“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.
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.
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.