The South Coast of Big Sur has some of the best scenery of the entire Big Sur coast. The majority of the region is protected by the Silver Peak Wilderness, a 31,555 acre wilderness established in 1992. While only a fraction of the size of the better known Ventana Wilderness to the north, there are several awesome trails and great opportunities for exploration in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The region has great biodiversity of vegetation including redwoods, chaparral, oak woodland, pine forest, and even some groves of the rare Santa Lucia Fir. Villa Canyon and Salmon Creek Canyons are the heart of the wilderness and are both spectacular. Fires have not affected this region in a number of years so the flora is generally more developed with far fewer signs of fire compared to the badly burned areas of the Ventana Wilderness from the 2008 Basin Complex fires. As the South Coast is far from both the SF Bay Area to the north and the Los Angeles basin to the south, this stretch of the Big Sur Coast is probably the least visited and an excellent location if you’re looking for solitude. On this occasion from back in November I put together a loop including Dutra Flats, County Line Ridge and Mount Mars, some of my favorite spots on the South Coast. I enjoyed this loop so much that I recently did it again in the reverse direction with Erica and it was nice to see the hills turning green after December Rains (photos here). GPS for Dutra Loop here.
The Dutra Loop route utilizes a established trails and some use paths giving an excellent taste of both the interior and coastal aspects of the Silver Peak Wilderness. Access to Dutra Flats is via the standard route of the Salmon Creek Trail and Spruce Creek Trail, both awesome single tracks in a lush canyon environment with Douglas Fir forest. The Spruce Creek Trail is especially lush and there is a glimpse of a remote Santa Lucia Fir grove high in the drainage, one of the southernmost stands of the rarest fir on earth. Dutra Flats is such a pleasant peaceful spot with its green pastures lined by gray pines, ponderosa pines and heritage oaks. From the edge of the flats a use path contours down and into the Dutra Creek drainage. The path peters out in the grassy area but is picked up again at the edge of the forest at the bottom of the hill. After crossing Dutra Creek, the well-defined use path heads uphill and emerges at the Baldwin Ranch Road. One can cross Baldwin Ranch Road and continue on more use path to the Baldwin Ranch Shortcut, passing through more beautiful meadows and then entering a pine and oak forest for a climb up to County Line Ridge. A spring about halfway up the climb to County Line Ridge appears to have perennial water. County Line Ridge is a beautiful mixture of grassland and oaks with impressive relief to the Pacific Ocean. On this day I explored two spurs off the main ridge, the better being Point 1950 which has enough horizontal prominence to yield an excellent view up and down the coast including Piedras Blancas and most of the Big Sur south coast. At the north end of County Line Ridge a use path traverses the various summits of Mount Mars through pine forest and then chapparal. Beyond the highest summit, the path emerges on the impressively steep grassy slope of Mount Mars. This steep grassy slope is a Big Sur classic with incredible relief down the deep blue ocean seemingly at your feet. At the base of this grassy ridge a use path can be taken back down to the Salmon Creek Trail. After the Dutra Loop I headed up to Point 2866 via the Soda Creek Trailhead. Point 2866 is on the WSW ridge coming off Silver Peak. The ridge contains several high points but the last one and most dramatic is Point 2866. It appears this point has no official name but “Soda Peak” makes geographical sense since it sits at the head of the Soda Creek drainage. Since Soda Peak is the last point of prominence along the ridge it has a commanding view of the south Big Sur coast. The rocky limestone summit is also mostly free of brush enabling an excellent 360 degree panorama including San Martin Top, Silver Peak, Cone Peak and Mount Mars. I guessed that evening light would be great from this spot and I was not disappointed. The easiest way to reach Soda Peak is via the Soda Creek Trailhead and then the Buckeye Trail. At about 2,100 ft along the Buckeye Trail take a use trail on the southern of two spur ridges coming off Soda Peak. The use path is fairly easy to follow and in about 750 vertical feet you’re on top and gazing across the Soda Creek drainage to Mount Mars and beyond, a truly spectacular vantage. It’s only about 3 miles each way to Soda Peak, but the few miles pack around 2,500 ft of elevation gain.
