The Onion Loop provides an excellent sampling of the high country above Onion Valley in a complete loop with minimal repetition. The route includes excellent views throughout, fun scrambling, several alpine lakes and the three primary summits that reside along the Sierra Crest in the region: Dragon Peak, Mount Gould and University Peak. Onion Valley and Kearsarge Pass are a major gateway to the John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park so the main trail up to the pass and adjacent lakes are quite popular and somewhat crowded. However, this route eschews the main trail for all but a mile and entails a considerable amount of scrambling and off-trail travel with grand vistas and spectacular scenery. GPS route here.
The first part of the route ascends the steep trail to the Golden Trout Lakes where Dragon Peak, the first summit objective, towers above the pristine alpine lakes. Dragon Peak is an outsanding summit with a fun class 3 scramble. In particular, the final summit block includes some exposure and a traverse across a narrow ledge. The views from Dragon Peak are stellar and include the deep blue Dragon Lake immediately below and the entire Rae Lakes Basin. Mount Clarence King and Mount Cotter show there impressive east faces and to the south the view includes layers upon layers of peaks including Mount Rixford, the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide. It’s a fabulous spot and the author’s favorite summit of the three on this loop; well worth enjoying the summit perch! After descending Dragon Peak, the traverse to Mount Gould goes as entirely class 2 by staying on the west side of the crest or class 3 if one chooses to stay on the crest proper. Mount Gould is a large massif with a broad plateau. The actual summit (by a few feet) is on the SE side of the massif but there is another high point on the northwest end of the plateau that is worthy of the extra effort for a grand vista of the Rae Lakes basin and down the south fork Woods Creek drainage. This subsidiary summit on the NW end of the plateau contains some measuring equipment and transmitters which I would rather not be there, but it doesn’t distract too much from the amazing vista. While the NW summit of Gould has the best view looking north, the SE (actual) summit has the best view looking south including the Kearsage Pinnacles and Lakes, Kings-Kern Divide and Great Western Divide. The actual summit of Gould is a fairly small pinnacle with a few class 3 moves, most easily done when approaching from the west. The author’s favorite view from this perch was East Vidette with its classic triangular shape rising above the Kearsarge Pinnacles with Deerhorn Mountain and the Great Western Divide forming the background (pictured in the black & white photo above). From Mount Gould traverse a couple ribs to a broad sandy slope above Kearsarge Pass where the sand enables a remarkably efficient plunge step down to the pass. From Kearsarge Pass, the next objective is the north face of University Peak. Descend a short distance on the Kearsarge Pass trail to a bench above Heart Lake and then take a use path to the lake. From Heart Lake, traverse cross country over some talus and alp pine slopes to beautiful Bench Lake. Aptly-named Bench Lake sits at the foot of University Peak in a lovely setting of granite and pines. From Bench Lake, the most efficient route to University Peak’s north face is to take the solid slabs starting on the east side of Bench Lake. The slabs transition to more talus and large block as one ascends. One can keep most of the ascent at class 2 or opt to tackle some class 3 to keep things as direct as possible. Near the top the terrain grows steeper but the climbing is still largely class 3 with some easy class 3. The final traverse to the summit is on a surprisingly broad ledge on the north side of the ridge with a few more scramble moves near the top. Overall, it seems the north face of University Peak gets a reputation as a harder scramble than it actually is. Most of the route is a class 2 slog and the scramble portions have little exposure. The views from the route overlooking the chain of lakes between Kearsarge Pass and Onion Valley is fantastic. Moreover, the view from the summit into Center Basin, Forester Pass and Mount Stanford are excellent. From the summit of University Peak traverse sandy slopes on the west side of the ridge to either University Pass or a shortcut chute north of University Pass. Here is where the route becomes quite tedious with a lot of boulder hoping that is unavoidable in the glacial moraine area. As one travels down to Robinson Lake, there is still quite a bit of talus, but also sections of easier terrain, and the last few hundred feet down to Robinson Lake are on slabs and pine forest. From Robinson Lake it’s a fairly short trip down the trail back to Onion Valley.
