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.
Cherry Creek Canyon is a granite moonscape with fascinating glacial features and stunning scenery that is unlike anywhere else in the Sierra. In other words, it’s ridiculously cool! Located in the Emigrant Wilderness near the border with Yosemite National Park, it’s surprising this canyon was not included within the park, but I’m guessing the line-drawers had no idea what the terrain was like. The ice-polished granite that characterizes 99% of the surface area in upper Cherry Creek Canyon is so white and smooth that it’s easily recognizable from space on visible satellite, clearly standing out from the rest of the range. On the way out via the Kibbie Ridge Trail we learned that Cherry Creek Canyon is known as the “miracle in the Sierra” or the “holy grail” in the whitewater kayaking community and is among the best in the world for Class V+ expedition kayaking (a group from New Zealand was preparing to put in the next day). It’s not easy to access this trail-less canyon on foot either with portions of thick brush, rock scrambling, and route finding, especially in early season when the stream cannot be forded. However, high flow is the most picturesque time to visit the Canyon as the watercourse becomes a trickle in late summer. The highlight of the route is known as the “Cherry Bomb,” a spectacular narrow “S” shaped gorge with sheer granite on both sides. While we visited the canyon in the short period when the water flow is ideal for kayaking, we did not see any active kayakers on the stream, and in fact, we didn’t see anybody until we were descending the Kibbie Ridge trail.
Most of the complexities in the canyon are located in its lower portion, including annoying and unavoidable brush patches, routefinding, and a rock scramble. The upper part of the canyon is fairly striaghtforward cross-country travel on granite slabs. I noticed a potential route into the upper part of the canyon that would avoid most of the complexities but not sacrifice the best part of the scenery in the upper canyon. This route would utilize the Kibbie Ridge trail up to Lookout Point and then descend through forest and slabs to a part of the canyon known as the Flinstones. I will likely try this approach next time. We found that Cherry Creek was not fordable and when we encountered an impasse about three-quarters of a mile from the top of the Canyon, we instead ascended the ridge line to Mercur Lake. Along the ridge there were breathtaking views of Cherry Creek Canyon and granite as far as the eye could see. The region also contains some spectacular lakes nestled amid the granite slabs. Last year, we visited Big Lake and Hyatt Lake and I look forward to returning to the region to explore Boundary Lake, Spotted Fawn Lake and Inferno Lakes.
As always, I have many great ideas for adventure runs in the Sierra. Listed below are twenty potential trips organized from South to North. Most of these ideas are rather obscure, but the high Sierra is filled with hidden gems and I expect all of these will not be lacking in outstanding scenery and route quality. Hopefully I’ll get to several ideas this summer! All photos by me from last year’s adventures.
Triple Divide & Glacier Ridge Loop via Wolverton:I’ve scoped out a big loop with big views. The route starts with the Pear Lake Trail up to the Tablelands and Big Bird Peak followed by a high traverse to Coal Mine Pass and across granite slabs to Glacier Ridge. From Glacier Ridge, another crossing of the granite slabs leads to Lion Lake Pass and a scamble of Triple Divide Peak. The descent is through Lion Lake and Tamarack Lake, ultimately down to the High Sierra Trail. I described the loop in one direction although it might make more sense to do the run reverse with the High Sierra Trail portion first thing pre-dawn.
Tyndall & Williamson: Double the fun for these two fourteeners via Shepherd’s Pass and Williamson Bowl.
Mount Rixford, Dragon Peak & University Peak:These all look like fun peaks to ascend. Mount Rixford, with its position west of the crest, is a particularly good viewpoint. Dragon Peak looks impressively rugged from the Rae lakes Basin.
Arrow Peak and Bench Lake: An adventure via Taboose Pass that has been on the list for many years, but I haven’t made it out yet to see the classic Sierra view of Arrow Peak from Bench Lake.
Observation Peak and Amphitheater Lake: A remote part of the range also accessed via Taboose Pass. Observation Peak is apparently aptly named as it is a great spot to observe the Palisades.
Josephine Lake:Rarely visited lake tucked in below Glacier Ridge with views to Mount Brewer, South Guard, and North Guard entailing a steep scramble from Cloud Canyon.
Split Mountain: Another fourteener on the list.
Palisade Circumnavigation & Palisade Basin:A great route around the most rugged and alpine region of the High Sierra with lots of arduous talus travel.
Sky Haven & Cloudripper: Just for the tremendous views of Palisades and hopefully an overnight stay for sunrise. Access via South Lake.
Mount Reinstein, Lake 10,232 and Goddard Creek Valley:This loop comes in around 50 miles and looks stunning, passing through some of the most remote and wild terrain in the Sierra.
Ionian Basin, Scylla & Hansen: Accessed via Sabrina Basin, this region is near Muir Pass and the JMT, but far away from the beaten path and features spectacular peaks and many high lakes amid one of the most rugged and strikingly desolate settings in the High Sierra.
Charybdis & Black Giant:Two more peak in the Ionian Basin. Perhaps I will combine climbs of these peaks with objectives described immediately above and make it a single night fastpacking outing.
Bench Valley:Another western approach to the LeConte Divide, featuring a string of remote high alpine lakes off-trail.
Evolution Loop: In order to lower the FKT on this 55 mile horseshoe loop, it looks I’m going to have to curtail my photography substantially from the 300+ photos I took last time. Last time I did the horseshoe loop from north to south, but I’m wondering if south to north is actually faster. The argument for south to north is that most of the steep climbing is completed earlier rather than later, which may work better for me as I’ll be able to attack the long and at times steep climb out Pate Valley to Muir Pass early in the route. Despite it being a long uphill slog from the JMT junction to Piute Pass, it’s fairly gradual and I think most of it is runnable for me if I’m feeling good at that point in the run, whereas the climb from Pate Valley to Bishop Pass is too steep for any running late in the run. I also like the idea of running down through Evolution Basin and Valley. Finally, the South Lake trailhead is also marginally higher by about 500 feet. I guess I’ll have to find out if south to north is faster!
Volcanic Ridge: Easily the best view of the Minarets and another candidate for an overnight bivy to view sunrise and early morning light. Access via Devils Postpile and fantastic scenery including Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake, and Iceberg Lake.
Rodgers Peak: Accessed via Silver Lake, this is a fairly remote major peak in the region and looks awesome from many of the surrounding mountains, therefore spurring interest.
Northern Yosemite 50:Classic loop route all on trails from Twin Lakes, including the Benson Lake riviera, a close view of Matterhorn Peak and Sawtooth Ridge, glacially sculpted Matterhorn Canyon, and the lovely Peeler Lake and Smedberg Lake. I first ran this route in 2011, documented here. The complete loop is close to 50 miles, although a short cut via Ice Lakes Pass (off-trail) would shave off some miles and elevation gain to Mule Pass.
Stubblefield Canyon and Stubblefield Lake: Remote spot in Northern Yosemite for some fun explorations.
Cherry Canyon and Boundary Lake: In Emigrant Wilderness, this area is characterized by smooth granite and clear lakes. A good route for earlier in the season when snow covers higher terrain.
Desolation Seven Summits:The same trip as last year, with the exception of taking the trail to Gilmore Lake from Dick’s Pass (instead of the off-trail segment on the ridge) and including Mount Ralston on the way out. With proper hydration and route knowledge I imagine this loop can be done in under 10 hours without too much trouble.