Catching up on a route from July 4th that was a variation of the Sawtooth Loop I did back in 2013. The “Sawtooth Loop” is a spectacular route through one of the most scenic regions of the High Sierra and a personal favorite. I’ve come back to this area many times over the years and can’t seem to get enough of the scenery. I call this loop the Sawtooth Loop since it circumnavigates the impressively rugged subrange of the Sierra crest known as Sawtooth Ridge that straddles Yosemite national park’s northern boundary and the Hoover Wilderness. The base loop utilizes Horse Creek Canyon, Slide Canyon and Little Slide Canyon. This deeply serrated Sawtooth Ridge resembles a sawblade and contains features with enchanting names like Three Teeth, The Doodad, Dragtooth and Sawblade. Full photo album here.
There are numerous variations and objectives in the region to include in the Sawtooth loop, including the aforementioned points along Sawtooth Ridge, Eocene Peak, Crown Point and Slide Mountain. The north side of Sawtooth Ridge is conveniently close to Twin Lakes and Mono Village, even allowing for straightforward access during the winter months. This area has numerous popular destinations like Barney Lake and Peeler Lake for hikers and the world famous Incredible Hulk for climbers. However, the south side of Sawtooth Ridge, located in northern Yosemite, feels remote and wild with comparatively a small fraction of the visitors. All of the canyons that surround Sawtooth Ridge are glacier-carved and spectacular with smooth granite walls and lovely meadows. On this day I chose to climb Matterhorn Peak and Finger Peaks, both summits I had climbed previously (Matterhorn several times) but the extensive snow cover from the unprecedented winter it made the experience different. In addition, this was an opportunity to climb Matterhorn’s east couloir again, my first climb in the High Sierra back in May 2007 (10 year anniversary climb!). The loop starts at the Twin Lakes resort and ascends Horse Creek Canyon, first on well maintained trail and then a use path with wonderful scenery. At the first headwall, the trail disappeared for good under deep snowpack and it was time to put on crampons. Instead of continuing up Horse Creek Canyon, I turned right to head towards the Matterhorn glacier. On the way I passed a stunning ice pool with a light blue color and spent quite a bit time photographing this gem with the spires of Sawtooth Ridge in the background. From this tarn it was all snow up the snow covered glacier to the east couloir which made for an efficient ascent. The snow steepens in the couloir requiring ice axe and crampons. This is not a fun climb after the snow melts as it becomes a combination of loose rocks and gravel. I got to experience a bit of the loosness on the top 30% of the couloir which had already melted out. That being said, it was amazing how much snow remained in the region for July 4th. From the top of the couloir it’s a short climb with a few class 3 moves to the summit, with its wonderful 360 degree view of the region from Mount Ritter and Banner Peak to the south to Tower Peak to the north. In addition, alpine gold wildflowers were in full bloom and put on quite a show on rock ledges near the summit. A carry-over Matterhorn Peak, the highest point on the ridge, is an excellent way to access the outstanding scenery and wilderness of the rrapidemote region south of Sawtooth Ridge. The SW chute/slope of Matterhorn Peak offer a straightforward class 2 descent toward Burro Pass on the remote south side of Sawtooth Ridge. With the abundant snow cover I was able to angle over to the ridge descending from Matterhorn summit which separates Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon and take that scenic ridge all the way to Burro Pass. From Burro Pass I traversed more snow to a couloir beneath the East and Middle Finger Peaks. After a moderately steep snow ascent the east peak is a short scramble. The East Peak has the best view of the ridge to Burro Pass and close-up views of Sawtooth Ridge. It also has an excellent angle on the precipitous east face of the Middle Finger Peak. Finally, it’s got a broad flat top which provides many spots for an alpine nap. A worthy summit despite being lower than the higher Middle Peak. After a nap I traversed around to the Middle Peak and climbed the fun class 3 route to the Middle Peak, including the improbable ledge that cuts across the face that keeps the climbing to class 3 versus a harder grade. The Middle Finger Peak is the highest and therefore has the best overall view of the region with the entire Sawtooth Ridge, Whorl Peak and much of northern Yosemite in view. After enjoying the summit I took the snow slope down between Middle and West Finger Peak to Upper Slide Canyon. This area has wonderful meadows later in the season, but the views of Sawtooth Ridge were equally impressive despite everything still snow covered. The heavy snowpack made finding the trail difficult so I went cross country for the most part. The approach to Ice Lake Pass included abundant, deep sun cups which were draining. Ice Lake was partially melted and beautiful while the Incredible Hulk was stunning as ever. Heavy snow in Little Slide Canyon made the descent quite a bit easier than normal as snow covered much of the talus. There was plenty of avalanche evidence with trees toppled over like toothpicks and deposited far down the canyon from where they once stood. Full photo album here.
