Conness Peak & North Peak

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 hereHigh 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.    

Red, Merced, Ottoway

The Clark Range is a sub-range west of the Sierra Nevada crest in one of the more remote regions in Yosemite National Park. The range divides Illilouette Creek from the main stem of the Merced River and forms the western side of the Merced River headwaters. As the range is set apart from the other high peaks in the region, the views are spectacular and include the entire Cathedral Range and Ritter Range to the east. The view includes a panorama from domes and spires of the Tuolumne Meadows region to the roof of Yosemite on Mount Lyell to the impressive Mount Ritter to the chiseled Minarets. The primary summits in the Clark Range are Mount Clark, Gray Peak, Red Peak, Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. Of the bunch, Mount Clark is the only one with more technical scrambling and the others have class 2 or 3 routes available. For my first visit to the Clark Range I made a tour of the southern end of the range via Mono Meadows with climbs of Red Peak, Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. I started with Red Peak and then traversed the Ottoway basin to Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. Views from all three summits were spectacular. I especially liked the view to the rugged Minarets group, which are always impressive.  It was nice to see the peaks coated in late season snow, and especially when some afternoon light found its way under a layer of high clouds. Upper Ottoway Lake was still frozen but Lower Ottoway Lake had melted out and was especially pretty on my return trip in the evening. Total mileage ended up being 37.5 miles so it’s a long ways in, but a good early season route and many of the trail miles are runnable in pleasant montane forest. GPS route here

Electra Loop – Electra Peak & Lyell Fork Merced River

The Lyell Fork of the Merced River is one of the most remote and rugged regions in Yosemite National Park. Any approach requires many miles on trail followed by off-trail travel. The lower part of the drainage features a splendid series of meadows as the river snakes through a grassland with an amazing view upstream to the chiseled rideline including Mount Ansel Adams and Electra Peak. Higher up in the basin, the forest thins and the terrain transitions to a granite playground with a series of spectacular alpine lakes. It seems as if each lake has a different color, from midnight blue to milky turquoise.  It’s not entirely clear to me what is responsible for producing the different colors when the lakes are all connected and in such close proximity, but the resulting palette is magical. At the highest reaches of the basin the terrain is entirely devoid of vegetation and the uppermost lakes sit in a strikingly barren landscape of talus and granite. Above these uppermost lakes is the roof of Yosemite, Mount Lyell, at 13,120 feet above sea level and the highest point in the national park. I have looked down into the Lyell Fork of the Merced River from numerous points including Mount Lyell, Foerster Peak and Rodgers Peak and I have always wanted to explore the basin. In order to accomplish this goal, I designed an aesthetic loop out of Tuolumne Meadows that would include the Lyell Fork of the Merced River and also the summit of Electra Peak, one of the more remote summits in Yosemite with a grand view of the region. Since Electra Peak is the central feature of the route I called it the “Electra Loop” and entails nearly 44 miles and close to 10,000 feet of elevation gain. The loop is similar to the Roof of Yosemite Loop I did earlier this year but is a bit longer to incorporate the Lyell Fork Merced River and Electra Peak. GPS route info here.

The route starts with a trek up Lyell Canyon on the John Muir Trail, one of the most runnable stretches of trail in the High Sierra. At the head of the canyon is a climb up to Donohue Pass with an excellent view of Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure. Soon after Dononhue Pass leave the trail and head south through easy alpine terrain to the meadows beneath Marie Lakes where the Marie Lakes trail is intersected. A short climb on this trail brings one to Lower Marie Lake. From here continue cross country up a ridge on the south side of the lake and then traverse granite and talus slopes to North Clinch Pass. Lower Marie Lake is a large body of water and includes stupendous views of Mount Lyell and also across Rush Creek basin to Donohue Peak and Mount Andrea Lawrence. The narrow ridgeline is particularly scenic with a “secret Marie Lake” visible deep in a granite bowl. The direct route over North Clinch Pass includes some class 3 scrambling on its south side but it looks like a somewhat circuitous detour south along the ridge could eliminate the class 3 altogether. Passage through North Clinch Pass brings one into the remote upper reaches of the North Fork San Joaquin River. This drainage, like the Lyell Fork of the Merced River, is rarely visited but a real gem of the High Sierra. My passage through this basin was at its uppermost reach via a high traverse to Electra Peak on talus and granite slabs. I could see the numerous inviting lakes below, but my path would remain above them.  I look forward to visiting these lakes in the future. in fact, the High Sierra Route passes through perhaps the most dramatic part of the North Fork San Joaquin River drainage as it descends from Lake Catherine and traverses to Twin Island Lakes with wild views of the North Fork San Joaquin River Canyon and Mount Ritter and Banner Peak towering above. After the traverse of the headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River to Lake 11,815, the climb of Electra Peak’s north ridge is a straightforward scramble on talus and then some rock on the final portion on the ridge. The view from the summit is incredible and takes in a 360 degree panorama encompassing everything from Half Dome to the Clark Range to Mount Lyell to Ritter and Banner.  The best view in my opinion looks down the Lyell Fork of the Merced River with it’s numerous colorful lakes and beautiful meadows. From the summit, descend Electra’s northwest slope (talus and slabs) to Lake 10,999, a deep blue lake situated in a barren granitic landscape. Descending down the drainage from Lake 10,999 leads to Lake 10,702 tucked in beneath a rugged ridge extending to Mount Ansel Adams. A descent down a minor headwall beneath Lake 10,702 leads to a lake with striking bright turquoise color. This lake is not even assigned an elevation on the topo maps, but is one of the unique highlights of this region. The next lake on the trip down the Lyell Fork is perhaps the most spectacular and is labelled as Lake 10,217 on the topo map. This lake retains some of the turqouise color as the previous lake but has a bit more of a blueish tint. The lake also includes more vegetation along its shores, an alpine beach, and an elongated shape that makes it look like a swimming lane with Mount Ansel Adams and Foerster Peak towering above. This is certainly a spot I could spend some time relaxing!  Below Lake 10,217 is the primary headwall of the drainage and includes a fair amount of micro-navigating to avoid small cliff bands (although numerous routes are available). Below the headwall, travel becomes easier through open forest eventually reaching the splendid meadows. From the meadows it’s about a mile downstream through forest and granite slabs to the Isberg Pass Trail which is taken north to the Lewis Creek Trail. The ascent up the Lewis Creek Trail leads to Vogelsang Pass and then down the Rafferty Creek trail back to Tuolumne Meadows. GPS route info here.  

