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.

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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!   

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. 

The Science of Snow Cone

The “Snow Cone” is somewhat of a mythical event to experience. A snow on Cone Peak is not rare in itself, but rather the ability to experience and capture a fresh snow. Most years have snow on Cone Peak, and sometimes multiple times per year, but as I will describe, they are virtually always difficult to forecast more than a day in advance and the snow is fleeting and hard to capture. Timing is therefore very important to get the full winter wonderland effect (with trees and vegetation cloaked in snow) above the spectacular Big Sur coast. When it all comes together, standing in fresh snow while marveling at the turquoise and blue waters of the Pacific Ocean thousands of feet below indeed feels like something out of a dream or mythology! The challenges of timing a Snow Cone reminds me of growing up in the Seattle area wishing for lowland snow. As with the Snow Cone, there were many more teases than actual snow storms in the Seattle area, but when the ingredients came together it was always magical.  In many ways, the forecasting challenges for lowland snow in Western Washington and Cone Peak are similar and I’m just as fascinated now as when I was young.

I’ve been captivated by the possibility of a Snow Cone for some time. I’d seen enough from others who’d witnessed past events to know that it was something special and an event that I wanted to experience for myself but I also knew that if timed correctly it could be that much more amazing. Along the way I’ve sought to understand what weather patterns might make for a good Snow Cone in order to be at the right place at the right time when an opportunity presents itself. The drought got in the way of my plans for a few years but I finally got the opportunity to implement some of this knowledge during Snow Cones on January 21st and January 24th. In particular, the snow on January 24th measured 15 inches on the summit with snow down to 2,500 feet, the most significant snow in many years. The winter wonderland we encountered even exceeded my dreams. The following is a discussion of some of the science behind what it takes to get a Snow Cone. Note that these are just the thoughts and observations of a weather enthusiast and I have no formal training in meteorology. Also please note that all photos are © Leor Pantilat, All Rights Reserved. Please request permission for any use.

At 5,164 feet one might guess that the summit of Cone Peak receives quite a bit of snow, both in terms of number of events per year and aggregate number of inches. However, this is not the case since there are many counteracting factors that turn many promising snow events into merely teases. For a Snow Cone you need the ingredients – namely cold air and moisture – to come together just right. If you continue reading, you’ll see there are a number of moving parts that make it challenging to get these two ingredients together at the same time. Then, assuming a snow does happen, it’s sometimes a challenge to obtain the visibility of the coast from the summit. In my opinion, it’s not the same if the mountain is stuck in a cloud. What makes a snowfall on Cone Peak so unique is the ocean vistas and while certainly not a requirement of a Snow Cone, having visibility of the coast elevates the experience to another level.

Snow Cone is a fairly infrequent event. I’d estimate that a “normal” season probably sees a handful of times where the summit receives more than a dusting and one to two events in the 6-8 inch range on the summit. Any event that exceeds 8 inches on the summit or drops snow below 3,000 ft happens much less frequently and cannot be counted on every season. In fact, using the term “normal” may be somewhat of a misnomer considering California’s climate which swings wildly between drought and big winters. In fact, one of the winters in the recent drought likely did not even have one snow event the entire season. On the other hand, “big” winters with a persistent flow out of the Gulf of Alaska may see several good snow events.  A snow Cone is possible as early as the end of November, but the season really only gets started in January with the best possibilities residing in January through mid March.

Any discussion of Snow Cone needs to start with geography. The summit of Cone Peak is only 3 miles from the coast making it the steepest gradient from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. This topography is what makes Cone so special. However, since the mountain is essentially right over the ocean that is a problem for snow prospects. Even in January the ocean temperature is typically in the mid 50s. Water holds heat better than land does and it therefore warms the air above it. Thus, the Pacific Ocean has an enormous moderating effect on coastal temperatures. Right at the coast temperatures are very mild even in the heart of winter and also mild in the middle of summer with a persistent marine layer. With onshore flow out of the south or southwest, warmer maritime air envelops the summit and snow is out of the question.  

The next problem is that Cone Peak is not a naturally cold spot. Colder air from elsewhere is needed. Cone Peak resides at a relatively south latitude with a Mediterranean climate characterized by hot, dry summer and cool, wet winters. I would go so far as to say that most of the year is warm to hot on Cone, especially on its sun-baked south facing slopes. Even during the winter it’s rarely cold. Most of the precipitation that falls on Cone occurs during warmer “Atmospheric River” events that pull in copious moisture from the subtropics and raise snow levels well above the summit. The vast majority of snow events are “fringy” meaning that the temperature on the summit is just barely cold enough to snow. Even when it does snow, it is almost always very fleeting. Once the sun comes out it’s only a matter of hours before the south facing slopes melt out and the snow and ice drop from the trees and chaparral. With a big enough snow the north facing slopes will hold onto snow on the ground quite a bit longer, but the chaparral vegetation and trees will start dropping snow from their limbs as soon as the sun comes out and temperatures rise above freezing. 

