Backcountry Sights https://backcountrysights.com Photos and stories from the outdoors Sat, 22 Jun 2019 16:50:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.2.2 https://backcountrysights.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/cropped-favicon-1-200x200.png Backcountry Sights https://backcountrysights.com 32 32 123251974 Mountaineering at Mount Baker https://backcountrysights.com/mountaineering-mount-baker/ https://backcountrysights.com/mountaineering-mount-baker/#respond Mon, 06 May 2019 12:00:31 +0000 https://backcountrysights.com/?p=9433 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

Retreat

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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Haleakalā Summit Loop https://backcountrysights.com/haleakala-summit-loop/ https://backcountrysights.com/haleakala-summit-loop/#respond Sun, 20 Jan 2019 00:40:32 +0000 https://backcountrysights.com/?p=8375 The trail continues to twist and turn between the numerous sandy cones, eventually descending into a large valley full of strange, twisted rocks. It looks very alien; Mars-like, perhaps. The lava doesn't even look solid, like some strange extrusion from a 3D printer. The path makes a beeline through these curious formations; I pause a few times to examine them more closely and then hurry to catch up with Brian and Diane.

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A recent business trip for a conference brought me and several of my friends to Maui. Naturally, we stuck around for a few days after the conference to snorkel, watch whales, sip cocktails on the beach, drive the Road to Hāna, and hike! I was most excited to explore the summit district in Haleakalā National Park, a desolate, volcanic wilderness located at the summit of the 10,000-foot Haleakalā volcano, so Brian, Diane, and I spent an entire day hiking through the area.

Trip Planning

Specs: 16.3 mi | +/- 3700′

Route – Park at the Pā Ka’oao (White Hill) visitor center; the Keonehe’ehe’e (Sliding Sands) trail begins at the southeast corner of the parking lot. Follow the Keonehe’ehe’e trail down into the Haleakala Wilderness area. Once on the valley floor, you have plenty of trails to choose from and can string them together to form loops of various lengths. My friends and I hiked to the junction just west of ‘Oilipu’u and then returned along the Halemau’u trail. Be warned: you have to climb 2,500 feet from the valley floor back to the summit to return to your car (at nearly 10,000’). Give yourself plenty of time to complete these strenuous final miles.

Permits & Regulations – No permits are needed for day hiking, but overnight trips require a permit. As always, follow leave no trace principles: pack out your trash (this includes toilet paper)!

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 which includes the locations of all campsites and trail mileages.

A Volcanic Wilderness

Jan. 19, 2019 | 16.3 mi | +/- 3700′ | View on Map

The United States government is not currently funded. During previous “government shutdowns,” the national parks have closed to the public; without any funding to clean the restrooms or protect visitors’ safety, it’s easy to see why. For whatever reason, this shutdown is different and Haleakalā National Park remains open, albeit unstaffed. A single ranger is restocking the restrooms at the Pā Ka’oao visitor center when Diane, Brian, and I arrive. The chilly air on the 10,000-foot summit is a dramatic change from the warm, sunny Maui beaches where we’ve spent the past several days. Thankfully, it’s also super sunny on the mountain, not raining or storming like the weather forecast for today has been predicting. Of course, it may rain or storm on the island below… we seem to be several thousand feet above the clouds up here!

After admiring the views from the Pu’u Ula’ula overlook, we shoulder our backpacks and locate the Keonehe’ehe’e (Sliding Sands) trailhead at the southern corner of the Pā Ka’oao visitor center parking lot. The sandy trail winds around a small hill and then reaches the edge of the “crater.” The massive valley isn’t really a crater – Haleakalā didn’t blow its top off like St. Helens – but the desolate, lava-filled landscape certainly looks like a crater. A few other hikers are winding their way down the trail below us, tiny compared to the vast landscape. We admire the views for a moment or two and then begin our own descent.

haleakala sliding sands trail
Maui is well known for its tropical climate, but the top of Haleakala is a slightly different story; it’s chilly up here!

Despite its nickname, the “sliding sands” trail is very stable and easy to speed down. Ribbons of red, orange, and dark gray sand form large, sweeping curves below the trail, giving the illusion of motion. We descend lower into the valley and the sun climbs higher in the sky; wearing a jacket becomes uncomfortable so we stuff them into our packs. Further down the trail, we run into a few friends and hike with them to a rocky overlook with nice views of the colorful valley.

While the valley is certainly dominated by sand and stone, there are plenty of hearty plants living their lives here. The Haleakalā Silversword is the most famous; this yucca-like plant is endemic to the Hawaiian islands (it grows nowhere else) and can live for up to 90 years! At the end of its life, the silversword produces a tall column of flowers, the seeds of which are soon scattered by the wind. We spot plenty of silversword plants along the way, but none in bloom.