From Big Sur to the High Sierra, 2014 was another tremendous year of adventures. As I did in 2013 and past years (links to past year’s recaps located on right sidebar of homepage), this post lists all of the adventures for 2014 in chronological order with a link to the blog post, where available, or photo album. My most notable adventure the year was completing the John Muir Trail in a new FKT, and in the process holding the FKTs for three of the most famous and iconic trails in the High Sierra at the same time: the High Sierra Trail, the John Muir Trail and the Rae Lakes Loop. I am grateful to have the opportunity to make these improvements in the FKT/adventure sport in the High Sierra. I also achieved FKTs in the California coastal ranges including Big Sur and the Lost Coast. I have no doubt these times will be lowered in the future. However, much more than any time or split, what stands out the most as I look back on 2014 and my entire portfolio of adventures is the volume of experiences I’ve had exploring wild and rugged places in the mountains. The greatest award or achievement I can find in this sport is not a place or a ranking, but the joy of exploration and discovery of the splendors of nature. Being in the wilderness is a visceral and spiritual experience that is far form the pageantry and commercialization of organized sports. From sea to summit, I hope 2015 finds me on many more adventures!
The Santa Ynez Mountains are an east to west coastal mountain range part of the greater Transverse Ranges of Southern California. The range is essentially a high ridge with steep and rugged terrain on either side mostly inhabited by chaparral vegetation but there is oak woodland on the lower slopes and some pine tree stands on the ridge crest. Immediately above Santa Barbara is one of the higher points along the ridge, La Cumbre Peak, rising nearly 4,000 ft in short order from downtown and the highest point by the city. The Cathedral Peak route is an amazing line up the spine of a rugged ridge to La Cumbre Peak in the Santa Barbara front country. Along the route is an exquisite section of Matilija sandstone that is ubiquitous on the ridge leading to Arlington Peak and is sustained for over 2 miles of rock hopping and scrambling totaling nearly 2,000 vertical feet. Add in astounding view of the coastline, Channel Islands and Santa Ynez Mountains and you have one of the finest coastal scrambles along the west coast. The route starts at the end of the road in foothill residential community of Santa Barbara. Parking is limited and challenging so expect to walk an extra section of road on weekends. From the trailhead, travel about a mile along the paved Edison access road and then turn left to follow a short section on the Jesusita Trail. When the Jesusita Trail crosses Mission Creek, turn right and take a use path that rises steeply above the Mission Creek canyon. This rugged canyons was basically dry when we ascended the route, but after rains there are several pools and waterfalls. The trail continues to rise steeply to the distinct southeast ridgeline of Arlington Peak. From this point is a sustained 2 mile rock hop scramble on beautiful Matilija sandstone with it’s distinctive rock formations and orange color to the 3,275 ft summit of Arlington Peak. This section is arduous and steep, but the views of the Santa Barbara and Ventura County coastline are incredible. As one ascends higher, the views become increase with an excellent vantage into the Mission Creek Canyon and beyond to the spine of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the Santa Barbara region and the Channel Islands. The summit of Arlington marks the end of the sustained scrambling and the trail levels off as it continues to Cathedral Peak, with its impressive south buttress cliff face visible from many points in Santa Barbara. A use path continues from Cathedral Peak in a chaparral tunnel down to a saddle from which a final very steep section that leads to the summit of La Cumbre Peak. La Cumbre Peak is vehicle accessible via the East Camino Cielo Road. For an excellent loop back to the trailhead, travel along the road east to the upper trailhead of the Tunnel Trail, one of the more popular trails in the Santa Barbara Frontcountry. The Tunnel Trail traverses along the canyon of Mission Creek and then switchbacks down to the access road with excellent views back to Arlington Peak and Cathedral Peak. This is a super fun route that I hope to do again next time I’m in Santa Barbara. GPS route here.
