Ritter Loop

Mount Ritter is the centerpiece peak of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and at 13,150 ft, it’s also the highest peak in the region with a commanding view of the surrounding landscape. Together with its close neighbor Mount Banner, the two peaks are visible from virtually anywhere in the Ansel Adams Wilderness and are a familiar sight when looking north from high points as far south as Sequoia National Park. I’m a frequent visitor to the Ansel Adams Wilderness, but one of my favorite spots in the region is the seldom visited north side of Mount Ritter which contains a chain of spectacular glacial lakes set in a wild setting of dark rocks and spires.  The following description details a loop up and over Mount Ritter into the Ritter Lakes basin.  Along the way you get some spectacular scenery at iconic spots like Shadow Lake, Lake Ediza and Thousand Island Lake. Photo Album here.

 

The standard route up Mount Ritter is known as the southeast glacier route. Unfortunately, “glacier” may not longer be an appropriate name for the route as climate change has caused the glacial ice to retreat into the shadiest, steepest part of the cirque such that on a dry year one can likely avoid snow and ice entirely.  If earlier in the season or during a wet year where firm neve forms later in the season consider bringing crampons and ice axe. Starting at Agnew Meadows, descend to the River Trail and then turn right on the Shadow Lake Trail. Beyond Shadow Lake, continue to gorgeous Lake Ediza with its magnificent views of the Minarets.  If heading for Ritter, the quickest way around Lake Ediza is on its north side. After crossing a small talus field that reaches the water, a use path becomes more defined and heads up to the beautiful alpland meadows beneath Ritter and Banner. Mountain hemlock forest transitions to open meadows with streams cascading down the slope.  Mount Ritter and Banner Peak tower over the landscape.  At a large tarn, the route for the SE Glacier turns left and utilizes ledges and gullies to climb through a broken cliff band to access convenient granite slabs above. Climb the slabs to the start of the snow fields and ascend into the cirque containing the remnants of the glacier.  Once in the cirque, one can climb a steep and somewhat loose chute known as the Secor chute which provides a direct route to slopes above or take a more circuitous but less steep route by continuing up the snow in the cirque and then circling back on talus.  The final few hundred feet of climbing to the summit is a straightforward talus hop. The summit of Mount Ritter has a fantastic view including the Ritter Lakes and Mount Catherine immediately below, Mount Lyell and Rodgers Peak to the north, and the Minarets to the south. Immediately to the northeast is Banner Peak and Garnet Lake. Farther afield, Mammoth Mountain, the Silver Divide, Mono Divide and Red Slate Mountain are visible.

To access the Ritter Lakes from Mount Ritter descend the NW slope route by descending talus and scree from the summit to a broad saddle south of the summit. Cross over the saddle and traverse south to a broad gully descending the northwest slope of the mountain.  Descend this gully until the the terrain starts to transition from loose scree to solid rock and cliffs. At this point, traverse skiers right to a broad slope. Steep snow patches may remain on this slope until late in the season. Descend this slope and then angle down to the highest of the Ritter Lakes.  Upstream of this lake, a larger glacier occupies the northern slopes of “Neglected Peak,” a prominent point along the South and SW ridges of Mount Ritter.  This glacier supplies minerals to snow and ice melt creating a wonderful emerald color in the highest Ritter Lake. At least three other large lakes can be found lower down, each nestled among cliffs and slabs.  The high lakes often hold onto ice late in the season and ice bergs were observed in September this year.  After traversing the lakes a pass leads to the south side of Lake Catherine. Round Lake Catherine on its west side to reach North Glacier Pass and the straightforward descent to Thousand Island Lake. Complete the loop by taking the River Trail or PCT back to Agnew Meadows.