The third and final part of series of posts on a two day fastpack of the Trinity Alps High Route covers the section from Thompson Peak to the trailhead at Canyon Creek inclduing Wedding Cake, Mount Hilton and Boulder Creek Lakes. This portion of the Trinity Alps High Route was previously covered in the Trinity Alps Traverse report from 2013 and that trip served as inspiration for the Trinity Alps High Route this year. Many additional photos can be found on the 2013 post with different lighting since this section was done in reverse. The preceding two posts were as follows:
From the summit of Thompson Peak descend the sandy southwest slopes and traverse granite benches to the short class 3 climb up a chute to the summit of Wedding Cake, which in my opinion has the best birds eye view of the Canyon Creek Lakes. After descending Wedding Cake traverse on the west side of the ridge until the crest can be easily crossed to the east side. At this point, an awesome 2+ mile “granite highway” section commences. This stretch is stunning with rugged unnamed peaks and spires towering above and sweeping views of the pristine granite slopes dropping off to the Canyon Creek Lakes below. The smooth white granite is interspersed with grassy meadow benches, krummholz and small cascading streams making for a delightful setting.
If headed for Mount Hilton, at the end of this marvelous stretch of granite slabs ascend to a high shoulder on the first of two sub-ridges that need to be crossed to access the Mount Hilton scramble. Once over this shoulder enter a smaller drainage with more talus than granite, but excellent views of the precipitous northeast buttress of Mount Hilton. After traversing through this cirque a convenient ramp can be used to pass the second sub-ridge and deposit one immediately beneath Mount Hilton (those skipping Mount Hilton could simply traverse below this sub-ridge and directly down to Boulder Creek Lakes). This ramp looks somewhat difficult from afar but in reality it’s a class 2 walk-up providing surprisingly easy passage through this barrier that would otherwise involve some tricky climbing. Once over the ridge, ascend steep alpine slopes to the foot of the final class 3 scramble portion up Mount Hilton. The summit provides an amazing vista of the surrounding mountains and an excellent overview of the Trinity Alps High Route. In particular, Sawtooth Mountain sports a particularly impressive profile across the Canyon Creek drainage. From the summit of Mount Hilton to Boulder Creek Lakes is a long and steep descent of over 3,000 feet down to the Boulder Creek Lakes. The upper part of this descent is fairly straightforward on rocks and gravel transitioning to sections of granite slabs in the middle. The lower portion of the descent requires some micro-navigating through some cliff bands and thick brush. Towards the bottom a creek bed may be used in later season to avoid most of the brush. The Boulder Creek Lakes are tucked into a granite bowl with excellent views to Little Granite Peak and Sawtooth Mountain across the canyon. Mount Hilton looms above and the granite slabs surrounding the basin create a magical setting. From Boulder Creek Lakes it’s back on trails. The initial descent to the Canyon Creek is fairly rough and rocky trail but the final few miles along the Canyon Creek Trail are relatively smooth and easy trail miles. Topping out at just over 9,000 feet, the height of the Trinity Alps is not impressive when compared with the Sierras, but their higher latitude and proximity to the Pacific Ocean allow for significant winter snow accumulation and the existence of a few small patches of permanent ice. The largest of these patches of permanent ice is immediately below Thompson Peak and contains the requisite characteristics to be classified as a true glacier. Known as the Thompson Glacier, this glacier has undergone significant reduction in thickness and surface area as shown in this comparison of photos from the summit of Thompson Peak in 2013 and 2015 (both Labor Day weekend). The ongoing drought and a warming climate mean this glacier is in jeopardy of disappearing entirely. Glaciers were an integral part of shaping the majestic Trinity Alps that we see today with the ubiquitous ice-polished granite faces that embody these mountains, but if this glacier melts away the range would be devoid of true glaciers.
Extra clothing: Windbreaker, light down jacket, light gloves, beanie (summer temperatures and a reliable weather forecast for a two day trip)
Food: bars, pumpkin flax granola, dried fruit and meats
Essentials like First-aid, sunscreen, chapstick etc.
