Brewer and the Guards Loop

My last time on Mount Brewer was nearly five years ago and I’ve been thinking about a return to this prominent summit. Set apart from the main crest of the Sierra Nevada along the northern end of the Great Western Divide, Mount Brewer’s lofty perch at 13,570 ft offers an astounding view that was very memorable and I was eager to return. In 2010 the route to Brewer’s summit was a fairly uninteresting as an out-and-back via the Sphinx Lakes region and the Avalanche Gulch Trail. It was in September and there were still snow patches as 2010 was the last above average year of snowfall in the High Sierra. This year there was virtually no snow to be found anywhere. In 2010 there was also a fire in Kings Canyon; the Sheep Fire. There would also be a fire in 2015, the Rough Fire, which was still in its nascent stages at the time of this trip but would later become a much larger and more unpredictable fire, ultimately becoming one of the largest fires in the Southern Sierra Nevada history. This year’s visit to Mount Brewer would include linking up a few additional summits along the northern end of the Great Western Divide – North Guard, South Guard and Sky Pilot Peak – tying it together with an aesthetic loop including Lake Reflection, one of my favorite spots in the High Sierra. North Guard was particularly intriguing to me with its sharp, rugged profile and reputation for fun scrambling. The loop came in around 36 miles with over 12,000 ft of elevation gain. Strava GPS route hereThe day started out along the familiar sandy path from Road’s End and up the switchbacks to the Avalanche Pass Trail. The ascent is quite steep at first with several sections of rock steps, but overall an efficient trail to get into the high country fast. I left the trail where it crosses the creek and headed up cross country through open woodland and granite slabs to the Sphinx Lakes, which are nice but nothing special my opinion. Beyond the Sphinx Lakes is a section of talus up to a pass but it seemed easier than 2010 or maybe I’ve just gotten used to efficiently moving on talus. Around the corner Mount Brewer finally makes an appearance, but I first curved north toward North Guard. The class 3 route up North Guard requires careful attention to route finding to keep it class 3. The route starts with steepening slabs and then short cross-over into a hanging sandy gully with more slabs up to the west ridge of North Guard. The final stretch of climbing along the West Ridge is classic Sierra scrambling with solid blocky rocks. The actual summit is a large overhanging rock. The north face of North Guard is a sheer drop to the Sphinx Lakes basin. I found the view from North Guard to be just as good as Mount Brewer with excellent clarity on this day. I particularly enjoyed the view to Charlotte Dome and Bubbs Creek Wall. I retraced my route up North Guard and then traversed to Mount Brewer which is largely a class 2 scramble up its north slopes. I was soon atop Brewer enjoying the 360 panorama once more. To connect Brewer with South Guard one must descend the south slopes of Brewer which start off with cumbersome talus but finishes with a fun stretch of plunge stepping in loose gravel.    From the basin between South Guard and Brewer I took a ramp and class 3 face up to South Guard’s ridge and after a ridge walk I ultimately reached the summit, which is rather nondescript and only slightly taller than surrounding rock outcroppings along the ridge. From South Guard down to Longley Pass is a quick trip thanks to more plunge stepping but I wasn’t done with summits yet. Sky Pilot Peak is located immediately south of Longley Pass and while it’s not a high mountain compared to its neighbors, it has an exceptionally rugged profile when viewed from the east, especially from the Lake Reflection region. As I’ve been to the area many times, Sky Pilot’s striking east face has always been of interest. The peak’s apt name is attributed to the many Sky Pilot flowers growing on its summit ridge. Indeed, I found copious Sky Pilots, perhaps more than anywhere I’ve seen in the Sierra. Sky Pilot Peak is largely a class 2 scramble until one reaches a notch in the ridge, which requires a class 3 downclimb before resuming the final climb to the summit. I couldn’t find a summit register on Sky Pilot Peak manifesting that this is an infrequently climbed point, but I definitely hope to return in the future since the view looking down toward Lake Reflection is extraordinary. Some cumulus was building overhead creating some dappling on the terrain and lakes beneath the east face which only served to enhance the magic of this special view. After a long stay on Sky Pilot I returned to Longley Pass and then began the somewhat arduous and long descent to Lake Reflection. I did a pretty good job navigating until I got to the shores of Lake Reflection where I got turned around by steep slabs at a couple spots but finally made it to the outlet of the lake where I took a long break and enjoyed the view. Despite the added mileage of descending to Lake Reflection I wouldn’t want to do this link-up as an out-and-back – the scenery around Lake Reflection is that good!  From Lake Reflection it was all trail down to East Lake with views of Mount Bago in early evening and then a trail run on the Bubbs Creek Trail back to Road’s End to complete the aesthetic loop.   

