Tower Peak is a remote and impressive summit at the northern end of the High Sierra. The peak lies at the headwaters of the West Walker River that was included in the substantial expansion of the Hoover Wilderness in 2009. The usual route entails many miles of trail along the Walker River Trail from Leavitt Meadows to Tower Lake. The trail is generally pleasant and virtually all runnable for the first 12 miles through Upper Piute Meadows as it is largely non-technical and elevation gain is gradual. Along the way there are several aspen groves that would enhance the trip in the fall season and pretty meadows at Lower and Upper Piute Meadows. The only downside to the trail is that it is very sandy and/or dusty in sections due to its heavy use by the horse pack station at Leavitt Meadows. Travelling through the lower portion where sand and dust is most prevalent on a hot summer day would only make matters worse. Fortunately, the tread improves as one progresses further toward Tower Lake. At around 11.5 miles the trail reaches Piute Meadows. At the north end of Piute Meadows is the Piute Cabin, a nice backcountry ranger cabin that was not occupied on my visit. The cabin has a very nice view looking across the meadows to the peaks at the head of the valley. From the end of Piute Meadows, the trail climbs for a couple more miles to remote and beautiful Tower Lake (~15 miles from the trailhead), situated in a bowl surrounded by granite slopes. The most impressive rock feature is known as “The Watchtower,” which looks like it contains some fine climbing routes on it’s smooth granite face. The vegetation around Tower Lake includes mountain hemlock and alpine firs which are more reminiscent of the Tahoe alpine manifesting Tower Lake’s northern location and correspondingly wetter climate than points further south. From Tower Lake, ascend to Tower Pass through a mix of gravel, talus, and patches of grass. At Tower Pass, Tower Peak comes into view and the route is obvious. Traverse through a shallow basin of meadows (which can have some lovely wildflowers in summer) that transitions to granite slabs near a remnant ice patch. Ascend the granite slabs beside and above this ice path to the northwest ridge with a great view of the “tower” of Tower Peak. Follow the northwest ridge until it becomes steeper and more technical. One can continue along the ridge for a more challenging scrambling experience, but the path of least resistance comes off the ridge onto its west side and traverses underneath the ridge to a wide chute that contains fun class 3 scrambling known as “the staircase” that leads directly to the summit block. Tower Peak provides an excellent vantage of the surrounding region including the Hoover Wilderness and northern Yosemite with close-up views of the relatively large and sky blue Mary Lake and the Saurian Crest immediately above. To the south and east lies the remote Stubblefield Canyon and Sawtooth Ridge. A small glacial remnant on the steep slopes off the summit’s east and north side was entirely exposed and as the permanent ice is diminishing rapidly in these consecutive drought seasons. On this day, I chose Tower Peak after analyzing and balancing the wildfire smoke from nearby fires and thunderstorms expected in the southern part of the range. The decision proved correct as skies overhead remained relatively clear of smoke or clouds all day. My favorite view from the summit was down to Mary Lake, although views to the south and east were obscured by smoke and haze from the fires and I will have to return at some point on a clear day. Total roundtrip out of Leavitt Meadows is ~34 miles to Tower Peak and 30 miles to Tower Lake. All told, the primary climbs are a 1,300 foot trail climb from Upper Piute Meadows to Tower Lake and a 2,250 ft off-trail climb from Tower Lake up to Tower Peak via Tower Pass. On my trip wildflower meadows were in full bloom above Tower Pass and also in Piute Meadows. GPS route here (missing last 11 miles).
