Backpacking – Backcountry Sights Photos and stories from the outdoors Fri, 14 Jun 2019 14:26:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Backpacking – Backcountry Sights 32 32 123251974 Mountaineering at Mount Baker Mon, 06 May 2019 12:00:31 +0000 My favorite part of the afternoon is learning about and practicing building haul systems: we use carabiners and prusiks to construct a system of pulleys that effectively reduce the amount of force the rescuer must exert to pull their friend out of the crevasse. As an engineer and an aspiring mountaineer, I very much enjoy using the laws of physics to gain a mechanical advantage with materials I'm already carrying.

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Mountaineering is subtly ingrained in our collective imagination of outdoor adventure: a tough climber, decked out in winter gear, struggling up a steep, snow-covered slope toward the summit of some remote mountain. Through blogs like Tandem Trekking, I’ve vicariously struggled to some of the summits in the pacific northwest, but it wasn’t until last summer that I began to seriously contemplate trying out mountaineering myself. A few months after meeting some hiking buddies that were getting serious about a mountaineering course, I signed up for one myself: an introductory class taught on the slopes of Mount Baker, a glacier-clad peak near Seattle, Washington.

Trip Planning

Also called “alpinism,” mountaineering is generally the process of reaching the summit of a mountain. While some peaks (e.g., Mount Whitney) can be reached by hiking without any technical gear, most mountains are more rugged; reaching these summits can involve an approach hike, glacier travel, rock climbing, and/or ice climbing. To acquire some of these technical skills, I signed up for Alpinism I, an introductory mountaineering course offered by the American Alpine Institute (AAI). As such, I did not plan this trip myself, but rather followed the course guides, Seth and Kevin, as they led our group of 10 novice alpinists into the mountains. I would certainly recommend AAI; I learned a ton of new skills, had a great time in the mountains, and made a bunch of new friends!

Specs: 14.4 mi | +/- 6700′ | 6 days, 6 nights

Route: We followed the Easton Glacier route, beginning at Park Butte Trailhead.

Permits and Regulations: Neither climbing permits nor backcountry permits are required for overnight trips in Mount Baker National Recreation Area, but a recreation pass is required to park at the trailhead and you should definitely register at a nearby ranger station in case of an emergency. For more information, please visit the forest service website. As always, observe the leave no trace ethics! In the wintertime, this means you’ll be pooping in a wag bag, certainly not a pleasant task but better than finding a minefield of turds on the mountain!

Resources: The USFS website is a great resource for planning trips in this area. Additionally, the AAI website includes sample itineraries and gear lists for their courses, a valuable resource whether you are considering signing up for such a course yourself or just want to get a feel for the gear and skills required. I brought along the Mount Baker Wilderness map printed by Green Trails (number 13SX), which has a great 1:24000 scale for a detailed view of the mountain and its many glaciers.

Rocks and Ropes

May 6, 2019 | Mount Erie

It’s a cool, sunny Monday morning in Bellington, Washington, the first day of the mountaineering course I’ve signed up for. I met a few of my fellow students this morning at breakfast; our trekking poles, ice axes, and large backpacks make it easy to identify each other. A cheerful AAI employee arrives just as we’re finishing our food and shuttles us over to the AAI facility where we meet the rest of the crew and our guides, Seth and Kevin.

The first order of business is to go through our gear together, under the watchful eye of the guides and AAI staff, to ensure that everyone has the appropriate supplies to be safe and comfortable in the mountains. After running through the gear list, many of us, myself included, rent some gear from the AAI shop and buy items that we’ve forgotten or could not bring from home.

A few hours later, the entire group is equipped, packed, and ready to go. We stuff our packs and other gear into the back of two large, black vans, and then depart for Mount Erie, a local crag. The drive from Bellingham takes about an hour and passes all kinds of different terrain: damp conifer forests, grassy meadows, vast bays, and a few picturesque lakes.

At Mount Erie, we tumble out of the vans and find a shady spot in a stand of pines to have “ground school,” i.e., learn some skills that we’ll need on the mountain from the relative comfort and safety of the warm, dry Washington coast. It’s pretty great place for a classroom; the views certainly beat any other classroom I’ve visited!

Mount Erie View
The views from Mount Erie are fantastic: Lake Campbell in the foreground and Skagit Bay stretching into the distance

Seth and Kevin teach us about all things climbing: ropes, helmets, harnesses, carabiners, slings, and a variety of knots, hitches, and bends. It’s a lot to remember at first, but as we practice and discuss the context of each skill in mountaineering applications, they become easier to recall.

After learning the basics, we move to the crag and practice what we’ve learned. Half of the group learns how to climb a rope using a “Texas Kick,” a technique that leverages two prusiks and enables a climber to ascend the rope without touching the wall. It’s a beautifully simple system: one prusik (a thin cord tied in a loop) attaches to your harness at the waist and to the rope via a prusik hitch, and the other is tied to have two foot loops and is also attached to the rope via a prusik hitch. Basically, you stand on the foot loops, slide the waist prusik up the main rope, and then let your weight hang on the waist prusik while sliding the foot prusik up. Rinse, repeat, and up you go!

While some of us are practicing the Texas Kick, the other half of the group learns how to set up and perform an extended rappel with a prusik acting as a backup for the belay device. As a nerdy engineer, I find all of the new technical information and skills are terribly fun and interesting. We switch spots halfway through the afternoon so that everyone gets a chance to try both activities.

mount erie climbing
We practice rappelling and rope-climbing at Mount Erie

At the end of the day, we pack up our climbing gear and drive a short distance to Deception Pass State Park. I was a little confused about the name of the park at first since “pass” makes me think of a high-altitude saddle between two peaks. Deception Pass, on the other hand, is a very low-altitude saddle between two peaks; the pass itself is a narrow waterway. After driving around a few campsite loops, we find an open site with plenty of space for everyone and set up camp. To save space and weight in my pack, I’m sharing a tent with Madhav; we have to get a bit creative since the only stakes we have for the tent are the massive snow stakes, which won’t work in the rocky soil. We scavenge for rocks and end up with an awkwardly-pitched tent that won’t stand up to much wind but, thankfully, doesn’t need to tonight.

After eating some dinner, Madhav and I walk down to the shoreline and explore the park a little in the remaining daylight. It’s a beautiful place! We return to camp before dark and I head to bed right away; my body is still on eastern time, so 9 PM feels like midnight and I am pooped! Plus, I want to be rested and ready for tomorrow: our first day on Mount Baker!

deception pass state park
A beautiful sunset at Deception Pass State Park

Hike to Base Camp

May 7, 2019 | Mount Baker | 2.8 mi | +1600’/-200′ | View on Map

An early bedtime means I wake up early. It’s already light outside, so I extract myself from my sleeping bag, put on some shoes, and step outside. Everyone else in camp seems to have a more normal sleep schedule, i.e., they’re all still asleep, so I decide to take a stroll. I find a trail nearby and wander down it to a beach that I glimpsed last night. The snow-capped Olympic Mountains are visible across the water, which laps quietly on the gravel beach. With plenty of time to kill, I meander further down the coast in search of a spot with views of Deception Pass.

After walking for a while, I return to camp, where more of the group is beginning to stir. I snack on a bagel, peanut butter, and dried mangoes, and then help Madhav pack up the tent. Once the whole group is packed and ready to go, we pile back into the vans and head out for Mount Baker.

The majority of the drive to the mountain follows paved roads, but the final few miles are a series of pot-holed switchbacks, which makes for a bumpy ride. We soon spot cars parked on the side of the road, a sure sign that we’re close to the trailhead. We don’t quite make it to the actual trailhead because the road is still covered in snow, a strange sight on a sunny, warm day like today.

Once Seth and Kevin have parked the vans we pull our gear out and prepare for a day of hiking. There are a number of group items to be distributed, including ropes, pickets, and shovels. I volunteer to carry a rope, which adds what feels like a solid 10 pounds to my pack weight. But carrying a rope does look cool, so there’s that.

mount baker road
The group pulls gear from the vans, organizes packs, and prepares to hike into the mountains

As soon as everyone is geared up and ready to go, we begin hiking up the road toward the trailhead. The path is a mix of dirt and snow, which makes for an interesting experience in the mountaineering boots I’ve rented for this trip. They’re more or less the same as ski boots: a hard, plastic outer shell with little buckles protects a soft, inner liner boot. Anyone that has every clunked around in ski boots can imagine the awkward, uncomfortable experience of walking along a dirt road. Walking on the soft snow is more pleasant, but hardly comfortable.

I’m soon distracted from my unpleasant footwear by snowy forest scenery and the occasional glimpse of Mount Baker. Our group moves in a single file line through the snow, like a flock of geese. The person in the front of the line does the most work, sometimes sinking deep into the snow, but those of us that follow get to take advantage of their pre-compacted steps. We take a break every hour to munch on snacks, hydrate, and reapply sunscreen, a must-do with all the sunshine. The breaks are also a good chance to stretch out my hips, which have begun to ache from the heavy pack and the awkward boots.

Before long, we exit the forest and begin climbing up a wash between two ridges. Kevin, who is in front, warns us that we’re crossing over a creek (or creeks) here; the snow might be thinner and softer, but it’s hard to tell from above. The last thing anyone wants is to fall into an icy creek, so we tread carefully over the invisible snow bridges to one of the ridges. As we climb higher, expansive views of the surrounding peaks become visible.

mount baker mountaineering
As we climb higher, expansive views of the surrounding peaks begin to appear

We soon leave the gradually-sloping valley and begin climbing a series of switchbacks on a much steeper slope. The group spreads out a bit as everyone settles into different paces. We pause at the top of the ridge to regroup and watch as a few missteps create a tiny avalanche on the slope below.

mount baker mountaineering
After navigating a series of switchbacks, the group pauses on a small ridge. From left to right: Mike, Madhav, John, Brian, Bear, and Zak.

After a brief rest, we continue down the other side of the ridge and make our way up gentler hills to a small valley surrounded by a few stands of pine trees. It’s a great campsite and it’s early evening, so we stop hiking and starting setting up camp. The first order of business is choosing a spot for the tent. Madhav and I stomp down a rectangle the size of our tent and wait a few minutes for the snow to re-freeze (a process called sintering or “work hardening”). Next, we set up the tent, digging dead-man anchors for the large snow stakes, and excavate a nice bench were can sit, cook, and stare at Mount Baker. Who knew snow camping could be so customizable?

After setting up the tent and unpacking a bit, it’s time for dinner. I boil water for a hot meal and then spend some time melting snow to replenish my water bottles. It’s not exactly a quick process with the little pocket-rocket stove I brought along, but the snow eventually liquefies.

I stay up long enough to watch the sun set; the views of the surrounding peaks are extraordinary, particularly in the warm evening light. Once the sun has sunk below the horizon, I retreat to the tent and crawl into my sleeping bag. I’m trying out a new system on this trip: a Therm-a-rest XTherm pad, one of the warmest available, and a sleeping bag liner that is designed to increase the insulation of the bag. Even though the tent is literally pitched on a slab of ice, I’m warm and cozy!

Snow School

May 8, 2019 | View on Map

Thanks to the warm tent and mild nighttime temperatures, I sleep soundly and wake up refreshed in the morning. I step out of the tent for a morning bathroom break, an experience made a little more… interesting by the snow. Normally you bury your waste so it can decompose, but that’s not very feasible when the ground is covered in deep snow. The solution is the “wag bag,” a fancy, opaque plastic bag with a zip-lock top. You simply poop in the bag, seal it up, and pack it out. Pooping in the bag isn’t so bad; carrying five days’ worth of poop off the mountain is.

After cooking and eating breakfast, we all gather at the base of a nearby slope for “snow school.” The first lesson is… walking. There are different techniques for ascending a slope, many of them with French names, all with different use cases; some are better for steep slopes, some are particularly useful when you’re wearing crampons. After learning and practicing the uphill techniques, we practice some skills for descending and then take a break. It’s surprisingly warm out; with bluebird skies overhead and a blanket of reflective snow covering every inch of the ground, there is no respite from the “death star” overhead. So, in addition to munching on snacks, I make sure to reapply sunscreen every hour or two.

mount baker snow school
One of many skills we practice: “punch stepping” down a snowy incline

The next skill that we practice is self-arrest, i.e., the process of stopping yourself from sliding/falling down a steep slope. In soft snow, it’s fairly straightforward to just dig your elbows and feet in to stop, but we’re also preparing for colder, icier conditions where an ice axe is the best tool for self-arrest. We learn about the parts of the axe: the sharp pick, the shovel-like adze, the shaft, and a sharp spike at the bottom of the shaft. The general idea behind self-arrest is simple: Stab the pick into the snow/ice, and kick your feet into the slope beneath you. Of course, there are some important considerations. Since self-arrest occurs after you’ve begun falling, you have to be very careful not to stab yourself with any of the pointy parts of the ice ax — control the ice axe. Seth and Kevin show us how to hold the axe, how to quickly position the axe relative to our bodies without injuring ourselves, and how to use the axe to swing our bodies into the correct orientation. To practice all of the skills, we form a couple of lines and take turns sliding down the slope, gathering a little speed, and then arresting the fall. It’s a little nerve-wracking at first (again, lots of sharp points involved!), but fun once I start to get the hang of the basic motions.

After lunch, we return to the hill and shift gears to anchor building. Anchors are systems that secure a rope in the snow; since there aren’t any trees or rocks to tie a rope to on a glacier, we have to learn how to use the snow to create a secure anchor. After Kevin and Seth teach us the basics, we split into pairs and practice. It’s tough work in the soft snow; Kevin is able to pull out the first several anchors my partner and I build, so they probably wouldn’t work too well if a climber were hanging off the end of the rope into a crevasse. The trick is to dig deep into the snow — at least two or three feet. That’s about as far as we can dig with the ice axe; they’re just not long enough to dig much deeper.

At the end of the afternoon, we transition to learning about glacier travel on a rope team. One of the risks while hiking across a snow-covered glacier is that someone will fall through the snow into a crevasse. This risk is mitigated by tying climbers together on a rope; if one person on the rope team falls, the others can self-arrest and stop their teammate from falling too far. We learn about coiling the rope, the knots used to tie in, and the appropriate amount of rope to leave between climbers.

We finish up in the early evening and walk the short distance back to camp. I have chores to do: melting snow to replenish my water supply, cooking dinner, and reviewing all of the new the skills I learned. To cap off a great day, the sunset puts on a colorful show on the clouds above Mount Baker. It’s much windier and feels colder than last night, but I stay up to photograph the sunset anyway; it’s not very often that I get to visit the Cascade Mountains!

mount baker sunset
Cotton-candy clouds over Mount Baker, Colfax Peak, and Lincoln Peak

Mountaineering Lessons

May 9, 2019 | 1.0 mi | +800′ | View on Map

We pack up camp the next morning at 8 AM and begin a short hike to a location further up the mountain. We’ll wake up extra early tomorrow (an “alpine start”) and make a bid for the summit, which will be easier if we start a little closer to the mountain.

mount baker backpacking
It’s time to move camp higher up the mountain!

Soon after departing our first campsite, we reach the ridge-top path known as the “railroad grade.” This trail winds along the lateral moraine on the west side of the Easton Glacier and offers fantastic views of the surrounding scenery!

mount baker railroad grade
Our path follows the “railroad grade”, a lateral moraine beside the Easton glacier

We abandon the railroad grade at a particularly steep, exposed spot, punch-stepping our way through the soft snow to a lower, flatter area. From there, we climb a few undulating ridges and reach Sandy Camp, a popular staging spot for climbers attempting to summit Mount Baker. Of course, there’s no sand to be seen; everything is pure, blinding white snow. Perhaps it’s a sandy spot later in the season.

Everyone scatters around the area, picking out nice campsites and setting up tents. Madhav and I choose a spot below the ridgeline where there will (hopefully) be less wind, even though the ridge-top spots offer amazing views. I figure I can walk the 50 yards to the ridge, check out the views, and then sleep in the relative comfort of the less-exposed tent.

mount baker sandy camp
Sandy Camp

Once camp is established, we resume snow school. The first lesson of the afternoon is crevasse rescue, i.e., the process of pulling someone out of a crevasse once they’ve fallen in. The techniques we’ve learned over the past few days all come together: knots, prusiks, self-arrest, and anchor-building are all key components of the crevasse rescue. It’s neat to connect everything together!

My favorite part of the afternoon is learning about and practicing building haul systems: we use carabiners and prusiks to construct a system of pulleys that effectively reduce the amount of force the rescuer must exert to pull their friend out of the crevasse. As an engineer and an aspiring mountaineer, I very much enjoy using the laws of physics to gain a mechanical advantage with materials I’m already carrying.

We split into a few groups and each practice the complete process of crevasse rescue, minus the anchor building. Seth, Kevin, and other group members take turns acting as victims, “hanging” on the end of the rope to give the system some tension and simulate a real scenario.

mount baker crevasse rescue
Mike pulls Seth, the victim, toward the anchor using a 6:1 haul system. Photo credit: Madhav

Later in the afternoon we also spend some time practicing rope team travel. It can be a little tricky: too much slack between climbers can be dangerous and get in the way, but too much tension ends up jerking everyone around as they adjust their speed with the terrain. We practice for a while, moving uphill, downhill, across flat areas, and around sharp corners.

We end our lessons at a reasonably early hour, eat dinner, and prepare for tomorrow. We’ll be leaving camp at 2 AM for our summit bid. Most of the hike is across a glacier so we’ll be roped up and will be moving more slowly than we might otherwise travel unencumbered by the rope. Of course, it’s better to move slowly than to fall to your death in a deep crevasse. With such an early start time, I head to bed soon after dinner; I won’t get enough sleep regardless, but I’ll take what I can get.

mount baker winter camping
Mount Baker loops over my tent at Sandy Camp

Summit Bid

May 10, 2019 | 5.8 mi | +4300’/-4300′ | View on Map

After only a few hours of sleep, my alarm goes off at 12:45. Thankfully, we’re leaving most of our gear here at camp, so our packs will be relatively light. I stuff plenty of snacks, water, extra layers, and my camera into my backpack and pull on clothes. It’s not a terribly cold night, but the air is chilly, so I don a few layers and munch on a cliff bar. Before staring, Kevin and Seth suggest that we “be bold, start cold,” i.e., we should take off a few layers before starting the climb. Following their advice requires a bit of a leap of faith (it is quite chilly), but turns out to be a good policy. As we trudge up the mountain in a single file line, I warm up and am comfortable.

Upon reaching the edge of the glacier, we pause and rope up into two teams of six: one guide and 5 students on rope. Our headlamps light the way as we trek up the glacier, but we don’t need them for as long as I expected. Around 4:00, the sky begins to brighten, and by 4:30 there is enough ambient light to see without the lamp.

mount baker easton glacier sunrise
Sunrise from the Easton glacier is spectacular!

When the sun does rise above the horizon, the view becomes spectacular. Seeing alpenglow on one peak is great, but seeing alpenglow on every peak for miles and miles is amazing!

mount baker sunrise
A view of the sunrise sans climbers

Even though the sun has risen, we’re still in the mountain’s shadow, crunching up the icy snow in our crampons. As I climb, I begin to notice a sharp pain in my shins, right where the tops of the boots press against my legs. I’m able to walk through it for a while, distracted by the epic views, but am soon grimacing with each step. I try loosening the boots, tightening the boots, and adjusting my socks, but nothing makes much of a difference. Those tweaks may have prevented the pain if I applied them earlier, but my shins are bruised and tender, so my only choice is to keep walking; the summit awaits!

mount baker mountaineering
Madhav shows his excitement for this adventure!

The sun rises as we near the summit crater, and other mountaineers begin passing us, many of them on skis. Watching them glide up the mountain makes me a little jealous – it looks so effortless! I’m sure it isn’t actually effortless, but the real kicker is watching some of them fly past us on their way down; they’ll reach the bottom in an hour, whereas we’re going to have to walk for five or six hours.

mount baker ski mountaineering
Two skiers make their way up Easton Glacier, just as the sun appears

About once an hour we take a break to refuel, rehydrate, and rest. During the breaks, I pull my camera out of my backpack and snap photos. Pausing for photos mid-climb isn’t an option since I’m tied to several other people; everyone on the team would have to stop, and we’re on the clock. The glacier becomes more dangerous as the temperature rises. Snow bridges (i.e., the sheets of snow covering the gaping crevasses somewhere below our feet) that are sturdy when frozen can become weak when the snow thaws, and moving through wet, soft snow is much more tiring and difficult than moving along the icy crust.

By the time 9:30 rolls around, we’re a little shy of the summit crater and several miles away from the summit. We’re out of time. We push on a little further to get a glimpse of the crater, but soft, deep snow near the rim prevents us from looking inside. Mount Baker is an active volcano, as illustrated by the sulfur-laden fumes spewing from the crater. The aroma isn’t as strong as, say, Yellowstone’s mudpots, the air smells distinctly of rotten eggs.

We rest for a few minutes near the crater and admire the panoramic vista. I’m disappointed that we haven’t made it to the summit, but this is a team sport: either everyone makes it, or nobody does. Besides, making the difficult decision to turn back is a valuable mountain lesson, one that I’m still learning. We could continue up to the summit, probably arriving around noon, 10 hours after leaving camp this morning. Then we would have to hike all the way back to camp, which would take several more hours and would occur during the hottest part of the day. Everyone would be exhausted, and we would need to be extra careful to avoid stepping through a soft snow bridge. Tiredness and deteriorating conditions are a recipe for an accident, so we’re turning around. The mountain will remain; I’ll just have to come back!

mount baker mountaineering
The view from the summit crater isn’t too bad…

Descending the mountain is much less painful on my shins, thank the gods, but still a measured, slow ordeal. The sun is hot, the snow is soft, everyone is tired, and emotions are a bit rough. Bear steps through a snow bridge in a spot we walked safely this morning, illustrating just how quickly conditions can change on the mountain. Thankfully, only his leg falls through; his rope teammates are easily able to pull him out by moving sideways as a group.

Other than that small excitement, the descent proceeds uneventfully. We take off the crampons once we reach consistently softer snow, and post-hole our way down the glacier. Once we reach the lateral moraine, we untie from the rope and continue along the ridgeline to our campsite. The snow at these lower elevations is incredibly soft, and I find myself sinking up to my knees as I trudge downhill. At one point, Mike sinks up to his hip and John and I have to dig him out!

Upon returning to camp, we debrief with Seth and Kevin, discussing the climb and some of the things we learned. Afterward, we all take some time to rest. I pour melted snow out of my boots, set them out to dry in the fierce afternoon sunlight, and lie down. I’m too tired to stay awake, so I set an alarm for 19:30 and then go to sleep. When the alarm goes off, I get up and spend an hour admiring the sunset before returning to bed for the night.

twin sisters sunset
A beautiful sunset concludes the long day


May 11, 2019 | 3.8 mi | +200’/-2400′ | View on Map

Today is our last day on Mount Baker, and the last day of the course. We pack up camp in the morning and then spend a few hours practicing crevasse rescue techniques. It’s another warm, sunny day, and everyone seems a bit more cheerful after a full night’s rest. I take a turn being the “victim” to be rescued; it’s pretty fun to lean back against the rope and watch someone build a set of pulleys to pull you out of a fictional crevasse.

Once everyone that wants to has practiced the rescue skills, we begin hiking out, retracing our steps from earlier in the week. We walk past our first campsite and soon reach the steep ridge that we criss-crossed with switchbacks on Tuesday. Rather than repeat that ordeal, Kevin and Seth make the executive decision that we will be glissading down the slope. It’s a tad steep, but the bottom is smooth and clean, a perfect spot for some good old butt-sliding.

mount baker glissade
Seth demonstrates the proper technique and enthusiasm for glissading

As we descend further, we reach the valley with several streams. Unlike our ascent a few days ago when the streams were completely covered by snow, there are now some holes above the creeks. Step carefully near the water to avoid punching through, we continue downhill. The further we go, the greater the evidence of melting. All sorts of things that were previously hidden now protrude from the snow: rocks, trees, logs… Walking through this minefield is a little tricky — post-holing is no fun — but we eventually reach the vans. I’m particularly happy to trade my boots and heavy pack for trail runners and a fresh shirt.

On the drive home, we stop at a small gas station and buy some treats: Gatorade, ice cream, chips… the good stuff. Back at the AAI shop, I return the gear I rented and say goodbye to everyone. It’s been a great week, and I’ve learned so many new skills! I can’t wait to do more mountaineering, and perhaps return to Mount Baker — gotta bag that summit!

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Backpacking Along the Teton Crest Mon, 27 Aug 2018 01:30:11 +0000 The trail soon departs the airy ridge and begins descending, gradually at first but then more steeply, toward Alaska Basin. Along the way, Diane and I pass strange metamorphic rock that seems almost fluid, like the rippled surface of a slate-grey lake frozen in time. The entire plateau is covered with small, tile-sized pieces of the stuff as well as the occasional plinth protruding from the surface. Stranger yet, holes a few meters across and 1-2 meters deep lie scattered across the landscape; are these related to the volcanic history? Perhaps collapsed lava tubes? Yet another oddity: a murder of 30 or 40 crows sit perched on various rocks across the plateau, with a few floating just above the ground, riding the stiff wind like kites. Do they nest up here? Why are they all sitting around? I have so many questions and so few answers.

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I’ve had the Teton Crest Trail on my to-hike list for a few years, so when Diane suggested a trip to the Tetons following a conference we were both attending in Salt Lake City, I was immediately interested. We had originally planned on spending a few days after the conference backpacking in the Uintas since they’re pretty close – only 2-3 hours to drive to most of the trailheads. The Tetons are much further, more like a 5+ hour drive.

trip planning
Grab a beer and decide: Tetons or Uintas, which will it be? Photo credit: Diane

In the end, we decided to make the long drive and visit the Tetons, especially since I spent the previous weekend backpacking in the Uintas. Would the scenery be worth the drive? There’s only one way to find out.

Trip Planning

Specs: 41.5 mi | +/- 10,400′ | 3.5 days, 3 nights

Route – Begin at the String Lake trailhead and head north toward Leigh Lake. At a bridge spanning the outlet creek, take a path west toward Paintbrush Canyon. After winding up and around String Lake, gaining a few hundred feet of altitude, leave the loop trail and head northwest into Paintbrush Canyon. Follow this trail for quite some distance, over the paintbrush divide, past Lake Solitude, to the three-way junction at the confluence of the north and south forks of Cascade Canyon. Take the higher road and continue uphill into the South Fork of the canyon, up to Hurricane Pass, and then down into Alaska Basin; Sunset Lake makes for an excellent campsite! The return journey follows the same route back to the Cascade Canyon confluence. To mix things up a bit, hike down the main canyon to Jenny Lake, then work north back to the String Lake trailhead.

Permits & Regulations – This trip includes portions within Grand Teton National Park and within the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, which is part of Caribou-Targhee National Forest. In the national park, all overnight backcountry use requires a permit. In contrast to many of the California permit areas, Grand Teton National Park issues permits for camping zones, each of which includes many designated campsites. You can reserve permits online ahead of time, but two-thirds of the permits for most of the sites are only available for walk-up applicants. Bear canisters are required, and campfires are not permitted in any of the camping zones other than lakeshore areas. For more information, check out the park website for backcountry camping.

Resources – The national park website is a great resource with lots of information; that should be your first stop to learn about the park. For navigation, I recommend the National Geographic topographic map, although it frustratingly omits point-to-point trail mileage.