The descent to the valley floor takes several hours to complete. From the trailhead this morning, the drop didn’t look all that large, but a glance at the map reveals that the valley is over 2,500 feet lower than the visitor center! In the back of our minds we’re all aware that we’ll have to climb up that slope on the way back, but for now there are too many exciting things to see and explore!

haleakala lava flows
The different colored stone seems to flow down the valley

Around noon, we stop for lunch in the shade of a large bush. Although I’m very warm from the hours of hiking to this point, the shade proves chilly, a reminder that we’re still far above sea level. We all enjoy grocery store sandwiches and some more indulgent snacks; Brian has a bag of animal crackers, Diane has a bag of Nutter Butters, and I packed chocolate covered raisins. There’s nothing like hiking all day to earn some high-calorie treats!

After lunch, we continue along the trail, working further into the valley. We stride through fields of dead ferns and prickly grass for a while, with the valley’s southern walls nearby on our right. There seems to be some water dripping down those steep slopes, but it doesn’t reach the trail or any of the thousands of dead ferns. At some point that moisture must flow down here, though, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many plants.

A little further down the trail, we reach the Kapalaoa Cabin, with luxurious amenities like running water provided by a tank tucked into the slope above. The cabin is locked, but the outhouse is open! After using the facilities, we debate about whether to continue down the trail or turn back. There is supposed to be a north-south trail here that links up with trails on the other side of the valley; ideally, we would like to return on that side to see some different scenery. However, the link trail is nowhere to be seen and we’re about half-way through our allotted hiking time (we have a flight deadline to meet). Further complicating the decision, the valley ahead of us is covered in mist and promises new and exciting scenery…

As retracing our steps is the least attractive option, we decide to continue down the valley, just a little further. Past the cabin, the wide, flat, gravel trail transitions into a winding, twisting path between massive piles of twisted lava rock. A short while later, we reach a flatter plain of the dark rock interspersed with bright green bushes. The icing on the cake is a view of Mauna Kea, a volcano on Hawaii, poking through the sea of clouds. By this time, we’ve talked ourselves into hiking to the next junction, even if it does mean we cut our evening deadline a little close.

I think I speak for all three of us when I say that hurrying to fit in a few extra miles to reach the Halemau’u Trail at ‘O’ilipu’u is worth the effort. Here on the eastern side of the valley, clouds flow up and over the mountains walls, bringing much-needed moisture. The ground is practically spongy, a stark contrast to the sharp, twisted lava flows just a few hundred yards away.

From the junction, we follow the Halemau’u Trail east, back toward the trailhead some 8 miles distant. The lush vegetation continues for a while, and we even hear birds chirping in the scrubby trees! A pair of Nēnē startle as we wind up a small hill, honking as they fly away. These Hawaiian geese look remarkably like Canadian geese even though the Nēnē is endemic to the Hawaiian islands.

Perhaps my favorite sight of the hike is the juxtaposition of a “new” lava flow, characterized by barren, naked, black rock, with the grassy, heavily-vegetated earth nearby. How much younger is the lava flow than the surrounding land? 10,000 years younger? 100,000 years? It’s incredible that we can see such a stark contrast between the two. As none of us are geologists, we continue up the trail without any answers to these questions.

haleakala lava geology
How much younger is the lava flow than the grass-covered earth nearby? 10,000 years? 100,000 years?

Further up the valley, the vegetation gives way to truly desolate wilderness. A few tiny tufts of grass dot the sandy slopes of the cinder cones that once spewed lava into the valley, but that’s all the life we can see. Between two of these cinder cones, we pass a deep pit encircled in wire fencing; a sign declares that this “bottomless pit” is 65 feet deep… seems a tad shallow for “bottomless.”

A little later, we reach an area with incredibly colorful sand nicknamed “Pele’s Paint Pot.” With red, purple, orange, and yellow sand streaked across the cinder cone slopes, the name fits. As we wind between the cones, we’re afforded a few of the visitor center perched high above the valley, glittering in the late afternoon sun. It looks so far away, but experience tells me that a few hours of walking is all it takes to cover the distance.

The trail continues to twist and turn between the numerous sandy cones, eventually descending into a large valley full of strange, twisted rocks. It looks very alien; Mars-like, perhaps. The lava doesn’t even look solid, like some strange extrusion from a 3D printer. The path makes a beeline through these curious formations; I pause a few times to examine them more closely and then hurry to catch up with Brian and Diane.