Aptly named Granite Dome is an immense granite massif with numerous micro-basins occupied by a series of stunning alpine lakes. The lakes are set amid granite cliffs that afford stunning vistas of the pristine lakes from above. As the adventurer gazing over these magnificent lakes is the audience to a stunning natural performance, I like to describe this region as the “Granite Balconies.” All of the lakes are located on the northern side of a massive ridge that culminates in the summit of Granite Dome. The region is characterized by ubiquitous ice polished granite carved into its present form by glaciers that blanketed this region over millennia. No trails travel into this area making it a relatively infrequently visited spot where solitude and ample room for exploration can be found. While the northern side of Granite Dome is rugged, the south side features more subdued terrain and no lakes until further down in the Emigrant Wilderness. The region is accessed via Kennedy Meadows off of the Sonora Pass Highway and includes a moderately steep trail to reach Relief Reservoir and beyond. The off-trail travel is fairly easy with navigation on friendly granite slabs. The primary objective in route finding on this terrain is to avoid steeper sections of granite that can become cliffs. The named lakes of the region include the Lewis Lakes (lower, middle, upper), Sardella Lake, Ridge Lake and Iceland Lake with a numerous other smaller tarns. Ridge Lake is arguably the centerpiece nestled beneath the towering cliffs of Granite Dome with waterfalls splashing down into the lake from the upper reaches of the peak. However, Middle Lewis Lake is perhaps the most dramatic with towering granite cliffs surrounding its shores like an amphitheater. Furthermore, the view overlooking Iceland Lake from the south is fantastic. GPS route here.
My first time visiting this region included a hike to the top of Granite Dome with excellent 360 degree views, especially down to the lakes below. Photos from my prior visit to Granite Dome can be found here. This time, instead of going to Granite Dome I explored the Lewis Lakes basin with Erica. We ascended beautiful granite slabs into the Lewis Creek Basin with clumps of pine trees and waterfall cascades. We made our way up steeper slabs to Middle Lewis Lake, the largest lake in the Granite Balconies region. Middle Lewis is an incredible lake that sees little traffic and is a true Sierra gem with top notch scenery. From Middle Lewis Lake, the easiest way to Upper Lewis Lake requires traveling north from the end of the Middle lake to easier slabs before turning left and heading west and southwest to Upper Lewis Lake. The direct route from Middle to Upper Lewis Lake contains some steep granite slabs that may prove too steep for many without rock gear or snow/ice gear in early season. Similar to my prior visit, Upper Lewis Lake was still partially frozen. We ascended a small rise near Upper Lewis Lake to our first “balcony” of the day overlooking the natural amphitheater surrounding Middle Lewis Lake. This tremendous vista is one of my favorites. From this viewpoint, we traversed around the end of Upper Lewis Lake and continued to stunning Ridge Lake. Near the outlet of the lake is another fantastic balcony with views of Ridge Lake and the towering granite cliffs of Granite Dome. From Ridge Lake we ascended the rise above Iceland Lake with a gorgeous panorama from yet another balcony. I recommend accessing the lakes via the east like we did by taking advantage of more maintained trail and avoiding the gullies and steeper granite slopes from Relief Meadows. On my prior visit to this region I descended to Relief Meadows, and while numerous routes are feasible, they require micro-navigating and almost certainly take longer than continuing up the main trail past Saucer Meadow and back down to Summit Creek where you can cross the creek and find easier slabs into the Granite Balconies region.
Higher is not always better. I’ve been to several peaks recently that are only modest in elevation but contain outstanding views. It many ways, being surrounded by impressive peaks of equal or greater height provides a more dramatic perspective. Mount Davis is one of these peaks. While relatively remote and obscure, the views are breathtaking and include taller and well known neighbors to the north (Mount Lyell and Rodgers Peak) and south (Mount Ritter and Banner Peak). To the west is the rugged and wild headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River, including the enchanting Twin Island Lakes, and to the east is spectacular Thousand Island Lake and the Davis Lakes. On my way to Mount Davis I visited the always-beautiful Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake, making