My last time on Mount Brewer was nearly five years ago and I’ve been thinking about a return to this prominent summit. Set apart from the main crest of the Sierra Nevada along the northern end of the Great Western Divide, Mount Brewer’s lofty perch at 13,570 ft offers an astounding view that was very memorable and I was eager to return. In 2010 the route to Brewer’s summit was a fairly uninteresting as an out-and-back via the Sphinx Lakes region and the Avalanche Gulch Trail. It was in September and there were still snow patches as 2010 was the last above average year of snowfall in the High Sierra. This year there was virtually no snow to be found anywhere. In 2010 there was also a fire in Kings Canyon; the Sheep Fire. There would also be a fire in 2015, the Rough Fire, which was still in its nascent stages at the time of this trip but would later become a much larger and more unpredictable fire, ultimately becoming one of the largest fires in the Southern Sierra Nevada history. This year’s visit to Mount Brewer would include linking up a few additional summits along the northern end of the Great Western Divide – North Guard, South Guard and Sky Pilot Peak – tying it together with an aesthetic loop including Lake Reflection, one of my favorite spots in the High Sierra. North Guard was particularly intriguing to me with its sharp, rugged profile and reputation for fun scrambling. The loop came in around 36 miles with over 12,000 ft of elevation gain. Strava GPS route here. The day started out along the familiar sandy path from Road’s End and up the switchbacks to the Avalanche Pass Trail. The ascent is quite steep at first with several sections of rock steps, but overall an efficient trail to get into the high country fast. I left the trail where it crosses the creek and headed up cross country through open woodland and granite slabs to the Sphinx Lakes, which are nice but nothing special my opinion. Beyond the Sphinx Lakes is a section of talus up to a pass but it seemed easier than 2010 or maybe I’ve just gotten used to efficiently moving on talus. Around the corner Mount Brewer finally makes an appearance, but I first curved north toward North Guard. The class 3 route up North Guard requires careful attention to route finding to keep it class 3. The route starts with steepening slabs and then short cross-over into a hanging sandy gully with more slabs up to the west ridge of North Guard. The final stretch of climbing along the West Ridge is classic Sierra scrambling with solid blocky rocks. The actual summit is a large overhanging rock. The north face of North Guard is a sheer drop to the Sphinx Lakes basin. I found the view from North Guard to be just as good as Mount Brewer with excellent clarity on this day. I particularly enjoyed the view to Charlotte Dome and Bubbs Creek Wall. I retraced my route up North Guard and then traversed to Mount Brewer which is largely a class 2 scramble up its north slopes. I was soon atop Brewer enjoying the 360 panorama once more. To connect Brewer with South Guard one must descend the south slopes of Brewer which start off with cumbersome talus but finishes with a fun stretch of plunge stepping in loose gravel. From the basin between South Guard and Brewer I took a ramp and class 3 face up to South Guard’s ridge and after a ridge walk I ultimately reached the summit, which is rather nondescript and only slightly taller than surrounding rock outcroppings along the ridge. From South Guard down to Longley Pass is a quick trip thanks to more plunge stepping but I wasn’t done with summits yet. Sky Pilot Peak is located immediately south of Longley Pass and while it’s not a high mountain compared to its neighbors, it has an exceptionally rugged profile when viewed from the east, especially from the Lake Reflection region. As I’ve been to the area many times, Sky Pilot’s striking east face has always been of interest. The peak’s apt name is attributed to the many Sky Pilot flowers growing on its summit ridge. Indeed, I found copious Sky Pilots, perhaps more than anywhere I’ve seen in the Sierra. Sky Pilot Peak is largely a class 2 scramble until one reaches a notch in the ridge, which requires a class 3 downclimb before resuming the final climb to the summit. I couldn’t find a summit register on Sky Pilot Peak manifesting that this is an infrequently climbed point, but I definitely hope to return in the future since the view looking down toward Lake Reflection is extraordinary. Some cumulus was building overhead creating some dappling on the terrain and lakes beneath the east face which only served to enhance the magic of this special view. After a long stay on Sky Pilot I returned to Longley Pass and then began the somewhat arduous and long descent to Lake Reflection. I did a pretty good job navigating until I got to the shores of Lake Reflection where I got turned around by steep slabs at a couple spots but finally made it to the outlet of the lake where I took a long break and enjoyed the view. Despite the added mileage of descending to Lake Reflection I wouldn’t want to do this link-up as an out-and-back – the scenery around Lake Reflection is that good! From Lake Reflection it was all trail down to East Lake with views of Mount Bago in early evening and then a trail run on the Bubbs Creek Trail back to Road’s End to complete the aesthetic loop.