Mount Julius Caesar

A week prior to the trek through Bear Basin to Seven Gables and Gemini I got the opportunity to climb Mount Julius Caesar.  The easiest route to the summit is via the Pine Creek trailhead and entails passage through aptly-named Granite Park, with its lovely alpine tarns and lakes set amid clumps of pine trees and granite spires. Once through Granite Park, one ascends to Italy Pass and then a straightforward 800 vertical foot talus hop commences to the summit. Located on the Sierra Crest, Mount Julius Caesar has a commanding view of the surrounding region, including neighbors Bear Creek Spire, Mount Dade, Mount Abott and Mount Gabb. At 13,220 ft, the peak is a few hundred feet lower than these neighbors but seeing the surrounding peaks at eye level makes them even more impressive. The summit has a great angle of Lake Italy which bears a striking resemblance to the shape of the namesake country from this vantage. Julius Caesar also has a great view of Granite Park and especially the colorful Chalfant Lakes. The trio of Royce Peak, Mount Merriam and Feather Peak are prominent to the south. In the distance Mount Humphreys rises above Humphreys Basin and Seven Gables towers above Bear Basin.  It’s a stellar view. GPS route hereOn this day there was some lovely afternoon cumulus to add contrast and character to the panorama. As a straightforward out-and-back this route makes for a nice 21 mile outing with a great turn around destination. Starting at around 7,400 ft and topping out at 13,200 feet means there is 5,800 feet of net gain, a stout climb. Since the elevation comes over 10+ miles it’s actually a fairly well graded climb with a nice runnable section between Pine Lake and Honeymoon Lake. The first part of the trail near the trailhead entails a fairly long and exposed climb that can be hot in the middle of the day making it a relief to reach the pine forest and cool alpine breeze above the canyon headwall. This happens to be the spot where one officially enters the John Muir Wilderness and the ugly view of the Pine Creek Tungsten Mill is left behind for good. While the early part of the Pine Creek trail can be a grunt, the trail accesses some amazing scenery, including the Royce Lakes, Bear Basin, Granite Park, and Humphreys Basin so well worth the effort.  