sure to time my passage with idyllic morning light. While the shortest route to Mount Davis is via Silver Lake trailhead, I prefer the route from the Agnew Meadows trailhead which is more scenic in my opinion. This route also enabled me to easily include a morning visit to Garnet Lake, one of the prettiest lakes in all of the Sierra. GPS route here.I continued up from Thousand Island Lake to North Glacier Pass, a route that seems more efficient each time I get the chance to visit the pass. The pass is a worthy destination in itself with a commanding view of the deep blue Lake Catherine situated below the rugged north faces of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. The view includes the glacial remnant that flows between these two impressive peaks. From North Glacier Pass, it seems as if Davis would be close, but quite a bit of leg work remains. One can either descend to the rocky shores of Lake Catherine or traverse higher up to avoid losing elevation. Both require some travel through cumbersome talus, but the beautiful clear waters of Lake Catherine are a great distraction.Higher up above Lake Catherine the terrain transitions to friendly granite slabs that lead to the “Davis Plateau,” a broad area of high elevation between North Glacier Pass to the south and the summit of Mount Davis at the north end of the plateau. While the summit of Davis has some prominence, there are numerous ridgelines and points along the plateau that are not that much lower in height. In this regard, Davis is more of a massif. In order to reach the high point, which includes the best views looking north along the crest toward Mount Lyell, an expansive glacial bowl must be crossed with copious talus and some interesting ice remnants (sadly it’s doubtful this ice makes it through this exceptionally dry and warm year). After crossing the bowl, the summit of Davis is an easy talus hop. On the way back I made a slight diversion to a small point at the south end of the Davis plateau that features an amazing view overlooking the deep blue waters of Lake Catherine and the multi-colored Ritter Lakes, nestled underneath the rugged buttresses of Mount Ritter with colors ranging from deep blue to turquoise. I have probably spent more time in the Ansel Adams Wilderness region exploring the area around the Minarets and Ritter/Banner than anywhere else in the High Sierra but the scenery never ceases to amaze and inspire. GPS route here.
Continuing with the focus on Northeast Yosemite’s Canyon Country, this post describes a climb of Whorl Mountain, which is immediately across Spiller Canyon from Virginia Peak, and a tour of the Sawtooth Ridge region including Matterhorn Pass, Burro Pass and Ice Lakes Pass. I had done a similar Sawtooth Loop last year including climbs of Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak. It’s such a fantastically scenic area I have no qualms about returning here year after year or even multiple times in the same year. Whorl Mountain is an impressive granite massif composed of three summits (the middle being the highest) sharply dividing Mattherhorn Canyon and Spiller Canyon. The rugged ridgeline reminds me of the Matthes Crest in the Tuolumne Meadows area with similar rock patterns, spectacularly steep relief and awesome scenery. The main difference is Whorl sees a small fraction of the visitors when compared with the popular and easily accessible rock climb on the Matthes Crest. From a distance, it looks like technical rock climbing is required to reach Whorl’s summit, but a fairly straightforward, albeit convoluted, scrambling route exists. My route finding was spot on and the crux for me was passage underneath the chockstone, which surprisingly still contained snow and ice in mid-summer (beware in a high snow year). After contemplating turning around, I decided to give it a try. To make space for me to crawl through I needed to remove some snow and ice. Using my hand turned out to be a bloody mess, but bashing the icy snow with a rock proved effective. Once past the chockstone it was a matter of minutes before I was on the summit. Any earlier in the season and the passage underneath the chockstone would have been completely choked and the alternatives are exposed. After Whorl Mountain I went over Matterhorn Pass and traversed the upper portions of Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon. This is one of my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra with amazing rugged scenery of Sawtooth Ridge. I completed the loop by going over Ice Lake Pass to the foot of the Incredible Hulk with amazing views to Ice Lake and Maltby Lake, and then down the climbers use path in Little Slide Canyon to the Barney Lake Trail. GPS route here.