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 here. The 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.
The “Sawtooth Loop” is a spectacular route through one of the most scenic regions of the High Sierra and a personal favorite. I call this particular route the Sawtooth Loop since it circumnavigates an impressively rugged subrange of the Sierra crest known as Sawtooth Ridge that straddles Yosemite national park’s northern boundary and the Hoover Wilderness. This deeply serrated ridge resembles a sawblade and contains features with enchanting names like Three Teeth, The Doodad, Dragtooth and Sawblade. On my route I chose to climb Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak, but there are numerous other variations and objectives in the region to include on such a loop, including the aforementioned points along Sawtooth Ridge, Eocene Peak, Crown Point and Slide Mountain. The north side of Sawtooth Ridge is conveniently close to Twin Lakes and Mono Village, even allowing for straightforward access during the winter months. This area has numerous popular destinations like Barney Lake and Peeler Lake for hikers and the world famous Incredible Hulk for climbers. However, the south side of Sawtooth Ridge, located in northern Yosemite, feels remote and wild with comparatively a small fraction of the visitors. Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon are spectacular glacier carved canyons lined with smooth granite walls and lovely meadows. A carry-over Matterhorn Peak, the highest point on the ridge, is an excellent way to access the outstanding scenery and wilderness of this region south of Sawtooth Ridge. Strava route here.
The most straightforward ascent of Matterhorn is via Horse Creek Pass. The going is very reasonable up to a shoulder above Horse Creek Pass, but once around the corner there is a section of tedious gravel slopes on Matterhorn’s southeast slopes (two steps up, slide a step back). The east couloir route, which I did on my first trip ever in the Sierra, is the preferred early season route when the couloir is still snow covered. Right now it looks like a loose, steep mess for a taxing ascent (i.e. more tedious than the Horse Creek Pass route). After enjoying the view from the summit I scrambled down to a small col where a sandy chute provides access to Matterhorn Peak’s southwest slope and Matterhorn Canyon. The descent through the chute is loose and also much preferable as a descent route. The chute deposited me fairly rapidly into the headwaters of Matterhorn Canyon. From upper Matterhorn Canyon I traversed over to Finger Peaks and scrambled up the east Finger. I wound up in hard class 3 and class 4 but it probably could have been easier if I was more careful with my route selection. I traversed the south side of the middle Finger and then ascended it via the class three route (starting from the notch between Middle and West Fingers) to gain summit and the highest point of Finger Peaks. This class 3 route seems improbably with a narrow natural ledge cut into a steep and smooth granite face piecing together two class 3 scramble portions. Without this ledge, the scramble looks like it would be at least class 4. The view of Sawtooth Ridge, Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon from both the east and middle Fingers are stupendous – one of best panoramas I have seen in the Sierra. I was happy to see the couloir west of the middle Finger was largely snow free so I descended more steep and loose slopes (carefully skirting around ice) and then pleasant alpine meadows down to the Burro Pass Trail. After a couple miles of running along the Burro Pass Trail, I headed cross country through meadows and granite benches to Ice Lakes Pass where I continued up to Kettle Peak. I had initially thought about tagging Eocene, but the route looked to require a bit more time than I had on this day. Kettle Peak was an awesome replacement objective with arguably the best view of the Incredible Hulk rock wall. From the summit, it’s as if you’re in a helicopter staring down at the sheer rock with climbers that look like specs on the immense granite face. Descending from Kettle Peak the views of the Incredible Hulk and Maltby Lake continued. I passed by some climber camps and then picked up the good use path through Little Slide Canyon. It’s an arduous climbers path to be sure, but it would be an incomparably more arduous trek through Little Slide Canyon without this path. The Incredible Hulk is all that I imagined it to be and more – a precipitous rock spire rising nearly vertically from the talus slopes below. It’s quite awe-inspiring to stand beneath this rock, especially in the afternoon with ideal lighting. It goes without saying that I’ll be back for more adventures to this wild and remote corner of northern Yosemite. Strava route here.