When I heard that a) the Merced River was about to reach its peak flow and b) Tioga Pass Road was scheduled to open on June 5 I quickly put together a one-day quick trip to Yosemite last weekend. This is a bit of a tradition for me – to get up there for at least a quick look at the spring waterfalls and to try to get over the pass as soon as possible after it opens.
For a one-day up-and-back trip (amounting to a bit more than 20 hours on the road, all told) I have to start early. So, long before dawn I was up and in the car and on the road in the dark. The sun comes up – duh! – a lot earlier this time of year, so it was getting light by the time I stopped in Oakdale for a quick on-the-run Starbucks breakfast and got right back on the road. In order to arrive in the Valley by sunrise I would have had to be driving by 2:00 a.m., and that didn’t happen, but I did arrive relatively early and before the really big crowds were out and about. I spent a few minutes at my favorite first view on El Cap and Half Dome along the road just past the turnoff to Foresta and then headed down into the Valley to make my traditional first stop for a thorough drenching under Bridalveil Fall.
I spent a bit more time in the Valley before realizing that the crowds were growing way beyond my comfort level. I don’t blame folks for flocking to the Valley for a scene like this: all of the waterfall in full flow, the sound of falling water everywhere, seasonal falls that aren’t usually seen, new green growth everywhere, flooded meadows, and a warm and clear spring day. But since I can come back on less crowded days, I decided that the drive over Tuolumne would be at least as special and much less crowded.
As I started up 120 I soon saw significant amounts of snow, and by the time the road rose to 8000′ of so the snowpack was pretty continuous. The higher peaks appeared to be in full winter mode still, and I was surprised to see lakes like little Siesta Lake completely frozen over. I’ve been over Tioga before soon after the road opened, but the amount of snow remaining from the cold and wet May and the generally wet winter was quite impressive. Tuolumne Meadows itself was completely covered with snow, excepting the large areas flooded by the surging Tuolumne River. (The entire meadow area just upstream from the bridge by the campground entrance was completely flooded and there were only a few inches between the rushing water and the underside of the bridge.
I continued on up to the pass with a goal of grabbing an early dinner at the Whoa Nelly Deli in Lee Vining. At the pass there were still several feet of snow with plow cuts being five to six feet tall in places. Tioga and Ellery Lakes were almost completely frozen over, and quite a few people were still going back-country skiing in the area. After stopping for dinner in Lee Vining (and grabbing a quick espresso at Latte Da) I headed back up the pass to shoot late afternoon and evening light before heading home.
I made this photograph at Tioga Lake as afternoon shadows from clouds and nearby peaks stretched across the frozen lake surface with Tioga Pass and Kuna Crest looming beyond. (Photograph © Copyright G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.)
Earlier this week I spent a few days in the Ten Lakes Basin area of Yosemite National Park. Although I’ve backpacked widely in the high country of the park over the past years – OK, decades… – this was actually the very first time that I visited this popular backpacking destination. I think I had shied away from it for a couple reasons: it seems perhaps too popular and accessible, and I tend to prefer somewhat higher and more alpine terrain. But it was time, I visited, and I’m glad I did.
I managed to get to the park fairly early on a Monday morning and pick up a wilderness permit without problems. (Congratulations to ranger “Elizabeth” who issued her very first Yosemite wilderness permit to me… ;-) It was less difficult to get the permit than it might be under different circumstances: school has started for many and the midweek backcountry “traffic” begins to decline near the end of August. Although I had permit in hand by 9:00 a.m. or so, for a variety of reasons I did not hit the trail until about 1:30.
Although I carry a map and can do a fine job of finding my way around in the mountains with or without a trail, these days I sometimes don’t obsess over “knowing everything” (as if that were even possible!) about the route ahead of time. That was the case on this trip. I was familiar with the trailhead, having driving past it many times, and I had often looked up the valley into which it goes. But beyond that I initially had almost no idea of the actual terrain – in fact, I had long be under the mistaken impression that the Basin is on the south side of the ridge. Wrong.
Before I actually hit the trail I did consult the map more carefully and discover that the lakes are actually on the other side of the ridge… and a few hundred feet below the high point of the trail on a ridge that divides Mariposa and Tuolumne counties. I was starting to catch on that there might be a bit more climbing on this trip than I had really imagined – I sort of intentionally did not measure the climb… which turned out to be about 2000 feet. Now a 2000 foot climb is not a giant one, especially compared to some of 3000′ to 5000′ that I’ve done in the southern Sierra – but neither is it exactly a happy little afternoon walk. In the end, what with stops for photography and food and water along the way, it was close to 7:00 p.m. by the time I arrived at my campsite at “lake three,” the lake to the left of the trail when it arrives in the Basin. I basically set up camp, fixed dinner, did a bit of reading, and went to sleep.