The easiest approach to Whorl is via the Horse Creek drainage to Horse Creek Pass. This is a direct and straightforward route and if you are able to find and utilize little use paths it will help expedite passage through the talus fields in the upper portion of the drainage. Most times a snow tongue remains near the narrow pass which is an extension of a relic ice patch, but this likely disappears by late season. Travel across upper Spiller Canyon is a pleasure with beautiful meadows, gradual terrain and awesome scenery. Continue along a prominent bench below Whorl to its end and then make an ascending traverse across Whorl’s east face. There are several shallow chutes along the face, but the key is continue farther than you think and beyond a couple patches of small pine trees (see annotated photo above). Once in the correct chute, it’s a pretty straightforward ascent up class 2 and 3 slabs and talus. Near the top of this first chute, move climber’s right into a second chute. Once in the second chute ascend 3rd class blocks about 100 vertical feet to find a convenient ledge that provides relatively easy access to a third chute. The third chute contains an impressive chockstone that must be climbed underneath and through. As described above, the chockstone is likely chocked with snow and ice until well into the summer season and the alternatives to get around the chockstone entails some exposed 4th class scrambling. Once through the chockstone there is a little more scrambling before an obvious wide ledge is found that cuts across the entire west face of the middle peak and emerges near the summit. This ledge is quite miraculous since the face is otherwise nearly vertical granite and without it this would surely be a technical climb. At the end of the ledge, a few more class 3 moves deposits one on the summit. As Whorl is essentially a giant granite wedge between Spiller Canyon and Matterhorn Canyon, the views are stellar and include the Sawtooth Ridge, Virginia Peak, Mount Conness and the Roof of Yosemite at Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure. The fun does not need to end with Whorl. On the way back to Horse Creek Pass, turn uphill and ascend to Matterhorn Pass to make a loop including Burro Pass and Ice Lakes Pass. Matterhorn Pass is a little tricky to approach from the south as you must ascend a gully to a point above the pass before exiting the gully and descending the ridge back to the low point at the pass. The north side of Matterhorn Pass is easy and the descent into upper Matterhorn Canyon is gorgeous. Once in the canyon, intersect the trail and soon after reach spectacular Burro Pass. The views of Sawtooth Ridge only improve as one descends into the upper reaches of Slide Canyon. The meadows here are among my favorite in all of the High Sierra. Instead of ascending up to Mule Pass, head cross country to Ice Lakes Pass to get close-up views of Ice Lake, Maltby Lake, and the granite monolith of the Incredible Hulk. This is really an amazing area! The descent through Little Slide Canyon is arduous and takes some time, but once on the Barney Lake Trail it’s smooth sailing back to Twin Lakes. Alternatively, keeping to the maintained trail out of Slide Canyon includes an ascent to Mule Pass with fantastic views and pretty lakes. You really can’t go wrong in this region! GPS route here.
Northeast Yosemite is one of my favorite places in the Sierra Nevada. The peaks are not as high as the Southern Sierra, but it’s a distinctly alpine region characterized by a series of long glacier-carved canyons separated by sharp granitic peaks and ridgelines. The numerous canyons (from east to west) include Virginia Canyon, Spiller Canyon, Matterhorn Canyon, Slide Canyon, Rock Canyon, Kerrick Canyon, Thompson Canyon, Stubblefield Canyon, Tilden Canyon and Jack Main Canyon (see annotated satellite image of the canyons). All of the canyons flow into the Tuolumne River watershed and provide virtually limitless opportunities for exploration, and several of the canyons are completely trail-less canyons. The entire region offers some of the best wilderness terrain to wander off the beaten path in solitude. On this day I was looking for a relatively quick afternoon warm-up (post drive from the Bay Area) before my trip to Arrow Peak’s northeast ridge so I decided to do Virginia Peak, a striking peak that rises between the deeply-carved Spiller Canyon and Virginia Canyon. From the summit of Virginia Peak there is a magnificent view in all directions, including the impressively steep Whorl Mountain across picturesque Spiller Canyon, Matterhorn Peak at the head of the canyon, Mount Conness and Shepherd Crest to the south, and the Roof of Yosemite including Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure and Mount Florence.