At last, we reach the bush where we ate lunch, a sign that it’s time to begin climbing. Although the trail isn’t particularly steep, the ascent is long and difficult. The vertical difference of 2,500 feet is nothing to be scoffed at, particularly after already hiking 12+ miles. The thinning air as we climb to 10,000 feet only adds to the struggle.

The sun dips below the valley rim during our climb, casting long shadows across the volcanic landscape. Curiously, we pass a fair number of people descending into the valley as we climb out. One couple, dressed in t-shirts and blue jeans, naively asks for directions to Pele’s Paint Pot. Since they don’t seem at all prepared to night-hike, I mumble something about being able to see colorful sand from a nearby switchback and continue trudging toward the top.

Haleakala valley shadows
As the sun sinks below the valley wall, long shadows obscure the landscape

As luck would have it, Brian, Diane, and I reach the top of the mountain just as the sun is setting. We delay our departure for a few minutes to watch the show, shivering in the cold mountain air. As soon as the sun has dipped below the clouds, we race back to the car drive back down the mountain, leaving the strange volcanic wilderness behind

haleakala sunset
We pause to watch the sunset before leaving Haleakalā’s summit

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Day Hikes on the Road to Hāna https://backcountrysights.com/road-to-hana-day-hikes/ https://backcountrysights.com/road-to-hana-day-hikes/#respond Fri, 18 Jan 2019 13:02:45 +0000 https://backcountrysights.com/?p=9267 Further up the trail, we cross a ravine full of deep pools and small cascades. On the opposite side of the ravine, we enter a bamboo forest. The bamboo stocks tower some 40 or 50 feet above the trail, blocking out most of the afternoon sunlight. I've never seen bamboo so tall, or so much of the stuff; our walk through the bamboo forest covers the better part of a mile!

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One of the most famous attractions on Maui is “the road to Hāna,” a narrow, winding route along the north-eastern shore of the island. After spending a day hiking atop Haleakalā, a few friends and I set out to drive this famous highway, making a few stops along the way to do some day hiking and see roadside attractions.

hawaii maui sunset
I could get used to sunsets like this…

Trip Planning

Many tourists travel the road to Hāna as an out-and-back trip, driving from Kahalui to Hāna along the north-eastern coast. However, the road continues from Hāna across the southern coast before winding back northward to Kahalui. Rumors abound that the southern route requires four-wheel drive, that the road is full of massive holes, and that rental companies will fine you if they discover you’ve taken their vehicle there. My friends and I gave it a shot anyway and discovered that none of the rumors are true. The road is certainly narrow, winding, and bumpy, but nothing a Hyundai Elantra can’t handle, and not much different than other sections from the north-eastern side. Additionally, the southern route was the most beautiful section of the entire drive! Take a leap of faith and venture around the full loop; it’s worth seeing.

road to hana map
The road to Hana is a long, but beautiful drive.

Besides hiking, which I’ll get to in a moment, one of the most interesting features of the drive is the abundance of waterfalls. Some of the falls drop from high cliffs, while others splash over more modest ledges. I’ve been spoiled by the abundant epic cascades in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and didn’t find any of these waterfalls particularly awe-inspiring, but they do complement the tropical ecosystem well.

Driving the road to Hāna is an all-day affair, particularly if you stop to see the sights (which you totally should). Get an early morning start from Kahului and follow the signs toward Hāna. At first, the road makes a beeline through the dry, open fields on the western slopes of Haleakalā. A little farther east the ecology quickly changes to lush, green, misty forests. Soon, the road narrows and you begin crossing the first of many one-lane (“oh-nay lah-nay”, Collin jokes) bridges. Stay alert as you wind your way along the coast; there are ample opportunities for head-on collisions, which would surely ruin your tropical vacation.

Wai’ānapapa State Park

Jan. 18, 2019

One of the first stops we make along the road to Hāna is Wai’ānapapa State Park, home to black sand beaches and dramatic volcanic seascapes. We find a parking spot, tumble out of the car, and head for the ocean. A short walk delivers us to a black sand beach, a novelty for all of us! The “sand” is much coarser than your average beach; much of the shoreline is comprised of smooth, black pebbles that glisten in the sun and feel warm underfoot.

The trail that lead us from the parking lot to the beach continues along the coast for several miles. We pick our way through the volcanic rock, still wearing sandals, and admire several more small coves with black sand beaches. It’s a hike unlike any I’ve taken before. The colors are incredible; the sapphire-blue surf, the pitch black lava rock, and the brilliant-green plants that make their home among the rocks all contrast dramatically.

