Mineral, Needham, Sawtooth Loop

Mineral King is a high glacial valley at the south end of the Sierra Nevada nestled beneath the Great Western Divide. The valley has a long history of human interaction dating back to 19th century silver mining, and more recently, aspirations to turn the valley into a ski resort by Walt Disney. Fortunately, preservationists won this battle and Mineral King was protected for future generations by adding it to Sequoia National Park in 1978. While the entire valley is now a within the park, many structures remain as descendants from the original mining families continue to inhabit cabins. Fortunately, the cabins do not distract from the remote and wild feeling of the valley with its spectacular meadows and prominent granite peaks. Through late July, the valley is teaming with hungry marmots that have unfortunately developed an appetite for antifreeze fluid and it’s strongly recommended that all visitors wrap their car with a tarp. This is still a beautiful time to visit, but be mindful of the extra hassle.  In late summer the marmots are no longer a problem.  In late September and early October, groves of aspen which are fairly rare on the west side of the Sierra provide lovely fall colors. Gone are the days when of mining and ski resort speculation, Mineral King is now most popular with hikers and backpackers who are willing to brave the 20+ mile narrow and winding road to enjoy the natural splendor of the valley and the rugged granitescape beyond. There are many options for on-trail and off-trail hikes and numerous objectives in the region, but the following describes a very aesthetic loop including Mineral Peak, Needham Mountain and Sawtooth Peak.  More photos here.    Beginning at the Sawtooth Peak Trailhead take the trail up to the turnoff for Crystal Lake. The Sawtooth Peak Trail was cut along a forested hillside with very gradual switchbacks. The moderate grade makes for a pleasant run of what would otherwise be a frustratingly slow walk. Open meadows and firs at the bottom transition to southern foxtail pines which are always a pleasure to walk among. The Crystal Lake Trail gets much less use than the Sawtooth Peak Trail that leads to the Monarch Lakes and after a traverse begins a moderately steep climb up to a small notch along the west ridge of Mineral Peak. From this notch, the trail traverses into meadows above Crystal Creek before making a series of switchbacks up the final headwall to Crystal Lake. Crystal Lake is not conveniently walked along it’s shores; instead a pass north of the lake leads to a small tarn beneath Mineral Peak. The climb up to Mineral Peak is fairly straightforward with a mix of sand, talus and a short scramble that is mostly class 2 with a few class 3 moves depending on the exact route chosen. Aptly-named Mineral Peak is a relatively small mountain composed of several different colors of rock ranging from red to white. Owing to its centralized location, the view from the summit is fantastic and includes Sawtooth Peak rising steeply above Monarch Lake, Crystal Lake, the Mineral King Valley and the southern end of the Great Western Divide around Mount Florence. From Mineral Peak retrace steps down the scramble portion to the sandy slopes above the Crystal Lake tarn and then traverse slabs and sand to a broad pass above Amphitheater Lake. A few easy class 3 moves are found on either side of this pass. Take a moment at the pass to marvel at the striking curvature of the granite along the crest of the ridge. The descent to Ampitheater Lake is somewhat tricky as direct access to the lakeshore below is barred by steep and smooth granite slabs. Instead making a direct descent to the lake, traverse in a southerly direction along talus staying below cliffs of the crest and above the steep slabs descending to the lake. Eventually a small gully with grass patches and talus enables a descent down to the southwest corner of Ampitheater Lake.      Ampitheater is a somewhat common name in the Sierra and the Amphitheather Lake of Sawtooth Peak is not to be confused with the Ampitheater Lake which lies beneath Ampitheater Peak at the headwaters of Cataract Creek in Kings Canyon. What these two Ampitheater Lakes share in common is striking beauty and both are gems of the Sierra Nevada. As one would expect, there is definitely an amphitheater feeling with the rugged ridge from Needham Mountain to Sawtooth Peak and down to Peak 12,109 surrounding the lake. Rounding the south and east shores of Ampitheater Lake, one obtains a close up view of picturesque granite islands with such clear waters that one can easily see rocks at the lake bottom. From Ampitheater Lake pleasant slabs and meadows lead to the base of Needham Mountain. From here, Needham Mountain becomes a bit of a slog with some sandy slopes and loose rocks. Staying near the ridge crest on more solid rocks eliminates some of the slog but it’s not a very stimulating climb. The summit block is a somewhat nondescript with several different pinnacles vying for the highest point. What Needham lakes in climbing aesthetics it makes up with excellent 360 degree views including the Whitney Zone area, the Kaweah Peaks Ridge and the Great Western Divide. Moreover, the sandy slopes make for a enjoyable plunge step descent.To continue the loop to Sawtooth Peak, traverse sand and slabs and then climb talus slopes up to Sawtooth Peak, the most famous and most sought after summit in the region. Sawtooth has equally impressive views, particularly of the many lakes that surround its rocky slopes including Ampitheater Lake, Crystal Lake, the Monarch lakes to the south and the large Columbine Lake to the north. Mineral Peak takes on a particularly impressive profile from this angle. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge continue to play a star role in the view, as they do from virtually any high point in the southern part of the Sierra Nevada. From Sawtooth Peak I’ve found it’s best to descend below the crest of the ridge and take sandy use paths toward Sawtooth Pass. Unfortunately this sandy open terrain promotes a lot of braiding paths and even the designated trail is somewhat difficult to spot and stay on as there are so many different interconnecting paths.  The good news is one does not even need to find the Sawtooth Pass trail as the most efficient way down to Mineral King is directly down from Glacier Pass to Monarch Creek. The beginning of this descent is largely cross country but bits of old trail become more defined as one descends. At meadows ~9,600 ft, the old trail becomes much more defined as it traverses the final headwall down to the designated Sawtooth Peak Trail where the loop is complete and only a short bit of trail leads back down to the trailhead.   

