Robinson Creek canyon is a prominent U-shaped glacier carved valley spilling into Twin Lakes outside of Bridgeport. Sawtooth Ridge towers above the canyon, and despite being relatively lower in elevation than peaks to the south, it’s one of the most rugged segments of the High Sierra. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I also appreciate the comparatively lush environment including extensive stands of mountain hemlock. It’s no wonder I’m a regular visitor to this corner of Sierra. On my several visits to the region I made note of the aspen groves in the canyon and a point to return during fall color. Last year was a drought year and while there was some color, I knew that it wasn’t near its potential as there was extensive leaf spot caused by winter drought and then a very rainy summer. This year was much more normal with average snowpack and a drier summer. The result was a phenomenal fall color show that was virtually unabated from just outside the Twin Lakes trailhead all the way to a mile beyond Barney Lake. That’s 5+ miles of virtually non-stop fall color. What I love about the fall color show here is the exceptionally rugged setting and the fact that the best stuff is not roadside. You’ve got hike at least a couple miles to find the better groves and it only gets better the farther you go. The result is a peaceful experience without the tourists and without the tripod-toting shooting gallery. The most mature old-growth aspen stand is just before Barney Lake but some of the best colors can be found in the “fields” of stunted slide aspen. Unlike many other regions where aspen are usually very straight in stature, the aspen in the Sierra Nevada are often contorted due to the harsh growing environment with high winds, deep snowfall, and in this location, avalanches. When combined with the dramatic peaks rising above the canyon and the wilderness character, this fall color show is tough to beat. Perhaps my favorite grove is at the base of Little Slide Canyon (first picture below) where one can obtain a nicely framed shot of the aspen and the rugged backdrop of Little Slide Canyon including the Incredible Hulk and Kettle Peak. GPS route here. The focus of this trip was the outstanding fall color in Robinson Creek canyon but I also found the loop of Robinson and Little Slide canyons to be an excellent run or hike any time of the year with scenery including several charming lakes and panoramic views. In addition, there are opportunities to scramble many nearby peaks including Crown Point, Eocene Peak and Kettle Peak. I chose to make the quick trip up Slide Mountain this time as I had never been there before. At the head of the valley beyond Barney Lake, the trail leaves the aspen and switchbacks up a slope toward Peeler Lake. Shortly before Peeler Lake is a junction: veer left to head toward Rock Island Pass. The trail climbs through an old-growth Mountain Hemlock forest before reaching a magical emerald tarn with hemlocks surrounding and Crown Point looming above. Right after the tarn are the Robinson Lakes nestled within the granite rocks. The incredible scenery continues at Crown Lake with granite buttresses descending into the water and picturesque mountain hemlocks and whitebark pines sprinkled about the lakeshore. The trail climbs once again above Crown Lake before reaching a pleasant meadow and another trail junction. Head left to take the trail to Mule Pass. This stretch of trail switchbacks up a north facing slope and often holds snow until well into summer on a normal snow year. In fact, it might be one of the latest melting stretches of trail in the high Sierra. The terrain flattens out next to a tarn with a thick krummholz stand of Whitebark Pines. From this tarn it’s a fairly gradual finish to Mule Pass. While Mule Pass has an excellent view in its own right, the quality of the vista improves greatly if one ascends to Slide Mountain, which is the high point above a distinct feature known as “The Slide.” Slide Mountain is a fairly nondescript summit with several rock outcroppings vying for the highpoint, but the grand view is essentially the same and includes the Incredible Hulk, Sawtooth Ridge, Finger Peaks, Whorl Mountain and Mount Conness. One can reach Slide Mountain directly from the tarn below Mule Pass by taking a steep rock and snow gully or the more moderate route ascends sand and granite slabs from Mule Pass. Back at Mule Pass follow the trail down as it traverses through lovely parkland with meadows mixed with granite slabs. At a flat area, leave the trail and walk through meadows and tarns toward Ice Lake Pass. Ice Lake can be traversed either on its west or east side, but both sides require some climbing to get up and around granite cliffs that descend into the lake. While the eastern traverse may be easier, my preference is the west side traverse since from this route one obtains a breathtaking view of Maltby Lake nestled among reddish slabs that precipitously descend into its waters with Kettle Peak to the left, the Incredible Hulk to the right and Little Slide Canyon below. On the north side of Ice Lake a use path appears in the sand and can be followed toward the base of the Incredible Hulk with some intermittent talus fields to cross. The Incredible Hulk is one of the most amazing rock features in the high Sierra. Words and photographs do not do this gleaming 1,200 ft face justice. Every time I pass underneath the cliffs I’m in awe of the striking white cliffs contrasting with the deep blue Sierra skies. Below the Hulk, the use path descends into Little Slide Canyon utilizing small gullies and then crossing some talus fields. While there is a path that is followable, it’s a fairly rugged descent all the way to the base of Little Slide Canyon where it crosses Robinson Creek. On the north of Robinson Creek the climbers path quickly joins the Barney Lake Trail and from there it’s only a couple miles back to Twin Lakes. This post describes only one potential loop and it’s impossible to go wrong in this region, but I feel like this loop does a great job hitting many of the scenic highlights in the area. When combined with fall color at its peak it was one of my most memorable days in the Sierra all year.
