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.

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Clouds Rest Winter

This is the third a series of posts on winter adventure in Yosemite. The first post was about Mount Watkins and the second about Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome. I have been to Clouds Rest in all seasons except winter and took the opportunity this past March to visit the mountain in genuine winter conditions thanks to the record setting snowpack. It’s a much more arduous snowshoe climb with everything covered in many feet of snow, but the views of the snowcapped high country are well worth the effort. In the summer the shortest route is a relatively easy <7 miles each way from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead at Tenaya Lake with less than 2,000 ft of elevation gain. However, I’ve always preferred visiting Clouds Rest before or after the Tioga Pass road closes since it significantly reduces the amount of visitors and solitude can be found on the summit to enjoy the magnificent 360 degree panorama. However, this means that the peak must be ascended from Yosemite Valley with substantially more mileage and elevation gain. Depending on whether the winter closure of the Mist Trail is in effect, the total mileage each way from Happy Isles is between 9.5 to 10.5 miles with 6,000 ft+ of elevation gain. However, climbing Clouds Rest from the Valley seems like the proper route in my opinion with passage by the iconic Vernal and Nevada Falls along with close views of Half Dome and Liberty Cap from below.

A snowshoe trip up Clouds Rest is a much more challenging endeavor since it’s likely nobody has been up there and trailblazing in deep snow is not easy (the snow was still largely unconsolidated on my trip). The last human tracks ended at the Sunrise Creek Junction but I was able to stay on the buried trail corridor as it passed through pine and fir forest. While the beauty of snowshoeing is you can basically go anywhere in the forest floating on top of buried brush and downed logs, staying on the trail corridor eliminated unnecessary weaving around dense clumps of firs. At the steep slope below the Clouds Rest pinnacles the trail begins a series of well-graded switchbacks, but with these switchbacks completely buried the only feasible option is to just head straight up. It becomes quite steep on this climb of several hundred vertical feet. Aim for the forested bench to the east (right) of the pinnacles and do not follow where the trail ascends which is to the left side of the slope and then does a long traverse back to the right. Traversing steep slopes is not fun in snowshoes and better to aim directly for the forested bench on the right. Once that bench is reached the incline decreases and it’s a pleasant walk through the pines to the final step up to the summit. Here, instead of following the vicinity of where the trail would be below the ridge I climbed up to the SW ridge crest and enjoyed some awesome views looking into Tenaya Canyon on the final approach to the summit block.

Complete Albums:

The summit is essentially a large granite fin that is oriented SW to NE with a couple hundred feet drop on the east side and a few thousand feet drop on the west side into Tenaya Canyon. A fall on either side would not be pleasant, though I have to think falling to the east is the better option. The final climb from the south includes a steep section with some exposure to the cliffs falling into Tenaya Canyon. After the snow melts, the trail provides ample safety, but when snow covered, this pitch gives pause and may require an ice axe and/or crampons depending on conditions. Fortunately, the summit itself is broad enough to relax and enjoy the stunning 360 degree view which takes in most of Yosemite National Park including Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, North Dome, Mount Hoffman, Sawtooth Ridge, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne area domes, the Cathedral Range (including the highest point in the park, Mount Lyell), and the Clark Range including Mount Hoffman. It’s a spectacular vista and even more impressive when it’s all snow covered. The northeast end of the the summit fin narrows into a knife edge. When the knobby granite is exposed this an easy hop and skip but when snow and ice covered it becomes a tricky knife edge requiring ice axe and crampons. All things considered, the south route up the summit block is the better choice in the winter since it does not require dealing with the considerable exposure found on the knife edge north of the summit.