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Sierra High Route

Note: All photos from iPhone SE – complete photo album here.

[Updated August 22, 2016 to add Special Note on Inaccurate Free Maps]

The Idea:

The Sierra High Route has intrigued me ever since I heard of the fabled 195 mile trek almost a decade ago. The SHR  parallels the John Muir Trail but about 60% of it is off-trail, opting for higher passes instead of diving down into the forested canyons. The route visits some of the most wild and remote corners of the range and entails some arduous terrain, including much talus hoping, but also plenty of the friendly granite terrain and alpine meadows that make cross country travel in the Sierra Nevada high country so feasible. In all the SHR gains about 60,000 feet of elevation while traversing through 33 passes and most of that elevation gain comes off-trail. Steve Roper designed the SHR and provides great detail about the route in his book, Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, first published in 1982 and now in its second edition available on Amazon (see special note at the bottom of this post on the perils of using “free” maps). Roper divided the SHR into sections so trekkers can tackle sections at a time. It appears this mode of completing portions the SHR has become increasingly popular while thru hiking the entire route in one trip is still a rather rare occurrence. Anecdotally, only about a dozen folks thru hike the complete SHR each year. The SHR also does not lend itself to supported efforts. For one, it’s even more remote than the JMT posing extra difficult logistical complexities. Second, it just doesn’t comport with the ethos of the route. The SHR is intended to be a conduit where one gets off the JMT wilderness freeway and acquires a more intimate experience with the range in remote and wild places. An unsupported SHR feels like the only way to do the SHR in my opinion.

My Philosophy: 

Through my various adventures over the years in and around the SHR I’ve accumulated a wealth of knowledge and finally felt familiar enough with the terrain and the new (for me) complexities of ultralight, unsupported multi-day travel to attempt the route last summer. However, I had a vision for how I wanted my trek to look. Much more than any fast time, I wanted clear, crisp days with excellent visibility. Above anything else, I wanted to experience and enjoy the scenery when it was at its finest, and not dulled by wildfire smoke or obscured by afternoon thunderstorms.  When the time came to set out for the route in the summer of 2015, the historic Rough Fire was poised to explode in Kings Canyon and become the largest fire ever in the Southern Sierra. I held strong to my vision and opted not to join Brian Lucido on his SHR trip which included thick afternoon smoke during the first couple days and cars trapped at Roads End for weeks. Unfortunately, the Rough Fire continued to burn into autumn and the starting point of the SHR at Kings Canyon remained closed through spring 2016. I would have to be patient and wait until summer 2016 to make my SHR vision come to fruition.

Fast forward to spring 2016 and the SHR continued to intrigue me as much as ever. After a few successful overnight trips honing in on my gear and nutrition plan I was ready once again. After waiting patiently, the weather pattern I had envisioned appeared. There would be no chance of afternoon thunderstorms, and most importantly, there would be no wildfire smoke to reduce visibility. I had done the preparation and now it was time to enjoy the route. 

My Story: 

Focusing on the drama or giving a play-by-play is not my writing style so I wont attempt to do either with this write-up. Instead I hope to focus on aspects that I think are interesting and hopefully useful. For a detailed description of the route, it’s essentially a requirement that one purchases Steve Roper’s book which does a fantastic job describing the SHR in detail including an excellent account of the history of exploration in the Sierra Nevada.

My preparation for the trip entailed many weekends in the Sierra Nevada climbing peaks and gaining acclimation. I did a few overnight trips to become familiar with my gear setup and nutrition needs. Many of the outings included climbing peaks with more technical scrambling and more rigorous off-trail travel as compared with the SHR. Thus, when I was doing the SHR, I often felt like the route was less taxing than my normal weekend routes. 

Luckily there was very little drama on my trip, and that was by design. I’d like to think that my meticulous, some might say excessive, preparation is responsible for eliminating most of the drama. However, my trip was not without problems as there are almost always glitches on multi-day trips for which one must adapt. At the end of Day 1 I turned my ankle and the zipper on my sleeping bag broke. The ankle turn was only a grade 1 sprain and my walk down from Dusy Basin to LeConte Canyon the morning of day 2 was painful, but without swelling or discoloration I knew that it would ultimately be ok. Once I started ascending toward Muir Pass and the pressure was taken off the impacted ligament I became more confident that this ankle turn would not impact the trip. This close call may have even been a blessing in disguise proving to me that I was one careless step away from having to abandon the route. If I wanted to see all of the beautiful scenery that the SHR has to offer and complete my multi-year vision, I would need to make sure that I did not injure myself! From that moment on, I maintained a laser focus when rock hoping on the often unstable talus rocks. The broken sleeping bag zipper was something that I had to adjust to. I wrapped my bivy sack tighter and made my sleeping bag into more of a quilt to negate the drafting of cold air. It was not ideal but it would make do. That just about sums up the drama! 

Nutrition: 

A big part of the puzzle of undertaking something like the SHR fast is dialing in on nutrition. One must carry enough calories, and the right kind of calories, to negotiate the dozens of passes and arduous off-trail terrain. My food for the trip would be a mix of high calorie to weight ratio solid foods combined with more traditional energy gels and chews for endurance activities. I would start with ~20,000 calories which equates to around 9.5 pounds.

Dinner and breakfast:

  • I relied heavily on a granola mix including pumpkin seeds, pecans and cashews. This amounted to 5000 calories, or a quarter of all calories I carried.
  • Sunflower seed butter
  • Norwegian flat bread, a seed-filled, dense cracker
  • First Endurance Ultragen for a recovery drink each night

During the day:

  • Picky bars, Epic bars, energy waffles, Gu gels and Clif shot blocks. This mix of energy foods was easy to consume on the go and would provide the necessary carbs and fat to power me throughout the long days.