Zero Permit to Alpine Campsite

Aug. 23, 2018 | 6.3 mi | +2800′ / -200′ | View on Map

Diane and I leave Salt Lake City early in the morning to give ourselves enough time to reach the Tetons, obtain a walk-up permit, and hike to a campsite. Along the way, we worry about the smoke blanketing the landscape. There are no fires (currently) burning near the Tetons, but the California and Utah wildfires produce plenty of smoke to share.

After stopping for lunch in Jackson, we make a beeline for the Jenny Lake ranger station. It’s the peak of hiking season; I’m worried that all the good permits will be taken and we won’t be able to hike up into the high country along the Teton Crest. At the station, Diane and I anxiously explain the route we would like to take to the ranger, a friendly man clad in the forest-green ranger uniform. My worries are soon put to rest as the ranger calmly informs us that we can camp at several of the locations we had hoped for!

teton national park permit
Securing an excellent set of campsite permits is easier than expected! Photo credit: Diane

With a permit in hand, we drive a short distance to String Lake, park the car, and change into hiking clothes. After filling our water bottles from a nearby spigot, we locate the trailhead and strike out into the woods. For the first half an hour, we wind around String Lake, a turquoise gem sparkling in the bright afternoon sun. We pass dozens of people out enjoying the perfect afternoon weather; I’m happy that so many people are taking advantage of these public lands, but I’m even happier that I get to spend the night up in the mountains, miles from the congested, noisy car-campgrounds clustered around these lakes.

teton mountains string lake
It’s a beautiful afternoon; sunny, but not too hot, and the scenery is absolutely unbeatable!

Speaking of mountains, a single glimpse of the towering peaks from the car this afternoon convinced both Diane and me that our long commute from SLC was worthwhile. As we hike further and further from the trailhead, we begin to catch a few glimpses of the mountains from the side and those feelings are only reinforced. This mountain range is awesome in the most literal sense of the word! Even though many details are obscured by the smoky haze hanging in the air, the soaring stone summits surrounding the trail fill me with awe and excitement for the opportunity to explore this range over the next few days.

teton mountains paintbrush canyon
It doesn’t take long for Diane and I to agree that visiting the Tetons is entirely worth the long drive!

As if the epic mountains are not enough, we discover ripe raspberries growing along the trail! We pause plenty of times to pick them and savor the bright burst of flavor each berry provides.

teton mountains raspberries
As if the incredible scenery and wildflowers are not enough to fill us with happiness, we stumble upon delicious wild raspberries growing beside the trail!

After hiking for an hour or two, we reach the Lower Paintbrush Canyon camping zone, marked by a small sign beside the trail. As far as I can tell, the camping zone marked on the map does not quite match the location of the sign in real life. A few day hikers pass us on their way back to civilization and report a bear sighting a short distance up the trail. With all the excitement of getting a permit and being in these beautiful mountains, I nearly forgot that we’re entering grizzly and black bear territory. Diane is carrying a can of bear spray donated by a friend, but neither of us wants to use it. In fact, I’d really rather not see any bears up close at all; I can do without the excitement of a grizzly bear encounter.

teton mountains cascade
Towering pinnacles and an impressive cascade hold my attention while I wind up a set of switchbacks

During the next mile or two, we wind up a few switchbacks to reach Upper Paintbrush Canyon. Along the way, we walk past some truly magnificent cascades tumbling down the steep slopes. Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the climb, however, is the sheer volume of wildflowers growing beside the path. The springtime beauty here contrasts wonderfully with the rugged autumn scenery I saw in the Uintas last weekend.

teton mountains wildflowers
A lovely bunch of wildflowers back-lit by the setting sun

By the time Diane and I reach the upper camping zone (our designated zone for tonight), the sun has sunk below the Paintbrush Divide. We find a set of cozy spots on a small ridge, nestled between pine trees and sheltered from the chilly breeze. As an added bonus, a gorgeous tarn lies just below the ridge, reflecting the still-sunny peaks.

teton mountains tarn
Fed by dripping snowfields, this little tarn reflects the mountains as the sun sets

After setting up the tents, we walk about a hundred yards from camp (downwind) to cook and eat dinner. I should probably take these kinds of precautions all the time; the prospect of a grizzly bear wandering through camp is sufficient motivation to keep the food smells far from the tents. We take shelter from the wind behind some large boulders and enjoy a hot meal while watching the alpenglow recede up the surrounding mountains: A lovely end to an exciting day. I’m certainly glad that we decided to brave the long car ride and uncertain permit situation!

Wildflowers, Glaciers, and Moose; oh my!

Aug. 24, 2018 | 13.3 mi | +4100′ / -3900′ | View on Map

The morning brings chilly air, but not as cold as you might expect with all the snow around. Before beginning this trek, I checked the weather and noted that yesterday was described as “smoky,” but today and tomorrow were not. Despite that optimistic prediction, the air this morning seems just as hazy as yesterday… oh well. One perk of the smoky air is that it dilutes the sunrise into a lovely mix of pastel pinks, reds, and yellows.

teton mountains dawn
Any hopes that the smoke would clear this morning are dashed at dawn, but the pinkish haze is still pretty

After eating a hot breakfast, we pack up camp and resume hiking up Paintbrush Canyon. Although we climbed a few thousand feet from the valley yesterday, we still have more altitude to conquer to reach the Paintbrush Divide. Immediately after leaving camp, we begin winding up a set of switchbacks that are surrounded by thousands of tiny red and yellow wildflowers. Gleaming white boulders punctuate the flora, and a few rugged pines cast long shadows across the slope.

teton mountains wildflowers
The trail winds up this slope of wildflowers

The switchbacks lead to a small plateau comprised mostly of alpine meadows but with a few tree-filled rocky islands sprinkled across the landscape. Without a clear view of the valleys below the plateau, the surrounding peaks seem to be floating. Another incredible view!

teton mountains peak
A nearby peak seems to float with its lower ramparts hidden by the meadows in the foreground

Diane and I cross the plateau and climb higher toward the ridge that looms ever closer. As we gain altitude, the lovely flowers and soft meadows give way to barren fields of scree, which are beautiful in their own rugged way. It’s difficult for me to articulate why the endless rock, snow, and ice is beautiful; perhaps it’s the juxtaposition with the lush meadows below, or that I feel small and insignificant within this vast landscape, or maybe it’s the simplicity of the dark stone and white snow.

teton mountains snow
For a few brief moments, we get to hike across a snowfield!

Traversing the final few hundred yards of the trail to the Paintbrush Divide proves a tad more exhilarating than the well-established path we’ve followed thus far. The switchbacks along the steep shale slope seem to have washed out and several use trails have been established, some more stable than others. After a bit of scrambling, we reach the ridge and are immediately hit by gale-force winds. I pull out my rain jacket, which doubles as a wind-breaker, and drop my pack near the trail to explore a bit.

teton mountains paintbrush pass
Our first pass on the ridge between Paintbrush Canyon and the North Fork Cascade Canyon

We’re not alone up here on top of the world; three young guys carrying large packs are also admiring the vistas. In exchange for taking a few photos of them, they snap a few shots of Diane and me. Excited by the scenery and the accomplishment of reaching this lofty vantage point, we’re all smiles!

teton mountains paintbrush pass friends
A fellow backpacker takes a photo of myself and Diane at the pass while we all admire the incredible views

Although I’m pumped to have reached such a cool location, I can’t help but feel a little frustrated at the thick haze that obscures all but the silhouettes of mountain peaks even a mile or two away. I would love to experience this location on a clear day! I am thankful that the smoke isn’t thick enough to affect my breathing like it did a few times while I was trekking along the Sierra High Route a few weeks ago. Besides, the views are still pretty dang great.

teton mountains grand teton
Near the confluence of the North and South Forks of Cascade Canyon, we’re treated to expansive views of the Tetons

We don’t stay for long at the Paintbrush Divide, mostly because of the wind chill! After descending just a short distance from the ridge crest, the ferocious winds die down to a light breeze. For the next mile or two, the trail cuts long, straight switchbacks into the mountainside, eventually descending all the way to Lake Solitude. I’m happy to be descending rather than ascending, particularly since I get to admire the beautiful canyon below the entire time.

teton mountains cascade canyon
The trail leads us down the western side of the ridge; our eventual goal for the morning is Lake Solitude, the lake nestled into the top of the canyon

Along the way, we stride past some of the most beautiful wildflowers I’ve ever seen. Even better, the light peaking over the ridge illuminates the blossoms perfectly! In the space of a few short minutes, I snap some of the best wildflower photos I’ve ever taken.

The descent from the Paintbrush Divide drags on for longer than I expect, so I’m happy to reach the soft, flat earth surrounding Lake Solitude. On a clear day, the views of Grand Teton must be incredible from here, but they’re a little lackluster with the haze reducing the massive facade to a faint hint of a mountain. Still, the scenery is hardly ugly! Diane and I work our way around the lake to a large granite outcropping and join half a dozen other hikers by the water and munch on some much-needed snacks.

teton mountains lake solitude
After a very long descent, we reach Lake Solitude and spend a few minutes resting on a massive slab of granite on the shore. Grand Teton is barely visible through the smoke.

A short while later, fed and rested, we re-shoulder our packs and begin hiking down the North Fork of Cascade Canyon. From Lake Solitude, which lies at the northernmost end of the canyon below an enormous ring of cliffs, the trail descends quickly for a few hundred yards, then crosses the outlet creek and levels out a bit. I didn’t think the flowers could get any prettier than the ones we passed while descending from the Paintbrush Divide, but I was wrong. The canyon floor is absolutely covered in wildflowers! Everywhere I look are more wildflowers!

teton mountains wildflower meadow
The sheer number of flowers here is mind-blowing

To add even more excitement to the hike, we receive word from hikers passing us that a large bull moose is grazing right next to the trail just ahead. We hurry onward, excited and a little nervous to see such a massive creature ourselves. We know we’ve arrived when we reach a group of hikers standing together staring into the trees. There, standing torso-deep in wildflowers is the bull moose, contently munching on the foliage while keeping an eye on all of us hikers. He doesn’t seem to mind our presence, so I pause long enough to snap a photo; I don’t want to overstay my welcome.

teton mountains bull moose
This fella doesn’t seem to mind the small group of paparazzi hikers, so I join in and snap a photo

After passing the moose, we continue through the beautiful canyon for a few miles. Grand Teton looms larger and larger and I begin to make out a few details: a snowfield here, a cascade there. Speaking of cascades, we pass several noisy specimens thundering down the western wall of the canyon. I’m amazed at the sheer volume of water; it doesn’t seem like there’s enough snow left to be powering such large cascades!

teton mountains grand teton
Near the confluence of the North and South Forks of Cascade Canyon, we’re treated to expansive views of the Tetons

Further down the canyon, the open, wildflower-filled meadows give way to cool, dark pine forests. We cross the tumultuous Cascade Creek several times, thankfully via sturdy bridges rather than via slick rocks or precarious logs. Just below Grand Teton, the three forks of Cascade Canyon form a sort of “confluence;” the North and South Forks join together into the main east-west Cascade Canyon that ends just above Jenny Lake.

Rather than exit this mountain paradise, Diane and I take the trail into the South Fork. Of course, the canyon confluence lies at the bottom of both forks, so our route is all uphill for the next half-dozen miles. We quickly leave the crowds of day-hikers behind as we work up a set of switchbacks through the dense forest. Thankfully, we remain beneath the cool trees for a while, gradually climbing higher into the canyon.

Further up the canyon, the trail enters a meadow with a creek winding lazily through the long grass. I suddenly remember that a bull moose or a grizzly bear could be hidden from view just around the next corner. Diane, who is carrying the bear spray, is a little ways behind me, so I pause and wait for her; there’s also safety in numbers, even if there are only two of us.

teton mountains table mountain
After hiking through several miles of forest, I’m excited to be climbing back toward the high country

We pass through several more meadows interspersed with forested sections and a few more sets of switchbacks. The trail gains altitude slowly and methodically, granting us ever more impressive vistas as we climb. A spectacular set of cascades along the way is a highlight for me!

teton mountains cascades
The Tetons continue to amaze me – check out these spectacular cascades!

Finally, after many miles trekking through the sub-alpine woods, we reach the beautiful high country. Like many of the other alpine regions we’ve visited, wildflowers abound. Fast-moving clouds churning overhead block most of the bright sunlight, but occasional shafts break through and illuminate patches of the green meadows and surrounding peaks.

teton mountains alpine
At last, Diane and I return to gentle alpine meadows

The higher we climb, the more beautiful the landscape becomes. As an added bonus, we’re now between the sun and Grand Teton and the details of the massive stone giant are no longer shrouded in haze!

grand teton alpine wildflower
The trail, lined with wildflowers, winds beneath the Grand Teton’s majestic facade

My head swivels every which way as I walk along, trying to take in all the sights. It seems every turn reveals another incredible view or perfect photo. Diane seems to be enjoying the scenery just as much as I am. Can you imagine not loving these idyllic mountain landscapes?

teton mountains alpine hurricane pass
A set of gentle switchbacks lead up to Hurricane Pass

We wind through the meadows for a while, slowly drawing near the southern ridge. If I look carefully, I can make out a trail winding up the barren slopes that must our route to Hurricane Pass. By the time we reach the foot of the steep ridge, the trail is clear. It conquers the steep slope via a series of long, gentle switchbacks, winding through bright green grass and, higher up, blue-gray scree.

teton mountains
Grand Teton, Middle Teton, and South Teton preside over the pristine alpine meadows below Hurricane Pass

Every step higher up the slope changes the view of the meadows and mountains. Shadows from the passing clouds drift across the landscape, continuously changing the lighting; sometimes the mountains are lit while the meadows lie in shadow, sometimes the opposite. As lovely as the view down the valley is, perhaps the most exciting sight is the Schoolhouse Glacier. Below the glacier, a turquoise lake lies encircled in a picture-perfect moraine. The valley beyond this textbook glacial feature is filled with similar sediment deposits, though none are nearly as pronounced as the moraine below the Schoolhouse Glacier. Diane and I both pause for a few minutes to admire this landscape; I’ve hiked through plenty of glacially carved landscapes but this is the first time I’ve seen a glacier up close!

teton mountains schoolhouse glacier
A glacial lake and a giant morraine wall — photo credit: Diane

A few switchbacks past the glacier deliver Diane and me to the ridge, a.k.a. Hurricane Pass. It’s immediately clear why this dry, desolate spot is named after a tropical rainstorm: the wind! If I had to guess, I would put the gusts at 50-60 miles per hour. Standing still against the gale-force winds is a struggle as every burst threatens to throw a person off balance! I stay away from the edge and pull on a light jacket to insulate against the cool, rushing air.

teton mountains hurricane pass
A ferocious wind howls over the desolate ridge; Hurricane Pass is aptly named!

Rather descending the other side of the ridge, the trail winds along the crest. It’s a barren landscape up here; small tufts of colorful grass are the only sign of life. Besides the fierce wind, walking along the flat plateau is wonderful. I’m in awe of the impressive Tetons and can’t believe it has taken me so long to explore past the crowded parking lots and roadside pull-outs. I’ve been to this national park several times but never on a backpacking trip! I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to return without planning to spend time in the backcountry.

The trail soon departs the airy ridge and begins descending, gradually at first but then more steeply, toward Alaska Basin. Along the way, Diane and I pass strange metamorphic rock that seems almost fluid, like the rippled surface of a slate-grey lake frozen in time. The entire plateau is covered with small, tile-sized pieces of the stuff as well as the occasional plinth protruding from the surface. Stranger yet, holes a few meters across and 1-2 meters deep lie scattered across the landscape; are these related to the volcanic history? Perhaps collapsed lava tubes? Yet another oddity: a murder of 30 or 40 crows sit perched on various rocks across the plateau, with a few floating just above the ground, riding the stiff wind like kites. Do they nest up here? Why are they all sitting around? I have so many questions and so few answers.

After descending through the empty ridge-top wastelands for a while, we begin a more earnest descent on a series of switchbacks. Soon thereafter, we’re granted a sweeping view of Alaska Basin. I’m immediately wowed by the bright, colorful grass. Swaths of rich gold, bright yellows and greens, darker, rich greens, and even dull reds decorate the landscape.

teton mountains alaska basin
Our goal for the day is Sunset Lake, the small lake surrounded by gorgeous meadows in Alaska Basin

After descending further down the switchbacks, the trail cuts through these colorful grasses and we’re afforded a close-up view. The vibrant colors are even more impressive up close!

teton mountains colorful grass
The wildflowers are beautiful but so is the grass! Just look at the range of colors!

Thoroughly happy with the scenery, I waltz down the trail toward the bright blue waters of Sunset Lake. Near the bottom of the slope, I reach a series of rolling meadows that send my happiness past excited and somewhere into the realm of ecstatic. I know, I know, I’ve already gushed about the wildflowers, but just look at this photo (below)! Flowers of every color imaginable; the full rainbow, dark red to bright green to rich indigo. I do my best to capture the scene with my camera, but I’m afraid the photos don’t quite do this meadow justice.

After snapping a few dozen images of the flowers, stopping every few feet to gaze in wonder, I make it through the heart of the wildflowers, cross a small brook, and stride down to Sunset Lake. Diane, also smitten with the gorgeous flowers, joins me there and we go hunting from a campsite. From a distance, the lake seems abandoned, but as we approach various stands of trees we find tents already claiming the flat spots. I’m impressed that everyone is following leave-no-trace ethics and camping on durable surfaces; not a single person has set up on the fragile, grassy meadows! It’s also wonderful that so many of the tents are nestled into stands of pines and are invisible from a distance. This is exactly how backcountry camping is supposed to work!

teton mountains sunset lake
After trekking through a solid mile of beautiful grasslands and wildflowers, we reach Sunset Lake, a beautiful gem itself

Sometime later, we find a spot not too near other campers and with a nice view. It isn’t exactly secluded, but all of the sheltered spots anywhere near the lake appear to be occupied. Besides, we’re both tired and hungry after hiking all day and are ready to sit for a while. We set up our tents, then walk a few hundred feet away from our campsite to cook and eat dinner.

After eating, we wander up the trail a little further to see more of Alaska Basin. Not too far from Sunset Lake, we find a nice drop-off with spectacular views of a vast valley full of complex granite outcroppings, several lakes, and layer upon layer of plateaus. I imagine you could put together a long itinerary walking the ridges up here; just imagine all the incredible vistas you could see!

Teton mountains vista
Another valley full of intriguing rocks, lakes, and flowers; we’ll just have to return another time! Photo credit: Diane

Diane and I sit and admire the views for a while as the sun sinks toward the horizon. I’m kind of longing to run down into the valley and explore. There is so much left to see in this mountain range! Unfortunately, our itinerary restricts our motion; tomorrow night we’re camping back in Paintbrush Canyon, close to the car so that we can return to Salt Lake City in time to make our travel connections the next day. I suppose I’ll just have to come back to the Tetons and explore some more!

teton mountains sunset lake
As we walk back to camp, the sun dips and bathes the landscape in warm light

Before the sun dips too low in the sky, we wander back toward Sunset Lake. It seems obvious to watch the sunset from there; considering its name, surely the show is incredible? Unfortunately, tonight is not the night for incredible sunsets. Don’t get me wrong, the evening is beautiful, but the lack of clouds and the hazy atmosphere don’t lend themselves to a bright, colorful affair. As darkness falls, Diane and I return to our tents and settle down for the evening. It’s been an absolutely incredible day; I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Return to Paintbrush Canyon

Aug. 25, 2018 | 18.4 mi | +3300′ / -5200′ | View on Map

The morning brings chilly air and bright sunshine, another beautiful day in the mountains. After eating and packing up camp, Diane and I begin walking back to Hurricane Pass. The meadows full of wildflowers are just as beautiful today as they were yesterday, although the sun hasn’t made it over the ridge to illuminate the area yet. As we retrace our steps up the many switchbacks to the plateau, I admire the views to the west. Since we are between the sun and the western mountains, their features aren’t obscured by haze as they were yesterday afternoon (when the mountains were between us and the sun).

Although the sun atop the plateau feels nice, the wind is just as ferocious as yesterday and quickly negates any warmth the sun provides. We hurry toward the pass to escape the cold but pause several times to capture some images of the view. I love the juxtaposition of the dull, gray rock and the bright red, orange, and green grass!

teton mountains hurricane pass
The desolate, expansive landscape on the ridge really captures the imagination

On our way down from Hurricane Pass, we pick up a spur trail and walk a short distance to the glacial lake. Winding around the moraine, which must be at least 30 feet tall, we follow the trail through a deep V-shaped gouge in the moraine. Inside the earthen walls is the lake. A layer of delicate ice clings to the surface, an indication of just how chilly it got last night. Larger chunks of ice float in the turquoise water; I wonder how sturdy they are but don’t dare find out. I’m content to observe and snap photos from the shore.

teton mountains glacial lake schoolhouse
After watching other hikers visit the glacial lake, Diane and I visit on our way down from Hurricane Pass

After spending a few minutes at the lake, we return to the main trail and continue descending through the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. The morning light changes the views compared to yesterday, quite dramatically in some cases. Cliffs that lay in shadow in the afternoon are now brightly lit, while the Tetons, clear yesterday, are now shrouded in smoky haze. The lack of clouds also means that every inch of the landscape is lit, unlike yesterday’s patchwork of shadowed and spotlit features. I take advantage of the different lighting conditions to capture a few images of the lumpy, moraine-covered landscape beneath the plateau. If Mars ever supported life, I imagine it looked something like this, with boulders and sand intermixed with the colorful plants.

teton mountains moraines
The lumpy mounds across the landscape are likely moraines left over from glaciers

We soon reach a junction in the trail; one branch leads further down the canyon, back toward the main fork of Cascade Canyon and Jenny Lake. The other takes off into the alpine wilderness and climbs to the Avalanche Divide, a pass between this valley and Avalanche Canyon. Although we have many miles ahead to reach our campsite for the night, neither Diane nor I are ready to leave this mountain paradise just yet. We’re only here for another 24 hours, so we might as well see as much as we can! Besides, what’re a few more miles?

We stash our backpacks in a stand of pines, bringing only water bottles, a snack, and a few layers for the hike to the Avalanche Divide. Oh, and cameras, of course! The trail winds through rolling meadows full of yellow wildflowers to a rocky slope. Free from the weight of our packs, we stride quickly up the switchbacks, climbing higher and higher into the mountains. Mica crystals embedded in the rocks sparkle in the bright morning sunlight; some of the crystals are so large and reflective that I have to be careful to avoid being blinded by them. Beyond the sparkling boulders, we hop over a gurgling creek and wander through meadows full of purple asters, yellow arnicas, and pink fireweed. These flowers never get old!

Further up the spur trail, we reach a more desolate landscape. The three Teton peaks — Grand Teton, Middle Teton, and South Teton — tower overhead. These impressive mountains, combined with the rocky slopes, lend a sense of adventure to this little side-trip of ours. We’re the only people in sight; the only animals in sight, for that matter. There’s something grand about feeling small, about being dwarfed by massive mountains and the sheer expanse of the wilderness.

teton mountains avalanche divide trail
Grand, Middle, and South Teton tower over the trail near the Avalanche Divide

We soon reach the Avalanche Divide, a sandy strip of land exposed to the ferocious winds between some seriously imposing mountains. The view into Avalanche Canyon isn’t quite worth the walk; thick haze obscures all but a few lakes encircled by lifeless gravel. The walk, on the other hand, is entirely worth the unimpressive views! Diane and I rest for a few minutes but don’t stay long due to the chilly gusts.

teton mountains alpine
A lovely juxtaposition of the fragile ecosystem near these tiny pools and the desolate stone peaks just beyond

The ferocious wind continues as we wind our way back down the Mars-like slopes and doesn’t ease until we reach the glacial creek below the moraines. We continue downhill, though at a more comfortable pace, retrieve our packs, and then rejoin the main trail. For the next four miles or so, we retrace yesterday’s route through the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. Several groups of backpackers pass us in the opposite direction, but we hike in relative solitude all the way to the confluence of the Cascade Canyon forks. However, as soon as we reach the main canyon that leads out to Jenny Lake, the number of hikers increases dramatically.

The walk down Cascade Canyon drags on, at least partly due to my unenthusiastic attitude. After spending so much time this weekend surrounded by awe-inspiring peaks and wildflowers, the uniform pine forest surrounding us seems rather lackluster. The increasing afternoon heat and the never-ending waves of day hikers also remind me that we’re moving further from the wilderness, not closer to it.

Despite the lack of awesome scenery, there are a few highlights. One is the reappearance of trail-side raspberries! They’re just as tasty as the ones we picked and ate on our first afternoon. I’m also excited to see several more moose — three cows and one calf — along the way, although I’ll be honest and say that after passing the third and fourth moose of the day, I’m not quite as excited about them as the crowds of day hikers are. However, my favorite part of the entire Cascade Canyon section of the hike is our afternoon break. Diane and I find a shaded spot beneath a truly massive boulder (i.e., about the size of a small bus) next to the river at sit with our feet in the ice-cold water. It’s just the break we need in the middle of the afternoon.

teton mountains cascade canyon
A cow (female moose) munches on tasty leaves near Cascade Creek

After resting a bit, Diane and I resume hiking and soon reach the end of the canyon above Jenny Lake. We descend a steep set of switchbacks through a cool, shady forest to the shore and join a trail that circumnavigates the lake. Much of the walk is exposed to the afternoon sun since a forest fire razed the forest along the northwest side of Jenny Lake. The breeze off the lake keeps us cool, though, and walking beside the water is a nice change of pace from the dusty Cascade Canyon section.

teton mountains jenny lake
The trail winds around Jenny Lake, through what used to be forest before it burned to the ground

A short while later, we arrive at the stream feeding Jenny Lake and follow it north to String Lake, a long, thin body of water that well deserves its name. This section of trail is shaded by the towering Teton peaks immediately to the west, and the views of happy people out boating and picnicking at the lake add some cheer to the afternoon. Small pines and young aspens line much of the trail; both are beautiful, and the aspens smell so good!

teton mountains aspens
Besides their beautiful looks, aspen trees smell magnificent!

As the trail climbs above String Lake, the young forest gradually transitions to older, more established woodlands. The warm evening light streams through the trees, which distracts me from my aching legs for a little while. At the junction with the Paintbrush Canyon trail, we begin retracing our steps from two days ago, heading toward the Lower Paintbrush Canyon camping zone. I don’t remember it taking us very long to complete this walk on our first day, but as time drags on I realize that the excitement of our first day in the Tetons surely influenced my sense of time.

teton mountains forest
Later in the day, we return to the forested slopes of Paintbrush Canyon

We eventually reach the camping zone and stumble down a tiny trail through dense brush to a small hill with a single flat campsite. There’s plenty of room for both our tents and the place seems deserted, so we drop our packs and explore a little bit. I’m absolutely starving, so I give up exploring pretty quickly and begin heating water to re-hydrate a much-needed dinner. Diane and I enjoy one last hot meal in the mountains while watching the alpenglow recede up the canyon walls. Once I’ve finished my main course, I eat most of my leftover snacks. Peanut butter and dark chocolate with caramel M&Ms are a fine post-dinner treat!

teton mountains backpacking
After an long, tiring day, dinner is most welcome

After eating, I wander off to find a suitable bathroom spot away from streams and the trail. On my way back, I hear something rustling in the bushes. Assuming it’s just a squirrel, I continue walking but then freeze when I see a massive dark creature stir. As I stare, I make out the antlers of a bull moose and relax a little; it’s not a grizzly bear!