Wildcat Point and Cold Mountain are two fairly remote and obscure destinations north of Tuolumne Meadows between the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and canyon country of northeast Yosemite. The scenery at both locations is stunning. Wildcat Point is to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne what Clouds Rest is to Tenaya Canyon; a lofty viewpoint perched thousands of feet above a rugged granitic canyon. The primary difference between the two is that Wildcat Point does not have a trail and it’s rarely visited. Meanwhile, Cold Mountain is not a high or remarkable summit by most standards, but its isolated and central position surrounded by deep canyons provides a spectacular 360 degree view, especially into northerneast Yosemite’s canyon country to Sawtooth Ridge. Just to the north of Cold Mountain is a subsidiary peaklet I dubbed “Cold Point” which contains an amazing view of rarely seen Virginia Lake with a sea of granite peaks and domes in the background. Starting at Tuolumne Meadows I started by taking the trail to Glen Aulin. I ran into quite a bit of snow and ice covering the trail which slowed things down; it was November after all. From Glen Aulin I started down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne but soon turned off the trail to head up beautiful smooth granite slabs toward Wildcat Point. Views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne opened up with each step. About halfway up the side of the canyon I took a shallow gully with a little bit of brush to the upper granitic slopes that were more moderately sloped with easy terrain leading to the base of Wildcat Point, which is more of a dome. After some brief scrambling I was at the top marveling at the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne several thousand feet below. The views are excellent from the top of the dome, but the best views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne are further down the ridge at a point where the gentle granite slabs end and a sheer drop into the canyon begins. From this point one can gaze from Tuolumne Meadows to all the way down the Canyon to Pate Valley. Wildcat View provides perhaps the best view of Tuolumne Peak as it rises impressively on the south side of the canyon with cliffs and buttresses leading all the way down to the canyon bottom. From Wildcat Point I traversed a pleasant alpine basin to Cold Mountain, which included beautiful Mattie Lake and another unnamed alpine lake directly below Cold Mountain. The final ascent to Cold Mountain was on friendly granite slabs. Ironically, the summit of Cold Mountain was warm for November. I enjoyed the view over lunch with calm winds and blazing sunshine. Gazing over miles of wilderness in all directions I experienced true solitude as the snowy trail conditions and late season meant that I was the only human around for miles. After my summit break I explored the area, including a visit to a peaklet north of the summit I dubbed “Cold Point.” This spot had perhaps my favorite view of the day with a spectacular vantage of rarely seen Virginia Lake and a sea of granite domes in the background culminating in rugged Sawtooth Ridge and Whorl Mountain above Matterhnorn Canyon. From Cold Mountain I descended forested slopes to Cold Canyon where I found the trail back to Glen Aulin. On the way back from Glen Aulin, instead of returning by trail, I visited a number of domes with excellent views of Tuolumne Meadows and the Cathedral Range. The day finished with an delightful sunset from Olmstead Point (the actual point, not the parking lot). Full album here and GPS route here.
Two spots are referred to as the Diving Board on Half Dome. The most commonly visited, but unofficial diving board is located near the summit on a small overhanging lip above the precipitous northwest face. This feature has also been named “The Visor” and is the preferred name to differentiate with the official Diving Board (as labelled on the USGS topographic maps) located just west of Half Dome and directly below the northwest face. Discussion of the Diving Board hereinafter refers to the official Diving Board. The Diving Board is the location of one of Ansel Adams’ most famous photos, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken in 1927. Ansel was mesmerized by this location and described it as a “wondrous place… a great shelf of granite, slightly overhanging, and nearly 4000 feet above its base…the most exciting subject awaiting me.” 87 years later the Diving Board is just as captivating with the perspective of Half Dome from the Diving Board simply spectacular. The northwest face rises a sheer 2,000 feet and takes on the appearance of a colossal skyscraper. Most of the day the face is in the shade but in the afternoon it is slowly “revealed” from left to right as the sun progresses toward the western horizon. Ansel Adams captured this transition beautifully in his photo, remarking that he saw “the majesty of the sculptural shape of the Dome in the solemn effect of half sunlight and half shadow.” Ultimately, the entire face is illuminated by the afternoon sunlight and the evening progression brings an array of colors from grayish white in the late afternoon to yellow in the evening to orange at sunset and finally reddish at alpenglow.
The Diving Board is not far from the hustle and bustle of Yosemite Valley, but no trail reaches the point and any route requires some navigation and route finding skills. The most common and easiest route utilizes a use path that starts above Vernal Falls that travels behind Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick to Lost Lake. The use path continues past Lost Lake to a small saddle between Mount Broderick and Half Dome and then descends on the other side of the saddle before beginning a climb up steep slopes to the Diving Board. The more scenic and aesthetic route, known as “The Ledges” takes a different use path uphill from the Broderick-Half Dome Saddle to a series of well-placed ledges that cut across a granite slope. The Ledges route is the rock climbers’ approach to the popular Snake Dike route and other rock climbs in the vicinity. With close attention to cairns marking the path of least resistance, most brush can be avoided on this approach route. When the route reaches the ever-steepening cliffs of Half Dome’s southwest face, the ledges cut across the granite to climbers left. The various ledges are separated by short sections of class 3 climbing and a couple friction moves on the granite. From the ledges there are excellent views of Little Yosemite Valley, Cascade Cliffs, Bunnell Point, Mount Starr King and Mount Clark. Beyond the ledges, the approach switchbacks up to the start of the Snake Dike route. For the Diving Board, leave the approach route before it reaches the base of Half Dome and traverse right across lightly bushy terrain to a forested area in a small bowl. From the forest, travel up steep gravel slopes for the final couple hundred feet of vertical to the Diving Board.