I have been wanting to get into Lake Basin since I looked down into it from the summit of Marion Peak last fall and Mount Ruskin has looked intriguing from the summit of Arrow Peak so I decided to combine the two in a two day fastpack loop and include Bench Lake, one of my favorite spots in the High Sierra. I started from Road’s End up the Copper Creek trail and it was quite warm. I would have rather started before the sun came up but the necessity of a permit and waiting behind other visitors asking questions precluded that. It was a relief to reach the relative cool of Grouse Lake and start this section of the Sierra High Route to Marion Lake. I was familiar with this stretch after my Cirque Crest loop last year, except this year I had an even better view across the Middle Fork Kings Canyon from Windy Ridge and Gray Pass. This area is simply spectacular with the “Windy Peak Lake” perfectly situated in the foreground of the Middle Fork Kings Canyon, Le Conte Canyon and the breadth of peaks surrounding the Middle Fork from Mount Goddard to the Palisades. The clarity on this afternoon was amazing and confirmed my opinion that this is one of the grandest views in all of the High Sierra. I continued from Gray Pass to White Pass and finally Red Pass before descending to Marion Lake in the early evening. Strava GPS route here. Marion Lake is nestled in a granite bowl with the Cirque Crest and Marion Peak towering above, but what makes this lake so special is its vibrant deep blue color. Marion Lake is the bluest lake I have seen in the Sierra. I’m guessing this is due to the depth of the lake and a mineral deposit from the adjacent white granite cliffs. While Marion Lake was lovely and I took many photographs of its spectacular setting and reflections, it was also infested with mosquitoes so I continued up Lake Basin, passing by several beautiful lakes in evening light before finding a suitable camping spot with far less mosquitoes. My fastpack setup was adequate for the relatively warm temps and I got several hours of quasi-sleep before getting up around 6 am. I traversed through upper Lake Basin and ascended to Cartridge Pass where the old trail can still be followed. From Cartridge Pass I ascended the southwest chute of Mount Ruskin. The lower part of the climb was class 2, transitioning to class 3 in the upper slopes and finally a stout but fun old school Sierra class 3 summit block that had some exposure. The view from the summit of Mount Ruskin was one of the best I have seen in the Sierra and I’m not saying that because it was a recent summit. I have stood atop many summits over the years and this one was very memorable. The clarity was amazing and the entire southern High Sierra was at my feet from Whitney to the Kings-Kern Divide to the Great Western Divide. The centerpiece view was Arrow Peak and its picturesque north face towering above the Muro Blanco of the South Fork Kings River. The addition of this photogenic arrow-shaped peak makes the view even better than the one I experienced standing atop Arrow Peak last year, which at the time I thought was the best. To the north the view was also breathtaking and included the striking Palisades, the Goddard Divide, the White Divide and the peaks of the Ionian Basin. It was a marvelous 360 degree panorama and the mid-morning light was ideal so I spent a lot of time reveling in the panorama and filling up my memory card. I have been to many places in the Sierra and I must admit that after repeatedly seeing the same general views from slightly different angles and knowing the names of virtually every peak and major feature int the range, there is less “mystery” factor and therefore less excitement than I used to have. However, on this day I was just as excited as on my first trips in the Sierra. There are still ways the High Sierra can captivate and inspire me after all these trips, I just have to be more creative finding them! After a long stay at the summit, I finally packed up and headed down toward the lakes beneath Cartridge Pass. This is a marvelous area and the lakes are perfectly situated to frame Arrow Peak in the background. A great day seemed to be getting even better as I strolled along the shores of the lake taking multitudes of photos. I picked up the old Cartridge Pass trail (fairly easy to follow) by the lakes and took it down to the South Fork Kings River. In the lush meadows near the river I spotted a large black bear and I made sure to give the bear plenty of space as I passed. It kept eating and either didn’t notice me or, more likely, didn’t care enough to acknowledge my presence. I crossed the river and headed up steep talus slopes to Bench Lake. I could have taken a use path along the river all the way up to the JMT, but I wanted to see Bench Lake again and this direct route would save time and distance. Bench Lake is a gem of the High Sierra and I was happy to be along its shores once more. After a dip in the lake and lunch it was time for a long trail hike and jog back to Road’s end via Pinchot Pass. In the past I had only seen the area around Pinchot Pass in the dark or under cloud cover so I failed to appreciate the beauty of this region, but I found it to be quite scenic with a palette of rock colors and beautiful Marjorie Lake which also possesses a deep blue (but not as blue as Marion Lake). I enjoyed the entire stretch along the JMT and the descent toward Castle Domes, chatting with many thru-hikers along the way and the backcountry rangers. The final few miles down to Road’s End seemed to go on longer than normal since the added weight on my back resulted in a slower pace than usual, but I still made it back at sunset. This was my first fastpacking experience and it turned out very well. I used everything I carried and didn’t really need anything else. While I can reach anywhere in the High Sierra in a single day, there is something to be said for being at the right place and the right time for the golden hours – sunrise and sunset – and having the time to really enjoy the scenery as I was able to do on Mount Ruskin and Bench Lake.