 

 

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Mount Harrington

Mount Harrington is an impressive but relatively unknown peak along the Monarch Divide which separates the glacier-carved canyons of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River.  The peak lies within the Monarch Wilderness on National Forest land, perhaps the most rugged and alpine region of this relatively small wilderness area that is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park.  Mount Harrington rises just over 11,000 feet which is a fairly modest altitude compared to peaks farther east, but the relief from the bottom of the canyons is extremely impressive as the Monarch Divide is over 7,000 feet above the canyon bottoms. The result is a ideal vantage across both canyons overlooking a sea of peaks in some of the most rugged and wild terrain in the lower 48. It’s a long climb to reach Mount Harrington since all approaches start from the bottom of Kings Canyon. However, the reward for the many miles and lots of elevation gain is a short but sweet third class scramble along an exposed ridge to a small rocky summit perched above Kings Canyon. The 360 degree panorama includes views of the Great Western Divide, Kings Kern Divide and Kaweahs to the south, the Palisades and Cirque Crest to the east, and the LeConte Divide, Goddard Divide, and Black Divide to the north.  The most dramatic view, however, is the view of Mount Harrington itself from a peaklet along the Monarch Divide just to north of the summit. From this outstanding vantage Mount Harrington takes on a Matterhornesque profile.  When combined with the 7,000 ft of relief down to the bottom of Kings Canyon and the rugged backdrop of the many peaks of the southern Sierra, it’s one of the great vistas in the region. Complete photo album here.

 The two main approaches to reach Mount Harrington are Lewis Creek and Deer Cove. Lewis Creek starts in Kings Canyon National Park and is slightly longer but includes some more shade under pine trees.  The Deer Cove approach is entirely in the Monarch Wilderness and is the shortest route, but is exposed to sun for the first part and has some sections that are quite sandy.  The Deer Cove route was closed for a couple years after the Rough Fire due to extensive fire damage, but a lot of work from the forest service and volunteers has enabled the trail to reopen as of August of 2017. They did a fantastic job clearing out the many blowdowns and brush from the trailhead to Frypan Meadow (the first 6 miles).  Due to the amazing trail work it’s a very pleasant trail that is well graded and has some awesome views of the Great Western Divide and also Mount Harrington from below. While signs of the fire are still visible, the land is incredibly resilient and many of the trees have re-sprouted and the brush has filled back in. The Deer Cove Trail is also a great descent route as the sandy nature of the trail makes for an cushy descent for downhill running. One word of caution is the Deer Cove Trail is largely exposed to the sun all the way to Wildman Meadows (~4.5 miles in) so an early start is recommend. Just before Wildman Meadows at 7600 ft, the trail rounds a corner and enters a completely different ecosystem, from the south facing brushy slopes experienced to this point to a spectacular red fir forest with bountiful ferns and lush grassy meadows.  The trail continues through the lovely forest to the junction with Frypan Meadows. At this junction the trail work ceases and the trail becomes more rugged with some downed trees and faint tread as it continues climbing in the fir and pine forest. Some flagging placed by the ranger helps to stay on track, however these can be difficult to see at times in a rather nondescript forest setting.  In particular, at 8500 feet after crossing the East Fork of Grizzly Creek the maps show the trail traversing west into a small drainage and up to a saddle at 9000 ft. The original trail bed does exist here as we found, but this does not appear to be the consensus route used currently. Instead, a use path heads straight up the ridge and meets the original trail where it traverses back east at ~9200 ft. This new route avoids some brush that has overgrown the original track where it switchbacks at 9000.  Back on the original trail, continue up through lush meadows and pine forest to a small spur above Grizzly Lake at about 9800 ft.  Here the trail disappears for good and it’s all cross country travel. The most efficient route is to follow the drainage up from Grizzly Lake to the east face of Mount Harrington. Immediately below the face are some very pretty meadows with a babbling brook and wildflowers in season. The east face of Harrington provides a dramatic backdrop as the cliffs rise over 1000 ft above.  From the meadow, the terrain transitions to friendly granite slabs providing an efficient route to the Monarch Divide. Ascend to the peaklet north of Mount Harrington and marvel at the amazing rock fin and then continue down talus to the saddle between the peaklet and Harrington. Here the scramble portion beings, a short but sweet class 3 scramble.  The scramble is not technically difficult but there is exposure with cliffs on both sides. The summit views are marvelous and the summit register is an original placed in 1966.  It appears only 2-3 parties per year make the trip up the Harrington – a remote and not frequently visited destination indeed!  The fun does not need to end after Mount Harrington.  On the north side of the Monarch Divide lies a beautiful basin at the headwaters of the Gorge of Despair featuring several interesting rock features along the Silver Spur and small lakes.  The rock features of particular interest to alpine rock climbers.  Peak 10697 is a prominent pointy summit and includes a great view of the surrounding region including Lake 9599 (the westernmost Swamp Lake) and the Palisades in the distance.  A peak to the north of the lake that empties into the Gorge of Despite is named Tenderfoot Peak (10,641 ft) and also includes an original register placed in 1980 with very few entries.  The register is located in a small glass jar in the summit rocks. Continuing north along this ridge would likely yield more views including Tehipite Dome and Tehipite Valley. 