Day 2 was fairly lazy. I did not get up early, so I missed some possible early morning photo opportunities, though I used the better part of the rest of the morning to scout out shooting locations for later. In the afternoon I wandered on up to the next lake and did a bit of photography, especially on the way back down when shadows from the cliff to the west were starting to create some interesting lighting conditions. I also visited the main lake (“lake two”) and found a couple scenes that I returned to photograph later in the evening.
By the end of this second day I was thinking more about the tremendous panorama I had seen as I crossed the high ridge above the lake on the way in. I was stunned by the wide open views, especially toward the peaks of the Sierra crest from Dana and Gibb past Conness to other high peaks far to the north, all set off against the rock-strewn summit of the ridge, tree covered ridges below, and below all of that the depths of the Tuolumne River canyon. I started to make a plan to do a “dry camp” on the ridge on the next night and try to photograph the evening and then the following morning.
On the third day I still had this plan in mind in the morning. But first I did more photography around lake three, including near the outlet stream where I had found some still-fresh vegetation and flowers. (By this time much of the summer plant life is starting to show signs of going dormant. Many flowers have blossomed and gone to seed and some very early hints of fall color are already starting to appear.) After this I decided to explore further up this creek and by a combination of use trails and cross-country scrambling I managed to get up to lake five. I returned to my camp by about 2:00 – hungry for lunch! – and soon packed up with the plan of doing that “dry camp” on the ridge for the photography.
Late in the afternoon I started up the trail and I reached the ridge by about 4:45 or so – but I was somewhat disappointed to find that a very large wildfire was burning to the west and sending quite a bit of smoke my way, and also generally adding a lot of brown haze to the scene that had been so clear two days earlier. I poked around a bit and found a potential camp spot for my bivy sack in a clump of trees on the ridge, but in the end I decided that the photographs I had in mind just weren’t going to happen in these conditions – and I decided to head out and drive home that night. (One often doesn’t know for sure whether such decisions are right or not – but I think this was the right decision given that the fire continued – continues, as I write this – to grow and shortly forced a closure of the Big Oak Flat road into the valley.)
So, at about 6:00 p.m. I started down from the ridge, having resolved to make a beeline for the trailhead. Most of the trail is conducive to fast downhill walking, with the exception of a few steep and rocky sections near the beginning and end of the descent, and I made good time. I arrived at my car before 8:00 p.m. – still enough light to see well, but fading fast – and was soon on the road back to the Bay Area.
I hate to start a post with an apology for how little I’ve posted – but that’s what I’m going to do. Although I’ve been posting regularly at my photography web site (where you’ll be able to find photos of the trips I’ll describe below as I post them), I’ve managed to neglect this site for weeks!
So, some reports on recent Sierra backpack trips….
Near the beginning of August I spent four days doing photography at Young Lakes in the Yosemite high country out of Tuolumne Meadows. I’ve been to Young Lakes several times in the past and I thought it was about time to devote some significant time to photography at this location.
The weather was, uh, “interesting” – but that is actually better for photography. I’d rather have some spectacular clouds, occasional soft filtered light, rain, and interesting sunset conditions than have a week of typical Sierra summer perfect blue skies! By the time I arrived at Tuolumne Meadows to start my trip I knew that the weather was going to be special. I stopped at the Meadow Grill just after noon to grab lunch before hitting the trail, and while I was inside there was quite a downpour of hail. With the precipitation starting so early, it was apparent that the weather would be an issue, so I decided to swap out my bivy sack and take a small one-person tent instead. Not only would that be better in real rain, but since I was going to base camp in one location for three nights the luxury of the small tent would be welcome.
I headed up the trail past Lembert Dome in light sprinkles that continued off and on throughout the afternoon and evening. Given concerns about the weather and my somewhat late start I did little photography on the hike to lower Young Lake. This turned out to be a decent decision since it rained harder as I approached the lake and in the end it was after 7:00 p.m. when I finally arrived – leaving just time to set up the tent and make dinner before night fall.
