The Pioneer Loop is a complete loop (no repetition) coming in around 22 miles and offers a great mix of scenery of the Mono Recess region. Highlights of the route include Ruby Lake, Mono Pass, Trail Lakes, Pioneer Basin, Mount Stanford and Hilton Creek Lakes. There are numerous route variations, additional peaks and potential side trips including Mount Starr, Mount Huntington, Mount Hopkins Mount Crocker, Mount Morgan, Fourth Recess Lake and Third Recess Lake. There is plenty here to explore over several trips! GPS track here. The route starts at the ever-popular Mosquito Flat Trailhead at the end of Rock Creek Road. Most visitors are headed to the spectacular Little Lakes Valley which arguably offers the most bang for the buck in the High Sierra in terms of superb scenery for relatively little effort. The trail to Mono Pass splits from the Little Lakes Valley Trail a half mile from the trailhead and the foot traffic on the Mono Pass trail is substantially reduced, although still well traveled. As one gains elevation the views of Little Lakes valley improve with several vistas where one can take in the string of alpine lakes with Bear Creek Spire at the head of the valley. The trail traverses into a bowl where lovely Ruby Lake resides. A short spur-path leads to the shores of the lake while the main trail begins a series of switchbacks. At the top of these switchbacks as the trail begins its traverse to Mono Pass is an amazing view of Ruby Lake with the rugged peaks of the Bear Creek Spire group in the background. Beyond the Ruby Lake vista, the trail enters a small hanging valley and then makes a final push to Mono Pass. Mono Pass and the terrain to the north is rock and tundra. The blue waters of Summit Lake are a sharp contrast to the desolate and barren landscape. Descending from Summit Lake to Trail Lakes the vegetation begins to increase with clumps of pine trees and excellent views across the Mono Creek canyon to Pioneer Basin and adjacent peaks. Red Slate Mountain and Red and White Mountain rise above the first set of mountains with their striking red color. Trail Lakes are nestled in a pretty bowl making for a nice location for the snow course cabin. From Trail Lakes the trail drops down into the upper reaches of Mono Creek Canyon and enters a mature pine and fir forest. Shortly after passing the junction with the spur path to Fourth Recess Lake, the trail reaches another junction with the trail to Pioneer Basin. The path to Pioneer Basin starts out relatively flat but soon begins a moderate to steep ascent to the first lakes in the basin. Lovely Pioneer Basin contains at least a half dozen major lakes and many more smaller lakes and tarns. The majority of the lakes are situated near tree line between 10,800 feet and 11,000 feet. The result is a lovely mix of grassy meadows and clumps of pine trees. The rugged summits of Mount Hopkins, Mount Crocker, Mount Huntington and Mount Stanford surround the basin and provide a sense of true wilderness and seclusion. Lake 10,862 is the largest lake in the basin and contains several coves and a passageway connecting two lobes. The intricacy of its shoreline makes for excellent photography. Late in the season the lakes in Pioneer Basin become standing bodies of water supporting an impressive algae bloom that produces a distinct greenish color in shallow waters. It appears prudent to either boil or treat water in Pioneer Basin in late season. Stanford has the distinction of having two prominent Sierra peaks bearing the name. The southern summit is near the Kings-Kern Divide in King Canyon National Park and is just shy of 14,000 feet. The northern summit is the one described on this route and while shorter and less prominent than its southern brother, is a fine summit in its own right. From near Lake 11,026 one can make a fairly direct ascent up the slopes of Mount Stanford. It’s a bit of slog with much loose gravel in the lower slopes but becomes a bit more solid class 2 scramble in the upper part. Mount Stanford is the named summit in this vicinity, but a higher points lie along the ridge immediately to the NE ultimately culminating in Mount Morgan. I’m guessing Mount Stanford earned its name due to the fact that it sits on the Sierra Crest and also because of the rugged character of its precipitous north face as viewed from McGee Canyon. Mount Stanford has an excellent vantage of the McGree Creek Canyon region including Mount Baldwin, Red Slate Mountain and Red & White Mountain. Beyond these nearby peaks, the view includes the Ritter Range to the north and the Kuna-Dana region in Yosemite. To the south is a birds eye view of Pioneer Basin, Mono Creek Canyon and Fourth Recess Lake. The southern horizon is filled with a sea of peaks including Bear Creek Spire, Mount Dade, Mount Abbot, Mount Mills and Mount Gabb.From Mount Stanford descend class 2 talus toward Stanford Lake but at around 11,700 feet begin traversing south to a small pass. This pass provides entry into the Hilton Creek drainage and the beginning of a pleasant and relatively efficient cross country descent to the Hilton Creek Lakes. The Hilton Creek Lakes are very typical lakes of the eastern High Sierra but attractive nonetheless. At Lake 10,353 a trail can be picked up. At the junction above Lake 9,852, make a right and head towards Rock Creek Lake. The trail crosses a broad plateau and then parallels Rock Creek for a few miles before making a final descent to Rock Creek Road. This section has some expansive aspen groves that show fantastic color in the early fall. From the road it’s about a mile back to Mosquito Flat to complete the loop.