Adams Minaret & Starr Minaret

The Minarets are a jagged collection of peaks in the Ansel Adams Wilderness north of Mammoth Lakes. The name is derived from their resemblance to the minarets of Islamic mosques. The scenery surrounding the Minarets, including the trio of lakes beneath them – Iceberg Lake, Cecile lake and Minaret Lake – is incredibly dramatic and inspiring. Most of the Minarets reside along a single ridgeline collectively forming a tremendously narrow and exposed arête.  There are 17 named summits, each honoring one of the first ascentionists. Clyde Minaret, named after sierra legend Norman Clyde who climbed it in 1928, is the highest minaret and most often climbed. There is much mystique surrounding the Minarets, partially due to their striking beauty and precipitous relief, and partially due to their notorious looseness as the rock is of volcanic origin.  Complete photo album here (images taken in mid-August, 2017).

Despite topping out at 12,000 feet, Adams Minaret is perhaps the shyest of the 17 named minarets owing to the fact that it lies behind the primary arête and is not easily identifiable from the east. Adams Minaret was named in honor of the famous photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams, who first climbed the peak with Rondal Partridge on July 15, 1937.  Due its location off the main arête, Adams Minaret sees few visitors (including most of the climbers who traverse the Minarets), as evidenced by the register which contains only one to two parties per year on average.  The most efficient route to Adams Minaret crosses over South Notch from Cecile Lake and traverses toward Amphitheater Lake before ascending a broad class 2 chute topped off with a few class 3 moves to gain the summit ridge. The chute has copious loose rocks so any parties with multiple climbers should be extra careful.  After traversing the summit ridge a few class 3 moves are required to reach the highest rocks where an old register commemorates the naming of the peak after Ansel Adams. The route up and over South Notch is fairly straightforward, but the angle of the slope becomes quite steep near the top and crampons and ice axe are likely required.  At South Notch, enjoy the impressive view of Ken Minaret and Clyde Minaret immediately above.  Adams Minaret has a commanding angle of the backside of the Minarets, particularly Michael Minaret and Clyde Minaret, and a nearly vertical view down to Amphitheater Lake. Any trip too Adams Minaret should also include a slight detour to see the aptly named Amphitheater Lake, which is surrounded by the Minaret towers with Michael Minaret the most striking feature at the head of the cirque. Amphitheater Lake is a desolate spot with nothing but boulders and cliffs surrounding it and often remains covered in ice well into summer. For photogenic qualities I prefer the three lakes on the east side of the Minarets which hold at least some vegetation, but Amphitheater Lake is well worth a visit to see in person as the enormity of the surrounding towers is difficult to capture in photos.

Starr Minaret was named after Walter “Pete” Starr who was an attorney and famous for his adventures into the Sierra Nevada during a time when large parts of the range were still relatively unknown.  Starr went missing while climbing in the Minarets and the story of the search to find him is a riveting story. He was ultimately found by climbing legend Norman Clyde on nearby Michael Minaret. After his passing, Starr’s Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region was published and it was the de facto guide to the John Muir Trail for decades and is still in circulation.  Starr Minaret is a 11,512 ft summit that is a class 2/3 scramble from Kehrlein-Starr notch – one of the easier Minarets to ascend. The most efficient access to Starr Minaret is likely still South Notch unless snow conditions on the east side of the Kehrlein-Starr notch allow for easier access down toward Deadhorse Lake. When the snow melts accessing this notch could become a more technical climb. Starr Minaret also has a lovely view of the surrounding region including Iron Mountain to the south, Deadhorse Lake below, and Mammoth Mountain in the distance.  The higher Minarets are not as dramatic from this angle owing to the southerly view which is not ideal for viewing a south-north oriented arête.