The immense northwest face of Clouds Rest is at an angle that is plenty steep but still enables snow and ice to accumulate throughout winter. On a heavy snow year such as this, several feet of snow and ice accumulate setting the stage for an awesome phenomenon in late winter and spring. When the sun angle increases and temps warm, the snow and ice calves off the granite apron and tumbles down to Tenaya Canyon with amazing speed over wet, slick granite. While I was on top of Clouds Rest I witnessed several amazing calving episodes with thunderous sounds and staggering amounts of snow and ice shooting down into Tenaya Canyon. There were chunks the size of buses sliding down the granite and launched over cliffs like torpedoes. The power of nature is on full display when this calving occurs!     The winter closure of the Mist Trail seems to dissuade many visitors and in both the morning and afternoon I had Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls to myself. In addition, over all these years of doing the John Muir Trail and Mist Trail I had never bothered to do the Clark Point cutoff trail. With the winter closures, this stretch of trail becomes required and it far exceeded expectations. The upper portion includes amazing views of Nevada Falls with Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick and Half Dome. The lower part includes a dramatic birds-eye vista of Vernal Falls that is arguably more impressive than that seen from the Mist Trail. I also found the cutoff trail to be a little icy in the morning, which means that the shaded Mist Trail was probably much more icy. The take away is that the winter route is plenty beautiful and it’s not worth disobeying closures that put yourself and others in harms way. As of this writing, the Mist Trail is open so expect it to be open in Spring. 

Glacier Point & Sentinel Dome Winter

This is the second in a series of three winter routes in Yosemite National Park (for the first, see Mount Watkins Winter). Glacier Point is one of the great viewpoints in Yosemite and it’s even better in winter for a couple reasons. First (and foremost), peace and solitude can be found. There’s no tourist buses and no tourists. If you’re doing Glacier Point in a day, the folks who spend the night at the hut are on their way back or yet to arrive so there’s a good chance you have the vista all to yourself. Second, a snow-capped Half Dome and surrounding high country seems to add another layer the dramatic vista. It’s been since 2013 since I was at Glacier Point in the winter. That time it was a cross country ski and very cold after a big storm cycle so the winter wonderland was in full effect. Unfortunately the spigot largely turned off the second half of that winter as the multi-year drought commenced.  This year the snows are back and California experienced a real winter so it was time to revisit Glacier Point. This time I would bring my snowshoes instead of skiing. It turns out the Glacier Point Road is groomed to the point that snowshoes are usually not necessary in the morning. However, I would make a side trip to Sentinel Dome and for that snowshoes are definitely required as the snow was deep and unconsolidated. Whether it’s worth carrying snowshoes for the short side trip Sentinel Dome is up for debate. If I bring snowshoes again I will likely add on another viewpoint like Taft Point to make better use of the gear. Otherwise, an out-and-back to Glacier Point is largely doable as a run on the hard packed groomed surface with possibly some slip on traction device on the shoes and possibly some hiking instead of running in the afternoon if the snow becomes soft. Compared to the very cold weather four years ago this time it was comparatively balmy so there was no snow on the vegetation but several more feet of snow at Glacier Point and the high country reflecting the big snow pack this year, especially at 7,000 feet and above.

From Badger Pass to Glacier Point is a straightforward 11 mile each way or 22 miles round trip. As would be expected, the road is graded very well with relatively gradual ascents and descents. There’s a short climb at the beginning before a couple miles of gradual descent to Bridalveil Creek. This descent is not noticeable on the way out but more noticeable on the way back when it’s uphill. There’s a rolling section around Bridalveil Creek before a consistent (but gradual) climb begins after the turnoff to Horizon Ridge at mile 4.5. This climb continues for around 3 miles. There’s some more rolling on the ridge before the road begins it’s descent to Glaicer Point at around mile 9. Washburn Point is reached just after mile 10 and Glacier Point at mile 11. If Glacier Point is the destination, I’d definitely plan on reaching it since there aren’t many views along the way – the reward is at the turnaround point. The Clark Range view is at mile 6.25 but it pales in comparison to the views at Washburn Point and Glacier Point. The road largely spends it time traversing through a montane forest, which is very beautiful after a fresh snow but does not offer many views. The destination at Glacier Point is easily the highlight and it’s worth every bit of the effort.

For Sentinel Dome snowshoes are almost always required in the winter. It’s under a mile roundtrip from the road to the dome and back. Sentinel Dome offers a spectacular 360 degree view and a higher perspective on Half Dome across the Valley. I personally think the view from Glacier Point is more dramatic to Half Dome but Sentinel Dome is definitely worth the side trip if you’ve brought snowshoes and includes a wider vista taking in the Clark Range and El Capitan. If I bring snowshoes next time I will also include a visit to Taft Point, but it looks like this point is rarely visited so deep snow and potentially slow going with trail breaking seems like it would be encountered. Overall, the vast majority of visitors go to Dewey Point which is only 4 miles from Badger Pass (8 miles round trip). Dewey is a fantastic vista, particularly for El Capitan, but for Tenaya Canyon and Half Dome Glacier Point takes the win.