Electrolytes:

  • Nuun and Gu Hydration Tabs
  • Gu Electrolyte Capsules
  • SaltStick

Gear Considerations and Night Travel: 

In particular for a fast attempt at the SHR (vs. multi-day efforts on trails), one must carry the appropriate gear to enable some rest and relaxation at night. First, a lot of the SHR is not efficiently navigable in the dark so there is some built in down time during the “cold hours.” On many sections traveling at night would result in more energy wasted than progress made. Even more importantly for me, I was there to enjoy the scenery first and foremost and I wouldn’t be able to do that in the dark. I didn’t want to miss ANY of the scenery! What would be the point passing through some of my favorite parts essentially blindfolded? Thus, I would reserve any night travel for sections of mundane trail.

Second, the SHR mostly travels above 10,000 feet so even in the warmest periods of the summer it gets rather chilly at night, often into the 30s and even below freezing. This fact, coupled with the tendency for my core temperature to plummet immediately after stopping at the conclusion of a long day, meant that carrying the appropriate gear to get my core temperature back up was critical. I also new that the crisp and pleasantly cool (below average) afternoon temps that would be to my advantage while moving during the day would also produce colder nights. Thus, I needed to prepare for overnight temps below freezing. Indeed, I would find frost next to my bivy on most mornings.

Third, the arduous off-trail nature of the SHR does not lend itself to efficient round-the-clock travel. Too much strain on the muscles without appropriate recovery in the early stages, both in terms of duration and intensity, could spell extreme difficultly on the many difficult passes that appear in the later stages of the route. Much more than any on-trail adventure like the JMT, one must be strategic when and how to up the intensity. Instead I took a more balanced approach focusing on sustained, moderate intensity movement. The pace I attempted to establish was by no means pedestrian, but it was also not at a level that I knew could become problematic to maintain, and in the worst case, potentially result in a blow up (exhaustion, muscle cramps, etc.). I also planned to build in a considerable amount of rest in the early stages of the trip to ensure that my legs would remain reasonably fresh to enable me to maintain the same pace into the later stages of the route. If I felt good towards the end I would be able to up the intensity and put in some longer days. After all, I always prefer to finish strong!

My sleep setup included the following:

  • Mountain Hardwear Mountain Speed sleeping bag: overall I was pleased with the performance of the bag but the zipper is just awful: always getting caught and, as I found, liable to simple break in the field!
  • Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer hooded down jacket: I love this jacket. It kept me warm and the hood over my head was key to getting my core temperature back up.
  • Ultimate Direction Marathon Jacket: I used the marathon jacket extensively during the trip and for only 3.3 ounces it did an amazing job keeping me warm. In the evenings I would put it on top of my shirt and in the sleeping bag I would put it on top of my down jacket to provide that extra warmth. (note: if any chance of rain was in the forecast I would have replaced the UD Marathon Shell with the UD Ultra Jacket, which comes in at only ~2 ounces heavier but provides much more protection from wind and rain).
  • SOL Escape Lite Bivvy: The purpose of the bivy was to give me another 10 degree temperature rating on my sleeping bag. Without this bivvy I would have almost certainly been cold most nights. With the bivy I was comfortably warm.
  • Thermarest Neoair Xlite: The gold standard for light inflatable mattresses. Perhaps just as important as sleep was giving my muscles a few hours to relax and recover for the next day of movement. Sleeping on hard, cold ground would make that difficult to accomplish. The Neoair weighs about as much as a non-inflatable pad, packs down smaller and would give me a cushy surface to rest on any surface, including rock slabs.
  • Gossamer gear polycro groundsheet: This sheet of plastic doesn’t look like much, but it’s remarkably strong and extremely important to protect the inflatable mattress and otherwise keep gear off the ground surface and clean.
  • Liner gloves: These were useful on the cold mornings to keep my fingers warm.
  • Ultimate Direction Midcap: coming in at only 0.5 ounces, it seems like a no-brainer to carry this little beanie. I wore this hat every night and every morning. It kept my head toasty. Like my mom always says, staying warm starts first with the head!

Other gear included the following:

  • Black Diamond Distance Z-Poles: These poles are extremely versatile and were up to the task of the rugged SHR. I was able to easily pack them away when I did not need them and the tougher aluminim build (vs the lighter carbon fiber ultra distance) was worth the extra weight. The ultra distance pole is not really designed for off-trail travel and a broken pole is just extra weight. The distance pole performed well.
  • Black Diamond SPOT headlamp 2016: This headlamp was lightweight and provided more than enough light for my few hours of use during the night.
  • Hydrapak Ultraflask XL 20 oz: This large soft bottle fit perfectly into the front pocket of my Ultimate Direction 30 Fastpack. The tube and bite valve meant only needed to turn my head to get a sip. Unlike a water reservoir, the Ultraflask was super easy to take out and refill.
  • Water bottle: I wasn’t ready to rely on a soft bottle entirely in case it sprung a leak so I brought a hard water bottle. It turns out the soft bottle held up fine and 95% of the water I drunk was from the Hydrapak Ultraflask. I basically only used the water bottle for mixing recovery powder.
  • Anker 10000 mAh portable charger: Used for recharging electronics including my Suunto Ambit 3 Peak watch and iPhone. This was more than enough charging capacity for my needs.
  • iPhone SE: Used for photography and navigation as necessary (with GAIA GPS App downloaded)
  • SPOT Receiver: The SPOT custom and OK buttons worked fine when engaged but I was quite disappointed with the performance of the tracking feature on this trip. There were a couple erroneous tracks and sometimes there was hours between tracks even though I set it to fix every 30 minutes. I obviously did not know about this shortcoming when I was out there which is even more frustrating. This failure is a little bit of a head scratcher: my iPhone can triangulate GPS to within 16 ft in a matter of seconds but the SPOT can be miles off or not even obtain a fix for hours at a time. The technology is obviously there but SPOT remains spotty…
  • Miscellaneous items: sunscreen, lip balm, insect repellent, small first aid kit, blister kit, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.