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.
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.
“Window Peak Lake” is a spectacular granite-encased lake tucked in underneath rugged Window Peak. While only a couple miles off the John Muir Trail, there is no trail or use paths to negotiate the 1,800 foot vertical ascent to the lake which is steep and rocky. The lake is also situated in one of the more remote spots in the range with all access options entailing many trail miles and lots of elevation gain. The lake is not officially named on any maps, but its proximity directly underneath Window Peak makes Window Peak Lake an appropriate unofficial name. The difficult accessibility combined with very little information on this region makes this a pristine and unfettered setting with virtually no human impact. I hope places like this stay that way and in future years I hope to find the same unspoiled setting!
Erica and I accessed the area via Road’s End passing by Mist Falls and then running up Paradise Valley and the Castle Domes to the John Muir Trail at the Woods Creek junction. After some photographs on the suspension bridge we continued northbound up the JMT for one mile before turning off and heading up the rocky and steep slopes. The general idea is to stay on the north side of the stream draining Window Peak Lake ascending talus, steep meadows and the occasional patch of pine trees. Virtually all brush can be avoided with careful navigation. A headwall is passed about halfway up where the outflow water from Window Peak Lake tumbles over a cliff producing a waterfall that is surely impressive in the early summer when snows from above are melting. Prior to reaching Window Peak Lake there is a smaller lake, aka mini-Window Peak Lake, but be sure to continue up to the much larger and scenic main lake. After a short break at Window Peak Lake, I continued up along granite slabs to Pyramid Peak. Most of the route is on friendly slabs with only a little bit of talus to negotiate. A small col must be gained to ascend the south ridge of Pyramid Peak that includes some class 3 scrambling. The summit of Pyramid Peak features an outstanding view looking south to the King Spur, Window Peak, Rae Lakes and a sea of peaks all around. Mount Whitney, Mount Williamson and Mount Tyndall are clearly visible to the south along with the Palisades to the north. The descent from Pyramid Peak was just as spectacular as the afternoon sun angle produced a beautiful blue color on Window Peak Lake. This view was one of my favorites in all of my adventures in the High Sierra. I met up with Erica at mini-Window Peak Lake and we continued down together to the JMT enjoying the stupendous views of the Woods Creek drainage up to the peaks surrounding the Rae Lakes including Painted Lady, Mount Rixford and Dragon Peak. Once on the JMT, we continued on to the Castle Domes valley where beautiful afternoon light illuminated the impressive granite towers. GPS route here.
Arrow Peak and Bench Lake have been on my list of places to visit for several years. The iconic view of Arrow Peak towering above Bench Lake was one of the first images of the High Sierra that inspired me to explore the range when I first moved to California. However, a relatively long approach over Taboose Pass and an even longer drive from the Bay Area to the trailhead likely deterred me from getting it done. On an ideal early summer morning I finally made it out to Bench Lake to see in person what I had dreamed of all those years. Often times such anticipation built up over a long time can result in unrealistic expectations, and commensurate anticlimactic experiences, but the scenery surpassed even what I had imagined. Bench Lake is a Sierra gem with a priceless view as aptly named Arrow Peak reflects in its waters. The objective for the day was the 2,700 vertical foot Northeast Ridge route up Arrow Peak which is front and center when viewed from Bench Lake and looks quite intimidating from that vantage. However, once on the route one discovers that the technicality is limited to a class 3 scramble with just enough exposure and steepness to make it an engaging and fun route. Combined with the outrageous views en route, the northeast ridge of Arrow is one of the most aesthetic scramble routes in all of the High Sierra. This region of the range is probably the area I have spent the least amount of time so it was great to finally get out there to see the amazing scenery and dream up future routes in the area. GPS route here.