I have looked over Bear Basin from several high peaks near the Sierra Crest and it always seemed like an inviting region I wanted to check out someday but it took until a few weeks ago to finally make my way into the basin. Seven Gables is the centerpiece feature of the region with its instantly recognizable rugged east face resembling the namesake house of the Seven Gables. Within Bear Basin are numerous beautiful alpine lakes to explore, most of which are named after bears. While the bear theme is endearing, I did not see any bears (or humans) on my trip through the basin. Along with climbing Seven Gables I thought it would also be feasible to combine the outing with an ascent of Gemini, one of the more remote summits in the High Sierra. Both summits featured incredible panoramic views, but the tour through magnificent and pristine Bear Basin to reach the peaks was the highlight. GPS route here. I accessed Bear Basin by starting at the Pine Creek Trailhead and ascending through gorgeous Granite Park. The park has numerous small lakes and excellent views of the Sierra Crest including the towering east face of Feather Peak. Granite Bear Pass proved to be an efficient and technically easy pass from Granite Park into Bear Basin. In fact, the west side of Granite Bear Pass is a quick run down gravel and sand slopes to the lakes in Bear Basin. I stopped to take an absurd amount of photography as I passed the lakes, including Black Bear Lake, Ursa Lake, Big Bear Lake, Little Bear Lake and Vee Lake. The morning light over the lakes with Seven Gables in the background was breathtaking. I could have stayed in the basin all day exploring the numerous nooks and crannies but I continued down the basin toward Gemini passing through the Seven Gables Lakes valley and then heading up friendly granite slabs to a saddle between Gemini and Seven Gables. The route up Gemini from the north via the saddle was largely a talus hop with a couple hundred feet of scrambling near the top. The views from Gemini are outstanding and encompass Desolation Basin, Humphreys, Glacier Divide, Goddard Divide, LeConte Divide and virtually all of the Sierra Crest in the vicinity. To the north was the next objective, Seven Gables, which looked like a rather arduous climb from Gemini’s vantage. After a nice break atop Gemini enjoying the views I retraced my steps to the saddle and then traversed over to the south slopes of Seven Gables. Most of the south slope was a straightforward class 2 slog through gravel and talus blocks. However, near the top things became much more vertical and exposed. The climb is rated as a Class 3, but it seemed more difficult and exposed than most class 3 climbs I have done in the Sierra. I have learned that class 3 can often have a large spectrum and sometimes the more remote class 3 routes can be sandbagged. At any rate, the final summit block entails climbing a chimney for several dozen feet. The holds are good, but there is some exposure and it’s nearly vertical. The view from Seven Gables is incredible and includes Bear Basin to the east and a lovely lake-filled basin to the west including Three Island Lake, Medley Lake and the large Marie Lake. Above these lakes is the pyramidal shaped Mount Hooper with its impressive east face. After another long break on the summit I descended the north slope of Seven Gables which is the far easier route to gain the summit and goes as mostly class 2. Between Seven Gables and its northern summit lies a broad saddle that funnels into a narrow and steep chute. This chute is mostly sand at the steepest part enabling efficient access back down to Seven Gables Lakes. The sand transitions to a section of talus and then granite slabs down to the bottom of the valley. From here I rejoined my route from the morning and retraced steps back through Bear Basin and over Granite Bear Pass to Granite Park. I stopped to enjoy the lovely afternoon views at Vee Lake and Ursa Lake, my favorite spots along the route.
