One can find some wildflowers in Big Sur virtually any time of the year, but the time of year when the hillsides erupt with sky lupine and poppy lasts only a few short weeks in the Spring. The season can start as early as mid March and can run as late as mid May with the wildflowers starting first in the lower elevations and finishing at the highest elevations. Most years the peak of the bloom is sometime in April and the two primary species are sky lupine and California poppy. The scope and location of the bloom varies substantially year to year and this post describes some of this variability in just the past three years. Sometimes poppy blooms before the lupine while other years they bloom concurrently. Moreover, some seasons have had great blooms of other wildflower species including early-rising shooting star. All of the photos in this post are from this year’s lupine bloom on Boronda Ridge and Coast Ridge from Grimes Canyon to Marble Meadows. Full album here. The spring of 2014 produced the “mother” of all lupine blooms and featured a ridiculous display of sky lupine that covered entire mountainsides, particularly those at lower elevations below 2,500 ft that don’t often see big wildflower concentrations. The lower elevation bloom was particularly stunning with a background of the deep blue ocean close at hand. This bloom occurred at the height of the drought with virtually no rain until late February, at which point a series of atmospheric rivers put down several inches of rain. This rainfall was just enough to cause the lupine to pop. With no grass to impede their growth, the lupine flourished and grew to great height and concentration. The result was an amazing, fairy tale display that peaked on mother’s day weekend, hence the “mother” of all blooms. It was a relatively late peak due to the late start to germination. Long-time Big Sur residents commented that such a display had not been seen in a decade and a half and it has not been repeated since; not even close. Most grassy ridges along the coast had tremendous displays of lupine which made for a truly memorable experience. I just wish it would happen more often! The winter of 2014-2015 was substantially wetter and resulted in more grass growth at lower elevations. The spring of 2015 featured nice lupine fields at mid and higher elevations, but nothing like the 2014 bloom (you already knew that). While in 2014 the best patches were below 2,000 ft, in 2015 the best patches were generally above 2,000 ft. Due to the ongoing drought and uneven nature of the rainy season, the lupine bloom was still quite good in favored spots, but it was functionally more of a typical bloom with the best spots where you would normally expect. This year’s winter was wetter than both of the prior two preceding winters and the result was that grass grew vigorously throughout winter at lower elevations and crowded out most flowers down low. This year’s best patches were even higher than 2015 – generally above 3,000 ft where the grass was unable to grow as much due to the cooler temperatures at elevation. At lower elevations lupine was sparse and small, unable to compete for water and light amid the tall grass. While not as good at 2015 and nowhere near the super bloom of 2014, there were still some nice patches at higher elevations, including the highest reaches of Boronda Ridge, Marble Meadows and interior meadows along the Pine Ridge Trail. While this year’s bloom wasn’t quite as good as 2015 and nowhere near 2014, it was still quite beautiful when I found myself in a lupine patch and these photos show there was still some great displays to enjoy. This post includes some photos from a run up Boronda and along Coast Ridge to Marble Meadows. As mentioned above, sky lupine fields only started at ~2,500 on Boronda and the patches became more impressive as one gained elevation on coast ridge toward Anderson Peak and Marble Peak. Marble Meadows, located beneath Marble Peak at around 3,800 ft in elevation, had the best lupine display on the route and likely the best lupine display with coastal Big Sur views this season. I love sky lupine fields, especially when there’s a background of green hills and the blue Pacific Ocean! A later post will showcase the lupine and owl clover patches along the Pine Ridge Trail (2015 Pine Ridge Trail flowers), which is another favorite spot for springtime wildflowers.
Cone Peak rises 5,155 ft above the Pacific Ocean in less than three miles as the crow flies, making it one of the steepest gradients from ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. It’s nearly a vertical mile above the glimmering ocean with a commanding view of the Big Sur Coast. Such steep topography leads to many awesome features, not the least of which is waterfalls! On this day I visited an ephemeral waterfall on the backside of Cone Peak in the headwaters of the San Antonio River, my first adventure into the San Antonio watershed. This falls only flows with any kind of noticeable volume after a period of substantial winter rainfall so on all my times standing on Cone Peak I never noticed the falls. However, when in flow the falls is striking from the summit particularly in the afternoon sunlight. Technically the falls does not drain Cone Peak itself, but from the summit one can gain a great birds eye view of the main 100+ ft drop across the canyon. I named the falls “Aerial Falls” because of the aerial style of the view from Cone Peak and also when standing beneath the falls it seems as if the water is falling from the sky as it plunges off the massive conglomerate rock facade. Beneath the main drop is a series of additional falls and cascades so the total height of the falls from top to bottom likely approaches 200 vertical feet. In order to view the falls from its base one must earn it: first in terms of timing to see the falls in flow (which is admittedly rare) and second in the arduous off-trail adventure down into the depths of the remote, trail-less headwaters of the San Antonio River (it’s farther than it seems).