The logical approach to the Bench Lake and the Northeast Ridge of Arrow Peak is via Taboose Pass, an infamous pass that starts in the sage-filled desert of the Owens Valley and climbs 6,000 vertical feet to the pass in a consistent ascent with little shade. Starting before dawn, I found the trail reasonable and a fairly efficient way to reach the crest and the incredible beauty that lies beyond. In other words, I hope to be back to Taboose Pass soon. I can’t say as much for the access road which is totally beat up with large rocks everywhere. In many ways the access road is in worse shape than the trail! While having a low clearance vehicle doesn’t help, this road wouldn’t be much faster in a high clearance vehicle. Most of the obstructions are large rocks buried in the sand so it doesn’t seem like it would take much machinery to improve this rough road dramatically, but I guess the poor condition naturally regulates visitation. When I’m driving under 10 mph I start to second guess why I’m driving at all (as opposed to running). Next time I will likely park my car at the end of the pavement and jog up the east slopes of the Owens Valley to the trailhead.
As mentioned, the Taboose Pass trail starts in a desert environment with sage and sand. The going is slow for awhile until one enters the Taboose Canyon where the tread improves. The trail steadily climbs along the north side of Taboose Creek before crossing the stream and entering the only shaded part of the climb in a beautiful pine forest. The shade is short lived and soon the trail is back to switchbacking through open talus slopes. The grade eases up towards the pass where there are numerous small tarns and the terrain gradually shifts from rock to tundra. At Taboose Pass one enters Kings Canyon National Park and is greeted by a lovely view down the South Fork Kings Canyon, the Cirque Crest, Bench Lake and Arrow Peak. The connector trail from Taboose Pass to the John Muir Trail is an amazing stretch with glorious meadows and astounding views. Turning south on the JMT for merely a hundred meters brings you to junction with Bench Lake. Judging by the faint tread it seems as if few through hikers bother to take the time to visit Bench Lake. This has served the Bench Lake area well as it seems unspoiled for such a beatiful spot. The trail to Bench Lake gradually descends through pine forest passing a couple small lakes to reach Bench Lake, a Sierra gem with one of the finest views in the range.
After a beautiful stretch along Bench Lake’s shores the trail peters out, but off-trail travel is easy through through open pine forest over a small rise followed by a descent to a small drainage at the base of Arrow Peak’s Northeast Ridge. The initial slope up to the Northeast ridge can be accomplished by various routes, but they all converge on the ridge crest where the cliffs on either side make the spine of the ridge the logical route. The lower portion of the route features some scrappy low-lying pine trees that can be cumbersome as they tend to grow into thick, unmalleable bushes. The vegetation scrambling peters out about half way up the ridge leaving clean, enjoyable rock scrambling for the second half. The ridge features some nice exposure, a few knife edge sections, and awesome views in all directions including Bench Lake below, the Cirque Crest, and as one ascends higher, the mighty Palisades. The Northeast Ridge is a long and sustained climb with over 2,700 ft of vertical from its base to the summit. Once on top, enjoy Arrow Peak’s amazing view, perfectly positioned to have one of the best 360 degree panoramas in all of the High Sierra. To the south lies the Kings-Kern Divide, Great Western Divide and the Kaweah Range. To the north is the Goddard-Evolution area and the Palisades. Close at hand is the Cirque Crest, a region of the High Sierra I have yet to visit but near the top of my list for future exploration. Perhaps the most compelling view is down the Muro Blanco, or the South Fork Kings River Canyon. This is a truly wild canyon with no trails and sparse documentation. From Arrow Peak’s perch I could see the entire length of the aptly named canyon, which is virtually entirely composed of distinctly white granite slabs and cliffs. From Arrow Peak, the easy descent is off the WSW slopes which have some helpful sand for efficient descending. From Arrow Pass, talus and slabs are taken down to the drainage east of Arrow Peak. This drainage has some gorgeous turquoise pools from which to admire the northeast ridge of Arrow Peak. Ascend back to Bench Lake through the forest and retrace steps over Taboose Pass.