So how does it get cold enough to snow?  The answer is usually not arctic air. It is very rare for continental arctic air masses originating in Canada to reach Cone Peak’s latitude on the central California coast. The path of least resistance for these air masses is east of the Rocky Mountains, but even when the cold air manages to sneak through the Rockies, it still has to get over the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada. That means there are several barriers impeding the progress of these cold air masses. Due to these challenges, I’d estimate that a modified arctic front only reaches Cone Peak once every five years or so. When these fronts do reach central California the next problem is moisture. These systems tend take an inland trajectory more often than not which usually means they are moisture starved. The northern end of the Santa Lucias can be efficient at squeezing out snow in these scenarios, but Cone lies in an unfavorable “snow shadowed” position in this situation. When the already-rare arctic front happens to swing off the Northern California coast and gather moisture off the Pacific, this becomes the textbook setup for low elevation snowfalls in coastal California. However, there’s a reason snow is so rare in San Francisco and Monterey. That’s because arctic fronts are rare as-is and then to have them swing offshore just enough to gather moisture (but not too much to warm the air up) is even more rare. Despite the rarity, history has been marked with just this sort of event many times, and it seemingly happened more in the past with several records of measurable snow in downtown San Francisco in the late 1800s, 1951 and 1976 from just this sort of pattern. While it’s been 40 years since this pattern came together just right to produce snow in San Francisco, arctic fronts are always something to watch for and the December 2008 snow was associated with an arctic front.  That said, arctic fronts do not happen frequently enough to be considered the primary producer of a Snow Cone.

So if it’s not from the arctic where do the ingredients for a Snow Cone usually come from? The answer is the Gulf of Alaska. These systems tend to be much more reliable in the moisture department as they take an over-water trajectory. They also tend to occur with much greater frequency in a normal winter (the drought years were a notable exception when it seemed like years passed without a strong Gulf of Alaska storm). However, with Gulf of Alaska systems, since the cold air is of maritime origins it’s usually more cool rather than cold.  In most cases this takes lowest elevation snow out of the equation, but the snowline with these systems is more nuanced as a strong enough Gulf of Alaska system with a low pressure tracking to just the right spot can lower the snow level to 2,500 feet or even lower.

Gulf of Alaska systems come in many flavors that have consequences on snow possibilities. These systems typically include a cold front moving down the coast which will draw up warmer air ahead of the front from the south and southwest. Most of the heavier precipitation usually resides ahead the frontal band and, frustratingly, it’s going to be too warm in this sector of the storm. Once the frontal band passes the wind direction turns to northwesterly and this allows the cooler air out of the Gulf of Alaska to filter in. Within this cool, unstable air resides cumulus and showers. If this transition to cooler air is prompt, then these showers can start producing snowfall over the summit soon after frontal passage. It helps if there has been preceding systems already establishing cool air over the region so the warm sector of the system is brief. If the cooler air takes its time to arrive it’s likely not a good sign for a Snow Cone. Once the front passes and the cooler air has arrived attention turns to the “shower game” which can be equally frustrating. Not all Gulf of Alaska systems have a deep reservoir of showers after the front passes. Many times there isn’t enough moisture in the post-frontal airmass to produce more than hit and miss showers once the cool air has arrived. Other times the trajectory of the shower flow is out of the northwest which is a great setup for the northern Santa Lucias like Ventana Double Cone and Chews Ridge, but once again Cone Peak is “snow shadowed” by these peaks to its north. For post-frontal showers to be successful for Cone Peak the flow of showers needs to be more from the west and it needs to be fairly strong with a lot of post-frontal shower activity.

After the frontal band passes things get more interesting when discussing the track of the low pressure. Most times the parent low will track north into the Pacific Northwest but sometimes with a deep and digging trough over the western United States the low will descend into the base of the trough by sliding down the coast and moving inland over Big Sur or to the south. The low serves as a mechanism to organize shower activity and produce heavier snowfall and is entirely within the cold part of the system. The success of this type of setup is highly sensitive to the track of the low. A track too far north may draw up warmer from the south and southwest and raise snow levels too high.  A track too far south or offshore will take away the moisture to make snow. Thus, a track that either closely parallels the coast or comes in just to the south is likely ideal. This Goldilocks setup does not happen very often but when it does you can get lower elevation snowfall and heavier snow totals up top.

