This was my third time visiting the exceptionally scenic region beneath Granite Dome. In both 2012 and 2014 visits were in early June and most of the lakes were melted out. This time a full month later in early July the lakes were mostly frozen; a testament to the unprecedented High Sierra snowpack received in the winter of 2017. What made this visit special was the colorful ice pools in the lakes, including a heavenly blue pool in Upper Lewis Lake and a stunning teal turquoise color in Ridge Lake. In addition, Iceland Lake was only partially melted out with icebergs and an array of ice colors from green to blue. Similar to my first visit in 2012, I ascended to the top of Granite Dome which has great views of the Emigrant Wilderness and Northern Yosemite. Tower Peak is particularly striking to the east. The crux of the trip was crossing Summit Creek which was raging like a river. There was one safe log over the creek in the vicinity I needed to cross. It was mostly dry in the morning but by afternoon it was wet and I had to carefully scoot across while keeping my feet sufficiently out of the water so the swift current would not pull me in! It also didn’t help that I had turned my ankle on trail run in and was relegated to walking (carefully) the rest of the outing. Complete photo album here. Route on Strava here.
Granite Dome is an immense granite massif with numerous micro-basins occupied by a series of stunning alpine lakes set amid granite slabs and cliffs. I like to describe this region as the “Granite Balconies” since each of the lakes can be viewed from above on granite slabs. All of the lakes are located on the northern side of a broad, massive ridge called Granite Dome. The summit is a fairly nondescript and non-prominent point along the ridge. The region is characterized by ubiquitous ice polished granite carved into its present form by glaciers that blanketed this region over millennia. No trails travel into this area making it a relatively infrequently visited spot where solitude and ample room for exploration can be found. While the northern side of Granite Dome is rugged, the south side features more subdued terrain and no lakes until much farther down in the Emigrant Wilderness. The region is accessed via Kennedy Meadows off of the Sonora Pass Highway and includes a moderately steep trail to reach Relief Reservoir and beyond. The off-trail travel is fairly easy with navigation on friendly granite slabs. The primary objective in route finding on this terrain is to avoid steeper sections of granite that can become cliffs. The named lakes of the region include the Lewis Lakes (lower, middle, upper), Sardella Lake, Ridge Lake and Iceland Lake with a numerous other smaller tarns. Ridge Lake is arguably the centerpiece nestled beneath the towering cliffs of Granite Dome with waterfalls splashing down into the lake from the upper reaches of the peak. However, Middle Lewis Lake is perhaps the most dramatic with towering granite cliffs surrounding its shores like an amphitheater. Furthermore, the view overlooking Iceland Lake from the south is fantastic.
The ascent to Granite Dome’s summit is fairly straightforward from the lakes. On both of my climbs I ascended directly to the ridge from Upper Lewis Lakes. If early in the season (or a heavy snow year like this year when snow will persist through much of summer) consider bringing ice and crampons as the slope to the ridge is moderately steep. Once on the ridge it’s fairly flat with some nice alpine wildflowers amid the volcanic rocks with some interesting rock features as one approaches the summit. Several false summits are passed on what feels like a long ridge traverse before the highpoint is reached. The best views of the lakes are located slightly below the summit where the flatter rocks of the summit area abruptly transition to the precipitous granite cliffs.
Robinson Creek canyon is a prominent U-shaped glacier carved valley spilling into Twin Lakes outside of Bridgeport. Sawtooth Ridge towers above the canyon, and despite being relatively lower in elevation than peaks to the south, it’s one of the most rugged segments of the High Sierra. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I also appreciate the comparatively lush environment including extensive stands of mountain hemlock. It’s no wonder I’m a regular visitor to this corner of Sierra. On my several visits to the region I made note of the aspen groves in the canyon and a point to return during fall color. Last year was a drought year and while there was some color, I knew that it wasn’t near its potential as there was extensive leaf spot caused by winter drought and then a very rainy summer. This year was much more normal with average snowpack and a drier summer. The result was a phenomenal fall color show that was virtually unabated from just outside the Twin Lakes trailhead all the way to a mile beyond Barney Lake. That’s 5+ miles of virtually non-stop fall color. What I love about the fall color show here is the exceptionally rugged setting and the fact