The shortest and likely quickest access to Virginia Peak is via the Green Lake Trailhead, but I decided to access via Virginia Lakes, a pretty chain of alpine lakes I had never seen with trailhead access that is almost all on paved road (the Green Lake TH is a long dirt road). Moreover, the Virginia Lakes TH starts a bit higher. The downside is the approach builds in an extra climb over a saddle that is over 11,000 ft resulting in a decent climb on the way back. On balance, the extra distance to the peak seemed worthwhile. I used maintained paths to below Summit Lake and then set off cross-country traversing across the lowest slopes of Camiaca Peak to Upper Virginia Canyon. A trail once existed in upper Virginia Canyon but I could only find bits and pieces of it in the meadows. Either way, travel is easy in the canyon and the main objective is to avoid brush patches that tend to grow near the watercourse. At the highest reaches of Virginia Canyon a headwall is reached with a waterfall. Apparently an easy route exists to bypass the waterfall and continue along the main drainage, but I found a nice gully to the right that provided an easy “staircase” up to the granite benches and talus fields below Virginia Peak and Twin Peaks Pass. The final ascent to the pass entailed some loose rock, but I was soon traversing over to the start of the scramble. The final scramble up Virginia Peak’s northeast ridge is short and mostly class 2 with a couple class 3 moves. The view from the top is awesome and I soaked in the scenery for nearly an hour before returning to the Virginia Lakes TH with plenty of time to drive south for the next day’s adventure. GPS route here.
Running the John Muir Trail was an incredible experience. My personal account of the FKT effort is posted at iRunFar.com. A special thanks goes to my amazing support crew who really can’t be thanked enough. An excerpt is below, but be sure to read the full report here.
With my extensive travels in the Sierra, the John Muir Trail has always been on my list of things to try but for various reasons I was unable to put together an attempt until now. Initial aspirations for the JMT in 2013 were derailed by an Achilles injury, but recovery in the late season enabled me to do some fun adventures in the Sierra that rekindled the inspiration to make an attempt in 2014. However, the distance and ruggedness always seemed intimidating to me, and the potential aftermath of a broken-down body seemed downright terrifying. Despite having second thoughts, I was lucky enough that preparation entailed doing what I love to do anyways, which is exploring rugged and wild mountainous areas, both on-trail and off-trail. In fact, the process of preparing for the JMT was just as enjoyable as doing the JMT itself. There was no regimented training plan, instead just a lot of adventures exploring tremendously beautiful places in the Sierra, the Santa Lucia Mountains of Big Sur and the Lost Coast of Northern California. These adventures came naturally and despite acknowledging that they would cumulatively help a possible JMT attempt, I had no specific training for the JMT. In fact, many of these adventures were groundbreaking accomplishments in themselves, including the La Ventana Loop and ‘The Drain’ route in the Ventana Wilderness, an FKT up Cone Peak on the Big Sur coast, the King Range 50 at the Lost Coast, and the Complete Lost Coast with Rickey Gates. I spent many weekends in the Sierra scrambling up peaks and designing aesthetic off-trail routes, enjoying the wonders of the Sierra off the beaten path. At the end of the day, despite all of the adventures, I still wasn’t sure if I was adequately prepared for the big task of 223 miles along the JMT. After all, I had no prior multi-day experience or even 100-mile experience under my belt. On the other hand, I rationalized that the time on my feet pursuing these arduous adventures gave me a decent shot and I knew the High Sierra very well.
Read the full report at iRunFar.com!
Read more about my JMT FKT at iRunFar.com. I hope to be back to my regularly scheduled programming of Sierra adventures soon :)
Arrow Peak and Bench Lake have been on my list of places to visit for several years. The iconic view of Arrow Peak towering above Bench Lake was one of the first images of the High Sierra that inspired me to explore the range when I first moved to California. However, a relatively long approach over Taboose Pass and an even longer drive from the Bay Area to the trailhead likely deterred me from getting it done. On an ideal early summer morning I finally made it out to Bench Lake to see in person what I had dreamed of all those years. Often times such anticipation built up over a long time can result in unrealistic expectations, and commensurate anticlimactic experiences, but the scenery surpassed even what I had imagined. Bench Lake is a Sierra gem with a priceless view as aptly named Arrow Peak reflects in its waters. The objective for the day was the 2,700 vertical foot Northeast Ridge route up Arrow Peak which is front and center when viewed from Bench Lake and looks quite intimidating from that vantage. However, once on the route one discovers that the technicality is limited to a class 3 scramble with just enough exposure and steepness to make it an engaging and fun route. Combined with the outrageous views en route, the northeast ridge of Arrow is one of the most aesthetic scramble routes in all of the High Sierra. This region of the range is probably the area I have spent the least amount of time so it was great to finally get out there to see the amazing scenery and dream up future routes in the area. GPS route here.
