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.

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Granite Dome & Lakes 2017

This was my third time visiting the exceptionally scenic region beneath Granite Dome. In both 2012 and 2014 visits were in early June and most of the lakes were melted out. This time a full month later in early July the lakes were mostly frozen; a testament to the unprecedented High Sierra snowpack received in the winter of 2017. What made this visit special was the colorful ice pools in the lakes, including a heavenly blue pool in Upper Lewis Lake and a stunning teal turquoise color in Ridge Lake. In addition, Iceland Lake was only partially melted out with icebergs and an array of ice colors from green to blue. Similar to my first visit in 2012, I ascended to the top of Granite Dome which has great views of the Emigrant Wilderness and Northern Yosemite. Tower Peak is particularly striking to the east. The crux of the trip was crossing Summit Creek which was raging like a river. There was one safe log over the creek in the vicinity I needed to cross. It was mostly dry in the morning but by afternoon it was wet and I had to carefully scoot across while keeping my feet sufficiently out of the water so the swift current would not pull me in!  It also didn’t help that I had turned my ankle on trail run in and was relegated to walking (carefully) the rest of the outing. Complete photo album here.  Route on Strava here.

Granite Dome is an immense granite massif with numerous micro-basins occupied by a series of stunning alpine lakes set amid granite slabs and cliffs. I like to describe this region as the “Granite Balconies” since each of the lakes can be viewed from above on granite slabs. All of the lakes are located on the northern side of a broad, massive ridge called Granite Dome. The summit is a fairly nondescript and non-prominent point along the ridge. 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 much farther 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.

The ascent to Granite Dome’s summit is fairly straightforward from the lakes. On both of my climbs I ascended directly to the ridge from Upper Lewis Lakes. If early in the season (or a heavy snow year like this year when snow will persist through much of summer) consider bringing ice and crampons as the slope to the ridge is moderately steep. Once on the ridge it’s fairly flat with some nice alpine wildflowers amid the volcanic rocks with some interesting rock features as one approaches the summit. Several false summits are passed on what feels like a long ridge traverse before the highpoint is reached. The best views of the lakes are located slightly below the summit where the flatter rocks of the summit area abruptly transition to the precipitous granite cliffs.

 

 

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!   