Canon Powershot S110
The Trinity Alps High Route is an excellent way to see some of the best scenery in the Trinity Alps. The Trinities may not stand out in the typical metrics used to rank mountain ranges, but the uniquely rugged granitic landscape and a true wilderness experience makes this a special spot. In fact, it’s one of my favorite areas to explore. This series of posts has described one route through these mountains, but the possibilities for wandering the lovely alpine terrain in this range are literally endless. I look forward to future trips to the Trinity Alps and hopefully uncovering more gems in this wonderful corner of California.
Part II of the three part series on the Trinity Alps High Route fastpack focuses on the section from Sawtooth Mountain to Thompson Peak. The other parts of the series:
Part I including Little Granite Peak, Sawtooth Peak, Alpine and Smith Lake
Part IIIincluding Wedding Cake, Mount Hilton and Boulder Creek lakes
The section covered in this post is probably the most remote and rugged of the entire route, particularly the section from Kalmia Pass to Mirror Pass. After downclimbing the scramble section of Sawtooth Mountain, one is treated to a walk across the peak’s massive east face, which is a gently sloping granite apron. The granite is smooth and the travel is generally easy until one reaches a ridge that separates Devils Canyon from the Stuart Fork of the Trinity River. Along this ridge is a small notch called Twin Pine Pass that enables passage to the other side. This pass is quite miraculous since virtually anywhere else above or below this pass would require some technical climbing. Accessing this pass is straightforward if you aim to gain the ridge west of the pass and then drop down into the pass from the ridge. There are a few ways to gain the ridge and most will contain a few scrambling moves. From Twin Pine Pass, there is a section of talus hoping before one reaches another marvelous section of smooth granite slabs where efficient progress can be made. Above these slabs is a wonderful glacially sculpted ridge and below the slabs is a tremendous view across the canyon to Mirror Lake and Caesar Peak. As one moves west across this section of pristine granite, Mirror Lake grows larger and the views keep improving. Ultimately, the easy slab walking ends and one must begin an ascent toward Kalmia Pass. It may be tempting to descend from Kalmia Pass directly into the basin between it and Mirror Lake, but this is not advisable due to dangerous cliffs and fields of unstable talus. Instead, there is a broad sloping ledge sandwiched between two cliff bands that provides a relatively efficient and safe route to Mirror Lake. From Kalmia Pass, descend northwest along alp slopes and talus to the ledge and begin traversing across with cliffs above and below. The views along this traverse are stellar and include Sapphire Lake with Sawtooth Ridge towering behind. The ledge is not flat so there is quite a bit of sidehilling and a couple washouts to cross that include steep hardpan so caution is necessary at several points of the traverse. Keep following the ledge for longer than you might assume, generally maintaining elevation and evening ascending a little as Mirror Lake comes into view immediately below and the lower cliff band reaches higher. Eventually an obvious gully comes into view with Mirror Lake directly below. This weakness in the cliffs is the ticket to reaching Mirror Lake without hazardous down climbing through cliffs. Follow the gully down and then move left onto granite slabs and benches for the last part of the descent to lovely Mirror Lake. Aptly-named Mirror Lake is tucked into a granite bowl beneath the grand cirque that forms the headwaters of the Stuart Fork of the Trinity River. This lake is a wonderful spot and extremely photogenic. Enjoy the lake since the ascent from Mirror Lake to Mirror Pass is fairly long and arduous gaining 1,400 feet in short order. The main idea is to reach a bowl beneath Mirror Pass that is ~7,800 ft. When ascending the granite slopes and shallow gullies north of Mirror Lake, one approaches what appears to be a headwall but a diagonal ramp leads left to right to a forested ridge that provides access through the headwall and to the bowl. From the bowl, ascend talus slopes to Mirror Pass which is another miraculous crossing where cliffs are present on both sides of the pass but the pass itself is basically a walk over. It seems possible to ascend Caesar Peak via its east ridge from beneath Mirror Pass but this description is for the easier class 2 ascent via the North Ridge. To gain the north ridge traverse at 8,000 feet on granite slabs and moraine debris. A permanent snowfield once existed here but all that remains is a few chunks of ice beneath the towering cliffs of Caesar Peak’s northeast face. After ascending the glacial moraine the route reaches another pass that separates the Little South Fork