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.
I joined Joel for a two day fastpacking adventure to one of the most remote and incredible regions in the High Sierra. The route included Mount Reinstein, Mount Goddard, Ionian Basin, Goddard Creek, Finger Basin, and Cathedral Lake. We accessed from the westside via Courtright Reservoir/Maxson Trailhead which entailed many trail miles. On the way in, we approached via Guest Lake and Blackcap Pass (easy class 3). Beyond the pass, we traversed through gorgeous Lightning Corral Meadow with streams, tarns, wildflowers and views to the White Divide including Mount Reinstein and Finger Peak. We ascended Mount Reinstein via its easy class 3 southwest slopes. Reinstein provides a fine vantage including Goddard Canyon, the White Divide, Martha Lake, Ambition Lake, and Lake 10,232. After enjoying the awesome view from Reinstein, we descended class 3 slopes on its northeast side and skirted an extremely loose chute to end up near Reinstein Pass. From there, I continued on to Martha Lake and Mount Goddard via its west chute and southwest slopes. This climb was striaghtforward and proved to be a good workout with 2,600+ gain and inspiring views the entire way. As I had remembered from my climb of Goddard in 2007, the summit’s position west of the crest provides a panorama of the high Sierra that is simply spectacular and among the best.
Descending off Goddard I passed through desolate Ionian Basin with it’s numerous lakes. Travel through the basin is not technically difficult, but tedious with numerous impediments. After a tour through Ionian Basin, I continued down to Goddard Creek Canyon and Lake 10,232. The waterfalls on the granite slopes were amazing. I must have been distracted by these falls as I descended a bit too far into the drainage where there is a deep chasm where the water flows into Lake 10,232. Fortunately, I was able to climb out of the chasm without too much trouble and complete the descent to Lake 10,232. The lake was quite mosquito infested, although still beautiful. This is impressively remote country with essentially no evidence of human impact. I wonder how many make it into this remote canyon each year. The following morning my expectations were blown away on our ascent through gorgeous Finger Basin, which contains a chain of spectacular alpine lakes that reflect the rugged granite walls of Finger Peak. We made our way up the basin taking many photos and ultimately arrived at Finger Col, an improbable window in an otherwise solid cliff band. Descending from Finger Col is tedious on massive talus blocks but we we arrived at Cathedral Lake in due course, another highlight spot of the loop. From Cathedral Lake, the most straightforward route to Portal Lake is to head north to Chapel Lake and descend easy slopes to a use path heading to Pear Lake. We had initially tried to descend directly to Portal Lake from Midway Lake but found the down climbing tricky without seeing the route from below. After Portal Lake, we began a long trip back to Courtright Reservoir. After being ambushed by mosquitoes in the upper part of the canyon, the bugs tapered off and the miles clicked off quickly. Overall, a great fastpacking experience and I’m already looking forward to more. The photos below are some of my favorites from the trip. Route on Strava here (missing last 10 miles).
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.
I was last in Sabrina Basin in May 2007 for an overnight peakbagging outing with amazing memories of this strikingly beautiful region. My photo session at Sailor Lake on that trip produced one of my all time favorite mountain scenery photos. It was time to return. I had just enough time to squeeze in a morning run to Hungry Packer Lake and make it back in time for a run to Dusy Basin later that afternoon. On this morning there was some breeze that precluded the type of mirror-like reflection in Sailor Lake that I had witnessed in 2007, but further explorations to Hungry Packer Lake’s outlet yielded some nice shots. I climbed up the ridgelines on both sides of Hungry Packer Lake to gain 360 degree views of the Sabrina Basin. The crisp and clear autumn air produced superlative clarity. A dusting of snow on the north and east facing slopes made it magical. Among my favorite scenes from this outing was a patch of pine snags above the Hungry Packer Lake. The contrast of the reddish orange snags with the deep blue lake and granite was mesmerizing. Complete photo album here.