Continuing with the focus on Northeast Yosemite’s Canyon Country, this post describes a climb of Whorl Mountain, which is immediately across Spiller Canyon from Virginia Peak, and a tour of the Sawtooth Ridge region including Matterhorn Pass, Burro Pass and Ice Lakes Pass. I had done a similar Sawtooth Loop last year including climbs of Matterhorn Peak, Finger Peaks and Kettle Peak. It’s such a fantastically scenic area I have no qualms about returning here year after year or even multiple times in the same year. Whorl Mountain is an impressive granite massif composed of three summits (the middle being the highest) sharply dividing Mattherhorn Canyon and Spiller Canyon. The rugged ridgeline reminds me of the Matthes Crest in the Tuolumne Meadows area with similar rock patterns, spectacularly steep relief and awesome scenery. The main difference is Whorl sees a small fraction of the visitors when compared with the popular and easily accessible rock climb on the Matthes Crest. From a distance, it looks like technical rock climbing is required to reach Whorl’s summit, but a fairly straightforward, albeit convoluted, scrambling route exists. My route finding was spot on and the crux for me was passage underneath the chockstone, which surprisingly still contained snow and ice in mid-summer (beware in a high snow year). After contemplating turning around, I decided to give it a try. To make space for me to crawl through I needed to remove some snow and ice. Using my hand turned out to be a bloody mess, but bashing the icy snow with a rock proved effective. Once past the chockstone it was a matter of minutes before I was on the summit. Any earlier in the season and the passage underneath the chockstone would have been completely choked and the alternatives are exposed. After Whorl Mountain I went over Matterhorn Pass and traversed the upper portions of Matterhorn Canyon and Slide Canyon. This is one of my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra with amazing rugged scenery of Sawtooth Ridge. I completed the loop by going over Ice Lake Pass to the foot of the Incredible Hulk with amazing views to Ice Lake and Maltby Lake, and then down the climbers use path in Little Slide Canyon to the Barney Lake Trail. GPS route here.
The easiest approach to Whorl is via the Horse Creek drainage to Horse Creek Pass. This is a direct and straightforward route and if you are able to find and utilize little use paths it will help expedite passage through the talus fields in the upper portion of the drainage. Most times a snow tongue remains near the narrow pass which is an extension of a relic ice patch, but this likely disappears by late season. Travel across upper Spiller Canyon is a pleasure with beautiful meadows, gradual terrain and awesome scenery. Continue along a prominent bench below Whorl to its end and then make an ascending traverse across Whorl’s east face. There are several shallow chutes along the face, but the key is continue farther than you think and beyond a couple patches of small pine trees (see annotated photo above). Once in the correct chute, it’s a pretty straightforward ascent up class 2 and 3 slabs and talus. Near the top of this first chute, move climber’s right into a second chute. Once in the second chute ascend 3rd class blocks about 100 vertical feet to find a convenient ledge that provides relatively easy access to a third chute. The third chute contains an impressive chockstone that must be climbed underneath and through. As described above, the chockstone is likely chocked with snow and ice until well into the summer season and the alternatives to get around the chockstone entails some exposed 4th class scrambling. Once through the chockstone there is a little more scrambling before an obvious wide ledge is found that cuts across the entire west face of the middle peak and emerges near the summit. This ledge is quite miraculous since the face is otherwise nearly vertical granite and without it this would surely be a technical climb. At the end of the ledge, a few more class 3 moves deposits one on the summit. As Whorl is essentially a giant granite wedge between Spiller Canyon and Matterhorn Canyon, the views are stellar and include the Sawtooth Ridge, Virginia Peak, Mount Conness and the Roof of Yosemite at Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure. The fun does