SHR gear

So how would I carry all this food and gear comfortably?

  • Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30: The Fastpack 30 has plenty of space (and more) to carry all my food and gear for at least 5 nights. The integrated vest structure allows for comfortable transport and the numerous front pockets provide for easy access to items during the day including the Hydrapak Ultraflask XL, energy food, sunscreen, chapstick, iphone, SPOT receiver, etc.  While all my gear fit into the Fastpack 20, I preferred the Fastpack 30 since it has a foam back panel that provided me some structure to comfortably carry the load, which was around 17 pounds at the beginning of the trip. For lighter loads less than 14 pounds I would likely use the Fastpack 20.

And now, for the perhaps the most important piece of gear: footwear!

  • La Sportiva Akasha: The sticky, rugged outsole provided the traction I needed on slabs and talus while the cushioning gave my feet the comfort they needed to keep moving without any pains for the entire day. The roomy fit also kept blisters to a minimum and any shoe that can survive the rigors of the SHR is a winner!
  • La  Sportiva Long Distance Sock: A new product for La Sportiva this year, these socks were extremely comfortable and were up to the task of protecting my feet and keeping blisters to a minimum.
  • Injinji Compression Toesocks: Provide a ton of compression to help reduce muscle soreness. My calves in particular are susceptible to becoming tight during long days of intense activity and these socks were able to provide the level of compression that would alleviate tightness.

Strategy: 

My plan for the SHR was loose and flexible. I would basically keep moving during the daylight hours and rest during the night. I had no specific destination to reach each day, only to keep moving until ~8 pm when I would find a suitable place to rest overnight. For the reasons described above, I knew that rest would be critical and I did not want to miss any highlights by bumbling around at night. When my energy levels during the day lowered, I would tell myself that it’s all about movement. If I kept moving as much as possible during the day, even at a pace that felt sluggish, I would still make substantial progress by the end of the day. The periods of low energy often happened during the heat of the day and made me thankful that I picked a relatively cool weather pattern to do the SHR (I don’t like heat). Thankfully, these periods of low energy would be relatively short since the temps would cool quickly in late afternoon with a breeze and I was diligent about eating food and drinking water with electrolytes. My goal was to smooth out the highs and lows that are inevitable on multi-day efforts and I feel like I was effective in execution.

Sub 5 Days: 

My initial analysis (even before last summer) was that it would be feasible for me to complete the SHR in under 6 days while still enjoying the scenery. Thus, heading into my attempt of the route I figured a finish of around 5.5 days was most likely. I was on track for exactly this type of finish as I came into Reds Meadow and I was actually assuming it would be a 5.5 day finish until the afternoon of day 4 around North Glacier Pass. At this point a light bulb went off in my head. I knew that if I could reach the north side of Blue Lake Pass I could potentially finish in under 5 days. This would require me to complete a difficult off-trail portion before sunset, but once completed, I would be able to cover some distance on the Isberg Pass and Rafferty Creek Trails in the dark. This would set me up for completing the last section of rugged off-trail travel north of Tuolumne Meadows during the daylight of day 5 and ultimately a sub 5 day finish. I was more than OK to cover some miles along the mundane trails at night since they tend to be hot and dusty during the day and there is virtually no scenery to enjoy along them. It seemed like a plan and the seed was planted so I set off around Lake Catherine with renewed vigor. The scenery from North Glacier Pass to Twin Island Lakes is astonishingly wild and rugged – some of the best on the entire route – and just the type of awe-inspiring beauty to get me super excited. I was grateful for the opportunity to be at this spot on such a beautiful day and enjoying every second. For the next few hours I would seek to reach Blue Lake Pass before sunset, inspired and motivated by my surroundings as evening light took hold of the land. I ultimately made Blue Lake Pass well before sunset and traversed the beautiful meadowy benches beneath Foerster Peak depositing me on the Isberg Pass Trail before nightfall.

From this point I would need to do about a dozen trail miles to set me up for a sub five day finish including the steep climb up Vogelsang Pass. I stopped for dinner at the Lyell Fork of the Merced River and then took a second break at Florence Creek to gather myself for a sustained effort up the steep switchbacks to Vogelsang Pass. I was soon over the pass and descending toward Vogelsang Lake. At this point I had a decision to make: keep going through the night or stop to rest for a few hours. If this were an all-trail effort I would have more strongly considered going through the night since I continued to feel good. However, I remembered Brian Robinson mentioning that the last few passes along the SHR were some of the hardest on the route. I knew that the prudent decision was to give my legs some rest in advance of these tough climbs and consume some more calories. I stopped at Vogelsang Lake and rested on a granite bench for a few hours. When I woke up I knew that I had made a good decision as my legs felt light again and I was able to run much of the way from Vogelsang Lake to Tuolumne Meadows. At this point I knew that I would have enough time to negotiate the arduous off-trail section from Great Sierra Mine to Horse Creek Pass entirely in the daylight hours and ensure a sub 5 finish. In fact only the last 2 miles of the SHR are on true maintained trail where running is feasible and I was happy to reach this section with plenty of daylight to spare.