I continue down toward camp, but the moose follows me or perhaps I follow the moose; we sort of travel together toward camp. This seems to annoy him, so he changes direction and walks quickly toward me. I’m not sure how to respond to a moose “charging”, so I just follow my instincts and run. This seems to be the correct response and the moose stops chasing me as soon as I’ve put a little distance between us. He resumes browsing just above our campsite while Diane and I nervously watch. Thankfully, the moose doesn’t come any closer and soon wanders off around the hill, still grazing.

That’s quite enough excitement for one day and, with darkness falling, I brush my teeth and crawl into my sleeping bag. With all the miles we covered today, it doesn’t take long to fall asleep. Later in the night, I think around midnight, the moose returns to graze near our camp again. Neither Diane nor I dare get out of the tent to have a look, so we just stay still and quiet until the sound of snapping twigs and rustling bushes fades.

One Last Sunrise

Aug. 26, 2018 | 3.5 mi | +200′ / -1000′ | View on Map

Diane and I get up before sunrise this morning and take down camp via the light of our headlamps. We don’t have a very long walk back to the trailhead, but we do have a long drive back to Salt Lake City. As we walk down the trail toward civilization, the sky begins to brighten. However, it soon becomes apparent that we’re not going to enjoy a bright sunny morning. Thick clouds obscure the sunrise and only a dull red glow reaches the forest. A few moments later, a light drizzle begins to fall.

teton mountains dawn
The sun rises, glowing red through the smoky haze

The rain continues as we reach String Lake and hike the final mile to the car. I’m glad the rain has waited until our last morning, although I would have also appreciated another bright sunrise. As we drive away from the Tetons, the clouds break and a few rays of sunlight dramatically illuminate the mountains. By the time we reach a breakfast spot in Jackson, the morning storm has cleared and the sunshine has returned; it will be another lovely day for all those hikers and campers still out there. After a fantastic breakfast, Diane and I hit the road and say goodbye to the Tetons. Well, goodbye for now; we both intend to return soon!

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The High Uinta Wilderness Sun, 19 Aug 2018 02:00:16 +0000 Unlike many trailheads, this one is perched high in the mountains at 10,370'. With such a lofty starting point, the first mile of our trip is actually downhill, an easy beginning to the trek. The weather this morning is perfect: bright sunshine bathes the landscape, a light breeze wafts through the pines, and a few fluffy clouds drift overhead.

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It’s not very often that I get to visit my brothers in Utah. So, when the opportunity presented itself this summer, Brian and I planned an overnight backpacking trip. Since he’s the local resident, I let him do most of the planning; I just showed up! Brian found a nice out-and-back route in the High Uinta Wilderness, a rugged mountain range in northeastern Utah.

Trip Planning

For those interested in backpacking the Uinta Mountains, I would recommend visiting either early in the summer (i.e., mountain spring) or in autumn. Both of these seasons fill the backcountry with color and offer a more interesting visual experience than subdued shades of yellow and green that characterize this dry mountain region mid-summer.

Route – Begin at the Highline Trail trailhead near Butterfly Lake at the Summit-Duchesne county line. Follow the Highline Trail to Rocky Sea Pass and descend to the basin below. Several trails here lead to a dozen different lakes; Brian and I chose to visit Ouray Lake, but you’ll certainly find beauty at any of them. As this is an out-and-back route, return to the trailhead.

Permits & Regulations – No permit is required for camping or hiking in the Uinta wilderness. Parking along highway 150, on the other hand, requires a paid permit. You can purchase one at self-issue stations along the highway, or you can use your federal inter-agency pass (e.g., America the Beautiful pass). Additionally, follow the leave no trace principles and respect the wildlife (black bears, elk, and moose, to name the large ones) in the backcountry!

Resources – The National Geographic High Uinta Wilderness Map is a great resource, although trail mileage is completely absent from this map. (Brian, what resources did you use?)

Highline Trail to Ouray Lake

August 17, 2018 | 12.1 mi | +2300’/-2200′ | View on Map

Brian and I get up early, toss our pre-packed backpacks into the car, and drive a few hours to the Highline Trail parking lot. After double checking that the doors are locked (this is a popular trailhead, after all), we shoulder our packs and begin hiking. Unlike many trailheads, this one is perched high in the mountains at 10,370′. With such a lofty starting point, the first mile of our trip is actually downhill, an easy beginning to the trek. The weather this morning is perfect: bright sunshine bathes the landscape, a light breeze wafts through the pines, and a few fluffy clouds drift overhead. Smoke from the nearby Coal Fire adds a bit of haze to the air, but it’s much less smoky than the Sierras were when I left them a little over a week ago.

About a mile later, the trail levels out and we stroll past a few beautiful meadows. Rugged mountain peaks form an impressive backdrop behind the soft grass; I imagine the local deer, elk, and moose frequent places like this. I think I speak for both Brian and me when I say it would be fun to see some elk or moose, though I’m more comfortable observing moose from a safe distance.

uinta mountain meadow
An incredible vista shortly after leaving the trailhead

The next several miles along the Highline Trail blur past. The walls of pines, about half of them dead from some invading pest, break every once in a while and offer views of distant mountain ridges carpeted with a similar mix live and dead trees. Around noon, Brian and I arrive at a small creek gurgling through a wide field of stones. Hungry and ready for some rest, we find a nice log to sit on and eat lunch. Since Brian planned the route, I packed the food, mostly the rations I didn’t eat on the Sierra High Route due to my early departure.

uinta mountains backpacking
Brian, goofy as always, poses for a photo during a snack break

As the sun climbs higher, the temperature increases, but thankfully remains relatively cool. Even though it’s mid-August, the hottest part of the year, our entire route lies above 10,000 feet and the cool mountain air persists. After another hour or two of walking, the tree tunnel thins and we pass through a few small but beautiful meadows. Soon thereafter, we reach Pigeon Milk Spring. Based on the cloudy water trickling from the talus slope, I’m guessing the name is derived from the water itself. Skeptical of the water quality, I don’t try drinking any; I’ve still got plenty of water in my bottles.

Above the spring, a wall of talus and shale blocks our forward progress. Rather than assaulting the slippery slope directly, the trail climbs up a series of rocky benches toward Rocky Sea Pass. The views from the trail grow better and better as we climb above the treetops. Vast grassy meadows interspersed with small piles of shale stretch far into the distance where horizontally-striated peaks tower. Sheer cliffs also protrude above the trees, their sculpted cliff faces recalling memories of cave formations.

uinta mountains meadows
Rugged meadows for miles with mountain peaks beyond

Not far beyond these epic views, Brian and I reach Rocky Sea Pass, a shallow saddle on the rock-strewn ridge. A stiff wind howls past, reducing the air temperature from “comfortably warm” to “chilly.” The views on the eastern side of the past quickly distract us from the cold, however. A massive basin full of pines and over a dozen lakes lie below, with a ring of dramatic peaks encircling the valley. Ouray Lake is down there somewhere, nestled in the trees.

After resting and snacking, Brian and I begin the steep descent into the Rock Creek drainage. Loose rocks all along the trail make for some slippery footing, but we reach the valley unscathed. Below the pass, we stroll past several dusty meadows and a few isolated lakes. A thick layer of clouds overhead blocks most of the hot afternoon sun but also subdues the colors of the trees and grass.

Further down the trail, Brian identifies some wild gooseberries and munches happily on them while we walk. A light drizzle falls for a while; I worry that an afternoon thunderstorm is imminent, but we’re relatively safe below treeline. The drizzle doesn’t last long, thankfully, and patches of blue sky emerge through the clouds.

uinta mountain meadow
One of several gorgeous meadows along the Highline Trail
uinta mountains lake
A small lake, a grassy meadow, and towering, rugged mountains: The High Uinta Wilderness

A few hours later — it seems like an eternity — we reach Ouray Lake. A small herd of elk scatters into the surrounding forest as we near the water. Some searching around the perimeter reveals a few small clearings a short distance from the lake. Most of them are surrounded by a mix of dead and live trees. Camping beneath dead trees isn’t a great idea, but since there are no durable surfaces away from the dead pines, we accept the risk and pitch the tent in one of the clearings.

Dinner is welcome after our long day; I cook the meals with water gathered from the lake while Brian filters more for drinking. Once the food has soaked up the hot water, we dig in. My mood improves considerably with food and I spend the rest of the evening wandering around the lake with my camera, capturing some images of tiny bluebells and the reflections of fluffy clouds in the still lake water.

uinta mountains ouray lake harebells
Harebells dot the earth near Ouray Lake
uinta mountains harebells
I find a couple of beautiful harebells beside Ouray Lake

In my experience, thunderstorms strike the mountains in the afternoon and then clear up in the evening. The Uintas apparently like to be unique. As darkness falls, Brian and I notice flashes of light in the distance: heat lightning. Within an hour, the storms reach our shelter beneath the dead pines. Lightning flashes and thunder rolls, but the rain and wind remain relatively light. It’s difficult to sleep with the constant visual and auditory percussion, and I toss and turn until 02:00 when the storms finally pass.

uinta mountains ouray lake dusk
The fading sun tinges the clouds pink and violet

Uinta Plateau Vistas

August 18, 2018 | 13.4 mi | +2700’/-2800′ | View on Map

Despite my restless night, I wake up with the sun. A strange backpacking truth: sleepless nights somehow impact your energy less when you spend the day outside than when you spend the day inside an office. I crawl out of the tent and am greeted by a thin layer of mist hanging over Ouray Lake. The herd of elk we disturbed last night has returned and is grazing on the shore opposite our tent. Quite a nice morning, if you ask me!

uinta mountains ouray lake dawn
When we wake, a layer of mist hovers over Ouray Lake

After eating breakfast, Brian and I pack up camp and begin hiking back to the car. The light is much better for photos this morning; yesterday, we trekked under overcast skies, but the clouds are gone today. A layer of smoke still hangs over the valley, obscuring some of the more distant peaks and casting a dull reddish glow on the landscape. It seems like smoke is unavoidable this time of year; it plagued my Sierra High Route trek a few weeks ago and continues to cloud the skies of the western United States.

uinta mountains backpacking
Although there is some smoke in the air, yesterday’s overcast skies are gone and we enjoy hiking with sunshine!

We don’t let the smoke cloud our sunny moods, however, and cheerfully hike back to Rocky Sea Pass. At the top, we decide to venture off the trail to the plateau above. The ascent consists mostly of slightly loose slate and talus but doesn’t take long. The views from the top of the plateau more than make up for whatever difficulty we endured during the climb. The flat landscape stretches on for miles and inspires ideas of cross-country trips that follow the high plateaus and avoid the dense forests below.

The vistas from the plateau are by far the best we’ve seen so far, so we hang out for a while and explore the plateau. Eventually, after spending at least an hour wandering around the desolate high country, Brian and I clamber back down to the trail at Rocky Sea Pass and make our way back to the parking lot. I’ve enjoyed this weekend in a new mountain range, and backpacking with Brian was certainly a treat.

Until next time, happy trails!

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Sierra High Route: Lake Country Wed, 08 Aug 2018 02:00:16 +0000 From Cotton Lake, I follow Roper's instructions to descend a steep grassy slope to Izaak Walton Lake. The route instructions are oddly specific, but I understand why when I reach the lakeshore; most of the lake is surrounded by unassailable granite cliffs. Strolling around the southern shore, I can't help but admire the glassy water reflecting the nearby cliffs and distant, sunlit peaks.

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This post roughly covers the third Sierra High Route section which Roper names “Lake Country”; additional posts detail my journey along the rest of the high route.

Trip Planning

This trip report details part of a longer hike along the Sierra High Route. See Cirque (2) for the beginning of the trip, complete with trip planning details.

Brown Bear Lake to Cotton Lake

August 5, 2018 | 15.3 mi | +5100′ / -5500′ | View on Map

Today marks my sixth morning on this Sierra High Route adventure; I’ve settled into a groove and, other than yesterday’s smoky air, am enjoying exploring the trailless wilderness. Today is probably the coldest morning I’ve experienced so far, so I’m extra grateful for a hot pot of oatmeal. After eating and packing up, I set off down the valley below Teddy Bear Lake. A short while later, I reach the Lake Italy Trail and follow it northeast toward the lake for which it is named. Roper (the author of The Sierra High Route) describes Lake Italy with the phrases like “not particularly interesting,” “fundamentally ugly,” and “drab,” but, upon reaching the large body of water, I have to disagree. Soft green grass lines much of the shoreline, and numerous granite peaks surround the lake, many of them reflected in the smooth, glassy surface. Of course, I have the advantage of the lovely morning light to highlight every texture and color; perhaps Roper visited on a day like I experienced yesterday with smoke and less pleasant lighting. In any case, Lake Italy is certainly not ugly!

sierra high route lake italy
I disagree with Roper; Lake Italy is definitely beautiful!

Despite his misjudgment of the lake’s beauty, Roper’s instructions to walk around the northern side of the lake is sound. I’m happy to stroll across meadows and avoid the steep talus slopes that drop precipitously into the lake on the opposite shore. Toward the eastern end of the lake, the grassy shores give way to tiny, sandy coves with a few footprints that look like they might belong to a mountain lion or a wolf!

sierra high route lake italy
The sun rises above the jagged Sierra Crest to illuminate Lake Italy

At the top of the lake I turn northward, hike past Toe Lake, and work up grassy slopes toward Gabbot Pass. Wildflowers poke up between the grass, adding bright splashes of violet, pink, blue, red, and yellow to the otherwise green surroundings. While the ascent to Gabbot Pass requires absolutely no technical skill, it’s certainly not easy; I huff and puff all the way to the top, pausing many times to catch my breath.

On the northern side of the pass, I find long snowfields leading down to several small ponds. The sun still hasn’t made it all the way over the Sierra crest, so parts of the valley remain shaded. Working my way down to the snow, I’m disappointed to discover that it is solid ice… this morning’s cold temperatures were not isolated to my campsite, it seems. Rather than risk slipping and falling down the icy slope, I begrudgingly clamber through the talus beside the snow, at least until the snowfield levels out a bit. I ditch the rock-hopping as soon as I feel safe navigating across the snow and then shuffle along the icy surface to the first rock-bound tarn. A thin layer of ice floats on the electric blue water, a further indication that it really was quite cold last night!

sierra high route tarn
A thin layer of ice floats on this electric-blue tarn

Beyond the tarn, I’m forced to continue hopping between boulders. Here’s the thing about rock-hopping: it’s really not that difficult and it can even be quite fun once you get into a grove. You just have to commit to focusing on your foot and body placement to avoid falling. It certainly requires much more focus than walking down a smooth, packed dirt trail. Navigating the talus can be difficult when the rocks are loose or the slope is steep, but much of the terrain here is stable and gently sloped.

I soon find myself standing on a ridge looking down on the highest of the Mills Creek Lakes, one of several turquoise beauties encircled by grass and silver granite. Roper clearly indicates the easiest route forward in his guide, so I follow his advice and turn away from the enchanting waters for a few minutes to scramble down the opposite side of the ridge.

sierra high route lakes
A group of beautiful lakes below Gabbot Pass

By the time I reach the shoreline, I’m ready for a break, so I kick off my shoes, find a nice boulder to sit against, and munch on a protein bar while admiring the scenery. It’s a fantastic spot to relax, what with the gorgeous lake, soft grass, and abundant wildflowers. Conspicuously missing are the blood-sucking demon mosquitoes that so frequently attack any visitors in areas like this. I’m sure grateful that they seem to have disappeared for the season; it’s so much easier to enjoy backpacking without them!

sierra high route lemmons paintbrush
A few sprigs of Lemmons Paintbrush wave in the breeze on the shore of Upper Mills Creek Lake

After resting, I continue down the canyon. A faint use trail winds along the shore of the lake and then disappears into a talus field before reappearing near the next lake. I follow the string of lakes to a short talus slope overlooking Lower Mills Creek Lake. After a short scramble down the rocks and a bit of bushwhacking through 6-foot-tall willows later, I reach the edge of a vast, spongy meadow surrounding Lower Mills Creek Lake. “Spongy” really is the best word for the meadow; the earth squishes and sinks beneath my feet as I follow another use trail toward the lake. Near the shore, the ground solidifies a bit.

Another use trail makes a beeline through the wet grass, so I follow it, skirting the idyllic alpine lake on the northern side.

Skirting the idyllic alpine lake, I reach the outlet creek and follow it downstream for a while. The landscape transitions from squishy grass to granite slabs and I soon lose the trail amongst the rock and an abundance of fallen pine trees. However, there’s only one direction to go from here: downhill. Path-finding proves slightly more difficult than I first expected as the slope grows increasingly steep, but I’m able to find enough ramps along the steep hillside to reach a small pond at the bottom.

Roper’s instructions from this point are terribly unhelpful and the path he references is very difficult to follow. As with most faint paths, I find that the easiest course of action is to ignore the path where it exists and follow the terrain. Even this task is difficult, however, due to the excessive number of fallen trees. Dense undergrowth and scattered boulders further obscure routes down the slope. I make poor route decisions multiple times and am forced to backtrack up the steep slope and try other paths; in short, this descent into the Second Recess is not enjoyable.

After what feels like hours of struggling through thick brush, loose rocks, and steep slopes, I reach the floor of the Second Recess, one of several hanging valleys above Mono Creek Canyon. It’s a relief to walk along level ground again and I’m a little surprised to find the cool, forested valley completely devoid of people. As I near the lip of the hanging valley, the number of fallen trees increases again; perhaps the struggle to reach this particular valley is just too great for the average hiker.

I descend a few hundred feet from the Second Recess to Mono Creek, push through some dense brush to a log that spans the wide creek, and cross to the other side. At first, I follow a track that seems far too faint for what ought to be a major thoroughfare; surely the dozens of alpine lakes up the valley attract hoards of hikers from the nearby trailheads at Lake Thomas Edison? It’s only later when I reach a truly well-trodden path that I realize I’ve been following an old use trail. A little further up the trail I reach the junction with the Laurel Lake trail and begin an uphill hike. The first few switchbacks maintain a pleasant grade, but the trail soon steepens and climbs aggressively, progressing more or less straight up the northern side of Mono Creek Canyon. Pausing back during the ascent to catch my breath, I admire views of the Second Recess across the canyon.

sierra high route hanging valley
After climbing the opposite side of Mono Creek Canyon, I get a good glimpse of the Second Recess, a hanging valley

Although the climb from the valley floor is hot, difficult, and exposed, I’m soon rewarded with shaded forests and gorgeous meadows. The trail fades into the long grass and I revert back into cross-country hiking mode. The route before me is pretty much a straight shot up the long valley; Laurel Creek winds through the lush grasslands and is an easy guide to follow. For a while, my thoughts wander away from hiking to an incredibly intellectual pursuit: coming up with names for the friends and family of the Muffin Man, that famous character that lives on Drury Lane. Three syllables, alliteration, and a breakfast theme are the rules; I figure the whole gang is called the “Breakfast Bunch.” There’s the Pastry Pimp, the Danish Dame, the Bagel Boy, the Waffle Wench, the Donut Dude, the Grapefruit Gal, the Bacon Bro, the Strudel Siss, the Pancake Pal… and you thought backpacking was full of deep thoughts and introspection.

sierra high route creek
I love walking through the beautiful meadows lining Laurel Creek, particularly when there are views like this

Eventually, I run out of characters for the Breakfast Bunch and am distracted by the breathtakingly beautiful scenery. Wildflowers line the creek where it tumbles down the slope below the unnamed peaks towering in the background. I continue along the creek for a while until reaching a steep, grassy slope that leads up toe Laurel Lake. It’s been a few hours since my last break, so I plop down beside the lake and relax for a few minutes. My feet ache and I’m hungry, so snacks and a foot soak in the cold lake are in order. I watch tiny fish dart through the water while I munch on trail mix.What do they do for food in the wintertime?

sierra high route creek wildflowers
Wildflowers line the creek; yet another beautiful meadow below Laurel Lake

Unfortunately, my time strolling through lovely grassy meadows is over for the time being. Bighorn Pass, my next destination, looms hundreds of feet above Laurel Lake. To reach the top, I get to scramble up some of the steepest grass I’ve ever laid eyes on. At least it’s not talus! Curiously, the grass grows with a terrace-like pattern, so climbing up to the pass is almost like climbing a long flight of stairs – very, very steep stairs. I pause, panting, many times on the way up, but the ascent isn’t technically difficult, just steep. When I finally reach the top, I’m afforded a great view of the vibrantly blue Ross Finch Lake on the opposite side.

sierra high route ross finch lake
Another stunningly blue lake!

Rather than descending to the shoreline, Roper advises contouring (i.e., moving horizontally without gaining or losing much altitude) around the valley. Following his advice proves to be a fun puzzle; several outcroppings block my view of parts of the valley, so I have to choose a route and hope it continues to pan out on the other side of each outcropping. My choices turn out well, and I have a great time working between granite slabs, over small fields of talus, and even through the occasional grassy meadow high above the lake. After contouring to the opposite side of the valley from Bighorn Pass, I’m faced with a barrier of cliffs. Near the lake, they drop precipitously into the water, so there’s no working around them; I’ll have to climb over. Luckily, they’re not very tall cliffs – maybe 8-10 feet tall at most – so all I have to do is find a spot with sufficient handholds or a nice chute to scramble up. I locate just such a spot, toss my trekking poles onto the top, and then climb up.

For a little while, I make easy progress over flat, rocky terrain. However, to reach the next Sierra High Route landmark, Shout-of-Relief Pass, I have one more valley to navigate, this one with a tiny tarn nestled between the rocks at the bottom. What’s a little more route-finding at this point? I sip on electrolyte-infused water while working my way across the rocky slopes; I ran out of snacks for the day at Laurel Lake, so sugar water will have to do!

sierra high route bighorn pass
Although a layer of smoke remains above the mountains, I’m happy to glimpse the peaks that line the Mono Divide

Shout-of-Relief Pass allegedly gets its name from the nice, easy terrain located on the northern side. I agree that the landscape is pleasant, but I’m not sure it warrants any shouting. Although that may just be my fatigue speaking. In contrast to the rocky terrain between Bighorn and Shout-of-Relief Passes, the landscape before me is a complex mix of endless grassy meadows, a few dozen lakes and ponds, and small rocky ridges. Large, flowing swaths of granite disrupt the green carpet in places. I decide to walk over to Cotton Lake because it should provide nice westerly views as the sun sets. I might as well choose the most beautiful spot I can to spend the rest of the evening!

The descent from Shout-of-Relief pass proves easy enough and I soon find myself amidst the lakes and ridges. I’m far too tired to dedicate much energy to exploring tonight, but I would love to come back to this spot in the future; there are so many hidden nooks and crannies! Roper notes that many different birds call this valley home, but, not being a bird enthusiast myself, I take his word for it. As I stride between the various lakes, I admire the warm evening light shining on Red and White Mountain, a distinctly striped peak comprised almost entirely of red and white slate.

sierra high route red slate mountain
Red Slate Mountain catches the late evening light

After more walking than I anticipated, I reach the edge of Cotton Lake. Several other backpackers have set up their campsites nearby, so I find a spot nearby and drop my pack. I chat with two fellow Sierra High Route travelers, Terry and Stever while cooking and eating dinner. We compare notes and list our favorite (and least favorite) parts so far. It’s fun to hear their perspectives!

After dinner, I set up my tent, toss in my gear, and then go for a stroll around the lake to capture some photos. To the west, a thick blanket of smoke obscures the Ritter Range although the air here looks and smells pretty clean. As the sun dips lower toward the horizon, the light grows warmer and warmer. At peak color, the mountains glow red and pink, likely due to the smoke between the peaks and the sun.

sierra high route cotton lake
The smoke in the air creates an extra red alpenglow

Although it makes for a beautiful sight, I can’t help but worry about what the smoke means for the rest of my trip. I remember how disgusting hiking through the smoke was in Humphrey’s Basin and near the bear-named lakes yesterday; I’m not eager to spend any more time breathing smoke. From the looks of things, the valleys in and around the Ritter Range are full of smoke from the Lions fire, and that’s where I’m heading… I suppose I’ll just have to see what the conditions look like when I get closer.

Cotton Lake to the Mammoth Crest

August 6, 2018 | 14.5 mi | +3600′ / -3600′ | View on Map

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing on my mind is the smoke near the Ritter Range. Has it cleared out? It’s difficult to say for sure, but the air looks much clearer than last night even if it is still definitively hazy. I quickly pack up camp, eat breakfast, and move out. It’s a beautiful morning in the Sierras – clear skies, a light breeze, and chilly air makes for perfect hiking conditions.

From Cotton Lake, I follow Roper’s instructions to descend a steep grassy slope to Izaak Walton Lake. The route instructions are oddly specific, but I understand why when I reach the lakeshore; most of the lake is surrounded by unassailable granite cliffs. Strolling around the southern shore, I can’t help but admire the glassy water reflecting the nearby cliffs and distant, sunlit peaks.

sierra high route izaak walton lake
The early morning light illuminates the peaks but leaves Izaak Walton Lake in shadow

At the northern edge of Izaak Walton Lake, the terrain drops several hundred feet to Tully Hole. Finding a route to the bottom is a fun challenge; tall pines obscure my line of sight, so I get to experiment a bit, switching between various wooded ramps. Thankfully, the underbrush is light here and I tread easily between the trees on soft pine needles and granite slabs. Near the bottom of the slope, I have to fight through some 8-foot tall willows but soon reach Horse Heaven, a lush meadow nestled between tall valley walls. The sun hasn’t reached the valley floor yet, so a thick layer of frost coats the grass and wildflowers in the meadow. I crunch through the green-blue frozen foliage for a few minutes and then make my way over to the McGee Pass Trail.

sierra high route frost
The grass and flowers in Horse Paradise Meadow are covered in frost this morning

Once I reach the trail, I slip into a rhythm for a while. Compared to cross-country hiking, following a trail can be mind-numbingly simple. Crossing Fish Creek at Tuly Hole proves to be a bit of a challenge; the rocks and logs in the water are slippery and surrounded by deep water, so I opt to wade through.  The wade isn’t difficult, but the water is absolutely freezing!   On the opposite bank of Fish Creek, I rejoin the John Muir Trail (JMT) for the first time since Evolution Lake and begin the long climb out of Tully Hole. Some may curse the switchbacks, but I’m just glad others have done the hard work of grading and smoothing the trail; switchbacks are certainly easier than climbing straight up the slope.