The most prominent ridge on the Cone Peak massif (which includes Twin Peak) is Stone Ridge. The direct route up this ridge is tremendous and worthy of the title “Sea to Sky.” Stone Ridge is easily the most impressive and prominent ridge along the entire Big Sur Coast. While there are a bevy of beautiful grassy ridges near the ocean that I have explored (Boronda, Prewitt, Shouey, East Molera, Kirk Creek, Mount Mars to name a few), each with its own charm and inspiration, none compare to Stone Ridge in terms of height (4,800 ft), length (4 miles) and sheer topography in all directions. In 5.25 miles, one can go from the Pacific Ocean to the 5,155 ft summit of Cone Peak, the King of the Big Sur Coast. Suffice it to say, Stone Ridge is one-of-a-kind. I’ve blogged about Stone Ridge and the “Sea to Sky” route many times before so there really isn’t anything to add except some photos from the latest trip.
The Santa Lucia Wilderness is a little-known 20,412 acre wilderness at the southern end of the Santa Lucia Range near San Luis Obispo. Only a few trails traverse the relatively small wilderness, including Lopez Canyon Trail, Big Falls Trail and Little Falls Trail. The Little Falls and Big Falls Trails can be connected using dirt roads to form an attractive loop. The dirt road on the ridge is a fire road (closed to vehicles) with stellar views of the surrounding ridges while the dirt road at the bottom is the access road for a surprising number of homeowners holed up in lower Lopez Canyon. While the road in Lopez Canyon is publicly accessible, high clearance is required, especially if there is any kind of flow in the waterfalls since the road crosses Lopez Creek many times (and often quite deep). There is therefore little vehicle traffic on the road. For most folks it makes much more sense to park on the other side of the ridge at Rinconada Trailhead. From Rinconada, a great 13+ mile lasso loop includes the Big Falls and Little Falls Trails which feature three waterfalls, excellent views of the surrounding mountains and great diversity of flora. Moreover, the out-and-back trail from Rinconada to the ridge is not very long (~1.5 miles) and enjoyable in its own right.
My last visit to this area was in autumn when the falls were mostly dry so it was a completely different experience with the falls and streams gushing at high flow after recent heavy rain. The centerpiece waterfall feature is Big Falls at around 80 ft in height with a beautiful rock amphitheater surrounding the falls. Lower down the Big Falls Trail is a smaller “slide” falls that plunges into a deep pool that makes for a lovely swimming and diving hole on warm summer days. The third falls is “Little Falls” which is about half the height of Big Falls but has very charming setting and pretty plunge pool. Little Falls is not visible from the Little Falls Trail; instead one must take a usepath that departs the main trail at the last crossing of Little Falls Creek before it embarks on a lengthy ascent up the Little Falls canyon. If there is flow in the creeks expect dozens of creek crossings, both on the trails and the Lopez Canyon road with guaranteed wet feet.
Silver Peak rises steeply from the south coast of Big Sur to a lofty perch at 3,590 ft. The summit sits at the center of the 31,555 acre namesake Silver Peak Wilderness, which encompasses some of the most spectacular terrain and scenery in all of Big Sur. Silver Peak is a broad massif with relatively gradual topography at its uppermost elevations becoming progressively steeper as one descends toward the canyons of Salmon Creek and Villa Creek. One of my favorite aspects of the Silver Peak Wilderness is the amazing biological diversity. The upper elevations are generally a mix of chaparral, Gray Pine and Coulter Pine. The eastern end of the Silver Peak massif includes a rare grove of Sargent Cypress. Middle elevations, especially in riparian corridors, tend to feature oak woodland and bay laurel trees. The upper Villa Creek Canyon includes a rare grove of Santa Lucia Firs and the middle and lower sections of Villa Creek Canyon feature one of the southernmost stands of old growth redwood. Meanwhile, Salmon Creek Canyon has a nice stand of Douglas Fir. Silver Peak stands apart from the south coast ridge crest so the 360 degree panorama from its summit is tremendous. To the north is an excellent view of Cone Peak, Twin Peak and Junipero Serra. Close at hand is San Martin Top, Alder Peak and Lion Peak. To the south is a commanding view of the Dutra Flats area, Mount Mars, County Line Ridge, Bald Top, Piedras Blancas and the mountains of Hearst Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. The steep topographical relief results in immense orographic enhancement of precipitation in winter storms. This results in a number of impressive waterfalls and beautiful streams flowing over bedrock that drain Silver Peak. The Silver Peak Wilderness includes a lovely network of trails. A loop around Silver Peak can be made utilizing the Cruickshank, Salmon Creek and Buckeye Trails and is a wonderful way to enjoy the many facets of this wilderness, but it does not reach the summit of Silver Peak. In order to reach the summit of Silver Peak, a use path on a narrowed old fire road starts at the divide between Villa Creek and Salmon Creek along the Cruickshank Trail. The old fire road has narrowed to single track in spots as it passes thorugh Sargent Cypress, a stand of Coulter Pines and chaparral. The old fire road passes within a few feet of the summit, at which point a short path cuts through the brush to the summit rocks, which includes a summit register. One may continue along the old fireroad west of the summit to complete the traverse of the Silver Peak massif. The old fire road terminates near Silver Peak usecamp. From the Silver Peak usecamp, “Soda Wildtrail” cuts through the chaparral to prominent point 2,866 (aka “Soda Peak”) which sits near the headwaters of Soda Gulch. “Soda Peak” has one of the best views of the south Big Sur coastline looking south to Piedras Blancas and Mount Mars. The final portion of the Silver Peak traverse continues down from Soda Peak toward the Buckeye Trail and features lovely meadows interspersed with pines and oak trees with spectacular vistas the entire way.