The Finish: 

I arrived at Twin Lakes at 8 pm, 4 days, 16 hours and 45 minutes after beginning at Roads End in Kings Canyon. I was obviously tired, but not destroyed. My physical and mental spirits were in remarkably good shape. It appears the worst things that came out of the trip were burned lips (note:you can never use enough lip balm) and tight shoulder muscles.  In fact, I had a lot more soreness and mental exhaustion after the JMT FKT a couple years ago. I’m assuming this is due to the fact that the majority of the SHR was fast hiking vs. running and much less night travel compared to the JMT, which can be very taxing mentally and physically. Or perhaps I’ve learned a thing or two about multi-day efforts? My time happens to be a new Fastest Known Time, of which I’m grateful to have obtained. However, I’d be just as a satisfied with my experience had it not been an FKT as I was able to accomplish my top priority of enjoying the stunning scenery even more than I could have ever imagined. I realize that I am lucky to be in an era where I can proceed with my style of enjoyment and photography while still also achieving a benchmark time and redefining what is possible in terms of efficiency for a route like the SHR.

Highlights: 

The Sierra High Route is a highlight real with numerous favorite spots along the way. One of the great advantages of multi-day travel is the ability to see sunrise and sunset at many of these remote spots when the “Range of Light” comes to life. Here are some of my favorite sections:

  1. Windy Ridge and Gray Pass: The view overlooking lake 10236 and the Middle Fork Kings Canyon is astonishing. It’s one of the great views of the high Sierra. In the past I’ve visited Windy Point which is a very worthwhile diversion.
  2. Marion Lake and Lake Basin: This stunningly blue body of water is tucked in underneath the granite cliffs of the Cirque Crest and Marion Peak. Above Marion lake lies several large bodies of water in Lake Basin that are equally beautiful. With no maintained trails entering the basin one can find solitude among natrual splendor.
  3. Palisade Basin: The Palisades are the most rugged and alpine subrange within the entire Sierra Nevada. The SHR passes immediately underneath these monolithic peaks crossing over rocky passes, green meadows and lovely lakes. I was able to see evening light as I passed through Palisade Basin on the way to Knapsack Pass on Day 1.
  4. Evolution Basin: For both the SHR and the JMT, the Evolution Basin is a highlight. Everything from Wanda Lake down to Evolution Lake is marvelous and some of the most classic Sierra scenery available.
  5. Bear Basin: Bear Basin is among my favorite spots in the entire Sierra Nevada. In particular, Ursa Lake and White Bear Lake are particularly stunning. Both lakes feature the rugged Seven Gables and Gemini peaks towering above their rocky shorelines. It was a treat to pass through Bear Basin during sunrise on Day 3.
  6. Upper Mills Lake: A pristine lake situated at the foot of the north face of Mount Gabb, the highest peak in the region. The lake is surrounded by an amphitheater of cliffs and is one of the more rugged and wild spots on the route.
  7. Cotton Lake and Izaak Walton Lake: Cotton Lake sits on a white granite bench which contrasts marvelously with the reddish rock of Red Slate Mountain and Red and White Mountain at the headwaters of Fish Creek. Izaak Walton Lake is situated among steep granite slabs tucked in beneath Mont Izaak Walton.
  8. The Minarets: Always a favorite, the trio of lakes beneath the striking Minarets are tough to beat. Each of the lakes – Minaret, Cecile and Iceberg – are amazing and I simply can’t rate one above the other. It’s all amazing and always a pleasure to pass by them and gaze in awe at Minaret spires towering above.
  9. North Fork San Joaquin Headwaters: The entire stretch of the SHR between North Glacier Pass and Blue Lake Pass is features some of the most rugged and wild terrain on the route. This is a land of cliffs, waterfalls and remote lakes. The beauty is austere and surreal and I love it!
  10. Conness Lakes: Set between Mount Conness and North Peak are a string of magical lakes, each with a different tinge of glacial sediment resulting in a range of colors from blue to bright turquoise. The SHR descends a lovely granite ramp from the East Ridge of Mount Conness down to these lakes providing a swell view of these lakes for the entire duration of the descent.

Thoughts on Speed: 

It so happens that the Sierra Nevada is my “home range” and I have spent a considerable amount of time in and around the Sierra High Route. I have climbed most of the local peaks, rested in countless meadows, and swam in many lakes. I am deeply familiar with this country and enjoy the flow of moving fast through this familiar terrain while also taking time to stop and smell the flowers. On my SHR journey, or any trip to the high Sierra for that matter, I do not feel as if I have “bagged” or “tagged” or “crushed” anything. These terms imply that I have somehow conquered the mountains but instead it’s the mountains that have given me everything on my visits to the high Sierra – the inspiration, the motivation and the memories that will last a lifetime. I want these mountains to remain wild forever. There are so few truly wild places remaining in the world, particularly in a populous state like California, where one can find nature in its purest and unfettered form. I am grateful for the opportunity to visit these places that humans will hopefully never “conquer.”

Especially for those who do not get to enjoy this tremendous mountain country on a weekly basis like I do, it is almost a shame to approach the SHR with a singular focus on speed. It’s simply too beautiful with too many opportunities for exploration. In fact, Roper devotes a section of each chapter to local peaks and strongly encourages the SHR traveler to take some (or many) of these tangents. By climbing the peaks and wandering the surroundings one comes away with an even greater appreciation of the Sierra and a greater sense of satisfaction.Through my many travels in the Sierra, I can say with certainty that the precise SHR route is just the beginning and a facilitator of these opportunities and experiences. I highly recommend that one adopts this ethos when planning a trip of the SHR.

With the SHR journey now complete I can say that I am now comfortable with multi-day unsupported efforts and I look forward to doing more of these types of adventures in the future. I have improved my ability to do consecutive long days in the mountains. I know how my body reacts on multi-day efforts, I can recognize the first signs of fatigue, and I can better gauge what type of nutrition I need to keep me going with a sustained effort day in and day out. All of these lessons will surely help me continue to explore the mountains in new ways.