As soon as I rejoin the JMT, I begin running into hikers every five or ten minutes; they’re everywhere! Since most of them are heading south and have likely hiked from Yosemite, I ask each group how the smoke has been for them. Many reply that the mornings have been clear but the afternoons have been smoky and terrible. Others claim they experienced multiple days of smoky hell; some say the smoke hasn’t been that bad. In short, there’s not much consensus. So I continue on, hiking monotonously down the JMT. This section wasn’t my favorite last year either; the mountains peaks, while impressive, lie far from the trail that winds through uniform forests of dense conifers. The large mountain lakes (Virginia and Duck Lakes) along the way do break the monotony though!

sierra high route virginia lake john muir trial
A jewel along the John Muir Trail, Lake Virginia

After what feels like an eternity, I reach a trail junction. Rather than descending with the JMT, I leave the famous route and climb to Duck Lake, another gorgeous alpine jewel. I pause here for lunch and a shade break after my long morning walk.

sierra high route duck lake
Look at that beautiful crystal clear water

The trail climbs high above the lake to a pass on the Sierra crest suitably named Duck Pass. Here, the map depicts a trail junction at the pass with one branch leading west to Deer Lakes. However, when I reach the pass I find no such junction; not a sign, not another trail, nothing. I don’t waste too much time searching and instead just start walking in a general westerly direction. The terrain is fairly flat and is covered in small, flat rocks and thin grass. An occasional tree supplies some shade from the hot afternoon sun, but it’s generally very open. In contrast to the Sierra crest south of here, the “ridgeline” is quite wide – more of a plateau than anything else, really. I thoroughly enjoy wandering through the waving grass, free from the trail once more.

sierra high route mammoth crest
After several hours on the John Muir Trail, I’m happy to return to less-traveled wilderness on the Mammoth Crest

For a mile or two, I stroll across the wide-open plateau, reveling in the feeling of being on top of the world. None of the nearby peaks are tall enough to protrude above the edges of the plateau, so all I can see is sky beyond the flat expanse of grass and stone. After an hour, I reach a talus slope that drops into a basin with several gorgeous lakes. But beyond the basin, two plumes of smoke capture my attention. The smoke drifts northward, the direction I’m heading on the Sierra High Route. I’m grateful that the wind isn’t blowing the smoke toward me, but I’m very worried about what the rest of the hike will be like.

A short scramble delivers me to the base of the slope and I pick my way across the rocky landscape to the Deer Lakes. I find a stand of trees near one of the lakes and drop my pack. I’m not planning on camping here – it’s far too early to stop for the day – but a swim would be nice! Like most mountain lakes, the water is icy cold, but it feels good to dip in for a few minutes. After a very short swim, I return to the sunny shore, dry off, and spend an hour or two relaxing on the grass.

sierra high route deer lakes fire
More stunningly beautiful gems; Lake Country seems like the perfect name for this stretch of the Sierra High Route. Those wildfires are worrisome, though…

Since I still have plenty of food for today and all of tomorrow, I’m free to take my time. Rather than hike all the way to Red’s Meadow, which would be a tall order, I decide to continue to a plateau that Roper lauds for its excellent views. Along the way, I clamber up to an unnamed summit that overlooks Mammoth Lakes and provides pretty great views in every other direction as well.

sierra high route mammoth crest
I scramble up to a peak a short distance from the trail and admire the views

In addition to views, my vantage point from the summit puts me in line-of-sight with the cell towers down in Mammoth Lakes. With the wildfires continually weighing on my mind, I do a little investigating to determine what the next few days might look like. The fires are nowhere near contained, so the smoke will continue. The winds are forecast to continue blowing in a generally northward direction, so the smoke will also continue to blow into the mountains that I’ll be hiking through. I call up the Tuolumne Meadows ranger station and learn that the air quality there is alternating between “unhealthy” and “hazardous.” (A “hazardous” air quality advisory means the air is unsafe to breathe even if you have a perfectly healthy respiratory system.) Even besides the obvious health concerns, I’m not stoked about the terrible visibility. The whole reason I’m out here is to admire the incredible views in the off-trail wilderness; there’s no point in continuing if my primary goal cannot be accomplished.

sierra high route mammoth lakes
Developed campsites, people boating, and thick smoke filling the air… Mammoth Lakes is over there somewhere.

So, I make the tough decision to leave the trail at Red’s Meadow tomorrow. After calling up a few friends and family from the peak and snapping a few photos, I return to the Mammoth Crest Trail and hike northward to a gravel-covered plateau. Scattered stands of whitebark pines provide perfect windbreaks, so I find one with a good view of the Silver Divide to the south and the Ritter Range to the north and set up camp. Like yesterday evening, the Ritter Range is obscured by smoke, although a few peaks poke out above the haze.

sierra high route sunset smoke
A thick layer of smoke obscures the valley below as well as the Ritter Range

After dinner, I spend some time wandering around the plateau. A small patch of lupine illuminated by the late evening light catches my eye. The smoke turns the light a darker shade of red than usual, and the effect on the lupine is beautiful; the violet and white blossoms are tinted rich purple and light pink. Naturally, I snap a few photos!

sierra high route lupine
The reddish light turns the lupine a very different shade of purple

When the sun finally dips below the smoke, the Ritter Range stands out silhouetted against the colorful sky. It’s a beautiful sight, but the knowledge that the dense, fluffy clouds are comprised entirely of smoke is sobering. That’s a lot of smoke! For now, the wind continues to blow northward, for which I’m thankful; I’m enjoying the relatively clean air up here on the plateau. As dusk fades to night, I return to the tent and crawl into my warm sleeping bag. Before drifting off to sleep, I begin to smell the smoke more strongly; the winds must have shifted. To avoid breathing in the smoke, I burrow into the sleeping bag; I think I made the right choice to leave the trail tomorrow.

sierra high route sunset smoke
A colorful sunset – beautiful, for sure, but also a reminder that smoke covers the entire landscape

Mammoth Crest to Devil’s Postpile

August 7, 2018 | 7 mi | +400′ / -3500′ | View on Map

When I wake in the morning, I discover that the smoke has cleared! I can see the Ritter Range and the valley below! Of course, the fires continue to burn, but it seems that the wind has shifted for the time being, blowing the smoke east rather than north. I remind myself that many JMT hikers noted this pattern of clear mornings and smoky afternoons; clear air right now is not an indication that conditions will remain so perfect. That being said, I might as well enjoy the beautiful morning while it lasts! I eat some breakfast, pack up my gear, and crunch across the gravel on the plateau to the trail.

sierra high route dawn sunrise
In the morning, I discover that the smoke has cleared from the valley; I can see the Ritter Range!

In contrast to many of the previous mornings, I’m literally on top of the world today and the sunshine arrives quickly since there’s nothing to shadow the Sierra crest. Every blade of grass casts a shadow in the warm, shallow side light, and the colors are magnificent! The walking is easy too; I don’t have much elevation to gain or lose for now and stroll easily along the ridgeline.

sierra high route crest
I love the walk along the Sierra Crest this morning; the light is gorgeous!

After walking for a while, I reach a section of trail that winds through dark red pumice, a porous rock with such a low density that it floats in water. According to Roper, the pumice was blown here from a series of explosive volcanic eruptions in the region. The airy rock is certainly an interesting contrast to the usual granite!

sierra high route pumice
The trail winds through red pumice

Some time later, I reach the end of the lovely, flat trail. Several use trails lead downhill to another small plateau to the east. Below that plateau, the ridge drops sharply to the wide saddle known as Mammoth Pass, my next destination. To reach the saddle, I get to “surf” down a steep slope of loose gravel and dirt. Descending is fun and easy, but I would hate to try to climb uphill; I imagine progress would be slow and frustrating. Once at the bottom of the sandy slope, I continue along a winding trail into a dense pine forest that stretches across the saddle until reaching a trail that leads to Red’s Meadow.

sierra high route forest trail
Back below treeline, the sun casts dappled shadows through the woods

The next several hours of hiking pass slowly as I trudge through the forest and, later, endless switchbacks that descend all the way to Red’s Meadow. A good portion of the switchbacks wind through the remnants of the Rainbow Fire (1992). I’m amazed that, even 26 years later, the landscape is still pretty barren. It takes the environment a long time to bounce back from a forest fire.

sierra high route forest fire
Damage from the 1992 Rainbow Fire still defines this landscape

By the time I reach Red’s Meadow, I’m tired and grumpy from the boring, downhill hiking. Reaching the valley also means that my hike is nearly over, which I’m not too pumped about. I stop at the restaurant and devour a plate of pancakes and eggs, and then shoulder my back one more time to finish out this section of the Sierra High Route. Another mile or two to Devil’s Postpile completes the hike!

sierra high route devils postpile
This section of the Sierra High Route ends at Devil’s Postpile

After spending a few minutes admiring the columnar basalt, I hike down to the Ranger’s station. I chat with the staff for a few minutes to get their opinion on the smoke. The air is so clean and the weather is so nice that I’m second guessing my choice to give up on finishing the route. I desperately want to keep hiking, but I’m not at all excited about hiking in the smoke for the last 75 miles. The words that finally convince me that continuing is a bad idea are, “this is the best day we’ve had in weeks!” The forecast calls for more dry weather, so it’s unlikely that the smoke will lighten. With much regret, I board the bus and say goodbye to the Sierra High Route for now.

The next day, I and at least a dozen other backpackers ride the ESTA bus north toward Reno. Many of them are hiking the John Muir Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, but they’re all on the bus for the same reason as me: we’ve all decided to leave the trail due to the smoke. I think all of us feel a little guilty to be leaving; it feels like giving up. But we take comfort in the company and remind ourselves that we’re out in the wilderness to experience awe and beauty, not to cough and choke and stare at walls of haze. At some later time, we’ll return to the Sierras and finish what we’ve begun.

Until then, happy trails!

The post Sierra High Route: Lake Country appeared first on Backcountry Sights.

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Sierra High Route: Whitebark Country Sun, 05 Aug 2018 02:00:06 +0000 I soon locate the next landmark on the Sierra High Route: Lake Frances, a massive lake hiding up here above Evolution Valley. As I wander through the hilly terrain surrounding Lake Frances, I discover several other small ponds, twisted whitebark pines, and boulders scattered all around, the definition of pristine Sierra Nevada wilderness.

The post Sierra High Route: Whitebark Country appeared first on Backcountry Sights.

This post roughly covers the second Sierra High Route section which Roper names “Whitebark Country”; additional posts detail my journey along the rest of the high route.

Trip Planning

These few days are part of a longer hike along the Sierra High Route. See Cirque (2) for the beginning of the trip, complete with the trip planning details.

Le Conte Canyon to Humphrey’s Basin

August 3, 2018 | 17.5 mi | +4900′ / -2900′ | View on Map

After a good, long night’s sleep, I wake up feeling refreshed and ready to continue hiking. It hardly rained at all (on me personally) yesterday, and I’m excited by the idea that the rainy afternoons are behind me. It will be easier to finish this trip on time if I don’t have to wait out thunderstorms every day. I pack up camp, eat some breakfast, and then hit the trail. From Big Pete Meadow, I follow the John Muir Trail as it winds gradually up toward Muir Pass. For the first few miles, the terrain is similar to what I remember from last year on the JMT: sunny forests, the roaring river, and lots of rocky switchbacks.

sierra high route le conte canyon
It’s a beautiful morning in Le Conte Canyon; see the two gents in lawn chairs admiring the views?

However, as I climb higher, the similarities with last year’s hike grow fewer and far between. Where the land was covered by endless snow last year, there is endless rock this year. It’s like hiking a completely new trail with new scenery; everything looks so different! I’m soon above the treeline, striding through the barren wilderness below the Black Divide, a line of prominent peaks composed of dark, metamorphic rock rather than the usual silvery granite.

sierra high route black giant
In contrast to the usual glistening granite, this peak is made of darker, metamorphic rock

In addition to the intriguing new landscapes, I’m enjoying fresh trail legs this morning. My body is beginning to adjust to the altitude and the strenuous activity, and my pack is significantly lighter since I’ve already eaten three days-worth of food. I cheerfully stride up the trail, climbing higher and higher into the wilderness. Helen Lake, which I think was almost completely covered in snow last year, glistens like a sapphire in the sunlight, encircled all around by silver granite slabs. I spot the Muir Hut just above me and am soon at the doorstep.

sierra high route black divide
The landscape is so different this year; the snow is gone and the rock is exposed!

I don’t bother entering the hut – there’s not much to see in there, and it’s kind of stuffy. Instead, I take off my shoes and socks, sit down with my back against a comfortable rock, and relax outside in the sunshine. It’s high time for a snack, so I pull out a Cliff Builder Bar and munch away. I chat with several other hikers that are also taking breaks here atop the pass, learning their names and their hiking plans. A marmot cautiously circles the group at a distance, hoping someone will drop a snack, but nobody does; calories are a precious commodity out here!

sierra high route muir pass
This fella circles the Muir Hut, hoping for snacks from the hikers lounging about

After resting for a bit, I put my shoes back on and continue north on the JMT. I’m again blown away by just how different the scenery is! Lake McDermand and Wanda Lake lie nestled in the rocky, barren valley below the pass, completely free from snow and ice, a stark contrast to the ice sheets covering most of these beautiful lakes last August. Variety truly is the spice of life, particularly when life consists of walking all day long; I love to see different landscapes along the way!

sierra high route muir pass
Lakes dot the equally-desolate basin on the north side of Muir Pass

The north-bound descent from Muir Pass is long but incredibly shallow, for which I am grateful: I very much dislike long, steep descents. Lush grass grows along the trail in many places, watered by small creeks transporting snowmelt from the few snowfields tucked away below nearby peaks. I pass a few south-bound hikers and even a handful of people that are still lounging around their tents near Wanda Lake. Around noon, I reach the beautiful Sapphire Lake and stop to eat lunch on a large slab of granite at the water’s edge. The ice-cold water feels great as I soak my feet while munching on peanut butter and dried fruit.

sierra high route sapphire lake
Further down the valley, the greenery increases

I don’t pause for long beside Sapphire Lake because I’m still above treeline and it’s getting warm out here in the bright sunlight. One benefit of those stormy days is the shade supplied by all the fluffy clouds. On a cloudless day like today, there is no shade to be had. As I descend, the greenery intensifies and trees reappear. I soon reach Evolution Lake, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful spots on the John Muir Trail. I’m a little bummed to arrive at midday because I can’t possibly justify stopping here for the night. With the chance of afternoon storms near zero today, I would love to hang around and photograph the lake during the golden hour. Alas, not on this trip.

sierra high route evolution lake
The infamously beautiful Evolution Lake; too bad I’m not staying this time ’round!

I work my way around the gorgeous alpine lake and am surprised to find absolutely nobody near the outlet where all the best campsites are. I suppose it’s too early to have arrived for the day and too late to still be packing up. Beyond the outlet of the lake, I follow the JMT for a short distance and then leave the trail before it begins descending into Evolution Valley. Here, the Sierra High Route diverges from the JMT for quite a while and I get to explore new sections of the mountains that I’ve never seen before!

For the next three miles, Roper’s instructions are somewhat difficult to follow: contour across the top of the canyon by following wooded benches, remaining between two specific altitudes to avoid difficult granite drop-offs. I try my best to maintain a consistent altitude, but soon find myself faced with unassailable terrain. After climbing, descending, and backtracking to find the way forward, I give up on my no-GPS rule and pull out my phone to check my altitude. Sure enough, I’m below the altitude Roper suggests. After climbing up some steep gullies, I reach a more passable bench and continue onward.

sierra high route deer
This deer pauses her browsing to watch me trudge past

With the help of the GPS to keep me in the correct altitude corridor, I successfully navigate the several miles of wooded benches. Somewhere above McClure Meadow, I turn uphill again climb through some marshy areas to drier, vibrantly green meadows. After the frustration of navigating the wooded benches, I’m happy to see endless open grassland in front of me! I put the GPS back in my pack and leave it there; following the map and compass is much more fun and engaging.

sierra high route lake frances meadow
Finally past the wooded benches, I climb into these beautiful meadows below Lake Frances

I soon locate the next landmark on the Sierra High Route: Lake Frances, a massive lake hiding up here above Evolution Valley. As I wander through the hilly terrain surrounding Lake Frances, I discover several other small ponds, twisted whitebark pines, and boulders scattered all around, the very definition of pristine Sierra Nevada wilderness.

sierra high route whitebark country
One of several ponds near Lake Frances with the disembodied peaks of the Goddard Divide in the distance

Free to choose my own path through the meadows, I walk along the lake until reaching one of several inlet creeks. My next goal on the Sierra High Route, Frozen Tongue Pass, lies on the crest to the north, so uphill it is! As I gain altitude, I enjoy more expansive views of the lake and the peaks beyond. However, from this vantage point, a layer of smoke that obscures the surrounding landscape becomes obvious. Even the relatively nearby mountains on the Goddard Divide are light blue through the hazy air, a reminder that several wildfires are currently devouring forests near Yosemite, not too far northeast of here.

sierra high route lake frances
Views of the mountains surrounding Lake Frances reveal a layer of smoke

High above Lake Frances, I reach a small tarn. After the technically easy but steep climb up the grassy hillsides, I’m ready for a rest. Plus, I should probably reapply sunscreen before making the final push to Snow-Tongue Pass; it doesn’t take very long to get a sunburn up here at 11,500′. After scrubbing sunscreen into my hands and neck, I sit for a few minutes and relax. A few birds hunt for bugs around the edge of the tarn, chirping as if telling their friends where the food is. Other than the cheerful birds, the only sound is the soft rustle of the wind brushing over the lake.

sierra high route snow tongue pass
The final climb of the day: an easy slope to the wide saddle, Snow Tongue Pass

The ascent to the pass, a distinct saddle between two gentle peaks, proves to be straightforward and I soon find myself on the ridge. The drop on the other side is much steeper than the terrain I just ascended and consists mostly of loose dirt and gravel. What a fun descent this is going to be… Beyond the precipitous drop at my feet, several lakes punctuate the barren landscape; I’m hoping to find a campsite near a pair named the Wahoo Lakes, mostly just because I like their name. However, with a clear view of the rocky shoreline from up here, I realize that I’ll probably have to hike a little further and descend into Humphrey’s Basin to find someplace to pitch my tent.

sierra high route snow tongue pass
Looking over the rim of Snow Tongue Pass: Humphrey’s Basin

I tarry for a few minutes at the pass to reread Roper’s instructions for the next section of the Sierra High Route but eventually have to proceed. Clambering up the saddle a bit, I reach a slightly more stable slope and begin descending. Similar to Frozen Lake Pass, there’s no avoiding the slippery dirt and gravel, and I instigate a few small rock slides while working my way downhill. Rather than follow the steep use trail worn into the slope by previous High Route travelers, I stick to the edges of the slope and take advantage of protruding rocks as handholds.

sierra high route mount humphreys
A lovely blue tarn below the pass and the majestic Mount Humphreys

Before long, I reach the base of the steep slope and make a beeline for a snowfield that snakes through the talus. My fears that the snow will be icy are soon put to rest; I have no trouble maintaining traction as I hop from one sun cup to another. I’ll take a nice snowfield over rock hopping any day! Speaking of which, Roper describes this descent as a walk through “horrible, endless talus.” I laugh a bit to myself when I reach the talus and find that much of it has been locked into place by silt. Small tufts of grass and bunches of wildflowers surround the rocks, practically guaranteeing that they are stable, a far cry from “horrible.”

sierra high route wildflower beardtongue
Beautiful wildflowers beside the Wahoo Lakes

I make quick work of the rocky slopes and easily reach Wahoo Lakes. Sure enough, the shores are lined with piles of rocks, most of which are slanted at odd angles and offer no suitable sleeping locations. I might be able to go old school and “cowboy camp,” that is, put down my tarp and sleeping bag on a flat rock sans tent, but I’m afraid that I’ll be far too cold without the pocket of warm air the tent provides. The few small meadows near the lakes might be perfect for camping except for the innumerable creeks running through them and the fact that a soft, grassy meadow does not qualify as a durable surface for camping.

sierra high route wahoo lakes
The evening light illuminates Wahoo Lakes

With no camping options near the lakes, I move on. I’m beginning to feel a little low on sugar, so I pop some electrolyte tablets into my water and take a long drink. Over the past few days, I’ve discovered a fun reality: I don’t necessarily need to eat food all that frequently to keep hiking, but I do need carbohydrates and electrolytes. I can keep going on nothing but sugar water for hours, something to keep in mind for future long-distance hikes.

By the time I reach a nice bench overlooking Humphrey’s Basin, my watch reads 7:00 and I’m very ready to stop walking. My body is exhausted and I’m pretty darn hungry. I find a good spot to camp, set up the tent, and cook dinner. Bundled up in my down jacket to keep off the chilly evening breeze, I sit out on a rock and eat while watching the sun dip lower and lower toward the horizon. Only last weekend I camped a mile or two below this spot with Daniel, Diane, and Josh. It’s fun to be back, particularly since I approached from such a radically different direction today!

sierra high route humphreys basin sunset
I enjoy watching the sunset from my campsite perched above Humphrey’s Basin

I stay out admiring the wilderness until darkness falls. It’s not very often that I find myself at a campsite that has such stellar sunset views! Mount Humphreys glows red with the last rays of light as the sun dips below the jagged western peaks. Then, the color on the mountain fades and the clouds turn gray. I return to the tent and happily crawl into my warm sleeping bag, thankful for such comfortable accommodations in this most beautiful of places.

sierra high route mount humphreys camping
The views don’t get much better than this!

Humphrey’s Basin to Brown Bear Lake

August 4, 2018 | 13.8 mi | +4300′ / -4500′ | View on Map

I sleep fitfully throughout the night, mostly due to the cold temperature. A hot bowl of blueberry oatmeal rejuvenates me in the morning and I’m soon packed up and ready to do some more hiking. Since I’m up on the ridge overlooking Humphrey’s Basin, I spend a few minutes surveying the landscape, comparing it with my map, to figure out my location. The next landmark on the Sierra High Route is Mesa Lake, out of sight behind the rollings hills in the distance. However, before making a beeline for that landmark, I have to descend into the basin, cross a medium-sized creek, and climb back up to the meadows beyond.

The descent doesn’t take long as I quickly identify routes through the talus and willows to the spongy meadows on the valley floor. The air remains brisk in the shaded valley and I keep my jacket on for a while to stay warm. By the time I reach the trail, the sun has climbed higher and I’m feeling warm enough to stash the jacket. From here, my path is less certain. Mesa Lake is still hidden behind several lines of undulating hills so I rely on the compass to navigate. I appreciate the easy walking through meadows full of lupine and other wildflowers. However, I’m disappointed to see that Mount Humphreys is obscured by smoke; only the silhouette of the majestic peak is clear.

sierra high route humphreys basin
The morning light streams through a layer of smoke and illuminates thousands of lupine blossoms in Humphrey’s Basin

As I continue through the rolling hills of Humphrey’s Basin, I begin to notice an odd feeling in my lungs, sort of a burning, chalk-like congestion. With haze obscuring many of the surrounding peaks, I soon realize that I’m breathing in smoke; if you’ve ever accidentally inhaled smoke while sitting next to a campfire, you’ll know the feeling. However, in contrast to a campfire, I can’t just move away from the smoke and breath cleaner air. The pollution permeates the air for miles around. I figure staying put and waiting it out isn’t an option, so I soak my bandana with water from one of my bottles and tie it around my nose and mouth. Almost immediately, I notice a difference; I can’t smell/taste the smoke anymore!

sierra high route selfie
Breathing through a bandana significantly reduces the amount of smoke burning my lungs, but does make breathing a much warmer experience…

With my makeshift air filter in place, I continue through the meadows looking like some sort of backpacking bandit. I soon notice that, while the bandana keeps the smoke out, it also keeps the hot, moist air I exhale in. For now, I’m willing to trade clean air for some extra heat and humidity. Over the next mile or two, I enjoy the process of navigation through the relatively featureless landscape: find a tree or rock in line with the compass heading, walk to it, find another tree in line with the heading, walk to it, etc. Upon cresting yet another hill, I finally catch sight of Mesa Lake and experience a surge of pride. I’ve navigated straight to it!

Now with plenty of landmarks to follow, I quit orienteering and walk down to the lake. The crystal clear water sparkles in the morning sun, and my feet sink softly into the spongy turf as I follow a use trail that skirts the shore. A small, sandy beach grabs my attention; what a perfect little piece of paradise!

sierra high route alpine beach
Who ever said you can’t lounge on a sandy beach and simultaneously enjoy majestic mountain landscapes?

At the far edge of the lake, I begin ascending a steep, grassy chute toward Puppet Pass. I’m still breathing through the bandana, but the hot exhalations, steep climb, and reduced oxygen content conspire to make the hike difficult for me. Partway up the chute, I take off the bandana; the smoky air is the lesser of the discomforts for now. Over the next 30 minutes, I climb through the grass to rockier, more tundra-like terrain, and then even higher to the beautiful, barren wilds atop Puppet Pass. Up here, the entire world is cold stone. While the views behind me aren’t too inspiring due to the haze, the small bench west of Puppet Pass looks incredible! At least five separate lakes dot the landscape between here and French Canyon. Beyond the canyon, a dozen peaks stand shrouded in more smoke. I’ll be trekking through those mountains later today, but first things first: I need to descend from this pass.

sierra high route puppet lake
The valley below includes several lovely lakes

Although I didn’t have much trouble walking up the gentle terrain east of Puppet Pass, the west side – my descent – is significantly steeper. In fact, “vertical” is a fair description of the talus slope. However, as with most seemingly impossible traverses, you just take things one boulder at a time. Slowly, carefully, I pick my way down the talus. Some of the rocks are as large as a car! At least going downhill grants me a view of the terrain below and I can pick out the least precarious routes.

sierra high route puppet pass
The north side of Puppet Pass is just a tad steeper than the south side…

I eventually reach the bottom of the pass and set off across the more level terrain toward Puppet Lake. Along the way, I pass a family with several young kids out sliding down a short snowfield. Even out here, off the trail, I run into other adventurers, although far fewer than I would see on the trail! On the far side of Puppet Lake, a steep slope descends to another bench with Elba Lake tucked between drop-offs. I make quick work of the descent and then stride through grassy meadows to the trees that line canyon rim to the west. Following the map, I trend northward to find the shallowest path into French Canyon. The final descent to the canyon floor is steep but I enjoy bounding through the dense willows, wildflowers, and pine trees.

A short while later I arrive at the creek running through the bottom of French Canyon and cross it. On the opposite bank, I pick up the Pine Creek Pass Trail and head downhill. Partway down the canyon, I realize that the smoky air seems to have cleared; I can’t feel it in my lungs anymore! Having walked this way last weekend, I disregard Roper’s instructions to leave the trail north of the Merriam Lake outlet and instead cross the cascading creek to the established Merriam Creek Trail just south of the outlet; there’s a little signpost marking the route. Hungry and tired, I take a break at the junction to eat a snack and soak my feet in the creek.

After eating and resting, I reluctantly re-shoulder my pack and begin climbing the steep trail to Merriam Lake. The hot sun streams through the pines and I’m soon dripping sweat. My strategy for this kind of challenge is simple: I settle into a rhythm of small, quick steps and rely on my long-distance running training to maintain the effort. In no time at all I reach more level terrain; the forest gives way to lush meadows through which the Merriam Lake outlet creek meanders. The trail grows faint here as it winds through the long grass and over slabs of granite. Roper’s instructions prove useful here, so I give up on following the trail and instead navigate via landmarks. Along the way, I meet a couple that are spending a few days in this beautiful locale. “Once we started hiking cross-country, we never went back [to exclusively on-trail travel],” they tell me. I can see why! There are so many beautiful spots to discover off of from the beaten path; why constrain yourself to the trail the entire time?

sierra high route alpine beach
I stride past another beautiful alpine beach; this one has a nice cascade feeding the lake!