Of course, the best part of any visit to the Minarets is the spectacular lakes. All three  lakes on the east side of the Minarets are gems of the Sierra and I couldn’t really say which one would be my favorite! Each possesses unique qualities and a different angle of the Minaret spires. Minaret Lake has the most meadows and vegetation while Cecile Lake is most desolate. Cecile Lake has the most complete view of the Minarets and also a great view too Mts. Ritter and Banner, while Minaret Lake has the most dramatic view of Clyde Minaret, the highest and most famous of the Minarets.  Iceberg Lake is cradled in a deep granite bowl with the Minarets towering above and often contains icebergs late into summer, hence the apt name.  An official trail does not connect the lakes; instead use trail leads from Minaret Lake north to Cecile Lake and another use trail leads from Iceberg Lake south to Cecile Lake. Getting around Cecile Lake requires some talus hopping. In early season or a heavy snow year like this year, the route from Iceberg Lake to Cecile Lake may be covered in snow and require ice axe and/or crampons.  Complete photo album here.

Matthes Peak

Matthes Peak lies along Glacier Divide which separates the Piute Creek watershed from the Evolution Creek drainage, and at its western terminus, Piute Creek from the South Fork San Joaquin River. The long ridge also serves as the border between Kings Canyon National Park and the John Muir Wilderness. The mountainous terrain surrounding Matthes Peak encompasses some of the most spectacular scenery in the High Sierra and that scenery is pretty much all visible from this lofty perch. You won’t find Matthes Peak on a map as it’s an unofficially named peak, but as the second highest summit along Glacier Divide (just shy of 13,000 feet; 12,980 ft to be exact) with quite a bit of prominence and a stellar view, it’s certainly worthy of a name. From the south Matthes Peak and much of Glacier Divide looks mostly benign as large mounds of talus, but from the north Glacier Divide has an exceptionally rugged character as glaciers carved up the terrain resulting in towering cliffs and beautiful lakes nestled in deep polished granite basins. A collection of pocket remnants of once proud glaciers remain today and are known as the Matthes Glaciers, hence the adoption of the name Matthes to this summit. Unfortunately, the Matthes Glaciers appear largely stagnant and during the drought melted all the way back to the shadiest locales immediately below the north facing cliff faces. In the current regime of our warming climate, it won’t be long (i.e. the next drought) before these glaciers disappear entirely 😦  The Matthes Glaciers and the Matthes Crest in Yosemite National Park received their names in honor of Francois Emile Matthes, a USGS geologist for 51 years who made extensive studies in the Sierra Nevada. Mr. Matthes now has an additional unofficial name in his honor too!  Full photo album here (note photos are from mid July on a snowy year).  

Matthes Peak can be climbed from the southwest via a class 2 talus hop, but the more scenic routes climb from lovely Packsaddle Lake on the north side of Glacier Ridge. In order to access Packsaddle Lake, the easiest access is via North Lake and Piute Pass, which features lovely scenery along the entire route.  From Piute Pass, continue along the trail past Summit Lake. At an unsigned junction, one may either take a usepath left toward Golden Trout Lake or stay on the main trail as it passes through the lower part of Desolation Basin and then descends into the Whitebark pine forest. Either route works, but note that in early season Piute Creek is functionally more like a river so care must be taken to find a safe crossing. In very high snowmelt flows, I found an easy crossing near the outlet of Golden Trout Lake where the stream braids resulting in low depth. In addition, taking the usepath provides an upclose view of the Golden Trout Lakes which are pretty.  By either route, once across Piute Creek it’s a pleasant off trail walk through the pines and then meadows to the shores of Packsaddle Lake. Nestled beneath the cliffs of Glacier Divide with the Matthes Glaciers gleaming, it’s a wonderful spot!