The logical approach to the Bench Lake and the Northeast Ridge of Arrow Peak is via Taboose Pass, an infamous pass that starts in the sage-filled desert of the Owens Valley and climbs 6,000 vertical feet to the pass in a consistent ascent with little shade. Starting before dawn, I found the trail reasonable and a fairly efficient way to reach the crest and the incredible beauty that lies beyond. In other words, I hope to be back to Taboose Pass soon. I can’t say as much for the access road which is totally beat up with large rocks everywhere. In many ways the access road is in worse shape than the trail! While having a low clearance vehicle doesn’t help, this road wouldn’t be much faster in a high clearance vehicle. Most of the obstructions are large rocks buried in the sand so it doesn’t seem like it would take much machinery to improve this rough road dramatically, but I guess the poor condition naturally regulates visitation. When I’m driving under 10 mph I start to second guess why I’m driving at all (as opposed to running). Next time I will likely park my car at the end of the pavement and jog up the east slopes of the Owens Valley to the trailhead.
As mentioned, the Taboose Pass trail starts in a desert environment with sage and sand. The going is slow for awhile until one enters the Taboose Canyon where the tread improves. The trail steadily climbs along the north side of Taboose Creek before crossing the stream and entering the only shaded part of the climb in a beautiful pine forest. The shade is short lived and soon the trail is back to switchbacking through open talus slopes. The grade eases up towards the pass where there are numerous small tarns and the terrain gradually shifts from rock to tundra. At Taboose Pass one enters Kings Canyon National Park and is greeted by a lovely view down the South Fork Kings Canyon, the Cirque Crest, Bench Lake and Arrow Peak. The connector trail from Taboose Pass to the John Muir Trail is an amazing stretch with glorious meadows and astounding views. Turning south on the JMT for merely a hundred meters brings you to junction with Bench Lake. Judging by the faint tread it seems as if few through hikers bother to take the time to visit Bench Lake. This has served the Bench Lake area well as it seems unspoiled for such a beatiful spot. The trail to Bench Lake gradually descends through pine forest passing a couple small lakes to reach Bench Lake, a Sierra gem with one of the finest views in the range.
After a beautiful stretch along Bench Lake’s shores the trail peters out, but off-trail travel is easy through through open pine forest over a small rise followed by a descent to a small drainage at the base of Arrow Peak’s Northeast Ridge. The initial slope up to the Northeast ridge can be accomplished by various routes, but they all converge on the ridge crest where the cliffs on either side make the spine of the ridge the logical route. The lower portion of the route features some scrappy low-lying pine trees that can be cumbersome as they tend to grow into thick, unmalleable bushes. The vegetation scrambling peters out about half way up the ridge leaving clean, enjoyable rock scrambling for the second half. The ridge features some nice exposure, a few knife edge sections, and awesome views in all directions including Bench Lake below, the Cirque Crest, and as one ascends higher, the mighty Palisades. The Northeast Ridge is a long and sustained climb with over 2,700 ft of vertical from its base to the summit. Once on top, enjoy Arrow Peak’s amazing view, perfectly positioned to have one of the best 360 degree panoramas in all of the High Sierra. To the south lies the Kings-Kern Divide, Great Western Divide and the Kaweah Range. To the north is the Goddard-Evolution area and the Palisades. Close at hand is the Cirque Crest, a region of the High Sierra I have yet to visit but near the top of my list for future exploration. Perhaps the most compelling view is down the Muro Blanco, or the South Fork Kings River Canyon. This is a truly wild canyon with no trails and sparse documentation. From Arrow Peak’s perch I could see the entire length of the aptly named canyon, which is virtually entirely composed of distinctly white granite slabs and cliffs. From Arrow Peak, the easy descent is off the WSW slopes which have some helpful sand for efficient descending. From Arrow Pass, talus and slabs are taken down to the drainage east of Arrow Peak. This drainage has some gorgeous turquoise pools from which to admire the northeast ridge of Arrow Peak. Ascend back to Bench Lake through the forest and retrace steps over Taboose Pass.