Seven Gables & Gemini via Bear Basin

I have looked over Bear Basin from several high peaks near the Sierra Crest and it always seemed like an inviting region I wanted to check out someday but it took until a few weeks ago to finally make my way into the basin. Seven Gables is the centerpiece feature of the region with its instantly recognizable rugged east face resembling the namesake house of the Seven Gables.  Within Bear Basin are numerous beautiful alpine lakes to explore, most of which are named after bears. While the bear theme is endearing, I did not see any bears (or humans) on my trip through the basin. Along with climbing Seven Gables I thought it would also be feasible to combine the outing with an ascent of Gemini, one of the more remote summits in the High Sierra. Both summits featured incredible panoramic views, but the tour through magnificent and pristine Bear Basin to reach the peaks was the highlight. GPS route hereI accessed Bear Basin by starting at the Pine Creek Trailhead and ascending through gorgeous Granite Park. The park has numerous small lakes and excellent views of the Sierra Crest including the towering east face of Feather Peak. Granite Bear Pass proved to be an efficient and technically easy pass from Granite Park into Bear Basin. In fact, the west side of Granite Bear Pass is a quick run down gravel and sand slopes to the lakes in Bear Basin. I stopped to take an absurd amount of photography as I passed the lakes, including Black Bear Lake, Ursa Lake, Big Bear Lake, Little Bear Lake and Vee Lake. The morning light over the lakes with Seven Gables in the background was breathtaking. I could have stayed in the basin all day exploring the numerous nooks and crannies but I continued down the basin toward Gemini passing through the Seven Gables Lakes valley and then heading up friendly granite slabs to a saddle between Gemini and Seven Gables. The route up Gemini from the north via the saddle was largely a talus hop with a couple hundred feet of scrambling near the top. The views from Gemini are outstanding and encompass Desolation Basin, Humphreys, Glacier Divide, Goddard Divide, LeConte Divide and virtually all of the Sierra Crest in the vicinity. To the north was the next objective, Seven Gables, which looked like a rather arduous climb from Gemini’s vantage. After a nice break atop Gemini enjoying the views I retraced my steps to the saddle and then traversed over to the south slopes of Seven Gables. Most of the south slope was a straightforward class 2 slog through gravel and talus blocks. However, near the top things became much more vertical and exposed. The climb is rated as a Class 3, but it seemed more difficult and exposed than most class 3 climbs I have done in the Sierra. I have learned that class 3 can often have a large spectrum and sometimes the more remote class 3 routes can be sandbagged. At any rate, the final summit block entails climbing a chimney for several dozen feet. The holds are good, but there is some exposure and it’s nearly vertical. The view from Seven Gables is incredible and includes Bear Basin to the east and a lovely lake-filled basin to the west including Three Island Lake, Medley Lake and the large Marie Lake. Above these lakes is the pyramidal shaped Mount Hooper with its impressive east face. After another long break on the summit I descended the north slope of Seven Gables which is the far easier route to gain the summit and goes as mostly class 2. Between Seven Gables and its northern summit lies a broad saddle that funnels into a narrow and steep chute. This chute is mostly sand at the steepest part enabling efficient access back down to Seven Gables Lakes. The sand transitions to a section of talus and then granite slabs down to the bottom of the valley. From here I rejoined my route from the morning and retraced steps back through Bear Basin and over Granite Bear Pass to Granite Park. I stopped to enjoy the lovely afternoon views at Vee Lake and Ursa Lake, my favorite spots along the route.    

Wildcat Point & Cold Mountain

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

Pyramid Peak & Window Peak Lake

“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

Northeast Ridge of Arrow Peak & Bench Lake

Arrow Peak and Bench Lake have been on my list of places to visit for several years. The iconic view of Arrow Peak towering above Bench Lake was one of the first images of the High Sierra that inspired me to explore the range when I first moved to California. However, a relatively long approach over Taboose Pass and an even longer drive from the Bay Area to the trailhead likely deterred me from getting it done. On an ideal early summer morning I finally made it out to Bench Lake to see in person what I had dreamed of all those years. Often times such anticipation built up over a long time can result in unrealistic expectations, and commensurate anticlimactic experiences, but the scenery surpassed even what I had imagined. Bench Lake is a Sierra gem with a priceless view as aptly named Arrow Peak reflects in its waters. The objective for the day was the 2,700 vertical foot Northeast Ridge route up Arrow Peak which is front and center when viewed from Bench Lake and looks quite intimidating from that vantage.  However, once on the route one discovers that the technicality is limited to a class 3 scramble with just enough exposure and steepness to make it an engaging and fun route.  Combined with the outrageous views en route, the northeast ridge of Arrow is one of the most aesthetic scramble routes in all of the High Sierra. This region of the range is probably the area I have spent the least amount of time so it was great to finally get out there to see the amazing scenery and dream up future routes in the area.  GPS route here.

