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.
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.
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 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.
One of the finest views in the Tuolumne Meadows area is from an unnamed dome between Pothole Dome and Glen Aulin, a dome we dubbed the “Mystery Dome.” This rarely visited vantage frames the peaks, granite and forest of the Tuolumne Meadows area to perfection. The Mystery Dome is accessed via use paths and easy cross country hiking through pine forest and granite slabs from Pothole Dome. While not far from Tioga Road, there is a feeling of solitude and remoteness that provides a unique perspective of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding peaks and domes. None of the infrastructure of the area is visible so it’s easy to imagine what the first explorers encountered on their trek to Yosemite’s high country.
The 360 degree panorama from Mystery Dome includes:
Cathedral Range and Fairview Dome
Mount Hoffman and Tuolumne Peak
Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne
Cold Canyon, Matterhon Peak and Sawtooth Ridge
Mount Conness and North Peak
Mount Dana and the Kuna Crest
Lower Tuolumne Meadows
I could spend hours admiring this view! One the way back we ascended the back side of Pothole Dome which features an awesome field of glacial erratic boulders on the flat granite and more excellent views of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding peaks. Pothole Dome is a popular viewpoint, but after all these years driving through Tuolumne Meadows it was my first time ascending its gentle granite slopes. I discovered it’s worth the stop and I will definitely plan to hang out on Pothole Dome Again, perhaps to coincide with the glow of evening light. We wrapped up the day by taking a refreshing swim in Tenaya Lake. Below are some photos from Mystery Dome, Pothole Dome and Tenaya Lake.
At 48+ miles, the High Sierra Camps Loop covers a lot of ground and in the process showcases the spectacular Tuolumne Meadows area and Yosemite high country. The route includes a great mix of scenery characteristic of the region including lakes, waterfalls, meadows, granite and views. It’s one of the most popular circuits in all of the Sierra Nevada, largely owing to six conveniently spaced wilderness accommodations along the route. These fully-stoked camps allow patrons to travel without the burden of an overnight backpack and eat cooked meals every night and morning; a relaxing way to enjoy the scenery for some. A couple weeks ago I hiked and jogged the High Sierra Camps Loop as a day-trip and I included a few worthwhile side excursions that I had scoped out before. I intentionally aimed to do this loop before the camps opened for the summer so crowds were minimal. Strava route here. Following are photos and a video from the outing, a beautiful late spring day in Yosemite!
Save for a few miles between May Lake and Glen Aulin, there is virtually always new scenery around the corner to inspire and motivate. There are numerous variations of the base route and several worthwhile side trips that provide a lot of bang for the buck in terms of effort to reward payoff. These side excursions include gorgeous Townsley Lake below the rocky buttresses of Fletcher Peak (near Vogelsang Camp), pristine Emeric Lake situated in a grassy meadow with a backdrop of granite cliffs (between Vogelsang and Merced), and Sunrise Ridge with 360 degree views including the Cathedral Range and Tenaya Canyon (near Sunrise Camp). A great summit near the route is the popular Vogelsang Peak with close views of the “roof of Yosemite” – Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure and Mount Florence. One can continue to Vogelsang Pass and descend Lewis Creek to Merced Lake instead of the standard route along Fletcher Creek. Another summit near the route is Mount Hoffman, geographically at the center of Yosemite with great panoramic vistas. Maximum elevation for the standard 48-49 mile route is just over 10,000 feet so altitude is largely not an issue. Moreover, the low point at Echo Valley is only around 7,000 feet so elevation change is not daunting. The greatest climbing is into and out of Echo Valley/Merced Lake. While it’s fairly gradual in nature, this portion can be quite hot owing to it’s exposed nature. Furthermore, the trail descending from Fletcher Creek to Merced Lake is a “cobblestone” path of uneven rocks so it’s an arduous and technical section if you’re trying to run downhill. Overall, the High Sierra Camps Loop is a great route, both for multi-day backpacks and for single-day trail runs. I would definitely consider checking out some of the attractions off the beaten path, which are relatively close but are real gems.