that the best stuff is not roadside. You’ve got hike at least a couple miles to find the better groves and it only gets better the farther you go. The result is a peaceful experience without the tourists and without the tripod-toting shooting gallery. The most mature old-growth aspen stand is just before Barney Lake but some of the best colors can be found in the “fields” of stunted slide aspen. Unlike many other regions where aspen are usually very straight in stature, the aspen in the Sierra Nevada are often contorted due to the harsh growing environment with high winds, deep snowfall, and in this location, avalanches. When combined with the dramatic peaks rising above the canyon and the wilderness character, this fall color show is tough to beat. Perhaps my favorite grove is at the base of Little Slide Canyon (first picture below) where one can obtain a nicely framed shot of the aspen and the rugged backdrop of Little Slide Canyon including the Incredible Hulk and Kettle Peak. GPS route here. The focus of this trip was the outstanding fall color in Robinson Creek canyon but I also found the loop of Robinson and Little Slide canyons to be an excellent run or hike any time of the year with scenery including several charming lakes and panoramic views. In addition, there are opportunities to scramble many nearby peaks including Crown Point, Eocene Peak and Kettle Peak. I chose to make the quick trip up Slide Mountain this time as I had never been there before. At the head of the valley beyond Barney Lake, the trail leaves the aspen and switchbacks up a slope toward Peeler Lake. Shortly before Peeler Lake is a junction: veer left to head toward Rock Island Pass. The trail climbs through an old-growth Mountain Hemlock forest before reaching a magical emerald tarn with hemlocks surrounding and Crown Point looming above. Right after the tarn are the Robinson Lakes nestled within the granite rocks. The incredible scenery continues at Crown Lake with granite buttresses descending into the water and picturesque mountain hemlocks and whitebark pines sprinkled about the lakeshore. The trail climbs once again above Crown Lake before reaching a pleasant meadow and another trail junction. Head left to take the trail to Mule Pass. This stretch of trail switchbacks up a north facing slope and often holds snow until well into summer on a normal snow year. In fact, it might be one of the latest melting stretches of trail in the high Sierra. The terrain flattens out next to a tarn with a thick krummholz stand of Whitebark Pines. From this tarn it’s a fairly gradual finish to Mule Pass. While Mule Pass has an excellent view in its own right, the quality of the vista improves greatly if one ascends to Slide Mountain, which is the high point above a distinct feature known as “The Slide.” Slide Mountain is a fairly nondescript summit with several rock outcroppings vying for the highpoint, but the grand view is essentially the same and includes the Incredible Hulk, Sawtooth Ridge, Finger Peaks, Whorl Mountain and Mount Conness. One can reach Slide Mountain directly from the tarn below Mule Pass by taking a steep rock and snow gully or the more moderate route ascends sand and granite slabs from Mule Pass. Back at Mule Pass follow the trail down as it traverses through lovely parkland with meadows mixed with granite slabs. At a flat area, leave the trail and walk through meadows and tarns toward Ice Lake Pass. Ice Lake can be traversed either on its west or east side, but both sides require some climbing to get up and around granite cliffs that descend into the lake. While the eastern traverse may be easier, my preference is the west side traverse since from this route one obtains a breathtaking view of Maltby Lake nestled among reddish slabs that precipitously descend into its waters with Kettle Peak to the left, the Incredible Hulk to the right and Little Slide Canyon below. On the north side of Ice Lake a use path appears in the sand and can be followed toward the base of the Incredible Hulk with some intermittent talus fields to cross. The Incredible Hulk is one of the most amazing rock features in the high Sierra. Words and photographs do not do this gleaming 1,200 ft face justice. Every time I pass underneath the cliffs I’m in awe of the striking white cliffs contrasting with the deep blue Sierra skies. Below the Hulk, the use path descends into Little Slide Canyon utilizing small gullies and then crossing some talus fields. While there is a path that is followable, it’s a fairly rugged descent all the way to the base of Little Slide Canyon where it crosses Robinson Creek. On the north of Robinson Creek the climbers path quickly joins the Barney Lake Trail and from there it’s only a couple miles back to Twin Lakes. This post describes only one potential loop and it’s impossible to go wrong in this region, but I feel like this loop does a great job hitting many of the scenic highlights in the area. When combined with fall color at its peak it was one of my most memorable days in the Sierra all year.
