and sizes. Moving up the granite arm, a steeper step has some scrambling on granite slabs before the terrain eases. Continue ascending up the arm and then veer to the right when spires block progress on the crest of the ridge. Here the Brewer’s spruce transitions to mountain hemlock and ultimately to wide open granite slabs. This beautiful granitescape enables relatively easy off-trail travel and one can make an ascending traverse around the cirque aiming for Gray Rock Pass. The rugged ridgeline is serrated and contains numerous spires and unnamed peaks, but Gray Rock Pass provides a relatively easy and safe passage over the crest.  The pass was named as such due to an identifiable strip of gray rock that passes right through the col. Unlike the solid white granite that surrounds the col, the gray rock is incredibly brittle (annotated photo of pass location coming soon).  If snow covered, the final slope up to the Gray Rock Pass becomes steep so traction device and ice axe may be required in early season.

Gray Rock Pass has an amazing view of the surrounding terrain including Sawtooth Mountain, Little Granite Peak, Caesar Peak and Mount Shasta. From the pass to Papoose Lake is a nearly 1500 ft descent and attention is required to avoid brush and cliffs. First, descend down a gravel and talus gully to friendly slabs. From the slabs the main idea is to trend skiers right and aim for the outlet of Papoose Lake. At about 7600 ft cross over from slabs into a strip of trees and descend through these trees before trending right once more to make the final descent down boulders and slabs to the outlet of the lake. Numerous flat granite benches provide many camping options, but there’s sparse wood here so please don’t make fires. Ascend above the lake along the ridge for an excellent vista of the Papoose Lake amphitheater and marvel at the impressive cirque of cliffs and spires that surround the lake. If visiting in early season, hanging snowfields fill the upper cirque and feed waterfalls that bounce off the cliffs into the lower cirque. It’s a beautiful spot!  Photo album here.

Caribou Mountain & Lakes 2017

The Caribou Lakes area is one of the finest regions of the Trinity Alps with fantastic scenery and beautiful alpine lakes. This would be my second visit to the region (first time in 2013) and this time I made a point to visit the summit of Caribou Mountain which provides a commanding view of the Caribou Lakes region and the heart of the Trinity Alps. The trailhead is at the end of a long and slow gravel road that is quite rocky in spots. It’s passable in low-clearance sedans but caution must be exercised and it takes a long time to cover the last 12 miles (1 hour or more). It’s surely a more enjoyable drive in a high clearance vehicle. The extra effort and time required to reach the trailhead makes the Caribou Lakes area less popular than Canyon Creek Lakes, but in my opinion the trail-accessible terrain is more scenic. There are two trails that access Caribou Lakes: the Old Caribou Trail and the New Caribou Trail. In general, the New Caribou Trail is significantly longer but contains a very gradual grade largely traversing the mountainside. In contrast, the Old Caribou Trail is more direct, but steeper and contains more elevation gain reaching a high point that is only a few hundred feet short of Caribou Mountain’s summit. While both trails are worthwhile and make for an excellent figure-8 loop to visit the basin, I personally prefer the New Caribou Trail for the first part, which is smooth and runnable both as an ascent and descent, and the Old Caribou Trail for the second part up and over Point 8,118 into the Caribou Lakes Basin. The views and much shorter mileage on the second part of the Old Caribou Trail more than make up for the steeper gradient in my opinion. Full album here.

This time I made the traverse over to Caribou Mountain from Point 8,118 (the high point of the Old Caribou Trail). This traverse can be accomplished by descending a few hundred feet from Point 8,188 to pass underneath a cliff band or one can stay closer to the ridge crest avoiding loss of elevation. Either way the scrambling stays in the class 2 range, and if one opts for the ridge route, stay on the north side of the ridge to avoid some more difficult scrambling that is found by staying on the ridge crest proper.  The views improve as one traverses the ridge to Caribou Mountain and the panorama from the summit is outstanding and worth the effort to make the somewhat long traverse from Point 8,118. From the rocky peak one has a bird’s eye view of the Caribou Lakes and Snowslide Lake and an excellent vantage into the heart of the Trinity Alps, including Sawtooth Mountain, Mount Hilton, Caesar Peak and Thompson Peak. To the south one can see Josephine Lake and the high summits of the Four Lakes Loop region including Mount Gibson, Seven Up Peak and Siligo Peak. To the northwest Mount Shasta rises proudly. It’s a swell vista and I spent a lot of time taking photos and enjoying the sweet panorama.