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

Robinson Slide Loop

Robinson Creek canyon is a prominent U-shaped glacier carved valley spilling into Twin Lakes outside of Bridgeport. Sawtooth Ridge towers above the canyon, and despite being relatively lower in elevation than peaks to the south, it’s one of the most rugged segments of the High Sierra. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I also appreciate the comparatively lush environment including extensive stands of mountain hemlock. It’s no wonder I’m a regular visitor to this corner of Sierra. On my several visits to the region I made note of the aspen groves in the canyon and a point to return during fall color. Last year was a drought year and while there was some color, I knew that it wasn’t near its potential as there was extensive leaf spot caused by winter drought and then a very rainy summer. This year was much more normal with average snowpack and a drier summer. The result was a phenomenal fall color show that was virtually unabated from just outside the Twin Lakes trailhead all the way to a mile beyond Barney Lake. That’s 5+ miles of virtually non-stop fall color. What I love about the fall color show here is the exceptionally rugged setting and the fact that the best stuff is not roadside. You’ve got hike at least a couple miles to find the better groves and it only gets better the farther you go. The result is a peaceful experience without the tourists and without the tripod-toting shooting gallery. The most mature old-growth aspen stand is just before Barney Lake but some of the best colors can be found in the “fields” of stunted slide aspen. Unlike many other regions where aspen are usually very straight in stature, the aspen in the Sierra Nevada are often contorted due to the harsh growing environment with high winds, deep snowfall, and in this location, avalanches. When combined with the dramatic peaks rising above the canyon and the wilderness character, this fall color show is tough to beat. Perhaps my favorite grove is at the base of Little Slide Canyon (first picture below) where one can obtain a nicely framed shot of the aspen and the rugged backdrop of Little Slide Canyon including the Incredible Hulk and Kettle Peak. GPS route hereThe focus of this trip was the outstanding fall color in Robinson Creek canyon but I also found the loop of Robinson and Little Slide canyons to be an excellent run or hike any time of the year with scenery including several charming lakes and panoramic views. In addition, there are opportunities to scramble many nearby peaks including Crown Point, Eocene Peak and Kettle Peak. I chose to make the quick trip up Slide Mountain this time as I had never been there before. At the head of the valley beyond Barney Lake, the trail leaves the aspen and switchbacks up a slope toward Peeler Lake. Shortly before Peeler Lake is a junction: veer left to head toward Rock Island Pass. The trail climbs through an old-growth Mountain Hemlock forest before reaching a magical emerald tarn with hemlocks surrounding and Crown Point looming above. Right after the tarn are the Robinson Lakes nestled within the granite rocks. The incredible scenery continues at Crown Lake with granite buttresses descending into the water and picturesque mountain hemlocks and whitebark pines sprinkled about the lakeshore. The trail climbs once again above Crown Lake before reaching a pleasant meadow and another trail junction. Head left to take the trail to Mule Pass. This stretch of trail switchbacks up a north facing slope and often holds snow until well into summer on a normal snow year. In fact, it might be one of the latest melting stretches of trail in the high Sierra. The terrain flattens out next to a tarn with a thick krummholz stand of Whitebark Pines. From this tarn it’s a fairly gradual finish to Mule Pass. While Mule Pass has an excellent view in its own right, the quality of the vista improves greatly if one ascends to Slide Mountain, which is the high point above a distinct feature known as “The Slide.”  Slide Mountain is a fairly nondescript summit with several rock outcroppings vying for the highpoint, but the grand view is essentially the same and includes the Incredible Hulk, Sawtooth Ridge, Finger Peaks, Whorl Mountain and Mount Conness. One can reach Slide Mountain directly from the tarn below Mule Pass by taking a steep rock and snow gully or the more moderate route ascends sand and granite slabs from Mule Pass. Back at Mule Pass follow the trail down as it traverses through lovely parkland with meadows mixed with granite slabs. At a flat area, leave the trail and walk through meadows and tarns toward Ice Lake Pass. Ice Lake can be traversed either on its west or east side, but both sides require some climbing to get up and around granite cliffs that descend into the lake. While the eastern traverse may be easier, my preference is the west side traverse since from this route one obtains a breathtaking view of Maltby Lake nestled among reddish slabs that precipitously descend into its waters with Kettle Peak to the left, the Incredible Hulk to the right and Little Slide Canyon below. On the north side of Ice Lake a use path appears in the sand and can be followed toward the base of the Incredible Hulk with some intermittent talus fields to cross. The Incredible Hulk is one of the most amazing rock features in the high Sierra. Words and photographs do not do this gleaming 1,200 ft face justice. Every time I pass underneath the cliffs I’m in awe of the striking white cliffs contrasting with the deep blue Sierra skies. Below the Hulk, the use path descends into Little Slide Canyon utilizing small gullies and then crossing some talus fields. While there is a path that is followable, it’s a fairly rugged descent all the way to the base of Little Slide Canyon where it crosses Robinson Creek. On the north of Robinson Creek the climbers path quickly joins the Barney Lake Trail and from there it’s only a couple miles back to Twin Lakes. This post describes only one potential loop and it’s impossible to go wrong in this region, but I feel like this loop does a great job hitting many of the scenic highlights in the area. When combined with fall color at its peak it was one of my most memorable days in the Sierra all year. 