Wildcat Point and Cold Mountain are two fairly remote and obscure destinations north of Tuolumne Meadows between the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and canyon country of northeast Yosemite. The scenery at both locations is stunning. Wildcat Point is to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne what Clouds Rest is to Tenaya Canyon; a lofty viewpoint perched thousands of feet above a rugged granitic canyon. The primary difference between the two is that Wildcat Point does not have a trail and it’s rarely visited. Meanwhile, Cold Mountain is not a high or remarkable summit by most standards, but its isolated and central position surrounded by deep canyons provides a spectacular 360 degree view, especially into northerneast Yosemite’s canyon country to Sawtooth Ridge. Just to the north of Cold Mountain is a subsidiary peaklet I dubbed “Cold Point” which contains an amazing view of rarely seen Virginia Lake with a sea of granite peaks and domes in the background. Starting at Tuolumne Meadows I started by taking the trail to Glen Aulin. I ran into quite a bit of snow and ice covering the trail which slowed things down; it was November after all. From Glen Aulin I started down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne but soon turned off the trail to head up beautiful smooth granite slabs toward Wildcat Point. Views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne opened up with each step. About halfway up the side of the canyon I took a shallow gully with a little bit of brush to the upper granitic slopes that were more moderately sloped with easy terrain leading to the base of Wildcat Point, which is more of a dome. After some brief scrambling I was at the top marveling at the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne several thousand feet below. The views are excellent from the top of the dome, but the best views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne are further down the ridge at a point where the gentle granite slabs end and a sheer drop into the canyon begins. From this point one can gaze from Tuolumne Meadows to all the way down the Canyon to Pate Valley. Wildcat View provides perhaps the best view of Tuolumne Peak as it rises impressively on the south side of the canyon with cliffs and buttresses leading all the way down to the canyon bottom. From Wildcat Point I traversed a pleasant alpine basin to Cold Mountain, which included beautiful Mattie Lake and another unnamed alpine lake directly below Cold Mountain. The final ascent to Cold Mountain was on friendly granite slabs. Ironically, the summit of Cold Mountain was warm for November. I enjoyed the view over lunch with calm winds and blazing sunshine. Gazing over miles of wilderness in all directions I experienced true solitude as the snowy trail conditions and late season meant that I was the only human around for miles. After my summit break I explored the area, including a visit to a peaklet north of the summit I dubbed “Cold Point.” This spot had perhaps my favorite view of the day with a spectacular vantage of rarely seen Virginia Lake and a sea of granite domes in the background culminating in rugged Sawtooth Ridge and Whorl Mountain above Matterhnorn Canyon. From Cold Mountain I descended forested slopes to Cold Canyon where I found the trail back to Glen Aulin. On the way back from Glen Aulin, instead of returning by trail, I visited a number of domes with excellent views of Tuolumne Meadows and the Cathedral Range. The day finished with an delightful sunset from Olmstead Point (the actual point, not the parking lot). Full album here and GPS route here.
Tower Peak is a remote and impressive summit at the northern end of the High Sierra. The peak lies at the headwaters of the West Walker River that was included in the substantial expansion of the Hoover Wilderness in 2009. The usual route entails many miles of trail along the Walker River Trail from Leavitt Meadows to Tower Lake. The trail is generally pleasant and virtually all runnable for the first 12 miles through Upper Piute Meadows as it is largely non-technical and elevation gain is gradual. Along the way there are several aspen groves that would enhance the trip in the fall season and pretty meadows at Lower and Upper Piute Meadows. The only downside to the trail is that it is very sandy and/or dusty in sections due to its heavy use by the horse pack station at Leavitt Meadows. Travelling through the lower portion where sand and dust is most prevalent on a hot summer day would only make matters worse. Fortunately, the tread improves as one progresses further toward Tower Lake. At around 11.5 miles the trail reaches Piute Meadows. At the north end of Piute Meadows is the Piute Cabin, a nice backcountry ranger cabin that was not occupied on my visit. The cabin has a very nice view looking across the meadows to the peaks at the head of the valley. From the end of Piute Meadows, the trail climbs for a couple more miles to remote and beautiful Tower Lake (~15 miles from the trailhead), situated in a bowl surrounded by granite slopes. The most impressive rock feature is known as “The Watchtower,” which looks like it contains some fine climbing routes on it’s smooth granite face. The vegetation around Tower Lake includes mountain hemlock and alpine firs which are more reminiscent of the Tahoe alpine manifesting Tower Lake’s northern location and correspondingly wetter climate than points further south. From Tower Lake, ascend to Tower Pass through a mix of gravel, talus, and patches of grass. At Tower Pass, Tower Peak comes into view and the route is obvious. Traverse through a shallow basin of meadows (which can have some lovely wildflowers in summer) that transitions to granite slabs near a remnant ice patch. Ascend the granite slabs beside and above this ice path to the northwest ridge with a great view of the “tower” of Tower Peak. Follow the northwest ridge until it becomes steeper and more technical. One can continue along the ridge for a more challenging scrambling experience, but the path of least resistance comes off the ridge onto its west side and traverses underneath the ridge to a wide chute that contains fun class 3 scrambling known as “the staircase” that leads directly to the summit block. Tower Peak provides an excellent vantage of the surrounding region including the Hoover Wilderness and northern Yosemite with close-up views of the relatively large and sky blue Mary Lake and the Saurian Crest immediately above. To the south and east lies the remote Stubblefield Canyon and Sawtooth Ridge. A small glacial remnant on the steep slopes off the summit’s east and north side was entirely exposed and as the permanent ice is diminishing rapidly in these consecutive drought seasons. On this day, I chose Tower Peak after analyzing and balancing the wildfire smoke from nearby fires and thunderstorms expected in the southern part of the range. The decision proved correct as skies overhead remained relatively clear of smoke or clouds all day. My favorite view from the summit was down to Mary Lake, although views to the south and east were obscured by smoke and haze from the fires and I will have to return at some point on a clear day. Total roundtrip out of Leavitt Meadows is ~34 miles to Tower Peak and 30 miles to Tower Lake. All told, the primary climbs are a 1,300 foot trail climb from Upper Piute Meadows to Tower Lake and a 2,250 ft off-trail climb from Tower Lake up to Tower Peak via Tower Pass. On my trip wildflower meadows were in full bloom above Tower Pass and also in Piute Meadows. GPS route here (missing last 11 miles).