Before leaving the park, we wander over to a trail with a view of some “sea stacks,” rock formations that jut vertically out of the water. They look sharp and dangerous; the sea hasn’t smoothed them into sand yet. We don’t stay much longer; it’s lunch time and we’re all hungry, so we return to the highway and continue on to the city of Hāna.

wai'anapanapa state park sea stacks
The sea hasn’t eroded these volcanic rocks quite yet

Pīpīwai Trail

Jan 18, 2019 | 3.3 mi | +/- 1200′ | View on Map

After eating some delicious fish from a food truck in Hāna, we continue down the Hāna Highway to Kīpahulu District of Haleakalā National Park. Due to the ongoing government shutdown, we’re not required to pay the park entrance fee and there are no other permit requirements. After parking, we locate the Pīpīwai trailhead and begin climbing uphill toward Haleakalā. The trail isn’t particularly steep, but the warm, humid air leaves me sweatier than I’m used to being in January.

pipiwai trail ohe'o gulch
Collin, Diane, and Brian pose at spot overlooking Ohe’o Gulch

We pass lots of other hikers on our way up the trail, passing through tall, waving grass, and then dense, dim forests. One of the highlights of the first half of the hike is a massive banyan tree, a collection of roots and branches without any sort of trunk. Seriously, every branch seems to grow its own roots, some dropping straight down to the ground far from the tree’s central spire.

Further up the trail, we cross a ravine full of deep pools and small cascades. On the opposite side of the ravine, we enter a bamboo forest. The bamboo stocks tower some 40 or 50 feet above the trail, blocking out most of the afternoon sunlight. I’ve never seen bamboo so tall, or so much of the stuff; our walk through the bamboo forest covers the better part of a mile!

At the end of the trail we reach Waimoku Falls, an enormously tall waterfall dropping from a notch in the cliff face. Despite the recent rainstorms, there is very little water flowing over the falls. An informational sign near the trail depicts the falls during a flash flood; it would be exciting to see that kind of power, but probably also moderately unsafe.

After admiring the falls for a few minutes, we return down the trail. On the way back, near a spot overlooking Ohe’o Gulch, we spot a brilliant double rainbow with supernumerary bands. Ever since I saw my first supernumerary rainbow in Humphrey’s Basin in the Sierra Nevada, I’ve been noticing them more often: once on the Sierra High Route, and now here! Between the four of us, there is much exclaiming and many pictures taken. It’s a great concluding highlight to the hike, which ends a short distance later at the trailhead parking lot.

pipiwai trail rainbow
A brilliant double rainbow stretches over Ohe’o Gulch

Rather than return to civilization the same way we arrived, we continue driving west along the Hāna Highway, winding along the southern coast of Maui. Sunset is less than an hour away, and the golden light bathing the island is nothing short of spectacular! During a particularly amazing portion of the drive, we weave along a narrow, pot-holed strip of pavement that hugs the edge of a cliff, perched precariously above the crashing waves. It’s perhaps one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen on the island, but there’s nowhere to stop the car, so we admire on-the-go.

After navigating the sea-side cliffs, the road climbs further inland and we find ourselves cruising through grassy pastures, bumping over cattle guards every couple of miles. Everyone is anxious to find a spot to pull off the road and admire the scenery, but the narrow, twisting route offers few opportunities. We finally locate a safe spot to stop and pull off the road for a few minutes. As an added bonus, there’s a church nearby that is framed by yet another rainbow! In the background, the clouds surrounding Haleakalā turn pink, purple, and blue.

A little further down the road, we pull over again and watch the sun set. The rolling hills, golden grass, and distant sea make for an awesome evening vista. Once the sun has sunk below the horizon, we pile back into the car to complete the drive back to civilization, hot food, and refreshing drinks.

road to hana highway sunset
The Hāna Highway twists through the foothills of Haleakala, winding toward the sunset

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Autumn Day Hikes in the German Alps https://backcountrysights.com/autumn-day-hikes-german-alps/ https://backcountrysights.com/autumn-day-hikes-german-alps/#respond Thu, 06 Dec 2018 23:46:21 +0000 https://backcountrysights.com/?p=7781 The path to the top soon appears as we reach the base of the cliffs. A set of stairs constructed from logs and back-filled gravel between two of the stone escarpments provide an easy route to the top. As soon as I reach the top I'm instantly distracted by the incredible vista that has appeared on the other side of the ridge. Multiple lines of craggy, snow-dusted mountains stretch across the horizon, their peaks hidden in the clouds. The long, tedious climb up the ski runs and gravel roads is well-worth this reward!