Salmon River from Grizzly Creek. From this pass Caesar Peak is less than a thousand feet up. One can stick to the north ridge proper from the bottom or take pleasant granite slopes west of the ridge and use one of the many small chutes to gain the ridge higher up. Caesar Peak features a commanding view of the region including Mirror Lake, Sapphire lake and Sawtooth Mountain to the south, Thompson Peak to the west and Grizzly Lake to the north. The cirque above Grizzly Lake can easily be traversed to continue the route between Caesar Peak and Thompson Peak, but Grizzly Lake is one of the highlights of the route and worth the fairly large elevation gain and loss necessary to reach the shores of the lake. The spectacular lake situated in a rugged granitic cirque with deep blue waters and clumps of firs. One of the most amazing aspects of this lake is its outlet waterfall which tumbles over large cliffs only a few feet away from the lake. Not much water is present late in the summer but this must be a spectacular sight in early summer and worthy of an trip earlier in the season to view this waterfall in its full glory. There are several good camp spots on the north shore of Grizzly Lake with stunning views of the granite cirque including Caesar Peak and Thompson Peak. From Grizzly Lake it’s a fairly straightforward climb up slabs and talus to notch on the northwest ridge of Thompson Peak. In the upper reaches of this climb is a faint trail that provides easier passage through the scree and rocks. From the notch in the ridge, instead of traversing into the Rattlesnake Creek basin one can ascend the northwest ridge of Thompson Peak directly to the summit. Where the boulders became large and awkward, move to the south side of the ridge and continue up to the summit with a few class 3 moves along the way, including the summit block which is a collection of very large boulders and some fun bouldering moves. The 360 degree panorama from Thompson Peak is amazing, particularly down to Grizzly Lake and the Thompson Glacier. While the glacier is now only a few acres in size, there still appears to be crevasses and ice movement. Hopefully the glacier makes it through this drought, but I’m not too optimistic about its long term survival. From Thompson Peak the view south is equally impressive and includes much of the remainder of the route across the broad granite face to Mount Hilton, Sawtooth Mountain and the Canyon Creek Lakes drainage. The section from Thompson Peak to Mount Hilton to Boulder Lakes will be covered in the last segment of the Trinity Alps High Route series.
This the first of a series of posts on the Trinity Alps High Route, a mostly off-trail loop through the Trinity Alps that covers many of the highlights of this spectacular region. There are numerous variations of this route for the adventurer to consider, and I am sure my itinerary on my next visit will be different, but the route I am sharing is a complete loop around the upper Canyon Creek drainage including summits of the six named peaks surrounding the drainage. Each of these summits offered its own rewards and I highly recommending including at least some of the peaks into any itinerary as the views are breathtaking. While my fastpack took two days with the single night spent at Grizzly Lake, I feel it makes more sense to split up the copious photography and my thoughts on the route into three parts: the first part from the trailhead to Little Granite Peak to Sawtooth Mountain; the second part from Sawtooth Mountain to Caesar Peak to Thompson Peak; and the third part from Thompson Peak to Mount Hilton to Boulder Lakes. The Trinity Alps are a spectacular and rugged collection of mountains and ridges tucked deep in the Klamath Mountains of Northern California. Largely overlooked for the neighboring greater ranges in the Sierra Nevada and Cascades, these mountains remain a gem where solitude and adventure can be found in a large expanse of trail-less wilderness. In fact, as the Trinity Alps are geographically between the Cascades and the Sierra, the mountains contain a magical blend of both range’s characteristics. The Trinity Alps High Route (TAHR) was conceived by Deems Burton after decades of exploration learning the intricacies of this wild terrain. His photo gallery contains many inspirational photos and ideas for cross country treks. The high route is characterized by ubiquitous white granite, serene alpine lakes, and clumps of picturesque krummholz. It is said that the ubiquitous white granite of these mountains produces an incomparable deep blue sky and I’d have to agree.The following description starts and finishes from the Canyon Creek Trailhead. For many it will be the most convenient and enable a complete loop without repetition. There are several other potential trailheads at which one could emabark on a similar loop. From Canyon Creek trailhead the start includs a climb up to the Stuart-Bear Divide which becomes