After returning from Caribou Mountain to Point 8,118 we continued along the Old Caribou Trail as it makes a series of switchbacks down the hill toward Caribou Lakes and Snowslide Lake.  These switchbacks pass through a mix of meadows and alpine forest with excellent views of the lakes below, which are nestled in a spectacular granite bowl underneath Caribou Mountain. All of the lakes are very inviting for a swim and I did just that in Upper Caribou Lake. As the basin was still covered in snow and the lake has just melted, the water was frigid making for a short swim, but it was still refreshing and the warm July sun provided a quick warm-up once exiting the icy water.  Upper Caribou Lake is the largest lake in the Trinity Alps and is particularly scenic with an amphitheater of white granite surrounding its eastern shore. Last time we continued up from Upper Caribou Lake to a small notch along Sawtooth Ridge which is the top of the Caribou scramble. The view from Sawooth Ridge to Emerald Lake, Sapphire Lake and Mirror Lake is magnificent. The last visit was in the September and the snow had melted so this time we enjoyed similar views but with snow-capped peaks and fields of wildflowers. Once again, the Caribou Lakes area far exceeded my expectations and is a real gem of the Trinity Alps.

Granite Dome & Lakes 2017

This was my third time visiting the exceptionally scenic region beneath Granite Dome. In both 2012 and 2014 visits were in early June and most of the lakes were melted out. This time a full month later in early July the lakes were mostly frozen; a testament to the unprecedented High Sierra snowpack received in the winter of 2017. What made this visit special was the colorful ice pools in the lakes, including a heavenly blue pool in Upper Lewis Lake and a stunning teal turquoise color in Ridge Lake. In addition, Iceland Lake was only partially melted out with icebergs and an array of ice colors from green to blue. Similar to my first visit in 2012, I ascended to the top of Granite Dome which has great views of the Emigrant Wilderness and Northern Yosemite. Tower Peak is particularly striking to the east. The crux of the trip was crossing Summit Creek which was raging like a river. There was one safe log over the creek in the vicinity I needed to cross. It was mostly dry in the morning but by afternoon it was wet and I had to carefully scoot across while keeping my feet sufficiently out of the water so the swift current would not pull me in!  It also didn’t help that I had turned my ankle on trail run in and was relegated to walking (carefully) the rest of the outing. Complete photo album here.  Route on Strava here.

Granite Dome is an immense granite massif with numerous micro-basins occupied by a series of stunning alpine lakes set amid granite slabs and cliffs. I like to describe this region as the “Granite Balconies” since each of the lakes can be viewed from above on granite slabs. All of the lakes are located on the northern side of a broad, massive ridge called Granite Dome. The summit is a fairly nondescript and non-prominent point along the ridge. 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 much farther 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.

The ascent to Granite Dome’s summit is fairly straightforward from the lakes. On both of my climbs I ascended directly to the ridge from Upper Lewis Lakes. If early in the season (or a heavy snow year like this year when snow will persist through much of summer) consider bringing ice and crampons as the slope to the ridge is moderately steep. Once on the ridge it’s fairly flat with some nice alpine wildflowers amid the volcanic rocks with some interesting rock features as one approaches the summit. Several false summits are passed on what feels like a long ridge traverse before the highpoint is reached. The best views of the lakes are located slightly below the summit where the flatter rocks of the summit area abruptly transition to the precipitous granite cliffs.

 

 

Tableland & Winter Alta Snowshoe

The Tableland is a broad granite plateau in Sequoia National Park along the Kings-Kaweah Divide. While not flat like a table, the topography is relatively gradual and the terrain is almost entirely granite slabs so the name is fitting. Access is from the west side at the Wolverton trailhead and the Lakes Trail. Wolverton is a relatively short and straightforward drive from the SF Bay Area and the Lakes Trail is efficient at getting one up into the alpine (relative to many westside approaches) while passing by some very pretty scenery including Pear Lake and Aster Lake. Once above treeline, it’s a beautiful walk along miles of user-friendly granite slabs to more rugged and remote parts of the Great Western Divide to the east. The open terrain and granite slabs facilitate easy cross country travel. In the winter when everything is snow covered it’s arguably even more efficient! Along with the amazing views, these factors make the Tableland one of my favorite spots in the Sierra and I have visited many times over the years in all seasons.