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Watkins Winter

In my opinion Mount Watkins has one of the best views in the Yosemite Valley region. Unlike some of the more famous vistas which have a road or a designated trail leading to them (and associated crowds), Mount Watkins has neither and this largely explains its relative obscurity both in summer and especially in winter. I won’t deny, the solitude one can experience from this majestic perch is part of the allure for me. What’s certain is from the end of the Watkins Ridge one receives the best view of the massive granite apron that constitutes the northwest face of Clouds Rest. The vista also includes an excellent vantage of Half Dome as it towers above Yosemite Valley. The stunning panorama encompasses a good chunk of the National Park including Mount Starr King, the Clark Range, North Dome, Basket Dome, Mount Conness, Mount Hoffman and Glacier Point.  In the summer it’s merely a 4 mile jaunt down from the Tioga Pass Highway to the edge of Watkins Ridge (where the best views are located) but in the winter it’s a more arduous trek up from Yosemite Valley via the switchbacks of the Snow Creek Trail and then off-trail from the vicinity of the Snow Creek Cabin up to the Watkins summit and down the ridge. However, the extra effort to reach Mount Watkins in the winter is richly rewarded with an experience is enhanced by snowy winter conditions.

The Snow Creek Trail is south facing and the lower part typically melts out a few days after snowfall (at least to the point snowshoes are not required; though some snow and ice may remain). After a fairly level trek to Mirror Lake and about a mile beyond, the trail gets to business with a long series of rocky switchbacks. Fortunately, views open up pretty quick and they only improve as one ascends. The most spectacular feature during this ascent is Half Dome, directly across the canyon, but in my opinion, the view across Tenaya Canyon to the Quarter Domes is equally impressive. Unless a heavy low elevation snowfall just occurred, snowshoes are typically only required near the top of the Snow Creek climb at ~6,500 ft where the gradient begins to flatten. The trail follows close to picturesque Snow Creek for a short distance before crossing the creek using a bridge. After the crossing the trail resumes a gradual climb through the forest up to a meadow area. Trees are marked with blazes to guide the direction if you happen to be breaking trail. The stretch from the Snow Creek crossing to the cabin passes through a forest that turns into a winter wonderland with an excellent mixture of large and small trees along with a diverse variety of pines and firs. The Snow Creek Cabin is just off the trail on the opposite side of a meadow. Topo maps have the cabin marked relatively close to its actual location and there are plenty of posts on the internet providing GPX tracks and specific directions. The cabin used to be somewhat of a secret as it’s open to the public for overnight stays during the winter, but word has gotten out and the internet is not helping. Staying at the cabin in the winter used to be unrestricted but unfortunately, too much demand has caused the park service to get out their free-flowing ream of red tape to implement yet another quota. Now one must either pick up a permit the afternoon before the trip (and arrange for accommodation or camping int he Valley) or the morning of the trip when the visitor center opens with no guarantees any spots are remaining. Neither option is convenient and makes heading up there for a day trip much more appealing. It turns out climbing up the steep Snow Creek trail to the Snow Creek Cabin and beyond to Mount Watkins is much more pleasant without overnight gear anyway. Perhaps if one wanted to continue beyond for a winter ascent of Mount Hoffman or Tuolumne Meadows I would consider a night at the cabin.     

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Although off trail, reaching Mount Watkins is fairly straightforward from the cabin. From the Snow Creek Cabin head southeast through open forest and then make a short but steep climb directly to the high point of Mount Watkins at 8,500 ft. The summit area is quite broad and therefore the high point does not have the best view. Instead, I highly recommend continuing down southwest from the summit around a half mile along the gently-sloping granite ridge studded with occasional pines. Eventually at around 8,200 ft the ridge becomes narrower and steeper and at this point the superior views are realized as one can gaze down into the depths of Tenaya Canyon all the way up the granite face to the summit of Clouds Rest. The sweeping panorama takes in everything from Mount Conness to the Yosemite Valley floor. The ridge is quite exposed to the elements and the stunted pines and junipers growing here are particularly picturesque making for some great photography subjects to pair with the magnificent view. 

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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San Joaquin Mountain

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.