I was lazy the next morning, but for the rest of the trip I managed to get up early for morning photography, find myself in interesting places for late photography, and even do the cross-country walk out to Roosevelt Lake, which I’ve wanted to visit for some time. This is a bit of a different walk than the cross-country hikes I tend to prefer. While my favorite cross-country routes are at or above timberline – where you can go pretty much where you want to go – the first half of this hike from Lower Young Lake to Roosevelt travels through some fairly thick (for the Sierra) forest. The basic idea is that you keep a point just to the left of Conness peak in mind as your goal, and you triangulate back to Ragged Peak and the ridge it sits on behind you. Then you try not to lose/gain too much elevation as you travel through the forest area, dodging large drop-offs and other obstacles and generally following a slight loop to the right of what would be the straight line between the start and end points. Eventually I came to a meadow and creek at the base of a climb to the saddle leading to the valley holding the lake. I climbed this, keeping to the right of the creek, and finally entered to open country in this high valley. From here the path to the high, barren lake is fairly straightforward – with great views of the west face of Mount Conness all along the way.
While this walk was great fun, it was not a great photographic opportunity given the midday time frame. I had better photography luck with early morning photography of the forest around the lower Young Lake and with evening photography at this lake and (especially!) at the more open and alpine upper Young Lake.
My next trip (with my talusdancers buddies) was to have been a weeklong adventure in the upper Kern drainage. It would have taken us in via Kearsarge and Forester Passes and then out by way of formidable Shepard Pass.
But that didn’t happen.
A variety of things interfered with the original plan. Several people had to cancel at the last minute. I had a dental problem at the last minute. And on and on… So, we improvised and came up with a less aggressive alternative trip – a four day/three night basecamp trip up high into the Sabrina Basin in the eastern Sierra above Bishop.
I almost didn’t make this trip either! The night before the trip, literally as I was finishing my packing, I cracked a tooth! Fortunately, I was essentially packed and my dentist saw me the next morning. By noon I had a temporary crown on the tooth and I was making last minute arrangements to meet my friends in the eastern Sierra. I was on the road at 2:30 and arrived at Four Jeffrey campground at about 9:00 p.m. Whew!
The next morning we grabbed a real breakfast at the little lodge in Aspendell (recommended!) before driving up the road a bit, parking near Sabrina Lake, and heading up the trail to Blue Lake. The conditions were a bit strange for early June. An unusual fall-type weather system was scheduled to pass across the northern Sierra and there was even talk of the possibility of snow as low as 9500′. (We would be camped above 10,000′ for the whole time.) While the cool weather certainly makes for much more pleasant hiking, especially on climbs from east side trailheads, the evening was very cold and windy the first night at Blue Lake – and this continued more or less throughout the trip. (We never did get snow, or even rain – but it was cold enough to freeze our water on several nights.)
On the second day we moved up higher into the basin, finally ending up at Topsy Turvy Lake. This is a wonderful rock-filled lake at the base of a talus slope in country that is heavily affected by glaciation. Nearby are a bunch of interesting lakes: Midnight, Moonlight, Sailor, Hungry Packer, and more. The terrain above is my favorite in the Sierra, beginning with open meadows with small clumps of trees interspersed with lots of glaciated granite and much running water. We managed to visit most of these high lakes and I had opportunities to wander about wtih camera and tripod and photograph this wonderful terrain.
On the final morning we go up relatively early – some earlier that others. Ernie was up and on the trail a bit after 6:00; I was on the trail perhaps an hour or so later; while Owen had a lazier morning. We all hiked the mostly descending trail back to our cars below Sabrina Lake by about noon – just in time to head down to Bishop for lunch pizza.
I know I’ll be going back up to the Sierra soon, but I don’t have any firm plans just yet. I’d like to do one more short August trip – perhaps next week and perhaps 10 Lakes? It is my tradition to do at least one post-Labor Day trip to enjoy the quiet and changing colors of early fall in the Sierra and my friends and I frequently manage to squeeze in one late September or early October trip if the weather cooperates. I may also try to get to Cathedral Lakes on the last weekend of September for some photography. And then… there are the aspens… they call me to the east side at the start of October every year. :-)
Since school is out (yes, teachers look forward to that, too!) and I have a major pack trip coming up later this summer (more about that later) it is time to get serious about whacking the old body back into some sort of shape. Although I’ve always felt that the best conditioning for backpacking is the first three days of the trip, as I get older I find that I’d rather start those first three days from a little better position if possible.