Thanks: 

My unsupported journey of the SHR would not be possible without the help of my good friend Will Gotthardt who generously offered his time to help drive me to the start at Roads End in Kings Canyon and pick me up at the finish at Twin Lakes near Bridgeport. Will always puts me at ease before events and has always believed in me so having him there at the start was invaluable. The car shuttle for the SHR is among the longest of all point-to-points and Will made it super easy on my end. Also special thanks goes to my partner girlfriend, Erica Namba, who endured days of me talking about various minutia regarding the route, gear and nutrition selection while providing valuable input on all of the above. She’s also soon to become a physical therapist and provided me with hours of therapy to keep me healthy. A special thanks goes to previous SHR thru-hikers Brian Robinson, Buzz Burrell, Andrew Skurka and Brian Lucido who generously imparted their knowledge and experiences of the route, either publicly on the internet or through direct communication. Finally, thanks to my gracious sponsors La Sportiva and Ultimate Direction. La Sportiva has been supporting my adventures for nearly a decade and their footwear continues to lead the pack when it comes to adventure running! Ultimate Direction makes the best hydration systems, hands down. The immensely successful Signature Series basically invented the running vest category and the Fastpack 20/30 are doing the same for multi-day adventures.

Complete photo album here

Special Note on Inaccurate OnTheTrail.org Free Maps:

If you’re interested in doing all or part of the SHR, do NOT use the free maps on OnTheTrail.org – do NOT use the overview maps, do NOT use the topo series, and (most importantly) do NOT use the GPX (http://onthetrail.org/trekking/shr/). The line is neither accurate nor efficient; there are at least a dozen errors that obviously deviate from Roper’s description and a few of them are major deviations that will lead you astray and/or not complete the route as Roper described and intended. This information is so bad it’s actually a disservice to those interested in the SHR and there should be a bold disclaimer or, better yet, it should be taken off the internet. These maps show up high in any internet search for the Sierra High Route. I quickly realized they were basically garbage and I did not use them at all in my planning for the SHR.

The SHR Passes (* indicates a trail pass): In chronological order from south to north. 

  1. Grouse Lake
  2. Glacier Lakes
  3. Gray
  4. White
  5. Red
  6. Frozen Lakes
  7. Mather *
  8. Cirque
  9. Potluck
  10. Knapsack
  11. Muir *
  12. Snow Tongue
  13. Puppet
  14. Feather
  15. White Bear
  16. Gabbot
  17. Bighorn
  18. Shout of Relief
  19. Duck
  20. Deer Lakes
  21. Mammoth
  22. Nancy
  23. Cecile Lake
  24. Whitebark
  25. Garnet
  26. North Glacier
  27. Blue Lake
  28. Vogelsang *
  29. Great Sierra Mine
  30. Mine Shaft
  31. East Ridge Conness
  32. Sky Pilot
  33. Stanton
  34. Horse Creek

Pine Valley

Jack English’s passing on March 3 at the age of 96 brought back memories of my first visit to the Ventana Wilderness in November 2009, a point-to-point run from China Camp down the Carmel River to Los Padres Dam with Gary Gellin and Jim Moyles. It was an amazing introduction to the Ventana and I feel grateful to have met Mr. English. Jim Moyles has a wealth of knowledge on the Ventana, some of which he shared on this trip and sparked my interest in the region that would only grow in the coming years. We started at China Camp and descended to beautiful Pine Valley where we met Jack English, who warmly welcomed us into his cabin for tea and cookies. Jack English is a legend of the Ventana Wilderness and built the cabin in Pine Valley with his wife in the late 70s after becoming enamored with the valley.  He lived in the cabin for the next 30+ years and even in the last couple years when he could no longer live in the cabin independently or walk the 5.5 miles from the China Camp trailhead to the valley, a helicopter would drop him off in Pine Valley so he could spend time at his favorite spot over the weekends. Back in 2009, Jack showed us the exceptional violin bows that he made. His masterful craftsmanship resulted in demand for his bows from world class violinists. Jack told us stories about his beloved wife Mary, who passed away in 2001, and life at Pine Valley, including the quiet winters with few visitors and the fires that periodically swept through the valley.  Jack thoroughly enjoyed living in the valley, and unlike some folks who live off-the-grid, Jack was incredibly welcoming to all visitors. I included a few clips and photos of our visit in a video that I made at the time, included below (the English cabin starts at 1:24). The English cabin still stands in Pine Valley and Jack’s spirit will continue to be felt throughout the valley. This video also reminds me that fall is a wonderful time in Pine Valley with some of the best fall color in the Ventana to be found on the oaks and maples in Pine Valley and along the Pine Ridge Trail west of Church Divide.

I have been to Pine Valley several times since 2009, including twice this spring. It’s a magical spot with the towering Ponderosa pines, pretty meadows, spectacular sandstone rock formations and a pretty waterfall downstream along the Carmel River. Like Jack English, it’s become one of my favorite spots in the Ventana. In addition, the area has great opportunities for exploration including the Pine Ridge Trail toward Pine Ridge, Bear Basin and Church Creek. Complete photo albums:

The Church Creek Valley is particularly enjoyable with more spectacular sandstone formations, meadows, oak woodland and scenic vistas. Church Creek sees a fraction of the visitation of Pine Valley so the trail contains much more brush and faint tread, particularly the southern portion which has non-existent tread in some of the meadow areas.  

Pine Ridge is another fascinating spot with a remnant forest of Ponderosa pine, Coulter pine, incense cedar and Santa Lucia Fir. Before the Marble Cone and Basin Fires the forest was more expansive, but a good swath of the forest remains intact on the northern side of the ridge. The southern side of the ridge was largely obliterated by the fire, however a clump of ancient ponderosa pines stands near the top of Pine Ridge and is visible from many parts of the Ventana Wilderness. Many of the trees along this ridge are contorted and grizzled manifesting the harsh weather conditions on the ridge including strong winds, frigid winter temperatures, and scorching summer heat. 