The logical approach to the Bench Lake and the Northeast Ridge of Arrow Peak is via Taboose Pass, an infamous pass that starts in the sage-filled desert of the Owens Valley and climbs 6,000 vertical feet to the pass in a consistent ascent with little shade. Starting before dawn, I found the trail reasonable and a fairly efficient way to reach the crest and the incredible beauty that lies beyond. In other words, I hope to be back to Taboose Pass soon. I can’t say as much for the access road which is totally beat up with large rocks everywhere. In many ways the access road is in worse shape than the trail!  While having a low clearance vehicle doesn’t help, this road wouldn’t be much faster in a high clearance vehicle. Most of the obstructions are large rocks buried in the sand so it doesn’t seem like it would take much machinery to improve this rough road dramatically, but I guess the poor condition naturally regulates visitation. When I’m driving under 10 mph I start to second guess why I’m driving at all (as opposed to running). Next time I will likely park my car at the end of the pavement and jog up the east slopes of the Owens Valley to the trailhead.

Bench Lake and Arrow Peak’s Northeast Ridge close-up: 

As mentioned, the Taboose Pass trail starts in a desert environment with sage and sand. The going is slow for awhile until one enters the Taboose Canyon where the tread improves. The trail steadily climbs along the north side of Taboose Creek before crossing the stream and entering the only shaded part of the climb in a beautiful pine forest. The shade is short lived and soon the trail is back to switchbacking through open talus slopes. The grade eases up towards the pass where there are numerous small tarns and the terrain gradually shifts from rock to tundra. At Taboose Pass one enters Kings Canyon National Park and is greeted by a lovely view down the South Fork Kings Canyon, the Cirque Crest, Bench Lake and Arrow Peak. The connector trail from Taboose Pass to the John Muir Trail is an amazing stretch with glorious meadows and astounding views. Turning south on the JMT for merely a hundred meters brings you to junction with Bench Lake. Judging by the faint tread it seems as if few through hikers bother to take the time to visit Bench Lake. This has served the Bench Lake area well as it seems unspoiled for such a beatiful spot. The trail to Bench Lake gradually descends through pine forest passing a couple small lakes to reach Bench Lake, a Sierra gem with one of the finest views in the range.

After a beautiful stretch along Bench Lake’s shores the trail peters out, but off-trail travel is easy through through open pine forest over a small rise followed by a descent to a small drainage at the base of Arrow Peak’s Northeast Ridge. The initial slope up to the Northeast ridge can be accomplished by various routes, but they all converge on the ridge crest where the cliffs on either side make the spine of the ridge the logical route. The lower portion of the route features some scrappy low-lying pine trees that can be cumbersome as they tend to grow into thick, unmalleable bushes. The vegetation scrambling peters out about half way up the ridge leaving clean, enjoyable rock scrambling for the second half. The ridge features some nice exposure, a few knife edge sections, and awesome views in all directions including Bench Lake below, the Cirque Crest, and as one ascends higher, the mighty Palisades. The Northeast Ridge is a long and sustained climb with over 2,700 ft of vertical from its base to the summit. Once on top, enjoy Arrow Peak’s amazing view, perfectly positioned to have one of the best 360 degree panoramas in all of the High Sierra. To the south lies the Kings-Kern Divide, Great Western Divide and the Kaweah Range. To the north is the Goddard-Evolution area and the Palisades. Close at hand is the Cirque Crest, a region of the High Sierra I have yet to visit but near the top of my list for future exploration. Perhaps the most compelling view is down the Muro Blanco, or the South Fork Kings River Canyon.  This is a truly wild canyon with no trails and sparse documentation. From Arrow Peak’s perch I could see the entire length of the aptly named canyon, which is virtually entirely composed of distinctly white granite slabs and cliffs. From Arrow Peak, the easy descent is off the WSW slopes which have some helpful sand for efficient descending. From Arrow Pass, talus and slabs are taken down to the drainage east of Arrow Peak. This drainage has some gorgeous turquoise pools from which to admire the northeast ridge of Arrow Peak. Ascend back to Bench Lake through the forest and retrace steps over Taboose Pass.   