Packsaddle Lake is most easily rounded on its west side. From the south end of the lake continue up loose talus and scree (or snow in early season) or scramble up slabs to climbers left. The system of ledges and slabs can be preferable to the loose mess after the snow melts. After ascending the slabs or talus the easiest route traverses across the glacial moraines toward a small bowl which holds snow late into summer. An alternative steeper route, only recommend when adequately snow-covered, ascends an obvious chute directly above and deposits one along the Glacier Divide crest to the east of the Matthes Peak summit. If taking the easier route, after traversing the glacial moraine west a broad saddle comes into view, known as Packsaddle Pass. Most of the way to the pass is either straightforward snow or glacial boulders, but the final couple hundred feet up to the pass is quite steep and likely requires ice axe and crampons whenever it’s snow covered. From Packsaddle Pass, turn east and climb talus for several hundred vertical feet to the summit, which is situated on a plateau with gravel interspersed with rocks. This plateau contains lovely alpine flowers in season with Alpine Gold and Sky Pilot particularly prominent. The east end of the plateau contains the feature view above lake Frances Lake with Evolution Valley and the many peaks of the Evolution Basin area in the background. To the west is the Le Conte Divide and to the east is Mount Humphreys towering above Desolation Basin. Immediately below the summit is Packsaddle Lake and to the north are views to Lobe Lakes and Bear Creek Spire group of peaks. It’s an excellent view and worth spending some time on a local flat rock to admire the surroundings!  Numerous options exist from the summit besides simply retracing steps, including descending toward Frances Lake and out via Darwin Bench and Lamarck Col and further explorations into Evolution Basin. Full photo album here

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.

