The Hamilton Lakes and Kaweah Gap region is one of the most dramatic and inspiring spots in the High Sierra. Considering how many times over the years I’ve visited the area it’s easily among my favorite spots to explore. I consider it one of the best spots for adventure running in the Sierra Nevada with a long runnable approach, fun scrambles and most importantly, jaw-dropping scenery. I’ve climbed most of the named summits in the region over the years, including Eagle Scout Peak and Mount Stewart on separate trips, but this time I would tag both summits together since they make logical sense as a pair. While it makes for a long day, both summits are class 2 scrambles and not very far apart. On this visit I paid particular attention to timing of best light for photography and made sure to be at the right place at the right time. I spent several hours shooting photos and I hope the results reflect my efforts. On this post I’m introducing a new format for this blog – from now on I’m going to only post a few highlight photos from each adventure in the body of the post with a link to a full album on Google Photos where it’s easier to navigate through the larger set of photos and see full size versions. The complete photo album for this trip is here. Total mileage for Eagle Scout and Mount Stewart was 50 miles, of which 40+ miles was out-and-back on the High Sierra Trail from Crescent Meadows to Kaweah Gap. The first 11 miles to Bearpaw Meadows is on well groomed trail with gentle ups and downs making it very runnable. Beyond Bearpaw Meadows the trail descends to cross Lone Pine Creek before ascending in a rocky stretch of trail to round a shoulder into the Hamilton Lakes drainage. After crossing Hamilton Creek the trail is in ascent mode all the way to Kaweah Gap but the incline is fairly moderate throughout. The Hamilton Lakes amphitheater is one of the most scenic areas in the High Sierra with towering granite faces of the Valhallas including the famous Angel Wings rock wall, Cherubim Dome, Hamilton Dome and many other sweet rock features. At the head of the amphitheater on opposite ends lies Mount Stewart and Eagle Scout Peak making them a perfect pair to tag on the same day. The area is so beautiful I haven’t figured out how to spot taking photos each time I visit, including nearly 200 photos when I did the complete High Sierra Trail for an FKT. From the beautiful sapphire blue waters of Upper Hamilton Lake the trail switchbacks before traversing to a spectacular view overlooking the lake and Angel Wings. The trail then reaches a picturesque tarn and then Precipice Lake. At aptly-named Precipice Lake, the sheer cliffs of Eagle Scout Peak tumble right into the waters of the remarkably clear lake. This stunning view was immortalized by Ansel Adams in 1932 with his shot “Frozen Lake and Cliffs.” Shortly after Precipice Lake, one reaches Kaweah Gap which opens up a new world of scenery in the upper Big Arroyo River drainage including the Nine Lake Basin and the Kaweah Range. From Kaweah Gap, go south for Eagle Scout Peak and north for Mount Stewart. Both climbs are straightforward and offer different, but both marvelous, perspectives on the Hamilton Lakes and Nine Lakes Basin areas. The view of Precipice Lake from the summit of Eagle Scout Peak is particularly inspiring. The overhanging summit block of Eagle Scout Peak is indeed the precipice with the clear blue waters of Precipice Lake 2,000 feet below the sheer cliffs. Meanwhile, Mount Stewart offers an amazing view of Sabertooth Ridge, Tamarack Lake, and the rugged north side of Black Kaweah. The complete photo album for this trip is here.
After a few years I was looking forward to revisiting Mount Conness. My first time up Mount Conness was in 2007 (including North Peak and some excellent photos) and the second in 2011 via Young Lakes so it seems I’m on a four year schedule. I also visited the beautiful Conness Lakes a year ago. It was nice to see some familiar sights again and also discover more of the beauty of this region. Mount Conness is one of the most prominent and recognizable peaks in Yosemite National Park. The 12,589 ft peak is the highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada north of Tioga Pass and sits on the Sierra crest straddling the Harvey Monroe Hall Research Natural Area in Inyo National Forest and Yosemite National Park’s eastern boundary. The immense southwest wall of the peak is nearly vertical and contains several challenging and famous rock climbing routes. Staring down this face from atop Mount Conness is breathtaking. On the north slope of the Mount Conness hangs a small glacier which is one of a handful of remaining glaciers in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This glacier produces a characteristic silty runoff that drains into the beautiful Conness Lakes. There are three primary lakes in the Conness Lakes basin, each with a different color. The southern lake is relatively clear reflecting little to no glacial runoff into the lake. The western and highest lake has direct runoff from the Conness Glacier and therefore the most silt concentration of the three lakes. The northern lake, which is the lowest of the three, contains a mixture of clear water from the southern lake and silty water from the western lake producing a stunning aquamarine color. The Conness glacier is badly receding and I can easily see the difference in surface area and ice mass from my prior visits. Without the glacier and accompanying silt, the lakes will lose their magical colors which is sad.