Another post from the fall season in the High Sierra, this time from the Hoover Wilderness to the north and east of Yosemite. The Hoover Wilderness and adjacent northern part of Yosemite is largely overlooked for the higher peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the south but features outstanding scenery and tremendous opportunity for adventure where few, if any, other people will be seen. The Hoover Wilderness is characterized by a series of deep canyons draining the east side of the Sierra Crest. The Buckeye Loop visits two of these canyons – Robinson Creek Canyon and Buckeye Canyon. The centerpiece feature of the loop is stunning Peeler Lake which is an alpine paradise of polished granite and clear blue water. Both canyons are extremely pretty with phenomenal vistas, meadows and aspen groves. The Buckeye Loop comes out to around 35 miles including several miles of dirt road from Buckeye Campground to the Twin Lakes road and then a stretch of pavement to the roads end at the Mono Village resort. A car shuttle would shorten the route considerably and avoid some of the miles along dirt and paved roads, but the road running to make a complete loop is tolerable since the views are decent throughout the road section. Complete photo album here.
From the Mono Village, find your way through the maze of RVs to the Barney Lake Trail. This trail is heavily used as the starting point for many trips into the wilderness. The trail ascends fairly gradually through conifer forest and then aspen groves to a nice meadow where one can look up the dramatic Little Slide Canyon to the Incredible Hulk rock feature, one of the most impressive walls in the High Sierra. At this point, the trail begins a moderate ascent to Barney Lake and passes through a lovely old-growth aspen grove that is spectacular during the fall color season. Beyond Barney Lake, the trail begins a more rapid ascent with numerous switchbacks. Once past the turnoff to Robinson Lakes and Rock island Pass, Peeler Lake is close at hand. Peeler Lake is a remarkably beautiful spot with granite slabs descending into the sapphire blue waters. The lake sits exactly on the crest of the Sierra Nevada and has the unique attribute of dual outlets on either side of the lake – one flowing to the Great Basin and another to the Pacific Ocean via the Tuolumne Watershed/Hetch Hetchy. Water from the same source ends up in vastly different places!! From Peeler Lake, enter Yosemite National Park and descend gradually to the northern end of Kerrick Meadow.
The duration in Yosemite is short as the route exits the national park and reenters Hoover Wilderness after a gradual climb to Buckeye Pass. Compared to the trail to Peeler Lake, the Buckeye Trail gets a fraction of the visitation. In fact, the author did not see any humans from Peeler lake all the way to the Buckeye Campground. The trail becomes faint in spots, but the way was never in doubt. Descending from Buckeye Pass into the South Fork Buckeye Creek Canyon includes beautiful views of Center Mountain, Cirque Mountain and Grouse Mountain. At the junction with the trail to Piute Meadows is an old cabin. Downstream of the trail junction is a rugged section of the creek known as “The Roughs.” After this section, the trail makes a final descent into the Big Meadow of Buckeye Creek. The meadow is aptly-named as it is immense in both length and width. The meadow includes numerous patches of aspen with some old growth groves. The creek meanders through the meadows affording lovely views of the canyon, particularly the rugged flanks of Hunewill Peak, Victoria Peak and Eagle Peak. While the last few miles to Buckeye Camp seem to drag a bit, a hot spring along Buckeye Creek can refresh spirits. The final portion of the loop along the dirt road back to the Twin Lakes Road features nice views overlooking the Bridgeport Valley. Complete photo album here.