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I recently had the opportunity to travel to Germany for a conference with my friend and coworker, Robert. We took advantage of the university-funded airfare and scheduled a few “personal days” after the conference to explore. Since Robert and I both enjoy hiking, we visited Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a location described as “a hiker’s paradise in any season,” and spent two solid days in the nearby German Alps. We completed a rigorous loop route that includes Höllental Canyon, spent a few hours atop Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitze, and took a leisurely stroll around Eibsee Lake.

Trip Planning

I discovered several interesting routes by searching AllTrails.com for hikes near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. While visiting, I discovered that the Ehrwalder Almbahn website has some great brochures; my favorite is the Summer 2018 brochure since it lists several great “tours”, i.e., hiking routes. There is also a hiking page with some popular destinations, route descriptions, and elevation profiles. Finally, you can explore the area yourself by viewing the TF Outdoors, OpenCycleMap, and OpenStreetMap layers on CalTopo.

Regardless of your planning tools, be warned: many of the hiking routes and trails in this area are exposed and should only be attempted if you are experienced and equipped with the right gear. Do your homework! I was surprised to find that several routes I was considering require glacier-crossing gear (crampons, ice-axe) and/or rock-climbing gear (helmet, harness, carabiners).

Höllental Loop

7 Oct. 2018 | 20.0 km | +/- 1730 m | View on Map

It’s a gray, subdued day in the German Alps; the overcast skies block out the sun that might otherwise warm the cool morning air. It’s not exactly the kind of day I was hoping for on my first day in the Alps, but there’s nothing I can do about it except enjoy the scenery as it is. With sandwiches and snacks from a nearby gas station stuffed into our backpacks, Robert and I stare up at the mountains above the Kruezeckbahnhof, wondering where the hike will take us. It isn’t immediately clear where the trail is; there are no signs for the Höllental loop. However, with a little help from the Gaia GPS app, we soon locate a small, paved road that appears to be the beginning of the route.

The pavement doesn’t last long and the road transitions to gravel. Normally I would prefer the gravel but the path climbs so steeply that the loose rock threatens to slip beneath my feet. Robert and I are soon out of breath. We take frequent breaks as we wind up the switchbacks beneath the ski lift and are particularly grateful for the few benches along the path! Occasionally, we cross a ski run and catch a glimpse of the grassy meadows surrounding Garmisch-Partenkirchen below. It’s really not a very impressive sight, although I do find the little barns scattered throughout the fields rather quaint.

A few bits of scenery catch my eye along the way and offer a much-needed distraction from the steep climb. A small creek gurgling down the hillside reminds me that we’re out in nature, despite the well-traveled gravel road we’re trudging up and the well-manicured ski runs all around. I particularly love the canopy of golden leaves above the creek; the trees back home in Indiana haven’t even begun to change color yet. Further up the mountain, Robert and I pass a large pond. While certainly man-made (perhaps to feed the snow machines?), the reflections of the mountains and trees in the turquoise water are nice.

I check the Gaia GPS app frequently on the way up the mountain; multiple roads, ski runs, and trails crisscross the mountainside, and I have no other map to consult. Upon reaching a small ski hut, we discover that our planned route is blocked by caution tape with warnings about fallen rock. I suppose the plethora of paths is a good thing after all. Robert and I make a short detour and then cut back across the mountain to our original route. Although the detour is short, leaving the planned route awakens the little voice in my head prompting me to take more detours, to leave the wide gravel road. We soon reach a trail – an actual trail with dirt and roots and rocks – that climbs up to the top of the ridge. The temptation to see what’s on the other side of this hill we’ve been climbing is too much to resist. Besides, the detour appears short on the map!

alps trail autumn
We finally reach an actual trail through the woods!

Leaving the wide service road for the narrow trail improves my mood considerably. The trail is also noticeably less steep, which Robert and I are both thankful for. We stroll through pines and more brightly-colored deciduous trees, pass another gurgling creek, and wind our way up some properly graded switchbacks. After a few minutes on this pleasant trail, we catch sight of a wall of cliffs ahead; I expect that we’ll wrap around them and ascend the mountain on a shallower, unseen slope. However, the trail shows no sign of contouring around the cliffs and continues to lead straight toward them.