quite steep near the top. At the divide, instead of taking the trail down the other side head up cross country to Little Granite Peak. With a little bit of mico-navigating, one can avoid the brush at the lower part and the rock outcroppings on the summit ridge. The final hundred vertial includes some some class 3 scrambling to reach the summit. Lttle Granite affords a great vantage to survey the TAHR as the entire Canyon Creek drainage is visible. Perhaps the most impressive view is looking toward the impressive Sawtooth Mountain, with its nearly vertical fang of gray granite rising abruptly from the more subdued white granite slopes below. I enjoyed the early morning view from the summit while contemplating my descent to Alpine Lake. The descent from Little Granite Peak to Alpine Lake is a section with no information available online. There may be alternative descent routes, but it appears the western side of the slope provides the highest likelihood of successes. The complexity is due to the fact that east and south sides of Alpine Lake are surrounded by cliffs and steep slabs while the west side is a jungle of coarse brush. Care must taken to find the most efficient route down to avoid cliffs and nasty bushwhacking. From just below the summit utilize a ramp to descend down to more moderately angled slabs. Cruise down the easy slabs for awhile staying to skiers left near the ridgecrest and descended towards the fields of brush west of Alpine Lake. At the brush find a shallow gully which turns into a dry streambed and provides a mostly brush-free descent to Alpine Lake. As mentioned previously, Alpine Lake is a beautiful spot nestled in a granitic cirque beneath Little Granite Peak and the rugged unnamed summit to the north. From Alpine Lake the next objective is to gain a pass between the Alpine Lake drainage and the Smith Lake drainage. Most of the terrain to gain this pass is efficient travel on granite slabs but the lower part is field of nearly impenetrable brush. One can use a dry streambed to avoid the brush and gain access to the granite slopes above, but a path has been clipped through the brush avoiding the necessity to scramble in the large boulders of the streambed. While the scramble is fun and not very time-consuming, it may be worthwhile to look for the clipped path through the wall of brush. From the pass, instead of descending directly to Smith Lake’s outlet, traverse high around its south side to Morris Lake. The terrain down to the outlet is certainly negotiable, but one would miss the stellar view of Sawtooth Mountain towering above picturesque Smith Lake, which is among the favorite vistas of the route for the author. Smith Lake is known as the Queen of the Alps, and rightfully so, with it’s deep blue waters carved in a smooth bowl of white granite. This is an awesome and inspirational spot with outstanding scenery. From Morris Lake use a steep ramp to cross over the southeast ridge of Sawtooth Mountain at a notch. From the notch it was fairly easy travel on slabs and talus up to the north ridge of Sawtooth Mountain. Of the six named peaks surrounding the Canyon Creek drainage, Sawtooth Mountain is arguably the most compelling as it is the most remote and difficult mountain in the Trinity Alps with a wild character. Despite not being the tallest mountain in the Trinities (a title which belongs to Thompson Peak), a strong argument can be made that it is the centerpiece peak of the Trinity Alps, and in the opinion of the author it is. Information on the final scramble up the large summit block (the “tooth”) was scarce, but I found it to be fairly straightforward. The first few moves up the ridge are probably the most difficult but go as class 3 if you look carefully. More class 3 climbing continues up along the ridge (generally on its east side) until the climber reaches a spot on the crest of the ridge near the north summit, which is a few feet lower than the south summit. The traverse over to the south summit entails some more class 3 scrambling and micro-routefinding passing over and around a couple gendarmes but the south summit is ultimately not far away and the climber soon finds themselves sitting atop the summit rocks with a birds eye view of the Trinities.Sawtooth Mountain is an excellent vantage of all of the surrounding terrain including Mount HIlton, Thompson Peak and Caesar Peak with distant views to the Red Trinities and Mount Shasta. Immediately below are Smith Lake and Morris Lake, shimmering in their granite bowls. It’s a grand vista and worthy of spending some time to enjoy the scene. After reversing the rock scramble moves up Sawtooth Mountain one must traverse to Mirror Lake which entails passage through Twin Pine Pass and a traverse to Kalmia Pass and the ledges above Mirror Lake. This segment of the Trinity Alps High Route, along with the continuation of the journey to Caesar Peak, Grizzly Lake and Thompson Peak will be covered in the next post.