So, today I decided on a “conditioning” hike that pushed me both in terms of dealing with heat/sun and climbing. I started at the New Almaden entrance to the Almaden Quicksilver County Park and ascended past English Camp by way of the Deep Gulch trail. Deep Gulch is a less-used route that has the disadvantage (or, for my purposes today, the advantage) of being rather steep but on a hot day like this the fact that it is in a, uh, deep gulch means that it is also very shady. After English Camp I continued on past the site of the old mill on the ridge via the Castillero trail to join up with the Mine Hill trail, which I followed back down to the parking lot.
I certainly do not recommend this route in these conditions to anyone out for a pleasant little stroll. It was 90 degrees when I returned to my car and portions of the hike near the highest point are directly in the sun – and I was there right around noon. On the other hand, it seemed like I had the entire park almost to myself. During the several hours I was there I saw exactly five other people.
Yesterday I drove toward the Monterey Bay area planning to visit Point Lobos for a half day of morning photography. As I passed through Castroville I heard a report on the radio: Highway 1 was closed south of Carmel for the Big Sur Marathon. Yikes! Point Lobos is about five minutes south of the road closure.
For a moment I debated whether to turn around and head back or try to pick a different destination, but the report went on to say that they were convoying vehicles past the runners, though there would be a delay – so I figured I stick with my plan and see what would happen. When I arrived at the start of the race – the shopping center south of Carmel – the road was completely blocked, there were hundreds of runners, and traffic was shunted to the left into the almost completely full shopping center parking lot. I saw a sign for “convoy parking” so I drove over an inquired. There was a two hour interval between convoys, but one was scheduled to leave in a half hour or so… so I picked up a coffee nearby and before taking my place in the line.
When I finally arrived at Point Lobos I was initially taken aback by a huge stream of runners/walkers who were apparently taking a route through the park, but it turned out that they had apparently just started near the south end of the reserve and come through more or less in one group. They soon passed, and it turned out that I was one of only two cars that had gotten into the park during/before the passing of the first convoy. On a spring morning I was almost alone at Point Lobos!
For the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon I met no other hikers, photographers, or other park visitors whatsoever. I saw one other person on a distant rock at one point, but that was it. Anyone who has visited Point Lobos knows that on a typical Sunday in spring the place if full of cars and there are people everywhere. I took advantage of this unusual situation to photograph a family of harbor seals who were very close to the shoreline and later to hike a trail through the pine forested hills that I’ve meant to visit for years.
I think I need to find out when this marathon is scheduled for next spring and plan to do this again!
Today’s hike was at one of the usual places, Calero County Park, where I mostly spent a couple hours off of the trails investigating and photographing oak trees on one large ridge. It was a beautiful morning, but in a slightly worrisome and perverse way. It really should be raining now, and the trail should be muddy. Instead it was brilliantly sunny, relatively warm, the ground was dry, and I didn’t seen any running water in any of the creeks or streams. After two previous years of below normal precipitation, this is not the kind of day we need right now.
Early this month (August 4-12, 2008) I completed a tran-Sierra pack trip with my talusdancers friends. I still plan to eventually post “the story” along with photos, but since the trip was two weeks ago and I still have work to do on the photographs I’m writing up a quick overview here with the day by day account to come later.
The broad outline of the trip was to travel the “High Sierra Trail” west to east from Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park (located very close to Moro Rock), over the Great Western Divide at Kaweah Gap, up the Kern River canyon to Junction Meadow and the climb up Wallace Creek, down the John Muir Trail (JMT) to Crabtree Meadow, and then over the peak and out to Whitney Portal on the east side. I have been on sections of the trail several times, especially in the area in and to the east of the Kern, I followed the HS Trail out to the cutoff to Elizabeth Pass on my first solo trip many years ago, and my wife and I did the whole HS Trail many (many!) years ago. I was interested to see how much of the route would seem familiar to me.
The first challenge for a trans-Sierra trip is setting up the car shuttle, and it is a major issue on this trip. The drive between Whitney Portal (where we left two cars) and Three Rivers (where we stayed the night before the trip) takes about four and a half hours – and we would need to repeat it at the end of the trip in order to retrieve the cars left at Crescent Meadow. As far as I can tell, there is simply no good way to avoid this issue.
At Crescent Meadow the trail begins in relatively lush forest (by Sierra Nevada standards) with ferns beneath the trees in places, and then it quickly crosses a gap in the ridge after which the trail largely contours along the north side of the canyon of the Kaweah River as it heads toward its source on the Great Western Divide. The trail alternates forested sections with wide open sections affording expansive views of the canyon, the Great Western Divide, and the foothills of the Central Valley. We passed Mehrton Creek – where I camped on my first trip through here – and continued on to our camp at Nine Mile Creek.