What makes the Tableland so special is the dramatic 360 degree vistas taking in much of the High Sierra. On a clear day one can pick out familiar features including the Palisades, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak far to the north, and Mount Goddard rising above the Evolution area peaks. Closer at hand is a sweeping view of the Great Western Divide from its northern terminus at Mount Farquhar and North Guard all the way down to Farwell Gap (the end of the rugged portion of the Great Western Divide). In particular, the area around Hamilton Lakes and Kaweah Gap is particularly striking with numerous domes and jagged crags. The Kaweahs rise behind the Great Western Divide adding another layer of ruggedness. One of the best views of the Tableland and surrounding terrain is from Alta Peak. In summer a trail leads from Wolverton to Panther Gap and on to Alta Peak’s summit. However, in the winter the preferred summit is the higher Winter Alta (peak 11,328) which is accessed from the Pear Lake hut vicinity.  The Pear Lake ski hut is a popular ski and snowshoe destination and skiers enjoy the slopes above the hut all the way to Winter Alta. The hut is open to the public during the winter, but reservations are required via a lottery system. If you can’t snag a place at the hut, the winter route to Pear Lake cuts off all the switchbacks and comes in at only 5 miles each way (10 miles roundtrip). After a fairly steep climb up to “The Hump” the Lakes Trail drops into the basin and traverses by Heather Lake. At this point one is presented with options: either stay high and traverse to Aster Lake and Emerald Lake or drop down lower and traverse directly to Pear Lake Hut. The former is much more scenic as the Aster Lake area is very pretty but the latter is quicker and avoids the sidehilling often encountered on the route around Aster Lake. The Pear Lake Hut is not at Pear Lake itself but about a half mile downstream. If heading for Winter Alta, one can either ascend slopes directly above the hut or continue up to Pear Lake before taking relatively steep slopes up to the ridge. Winter Alta is certainly a dramatic destination because it is not until one reaches very close to the top that most of the Great Western Divide is revealed. Beyond Winter Alta most of the winter visitors are skiers doing the Winter Sierra High Route from Shepherds Pass to Wolverton, although the established Skiers High Route goes to Table Meadows and follows the headwaters of the Marble Fork Kaweah River instead of the traverse to Moose Lake Winter Alta (which is far more scenic). I’d like to do the full Winter High Route someday, but it’s certainly a long car shuttle to organize!  I have made three snowshoe visits to Winter Alta. On my first snowshoe out of Wolverton in 2011 I just visited Winter Alta as an out-and-back. On the second trip in 2013, I continued on to a snowbound Moose Lake and crossed the lake on snowshoes. Moose Lake is a large alpine lake with a grand view of the Great Western Divide. It’s among my favorite Sierra lakes and to walk across it was surreal. Unfortunately, the drought happened and winter conditions never came together for a couple years to repeat that trip until this historic snow season. It was time to visit again and adventure beyond Moose Lake. This year I trekked across the Tableland to the east end of the Tableland rim and crossed Moose Lake on the way back. I had initially hoped to reach the summit of Big Bird but found that I needed crampons and ice axe to ascend the final hundred feet of the very icy ridge (and more importantly, for the descent!). For most of the day I had been plowing through 6-8 inches of unconsolidated snow that had recently fallen over a base that was only partially consolidated (so snowshoes were essential) but that same storm also came with strong winds and the snow off exposed ridges leaving a sheet of ice. Without snow Big Bird is a very straightforward talus hop, but with icy conditions a fall on either side of the ridge would be serious (particularly on the east side with sheer cliffs of several hundred feet topped with 50+ ft cornices). After resolving to come better prepared next time, I traversed to Pterodactyl Pass where I enjoyed a similar view, albeit at a slightly lower elevation and with ample room to sit down and eat lunch. After a long break I ascended a high point north of Big Bird for excellent views down to Big Bird Lake, Glacier Ridge, and Mount Brewer. Next time with an earlier start I’d like to snowshoe farther along the Winter Sierra High Route to Horn Col and Copper Mine Peak. This is a route I’m very familiar with during the summer but it would be awesome to see the tremendous view from Copper Mine Peak in winter.

What made this year’s visit to the Tableland so special was the immense, historic snowpack present in the high county. It’s estimated that the high country above 10,000 feet was over 200% of average. Parts of the Tableland looked more like a scene from the arctic than the Sierra with all land features buried in many feet of snow. The snow was so deep over Moose Lake that it had formed snow dunes over the shallower east end of the lake and Alta Peak was like a nunatak rising out of the snowbound plateau.

Full albums: 

Robinson Slide Loop

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 hereThe 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, Needham, Sawtooth Loop

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.   

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