Bear Basin is a location I have yet to explore, but look forward to visiting. It appears the greatest grove of incense cedar remaining in the Ventana is in the basin with the distinctive shape and light green color of the incense cedar visible from the Pine Ridge Trail. Similar to Pine Ridge, a good deal of the forest in Bear Basin was burned in the fires, but many of the old growth trees did make it out alive. A trail used to traverse Bear Basin but has long been lost with virtually no tread remaining.  

 

Marble Meadows & Boronda Lupine

One can find some wildflowers in Big Sur virtually any time of the year, but the time of year when the hillsides erupt with sky lupine and poppy lasts only a few short weeks in the Spring. The season can start as early as mid March and can run as late as mid May with the wildflowers starting first in the lower elevations and finishing at the highest elevations. Most years the peak of the bloom is sometime in April and the two primary species are sky lupine and California poppy.  The scope and location of the bloom varies substantially year to year and this post describes some of this variability in just the past three years. Sometimes poppy blooms before the lupine while other years they bloom concurrently. Moreover, some seasons have had great blooms of other wildflower species including early-rising shooting star.  All of the photos in this post are from this year’s lupine bloom on Boronda Ridge and Coast Ridge from Grimes Canyon to Marble Meadows. Full album hereThe spring of 2014 produced the “mother” of all lupine blooms and featured a ridiculous display of sky lupine that covered entire mountainsides, particularly those at lower elevations below 2,500 ft that don’t often see big wildflower concentrations. The lower elevation bloom was particularly stunning with a background of the deep blue ocean close at hand. This bloom occurred at the height of the drought with virtually no rain until late February, at which point a series of atmospheric rivers put down several inches of rain. This rainfall was just enough to cause the lupine to pop. With no grass to impede their growth, the lupine flourished and grew to great height and concentration. The result was an amazing, fairy tale display that peaked on mother’s day weekend, hence the “mother” of all blooms. It was a relatively late peak due to the late start to germination. Long-time Big Sur residents commented that such a display had not been seen in a decade and a half and it has not been repeated since; not even close. Most grassy ridges along the coast had tremendous displays of lupine which made for a truly memorable experience. I just wish it would happen more often! The winter of 2014-2015 was substantially wetter and resulted in more grass growth at lower elevations. The spring of 2015 featured nice lupine fields at mid and higher elevations, but nothing like the 2014 bloom (you already knew that). While in 2014 the best patches were below 2,000 ft, in 2015 the best patches were generally above 2,000 ft. Due to the ongoing drought and uneven nature of the rainy season, the lupine bloom was still quite good in favored spots, but it was functionally more of a typical bloom with the best spots where you would normally expect. This year’s winter was wetter than both of the prior two preceding winters and the result was that grass grew vigorously throughout winter at lower elevations and crowded out most flowers down low. This year’s best patches were even higher than 2015 – generally above 3,000 ft where the grass was unable to grow as much due to the cooler temperatures at elevation. At lower elevations lupine was sparse and small, unable to compete for water and light amid the tall grass. While not as good at 2015 and nowhere near the super bloom of 2014, there were still some nice patches at higher elevations, including the highest reaches of Boronda Ridge, Marble Meadows and interior meadows along the Pine Ridge Trail. While this year’s bloom wasn’t quite as good as 2015 and nowhere near 2014, it was still quite beautiful when I found myself in a lupine patch and these photos show there was still some great displays to enjoy. This post includes some photos from a run up Boronda and along Coast Ridge to Marble Meadows. As mentioned above, sky lupine fields only started at ~2,500 on Boronda and the patches became more impressive as one gained elevation on coast ridge toward Anderson Peak and Marble Peak. Marble Meadows, located beneath Marble Peak at around 3,800 ft in elevation, had the best lupine display on the route and likely the best lupine display with coastal Big Sur views this season. I love sky lupine fields, especially when there’s a background of green hills and the blue Pacific Ocean!  A later post will showcase the lupine and owl clover patches along the Pine Ridge Trail (2015 Pine Ridge Trail flowers), which is another favorite spot for springtime wildflowers. 

The Window & Kandlbinder

“The Window” or “La Ventana” is a prominent and historically significant feature in the most rugged corner of the Ventana Wilderness. The deep notch along the high ridge between Kandlbinder Peak and Ventana Double Cone is clearly visible from the north and south. The first visitors to the Window were almost certainly Native Americans who intimately knew these mountains. The name “La Ventana” likely originates with Spanish explorers and the significance of the feature resulted in the entire wilderness of the northern Santa Lucia Mountains bearing the name “Ventana.”   Modern interest in the Window began in the 1960’s with a multi-year effort to clear a route to the Window highlighted by a 25 person meeting at the the Window in May 1968 with parties arriving from three different directions (likely from Venatana Creek to the south, Jackson Creek to the North and Ventana Double Cone to the east). More details on the history and route can be found here.  

Unofficially named Kandlbinder Peak is the high point at the west end of the ridge. Formerly known as “No-Name Peak,”  members of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club renamed the peak in 1971 in memory of then-recently passed Dr. Alfred Kandlbinder who was a founding member of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club and an avid hiker of the Ventana. The 360 degree vista from Kandlbinder if arguable the best summit view in the Ventana Wilderness with the centerpiece feature being the wild and rugged west face and entire drain feature of Ventana Double Cone. To the north the expansive Little Sur drainage is at one’s feet including Pico Blanco’s distinctive southern apron of white limestone. To the west is Point Sur, the Cabezo Prieto ridgeline, Coast Ridge and the mighty Pacific Ocean. To the south is Cone Peak, Santa Lucia Peak and the Big Sur river drainage. 