The Pioneer Loop is a complete loop (no repetition) coming in around 22 miles and offers a great mix of scenery of the Mono Recess region. Highlights of the route include Ruby Lake, Mono Pass, Trail Lakes, Pioneer Basin, Mount Stanford and Hilton Creek Lakes. There are numerous route variations, additional peaks and potential side trips including Mount Starr, Mount Huntington, Mount Hopkins Mount Crocker, Mount Morgan, Fourth Recess Lake and Third Recess Lake. There is plenty here to explore over several trips! GPS track here. The route starts at the ever-popular Mosquito Flat Trailhead at the end of Rock Creek Road. Most visitors are headed to the spectacular Little Lakes Valley which arguably offers the most bang for the buck in the High Sierra in terms of superb scenery for relatively little effort. The trail to Mono Pass splits from the Little Lakes Valley Trail a half mile from the trailhead and the foot traffic on the Mono Pass trail is substantially reduced, although still well traveled. As one gains elevation the views of Little Lakes valley improve with several vistas where one can take in the string of alpine lakes with Bear Creek Spire at the head of the valley. The trail traverses into a bowl where lovely Ruby Lake resides. A short spur-path leads to the shores of the lake while the main trail begins a series of switchbacks. At the top of these switchbacks as the trail begins its traverse to Mono Pass is an amazing view of Ruby Lake with the rugged peaks of the Bear Creek Spire group in the background. Beyond the Ruby Lake vista, the trail enters a small hanging valley and then makes a final push to Mono Pass. Mono Pass and the terrain to the north is rock and tundra. The blue waters of Summit Lake are a sharp contrast to the desolate and barren landscape. Descending from Summit Lake to Trail Lakes the vegetation begins to increase with clumps of pine trees and excellent views across the Mono Creek canyon to Pioneer Basin and adjacent peaks. Red Slate Mountain and Red and White Mountain rise above the first set of mountains with their striking red color. Trail Lakes are nestled in a pretty bowl making for a nice location for the snow course cabin. From Trail Lakes the trail drops down into the upper reaches of Mono Creek Canyon and enters a mature pine and fir forest. Shortly after passing the junction with the spur path to Fourth Recess Lake, the trail reaches another junction with the trail to Pioneer Basin. The path to Pioneer Basin starts out relatively flat but soon begins a moderate to steep ascent to the first lakes in the basin. Lovely Pioneer Basin contains at least a half dozen major lakes and many more smaller lakes and tarns. The majority of the lakes are situated near tree line between 10,800 feet and 11,000 feet. The result is a lovely mix of grassy meadows and clumps of pine trees. The rugged summits of Mount Hopkins, Mount Crocker, Mount Huntington and Mount Stanford surround the basin and provide a sense of true wilderness and seclusion. Lake 10,862 is the largest lake in the basin and contains several coves and a passageway connecting two lobes. The intricacy of its shoreline makes for excellent photography. Late in the season the lakes in Pioneer Basin become standing bodies of water supporting an impressive algae bloom that produces a distinct greenish color in shallow waters. It appears prudent to either boil or treat water in Pioneer Basin in late season. Stanford has the distinction of having two prominent Sierra peaks bearing the name. The southern summit is near the Kings-Kern Divide in King Canyon National Park and is just shy of 14,000 feet. The northern summit is the one described on this route and while shorter and less prominent than its southern brother, is a fine summit in its own right. From near Lake 11,026 one can make a fairly direct ascent up the slopes of Mount Stanford. It’s a bit of slog with much loose gravel in the lower slopes but becomes a bit more solid class 2 scramble in the upper part. Mount Stanford is the named summit in this vicinity, but a higher points lie along the ridge immediately to the NE ultimately culminating in Mount Morgan. I’m guessing Mount Stanford earned its name due to the fact that it sits on the Sierra Crest and also because of the rugged character of its precipitous north face as viewed from McGee Canyon. Mount Stanford has an excellent vantage of the McGree Creek Canyon region including Mount Baldwin, Red Slate Mountain and Red & White Mountain. Beyond these nearby peaks, the view includes the Ritter Range to the north and the Kuna-Dana region in Yosemite. To the south is a birds eye view of Pioneer Basin, Mono Creek Canyon and Fourth Recess Lake. The southern horizon is filled with a sea of peaks including Bear Creek Spire, Mount Dade, Mount Abbot, Mount Mills and Mount Gabb.From Mount Stanford descend class 2 talus toward Stanford Lake but at around 11,700 feet begin traversing south to a small pass. This pass provides entry into the Hilton Creek drainage and the beginning of a pleasant and relatively efficient cross country descent to the Hilton Creek Lakes. The Hilton Creek Lakes are very typical lakes of the eastern High Sierra but attractive nonetheless. At Lake 10,353 a trail can be picked up. At the junction above Lake 9,852, make a right and head towards Rock Creek Lake. The trail crosses a broad plateau and then parallels Rock Creek for a few miles before making a final descent to Rock Creek Road. This section has some expansive aspen groves that show fantastic color in the early fall. From the road it’s about a mile back to Mosquito Flat to complete the loop.
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.