I finally reach Merriam Lake and discover some more sandy beaches, this time with granite cliffs and an impressive cascade in the background. I contemplate stopping here for lunch but decide to continue a little further; I’m not hungry yet, and the map shows several more lakes higher up the valley. Although the cliffs near the cascade appear untraversable, closer inspection reveals plenty of ways to scramble up, so scramble up I do. At the top, a long, narrow valley stretches into the distance, terminating at the Sierra crest where Feather Peak and Royce Peak tower over the landscape. Navigating this pleasant landscape proves easy enough, at least for a little while. I pause next to a long, shallow lake around noon and decide to go for a swim. I don’t stay in the water for long, however; it’s icy cold and I’m not hot enough to need a cool down. After swimming, I drape my clothes over nearby rocks and eat lunch while waiting for them to dry.

sierra high route feather peak
A string of lakes lead to Feather Peak and Feather Pass

To reach the largest and final lake in this valley, I clamber up granite slabs for a few hundred feet. Several large snow fields line the lake, forcing me to navigate around them. At the end of the lake, several chutes cut through a steep cliff and provide access to the top. There doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong way to go, so I pick the closest chute and scramble on up. From the top of the cliff, I simply hike up granite slabs toward Feather Pass, an obvious saddle south of Feather Peak. I’m excited for the next several miles, a complex wilderness dotted with several dozen lakes, all with bear-related names. Rumor has it that this area is one of the most beautiful in the Sierra Nevada so I can’t wait to see it myself.

When I reach Feather Pass, panting from the steep climb at this high elevation, I’m incredibly disappointed to find the entire landscape before me shrouded in smoke. In addition to the unimpressive view, I’m frustrated at the prospect of having to hike with burning lungs again. This can’t possibly be healthy. Sighing, I tie the bandana back around my face, and begin an easy descent into the “Bear Valley.”  I’m sure I would be awed by this wilderness on a better day, but I’m not feeling it today, what with the haze and the smell and burning lungs. How many miles of the Sierra High Route are going to be like this, with every peak and valley more than a mile away completely hidden from view? Should I cut my losses and hike out at the next pass? Questions and doubts tumble through my head as I walk to Bearpaw Lake.

sierra high route bearpaw lake
I’m disappointed to find that the smoke obscures the view

Following Roper’s instructions, I navigate around Bearpaw Lake to Ursa Lake, up a chute to a small valley that contains Black Bear Lake. Of the ridge above Ursa Lake, Roper proclaims, “the panorama … is perhaps unmatched on the entire High Route.” Some panorama… all I can see is a few faint silhouettes of the closest peaks. Irritated, I continue upward. To climb the steep terrain, I have to take off the bandana to get enough air and subsequently fill my lungs with smoke. I pull the bandana back on when I pause for breaks, but it’s not a very satisfying compromise.

sierra high route bear lakes
Ursa and Little Bear Lakes in the foreground and the smoky silhouette of Seven Gables in the background

Past Black Bear Lake, I scramble higher to White Bear Lake, a lonely lake located right on the ridge crest. A stiff wind howls through the rocky landscape and whips the lake’s surface into lines of waves. I work my way around the eastern shore to the northwest side of the lake and then climb up a short mound of rocks. This minuscule climb brings me to the top of White Bear Pass. From this side, “pass” seems like a joke of a term; the lake is only 10 feet below! However, the opposite side of the pass drops over 1,000′ to Brown Bear Lake.

sierra high route white bear lake
The wind stirs up waves on White Bear Lake

I follow the Sierra High Route instructions and keep to the right as I carefully scramble down the steep granite ramps. Something like an hour later, I reach level ground at the shore of the lake and look back at the pass. From here, the climb looks completely impassible, a sheer wall of granite. Then again, every climb looks steeper from a distance than it truly is.

sierra high route brown bear lake
The stiff wind whips the water of Brown Bear Lake; beyond the water, check out steep White Bear Pass!

I had hoped that the wind would be less ferocious down here at the lake, but it seems even fiercer than it was up atop the pass. Thankfully, I find a wonderful sandy spot not far from the lake where I can pitch my tent. Although it’s only 4:30, I’m well ahead of schedule and can afford to stop early, particularly since I walked until 7 pm last night. So, I set up the tent, taking care to point the narrower end into the breeze. Once it’s securely guyed out, I crawl inside, leaving the doors open, and relax for a while. The wind whips around the tent but not into it, leaving the interior surprisingly warm and cozy! I take advantage of the shelter to jot down notes from the day and read about the terrain I’ll be traversing tomorrow.

sierra high route shelter
With the tent securely guyed out, I have a place to hide from the wind; it’s surprisingly warm inside!

Later in the evening I cook and eat dinner, and then hobble around the lake on stiff legs with my camera. I can no longer smell the smoke, which is nice for breathing purposes, but many of the distant peaks are still completely obscured. I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to see the epic panoramas from earlier in the day, but I suppose that means I’ll just have to come back and hike this section again. After exploring the area for a little while, I return to the warm confines of the tent and go to bed.

The post Sierra High Route: Whitebark Country appeared first on Backcountry Sights.

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Sierra High Route: Cirque Country Fri, 03 Aug 2018 00:44:05 +0000 The views from the top of Potluck Pass prove to be well worth the effort. Ridge after ridge of serrated granite mountains stretch across the western horizon in front of me. Somewhere below is the John Muir Trail, that thoroughfare through the Sierra Nevada. The thought that dozens of excited hikers are passing by just a few miles away with absolutely no knowledge of this fantastic vista is a bit humbling; these mountains are vast and complex, and there will likely always be new spots and vistas to discover!

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I had a ton of fun hiking the first 26 miles of Steve Roper’s Sierra High Route in early July and decided to return to complete the rest of the trek. Rather than re-hike the first 26 miles, I began this trip at Baxter Pass on the east side of the range and hiked a few miles up the John Muir Trail to Upper Basin, the last point on the High Route I reached previously. From Upper Basin, I followed the Sierra High Route (SHR) northward.

This post includes the last few miles of the first Sierra High Route section which Roper names “Cirque Country” and is labeled “Cirque (2)”; additional posts detail my journey along the rest of the high route.

Trip Planning

Route – Begin at the Baxter Pass trailhead and hike over the pass, down to Baxter Lakes. From the lakes, follow a faint trail to reach the John Muir Trail and/or Pacific Crest Trail. Continue northbound on the JMT/PCT to Upper Basin, i.e., the valley just south of Mather Pass. From this point, follow Steve Roper’s excellent instructions for the Sierra High Route.

Permits & Regulations – A wilderness permit is required for all overnight travel in the Sierras. Since the entry trailhead is located in Inyo National Forest, you’ll apply for a permit through the forest service at Baxter Pass doesn’t seem to be a terribly popular trailhead, so you shouldn’t have much difficulty securing a permit. Additionally, remember to leave no trace; it is your responsibility to preserve the wilderness for others to enjoy.

Logistics – The Baxter Pass Trailhead is located about 8 miles from Independence. Since it isn’t a popular trailhead, hitchhiking to and from this starting point is quite difficult. Rather than try to get a hitch or walk the 8 miles through the desert, I booked a seat on the Eastern Sierra Shuttle Service. However, they charge a staggering $55 for the 20-minute ride; not exactly an economical option, but the only local shuttle service at the time of writing.

Resources – Steve Roper’s book, The Sierra High Route, is a crucial resource to navigate the off-trail portions of this route. I augmented his instructions with the excellent National Geographic topo map for the Sequoia-Kings Canyon area. Alternatively, you may find my interactive map of the Sierra High Route useful for your own planning purposes.

Baxter Pass Entry

July 31, 2018 | 12.8 mi | +6500′ / -4000′ | View on Map

I arrive at the trailhead at about 9:30 AM, far later than I would prefer, but certainly early enough to get some hiking done! The sun beats down on the arid desert landscape as the shuttle driver turns his car around and rumbles off down the dusty dirt road toward civilization. Soon, I’m alone with nothing but a fully-loaded pack and the trail in front of me. I might as well start walking!

Securing a permit for the Baxter Pass trail proved much easier than other trailheads, and I soon realize why: This is not an easy, scenic, or pleasant path. I struggle over loose stones and slip on stretches of gravel, all the while being poked and prodded by various prickly desert plants. As I pass by the creek, I brush a stinging nettle plant. To my surprise, the velvety barbs on the leaves easily penetrate my pants and shirt, sending stinging sensations rippling through my legs and arms. Frustrated and in pain, I continue up the trail, keeping watch for more nettles and using my trekking poles to push them away when possible.

As I huff and puff up the trail, the sun climbs higher and the day grows hotter. I’m soon dripping sweat, and there isn’t much shade to be had either. Judging by the abundance of charred tree trunks, it seems that a forest fire swept through sometime in the past decade and obliterated whatever forest existed. I take a few breaks to catch my breath and drink water, but I’ve noticed that the clouds overhead are beginning to coalesce into a solid sheet, and they’re getting darker. I’ve seen this behavior as recently as last weekend in Humphrey’s Basin; thunderstorms are likely on the way. While the climb is stupidly difficult, I press on so that I don’t get stuck on the top of Baxter Pass when the rain and/or lightning arrives.

Higher up the slope, I reach some trees that escaped the forest fire. The twisted junipers supply some shade, although the dark clouds are already blocking out most of the sunshine. The thin air is beginning to affect me; I’m forced to pause every few minutes to catch my breath and wait for the lactic acid in my legs to flush out. Soon, thunder begins to echo through the mountains. Still well below the pass, I sigh but keep walking until the rain begins. I take shelter in my tent for a few minutes, but the rain soon stops and I continue climbing toward the writhing clouds. A reasonable person would remain below treeline when storms threaten as they do now. I’m not one of those reasonable people, at least not today: I would rather risk the storm and get over the pass than wait it out for an untold number of hours and have to make up all those extra miles in the coming days.

The final mile to the pass really kicks my butt. Thankfully, the rain holds off and no lightning bolts strike the surrounding peaks. Now well above treeline, each step requires a concerted effort and I’m pausing at 20-foot intervals, legs on fire, gasping for air. Every once in a while a particularly violent thunder clap jolts me from the rhythm of trudging and motivates me to give a little more effort and speed up. Well, at least until I run out of oxygen again…

After what feels like an eternity, I reach the pass. A broken sign marks the saddle; I’m surprised to see that the elevation is over 12,300′! No wonder breathing is so difficult! And I’ve climbed well over 6000′ from the trailhead with a fully loaded pack. At least I feel slightly more justified in my suffering.

I snap a few photos but quickly continue on as several deafening thunderclaps echo around me. Half walking, half jogging, I speed down the slate-covered slopes toward one of several Baxter Lakes; a few trees line the banks and will provide some shelter from whatever excitement the clouds send my way.

sierra high route baxter basin
The path before me descends through the desolate basin below Mount Baxter

Thankfully, the rain and lightning hold off as I descend through the barren, slate-filled bowl above the Baxter Lakes. By the time I reach the trees lining the shore of the highest lake, I’m ready for a break. I find a stand of trees to shelter me from the light drizzle that has begun to fall and lie down. I also pull off my shoes and socks to let my feet breathe a bit; shoes are great and all, but it sure does feel nice to take them off.

sierra high route baxter lake
I’m glad to return to treeline and relax for a few minutes beneath the scraggly pines on the shore of Baxter Lake

After resting for ten or fifteen minutes, I continue on; there is plenty of daylight left! The well-defined trail that leads from the pass to the lake soon fades into the long grass and scraggly trees. After losing the path a few times I give up trying to follow whatever faint traces I can find and instead rely on the map and compass to navigate. Although the trees make it difficult to quickly identify landmarks, a compass heading and the general layout of the local lakes and creeks is sufficient to guide me down the valley.

After passing the lowest lake, I descend slopes strewn with pine needles to a lush, marshy section of forest. The dew-covered plants drench my pants as I continue, and an inopportune step into a puddle masquerading as muddy soil soaks my right shoe completely. Ah well; the sun is beginning to break through the clouds, and it looks like I might get some warmth this evening! I soon rediscover the trail and follow it for a few tenths of a mile. However, upon discovering that it winds along the ridge for another mile in the opposite direction as my destination, I abandon the path and scramble directly down the steep slope towards the South Fork of Woods Creek. I struggle through a few layers of aspens and hop down the talus until I reach gentler wooded slopes and, further down, the South Fork of the Kings River. The South Forks proves easy to cross, and I soon find myself standing on the John Muir Trail.

sierra high route woodland forest
The John Muir Trail winds through the lush woodland

The final few miles of the day pass quickly and easily; it’s amazing how easy walking on a trail feels after struggling over unmanicured terrain. To further improve my mood, the clouds melt away and sunshine warms the world. It also helps that I get to walk along a gentle downhill trail all evening.

sierra high route john muir trail
I stride through dry meadows during the final mile before the Woods Creek Junction

A few miles along the JMT, I reach Woods Creek and the suspension bridge. I’m beat, so I find a spot among the many other hikers already there and set up camp. A nice, hot dinner lends me some more energy and I spend the remaining hour of light admiring the alpenglow on the surrounding peaks with some of my neighbors. It’s nice to have some company after the long, difficult day.

Return to the Sierra High Route

August 1, 2018 | 20.4 mi | +5800′ / -3800′ | View on Map

I wake up before my neighbors in the morning, and, eager to get going in case more afternoon thunderstorms crop up, I’m soon on the trail. Although the sky is bright with morning light, the Wood Creek drainage remains in shadow for several hours while I trek up the gentle trail. It’s nice and cool, good conditions for a multi-mile uphill stretch. I hiked this section of trail just a few weeks ago with Amanda and it looks very much the same even though I’m walking the opposite direction this morning. I settle into a steady pace and zone out for a while.

sierra high route woods creek
The early morning alpenglow illuminates the distant peaks

A few hours later, I arrive at Wildlife Lake with aching hips and a huge appetite. I eat my morning snack ration, which isn’t nearly enough, and stretch for a few minutes. Hopefully this ravenous hunger isn’t an everyday occurrence, or I’m going to be very uncomfortable all week… After stretching, I heave my pack back on and continue up the trail. The path levels out a bit as it winds through the gorgeous meadows south of Pinchot Pass. In contrast to the Wood Creek drainage, I’m not tired of the scenery up here; the colors are incredible and never fail to make me smile!

sierra high route pinchot pass
I love these beautiful green meadows beneath the red mountains, blue sky, and white clouds

I don’t pause for much longer than it takes to snap a few photos of the scenery, opting instead to keep walking. It’s only 10 AM, but the clouds are already beginning to coalesce overhead, which means thunderstorms are once again likely this afternoon. If it’s going to rain, I’d better make it as far as I can before I have to take shelter. Thankfully, the switchbacks up Pinchot Pass are gradual and easy, and I’m soon standing atop the exposed rock in a stiff, cold wind. After munching on some more snacks and resting for a minute, I continue down the north side. The landscape here is also gorgeous, with deep blue lakes scattered across the valley and acres of pristine alpine meadows between them. I also enjoy walking downhill for the first time today!

sierra high route john muir trail
The abundance of fluffy clouds overhead can only mean one thing: afternoon storms are on their way!

Despite my recent snack, I’m soon starving again. But, with no more snacks to spare for this morning, I push through and promise myself I can eat lunch either at noon or when I reach the South Fork, whichever occurs sooner. So, I hike as quickly as I can toward the Kings River. It takes longer than I remember to navigate the alpine meadows and a mile or two of switchbacks below Bench Lakes, but I eventually reach the river. After wading through the frigid water, I settle down for an incredibly satisfying lunch of flatbread, hummus, cheese, and dried fruit.

Satiated (for now), I adopt a more leisurely pace and walk up the JMT toward Upper Basin. Amanda and I traveled this very path just a few weeks ago, so the scenery isn’t very new, but the views of the mountains ahead keep me entertained for a while.

sierra high route kings river
One of many tributaries to the South Fork of the Kings River gurgles past the trail

Remembering the beauty of the mountains surrounding Pinchot Pass, I glance back and am surprised to see that the skies over Pinchot are black as ink. Those thunderstorms are arriving sooner than I expected! I keep walking as the sky ahead of me remains bright, but the storms seem to be following me; the further north I travel, the larger the patch of black sky becomes.

seirra high route storm
The storms follow me northward into Upper Basin

I finally stop hiking when I reach Upper Basin. Beyond this point, the trees disappear and I’ll be left with absolutely no shelter. With the storms still approaching from the south, I scout around and find a flat patch of gravel and set up my tent. I sit outside for a while and watch the angry clouds move toward me, only retreating into the tent when the rain begins to fall in earnest. The thunder and lightning arrive soon thereafter, filling the air with sounds like the sky is being repeatedly torn in two. I stay in the tent, listening to podcasts, reading Roper’s book, and exploring the map to kill time.

Several hours later, the thunder fades away, leaving only a light drizzle. I’m tired of sitting around, so I pull on my rain jacket, pack up the dripping tent, and resume hiking. The sky has grown considerably lighter, and a sunny evening like last night seems likely.

sierra high route rain
The thunder fades away, but the rain continues to fall lightly in Upper Basin

In the meantime, the drizzle continues as I leave the trees behind and begin zig-zagging up the switchbacks that lead to Mather Pass. I love how gentle the switchbacks are on the JMT; it makes gaining altitude a breeze! Partway up the trail I glance behind me and am awed by an incredibly bright rainbow stretching over Upper Basin. Just like during my trip to Humphrey’s Basin, it seems like Mother Nature is compensating for the dreary afternoon with this brilliant display of color!

sierra high route rainbows
An incredible supernumerary rainbow stretches across Upper Basin

Now in high spirits, I stride up the trail with renewed vigor. The rain soon stops and, by the time I reach the pass, it’s nearly impossible to tell that it’s been raining for the past three hours! Sunshine streams through the broken clouds, filling Upper Basin with warm evening light. What a beautiful vista!

sierra high route mather pass
The sky clears and sunshine returns to upper basin

Atop the pass, the sun shines brightly. However, the path below passes into shadow before reaching my destination for the evening, the Palisade Lakes. So, I take advantage of the wonderful weather and stretch out the drenched tent on some boulders to dry. While evaporation does its thing, I cook dinner and photograph some beautiful shooting stars in a nearby meadow. With a hot meal in my stomach, warm sunshine all around, and the end of today’s hike in sight, I’m happier than I’ve been all day.

sierra high route mather pass palisades
The imposing Palisade peaks tower over the two Palisade Lakes

In all the afternoon excitement, I’ve nearly forgotten than I’m now covering new ground on the Sierra High Route. Amanda and I hiked most of the “Cirque Country” section, ending at Upper Basin a few weeks ago before looping back to Road’s End. Since I passed through Upper Basin this afternoon, I’m now on my way to the next cross-country portion of the route!

sierra high route shooting stars
These beautiful flowers flourish in the grassy meadows beneath Mather Pass

By the time I reach the lower of the two Palisade Lakes, dusk has fallen and I hurry to set up my tent before the light disappears completely. The surrounding peaks stand silhouetted in the colorful sunset, creating quite the backdrop as I unpack. I’m happy to lie down again, even if I did spend several hours this afternoon in the tent. It’s been a long day, and I’m excited to embark on an off-trail adventure tomorrow!

Beneath the Palisades

August 2, 2018 | 13.3 mi | +4700′ / -6000′ | View on Map

I wake early in the morning and, after a quick breakfast, pack up all my gear and walk to the bottom of the lower Palisade Lake. From the outlet, I step off the trail and wander over to a steep wall northeast of the lake. Somewhere far above, currently hidden from view, is my next destination: Cirque Pass. After glancing across the face of the wall, I pick a route and begin scrambling up talus near a small creek bubbling over the cliffs. At first, the climb is simple class-II terrain: I need my hands to maintain balance, but not to pull myself over large boulders. However, I misjudged the talus and am soon faced with a few class-III problems. I don’t mind the challenge; it’s fun to do a little climbing in the morning!

I climb higher and higher and soon reach a lovely bench with several small tarns scattered among the talus. The Palisade Lakes glisten in the morning light far below. Although the view reminds me of how far I’ve already traveled, a glance uphill reveals that the climb has only begun though the steepest terrain is now behind me.

I wind between the tarns, striding up granite ramps toward the Palisades looming in front of me. Roper calls this terrain “easy,” and I’m reminded that he is referring to technical difficulty, not physical effort required to ascend. I agree with his assessment: I have no difficulty finding stable places for my feet as I trek toward Cirque Pass, but I’m pretty worn out by the time I arrive at the saddle. I pause for a few minutes to catch my breath and also to admire the view in front of me. A large lake, completely encircled by granite slabs and talus, fills the valley below. It’s a beautiful vista, one that most hikers never take the time to see since it is far from the JMT. That being said, I spot a few people camped near the bottom of the lake; even the cross-country routes through the Sierra Nevada are popular.

sierra high route lake
An unnamed lake between Cirque and Potluck Passes (wide saddle on the left side of the photo) reflects the morning alpenglow.

The descent from Cirque Pass proves to be pretty straightforward and I’m soon hopping across the outlet creek of the large lake. I chat with the campers I spied from above and learn that the three of them are brothers, that this is their first trip to the Sierras, and that they’re hiking the Sierra High Route. I’m impressed by their ambition! I’m not sure how comfortable I would be attempting an off-trail route on my first visit.

After chatting with the brothers for a few minutes, I continue on my way. A grassy chute leads me to the top of a hill overlooking the lake, with a smaller pond on the other side. I stash my gear at the pond and take off up a hill to the east, heading for the slopes of Mt. Sill (14,153′). Roper includes mountaineering instructions for local peaks in his route description and I’ve decided to attempt this one. As I climb higher, the talus grows larger and I encounter a few snowfields. I’m not 100% sure exactly which peak is Mt. Sill, but the approach to all of the candidates is more or less the same, so I continue scrambling upward.

After crossing a hundred yards of sloped, icy snow, I pull out my phone and check my location on the Gaia GPS app to figure out which summit is the correct one. A few seconds later, I have my answer. I’m still quite some distance from the peak, and the entire route appears to consist of loose slate, the kind that slides under your feet like sand; two steps up, one step sliding back… Rather than toil on for another hour to reach the summit, I decide to return to my gear and continue on the “established” Sierra High Route. I’ll have to come back another time for a more dedicated mountaineering trip; hike fewer miles between campsites, but spend extra time scrambling up to the tops of all these awesome peaks. For now, I’ll content myself with the challenge of navigating the Sierra High Route.

sierra high route tarn
A small tarn nestled next to the edge of a steep drop-off with disembodied peaks in the distance

Back at the pond, I pick up my backpack and begin the next portion of the route. I scramble up steep, unpleasant dirt and gravel for a while before reaching more promising granite ledges. Still, I struggle a bit with the route finding and am forced to backtrack a few times when I encounter class IV sections. But the struggle is all part of the route, right? I’m not following a trail, I’m exploring the rugged Sierra Nevada high country!

The views from the top of Potluck Pass prove to be well worth the effort. Ridge after ridge of serrated granite mountains stretch across the western horizon in front of me. Somewhere below is the John Muir Trail, that thoroughfare through the Sierra Nevada. The thought that dozens of excited hikers are passing by just a few miles away with absolutely no knowledge of this fantastic vista is a bit humbling; these mountains are vast and complex, and there will likely always be new spots and vistas to discover!

sierra high route potluck pass
Looking back while ascending Potluck Pass delivers more incredible views

The route beyond Potluck Pass proves much easier than the terrain leading up to it. Rather than descending into the Palisade Basin, I contour along the upper edge with the sharp spires of North Palisade and Thunderbolt Peak looming overhead. Speaking of thunderbolts, the skies are once again filling with puffy clouds… third day’s the charm for no rain?

sierra high route palisade basin
Numerous tarns and creeks dot the Palisade Basin

Noting this forecast of storms to-be, I hurry along, continuing to contour over to the Barrett Lakes. I’m able to stride along smooth, granite slabs for most of the walk, and I’m soon on the opposite side of the Palisade Basin from Potluck Pass. I make a mental note to come back here some time to explore the tiny lakes and stands of trees that dot the massive basin. For now, I need to continue on and get over Knapsack Pass before the storms roll in.

sierra high route palisade basin
A wide panorama of the Palisade Basin

The Sierra High Route winds between several of the Barrett Lakes, all of which are beautiful. The towering cumulonimbus clouds reflected in their still waters are particularly impressive! Here’s the thing about inclement weather in the mountains: it’s just way more interesting to photograph the Sierras when the weather is “bad.” A typical summer day with a cloudless sky and endless sunshine is certainly more pleasant and less stressful for hiking, but the harsh light and sharp shadows are not great for photography. The clouds add lots of interest to the sky (and shade!), particularly when they get dark and stormy.

Alas, this is a long distance backpacking trip, not a dedicated photography trip, so I can’t sit and watch the light change all afternoon. My final pass for the day, Knapsack pass, lies not far north of the Barrett Lakes. Reaching the pass is a fun route-finding puzzle. There are many opportunities to drop deep into the valley below the pass, but I prefer not to lose too much altitude since I just have to gain it back to reach the saddle. On the other hand, climbing too high means struggling through steep talus, which can be tedious even when the rocks are stable (they may not be). I spot footprints a few times while navigating through the rough terrain. I wonder if they belong to the brothers I met this morning, or to some other group of adventurers?

Although my stomach is growling, I press on without lunch until I gain the saddle at Knapsack Pass. The clouds overhead aren’t too dark and, since I’m absolutely starving, I plop down on a granite block and eat, daring a storm to arrive. To the north, dark clouds hover over the Black Divide and Muir Pass, the next pass I’ll reach on the Sierra High Route. However, the storms seem to be blowing from the west to the east, so I sit and watch as distant sheets of rain pummel the mountains. Immediately below Knapsack Pass, Dusy Basin remains dry. Patches of sunlight wander around the landscape, spotlighting the various lakes as the clouds drift by.

Once I’ve finished eating, I scramble down the north side of the pass. It seems that Dusy Basin is the place to be this afternoon; massive clouds gather over Palisade Basin behind me while I descend, but they sky over Dusy Basin remains relatively clear. During the next few hours, I wander past half a dozen beautiful lakes, pausing only once to take shelter from a mid-afternoon drizzle. This valley is another spot I would love to revisit!

sierra high route dusy lake
The nearby mountains partially obscure the towering cumulonimbus clouds now congregating over the Palisade Basin; meanwhile, Dusy Basin is peaceful and beautiful! Knapsack Pass is the large saddle on the left side of the frame.

Below the Dusy Basin lakes, I step onto an established for the first time today. Only a few tenths of a mile later, I begin passing groups of hikers, including a scout troop camping at one of the lakes. After the day’s challenging terrain, walking along the trail is astonishingly easy and I soon find myself at the mouth of the valley looking into the mind-bogglingly massive Le Conte Canyon. Rays of sunlight stream through the broken clouds overhead, illuminating pyramids of glistening granite on the opposite side of the canyon. It’s an impressive sight, one of most spectacular I’ve seen so far on this trip!

sierra high route le conte canyon
One of the most impressive views so far: Le Conte Canyon

I pause for a few minutes at the edge of the canyon to admire the view and then begin what are to be several unpleasant hours of switchbacks that will deliver me to the canyon floor. A dull headache only enhances the tedious downhill slog. Two features distract me from the miserable descent: a truly massive cascade tumbling down the canyon wall directly next to the trail, and several wonderfully shady stands of red firs and twisted junipers midway down the canyon.

sierra high route cascade
This epic cascade distracts from the monotonous, mind-numbing descent into Le Conte Canyon

I eventually reach the bottom of Le Conte Canyon, disgruntled from the 2,500′ descent, and begin searching for a campsite. Surprisingly, walking uphill feels infinitely better than downhill at this point, so I continue northbound on the JMT for a little while. The North Fork of the Kings River rushes downhill in the opposite direction, crashing over boulders and fallen trees. For perhaps a mile, I walk through dark, cool trees. I particularly enjoy spotting silvery mountain hemlocks along the way.

sierra high route little pete meadow
For a short distance, the Middle Fork winds slowly through Little Pete Meadow

Before long, I reach Little Pete Meadow where the river slows and winds gently through expanses of long grass. All of the campsites I find are already full, so I continue up the trail a little further. A short climb brings me to Big Pete Meadow, which glows gold in the late evening sun. I find a nice set of empty campsites near the grass and gratefully drop my backpack. A doe and two fawns wander past while I unpack, but don’t seem overly concerned about me, which is a fun contrast to deer that live closer to civilization and have learned to be afraid of humans.

sierra high route big pete meadow
The warm evening light accentuates the bright gold and yellow hues of these meadowlands

After the long day of hiking, I’m excited to eat dinner and relax for the rest of the evening. However, before settling into lethargy for the night, I spend several minutes stretching all of the aching muscles in my legs. I’ve learned the hard way that the key to minimizing muscle pain is a good stretching regimen. The rest of the evening passes pleasantly enough and I’m soon cocooned in my warm sleeping bag. Tomorrow I’ll continue up the JMT all the way to Evolution Lake, then trek cross-country once more into what Roper calls “Whitebark Country.”