Mineral, Needham, Sawtooth Loop

Mineral King is a high glacial valley at the south end of the Sierra Nevada nestled beneath the Great Western Divide. The valley has a long history of human interaction dating back to 19th century silver mining, and more recently, aspirations to turn the valley into a ski resort by Walt Disney. Fortunately, preservationists won this battle and Mineral King was protected for future generations by adding it to Sequoia National Park in 1978. While the entire valley is now a within the park, many structures remain as descendants from the original mining families continue to inhabit cabins. Fortunately, the cabins do not distract from the remote and wild feeling of the valley with its spectacular meadows and prominent granite peaks. Through late July, the valley is teaming with hungry marmots that have unfortunately developed an appetite for antifreeze fluid and it’s strongly recommended that all visitors wrap their car with a tarp. This is still a beautiful time to visit, but be mindful of the extra hassle.  In late summer the marmots are no longer a problem.  In late September and early October, groves of aspen which are fairly rare on the west side of the Sierra provide lovely fall colors. Gone are the days when of mining and ski resort speculation, Mineral King is now most popular with hikers and backpackers who are willing to brave the 20+ mile narrow and winding road to enjoy the natural splendor of the valley and the rugged granitescape beyond. There are many options for on-trail and off-trail hikes and numerous objectives in the region, but the following describes a very aesthetic loop including Mineral Peak, Needham Mountain and Sawtooth Peak.  More photos here.    Beginning at the Sawtooth Peak Trailhead take the trail up to the turnoff for Crystal Lake. The Sawtooth Peak Trail was cut along a forested hillside with very gradual switchbacks. The moderate grade makes for a pleasant run of what would otherwise be a frustratingly slow walk. Open meadows and firs at the bottom transition to southern foxtail pines which are always a pleasure to walk among. The Crystal Lake Trail gets much less use than the Sawtooth Peak Trail that leads to the Monarch Lakes and after a traverse begins a moderately steep climb up to a small notch along the west ridge of Mineral Peak. From this notch, the trail traverses into meadows above Crystal Creek before making a series of switchbacks up the final headwall to Crystal Lake. Crystal Lake is not conveniently walked along it’s shores; instead a pass north of the lake leads to a small tarn beneath Mineral Peak. The climb up to Mineral Peak is fairly straightforward with a mix of sand, talus and a short scramble that is mostly class 2 with a few class 3 moves depending on the exact route chosen. Aptly-named Mineral Peak is a relatively small mountain composed of several different colors of rock ranging from red to white. Owing to its centralized location, the view from the summit is fantastic and includes Sawtooth Peak rising steeply above Monarch Lake, Crystal Lake, the Mineral King Valley and the southern end of the Great Western Divide around Mount Florence. From Mineral Peak retrace steps down the scramble portion to the sandy slopes above the Crystal Lake tarn and then traverse slabs and sand to a broad pass above Amphitheater Lake. A few easy class 3 moves are found on either side of this pass. Take a moment at the pass to marvel at the striking curvature of the granite along the crest of the ridge. The descent to Ampitheater Lake is somewhat tricky as direct access to the lakeshore below is barred by steep and smooth granite slabs. Instead making a direct descent to the lake, traverse in a southerly direction along talus staying below cliffs of the crest and above the steep slabs descending to the lake. Eventually a small gully with grass patches and talus enables a descent down to the southwest corner of Ampitheater Lake.      Ampitheater is a somewhat common name in the Sierra and the Amphitheather Lake of Sawtooth Peak is not to be confused with the Ampitheater Lake which lies beneath Ampitheater Peak at the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Kings Canyon. What these two Ampitheater Lakes share in common is striking beauty and both are gems of the Sierra Nevada. As one would expect, there is definitely an amphitheater feeling with the rugged ridge from Needham Mountain to Sawtooth Peak and down to Peak 12,109 surrounding the lake. Rounding the south and east shores of Ampitheater Lake, one obtains a close up view of picturesque granite islands with such clear waters that one can easily see rocks at the lake bottom. From Ampitheater Lake pleasant slabs and meadows lead to the base of Needham Mountain. From here, Needham Mountain becomes a bit of a slog with some sandy slopes and loose rocks. Staying near the ridge crest on more solid rocks eliminates some of the slog but it’s not a very stimulating climb. The summit block is a somewhat nondescript with several different pinnacles vying for the highest point. What Needham lakes in climbing aesthetics it makes up with excellent 360 degree views including the Whitney Zone area, the Kaweah Peaks Ridge and the Great Western Divide. Moreover, the sandy slopes make for a enjoyable plunge step descent.To continue the loop to Sawtooth Peak, traverse sand and slabs and then climb talus slopes up to Sawtooth Peak, the most famous and most sought after summit in the region. Sawtooth has equally impressive views, particularly of the many lakes that surround its rocky slopes including Ampitheater Lake, Crystal Lake, the Monarch lakes to the south and the large Columbine Lake to the north. Mineral Peak takes on a particularly impressive profile from this angle. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge continue to play a star role in the view, as they do from virtually any high point in the southern part of the Sierra Nevada. From Sawtooth Peak I’ve found it’s best to descend below the crest of the ridge and take sandy use paths toward Sawtooth Pass. Unfortunately this sandy open terrain promotes a lot of braiding paths and even the designated trail is somewhat difficult to spot and stay on as there are so many different interconnecting paths.  The good news is one does not even need to find the Sawtooth Pass trail as the most efficient way down to Mineral King is directly down from Glacier Pass to Monarch Creek. The beginning of this descent is largely cross country but bits of old trail become more defined as one descends. At meadows ~9,600 ft, the old trail becomes much more defined as it traverses the final headwall down to the designated Sawtooth Peak Trail where the loop is complete and only a short bit of trail leads back down to the trailhead.   