Whorl Mountain & Sawtooth Loop

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.


Virginia Peak

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.        



Clouds Rest & Yosemite’s Complete South Rim

While I know that Yosemite Valley is beautiful any time of the year, I had not experienced the Valley in the fall and I was eager to see some new trails (for me) on the south rim. A Saturday in early November was a great opportunity with the trails on the rim remaining largely snow-free. I designed a 38+ mile tour of the south rim of Yosemite Valley from Clouds Rest to Wawona Tunnel starting with the classic ascent up the Mist Trail from Happy Isles. The aesthetic point-to-point included a number of famous vistas: Clouds Rest, Panorama Point, Panorama Point Overlook, Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, Taft Point, Dewey Point, Crocker Point, Stanford Point, Inspiration Point and Artist Point. It was amazing to see the changing appearance of Half Dome and El Capitan, the most prominent features in the Valley,  as I made my way west along the South Rim. The biggest climb (6,000+ ft) is right at the beginning from the Valley to the summit of Clouds Rest, but the 2,500 ft of climbing from Illilouette Creek to Sentinel Dome is not easy either. All told, there is probably over 12,000 ft of climbing on the route. Beyond Sentinel Dome, the final 12 miles is largely downhill save for some moderate ascent to Dewey Point after crossing Bridalveil Creek. For a high resolution 360 degree annotated panorama from the summit of Clouds Rest, click on the image below or here. 

We encountered a surprising amount of snow in the shaded forest between Taft Point and Dewey Point, but overall the trails were in good condition. Panorama Point (not to be confused with Panorama Point Overlook) is a short-off trail hike along a ridgeline with nice 360 degree views. The highest point is at the end of the ridge. Panorama Point Overlook is just off the trail about 700 vertical feet below Panorama Point. A use path leaves the main trail at a switchback above Illilouette canyon, but there is no sign. It looks as if Panorama Point Overlook was once a bona fide vista, but the guardrail has since been removed (or fell off the cliff?) and it’s now one of the hidden gems of the Valley. Being late in the season, it was generally dry and the restroom facilities and water fountain at Glacier Point were closed. This means that if you are going out for a long run you must plan ahead for water locations. In fact, after Illilouette Creek, there is only one suitable water source on the route at Bridalveil Creek. Beyond Sentinel Dome, the focal point of the view is the immense granite wall of El Capitan. Taft Point is a tremendous viewpoint with some nice exposure for photogenic photography.  Continuing along the rim, we enjoyed magnificent evening light as we passed Dewey Point, Crocker Point and Stanford Point.  It took awhile to find the unobstructed view, but sunset at Inspiration Point was nice and post-sunset glow at Artist Point wrapped up a great day on the Yosemite trails.    

Mount Florence

Mount Florence is one of the most prominent peaks in the Yosemite high country visible from many spots along Yosemite Valley’s rim. The peak has a sweeping 360 degree panorama of virtually the entire park. While there are several routes to climb Mount Florence, the easiest and quickest route utilizes the Rafferty Creek Trail and Lewis Creek Trail via Tuolumne Pass and Vogelsang Pass. After ascending Vogelsang Pass, one descends around 1,000 feet along the Lewis Creek Trail before setting off cross country to beautiful Lk 10,541 (around 10.5 miles from Tuolumne Meadows). The cross country travel to Lk 10,541 is fairly straightforward with some boulders and slabs. Lk 10,541 is at the foot of Mount Florence with a stellar view up a remote valley to Mount Simmons, Mount Florence and other rugged unnamed points along the ridge. Beyond Lk 10,541 is a short steep section of talus up to the ridge crest at 11,000 feet. From the ridge, it’s a straightforward class 2 scramble up another 1,600 feet to Mount Florence’s summit – a great workout.

One of my favorite photos of the day was a 360 degree annotated view from the summit of Mount Florence.

I enjoyed the summit for well over a half hour, enjoying the views, which include the heart of the “roof” of Yosemite at Mount Lyell and Maclure and the entire Cathedral Range. Mount Florence also provides a clear vantage of the Merced River Valley to Half Dome, Clouds Rest and points along Yosemite Valley’s rim. After the summit rest, I retraced my steps back to Tuolumne Meadows. Instead of an out-and-back, one may descend Florence’s south ridge and traverse cross-country up and over the ridge to Lewis Creek Basin and then the pass near Parsons Peak to Ireland Lake. This scenic route would form an aesthetic loop, but includes a substantial amount of tedious off-trail travel. Since I had a very long day planned for the following day, I decided to leave this loop for next time. Even with climbing Mount Florence as an out-and-back, the route comes in at nearly 14 miles each way (28 miles total) with over 7,000 feet of elevation gain. Below are some photos from Florence’s summit, Lk 10,541 and Vogelsang Pass. Strava route here.