The post Sierra High Route: Cirque Country appeared first on Backcountry Sights.

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Pine Creek to Piute Pass Thru Hike Sun, 22 Jul 2018 16:00:53 +0000 A handful of small streams wind through the meadowlands, feeding the numerous lakes below. The evening light plays across the peaks, including the magnificent form of Mount Humphreys. The juxtaposition of the stormy clouds and soft light make for some great sights and photo opportunities!

The post Pine Creek to Piute Pass Thru Hike appeared first on Backcountry Sights.

Granite Park and Humphreys Basin are two beautiful, high-altitude locations in the Sierra Nevada that you really must visit. A friend of mine introduced me to Granite Park a few years ago and I was blown away by the alpine landscapes. For this trip another friend, Diane, is flying out to visit the Sierras for the very first time. I wanted her to see the best the Sierras have to offer and immediately thought of this area. With two cars available, we planned a small thru-hike between the Pine Creek and Piute Pass trailheads. Between sunny mornings, stormy afternoons, epic rainbows, and cross-country hiking, we had a fantastic time!

Trip Planning

Route – Begin at the Pine Creek Trailhead and climb the trail to Pine Creek Pass (optional: head up toward Italy Pass to visit the beautiful Granite Park). Descend through beautiful alpine meadows in French Canyon to the junction at Hutchinson Meadow. Turn east and begin a gradual climb through dense pine forest toward Piute Pass and Humphreys Basin. After passing above treeline, turn north on the faint trail and hike to Desolation Lake. Continue off-trail through boggy meadows to the outlet stream flowing from Forsaken Lake. Clamber up the class II talus south-east of Forsaken Lake to the low saddle and then descend easy terrain to Humphrey’s Lakes. Although most maps depict a trail leading back to Piute Pass, it is practically impossible to find. Rather than searching for the nonexistent path, continue to navigate cross-country south-southeast down grassy ramps until reaching the steep slope overlooking Summit Lake. Here, a few cairns and a faint trail lead down to Piute Pass. From the pass, follow the well-traveled trail to the Piute Pass Trailhead.

Permits & Regulations – A permit is required for all overnight travel in this area. Reserve a wilderness permit online from; search for Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit and select the Pine Creek (JM11) trail as the entry point. Alternatively, you can try to snag a walk-up permit from the White Mountain Ranger Station. Bear canisters are not required, but are recommended; hanging a bear bag from the scraggly pines that dominate this region is difficult, and much of the route is above treeline. As always, practice leave no trace ethics to preserve this beautiful wilderness for others!

Logistics – Park in the obvious lot near the pack station at the Pine Creek trailhead. At the other end of the trail, park a few tenths of a mile from the trailhead at the pack station. Bear boxes are present at Pine Creek, but we didn’t see any near the parking at the Piute Pass end.

Resources – I recommend the National Geographic Mammoth Lakes / Mono Basin map. There is also a Tom Harrison map covering this region.

Ascent to Granite Park

July 19, 2018 | 8.9 mi | +4500′ / -1500′ | View on Map

Josh, Daniel, Diane, and I spent the night at the North Lake Campground last night; Diane was the first to arrive and was able to snag a spot. The campground is beautiful, situated right next to a noisy creek with lots of jeffrey and lodgepole pines shading the sites. And, since the campground is located about 9,300′ above sea level, we were able to acclimate a bit before beginning our hike.

north lake campground
Daniel and Diane chat over breakfast at the North Lake Campground

After eating breakfast and packing up our campsite, we shuttle our cars to the trailheads; one car stays near the campground at the Piute Pass parking area, and the other transports us to the Pine Creek trailhead. We’ll then hike back to Piute Pass and conveniently have our transportation pre-arranged. One small complicating factor is that there don’t appear to be any bear boxes at the Piute Pass parking area, so we take all of our extra scented items (e.g., deodorant, snacks for the drive home) to Pine Creek and stash them in the bear boxes located there.

We begin at the Pine Creek trailhead, which is located at the pack station near the parking area. After strolling through a lovely shaded forest, we emerge into the hot sun on the first of many switchbacks. As we climb higher, a tungsten mine comes into view, offering some interest but also marring the “backcountry” vibe. We crunch past a few creeks gurgling down the slope and admire a massive cascade flowing over smooth granite ramps in the distance. Twisted juniper trees dot the hillside, and the air is filled with the sweet scent of wildflowers and sage. Partway up the rocky switchbacks, we’re forced to do a little route finding as a recent rainstorm has washed out part of the trail; a swath of talus has plowed straight down the slope.

As we gain altitude, the bright sunshine occasionally gives way to shade from clouds passing overhead. A glance to the southwest reveals towering cumulonimbus clouds in the distance, a sure sign that an afternoon thunderstorm is brewing. By the time we stop for lunch at Pine Lake, the southern sky has grown dark and moody. However, the skies immediately overhead remain bright and we lounge on the sunny lake shore, appreciating the pine-clad slopes and abundance of water. It’s a nice change of scenery from the dusty switchbacks!

pine lake
Storm clouds gather southwest of Pine Lake

After eating lunch, we follow the trail around Pine Lake and continue ascending into the high country. Distant peals of thunder echo through the mountains, which makes me a tad nervous; it’s typically not wise to climb higher when a storm is brewing. But, we’re well below treeline and the probability that we’ll fall victim to a lightning strike is astronomically low, so we continue despite nature’s rumblings.

The trail to Honeymoon Lake includes several river crossings, some via log and others via well-spaced rocks. The final mile winds through a forest of pines to a swath of smooth granite that encircles the lake. We set up camp in a light drizzle and then take off on a short day-hike toward Granite Park. Thunder still echoes above us, and the occasional bolt of lightning strikes a distant peak. We continue, albeit somewhat nervously, until we reach the edge of the treeline. We pause at a lush meadow to munch on afternoon snacks and admire the views. However, after sitting for a minute or two, the light drizzle evolves into a heavy shower and we hurry back toward camp.

granite park
We venture toward treeline for views of Granite Park

The storm doesn’t last long, thankfully, and the heavy rain peters out during our descent back to Honeymoon Lake. As we hike, we’re treated to some fantastic views of “striped mountain,” an unnamed peak with fantastic white striations throughout the dark rock.

honeymoon lake
The striations in this mountain continue to draw our eyes throughout the day

Soon after returning to our campsite, the storm clouds begin to disperse and a few rays of sunshine break through. Curiously, the drizzle continues even as the skies overhead return to a cloudless blue. We’re treated to a rainbow and more sunshine as the evening progresses, a fine end to the drizzly afternoon.

Thanks to the return of the sunshine, everyone is in a fine mood this evening. We cook dinner, lounge around on the now dry granite slabs, and chat while absorbing the late afternoon rays.

Eventually, we tire of sitting around and wander off to explore the lake shore. We visit several cascades feeding the lake and admire the reflections of the surrounding peaks in the water. Of course, the abundance of water coincides with an abundance of mosquitoes that are determined to drink our blood; the nasty little buggers are arguably the worst part of any camping trip in these mountains.

honeymoon lake camping tarp
Daniel’s elegant tarp shelter pitched near Honeymoon Lake

We don long sleeves and mosquito nets to watch the sun set over the mountains. Once darkness falls, we all retire to our tents, hoping for drier weather tomorrow.

Wildflowers and Wild Weather

July 20, 2018 | 11.3 mi | +2300′ / -1900′ | View on Map

In the morning, a few clouds lie scattered across the sky, hinting at storms to come later in the day. For the moment, however, the sun shines down on our camp; it’s a beautiful morning! After eating breakfast and packing up, we backtrack a few tenths of a mile to the Pine Creek Pass junction and then work uphill. We stroll past beautiful meadows and quiet ponds while ascending the lightly sloped trail to the pass.

pine creek pass lake
A beautiful lake below Treasure Mountain

Thanks to the gentle slope, our hike to the pass progresses quickly. I enjoy turning around every few minutes to admire the view of the valley behind us; I’m always surprised by how quickly the views change. We were far down the valley just an hour or two ago, and it seems so distant now!

pine creek pass
A view to the North from Pine Creek Pass

Pine Creek Pass is located in a wide saddle between two unnamed peaks amidst a bunch of scattered boulders. Two ponds on either side of the pass reflect the puffy clouds and distant peaks, offering some stunning photo opportunities! We take a break for a few minutes and do our best to toss around a small frisbee, but it proves difficult to control in the gusty wind. Daniel packed a lightweight kite and tries flying it, but the wind isn’t consistent enough to keep the kite airborne.

After goofing off for a little while, we re-shoulder our packs and continue down the trail into French Canyon. Dozens of wildflower varieties line the trail and fill the air with their sweet perfume. We stroll through this wilderness garden for miles, progressing steadily downhill alongside a gurgling creek. Soon, we find ourselves deep in the canyon, with smooth, white granite walls towering above us. An impressive cascade carrying water from the Royce Lakes hurtles down a cliff further down the canyon, holding our attention for quite a while as we walk closer. Thanks to the abundance of water and lush meadows, the air is noticeably humid, a strange experience in Sierras; the air is usually very dry!

After several hours in French Canyon, we reach the trail junction at Hutchinson Meadow. Rather than continue down the Pine Creek Trail to Florence Lake (and the Muir Trail Ranch), we turn east and begin walking up Piute Canyon toward Humphrey’s Basin and Piute Pass. Almost immediately after leaving the meadow, we reach a series of four or five creek crossings and find our way across each of them to reach the other side.

sierra nevada creek crossing
Daniel navigates across one of many creek crossings at the confluence of French and Piute Canyons

After navigating the numerous creek crossings, we begin a long, somewhat dreary walk through a pine forest. Mosquitoes follow us as we tread up the path, taking the opportunity to land and bite whenever we pause for a break. Annoyed at the bugs and a little tired, we each settle into our own pace and walk for a few hours.

sierra nevada forest
Overcast skies and thick foliage combine for a dark, gloomy walk through the mosquito-infested woods

By the time we reach the edge of the forest, the skies have darkened and thunder rumbles overhead. Anticipating another afternoon of drizzle, we pull on rain jackets and trudge onward; it’s still the early afternoon, so we’ll keep walking for a little longer to make a few more miles. A glance eastward reveals a heavy mist obscuring the distant peaks. A minute later I notice that the mist has drawn closer; now even the nearby peaks are dim through the hazy air. With a feeling of dread, I realize that the mist is actually a sheet of heavy rain moving our way. Thankfully, Diane, Daniel, and Josh are all nearby and we quickly hurry off the trail to a small, sandy patch and begin setting up our tents to shelter from the coming rain. We’re five minutes too late, however, and the torrential downpour arrives before we have the tents erected.

Thoroughly drenched, we finish setting up the tents, toss our things inside, and crawl under the rainflys ourselves. However, our relief from the downpour only last a few minutes because we soon realize that our impromptu campsite is smack dab in the middle of a small drainage creek. The rocky ground absorbs none of the water, instead channeling it through the lowest parts of the site. We dig a few channels to divert the water from running directly into the tents, but the ground is already saturated and the tent floor remains a puddle.

In addition to rain, the thunderstorm brings a few waves of hail. The tiny ice pellets bounce off the tent and ground, clattering as they impact the fly and the gravel soil. The air grows noticeably chillier, too, and I begin to shiver. Wet clothes, cold air, and huddling in a soggy tent are not exactly conducive to staying warm. Everyone else is getting cold as well and we soon decide to abandon our water-logged campsite. The rain continues to fall, but the thunder has faded, indicating the storm is likely winding down. Even though it’s still raining, it’s probably best that we keep moving to stay warm rather than get even colder. Hypothermia is a very real risk, and it would be great if we all avoided that fate.

So, we pack up our sopping wet tents and climb back up to the trail, which consists of a string of puddles and small streams now. My teeth chatter as I walk, so I pick up the pace and hurry uphill to generate some internal heat. After walking for a short while, we reach the vicinity of Lower Golden Trout Lake and spot a few sandy hills below the trail that ought to provide a better campsite. There’s no trail down to the hills, so we leave the Piute Pass Trail and trek cross-country down the grassy slopes toward the lakes and hills below. A few minutes later, we reach the spot we spied from above and set up our tents. The rain has slowed to a drizzle and the ground is more firm, a much better campsite than our previous spot. As we set up the tents, the clouds grow lighter and a tiny sliver of sun peeks through. Slowly, the clouds clear and let more and more light through to illuminate Humphrey’s Basin. We’re all overjoyed to feel the warm rays!

humphreys basin storm
To our great delight, the clouds clear and the sun comes out, providing some much-needed warmth

With the sun streaming through the still-falling mist, we soon notice a spectacular pair of rainbows stretching over the basin. A closer look reveals extra bands of color past violet on the bottom ‘bow. We all lose our minds in excitement; not only is there a bright, stunning, double rainbow, but there are extra, unexplainable colors! We later learn that this kind of rainbow is called a “supernumerary” rainbow. The extra bands of pastel colors appear when light refracts through fine drops of water and the resulting light waves constructively and destructively interfere with one another. How cool is that?!

humphreys basin rainbow
We’re all so excited that we forget to be cold for a while

With the warm sun shining down and the spectacular rainbows to distract us, we’re soon feeling much warmer and happier. Our clothes and tents are still pretty damp, so we hang things out to dry and mop up the water still clinging to the tents. Next, we heat water for dinner; the hot food goes a long way toward lifting our spirits, as does the hot chocolate Diane generously shares.

humphreys basin camping
A hot meal goes a long way toward improving our morale and body temperatures

After eating, we explore the area a bit. A handful of small streams wind through the meadows, feeding the numerous lakes below. The evening light plays across the peaks, including the magnificent form of Mount Humphreys. The juxtaposition of the stormy clouds and soft light make for some great sights and photo opportunities!

humphreys basin mount humphreys
The evening light plays across the peaks, coloring them faint shades of red and pink

As the sun sinks lower toward the western horizon, the clouds begin to change colors, encompassing every shade from red to pink to pale yellow. We watch the light show until the color fades from the sky and then trudge back to the tents. The sleeping bags remain dry, thank the gods, and we all enjoy crawling into bed and relaxing. What a day this has been!

Humphreys Basin Exploration

July 21, 2018 | 8.3 mi | +1700′ / -1500′ | View on Map

When I wake up in the morning, I’m happy to find clear blue skies without a single cloud in sight! Perhaps today will be the day when the storms disappear. Soon, everyone is up and enjoying the beautiful, albeit chilly, morning weather. Since we’re in no rush today (we only have a handful of miles if we take the shortest route), we spend a few lazy hours at camp. As soon as the sun peaks above the eastern ridge, we spread all of our wet clothing, tents, and other gear on the numerous boulders scattered around the meadow to dry out. The warm morning sun also feels great on the skin and helps warm us and the air to a more comfortable temperature.

humphreys basin golden trout lake
The morning alpenglow illuminates a peak above the glassy surface of Lower Golden Trout Lake

An hour or two later, all of our gear is dry and warm, so we pack everything up and say goodbye to our little campsite. A short cross-country trek along the Desolation Lake outlet stream brings us back to the trail. The single-track path winds through the pristine alpine wilderness: vast meadows dotted with granite and wildflowers. Impressed with the beautiful scenery, we pause plenty of times to take pictures and admire the views.

Since we have all day to travel just a few miles to our final campsite, we decide to make a detour off the Piute Pass trail to visit Desolation Lake. Additionally, rather than backtrack along the same trail, we’ll trek cross-country up to Forsaken Lake, over Forsaken Pass, to Humprey’s Lakes. From there, we’ll follow a trail back to Piute Pass and descend to one of several lakes below the pass.

We have some difficulty locating the trail to Desolation Lake, a faint side route marked by a small cairn. But, locate it we do, and we take off to the north toward Mount Humpreys through the alpine meadows. We lose the faint trail one or twice as we pass through fields of boulders, but, between the four of us, someone always locates it again.

Some time later, we reach the shores of Desolation Lake, a huge body of water beneath the imposing mass of Mount Humphreys. A faint breeze ruffles the long grass lining the lakeshore, and wildflowers nod in the wind. We follow an even fainter path along the shore to a small peninsula where we take a break to soak our feet, eat some snacks, and relax.

After a lovely break on the banks of Desolation Lake, we take off toward Forsaken Lake, a small pond hidden somewhere above. With some careful footwork, we follow the map and navigate the marshy meadows full of snowmelt to the banks of Forsaken Lake.

humphreys basin backpacking
Daniel and Diane make their way through the marshy meadows above Desolation Lake

Above the lake, we scramble up talus to reach a low saddle between Forsaken Lake and Humphrey’s Lakes to the south. The ascent isn’t terribly difficult – perhaps class II – but enough of a challenge to be incredibly fun and rewarding. By the time we reach the saddle, i.e., Forsaken Pass, everyone is smiling and excited to be trekking cross-country.

humphreys basin cross country backpacking
Daniel and Diane on the talus slopes, climbing steadily toward the saddle

The strong breeze from the top of Forsaken Pass supplies the perfect conditions for Daniel’s kite, which he flies for several minutes atop the saddle. The scene is full of whimsy; flying a kite seems so young and innocent, which dramatically juxtaposes the barren, aggressive vibe of the rocky pass.

humphreys basin kite
Daniel flies a kite in the stiff breeze blowing across the saddle

Puffy clouds drift overhead, an indication that we may very well have another rainy afternoon. The day is still young, however, so we take some time to enjoy lunch while sitting near a small tarn nestled on the ridge. After eating, we continue down easy terrain to Humphrey’s Lakes. The trail plotted on the map is nowhere to be seen, so we continue our off-trail trek toward Piute Pass. We hike easily down numerous grassy ramps, past creeks and lakes, checking the map as we go. It’s not super straightforward to identify our exact location, but we eventually cross an extremely faint path and follow it south and west, the general direction to Piute Pass.

Bent grass and the occasional cairn guide us to a ridge with an excellent view of Humphrey’s Basin. The Piute Pass Trail snakes up the valley far below, and we spot several backpackers hiking down along its length.

humphreys basin backpacking
At times, the trail is defined and easy to follow, but we’re frequently looking for cairns or trampled grass as clues to the direction we should go

We drop down from the ridge to Piute Pass, and then follow the well-traveled path down switchbacks toward Piute Lake. Many of the steps built into the trail are full of water from the recent rainstorms, and, by the look of the dark sky overhead, we’ll have another storm this afternoon.

humphreys basin
A view of Humphreys Basin from Piute Pass

As we descend, the heavens open and a light rain begins to fall. Soon, the rain turns into heavy hail; we take shelter beneath a stand of junipers until the hail dies out. With even darker skies in the distance and yesterday’s deluge fresh in our minds, we hurry down the trail and find a campsite near Piute Lake, taking care to ensure we won’t end up in the middle of a stream again. We pitch the tents, toss in our gear and… wait. A few minutes later, the rain increases in intensity and we take shelter. Thankfully, we’re much more prepared for the downpour than yesterday.

Unfortunately, the rain lasts for quite a while. Thunder booms overhead, rain pours down, and the hours tick by. Eventually, the thunder quiets down and the rain lightens to a drizzle, although it doesn’t stop completely. After lying in the tent for what feels like forever, I’m thoroughly bored and hungry. We cook dinner out in the cold drizzle, and then return to the tents to stay dry. At some point, we realize that the keys to the car parked at this end of the trail are locked in the car that we left at Pine Creek, thus, we have no way to unlock or drive the car we’ll return to tomorrow. So much for our easy transportation… we’ll just have to hitchhike back to town in the morning.

Finally, late in the evening, the rain stops and the overcast skies break into scattered clouds. With the sun low on the horizon, the clouds catch every ray, reflecting all kinds of bright colors. It’s another amazing light show after a tedious storm, a sort of “I’m sorry” from Mother Nature for the rain.

sierra nevada sunset
The skies catch fire as the sun sets

We stay up for a while as the light fades and the stars appear; the light is beautiful and standing around outside is a nice change of pace from the confines of our tents. However, as night falls, the temperature drops and we retire to the warm sleeping bags waiting in the tents.

Descent Along Bishop Creek

July 22, 2018 | 3.6 mi | +100′ / -1800′ | View on Map

With the prospect of having to hitchhike to town, we get up early and pack up camp. It’s another beautiful, nearly cloudless morning and I enjoy snapping a few photos of the mountains reflected in Loch Leven.

loch leven piute pass
Our early start this morning affords us some gorgeous reflections in Loch Leven

The descent is pretty straightforward except for a section of trail below Loch Leven traversing a rocky slope. The recent rains (we later learned) caused a rockslide, and we lose the trail once or twice on the way down. After a little backtracking, we relocate the path and make good time toward the trailhead, arriving just a few hours after leaving camp.

We ask around the campsite at the trailhead, but nobody seems to be leaving for town. Back at the parking area, we find a few folks at the nearby pack station. One very kind man, Steve, lends us his car to go and pick up our other vehicle. Incredibly grateful for Steve’s generosity, we hurry off and pick up the second car, retrieve the keys, and return to the Piute Pass Trailhead. With both cars, we drive back to town, find a coffee shop and munch on tasty pastries and sip on hot, delicious coffee.

The post Pine Creek to Piute Pass Thru Hike appeared first on Backcountry Sights.

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Sierra High Route: A First Taste Sun, 08 Jul 2018 12:00:50 +0000 By the time we reach the top, Amanda and I are both exhausted. Breathing heavily, we take in the view and start laughing. Laughing at the ridiculousness of the fact that we're miles from the nearest trail, laughing at the terrain we have to cross next, a difficult slope of loose talus, laughing at the mind-numbing grandeur of the peaks that surround us; fear, awe, despair, excitement, exhaustion, pride... all kinds of emotions wrapped up in laughter. It's far too soon to continue hiking, so we sit for a while and admire the views while building the resolve necessary to navigate the next section of the Sierra High Route.

The post Sierra High Route: A First Taste appeared first on Backcountry Sights.

The Sierra High Route, detailed by Steve Roper in his book of the same title, is a 195-mile route through some of the most rugged and beautiful country the Sierra Nevada have to offer. Much of the route is off-trail with plenty of class II and class III terrain and complete solitude. The Sierra High Route (SHR) parallels the John Muir Trail (JMT) for much of its duration but stays high when the JMT dips low. Having hiked the JMT last season, my goal for this summer is to complete the SHR. However, I have very little cross-country hiking experience and, wanting to gauge just what Roper means by “challenging climb” and “easy stroll” in his route description, I planned this 55-mile loop route as an SHR trial run.

The trek was a tremendous success – Amanda and I didn’t use the GPS at all! We had a great time exploring the high country when we weren’t cussing out the mosquitos, gasping for breath on a long climb, or nursing battered feet after a grueling descent. In all seriousness, this loop was more challenging than any other hike I’ve attempted, both physically and mentally, but simultaneously incredibly rewarding and breathtakingly beautiful. I would recommend the SHR to anyone with the guts and stamina to leave the beaten path behind.

This trip includes most of the first Sierra High Route section which Roper names “Cirque Country” and is labeled “Cirque (1)”; additional posts detail my journey along the rest of the high route.

Trip Planning

Route – This loop includes the first 25 miles of the SHR, followed by about 15 miles on the JMT and 15 miles on the Woods Creek Trail back to the trailhead at Road’s End. Begin at the Copper Creek trailhead and follow the SHR until it joins the JMT in Upper Basin below Mather Pass. From this junction, follow the JMT south-bound to the Woods Creek suspension bridge. At the bridge, the JMT crosses Woods Creek and travels uphill to the Rae Lakes; this loop instead continues down the Woods Creek trail, past Paradise Valley, to return to Road’s End.

Permit & Regulations – The Copper Creek trailhead (and the entire loop) lies within the borders of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, so you’ll need to obtain a permit from them (email in a PDF application). The Copper Creek trailhead is far less popular than the Bubbs and Woods Creek trails that bookend the Rae Lakes Loop, so you shouldn’t have too much competition! Keep in mind that campfires are prohibited above about 10,000 feet (varies by regulating agency and park), and that, as a cross-country traveler through the remote wilderness, you must take care to leave no trace.

Resources – Navigating this off-trail route requires some extra preparation. Roper’s book is an indispensable and light-hearted resource for the SHR portion of the trek. I created an interactive map of the SHR while researching this hike that you may find useful, particularly by printing out the relevant portions of the map at a scale of your choosing. You can also download the GPX/KML waypoints from this resource to use with a navigational aid, such as the Gaia GPS app (my personal choice). There are many printed maps available for this area; I packed the Sequoia-Kings Canyon map published by National Geographic since it covers the entire area of this hike and is tear- and water-resistant.

First Steps on the Sierra High Route

July 4, 2018 | 11 mi | +7000′ / -1400′ | View on Map

After waiting impatiently in line at the Road’s End permit station to receive our permit, Amanda and I lock the car, stash our deodorant and leftover road trip snacks in a nearby bear box, and begin the climb up the Copper Creek Trail. A haze obscures the distant peaks – smoke? Surely not smog? Although it’s only barely 8:30, the air is already warm and the sun is surprisingly high in the sky. The first few miles (or what feels like a few miles… I’m a terrible judge of distance while hiking) are sunny and exposed; shadeless. Although the trail follows gently-ascending switchbacks, our packs are heavy with supplies for the four-day trip and we’re soon dripping sweat.

As we climb higher, we reach larger trees that supply some cover from the sun. However, with the shade comes steeper trail, as the ranger laughingly warned us this morning at the permit station. Still, Amanda and I bear the exertion more easily in the cool shadows. We push through sunny stretches of trail between shade oases and climb higher still. The views begin to improve after an hour or two and several thousand feet of elevation gain. It’s too bad the air is so hazy.

sierra high route copper creek trail
As we gain altitude, the views get better and better

On our way up the endless switchbacks, we pass several creeks lined with lush grass and plentiful wildflowers. I toss my hat in to soak up some of the cold water, Amanda submerges her entire shirt, and we both enjoy the refreshing chill of the evaporating water as we continue to climb.

By the time 1 PM rolls around, we’re both tired and hungry, so we drop our packs in the middle of a shaded switchback and dig out lunch: dried mangos, peanut butter, and tortillas. We devour the food and then munch on some Oreos to top off the extremely health-conscious meal. You have to adjust your thinking when packing food for a backpacking trip; rather than trying to minimize your caloric intake, you need to maximize it. Peanut butter and cookies do the trick.