not need to end with Whorl. On the way back to Horse Creek Pass, turn uphill and ascend to Matterhorn Pass to make a loop including Burro Pass and Ice Lakes Pass. Matterhorn Pass is a little tricky to approach from the south as you must ascend a gully to a point above the pass before exiting the gully and descending the ridge back to the low point at the pass. The north side of Matterhorn Pass is easy and the descent into upper Matterhorn Canyon is gorgeous. Once in the canyon, intersect the trail and soon after reach spectacular Burro Pass. The views of Sawtooth Ridge only improve as one descends into the upper reaches of Slide Canyon. The meadows here are among my favorite in all of the High Sierra. Instead of ascending up to Mule Pass, head cross country to Ice Lakes Pass to get close-up views of Ice Lake, Maltby Lake, and the granite monolith of the Incredible Hulk. This is really an amazing area! The descent through Little Slide Canyon is arduous and takes some time, but once on the Barney Lake Trail it’s smooth sailing back to Twin Lakes. Alternatively, keeping to the maintained trail out of Slide Canyon includes an ascent to Mule Pass with fantastic views and pretty lakes. You really can’t go wrong in this region! GPS route here.
Northeast Yosemite is one of my favorite places in the Sierra Nevada. The peaks are not as high as the Southern Sierra, but it’s a distinctly alpine region characterized by a series of long glacier-carved canyons separated by sharp granitic peaks and ridgelines. The numerous canyons (from east to west) include Virginia Canyon, Spiller Canyon, Matterhorn Canyon, Slide Canyon, Rock Canyon, Kerrick Canyon, Thompson Canyon, Stubblefield Canyon, Tilden Canyon and Jack Main Canyon (see annotated satellite image of the canyons). All of the canyons flow into the Tuolumne River watershed and provide virtually limitless opportunities for exploration, and several of the canyons are completely trail-less canyons. The entire region offers some of the best wilderness terrain to wander off the beaten path in solitude. On this day I was looking for a relatively quick afternoon warm-up (post drive from the Bay Area) before my trip to Arrow Peak’s northeast ridge so I decided to do Virginia Peak, a striking peak that rises between the deeply-carved Spiller Canyon and Virginia Canyon. From the summit of Virginia Peak there is a magnificent view in all directions, including the impressively steep Whorl Mountain across picturesque Spiller Canyon, Matterhorn Peak at the head of the canyon, Mount Conness and Shepherd Crest to the south, and the Roof of Yosemite including Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure and Mount Florence.
The shortest and likely quickest access to Virginia Peak is via the Green Lake Trailhead, but I decided to access via Virginia Lakes, a pretty chain of alpine lakes I had never seen with trailhead access that is almost all on paved road (the Green Lake TH is a long dirt road). Moreover, the Virginia Lakes TH starts a bit higher. The downside is the approach builds in an extra climb over a saddle that is over 11,000 ft resulting in a decent climb on the way back. On balance, the extra distance to the peak seemed worthwhile. I used maintained paths to below Summit Lake and then set off cross-country traversing across the lowest slopes of Camiaca Peak to Upper Virginia Canyon. A trail once existed in upper Virginia Canyon but I could only find bits and pieces of it in the meadows. Either way, travel is easy in the canyon and the main objective is to avoid brush patches that tend to grow near the watercourse. At the highest reaches of Virginia Canyon a headwall is reached with a waterfall. Apparently an easy route exists to bypass the waterfall and continue along the main drainage, but I found a nice gully to the right that provided an easy “staircase” up to the granite benches and talus fields below Virginia Peak and Twin Peaks Pass. The final ascent to the pass entailed some loose rock, but I was soon traversing over to the start of the scramble. The final scramble up Virginia Peak’s northeast ridge is short and mostly class 2 with a couple class 3 moves. The view from the top is awesome and I soaked in the scenery for nearly an hour before returning to the Virginia Lakes TH with plenty of time to drive south for the next day’s adventure. GPS route here.