The path to the top soon appears as we reach the base of the cliffs. A set of stairs constructed from logs and back-filled gravel between two of the stone escarpments provide an easy route to the top. As soon as I reach the top I’m instantly distracted by the incredible vista that has appeared on the other side of the ridge. Multiple lines of craggy, snow-dusted mountains stretch across the horizon, their peaks hidden in the clouds. The long, tedious climb up the ski runs and gravel roads is well-worth this reward!

alps vista
This incredible view more than makes up for the long, tedious hike to Kruezeck Summit

While I’m ogling the epic view and snapping pictures, Robert explores the summit we’ve reached. He finds the summit cross a few meters from the trail, perched on a small stone outcropping next to a gut-twisting drop of several hundred meters. Despite the drop-off, or maybe because of the drop-off and the spectacular views it provides, we both take a photo with the summit marker.

While we’re relaxing at the summit, another peak catches my eye. It is also dusted with snow, and a few isolated wisps of cloud drift in front of the imposing facade. I later learn that the peak is named “Alpspitze.”

alps alpspitze
One of my favorite views from the entire Hollental Loop: the formidable Alpspitze summit block

After resting for a few minutes and soaking in the views, we continue along the trail, which now descends along the ridgeline toward the Kreuzeckhaus. It’s an easy walk, particularly since we’re descending for the first time today. We make a brief pit stop at the Kruezeckhaus to use the bathroom (it’s a fully-equipped restaurant!) and glance jealously at the stream of people that have skipped the steep climb up the mountain and are emerging from the nearby tram station.

From the Kruezeckhouse, we follow a wide path along the ridge for a while until we reach a small trail that contours around the northern face of the mountain. I’m happy to leave the gravel road behind and enjoy feeling more immersed in nature. As we wander along the path, we get a few glimpses of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, now far below us. The view is certainly more impressive from here than it was from the ski slopes.

alps garmisch partenkirchen
While winding along the side of the mountain, we’re treated to some nice views of Garmisch-Partenkirchen

A short while later, Robert and I reach a junction. Our planned route continues to contour around the mountain and will soon descend into Höllental canyon. Reluctant to leave these lofty heights, I suggest taking another detour, this time up to the nearby Osterfelderkopf peak. It should only add one or two kilometers to the total route distance and will give us some more time up on the ridgeline with those epic views. Of course, we’ll have to gain a good bit of altitude… Further complicating things is our obligation to pick up my parents from the Munich airport this evening. I don’t want to leave them stranded in Munich after their long day of travel from the US, but how often do I have the opportunity to hike in the Alps? In the end, we decide to take the detour and bet that we’ll be able to reach Munich on time.

alps hiking
One last push to Osterfelderkopf!

Almost immediately after leaving the trail junction, we begin another steep ascent, although it isn’t nearly as steep as the ski slopes we climbed this morning! Still, Robert and I are soon sweating and breathing heavily as we climb toward Osterfelderkopf. It’s a hard climb but not terribly long, and the sun emerges to cheer us up while we’re struggling toward the peak. After completing the climb, we join lots of other day hikers lounging around the summit and take a much-needed lunch break. A few hungry birds flit around us, hoping for handouts; they’re mistaken if they think they’re getting any of my food!

alps
An expansive view of the surrounding mountains from Osterfelderkopf

After eating, we sign the summit logbook and admire some more of those incredible views. Alpspitze towers directly above us, so close that I can make out the summit cross. I watch a few adventurers wearing climbing helmets and harnesses hike along a trail that signs call the “Summit Adventure Trail.” The name of the trail alone is enough to stir my imagination, but we certainly don’t have time to check it out today. Next time, I suppose…

alps hollentorkopf summit log
We have to sign the summit logbook, of course!

From Osterfelderkopf, we climb a little higher, following the Summit Adventure Trail for a short distance, and then fork off onto the Rindersteig, the trail that will lead us into Höllental Canyon. We soon arrive at the top of the ridge and are treated to yet another awesome view, this time of Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak, and the Höllentelferner glacier. Our path descends rapidly down a scree-filled chute, although the trail itself is well-packed and features more of the stairs we encountered earlier near Kruezeck peak.

As we exit the chute, we’re afforded much wider views of the valley and the endless switchbacks before us. Perhaps this detour is going to cost us a little more time than I anticipated… There’s not much we can do about it now except to descend as quickly as we safely can. We make short work of the steps and are soon zipping across the switchbacks. Along the way, we pass several gorgeous displays of autumnal color; I stop long enough to take a few photos, then continue down the zig-zagging trail.

After what feels like a very long time, Robert and I reach the canyon floor. A small restaurant (the Höllentalangerhütte) serving delicious-looking snacks and even better-looking beer catches my eye and I regret our rush; I would enjoy stopping for an hour to have a snack and a drink while soaking in the mountain views. Who knew there were so many full-service amenities in the Alps? Next time, I promise myself, I’ll plan for a few indulgent stops.