Close to 50 years and several large fires after the famous meeting of the paths to the Window, access has deteriorated substantially with innumerable blowdowns and brush making for an arduous adventure by any direction. However, the Jackson Creek route via the Little Sur River is still the shortest and quickest approach to the Window and several parties visit the Window each year via this route. Most of the entries in the register are from boy scout groups climbing up the Jackson Creek route from nearby Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp although it seems scout interest has waned in recent years. Parties who backpack tend to camp in the Window itself where there’s a large flat spot and fire ring. Most of the register entries are in the summer months when the many biting flies who inhabit the Window are at their peak intensity and aggression.  The other formerly-established camping spot at Happy Fork was largely destroyed by a large oak tree that fell directly over the camp last year though camping is still feasible in the grass next to the blowdown.  

The old route that once traversed the ridgeline to Ventana Double Cone has completely disappeared and is now an advanced bushwhack with a grueling combination of dead wood from the Basin Fire and aggressive new chaparral growth. Approaching from the south via Ventana Creek entails a long creek walk and then a sketchy scramble around Ventana Falls. The traverse to Kandlbinder is an entirely off-trail route, but one can avoid the worst brush by staying on the north side of the ridge when leaving the Window and then returning to the ridge crest for the final couple hundred feet to the summit. Inside the Window the view is largely obstructed by trees and the surrounding cliffs. However, one can climb a pinnacle on the SW side of the Window which has a magnificent view of cliffs descending from the Window down more than two thousand feet to headwaters of Ventana Creek and the impressively rugged west face of Ventana Double Cone.  

Stone Ridge & Aerial Falls

Cone Peak rises 5,155 ft above the Pacific Ocean in less than three miles as the crow flies, making it one of the steepest gradients from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. It’s nearly a vertical mile above the glimmering ocean with a commanding view of the Big Sur Coast. Such steep topography leads to many awesome features, not the least of which is waterfalls! On this day I visited an ephemeral waterfall on the backside of Cone Peak in the headwaters of the San Antonio River, my first adventure into the San Antonio watershed. This falls only flows with any kind of noticeable volume after a period of substantial winter rainfall so on all my times standing on Cone Peak I never noticed the falls. However, when in flow the falls is striking from the summit particularly in the afternoon sunlight. Technically the falls does not drain Cone Peak itself, but from the summit one can gain a great birds eye view of the main 100+ ft drop across the canyon. I named the falls “Aerial Falls” because of the aerial style of the view from Cone Peak and also when standing beneath the falls it seems as if the water is falling from the sky as it plunges off the massive conglomerate rock facade. Beneath the main drop is a series of additional falls and cascades so the total height of the falls from top to bottom likely approaches 200 vertical feet. In order to view the falls from its base one must earn it: first in terms of timing to see the falls in flow (which is admittedly rare) and second in the arduous off-trail adventure down into the depths of the remote, trail-less headwaters of the San Antonio River (it’s farther than it seems).

  

The most prominent ridge on the Cone Peak massif (which includes Twin Peak) is Stone Ridge. The direct route up this ridge is tremendous and worthy of the title “Sea to Sky.” Stone Ridge is easily the most impressive and prominent ridge along the entire Big Sur Coast. While there are a bevy of beautiful grassy ridges near the ocean that I have explored (Boronda, Prewitt, Shouey, East Molera, Kirk Creek, Mount Mars to name a few), each with its own charm and inspiration, none compare to Stone Ridge in terms of height (4,800 ft), length (4 miles) and sheer topography in all directions. In 5.25 miles, one can go from the Pacific Ocean to the 5,155 ft summit of Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast.  Suffice it to say, Stone Ridge is one-of-a-kind. I’ve blogged about Stone Ridge and the “Sea to Sky” route many times before so there really isn’t anything to add except some photos from the latest trip. 

The Lost Grove

I’ve written in great detail about Santa Lucia Firs recently so I won’t repeat myself and describe the awesomeness of this tree again. The highest concentration of Santa Lucias (by far) is in the Carmel River drainage where the rocky, rugged terrain provides an ideal fire-proof habitat for the trees to thrive. The second greatest concentration stretches from Devils Canyon up to Cone Peak, also very rugged and rocky. South of Cone Peak there are only a few isolated groves in existence, perhaps fewer than a half dozen, making each of these groves especially unique. The most accessible of these groves is located in the upper part of Villa Creek in the Silver Peak Wilderness. The Cruickshank Trail passes among the firs with good views into the canyon bottom where the firs are highly concentrated.  As I’m a Santa Lucia Fir aficionado, I decided to visit a more remote stand that has piqued my interest ever since I saw the familiar narrow conical crowns of the Santa Lucia Firs from a nearby ridge. Since the grove is tucked away in a hanging valley with no easy access I decided to name it the Lost Grove. Unlike the larger stands in the Carmel River drainage and Cone Peak, the growing habitat in the Lost Grove is restricted to a narrow mile-long strip along a rocky stream.  The vast majority of the trees reside on the cooler northeast facing slope and the density of firs is some of the greatest I have seen; it’s almost as if the trees are huddling together to keep cool. There is a sharp gradient between the Santa Lucia Firs and the hot chaparral slopes with only a few Coulter and gray pines mixed in. It appears destructive fire has largely avoided this grove for many years and the result is some amazing old growth trees with impressively tall spire-like crowns that epitomize the Santa Lucia Fir. A few of the firs appeared drought stressed or have already succumbed to drought so hopefully this winter’s rain will be sufficient to help these trees survive the next summer. This grove resides in a relatively hotter and drier location than most Santa Lucias so it did not come as a surprise that the effects of the drought were visible, but the vast majority of trees still appeared healthy and there were hundreds of new saplings on the shady forest floor poised to become the next generation. I also suspect that the lifespan of the Santa Lucia Fir is not all the great as every grove I have visited includes several old snags. Access to the grove entails either a moderately brushy approach from a nearby ridge with excellent views to the Pacific Ocean or a creek walk with an extended stretch of beautiful bedrock and boulder cascades.