After lunch, we continue up even more switchbacks, thankfully mostly in the shade of towering pines. Amanda is beginning to wonder why in the world she agreed to join me on this hellish, infinite climb, and I can’t blame her. We began this morning at about 5,200 feet above sea level and have climbed around 5,000 feet in the past four and a half hours. Patches of blue sky through the trees continue to give us false hopes that we’ve reached the top of the climb.

We finally reach a saddle where the trail levels out and take a break on a large, flat slab of granite. This is the end of our on-trail journey for the next couple days; from here on out, we’re bushwhacking through the backcountry! I pull Roper’s route description out of my backpack and read the instructions aloud, “This welcome resting spot marks the beginning of a truly adventurous portion of the High Route, for here the hiker leaves the trail to begin wandering cross-country through the subalpine landscape.” That’s us! We’re about to begin adventuring!

After catching our breath and collecting our wits, Amanda and I leave the trail and head north-northeast through a pleasant pine forest. This hiking is infinitely more stimulating than the switchbacks; we’re constantly zig-zagging between trees, climbing up and down and over rocks, and identifying new landmarks in line with the compass bearing. The Grouse Lake outlet stream, surrounded by meadows, lies below and to our right as we trek through the woods. Upon reaching higher ground away from the trees, we look back and can’t help but laugh at the breathtaking views: granite, pines, alpine meadows, and the imposing Kaweah Peaks in the distance. This cross-country hiking rocks!

sierra high route kaweah ridge
After lounging at Grouse Lake for a while, we continue our climb

We soon spot the gleaming waters of Grouse Lake and make a beeline for the shore. We wade around in the chilly water for a few minutes and try to avoid the mosquitoes that seem to plague every beautiful mountain lake in this mountain range (at least early in the season). Unfortunately, we can’t afford to stay long and move on after a brief rest; we have plenty of daylight and there are more miles left to cover!

sierra high route grouse lake
The first lake on the Sierra High Route is a gem!

The next landmark on the High Route is Grouse Lake Pass, a low saddle between two peaks above the lake. From the lakeshore, we wind our way up granite slabs and grassy ramps, thoroughly enjoying the experience. I prefer to wind across the landscape, making my own switchbacks as I go. Amanda, on the other hand, prefers a more direct route and trudges deliberately up the slope toward the saddle.

“Bushwhacking” is perhaps too aggressive a term for this kind of cross-country travel, for there really aren’t any bushes to whack, just lots of grass, wildflowers, and scruffy pine trees. Other than the steep incline, it’s really not any more difficult to hike in this subalpine paradise than on a well-traveled trail. That being said, any kind of uphill climb at this altitude (11,000′) is difficult on the first day. We’re not yet acclimated to the altitude, and our lungs struggle to extract enough oxygen from the thin air to fuel our muscles. I pause every few minutes to catch my breath and slow my racing heart, giving me a chance to snap a few photos and admire the scenery.

sierra high route kaweah ridge
After lounging at Grouse Lake for a while, we continue our climb

We soon reach Grouse Lake Pass and, stunned by the awesome views, pause our trek for a few minutes. The Kaweah Peaks dominate the view to the south, with Grouse Lake gleaming like a sapphire in a ring of white granite in the foreground. Our view to the west includes  half a dozen shimmering lakes, all inviting. Roper anticipates their attraction and explicitly cautions against descending to their banks. Our path lies to the north, toward Goat Crest Saddle. We reluctantly follow his advice and, after munching on trail mix, continue our journey.

Any regrets we have of walking away from the lakes below are short-lived as we soon reach a small snowbank. Amanda takes advantage of this rare July opportunity to make a snow angel! Before leaving, she stuffs some snow in her pockets to ease her aching hips and I fill my hat to cool my head.

For the next few miles, a passing hiker (if there were any) might assume I have a sweating problem as the snow melts and runs down my head. Quite the contrary: For the first time all day, we hike downhill, speeding across soft meadows and along the shores of little tarns with relatively little effort. What a beautiful landscape!

sierra high route tarn
A lovely little tarn between Grouse Lake Pass and Goat Crest Saddle

Of course, we’re not actually done climbing for the day. With the sun beginning to drop toward the western horizon, we have time for one final pass: Goat Crest Saddle. The approach isn’t terribly steep, but the thin air continues to make every exertion twice as difficult as usual. Amanda and I pause on the way up to appreciate the plentiful shooting stars waving in the breeze.

sierra high route shooting stars
There are lots of these little blossoms in the high country

During the final hundred yards of the ascent to Goat Crest Saddle, we crunch through sandy soil and notice footprints: other High Route trekkers have been here, a good sign that we haven’t completely lost our way. The pass itself lies in shadow and appears to remain that way most of the time, judging by the amount of snow and ice there. We pick our way around the edge, carefully avoiding the electric-blue tarn that is sure to be absolutely freezing. Beyond the shaded foreground, the Palisades shine in the evening light to the north. We’re heading in that general direction for the next several days!

sierra high route goat crest saddle
A small snowfield and ice-filled lake at Goat Crest Saddle, with the Palisades shining in the distance

Past the small snowfield and icy tarn, Amanda and I reach the edge of a steep slope. Granite Lake shines in the warm light below; we’ll camp there tonight. However, we have to get down to the water first. We have two options: we can clamber and hop down large talus boulders for several hundred yards or navigate our way down a relatively steep snowfield. The boulders don’t look like much fun, so we head for the snow. It’s Amanda’s first time glissading and her excitement is contagious; we’re both laughing like children when we slide to a halt at the bottom of the snow.

sierra high route glissade
Glissading down the snowfield sure beats hopping down the talus! Photo credit: Amanda

Unfortunately, the snow doesn’t reach all the way to the lake and we have some boulder hopping to do anyway. The talus soon gives way to grass interspersed with rocks and we make quick work of the remaining descent. Daylight is fading fast as we reach the lakeshore and identify a small, tent-sized patch of sand between granite slabs. We set up camp and then sit back and relax while heating water for dinner. The mosquitoes soon learn of our arrival and bring their friends to suck our blood. Without the mosquitoes, backpacking in the Sierras would be absolute bliss. With the mosquitoes… well, it’s still pretty incredible.

sierra high route glacier lake
Our destination for the night: (Upper) Glacier Lake

After cooking and eating dinner, Amanda and I stash our scented items in the bear canister and retreat to the bug-free safety of the tent. After the long climb on Copper Creek Trail and the exciting, off-trail afternoon, we’re both exhausted and soon fall asleep.

White Pass and Red Pass

July 5, 2018 | 10.3 mi | +3300′ / -3700′ | View on Map

The next morning, Amanda and I rise early to get a head start on the day. I heat water for oatmeal and coffee while Amanda packs up the tent, and then we sit down and enjoy breakfast. It’s a beautiful morning with characteristic Sierra weather: blue skies, no clouds, and bright sunshine. The mosquitoes seem to have forgotten about us for the moment too!

sierra high route camping
Amanda enjoys some morning coffee on the shores of Glacier Lake

After breakfast and a thorough look around camp to make sure we aren’t forgetting anything, we shoulder our packs and begin hiking. The High Route proceeds past Upper Glacier Lake, down to a lower Glacier Lake, and then descends a series of forested granite ramps to Glacier Valley. We make quick work of the descent to the lower lake but pause at the edge of a steep dropoff above Glacier Valley. Our path ahead is completely forested, but looks relatively flat (once we get down to the valley floor), a welcome respite from the steep ups and downs we hiked yesterday.

sierra high route glacier valley
Amanda inspects the landscape we’ll be trekking through in the next few hours

After admiring the views, checking the map, and rereading Roper’s route description, we begin our descent into the valley. Navigating the granite ramps isn’t terribly difficult, though a few are treacherously smooth or covered in pine needles that slip underfoot.

sierra high route granite slabs
Amanda makes her way down steep Granite slabs

Upon reaching the valley floor, Amanda and I pick up our pace and rejoice in the flat, easy terrain. We stick to the edge of the meadow, beneath the trees, to avoid squishing through the fragile turf and also to avoid the mosquitoes that thrive in the cool, damp grass. Even in the trees, dozens of mosquitoes discover our presence and follow us for miles; head nets and long sleeves are a must to avoid being eaten alive.

sierra high route meadow
Upon reaching the valley floor, we enjoy easy walking on soft grass

The miles slip by as we navigate the quiet meadows. We soon reach the State Lakes Trail and follow it, ascending several hundred feet to a beautiful lake and then a second lake. From here, we follow a faint trail through the woods, relying on the compass as much as the trail to find our way. Upon reaching a small sign at a trail junction, we switch trails and proceed on to the Horseshoe Lakes. The route is generally level, and we’re gifted several fantastic views of the Goat Crest, including the saddle we traversed and the snowfield we glissaded down last night. We’ve come a long way in just a few hours!

By the time we reach the first of the Horseshoe Lakes, we’re ready for a snack and a break. We soak our feet while wearing full mosquito gear, awkwardly trying to eat around the head nets. Amanda’s shoes have not been kind to her feet and she’s developed several blisters and sores. She treats them with supplies from the first aid kit and then we continue onward toward another lake, off-trail once more, following a compass heading and Steve Roper’s cheerful advice.

sierra high route horseshoe lake
I admire these flowers while soaking my feet in one of the Horseshoe Lakes

After trekking between two more Horseshoe Lakes, we begin to climb in earnest. The hot sun quickly saps our energy as we struggle up the steep, loose soil on a forested hillside. We lose sight of each other every so often while battling up the hill, but are never out of earshot; a quick cry of “Marco”, “Polo” is sufficient to locate each other.

sierra high route windy canyon ridge
Out in the hot sun, the climb from Horseshoe Lakes to the ridge of Windy Canyon requires a lot of energy

The arduous climb delivers us to the brink of Windy Canyon, i.e., Windy Ridge. Very much in need of a rest, Amanda and I find a shady spot and sit down for a few minutes, sip water, and catch our breaths. The sharp drop off immediately in front of us offers great views of the Black Divide and Devil’s Crags.

sierra high route windy canyon
The view down Windy Canyon from the ridge makes up for the climb

After resting for a few minutes, we continue the uphill climb, though on a shallower gradient, along Windy Canyon, remaining close to the cliff’s edge as Roper advises. We pass a lovely tarn and wander through a sandy landscape full of short grass and scrubby bushes. I miss one of the landmarks along the way, but we easily find our way to Gray Pass in the high, open country.

sierra high route lake
Lake 10,236 is a nice sight on our hike to Grey Pass

Looking east from Gray Pass, we’re treated to an incredible vista of granite peaks and, far below, grassy meadows, small lakes, and gurgling streams. Our goal is to reach White Pass, a few miles distant, but to reach the pass we must first descend all the way to those meadows and lakes. Roper directs High Route travelers to follow a “long, grassy chute” to the valley floor, so we find a feature that resembles his description and start descending. Whether or not it is the “right” grassy chute, I don’t know, but it’s likely unimportant. The downhill climb requires some careful footing and some trial-and-error route finding through thick willows and rock-strewn stream beds. Amanda descends much more quickly than I, bounding between rocks on the way down.

sierra high route backpacking
Amanda speeds across the landscape as we descend to the South Fork of Cartridge Creek

Down on the valley floor, we break for lunch – peanut butter, tortillas, and fruit again, a delicious classic! It’s not immediately clear which direction we need to travel to reach White Pass; I wasn’t all that sure which saddle it is from the top either. Given a rough estimate of our position, we need to move due east, or straight up a wall of granite. It looks passable so, after finishing lunch, we begin the climb. It’s not exactly easy, but walking up the steep stone doesn’t require any technical skills either. I pull out the map and compass several times along the way, hoping to refine our position and identify White Pass, but that information continues to elude me.

It’s not until we reach a series of grassy benches with excellent views of the valley we just left that I completely confirm our location. We’ve definitely taken a more direct route than Roper intended, but we’re on the right track! Amanda and I refill our bottles from an ice-cold creek fed by melting snow in the peaks above; the water is so clear and clean that I don’t even bother filtering.

The final few hundred yards to White Pass consist of sand and granite. The steep slope, loose soil, and thin air conspire against us, and it’s a real struggle to continue climbing. But we can’t stop yet – we have, at a minimum, several more miles to hike before we’ll reach a suitable campsite. Onward it is.

sierra high route white pass
The final hundred yards to White Pass are full of sand and granite

By the time we reach the top, Amanda and I are both exhausted. Breathing heavily, we take in the view and start laughing. Laughing at the ridiculousness of the fact that we’re miles from the nearest trail, laughing at the terrain we have to cross next, a difficult slope of loose talus, laughing at the mind-numbing grandeur of the peaks that surround us; fear, awe, despair, excitement, exhaustion, pride… all kinds of emotions wrapped up in laughter. It’s far too soon to continue hiking, so we sit for a while and admire the views while building the resolve necessary to navigate the next section of the Sierra High Route.

sierra high route white pass
Exhausted from the long climb, Amanda and I take a break at the top of White Pass to admire the scenery

From White Pass, we follow Roper’s advice closely: ascend up class II blocks, then contour across loose talus, and finally ascend to Red Pass, a prominent saddle just across the way. Regardless of the proximity, reaching Red Pass is not easy, particularly once we start across the talus. Many of the stones shift and slide underfoot, so the traverse requires care to avoid a turned (or sprained) ankle.

sierra high route talus
The terrain between White Pass and Red Pass is full of loose talus, not the most enjoyable to walk on. Photo credit: Amanda

After carefully navigating to Red Pass, we gaze into yet another deep valley. There’s no avoiding this descent; we have to drop well over a thousand feet to Marion Lake. Our original plan for the day was to hike up and over Frozen Lake Pass, but that isn’t going to happen. It turns out that cross-country travel is more rigorous than either of us anticipated.

Although the descent from Red Pass is long, a use trail left by previous High Route travelers makes the walk easier and guides us toward the dark blue waters of Marion Lake far below. Our laughter has faded and been replaced by stoic silence. That is, until we reach the final obstacle separating us from Marion Lake: a short, but incredibly steep chute that drops straight to the water’s edge. From the top, the chute appears impassible, but we follow previous adventurers’ footsteps, taking care to avoid sliding on the loose gravel.

sierra high route marion lake
We’re separated from Marion Lake by an incredibly steep chute

As soon as we reach the water, swarms of mosquitoes appear to greet us. We battle through willows for a short distance and then trudge into the trees near the outlet creek to locate a campsite. Amanda accrues a dozen bites in a few short minutes and retreats to the tent as soon as possible. The mosquitoes appear to be less interested in my blood than hers, so I set about making dinner (fully decked out in a head net and long sleeves of course; the airborne vampires still want to eat me) while Amanda unpacks the sleeping bags and pads.

sierra high route helen leconte memorial
This jewel of a lake is named in memory of Helen LeConte

When the food (CousCous, tuna, and cheese!) has soaked up the hot water, Amanda joins me on a rocky ledge overlooking Cartridge Creek. A lively breeze discourages the mosquitoes from following us here and we eat in relative peace while watching the sun sink toward the peaks on the distant horizon. It’s a lovely evening and we’ve earned every last shred of beauty it has to offer.

With full bellies and tired bodies, we stash away the food and crawl into the tent. A few dozen mosquitoes crawl over the bug netting, trying to find their way inside. Thankfully, their search is fruitless and we’re able to fall asleep in peace.

Frozen Lake Pass and Beyond

July 6, 2018 | 14.7 mi | +4400′ / -3800′ | View on Map

Morning brings cool temperatures and relatively few mosquitoes (thank the gods). Amanda and I eat breakfast, pack up camp, and begin the days’ hike. Our route today will take us over one of the High Route’s most difficult barriers (according to Roper): Frozen Lake Pass. But first, we have several miles to walk through Lake Basin. We cross the Marion Lake outlet creek and stroll through a beautiful forest. Roper references a “well-worn path” through these woods, but we never find it. Regardless, we tread easily up gently sloping terrain, passing several beautiful lakes that are smooth as glass in the still morning air.

Unfortunately, our presence in Lake Basin is soon well known to every mosquito within several miles and we are constantly surrounded by swarms of them. The devils’ persistent presence makes it difficult to navigate; I’m not entirely sure which of the many saddles to the north is the one to aim for and every time I pause to consult the map, dozens of mosquitoes land on my pants and shirt. To avoid being devoured, we cover up with head nets and keep our hands in our pockets. While I’m still unsure of which saddle is Frozen Lake Pass, finding a route in the general uphill direction is remarkably simple thanks to the abundance of grass and granite ramps, and I enjoy the walk despite the mosquitoes.

lake basin sierra high route
Amanda treks through the incredible landscape of Lake Basin

Eventually, Amanda and I leave the lush, green, mosquito-ridden meadows and climb into drier terrain. After a few iterations of compulsive map-checking, we agree on a saddle and begin a more rigorous ascent. Even after several days at altitude, I find the climbing difficult here at 11,000+ feet, although I do enjoy walking along the soft, grassy slope littered with granite boulders.

We soon reach the next High Route landmark, a “large lake encircled by talus,” confirming that we’ve correctly identified Frozen Lake Pass. We pause for a break and stare up at our route. From the far side of the lake, the ascent looks impossibly steep, completely covered in large boulders. A diagonal slot on the slope leads to the distinct notch that marks the pass, but beyond… who knows?

sierra high route frozen lake pass
From the lakeshore, Frozen Lake Pass (left-most notch) seems distant and difficult to reach

After a short break, we gather our wits and begin walking around the lake. Water sloshes between the rocks, gurgling as we hop between stones. We soon reach the opposite side of the lake; staring up at the pass, the slope seems slightly less steep. There’s only one thing to: begin the climb!

sierra high route frozen lake pass
Amanda walks along the shore of the tarn

At first, we make quick work of the ascent. Plenty of sandy patches between boulders supply an easy route upward. Soon, however, we’re faced with a solid slope of talus. Roper warns that some of the stones may be unstable, so we push and prod the rocks before committing our weight to them. Amanda and I have slightly different styles when it comes to climbing a pile of boulders. I prefer to zig-zag across the slope, identifying strings of rocks that form little ramps and bring me slightly closer to the top. Amanda, on the other hand, keeps her eye on the prize and climbs more directly up the slope, employing bouldering moves to scramble up and over the talus. We both settle into our respective grooves and actually enjoy the climb!

sierra high route frozen lake pass
The ascent to Frozen Lake Pass consists entirely of large boulders, which we thoroughly enjoy climbing!

I’m surprised to find an abundant population of wildflowers between the rocks. There is little soil to be found and even less water, but bouquets of yellow flowers that look like dandelions dot the terrain, and – higher up – a whole bunch of sky pilots thrive. I look back periodically to check out the views and am impressed by our speed. The talus-encircled lake has shrunk to a small puddle below us and Lake Basin seems a world away.

After about an hour of solving rock-climbing puzzles, we reach the pass and take a nice, long break. At over 12,380 feet above sea level, this saddle marks our highest point on the trip and the air is noticeably thin. Roper mentions a register kept in a cairn astride the pass, and, though I search for several minutes, I can’t locate it. Perhaps it was washed away with a heavy snowstorm, or perhaps I just haven’t looked long enough. I’m a bit bummed that Amanda and I won’t be able to sign it and read entries from previous Sierra High Route travelers.

sierra high route frozen lake pass
Amanda takes a breather at the top of the pass

From the top of the pass, we gape at the vast array of peaks, lakes, and meadows to the south. I’m particularly enamored with Arrow Peak, a prominent mountain with sharp ridges. The landscape to the north is equally impressive, though Upper Basin contains notably fewer lakes than Lake Basin (which seems appropriate given their names). Somewhere far below is the Pacific Crest Trail / John Muir Trail, our next destination and the end of our adventure on the Sierra High Route, though certainly not the end of the trip!

We are considerably more wary of the descent from the pass than the ascent. I always prefer uphill travel – the downhill journey is nothing more than a controlled fall, and it’s easy to lose control, particularly when the footing is loose. And oh, is the footing on the north side of Frozen Lake Pass loose! We more or less slide down the first 50 feet of thin gravel before reaching familiar talus. To our right, a steep snowfield glitters in the sun. Protruding rocks and an excessive number of suncups make a glissade from this high point rather risky, so we descend a bit farther and then cut over to the soft snow. I’ll take walking on snow over talus-hopping any day. Thankfully, we’re able to descend all the way to a small tarn via the snow, avoiding hundreds of feet of precarious rocks.

Past the tarn, we’re faced with our final challenge on the SHR, a “disappointing dropoff.” It seems some rock-hopping is unavoidable on this descent. Amanda and I carefully pick our way down the slope to another tarn, and (finally) reach “solid” ground, i.e., rocks embedded in soil rather than heaped upon one another. We pick up speed and stride east across the alpine meadows toward the PCT/JMT; we can’t see it yet, but it must be there.

Originally, my plan for this trip was to hike from here to Pinchot Pass, then to Glenn Pass, and finally back to Road’s End via the Bubbs Creek Trail. However, we’ve taken longer than I anticipated (and, to be fair, the route was probably far too ambitious) and are four or five miles behind schedule. You, dear reader, already know the route we take but, at the time, we’re uncertain whether we’ll be able to take a shortcut down the Woods Creek Trail. Last year, the bridge spanning the South Fork of the Kings River washed out and has not yet been replaced, thus, travelers must wade across the river. With memories of last year’s high water still fresh in my mind, I’m unsure that the route is passable.

So, until we determine that we can take the Woods Creek shortcut, we proceed as if we have many miles to walk. Thankfully, hiking on the PCT is ridiculously easy compared to the Sierra High Route boulder-hopping, and we speed through the miles. In fact, Amanda runs down the trail (her preferred method of downhill travel) while I speedwalk, falling progressively farther behind her. Although I’ve traversed this canyon before, I’ve never actually set foot on this portion of the trail. Last year on the John Muir Trail, I had to skip this portion of the route; several hikers died attempting to cross the Kings River and the trail was temporarily rerouted to cross the river where it is shallower in Upper Basin rather than further down the canyon.

In addition to the drastically easier walk, our travel along the JMT/PCT brings us into contact with far more people than we’ve seen in days. Besides the folks we chatted with while picking up our permit, we’ve seen a grand total of three humans since beginning our hike, and we met all of them during the first few miles on the Copper Creek Trail. In the first hour on the JMT, we speed past at least double or triple that number!

Thanks to our fast pace, we soon reach the Kings River and easily complete the river crossing. We query a few hikers lounging nearby to see if any of them have come up the Woods Creek Trail (is the route passable?), but none of them have ventured that far off the JMT. So we continue on past the river, beginning several miles of uphill hiking. We make quick work of the gradual switchbacks and emerge from the wooded slopes onto the gorgeous alpine meadows near Bench Lake. I run up to the nearby ranger station to inquire about our alternate route, but the station is empty; the ranger must be out elsewhere.

Still anxious about the potential for many miles ahead, we push on up the valley, passing a string of beautiful lakes that culminate in the breathtaking grandeur of Lake Marjorie. Although we’re both tired and could use a break, we pass the lake by. It would be nice to jump in, cool off… but there are so many miles to come…

The ascent to Pinchot Pass stretches on and on. Each ridge fools us into thinking we’ve arrived at the summit, only to be disappointed when we reach the crest and see yet a higher hill ahead. I don’t remember it being this long, but then again, the last time I hiked this trail I was full of adrenaline, racing storm clouds to avoid yet another rainy day.

After much huffing and puffing, we reach the pass and collapse in exhaustion. I don’t remember the last time I was this tired, and we still have further to go; we can’t exactly camp here on the jagged, rocky terrain of Pinchot Pass. So, with much sighing, we shoulder our packs and descend from Pinchot Pass. For a while, I forget my tiredness and admire the stunning beauty of the landscape before me: the rich reds, greens, and blues, the sharp peaks, the meandering streams… absolutely stunning.

john muir trail pinchot pass
This landscape south of Pinchot Pass remains one of my favorite sights on the JMT

As we stroll through the rolling meadows, I find my eyes closing of their own accord, a new experience for me; how can I fall asleep while walking? Now hiking in determined, exhausted silence, Amanda and I press on for a few more miles to Wildlife Lake, a beautiful little pond surrounded by lush grass, shooting stars, and a set of perfect campsites nestled in the nearby pines. To my surprise, we’re the only backpackers here! I guess word hasn’t gotten out that this is one of the best campsites on the JMT.

Amanda sets up the tent while I cook dinner, a routine that has become familiar over the past few days. The mosquitoes arrive to extract our blood while we set up camp, but we’re just too tired to care and sit outside, defying the bugs to land and be smashed, while the food rehydrates. We eat, brush our teeth, and then retire to the wonderful comfort of our sleeping bags and succumb to sleep at least.

All Downhill From Here

July 7, 2018 | 18.9 mi | +900′ / -6700′ | View on Map

In the morning, Amanda and I wake up feeling refreshed and determined to make the most of the day. We quickly eat breakfast, pack up camp, and begin a long downhill trek along Woods Creek. It’s a clear day, with lots of sunshine though our route remains shaded by the eastern mountains. Amanda quickly leaves me behind as she leaps and bounds down the trail.

sierra nevada reflection
Early morning light on the mountains

As I hike down the trail at my own (respectable, mind you) pace, I reminisce about hiking this stretch of the John Muir Trail last year. The conditions are nearly identical: I left Wildlife Lake early in the morning and hiked through the shaded Woods Creek canyon. The lighting and colors are remarkably similar, but the massive snow bridges covering the creek are distinctly missing this year.

woods creek cascade
We hurry down the shaded canyon along Woods Creek

I reunite with Amanda at the Woods Creek bridge, where we find a small collection of thru-hikers drowsily emerging from their tents beside the trail. Amanda has already asked around and learned that the Woods Creek Trail is very much passable; we can easily manage the river crossing and cut a full 7 miles (and the ascent to Glenn Pass) out of our route! Finally able to relax, we spend some time at the bridge, eating snacks and admiring a twisted pine.

With our moods much improved, Amanda and I leave the suspension bridge behind and continue downhill along Woods Creek. The terrain soon begins to change as we lose altitude; we’re surrounded by drier grass, taller trees, and an abundance of chaparral. The impressive Castle Domes loom over us as we progress down the canyon, through meadows full of wildflowers and several surprisingly hot, sandy plains.

We pause to admire the views of impressive granite cliffs further down the canyon, though not for long; the sun has already climbed high into the sky and is scorching hot; it’s best to pause in the shade.

kings canyon backpacking
The views only grow more impressive as we descend

After several hot, dry miles, we reach a stream and take a long break to soak our feet in the ice-cold water and munch on snacks. Another pair of hikers arrive just as we’re leaving, and Amanda recognizes them from the permit line several days ago. They’re on their last leg of the Rae Lakes Loop and are headed out the same way as we are. Thoroughly refreshed from our long break, we give up our spots beside the water to them and continue down the trail.

We take a nice long break at an ice-cold creek

A short while later we reach the South Fork of the Kings River. The bridge is conspicuously missing, although two sets of stairs on either side of the river clearly mark its previous location. We deliberately wade through the wide, but shallow river to the other side, taking care to avoid slipping on the smooth rocks underfoot. My feet are soon numb from the frigid water, and for once I’m glad that it’s so hot outside; my shoes will dry in no time!