Past the restaurant, we begin the final leg of the hike: the descent through Höllental Canyon. The path winds deeper and deeper into the gorge, following Hammersbach Creek. Near the restaurant, the creek is tiny, but it grows larger and louder with every new tributary. We’re soon crunching along a rocky trail beside a small chasm through which the creek roars. A crumbling aqueduct, presumably once used to deliver water from the mountains to the valley below, parallels the creek.

A few more minutes of hiking bring Robert and me to one of the most unique features I’ve ever encountered while hiking: a tunnel blasted straight into the canyon wall. A few lights illuminate the interior and a sign posted next to the tunnel gives some information about the passage, but neither Robert nor I know nearly enough German to understand what it says. From the looks of things, the trail used to wind through the canyon on a narrow ledge, but that way is fenced off.

With no other option, we descend into the dimly-lit tunnel. Windows cut into the walls provide periodic views of the canyon itself, but it’s hard to see much due to the many twists and turns. Throughout the entire tunnel, water drips from the ceiling onto my hair and shoulders, but this is only a mild discomfort and is well worth the experience of hiking through this man-made cave! A few ledges between cliff faces supply some “outside” moments along the way with awesome views of the creek and even a spectacular waterfall dropping down into the canyon!

alps hollental canyon waterfall
The trail tunnels through the cliffs of Hollental Canyon

After half an hour traversing the canyon, we emerge into a wider valley full of light and trees. A short distance past the tunnel is a sturdy gate and yet another small restaurant. A young man at the gate informs us that we owe 5 euros to pass through, which might seem ridiculous until you consider the amount of work that must be required to maintain these tunnels and bridges. The roaring creek seems angry enough today, but it’s October, a low-water time of year; I can’t imagine the volume and ferocity of the creek at peak snowmelt in June or July!

After handing over 5 euros each, Robert and I pass through the gate and speed down another series of switchbacks. We’re definitely behind schedule to pick up my parents at this point, so we don’t spend much time admiring the scenery and instead focus on walking quickly. A light drizzle falls as we trek through the trees, enough water to notice but not enough to be uncomfortable.

alps river valley autumn foliage
After emerging from the canyon, we descend through the trees toward Garmisch-Partenkirchen

By the time we reach Hammersbach, a small village at the mouth of the canyon, the drizzle has faded away and the clouds are beginning to clear. We stop at a hotel on the main road and make use of their Wifi to update my parents on our delayed schedule before continuing on. Past the village, we walk down a wide, paved path that cuts through cattle pastures. The cows themselves seem utterly unconcerned with our presence, their cowbells tolling loudly as we stride past.

garmisch partenkirchen cow
The last leg of our loop route leads us through some pastures full of cattle, the bells on their necks tolling gently as they graze.

Only a few minutes later, Robert and I arrive back at the parking lot just below the Alpspitzbahn station where we parked this morning. Low-hanging clouds obscure the top of the lift, which we also hiked past a few hours ago. In retrospect, it may have been worthwhile to pay the lift fee to ride up into the mountains; I would have appreciated more time up there next to the peaks. On the other hand, completing the difficult climb ourselves gives us a sense of accomplishment. We earned those views!

alps tram
In retrospect, taking the tram would have been a nice alternative to hiking up the steep ski runs.

Zugspitze Views

9 Oct. 2018

A few days later, Robert and I return to the mountains with my dad, Steve, and step-mom, Paula, for some more hiking. Well, hiking is perhaps too athletic a word for our trip to Zugspitze. Rather than hike 2000m from the valley to the summit, we take the tram up. It’s an exciting ride with some incredible views of the mountain along the way.

alps zugspitze
During a drive through Austria, we pull over to admire this spectacular view of Zugspitze

As incredible as the scenery is on the way up, the views from the observation decks at the summit are nothing short of spectacular! To the north, Bavaria is covered in clouds, although Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the nearby villages are enjoying the sunshine. The Alps stretch as far as the eye can see in every other direction.

I particularly enjoy staring down the canyon Robert and I hiked through yesterday. We’re much closer to the Höllentalferner glacier here, but most of it is hidden behind the ridges that lead up to the summit.

While wandering around the various observations decks, we discover a short route that leads out to the true summit, marked by a shiny golden cross. Some of the route is covered in snow, but cables provide sturdy hand-holds along the entire path and iron rungs in the stone make it easy for just about anyone to clamber up to the summit.

zugspitze summit cross
Our destination: the summit cross

This kind of cable-assisted climbing route is called a via ferrata, Italian for “iron path.” A via feratta generally offers hikers and climbers some safety on exposed routes and allows less-experienced adventurers to visit locations that would otherwise be accessible only to rock climbers. To fully take advantage of the via ferrata, you wear some kind of harness and secure yourself to the cables via a pair of carabiners. Of course, we don’t have harnesses or carabiners, but the exposure isn’t great and the route doesn’t look very difficult, so Steve, Robert, and I give it a try.