The view from the Diving Board is remarkable. Aside from Half Dome’s massive northwest face front and center, North Dome, Basket Dome and Mount Watkins are prominent across Tenaya Canyon. Most of the major features of Yosemite Valley are visible including Glacier Point, the Royal Arches, Washington Column, Yosemite Falls, Eagle Peak and El Capitan. The view immediately below from the overhanging rock is vertigo-inducing with nearly 3,000 feet of air to the floor of Yosemite Valley. On this day, the black oaks and maple trees in the Valley were in full fall color adding further intrigue to the view at the bottom of the precipitous drop. An alternative approach route to Lost Lake is the small gully between Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick. This narrow corridor is situated between too massive, sculpted granite features and is worth the extra time and effort versus the easy usetrail above Vernal Falls. The route to this corridor between Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick begins at the point where the Mist Trail touches the granite of Liberty Cap. The use path traverses alongside the base of of Liberty Cap before dropping into the gully. Once in the gully it’s fairly obvious to head up the narrow corridor passing by some pine and fir trees along the way and a hanging valley with a meadow. The final portion enters a forest of fir and aspen before joining up with the primary use path to Lost Lake. The first dozen or so photos below are from this alternative route through the Broderick-Liberty Gap corridor and the remainder are from the Ledges Route and the Diving Board in general chronological order as the sunlight exposed the northwest face of Half Dome and the subsequent evening light progression. The Diving Board is certainly a spot I will return to experience in different season with varying light angles and clouds. I also hope to visit the spot when it is snow covered.
I visited Red Mountain and Hell for Sure Lake around the same time of year in 2012 and had an awesome time so I was looking forward to returning. This time I would ascend Mount Henry at the northern end of the Le Conte Divide with a striking vantage into Piute Canyon and the rugged section of the Sierra Crest in the John Muir Wilderness. As I wrote in 2012, the Le Conte Divide is an often overlooked area west of the Sierra Crest that features spectacular scenery and numerous opportunities for off-trail exploration making this region particularly suitable to adventure running. The divide forms the boundary between the John Muir Wilderness to the west and Kings Canyon National Park to the east. Geographically, to the east is the impressive Goddard Canyon and to the west is a series of spectacular granitic basins with dozens of pristine alpine lakes including Red Mountain Basin, Bench Valley and Blackcap Basin. The peaks on the divide are quite rugged, especially on their north and east sides, which belies the fact that these summits are only around 12,000 feet in elevation and higher neighbors to the east are well over 13,000 feet. Once again, elevation is not everything. The Le Conte Divide also one of the more remote sections of the range and therefore solitude can easily be achieved. The region is guarded by a long approach most often reached from Courtright Reservoir with a minimum of 15 miles on trail just to reach the basins. The long approach is ideal for adventure running as they are fairly moderate (runnable) and are within the pleasant montane forest zone for a large portion. Since the LeConte Divide is so remote, only a handful of peaks have names and the remainder are simply identified by their altitude. The basins to the west of the divide are quintessential Sierra scenery with dozens of gorgeous alpine lakes, tarns and meadows. GPS route here.
On this trip I covered familiar ground for the first 12 miles to the junction with the Hell for Sure Pass Trail. Instead of turning right I continued straight covering new trail to Indian Lakes. From Indian Lakes I headed off cross country through forest that transitioned to grassy benches and granite slopes that led to the West Ridge of Mount Henry. Staying on the crest of the ridge yields some class 3 scrambling. An easier route that I took on the descent is to utilize a chute to access the West Ridge further up. Either way, all of the scrambling is on the lower part of the West Ridge as the upper part transitions to easy talus hopping. Mount Henry’s position at the northern end of the Le Conte Divide provides a stellar view of surrounding mountains, especially looking west into Piute Canyon and the range of peaks from Seven Gables to Bear Creek Spire to Mount Darwin. I would put htis view up among the classics, with incredible relief from canyon to peak and lots of intricate layers in the terrain. Moreover, remote Lake 10,223 provides makes for a beautiful subject in the foreground. I spent a lot of time photographing and enjoying the marvelous vantage. On the descent I veered off the west ridge at its low point via a loose chute and then easy grass terrain down to aptly-named Turf Lakes with an expansive chunk of tundra between the lakes. From Turf Lakes, I embarked on an easy cross country traverse to Davis Lake and up Red Mountain. On Red Mountain I took the north ridge which had some fun solid scrambling instead of the loose west slopes which looked like a real slog. Red Mountain had the same great views I remembered from 2012, especially looking up Goddard Canyon to Mount Goddard and the Hell for Sure Lake Basin. A use path exists from Red Mountain down to Hell for Sure Pass and from there it was all trail back to Courtright Reservoir. In the future I hope to revisit the Le Conte Divdie for explorations of Bench Valley and Blackcap Basin. I would also like to revisit Red Mountain basin for further exploration including an ascent of Mount Hutton and stops at Devils Punchbowl, Little Shot Lake and Big Shot Lake. GPS route here.