In late winter and early spring instead of frontal bands coming out of the Gulf of Alaska, the systems sometimes take on the form of a cutoff low, which is a low that has been cutoff from the basic westerly flow. Instead of a widespread precipitation event with a well-defined frontal band, these cutoff lows can sit off the coast quasi-stationary for a day or longer and spin up showers. It can be quite cold underneath these lows and if they are positioned correctly they can result in substantial snow over Cone Peak along with hail and thunderstorms at lower elevations. In fact, these cutoff lows are responsible for many of the late season snows in March and April. Since the cold air is typically confined to right underneath the low, once the low does “eject” the temperatures usually warm up rapidly.

The final type of Snow Cone doesn’t originate in the Gulf of Alaska or the arctic. Sometimes systems will come directly out of the west with a low making landfall somewhere on the central coast. As Cone Peak is on the cooler north side of such a system and the air flow can become weakly offshore (cutting off the moderating influence of the Pacific) the air can be marginally cold enough for a higher elevation snow event (generally above 4k) and possibly lower if there is some antecedent cooler air in place.

If all of the ingredients line up correctly then Cone can be an efficient snow producer and create a unique and magical winter wonderland. In a matter of hours 6-8+ inches can accumulate. The northwest facing Devils Canyon is masterful at orographically enhancing precipitation and generating clouds. If it’s below freezing and the mountain is in a cloud rime ice begins to build up on vegetation within these clouds despite the fact that there are no higher based clouds and precipitation. After several hours the ice can accumulate to impressive amounts, particularly on the very exposed ridge lines, as manifested by an event on January 21st that produced 2-3 inches of ice accumulation.

Let’s assume the ingredients came together and a snowfall happened. The next problem is visibility and whether there will be any. Being so close to the moist environment of the Pacific Ocean, it’s often a difficult task to clear the mountain of clouds. Even if the mountain is clear in the morning, cumulus development in the afternoon is a good bet if a substantial snow has occurred and onshore flow persists. On some occasions a dry northerly wind will follow a snow and blow away all the clouds, but these winds might also blow the snow off the vegetation. Other times the mountain is socked in for the entire day after a snow. For me personally, what makes a  Snow Cone so special is the proximity to the ocean and having the visibility to the ocean takes it to another level. Thus, not only is timing the snow important, but also timing the breakout from the clouds! 

The January 24th snow event produced 15 inches of snow on the summit of Cone Peak with spots along the north ridge approaching 2 feet. These totals are significant and have not been seen in several years (likely back to 2011 or 2008). This was a classic Gulf of Alaska storm that was the the final system of three. The preceding two systems served to progressively cool the atmosphere. In fact, it was already cold enough to produce 2-3 inches of rime rice and 4+ inches of snow with the second storm on January 21st. On Saturday evening, January 21st, the frontal band with third storm approached but precipitation fell as rain in the pre-frontal band with strong onshore flow out of the south and southwest drawing up warmer air. However, temps on the summit only rose into the mid 30s as the warm sector was brief and once the front passed early Sunday morning it did not take much to lower the snowline back below the summit. In addition, the post-frontal shower game with this third system was especially strong. There would be a constant stream of moisture flowing into the Santa Lucias in the cold and unstable environment. The topography of Cone Peak would only serve to enhance these showers and since the showers were coming out of the west the mountain would not be “snow shadowed” by peaks to the north.     The showers in the post-frontal environment were most numerous Sunday night when around 1 inch of liquid precipitation fell as snow on the summit (~10 inches). Snow levels during this part of the storm were around 4,000 feet. There was a bit of a break during the day Monday, January 23rd, but the snow was not done. The parent low would track down the coast during the day and spread showers back over Cone Monday night. The track of this low and the timing at night allowed snow levels to come down to 2,500 ft. Showers produced snow accumulations of 2 inches at 3,000 feet and around 5 inches on the summit (on top of the 10 inches already fallen). Chilly temperatures at around 26 degrees on the summit (as determined by the temperatures recorded at the comparable Chews Ridge weather station) allowed for higher snow to liquid ratios with unusually light and fluffy snow for the Ventana. This final burst of snow on Monday night was largely responsible for creating the winter wonderland scene that we experienced on Tuesday morning. The low ended up weakening as it continued south and largely stayed offshore during the day Monday resulting in clearing skies on Tuesday morning. Had the low stayed closer to the coast or swung inland over Big Sur snow totals would have likely been even higher, but then we wouldn’t have had the beautiful clear skies in the morning