A set of established campsites on the far bank of the river marks our entry into a section of the canyon named “Paradise Valley.” It doesn’t seem very heavenly here, with oppressive heat radiating from the sandy soil between stands of pine trees. We hurry onward, hoping to find a cooler spot for lunch. We locate just such a location another mile down the trail and settle down for a much-needed multi-hour break next to the river. The water is slightly warmer here, so, after eating lunch, Amanda and I both wade in and cool down. We stay for a while, waiting out the afternoon heat on the shaded bank of the river.

kings canyon river
We stop for lunch and swimming in the Kings River

Although our lunch spot by the water is perfectly wonderful, we have more miles to cover to reach the end of our loop and eventually continue walking. Somewhat paradoxically, the views down the canyon continue to improve as we descend. Usually, the views get better as you climb higher!

kings canyon
Now that is one awesome view!

We’re soon descending an aggressive set of switchbacks that wind along exposed granite ridges. I enjoy the views but nearly step on a king snake, frightening both the snake and myself. At the bottom of the switchbacks, we arrive at Mist Falls, an aptly-named cascade that fills the air with cool water droplets. A dozen day hikers are scattered around the falls, taking selfies and generally enjoying themselves. The presence of this many shirtless dudes can mean only one thing: we’re not that far from the parking lot!

kings canyon mist falls
The waterfall fills the air with mist

The final few miles of trail take us through a variety of very different biospheres. We trek along granite ramps beneath deciduous trees, then through a dark, foreboding forest of tall evergreens. Closer to the trailhead, we discover that a recent prescribed burn has left the entire landscape charred and covered in ash. The well-traveled miles of trail between the waterfall and the trailhead drift by and we soon find ourselves back in the familiar parking lot. The end of any hike is always a little bittersweet; exploring the backcountry is fun and exciting, but it sure is nice to return to flush toilets and climate control. After changing into cleaner (and better smelling) clothes, we drive away, heading for hot food and the comforts of home.

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A Night Atop Cucamonga Peak Sat, 23 Jun 2018 11:00:11 +0000 With waning daylight, we set up our tents and cook/eat some dinner. The summit of Cucamonga Peak supplies tons of fantastic campsites, some beneath trees, others out in the open among rocks and chaparral. Coco and I set up our tent near a small stand of pines, but David and Nihal opt for a spot with more expansive views.

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Cucamonga Peak is one of many summits in the Cucamonga Wilderness accessible from the Icehouse Canyon trail. While the hike is not terribly long – about 6-miles, one way – the elevation gain of 4,200 feet is taxing. Many hikers complete the out-and-back route from Icehouse Canyon to Cucamonga Peak as a day hike. However, as I hadn’t been camping in a while, I thought it would be fun to watch the sun set from the summit, spend the night, and then watch the sun rise in the morning. With this simple plan in mind, I recruited a few coworkers and went backpacking.

Trip Planning

Perhaps the most pressing logistical detail to consider is parking at the Icehouse Canyon trailhead. An Adventure Pass (or equivalent interagency pass) is required to park at the lot, which fills to capacity very early on weekend mornings. Additionally, a self-issued permit (available from a box at the trailhead) is required for the hike. If you plan to use a stove (campfires are prohibited), you’ll need an additional campfire permit, available online. As far as maps go, I recommend the Tom Harrison topo map of the Cucamonga Wilderness for this hike. Finally, since this route is a popular one, take care to leave no trace!

Icehouse Canyon to Cucamonga Peak

June 22, 2018 | 5.75 mi | +4200′ / -200′ | View on Map

Thanks to our wonderful 9/80 work schedule, David, Coco, Nihal and I don’t have work on Friday and decide to begin our hike on our day off rather than fight the crowds on Saturday morning. As the route to Cucamonga Peak is less than 6-miles, we begin later in the day (at noon) to avoid excessive amounts of time spent lounging around camp.  The downside of this plan is that the temperature is already climbing into the 80’s when we begin our hike and we have lots of elevation gain ahead of us.

The trail begins in the shaded Icehouse Canyon, weaving between cabins very similar to those in the Santa Anita Canyon. While hiking through the canyon we gain elevation relatively slowly, a good warm-up for the climbs to come. We soon leave the cool confines of the lower canyon and begin a more aggressive ascent on dusty, rock-strewn trail.

Mid-way through the climb to Icehouse Saddle, we stop at the last water source available on this route: a small spring gushing from the rocks below the trail. We’re prepared for dry camping with several liters of water carrying capacity each, and we all tank up while we can. The water is cold and refreshing, so I soak my hat before leaving for some extra head refrigeration. From the spring, we continue up numerous switchbacks to the Icehouse Canyon saddle. The route is steep at times, and my calves burn as I climb. At the saddle, we enjoy a break beneath the shade of the tall conifers.

Many trails lead away from Icehouse Saddle; our route continues south and west toward Cucamonga Peak. Although we still have at least 1,000 feet to climb, we find ourselves descending as we contour along the east side of Bighorn Mountain. The downhill slope provides a nice change of pace, but we’re all well aware that we have to regain every single downward step to reach the summit of Cucamonga.

After descending a bit, the trail climbs once more, switching back to a saddle between Bighorn Mountain and Cucamonga Peak. From this saddle, we begin the final climb. Initially, we ascend switchbacks through large scree fields, the stones clinking and clattering as our feet disrupt their equilibrium. The scree fields don’t last long, however, and we’re soon kicking up dust on a more conventional path.

Although we pause many times to catch our breath and gulp down some water during the hot, dusty ascent, we eventually reach the summit. Other than a nice couple already enjoying the views, we’re the only hikers up here! The relative solitude and quiet evening air are well worth the arduous climb. We find several summit signs atop various rocks, both at the true summit and below it, and take a few photos with them to commemorate our achievement.

With all the hard work done and over with, we’re happy to drop our packs and relax for a while. Coco brought a book and sits reading on a rock overlooking the San Bernardino valley. David and Nihal locate the summit register and spend some time flipping through the pages and reading previous hikers’ comments. The sun dips lower and lower on the horizon while we unwind, and the shadow of the mountain stretches further and further across the valley below.

With waning daylight, we set up our tents and cook/eat some dinner. The summit of Cucamonga Peak supplies tons of fantastic campsites, some beneath trees, others out in the open among rocks and chaparral. Coco and I set up our tent near a small stand of pines while David and Nihal opt for a spot with more expansive views.

We spend the rest of the evening watching the sun set. Both David and I are photography enthusiasts, so we take advantage of this final hour before sunset (i.e., the “golden hour”) to capture some shots of the scenery. I packed my tripod and some Formatt Hitech filters to play with but – at some point during the hike up to the summit – the tripod ballhead fell off. I can still use the tripod by screwing the camera directly onto the center post, but the setup is less than ideal.

cucamonga golden hour photography
I wander off to photograph the sunset – photo credit: David

Regardless, I’m determined to do some photography and I wander off to find a view of the ridge between Ontario and Bighorn peaks.

David, Coco, and Nihal remain closer to camp and enjoy views as well.

Once the sun has dropped below the horizon, I return to camp and chat with the others as darkness falls. The city lights twinkle in the valley below and a few stars appear above us. Tired from the day, we soon say goodnight and go to bed.

Descent from Cucamonga Peak

June 23, 2018 | 5.75 mi | +200′ / -4200′ | View on Map

I don’t sleep well at all – I don’t really know why, because the night is quiet and cool, and I’m perfectly comfortable in my sleeping bag. My only hypothesis is that the extraordinarily bright moon overhead keeps me from falling asleep. I left the rainfly off of the tent, both for air circulation and to create a feeling of openness, and the moonlight shines directly onto my face for several hours. I do manage a few hours of peaceful sleep, however, and get up early to watch the sunrise; it’s not every day that I’m lucky enough to be camped on the top of a mountain!

David, Nihal, and Coco also get up to admire the morning views. As the sky brightens, I’m incredibly excited to discover that the entire valley below us is covered in a layer of clouds. While the population of San Bernardino rises to a dreary Saturday morning, we get to admire a colorful sunrise! Gray clouds or blinding sunlight? It’s really just a matter of perspective.

As the sun climbs higher into the sky its rays stream through the mountains and low-hanging clouds, creating crepuscular rays in every direction. I awkwardly adjust my head-less tripod to capture the views. Despite the diffulty, I’m very happy with the results!

After an hour or so, the warm morning light cools to its usual daytime hue and we stir from our seats to go make breakfast and pack up camp. I enjoy some oatmeal, Coco munches on a savory cake he baked a few nights ago, David slowly consumes a Clif Bar, and Nihal finishes off the last of his PB&J sandwiches. After eating and breaking down camp, we begin the downhill trek back toward civilization.

The return journey from the summit is much easier than the ascent and we cover ground at nearly twice the pace as yesterday. During the first few miles to the saddle between Bighorn and Cucamonga Peaks, we pass a few hikers making their way to the summit. Further down the trail, on the other hand, we pass dozens and dozens of people. Although the descent is just as long and steep as our climb yesterday, it isn’t particularly hard on the knees, perhaps because we’re forced to stop and let groups of ascending hikers pass every few minutes. I’m glad that we chose to begin our hike yesterday and avoided the crowds!

The final few miles to the trailhead pass quickly and we soon find ourselves back at the trailhead. The parking lot and all neighboring streets are packed with cars; some lucky hiker snags our parking spot as we drive off in search of hot food and coffee.

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Smoky Mountains Winter Backpacking: Part II Wed, 14 Mar 2018 12:00:30 +0000 We refill our water bottles at the nearby spring, and several of us take advantage of the privy at Double Spring shelter; there isn’t one at Silers Bald. While waiting, I spy a tent-shaped patch of grass out in the sunshine and walk over to investigate. To my great pleasure, I discover that the grass is dry! I waste no time stretching out on the snow-free, sun-bathed turf and sigh with satisfaction. This is the life.

The post Smoky Mountains Winter Backpacking: Part II appeared first on Backcountry Sights.

This the second installment of a two-part trip report on the Smoky Mountains winter backpacking trip. To read about the first three days, check out Part I.

smoky mountains backpacking loop map

A CalTopo map of our route through the Smoky Mountains

On days 1-3, I and my fellow backpackers hiked from Newfound Gap to Kephart Shelter, then up to the summit of Mt. Le Conte and onward to the low-altitude Sugarlands Visitor Center. We traversed icy trails, saw some fantastic walls of mist, and crunched through miles of snow. We also wondered at snow-covered pines, enjoyed moments of warm sunlight, and walked past dozens of daffodils. Unfortunately, Parand left us on day 3 to recover from a bout of dehydration and hypothermia, so our crew is now down to seven.

Winter Wonderland

March 14, 2018 | 11.0 mi | +3700′ / -900′ | View on Map

We gathered a little “intelligence” during our brief visit to civilization yesterday: an updated weather forecast. It was supposed to snow last night, beginning at approximately 8 PM. Seeing as how we were all in bed by about that time, one of my first questions, when I wake up this morning, is, did it snow?

Nope. The ground is still as dry as we left it last night. I’m the first one out of bed, so I retrieve everyone’s bags from the bear hang and start heating water for breakfast. The rest of the group soon joins me on the ground and everyone is happily eating in no time. After breakfast, we begin packing up our gear. Soon after my watch ticks past 8 AM, snowflakes begin to fall from the sky. Maybe we misread the forecast? Or maybe it was just 12 hours off.

Thankfully, the snow is not too wet and the fluffy flakes are easy to brush off our gear as we finish packing everything away. Once everyone has donned their packs, we hit the trail. We’ll climb back up to the main ridgeline and the Appalachian Trail (AT) today, which is a lot of elevation gain, but the first several miles should be a nice gradual slope. We leapfrog with another backpacking college student from the University of Illinois as we hike up the gentle trail. It’s a quiet, peaceful morning in the woods, made even more so by the softly falling snow.

After an hour or two, the sky lightens and the precipitation ends. The trail, covered in a few inches of freshly fallen snow, winds through rhododendrons alongside the Little River, which, while certainly little for a river, is much larger than I anticipated from the map. Our original route for tomorrow’s hike had us crossing a similarly sized waterway, Forney Creek, multiple times. The rangers strongly discouraged that option, but I’ve been toying with the possibility of hiking that route, especially if it is warm. However, after seeing the depth and speed of the water here, while walking through several inches of snow, I’m convinced that the rangers were right: it would be unwise to attempt so many river crossings.

With that aversion to wading through water fresh in my mind, we reach a creek that crosses the trail. While it would be relatively easy to rock-hop across on a summer day, the fresh snow makes firm footing on any of the stones dubious at best. We take the opportunity to practice good creek crossing technique: stability first. It might be possible to hop across the rocks and logs, but a slip would mean losing control and falling completely into the water, or even injuring yourself. It is far safer to wade across and maintain stability, even if it means wet feet. To avoid having soggy shoes, many of us change into sandals, wade through the frigid creek, and then pull our (still dry) socks and shoes back on once we’re on the opposite bank. Others simply wade through in their boots, confident that the water-proofing will suffice.

smoky mountains creek crossing

Ashley wades through a creek rather than risk an unstable rock-hop

Shortly after completing the first stream crossing, we reach another. Nobody really wants to repeat the tedious shoe-removal process, but we’re in luck: the rocks are flatter and the water is shallower, so nearly everyone manages to hop across without wetting their feet.

Past the river crossings, the trail slope steepens and we find ourselves crunching through increasingly deep snow. However, the sun has also reappeared, so it’s difficult to be too grumpy. We trek on for a while, admiring the scenery and listening to the birds chirping. A sparrow hops in front of me as if he is leading me up the mountain. Every time I get within a few feet, he flutters his wings and then glides further down the trail. After a few minutes, he flies off to the side and lets me pass.

We stop for lunch in a sunny spot just off the trail. There aren’t many dry seats to be found, so we sit on top of our packs or jackets. From our location, we scope out as much of the surrounding landscape as we can through the foliage. A hill of frosted trees in the distance is reminiscent of Mt. Le Conte; hopefully, we’ll stay off that particular mountain and avoid what looks like a very cold location. After eating, we get a move on because, even in the sunshine, it starts to get chilly when you sit for too long.

smoky mountains winter backpacking

As we gain altitude, the snow grows deeper

The higher we climb, the deeper the snow becomes. But with the deeper snow comes breathtakingly beautiful winter scenery. I fish my sunglasses out of my pack and we all put on sunscreen to avoid burning; it might be chilly, but those UV rays are bouncing off of every snow-covered surface!

Near the top of the ridge, we encounter a disturbing scene: two backpacks, a sleeping bag, and a tent are sticking out of the snow in the middle of the trail. The tent is pitched haphazardly over a fallen tree, and every single piece of gear is frozen solid; it must have been here for at least a few thaw-freeze cycles. We do a little digging and find entire boxes of pasta, powdered milk, and a wool hat. Where did these backpackers go? Why is most of their gear still here? Questions without answers, it seems.

The deep snow and steep slope make for a tough final few tenths of a mile. The AT is a welcome sight: packed snow and a ridge walk, theoretically more level than the trail that brought us up to these heights. An older couple pass by while I and a few others wait for the rest of the group. These folks are thru-hikers, and they wish us good luck with the cold night ahead. Yay… another frigid evening.

smoky mountains appalachian trail winter snow

Up on the ridge, on the Appalachian Trail, the snow and sun combine to form a pristine winter wonderland

Soon enough, everyone in our group arrives at the AT junction and, after a water and snack break, we turn south-bound (SOBO) on the AT. Our destination for the evening is the Silers Bald shelter. We reach the Double Spring Shelter first and, to my surprise, find at least 15 people there. When I strike up a conversation with them, I learn that every last one is a thru-hiker! I didn’t anticipate so many of them to be on the trail this early in the season, but they inform me that they’re trying to beat the big “bubble” of hikers that begins in late March and early April down in Georgia. Apparently, as many as several hundred hikers begin their trek from the southern terminus each day during that bubble. So I can see why they’ve decided to begin early. Hiking with hundreds of people sounds terrible.

We refill our water bottles at the nearby spring, and several of us take advantage of the privy at Double Spring shelter; there isn’t one at Silers Bald. While waiting, I spy a tent-shaped patch of grass out in the sunshine and walk over to investigate. To my great pleasure, I discover that the grass is dry! I waste no time stretching out on the snow-free, sun-bathed turf and sigh with satisfaction. This is the life.

Once everyone is ready to hike, we move on. The AT follows the undulating ridgeline, sometimes climbing, sometimes descending, but never by very much. The snow remains deep, though it is well-packed in most places. A few spots along the way provide sweeping views of the surrounding country. Most of the distant trees are gray or green, not frosted with snow and ice like those around us.

smoky mountains views

Although we are surrounded by snow and ice, the hillsides below are relatively snow-free

Just before reaching the Silers Bald shelter, we hike through a grove of trees so covered in snow that the entire world seems to be white. Even the sky is mostly colorless, although the horizon is tinted light gold. The only sound that reaches my ears is the crunch, crunch, crunch of my shoes in the snow. It’s a peaceful place.

smoky mountains winter appalachian trail

Greg turns a corner into a tunnel of frosted trees

I’m the first to arrive at the shelter and join a thru-hiker named Scars that is already there. Soon, the rest of my group trickles in, as do more and more thru-hikers. By the time the sun sinks below the horizon, we have a full house! I think I speak for all of us when I say we enjoyed talking to the other hikers. They hail from many different parts of the world and from different paths in life. Some are retired, some are fresh out of college, others are in-between.

smoky mountains snow winter

The soft evening light streams through snow-covered branches

Regardless of their background, everyone agrees on a few things: it’s beautiful out here and it’s really freakin’ cold. With darkness falling and the temperature dropping, we all crawl into our sleeping bags and go to sleep.

Clingmans Dome and Andrews Bald

March 15, 2018 | 9.3 mi | +2000′ / -3300′ | View on Map

I hide in my sleeping bag for longer than usual this morning. Since we’ve adjusted our route to avoid stream crossings, our total mileage isn’t terribly high today and we’re in no hurry. Although I know it isn’t as cold as our night on Mt. Le Conte (my shoes are malleable rather than frozen solid this morning, for example), I’m still chilled to the bone. The wind is fierce and makes boiling water extraordinarily difficult. Greg’s stove won’t even turn on in the cold, windy conditions, and my stove takes forever to boil a even few cups of water.

smoky mountains appalachian atrail

A striking trio of trees along the Appalachian Trail

I’m eager to get moving and warm up! Once everyone has packed their things, we retrace our steps on the AT and walk back to the Double Spring shelter. Lulu is having a rough time during the first few miles but feels much better after drinking an entire liter of Gatorade. We spend an hour or so relaxing at Double Spring; it has that privy, after all, and don’t forget the glorious patch of dry grass! A few deer wander about nearby, munching on grass and salty snow that hikers have urinated on. They’re not very afraid of us and don’t move away until we’re within a few feet of them.

smoky mountains deer

Yi-Chun photographs a deer grazing nearby

We eventually leave the Double Spring shelter and continue north-bound (NOBO) on the Appalachian Trail. Our goal for this morning is to reach Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee and the highest point on the AT! As the sun rises high into the sky, the temperature rockets upward and the snow soon turns to slush. Icicles fall sporadically from the pines, some just barely missing us as we walk beneath their branches.

We stop for lunch at Clingmans Dome and check out the views from the observation tower. The immediate foreground consists of frosted pine trees and snow-covered hills, with hazy mountain ridges fading into the distance in every direction. Signs on the tower identify specific peaks and other notable landmarks for miles in every direction. From this high vantage point, most of our route is visible: Newfound Gap, Mt. Le Conte, the Sugarlands, and the Little River drainage. I’m always amazed at how far you can travel in just a few days’ walk.

After admiring the views and chowing down on delicious backpacking food, we hit the trail again, this time heading downhill to Andrews Bald. The 1.7-mile hike is fairly easy and mostly downhill, though quite wet with melting snow. An hour or so after leaving Clingmans Dome, we emerge from the forest onto a grassy meadow on top of the ridge; a sign identifies it as Andrews Bald. I take off my shoes and socks and lie down on the soft, dry meadow. The warm sun feels amazing, but the gusty wind counteracts the warmth a bit and threatens to blow my socks away.

We stay long enough to appreciate the meadow and then head back up the trail. I would love to return when the meadow is green and growing. I’m sure there are all kinds of wildflowers to see, and maybe even some little squeaking ground squirrels.

Our final destination for the day is backcountry campsite #68, i.e., Steeltramp Campsite. At first, the trail is covered with a layer of wet snow, but we soon find ourselves treading on dry leaves. Several fallen trees lie across the trail, which winds somewhat precariously along the hillside. It certainly doesn’t seem like a well-traveled track, but (if you’re a regular reader, you should know this by now) it’s my favorite kind of trail; something between a game trail and a properly worn footpath.

smoky mountains backpacking

The trail here is narrow and wild, as backcountry paths should be

The sun is out in full force today, and we enjoy a pleasant walk down to the campsite. The days and miles are beginning to take their toll and everyone is a little tired. We cross a rocky stream and stand, staring at a hillside of moss-covered rocks, searching for the trail. After a minute or two, McKenzie points out that the trail does a sharp switchback behind us, back on the other side of the stream. We return to the trail and continue downward toward camp.

smoky mountains backpacking creek

McKenzie crosses a creek. A few minutes later, after failing to find the trail on the far side, we realize we needn’t have crossed at all.

The Steeltrap campsite is not nearly as spacious as the Huskey Gap site we stayed at a few days ago. I remember one of the rangers told me that two camping areas exist here, one above the cascade and another below, but the only tent spots I can see are those below the cascade. Previous visitors have left various items around the area, including two large tarps, a variety of tent stakes, and a perfectly good hatchet buried in a stump. I don’t know why they would leave so many items behind; perhaps they’re coming back for them?

smoky mountains camping

We find a hatchet buried in a stump at the Steel Trap campsite

We set up our tents on the available flat surfaces and then get started on dinner. Thankfully, the temperature is much warmer than it was last night, and there is little wind. Greg, Lulu, and I all manage to light our stoves with minimal cursing and soon have plenty of hot water. We’re laugh and joke while eating dinner; it’s so much easier to be cheerful when it’s warm out!

smoky mountains camping

Ashley, holding his jar of pesto, tries out Greg’s camp chair before eating said pesto.

I’m as tired as the rest of the group, so I don’t stay up much longer than I have to. After eating, I brush my teeth, hang my scented items from the nearby pulleys, and crawl into bed. I appreciate the fact that I don’t have to hide from the cold tonight; I’m going to have a good, long, uninterrupted sleep!

Appalachian Trail Walk

March 16, 2018 | 7.5 mi | +3200′ / -1400′ | View on Map

I did indeed sleep well – probably the best I’ve slept this week! Our destination today is the Mt. Collins Shelter, a mere 7.5-mile walk from here, so we take our time this morning. It’s a great morning – not only is it warm, but the skies are also clear (sunshine!) and it isn’t precipitating!

Remember that long downhill walk we enjoyed yesterday afternoon? Well, today it’s a long uphill walk. A lot of the scenery looks new to me, perhaps because I was tired and not paying attention during the hike down. Some of the snow has melted as well, so the upper bit of trail is drier than when we walked through yesterday. We take a brief rest when we rejoin the trail that connects Clingmans Dome and Andrews Bald and play Tic Tac Toe in the snow.

A few miles and one lunch break later, we return to the Appalachian Trail and finally step foot on new trail (i.e., trail we haven’t already walked). Thanks to the warm, sunny conditions, we are treated to a rainstorm of melting snow as we make our way through dense pine forest. A symphony of “forest kisses,” if you will, like the “cave kisses” you receive from dripping stalactites underground. The group spreads out a bit as everyone settles into their own pace, but we eventually meet up at a spot where the AT passes by the road to Clingmans Dome. The road isn’t open for the summer yet, so we take advantage of the dry pavement to stretch out and rest. Tibor, who isn’t feeling well, takes a few painkillers to mitigate his symptoms.

Our remaining trek to the Mt. Collins Shelter takes us through more dripping trees, including some incredibly dense pines. When we arrive at the shelter, we find it bustling with thru-hikers. Anxious to secure spots, I toss my gear up on the platform and the rest of the group follows suit when they arrive. There’s a privy here, which might explain the popularity. Also, the next shelter is about seven miles away, so any thru-hikers in the area will stop here for the night.

As we cook and eat dinner, more and more hikers arrive. There must be at least 18 inside the shelter, and even more outside in tents and hammocks. I enjoy meeting other hikers, but this is just downright crowded!

Our group of seven crowds into the shelter with a bunch of AT thru-hikers. Photo Credit: Yi-Chun

Since we’re back up at higher altitude on the ridge, the temperature drops into the chilly-cold range and I retreat to my sleeping bag after dinner. As I settle down for the night, I hear a retching noise come from Tibor’s sleeping bag next to mine. I pop my head out and find Tibor sitting up with vomit on his clothes and sleeping bag. He and I clean it up as best we can with some wet wipes donated by a thru-hiker and then make a decision: it isn’t going to be a warm night, Tibor’s insulation is now wet, and he may very well vomit again, so our best bet is to hike out. It’s a five-mile walk, but I figure we can make it to the closed road in less a mile and follow it down to Newfound Gap where my car is parked.

So, Tibor and I pack up our things, brief the rest of our group on the plan, and start walking. It’s a beautiful night for a hike, really. Once we’re moving, my body warms up and I enjoy the comfortable walk. We reach an intersection of the road and trail soon after leaving the shelter and then transition to the flat pavement. With nothing to trip up our feet, we’re free to pick up the pace and look around. The stars are out in full force tonight, though the moon is missing from the sky. We don’t really need our headlamps to light the way, so Tibor and I both turn them off and enjoy walking in the starlight.

We make good time and reach Newfound Gap about 80 minutes after leaving the shelter. An additional thirty minutes later and we’re in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, checking in to a hotel. It’s nice to be back in civilization with running water, climate control, and flushing toilets. It’s past midnight (actual midnight, not hiker midnight) when I finally go to bed.

Hike Out

March 17, 2018 | 4.6 mi | +700′ / -1500′ | View on Map

While Tibor and I slept in a luxurious hotel room, the rest of the group spent the night crammed into the Mt. Collins Shelter. Two other hikers arrived in the middle of the night, somewhere around 1 AM, and cooked their dinner as if it were a normal time to finish hiking for the day. The weary thru-hikers in the shelter, as you might imagine, were not amused.

I wake up early and, leaving Tibor to rest at the hotel, drive back up to Newfound Gap. I’m just in time for sunrise! A thick layer of clouds blankets the valleys beneath me, which makes for some great photos.

I’m happy to see the sunrise from Newfound Gap.

After capturing a few sunrise shots, I shoulder my backpack and begin hiking the AT back toward Mt. Collins shelter. I’d like to see what I missed by taking the road last night, and I figure I’ll surprise the rest of the group by meeting them partway through their hike out.

Lulu, Greg, McKenzie, Yi-Chun, and Ashley pose for a picture before hiking out to Newfound Gap. Photo Credit: McKenzie

I rendezvous with the gang a few miles down the trail and then turn around and hike out with them. Although the morning started off bright and sunny, a layer of clouds soon blocks out the sun and rain begins to fall. I suppose it’s nice that we finally get to make good use of all the rain gear we brought.

smoky mountains rain

Our luck runs out and we get rained on… glad we have all this rain gear, though!

The rain doesn’t last long, however. By the time we reach Newfound Gap, the sun has returned. We all enjoy the views since we couldn’t see more than 50 feet last time we were here. Greg and I shuttle everyone back down to the Sugarland Visitor Center, reunite with Tibor, and head off for a celebratory breakfast feast at a nearby restaurant.

smoky mountains newfound gap

Morning mists linger over the mountains near Newfound Gap

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