The Cirque Crest is located between the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River which form the heart of Kings Canyon National Park. Naturally, the terrain is extremely rugged and the scenery is magnificent. The Cirque Crest is one of the most remote areas in all of the High Sierra. Typical access from the west is via Road’s End and from the east via Taboose Pass. Both options entail lots of trail miles and lots of elevation gain followed by substantial off-trail travel making this region particularly suitable for adventure running. For this exploration into the Cirque Crest region I decided to access from the west side via Road’s End and encircle the western portion of the Cirque Crest including Windy Point and Marion Peak. The route came in over 50 miles with over 15,000 feet of gain and required nearly 19 hours, but it was well worth the effort and I look forward to returning to this rugged and wild region for further exploration. GPS route here. Windy Point is a grand view of the Middle Fork Kings Canyon, one of the most rugged canyons in the world, including Le Conte Canyon, Goddard Creek Canyon and Tehipite Valley, Yosemite Valley’s smaller sibling. The deep chasm of Middle Fork Kings Canyon is surrounded by towering peaks including the fabled Palisades to the east, the Goddard region to the north, and the Cirque Crest to the south. Taken together, this view encompasses the most rugged and wild region of the High Sierra. Windy Point is located about one mile off the Sierra High Route at the end of Windy Ridge that protrudes into the Middle Fork Kings Canyon drainage. For those on the Sierra High Route journey it’s well worth the extra effort to reach this fantastic vantage, a classic view of the High Sierra. Windy Point is also the location of a series of famous Ansel Adams photos and I was privileged to see the same view as Ansel minus the clouds and snow patches in his photos. A comparison of one of Ansel’s photo to mine is provided below.
North Palisade from Windy Point, Ansel Adams 1936 (Note: this artwork may be protected by copyright. It is posted on the site in accordance with fair use principles)
North Palisade from Windy Point, Leor Pantilat, October 12, 2014
After a long time gazing in awe at the stupdenous view from Windy Point, I retraced my steps to the Sierra High Route, passing near Lake 10,236 which has a spectacular backdrop of peaks and canyons behind its blue waters. I continued along the Sierra High Route over Gray Pass to a beautiful basin below the Cirque Crest which gradually ascends to White Pass. At White Pass, I left the Sierra High Route and proceeded up the northwest ridge of Marion Peak. This ridge is mainly a class 2 scramble with a some class 3 in spots but most of the exposure can be avoided. It’s a fun route in an amazing setting with excellent views into Lake Basin. The summit of Marion Peak has a stellar 360 degree view with a sea of peaks all around including the Goddard Divide, the Palisades and the Cirque Crest. To the south, Arrow Peak and Arrow Ridge are prominent and Taboose Pass seems close at hand (but in reality it’s quite a trek).
I descended the steep and very loose southeast chute of Marion Peak into a small basin with a couple alpine lakes and then climbed a talus gully toward a ridge spur off the Cirque Crest. Crossing over this ridge entails some class 3 scrambling and then more easy cros country terrain through a remote basin with a few alpine lakes and excellent views to Arrow Peak and Arrow Ridge. I was hoping to climb State Peak as part of the loop, but when I reached a small col northeast of the mountain it became apparent that to get from my location to State Peak I would need to engage in a time-consuming and exposed ridge traverse. Since my legs were growing tired and sunset was approaching I decided to save State Peak for next time, which proved to be a good decision as I would not have made it back to the trail before dark. Looking over the maps in hindsight I might have been able to get to State Peak via a different approach without this ridge traverse, which is something to keep in mind for next time. This is an area I’ve been wanting to visit for awhile so it was great to finally get out there and I look forward to exploring Lake Basin in the future including Marion Lake. Actual mileage was ~51 miles. GPS route here.