After a few years I was looking forward to revisiting Mount Conness. My first time up Mount Conness was in 2007 (including North Peak and some excellent photos) and the second in 2011 via Young Lakes so it seems I’m on a four year schedule. I also visited the beautiful Conness Lakes a year ago. It was nice to see some familiar sights again and also discover more of the beauty of this region. Mount Conness is one of the most prominent and recognizable peaks in Yosemite National Park. The 12,589 ft peak is the highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada north of Tioga Pass and sits on the Sierra crest straddling the Harvey Monroe Hall Research Natural Area in Inyo National Forest and Yosemite National Park’s eastern boundary. The immense southwest wall of the peak is nearly vertical and contains several challenging and famous rock climbing routes. Staring down this face from atop Mount Conness is breathtaking. On the north slope of the Mount Conness hangs a small glacier which is one of a handful of remaining glaciers in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This glacier produces a characteristic silty runoff that drains into the beautiful Conness Lakes. There are three primary lakes in the Conness Lakes basin, each with a different color. The southern lake is relatively clear reflecting little to no glacial runoff into the lake. The western and highest lake has direct runoff from the Conness Glacier and therefore the most silt concentration of the three lakes. The northern lake, which is the lowest of the three, contains a mixture of clear water from the southern lake and silty water from the western lake producing a stunning aquamarine color. The Conness glacier is badly receding and I can easily see the difference in surface area and ice mass from my prior visits. Without the glacier and accompanying silt, the lakes will lose their magical colors which is sad.
To the north of Mount Conness and the Conness Lakes is North Peak, a 12,242 ft summit with excellent views, a sweet scramble route and some famous ice climbing chutes (in season). The northwest ridge of North Peak is a very enjoyable scramble on excellent rock. Accessing the northwest ridge entails passing through scenic Twenty Lakes Basin with North Peak’s north face the primary feature towering above and reflecting in the lakes. The northwest ridge is mostly a class 3 scramble with the exception of a series of impasses along the ridge. It seems there are several variations to overcome these impasses, but staying on the ridge proper will require some more technical rock moves in the fourth class or low fifth class range. After the impasses the ridge steepens with some excellent scrambling on solid rock with considerable exposure on both sides including the sizable McCabe Lake a thousand feet below. The scrambling is fun that I’d like it to continue to the summit, but alas the summit plateau becomes flatter with more second class scrambling for second half of the ridge to the summit. After enjoying the views from the summit, the trip down to the Conness Lakes via the south and southeast slopes is a cruise with mostly sand to aid in plunge stepping down the slope. From Conness Lakes a great route up to the Conness Plateau is via a ramp consisting of very friendly granite slabs that leads all the way to the East Ridge of Mount Conness. This fortuitous ramp is included in the Sierra High Route and provides a natural balcony for viewing the lovely Conness Lakes with North Peak as a backdrop. The ramp leads directly to the east ridge with stupendous views throughout. Once the east ridge is crossed to its south side, it’s a fairly straightforward traverse around to the slopes above Alpine Lake where the plateau can be gained via Class 2 slabs and talus. Cross the Conness summit plateau to the final class 2 scramble up the summit block of Mount Conness and enjoy the view to Tuolumne Meadows and Half Dome on one side and the Conness Glacier and Conness Lakes on the other. Walking down the west ridge a short distance will reveal and excellent view of the long and skinny Roosevelt Lake, tucked in a classic glacier bowl between Mount Conness and Sheep Peak. The Twenty Lakes Basin and Conness Lakes region are immensely scenic with access that is relatively short and easy from Saddlebag Lake. This is therefore a popular area, but I was still able to find some solitude. In fact, the only place I saw people was at the Conness Lakes. Strava GPS here. High on the slopes of Mount Conness at ~11,600 I was lucky to stumble upon a family of 10 (!) white-tailed ptarmigans. If it were not for a couple of the other birds making