A much more cautious grandfather and his grandson, both decked out with harnesses, navigate the route in front of us. It’s a bit slow going as they move their clips from one cable to the next, but I appreciate their precautions, particularly during the sections that are slippery from the snow and ice. Following several minutes of careful climbing, we reach the summit cross and pose while Paula snaps a photo. We take a few moments to look around from the highest spot in Germany and then return to the via ferrata and make our way back to the Zugspitze observation decks.

Back on solid ground, we sit for a while and enjoy some hot drinks and tasty cakes from one of the restaurants. It’s hard to beat a relaxing morning like this up on top of the world!

Eibsee Lake Loop

9 Oct. 2018 | 7.0 km | +/- 450 km | View on Map

Later in the day, Steve, Paula, Robert, and I visit Eibsee Lake. We got a good look at it from 3000m this morning, but it’s nice to actually visit and see it up close. The sheer beauty of the lake catches me off guard; usually, the most beautiful spots are far from the parking lot! The crystal-clear water reminds of the Sierra Nevada mountain lakes I love so much, and the mountains towering above the opposite shore are absolutely incredible.

alps eibsee lake
Across Eibsee Lake, a tram line ferries passengers up to Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitze

After enjoying some lunch at a restaurant on the water, we find the trail that loops around Eibsee Lake and begin to walk. Much of the forest is shaded by the dense trees, but the few deciduous trees scattered among the pines glow fiery shades of red and orange! The path is smooth and easy to walk along, so one’s mind and eyes are free to wander; in short, it’s the perfect spot for an afternoon hike.

eibsee lake woodland
The afternoon sun peaks through the trees on the forested trail that circumnavigates Eibsee Lake

We’re in no particular hurry, and we take our time circumnavigating the lake, stopping at several look-out spots along the way. The sun dips lower and lower until the lake lies in shadow and only the surrounding mountains remain lit, their warm reflections blurry in the rippled water. As we walk, we snack on some crunchy discs of granola, seeds, and honey we bought at a local bakery this morning. They’re sort of like granola bars, but much, much tastier.

alps eibsee lake
As the sun sinks below the horizon, only the surrounding mountains and a few wispy clouds remain lit

By the time we’ve completed the loop, we’re all tired and ready for some relaxation, which works out well since we have a 90-minute drive ahead of us to reach Munich. Robert and I fly out tomorrow to return to the US and “real life.” I’m glad we got to experience a small slice of the German Alps up close, and I hope to come back soon!

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Backpacking Along the Teton Crest https://backcountrysights.com/backpacking-along-the-teton-crest/ https://backcountrysights.com/backpacking-along-the-teton-crest/#comments Mon, 27 Aug 2018 01:30:11 +0000 https://backcountrysights.com/?p=7460 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 https://backcountrysights.com/high-uinta-wilderness/ https://backcountrysights.com/high-uinta-wilderness/#comments Sun, 19 Aug 2018 02:00:16 +0000 https://backcountrysights.com/?p=7590 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 https://backcountrysights.com/sierra-high-route-lake-country/ https://backcountrysights.com/sierra-high-route-lake-country/#respond Wed, 08 Aug 2018 02:00:16 +0000 https://backcountrysights.com/?p=7400 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!

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Sierra High Route: Whitebark Country https://backcountrysights.com/sierra-high-route-whitebark-country/ https://backcountrysights.com/sierra-high-route-whitebark-country/#respond Sun, 05 Aug 2018 02:00:06 +0000 https://backcountrysights.com/?p=7398 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.

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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.

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Sierra High Route: Cirque Country https://backcountrysights.com/sierra-high-route-cirque-country/ https://backcountrysights.com/sierra-high-route-cirque-country/#respond Fri, 03 Aug 2018 00:44:05 +0000 https://backcountrysights.com/?p=7396 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 Recreation.gov. 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.”

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Pine Creek to Piute Pass Thru Hike https://backcountrysights.com/pine-creek-piute-pass-thru-hike/ https://backcountrysights.com/pine-creek-piute-pass-thru-hike/#comments Sun, 22 Jul 2018 16:00:53 +0000 https://backcountrysights.com/?p=7292 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!

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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 Recreation.gov; 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.

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