What do do in the afternoon before Bago & Rixford the next day? Goat Mountain is a classic big and sustained Sierra hill climb with an outstanding panoramic view of the High Sierra at the top. From Road’s End in Kings Canyon to the summit is 7,000 ft of vertical in around 11 miles and the grade is steep at times. The majority of the gain is accomplished on the well-traveled Copper Creek Trail departing from Road’s End. The first switchbacks can be quite hot midday as I discovered, but there are excellent views of Kings Canyon including the Grand Sentinel immediately across the Canyon. As one ascends, the vegetation gradually changes to pine and fir trees and the temperature cools.
About 7.5 miles from the trailhead just below the pass that drops into Granite Basin, leave the trail and take a faint use path north (or go cross country) toward a meadow area containing the fork of Copper Creek that drains Grouse Lake. Along this traverse there are lovely views of Mount Clarence King and Mount Gardiner. A short ascent from this meadow leads to beautiful Grouse Lake which is surrounded by granite slabs and clumps of pine trees in quintessential Sierra fashion. From above Grouse Lake there are nice views of the Great Western Divide. It’s all cross country past Grouse Lake up the basin, but the terrain is easy with friendly, low angle granite slabs virtually the entire way up to the foot of Goat Mountain. The lower part of the final ascent up Goat is loose but becomes more solid in the upper portion with large talus blocks near the top. The view from Goat Mountain’s summit is simply amazing and worth the return trip so soon after my climb last October as part of the Monarch Divide Semi-Loop. It’s truly a remarkable point with a sweeping panorama from the Evolution area to the Kaweahs. The centerpiece of the view overlooks the South Fork Kings Canyon and the Muro Blanco with the peaks of the King Spur most prominent, including Mount Clarence King, Mount Cotter and Mount Gardiner. I also enjoyed the view looking to the Kings-Kern Divide including Mount Stanford, Caltech Peak and Mount Ericsson. Beyond the Kings-Kern Divide Mount Williamson and Mount Whitney were clearly visible. The good news is that once you’re on top of Goat Mountain, it’s virtually all downhill back to Road’s End. The Copper Creek Trail is fairly nice for downhill running with no brush and less rocks than some of the other trails out of Kings Canyon. GPS route here.
Despite an exceptionally dry winter with a meager snowpack there was still substantial snow on northern aspects above 10,000 feet in the first weekend of June. For my first weekend in the High Sierra in 2014 I decided to go for some exceptional viewpoint peaks that would be virtually snow-free and thus preclude carrying ice axe and/or microspikes for the long approach out of Road’s End in Kings Canyon. Joey Cassidy and Michael Jimenez joined me for this memorable run on a picturesque late spring day. The objectives were Mount Bago and Mount Rixford, both in the area near Kearsarge Pass but west of the Sierra Crest. Both peaks are much more easily accessed via Onion Valley on the eastside, but I’ve come to enjoy the run up the relatively lush environs of the glacier-carved Bubbs Creek canyon and the incredibly scenic section above Vidette Meadows.
One would not expect such a marvelous view from Bago’s statistics – only 11,870 ft in elevation with a straightforward scramble on its north and east side – but the panorama is truly astounding. Perched above Bago’s precipitous cliffs that tumble nearly 4,000 ft vertically to Junction Meadows, one gazes over to the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide, one of the most rugged sections of the High Sierra. The highlight is the view of East Creek canyon to East Lake and Lake Reflection with towering, jagged summits surrounding the canyon like an amphitheater. I spent a full hour on the summit of Bago relishing the stellar vista with Joey and Michael. After Bago I crossed the basin to climb the south slopes of Mount Rixford. The sandy and loose slopes were rather unaesthetic for an ascent, but the views more than compensated. From Rixford’s south slopes, Bullfrog Lake is ideally nestled with an awesome background of the Kearsarge Pinnacles, East Viddette, Deerhorn Mountain and West Vidette. The views grow wider as one ascends up Rixford, providing inspiration in what is otherwise a slog. Upon reaching the summit of Rixford I was treated to a great view to the north and west, including the Rae Lakes region, Painted Lady and Mount Clarence King. After another extended stay on the summit, I cruised down the now friendly sandy slopes and made a short diversion to the shores of Bullfrog Lake with its classic view of East Vidette and Deerhorn Mountain. Below are some annotated panoramas from the summits of Mount Bago and Rixford. The GPS route is here.