their characteristic low-pitched hoots, I might have walked right on by. The white-tailed ptarmigan is the smallest member of the grouse family and lives exclusively in an alpine environment. The plumage varies at different times of the year ranging from mottled gray, brown and white during the summer to all white in the winter. This cryptic coloration allows the bird to blend in with it’s surroundings and avoid detection by predators. Indeed, the ptarmigans that I spotted could easily be mistaken for rocks! The bird subsists in the harsh alpine environment by eating seeds, flowers, seeds and leaves. The ptarmigan was absent from the Sierra Nevada until 72 birds were introduced from Colorado in 1971-1972. The birds have since successfully reproduced and expanded their territory to the region between Mount Ritter and Tower Peak. The current climate and the alpine environment characteristic of this region is suitable for successful breeding. It is unknown whether the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada before the introduction. One theory holds that since there is not a continuous alpine environment from the Rocky Mountains or Cascade Mountains to the Sierra Nevada the bird was never able to access the Sierra Nevada. Another theory holds that the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada but became locally extinct due to either colder, snowier conditions in the Pleistocene (which negatively affect breeding) or hotter temperatures in the Holocene (that create critical heat stress). Either way, the ptarmigan is very sensitive to climate change. As the bird lives in the high country, a warming climate could potentially shift their habitable zone above the highest peaks.
The Minarets are a spectacular collection of jagged spires in the Ritter Range of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Usually I like to spread my adventures throughout the High Sierra since there are so many hidden gems to explore and mix up the character of scenery, but I have a particular affinity for the Minarets with repeated visits including July 2009 (Clyde Minaret), July 2013 (Minaret Loop), October 2013 (Tuolumne to Devils via Minarets), and July 2015 (Ansel Adams Loops). There are seventeen unofficially named spires and most are along a single ridge forming an arête. I have only climbed one Minaret, Clyde Minaret, which is the highest and named after Sierra climbing pioneer and legend Norman Clyde. Hopefully I’ll be able to tag a few more spires in the future. While I haven’t stood atop many of them, I have seen them from all different angles and I can’t seem to get enough of the spectacular ruggedness of these spires and the trio of three gorgeous lakes immediately beneath them – Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake. While I’m merely an amateur photographer with a lot to learn, attempting to take qualityphotos is a big part of my personal enjoyment in the mountains. I use the word quality because some trail runners have a tendency to focus more on their watch and braggadocio than the scenery resulting in mediocre photography results at best and at worst, video that is so shaky and random in movement that it is essentially unwatchable. This approach couldn’t be more opposite than the ethos of John Muir. Whether it’s the Minarets or other photogenic gems in the Sierra, I always find it worth the time to scope out the best angles and enjoy the scenery. Each time I have visited the Minarets it has featured different light, snow conditions etc. so it’s fun to compare the results. On this trip, I had the best conditions I’ve seen yet at Minaret Lake with excellent clarity and a few puffs of clouds swirling about the spires. My photography tip at Minaret Lake is to climb a granite outcropping near the outlet of the lake, which provides amazing composition of the entire lake and a turquoise inlet below with the Minaret spires towering behind. This balcony provided such a great view I probably took a hundred photos within a span of 15 minutes (I’ve spared this blog from most of those photos but there are still plenty). It’s one of my favorite vantages in all of the Sierra. It was great to spend some time at Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake and really enjoy the awesome surroundings. To complete the loop I recommend the River Trail instead of the JMT through Rosalie Lake. Both routes are very boring compared to the preceding section beneath the Minarets, but I like the River Trail better as it had less elevation gain and some nice peaceful single track in the forest next to the river that gets surprisingly little use. Strava GPS route here.