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Thunder Mountain

I seem to be drawn back to Lake Reflection every year, one of my favorite lakes in the High Sierra. The lake sits in a bowl underneath the high peaks of the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide. Cliffs tumble to near the water’s edge and beautiful glacier polished granite slabs line the shoreline. The lake has just enough pines and foliage to give it an  alpine charm that is not found at higher lakes devoid of vegetation. On the way to the wonderful Lake Reflection one passes by East Lake, another Sierra gem. On a calm morning the surrounding peaks reflect in the still waters creating a classic Sierra scene. It’s tough to beat the beauty of these two lakes and that’s the reason why I keep coming back. Full photo album here. The album and photos here are all iphone – maybe I’ll get to the photos from the dedicated camera someday! 

Fortunately, there are enough high peaks in the area that I’ve been able to climb something new each time I’ve visited Lake Reflection. Aside from another opportunity to photograph and enjoy the lakes, the objective this time was 13,550 ft Thunder Mountain, a spectacular peak at the north end of the highest section of the Great Western Divide including Milestone Mountain, Midway Mountain and Table Mountain. The mountain is particularly striking when viewed from the north and is one of the more remote peaks in the High Sierra. I’ve looked at the mountain from all different angles and it was somewhat surprising  to me that I hadn’t climbed it until now, but I’m glad I reserved this magnificent peak for a picturesque and crisp late summer day.

From Road’s End it would be over 19 miles each way to the summit of Thunder Mountain and nearly 9,500 feet of cumulative elevation gain (Strava route here). After 15 miles on trail to the outlet of Lake Reflection from Road’s End, it’s only about 4 miles from there to the summit, but it’s all off-trail and includes some navigation through steep granite slabs and a lot of slow going, arduous talus hopping. While the talus is difficult, the scenery continues to impress and more than compensates for the tediousness. The initial climb up from Lake Reflection reveals awesome views looking back at the lake and Deerhorn Mountain’s rugged north face. Farther up, the dramatic east face of Sky Pilot Peak dominates the view. Upon rounding a corner, one is treated to a fantastic series of rockbound lakes. Unlike Lake Reflection 2,000 feet below, these lakes have virtually no vegetation, but each posses beautiful clear waters with the pyramidal-shaped Thunder Mountain towering above. 

The standard route to climb Thunder Mountain from Lake Reflection ascends to Thunder Pass which is an absolute mess of loose rock, gravel and sand, followed by somewhat more solid class 2 terrain to the south summit and then some exposed class 3 traversing to the summit block on the north summit. In 2008, Bob Burd pioneered a new route up Thunder Mountain that would avoid the tedious climb up to Thunder Pass and deposit one at a notch between the south and middle summits. This notch includes a unique rock bridge/window. Bob’s “east face/east chute” route uses a right hand chute on the east face of the mountain to ascend above the initial cliffy headwall and utilizes some ledges to move into the central/main chute which goes all the way up to the notch. From the lakes beneath Thunder Mountain this route looks steep and improbable for class 3 but once on the route it’s surprisingly straightforward and goes at class 3. Kudos to Bob Burd for trying this route. As a first ascentionist I can understand why there would have been some uncertainty that the route would go as a scramble.  I also second Bob’s conclusion that this is a far superior ascent route versus the extremely tedious climb up to Thunder Pass. From the rock bridge some exposed class 3 scrambling brings one to the summit block which has a class 4 move using a chock stone in a crack. As expected, the summit views from Thunder Mountain are awesome and include everything from the Goddard Divide to the Palisades to Mountain Whitney. I particularly enjoyed the views to Cloud Canyon, the Whaleback and Glacier Ridge. On the way back I crossed over the rock bridge and traversed over the south summit which has nice unobstructed views to a lake south of Thunder Pass with Sierra Crest from Mount Williamson to Mount Whitney rising behind. The south summit also has a nice view looking back to the middle and north summits and the high peaks of the Great Western Divide. In particular, one can grasp just how big Table Mountain is – flattish at the top but surrounded by a myriad of complex cliffs and chutes on all sides. 

Coming down from Thunder Pass I tried to find some terrain that was conducive to plunge stepping and was successful for a couple hundred vertical before the terrain turned into loose rocks. Fortunately some remaining snow patches helped with some of the descent. The descent down to Lake Reflection in afternoon light was delightful and I soon found myself doing the familiar run down Bubbs Creek with evening light on Mount Bago, Bubbs Creek Wall and Charlotte Dome.  As darkness closed in on the canyon I was already dreaming up more reasons to come back Lake Reflection 🙂

Full photo album (iphone) here.  I brought my dedicated camera and took a lot of photos with it as well but who knows when I will get to looking at those photos.