The Roof of Yosemite Loop

The Roof of Yosemite Loop travels to the highest point in Yosemite National Park on 13,114 ft Mount Lyell and also includes ascents of 12,900 ft Mount Maclure (5th highest in the park) and 12,561 ft Mount Florence (9th highest in the park). Moreover, Lyell, Maclure and Florence are the three highest named summits in the incredibly scenic Cathedral Range, a spur of the Sierra crest that runs from Tuolumne Meadows to Mount Lyell. The region around Mount Lyell is definitely the most alpine in Yosemite and arguably the most rugged as well. The western side of Lyell and Maclure are particularly rugged and remote with no trail access into Hutchings Creek basin or the Lyell Fork of the Merced River. Nestled between Lyell and Maclure is one of the largest remaining permanent snowfields in the Sierra Nevada. Sadly, this formerly proud glacier was declared no longer active last year.  A glacier requires movement of the underlying ice over a slope, but Lyell Glacier’s rapid retreat and mass melting over the last several decades has taken a toll and the ice has now stopped moving altogether. A snow capped Lyell is an iconic view from the southern end of Lyell Canyon, and while snow remains on Lyell year-around to this day, it is sobering to think that Mount Lyell could be devoid of all permanent snow in as little as 25 years according to scientists. The effects of global warming, and especially the rapid warming of California, are plainly visible in the high Sierra. 

The Roof of Yosemite Loop combines many of the highlights of this region into an aesthetic and highly scenic loop. The route starts with a pleasant trip up one of the easiest stretches of trail in the Sierra in lovely Lyell Canyon next to meadows and the meandering Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. After an ascent out of Lyell Canyon, a picturesque alpine lake is reached below Donohue Pass. From here, there are a couple ways to reach the Lyell Glacier, but I’ve found the most scenic is to leave the John Muir Trail before it switchbacks to begin the final push to Donohue Pass and ascend west up meadows to an alpine lake with a stellar view of Mount Lyell. From the lake, some talus and low angle granite slabs lead up the northeast ridge of Mount Maclure to some glacial lakes and the snowfield of Lyell “Glacier”. Cross the glacier heading for the northwest ridge and ascend the class 3/4 ridge; the hardest moves are near the bottom and then the angle lessens for the final couple hundred feet of vertical to the summit.  Retrace steps to the pass between Lyell and Maclure and ascend Mount Maclure’s SW slope which is mostly class 2. Both Maclure and Lyell provide amazing views of the surrounding region, including the Ritter Range, Cathedral Range, Clark Range, Sierra Crest and Yosemite Valley. From Mount Maclure descend the class 3 southwest chute to the upper reaches of Hutchings Creek basin. The basin is divided into two lobes by Peak 12,358, but the southern lobe is far more scenic with the great cliffs of Mount Lyell’s western face, Mount Maclure and the granitic north side of Peak 12,767 towering above. These peaks provide an awesome backdrop from the many alpine tarns and lakes in the remote basin.

Annotated view from Mount Florence (large version here):

View north from Mount Lyell (large version here):

Off-Trail Portion Close-up:

Lyell Glacier and Lyell Canyon from Mount Maclure (large version here):

From Hutchings Creek Basin, traverse to the south ridge of Mount Florence, gaining the ridge most easily at the broad saddle between point 11,647 and Mount Florence. The ascent of Mount Florence is straightforward class 2 on large talus blocks which can be a bit cumbersome at times. Mount Florence has one of the best views in Yosemite with an amazing panorama including most of Yosemite National Park.  From Mount Florence descend talus and sand down the west ridge and then more cumbersome talus down to Lake 10,541 ft, a classic Sierra gem. The north face of Mount Florence towers above this beautiful lake with striking blue waters.  From Lake 10,541 head north and northwest traversing easy off-trail terrain before descending into the Lewis Creek drainage to meet up with the Lewis Creek Trail at ~9,600 ft. Take the trail to Vogelsang Pass, Vogelsang Lake and the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. Complete the loop by going to Tuolumne Pass and taking the Rafferty Creek Trail back to Lyell Canyon.