My last time on Mount Brewer was nearly five years ago and I’ve been thinking about a return to this prominent summit. Set apart from the main crest of the Sierra Nevada along the northern end of the Great Western Divide, Mount Brewer’s lofty perch at 13,570 ft offers an astounding view that was very memorable and I was eager to return. In 2010 the route to Brewer’s summit was a fairly uninteresting as an out-and-back via the Sphinx Lakes region and the Avalanche Gulch Trail. It was in September and there were still snow patches as 2010 was the last above average year of snowfall in the High Sierra. This year there was virtually no snow to be found anywhere. In 2010 there was also a fire in Kings Canyon; the Sheep Fire. There would also be a fire in 2015, the Rough Fire, which was still in its nascent stages at the time of this trip but would later become a much larger and more unpredictable fire, ultimately becoming one of the largest fires in the Southern Sierra Nevada history. This year’s visit to Mount Brewer would include linking up a few additional summits along the northern end of the Great Western Divide – North Guard, South Guard and Sky Pilot Peak – tying it together with an aesthetic loop including Lake Reflection, one of my favorite spots in the High Sierra. North Guard was particularly intriguing to me with its sharp, rugged profile and reputation for fun scrambling. The loop came in around 36 miles with over 12,000 ft of elevation gain. Strava GPS route here. The day started out along the familiar sandy path from Road’s End and up the switchbacks to the Avalanche Pass Trail. The ascent is quite steep at first with several sections of rock steps, but overall an efficient trail to get into the high country fast. I left the trail where it crosses the creek and headed up cross country through open woodland and granite slabs to the Sphinx Lakes, which are nice but nothing special my opinion. Beyond the Sphinx Lakes is a section of talus up to a pass but it seemed easier than 2010 or maybe I’ve just gotten used to efficiently moving on talus. Around the corner Mount Brewer finally makes an appearance, but I first curved north toward North Guard. The class 3 route up North Guard requires careful attention to route finding to keep it class 3. The route starts with steepening slabs and then short cross-over into a hanging sandy gully with more slabs up to the west ridge of North Guard. The final stretch of climbing along the West Ridge is classic Sierra scrambling with solid blocky rocks. The actual summit is a large overhanging rock. The north face of North Guard is a sheer drop to the Sphinx Lakes basin. I found the view from North Guard to be just as good as Mount Brewer with excellent clarity on this day. I particularly enjoyed the view to Charlotte Dome and Bubbs Creek Wall. I retraced my route up North Guard and then traversed to Mount Brewer which is largely a class 2 scramble up its north slopes. I was soon atop Brewer enjoying the 360 panorama once more. To connect Brewer with South Guard one must descend the south slopes of Brewer which start off with cumbersome talus but finishes with a fun stretch of plunge stepping in loose gravel. From the basin between South Guard and Brewer I took a ramp and class 3 face up to South Guard’s ridge and after a ridge walk I ultimately reached the summit, which is rather nondescript and only slightly taller than surrounding rock outcroppings along the ridge. From South Guard down to Longley Pass is a quick trip thanks to more plunge stepping but I wasn’t done with summits yet. Sky Pilot Peak is located immediately south of Longley Pass and while it’s not a high mountain compared to its neighbors, it has an exceptionally rugged profile when viewed from the east, especially from the Lake Reflection region. As I’ve been to the area many times, Sky Pilot’s striking east face has always been of interest. The peak’s apt name is attributed to the many Sky Pilot flowers growing on its summit ridge. Indeed, I found copious Sky Pilots, perhaps more than anywhere I’ve seen in the Sierra. Sky Pilot Peak is largely a class 2 scramble until one reaches a notch in the ridge, which requires a class 3 downclimb before resuming the final climb to the summit. I couldn’t find a summit register on Sky Pilot Peak manifesting that this is an infrequently climbed point, but I definitely hope to return in the future since the view looking down toward Lake Reflection is extraordinary. Some cumulus was building overhead creating some dappling on the terrain and lakes beneath the east face which only served to enhance the magic of this special view. After a long stay on Sky Pilot I returned to Longley Pass and then began the somewhat arduous and long descent to Lake Reflection. I did a pretty good job navigating until I got to the shores of Lake Reflection where I got turned around by steep slabs at a couple spots but finally made it to the outlet of the lake where I took a long break and enjoyed the view. Despite the added mileage of descending to Lake Reflection I wouldn’t want to do this link-up as an out-and-back – the scenery around Lake Reflection is that good! From Lake Reflection it was all trail down to East Lake with views of Mount Bago in early evening and then a trail run on the Bubbs Creek Trail back to Road’s End to complete the aesthetic loop.