The “Sawtooth Loop” is a spectacular route through one of the most scenic regions of the High Sierra and a personal favorite. I call this particular route the Sawtooth Loop since it circumnavigates an impressively rugged subrange of the Sierra crest known as Sawtooth Ridge that straddles Yosemite national park’s northern boundary and the Hoover Wilderness. This deeply serrated ridge resembles a sawblade and contains features with enchanting names like Three Teeth, The Doodad, Dragtooth and Sawblade. On my route I chose to climb Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak, but there are numerous other variations and objectives in the region to include on such a loop, including the aforementioned points along Sawtooth Ridge, Eocene Peak, Crown Point and Slide Mountain. The north side of Sawtooth Ridge is conveniently close to Twin Lakes and Mono Village, even allowing for straightforward access during the winter months. This area has numerous popular destinations like Barney Lake and Peeler Lake for hikers and the world famous Incredible Hulk for climbers. However, the south side of Sawtooth Ridge, located in northern Yosemite, feels remote and wild with comparatively a small fraction of the visitors. Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon are spectacular glacier carved canyons lined with smooth granite walls and lovely meadows. A carry-over Matterhorn Peak, the highest point on the ridge, is an excellent way to access the outstanding scenery and wilderness of this region south of Sawtooth Ridge. Strava route here.
The most straightforward ascent of Matterhorn is via Horse Creek Pass. The going is very reasonable up to a shoulder above Horse Creek Pass, but once around the corner there is a section of tedious gravel slopes on Matterhorn’s southeast slopes (two steps up, slide a step back). The east couloir route, which I did on my first trip ever in the Sierra, is the preferred early season route when the couloir is still snow covered. Right now it looks like a loose, steep mess for a taxing ascent (i.e. more tedious than the Horse Creek Pass route). After enjoying the view from the summit I scrambled down to a small col where a sandy chute provides access to Matterhorn Peak’s southwest slope and Matterhorn Canyon. The descent through the chute is loose and also much preferable as a descent route. The chute deposited me fairly rapidly into the headwaters of Matterhorn Canyon. From upper Matterhorn Canyon I traversed over to Finger Peaks and scrambled up the east Finger. I wound up in hard class 3 and class 4 but it probably could have been easier if I was more careful with my route selection. I traversed the south side of the middle Finger and then ascended it via the class three route (starting from the notch between Middle and West Fingers) to gain summit and the highest point of Finger Peaks. This class 3 route seems improbably with a narrow natural ledge cut into a steep and smooth granite face piecing together two class 3 scramble portions. Without this ledge, the scramble looks like it would be at least class 4. The view of Sawtooth Ridge, Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon from both the east and middle Fingers are stupendous – one of best panoramas I have seen in the Sierra. I was happy to see the couloir west of the middle Finger was largely snow free so I descended more steep and loose slopes (carefully skirting around ice) and then pleasant alpine meadows down to the Burro Pass Trail. After a couple miles of running along the Burro Pass Trail, I headed cross country through meadows and granite benches to Ice Lakes Pass where I continued up to Kettle Peak. I had initially thought about tagging Eocene, but the route looked to require a bit more time than I had on this day. Kettle Peak was an awesome replacement objective with arguably the best view of the Incredible Hulk rock wall. From the summit, it’s as if you’re in a helicopter staring down at the sheer rock with climbers that look like specs on the immense granite face. Descending from Kettle Peak the views of the Incredible Hulk and Maltby Lake continued. I passed by some climber camps and then picked up the good use path through Little Slide Canyon. It’s an arduous climbers path to be sure, but it would be an incomparably more arduous trek through Little Slide Canyon without this path. The Incredible Hulk is all that I imagined it to be and more – a precipitous rock spire rising nearly vertically from the talus slopes below. It’s quite awe-inspiring to stand beneath this rock, especially in the afternoon with ideal lighting. It goes without saying that I’ll be back for more adventures to this wild and remote corner of northern Yosemite. Strava route here.