Kalalau Trail

The Nā Pali coast on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai is one of the most rugged and spectacular meetings of land and ocean on earth. Millions of years of erosion have created soaring cliffs, knife-edge ridges and hanging valleys rising immediately from the pounding surf that relentlessly smashes into the rocky shore. This stretch of picturesque coast is protected by Nā Pali Coast State Park and is inaccessible to motorized vehicles but the famous Kalalau Trail enables access on foot. The rugged 11 mile trail stretches from the end of the road at beautiful Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach, which is the turnaround point where the coast becomes even too precipitous for a trail. The full Kalalau Trail is a 22 mile out-and-back but I highly recommend the 1 mile roundtrip side hike to Hanakoa Falls and the 4 mile roundtrip side hike to Hanakapi’ai Falls. Thus, the grand tour of the Nā Pali is around 27-28 miles.  Hanakoa Falls is a taller and thinner falls while Hanakapai’ai Falls is a shorter (but still quite tall) and higher volume falls. Hanakapi’ai Falls is closer to the trailhead at Ke’e Beach (4 miles each way; 8 miles roundtrip) and is accessible without a permit so it is very popular with day hikers. Meanwhile, Hanakoa Falls is much farther beyond the point where permits are required and therefore sees much less visitation with a more wild and peaceful feeling. Both falls have their merits and if you can I would make the side trips to see both.  As the Kalalau Valley and Beach are fragile and sacred lands, a permit system limits the number of visitors beyond Hanakpi’ai beach. These permits are easily obtained online but must be reserved well in advance as the quota can fill up months in advance. The vast majority of folks beyond Hanakpi’ai beach are backpackers headed for overnights at Hanakoa Valley and Kalalau beach. The park seems to have a policy against day trips in the permit zone, undoubtedly due to hikers and/or trail runners that were ill prepared for the rugged trail and/or conditions and had to be rescued. However, if weather and trail conditions are fine it is very possible to hike the entire trail in a day and run the entire trail in a matter of hours. A more casual trail run that allows one to fully enjoy the surrounding scenery and make side trips to the waterfalls might be an ideal itinerary. Either way, a permit is required for all trail users beyond Hanakapi’ai beach so advance planning is necessary to obtain the permit before the quota fills up.          The first two miles of the trail from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai Beach are wide and well trodden. After crossing Hanakapi’ai Creek the trail forks with the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail going straight and the Kalalau Trail heading right and up the hill. Both trails become much narrower and more rugged than the first two miles. The four mile out-and-back to Hanakpai’ai Falls from Hanakapi’ai Beach is a wonderful walk in a lush jungle including bamboo groves, a lush under story of ferns, (often) wet creek crossings and some rock scrambling. The falls itself is in a spectacular amphitheater and one of the classic sights of Kauai. Back on the Kalalau Trail, the four mile stretch from Hanakapi’ai Beach to Hanakoa Valley is probably the most rugged of the entire trail with some encroaching brush, slippery sections, and several climbs up and over ridges. Most of this section is under beautiful forest canopy but there are still some amazing vistas.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Kalalau Trail is the changing flora, which starts out with tropical rainforest and progresses to a drier regime as one progresses toward Kalalau Beach, particularly after Hanakoa Valley (at mile 6).  In addition, the trail becomes easier after Hanakoa Valley with more gradual ascents, less overall climbing and less brush. The final three miles to Kalalau Valley and Kalalau Beach are a pleasure with wide open trail and continuous amazing vistas with open red rock surface and grassland versus the thick forest canopy of the first 7 miles. While the entire trail is gorgeous, it seems to get better and better as one moves toward Kalalau Valley, which is a magical and special spot with amazing views in all directions and towering ridges immediately overhead. This area is a treasure and worthy of high levels of protection and conservation. As such, state parks has implemented the permit system to limit the impacts of humans. If you wish to continue beyond Hanakapi’ai beach, it pays to plan well in advance and reserve a permit at least a month or two before you plan to hit the trail. The main destination for backpackers on the Kalalau Trail is Kalalau Beach. The park recognizes that setting up and using a camp is perhaps the highest impact activity of backpackers so they have designated a specific area for camping near Kalalau Beach and explicitly prohibit camping beyond this point. Unfortunately, some selfish people either feel that the signs and regulations don’t apply to them or that their camping activities will not have the same impact as others (not) and choose to camp in illegal spots. All of these folks are missing out on the tenets of respect and utmost care for the Kalalau Valley and are not doing their part to preserve this magical spot for future generations. Please don’t think you’re entitled; make your camp in the designated camping area! Perhaps the most important advise for the Kalalau Trail is to monitor weather conditions and resist the urge to the do the trail in poor weather conditions (even if you had planned a specific date long in advance). First and foremost, the whole point of the trail is to see the amazing vistas. If the coast is being battered by a storm you can’t see anything and it will be miserably wet. As the lush vegetation manifests, it rains a lot here! Second, the trail is slippery enough as-is and doing it on a rainy day would be a sucky slip and slide. Third, heavy rain can make the trail dangerous and life-threatening. The park closes down the trail during and after heavy rain since flash flooding is a real danger as Hanakapi’ai creek becomes impassable. By selfishly ignoring the closure signs you put yourself and rescuers in danger. If you are planning a backpacking trip and you decide to embark with rain in the forecast, prepare to spend an extra night or two with sufficient additional food since you may not be able to exit the trail until waters have sufficiently receded after a rain.   Kauai is an extremely popular tourist destination and not everybody can or wants to hike the Nā Pali coast so this has a created a thriving helicopter tour industry for folks to see the coast from the air. Unfortunately, these helicopters create substantial noise pollution and they travel much too close to the land. It’s sad that the ethos of respect and utmost care for this sacred land is being challenged by the reverberating noise of helicopters on a daily basis. If anything diminishes the Kalalau Trail and Nā Pali coast compared to some other iconic wilderness trails it would be the unnerving sound of the barrage of helicopters that traverse the coast during peak hours. If it were my decision I would ban the helicopter entirely. Otherwise, I strongly believe Hawaii should implement regulations that extend into the airspace above the land to keep the helicopters from traveling into the canyons which amplifies the sound and diminishes the experience for tourists on the ground. In addition, just as there is a limited quota for hikers there should be a limited quota for helicopters. Assuming there is already a quota for helicopters, it is WAY too high. Again, I would ban them entirely but if there must be a “balance” the helicopter numbers should come way down. Unfortunately, the draw of tourist dollars may be too much to force meaningful change 😦   There is also a lot of boat tour traffic along the Nā Pali, but the boats are less of an eye sore and don’t make much noise. My gripe is with the helicopters. As it stands, it appears there is a morning session of helicopters with greatest frequency from around 9 am to 11 am and then an afternoon session from 2 pm to 4 pm. This is based on experience in early February and flying times may change depending on the season. When the helicopters are not buzzing overhead one can best enjoy the spectacular scenery in peace and quiet.As with any spectacular and accessible trail, there are unfortunately some side effects of the popularity. In the case of the Kalalau, it’s loud helicopters and some backpackers that feel entitled to camp in illegal spots. Despite these issues, the Kalalau is still one of the most amazing trails I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing and I look forward to my next visit!