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.
An Onion Valley to South Lake trip has been on my list for a number of years. The route largely follows the JMT on arguably one of the most scenic stretches of the trail and includes Pinchot Pass and Mather Pass (and Glen Pass if all trail is taken). The trip is 65 miles all on trail, but I cut off 5 miles by taking Gould Pass over the crest directly into the Rae Lakes basin instead of Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass. While the off-trail route was shorter, it did not save much time (probably added time) and certainly required more energy. Gould Pass is rated at class 2, but it’s arduous travel beyond Golden Trout Lake. On top of that I made some small route finding errors that cumulatively cost time and energy. Once at Gould Pass, it’s not a cake walk descending into the Rae Lakes basin either. First, there is a steep and loose gully to negotiate and then a lot of cumbersome boulder hopping through an old glacier moraine down to Dragon Lake. From Dragon Lake, a faint use trail heads down to beautiful Rae Lakes where I was excited to finally hit a trail. I don’t regret taking this route with stunning views from Dragon Lake and one of the best photography angles I have seen of Rae Lakes, but next time I will likely utilize Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass to save that energy for all the running that follows on the JMT.
It’s hard to resist not taking a lot of photos and enjoying the spectacular scenery at Rae Lakes, one of the my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra. Once I finally exited the basin I made good progress down Woods Creek and the climb to Pinchot Pass. This was my first time up Pinchot Pass and it’s a long, but gradual climb. From Pinchot Pass I continued toward Upper Basin and the final slog up to Mather Pass. At Mather Pass I enjoyed the beautiful view of the Palisades and then made the descent to Palisade Lakes. From these lakes, I had initially planned to scramble up to Palisade Basin and cross over into Dusy Basin via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass, but extensive off-trail travel no longer seemed appealing so I continued down to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. This was a long way on trail and although I was moving fine, it still took a long time. By the time I got to the final climb up to Bishop Pass I was growing tired and as the sun set over Dusy Basin my energy levels had sunk. After hydrating and eating I eventually I made it up to Bishop Pass and down to the South Lake trail head. It was close to 11 pm when I arrived; 18 hours after starting. A “head down” approach could probably yield a time of under 14 hours for the route, but in all the times I’ve visited Rae Lakes, I still can’t keep my head down! This is a classic segment of the JMT and I will definitely return. Next time I will do Kearsarge Pass and pick up the JMT at Charlotte Lake. I will also aim to use the cross-country route to Dusy Basin and Bishop Pass via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass. Either way you slice it (trail or cross-country variations), this is a challenging route for a single day adventure run, but well worth the efforts with the amazing scenery.