To the north of Mount Conness and the Conness Lakes is North Peak, a 12,242 ft summit with excellent views, a sweet scramble route and some famous ice climbing chutes (in season). The northwest ridge of North Peak is a very enjoyable scramble on excellent rock. Accessing the northwest ridge entails passing through scenic Twenty Lakes Basin with North Peak’s north face the primary feature towering above and reflecting in the lakes. The northwest ridge is mostly a class 3 scramble with the exception of a series of impasses along the ridge. It seems there are several variations to overcome these impasses, but staying on the ridge proper will require some more technical rock moves in the fourth class or low fifth class range. After the impasses the ridge steepens with some excellent scrambling on solid rock with considerable exposure on both sides including the sizable McCabe Lake a thousand feet below. The scrambling is fun that I’d like it to continue to the summit, but alas the summit plateau becomes flatter with more second class scrambling for second half of the ridge to the summit. After enjoying the views from the summit, the trip down to the Conness Lakes via the south and southeast slopes is a cruise with mostly sand to aid in plunge stepping down the slope. From Conness Lakes a great route up to the Conness Plateau is via a ramp consisting of very friendly granite slabs that leads all the way to the East Ridge of Mount Conness. This fortuitous ramp is included in the Sierra High Route and provides a natural balcony for viewing the lovely Conness Lakes with North Peak as a backdrop. The ramp leads directly to the east ridge with stupendous views throughout. Once the east ridge is crossed to its south side, it’s a fairly straightforward traverse around to the slopes above Alpine Lake where the plateau can be gained via Class 2 slabs and talus. Cross the Conness summit plateau to the final class 2 scramble up the summit block of Mount Conness and enjoy the view to Tuolumne Meadows and Half Dome on one side and the Conness Glacier and Conness Lakes on the other. Walking down the west ridge a short distance will reveal and excellent view of the long and skinny Roosevelt Lake, tucked in a classic glacier bowl between Mount Conness and Sheep Peak. The Twenty Lakes Basin and Conness Lakes region are immensely scenic with access that is relatively short and easy from Saddlebag Lake. This is therefore a popular area, but I was still able to find some solitude. In fact, the only place I saw people was at the Conness Lakes. Strava GPS here. High on the slopes of Mount Conness at ~11,600 I was lucky to stumble upon a family of 10 (!) white-tailed ptarmigans. If it were not for a couple of the other birds making their characteristic low-pitched hoots, I might have walked right on by. The white-tailed ptarmigan is the smallest member of the grouse family and lives exclusively in an alpine environment. The plumage varies at different times of the year ranging from mottled gray, brown and white during the summer to all white in the winter. This cryptic coloration allows the bird to blend in with it’s surroundings and avoid detection by predators. Indeed, the ptarmigans that I spotted could easily be mistaken for rocks! The bird subsists in the harsh alpine environment by eating seeds, flowers, seeds and leaves. The ptarmigan was absent from the Sierra Nevada until 72 birds were introduced from Colorado in 1971-1972. The birds have since successfully reproduced and expanded their territory to the region between Mount Ritter and Tower Peak. The current climate and the alpine environment characteristic of this region is suitable for successful breeding. It is unknown whether the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada before the introduction. One theory holds that since there is not a continuous alpine environment from the Rocky Mountains or Cascade Mountains to the Sierra Nevada the bird was never able to access the Sierra Nevada. Another theory holds that the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada but became locally extinct due to either colder, snowier conditions in the Pleistocene (which negatively affect breeding) or hotter temperatures in the Holocene (that create critical heat stress). Either way, the ptarmigan is very sensitive to climate change. As the bird lives in the high country, a warming climate could potentially shift their habitable zone above the highest peaks.
The Minarets are a spectacular collection of jagged spires in the Ritter Range of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Usually I like to spread my adventures throughout the High Sierra since there are so many hidden gems to explore and mix up the character of scenery, but I have a particular affinity for the Minarets with repeated visits including July 2009 (Clyde Minaret), July 2013 (Minaret Loop), October 2013 (Tuolumne to Devils via Minarets), and July 2015 (Ansel Adams Loops). There are seventeen unofficially named spires and most are along a single ridge forming an arête. I have only climbed one Minaret, Clyde Minaret, which is the highest and named after Sierra climbing pioneer and legend Norman Clyde. Hopefully I’ll be able to tag a few more spires in the future. While I haven’t stood atop many of them, I have seen them from all different angles and I can’t seem to get enough of the spectacular ruggedness of these spires and the trio of three gorgeous lakes immediately beneath them – Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake. While I’m merely an amateur photographer with a lot to learn, attempting to take quality photos is a big part of my personal enjoyment in the mountains. I use the word quality because some trail runners have a tendency to focus more on their watch and braggadocio than the scenery resulting in mediocre photography results at best and at worst, video that is so shaky and random in movement that it is essentially unwatchable. This approach couldn’t be more opposite than the ethos of John Muir. Whether it’s the Minarets or other photogenic gems in the Sierra, I always find it worth the time to scope out the best angles and enjoy the scenery. Each time I have visited the Minarets it has featured different light, snow conditions etc. so it’s fun to compare the results. On this trip, I had the best conditions I’ve seen yet at Minaret Lake with excellent clarity and a few puffs of clouds swirling about the spires. My photography tip at Minaret Lake is to climb a granite outcropping near the outlet of the lake, which provides amazing composition of the entire lake and a turquoise inlet below with the Minaret spires towering behind. This balcony provided such a great view I probably took a hundred photos within a span of 15 minutes (I’ve spared this blog from most of those photos but there are still plenty). It’s one of my favorite vantages in all of the Sierra. It was great to spend some time at Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake and Iceberg Lake and really enjoy the awesome surroundings. To complete the loop I recommend the River Trail instead of the JMT through Rosalie Lake. Both routes are very boring compared to the preceding section beneath the Minarets, but I like the River Trail better as it had less elevation gain and some nice peaceful single track in the forest next to the river that gets surprisingly little use. Strava GPS route here.
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 here. The 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.
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 here. On 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.
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 here. I 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 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.