On the next morning the first portion of the trail was not terribly different from what we had hiked on the first day – mixed forest and open terrain and at roughly the same elevation. After a short distance and a small climb we arrived at Bearpaw Meadow where there is a ranger station and a backcountry camp much like the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite. We all stopped to enjoy the now close-up view of the peaks of the Great Western divide before continuing on. At this point the terrain began to change as the trail followed a rather “interesting” route along rocky cliff ledges above the increasingly steep valley below. After crossing a major creek on a new bridge (from which you could ponder the wreckage of the old bridge below) the trail began the climb into the basin holding Hamilton Lakes. The climb is not too bad, but at the end of the day it seemed somewhat hard. We soon arrived at popular Upper Hamilton Lakes, from which we could view the route for the next day’s hike to Kaweah Gap.
The next morning some of us started early in order to get a head start on the steep 2500′ climb to Kaweah Gap, while others got a later start. The trail climbs steadily across the headwall of this basin, and includes some quite impressive examples of trail engineering – including the only “trail tunnel” I’ve encountered in the Sierra. Near the top of the steeper section the trail crosses wildflower fields fed by many small stream, and soon after that it arrives at Precipice Lake. (You may know this lake from a very famous Ansel Adams image shot in 1932.) We paused here – and I tried to pay homage to Ansel with a few photos of my own – and then headed on up the rather alpine final section to the gap, passing by small tarns and alpine meadows before this high point. From here the view opened to the east to the Kaweahs and to the south down Big Arroyo, into which we descended to reach our camp site at the old cabin along the creek.
On day four we began the climb to Chagoopa plateau, the large flat area at the south end of the Kaweahs between Big Arroyo and the Kern. After reaching the plateau – and wondering about the gathering clouds – we walked another mile or so and then turned off on the loop to Moraine Lake, our next camp.
On the next morning we began by crossing the Chagoopa Plateau on a trail that went through meadows and forest (many of which showed sights of fire) and past expansive views of Kaweah Peak before rejoining the High Sierra Trail. After this junction the trail began the large descent into the Kern River Canyon, and we gave up all of the elevation we had gained up until this point and then some by the time we hit the canyon floor. We passed over a very rough section of “new” trail that bypasses the old route along the river as we headed upstream to the Kern Hot Springs – where anyone in their right mind would camp and soak in the riverside rock pool.
After considering the rest of our itinerary and realizing that we had to do at least one really tough day to finish according to our plan, we decided to make the next one our long day. We started early with the fairly easy 7.5 mile walk up the Kern to Junction Meadow, rising perhaps 1000′ or so in this distance. We took a long lunch break here and then started the real climb of a bit more than 2500′ to the JMT junction at Wallace Creek. I think we all know that this 13 mile day with a 3700′ climb would be tough, but we all managed to avoid mentioning it in conversation – which is one way to deal with a challenge like this. Suffice it to say that we were tired when we arrived at the JMT and set up camp in the late afternoon.
The following day’s hike wasn’t so tough. We started with the section of the JMT that rises south of Wallace Creek, crossing moraines, forests, meadows, and a few intermediate valleys on its way to Crabtree Meadow. This is the location of another backcountry ranger station and the last place that one doesn’t have to use “wag bags” (look it up…) so we had considered camping here. However, this would have increase the total climb to the summit of Whitney the next day by about 1000′ and by several miles – so we decided that it would make more sense to head on up to the traditional “last camp before Whitney” on the west side, Guitar Lake.
Finally, the next day was summit day. Most of the group intended to camp on the summit of Whitney, but I have some breathing issues at night that made me inclined to not join them. With this in mind I got a bit of an earlier start than most of the group. The hike up from Guitar Lake is somewhat serious business – in climbs very steadily and the elevation can take an increasing toll on speed and endurance as the trail rises to the trail crest. We all met up at the junction with the trail coming up from Whitney Portal before heading on to the summit, with me carrying only photo gear and a few other items and the rest of the group equipped for a night on the summit. After the inevitable summit photos, I left them to their high camp and headed back to pick up my pack and head over the crest and on down the east side. I passed by the “trail camp” at the base of the first section of steep switchbacks and kept going to Outpost Camp, where I joined a lot of other backpackers, most of whom were likely headed up the peak the next day.
There isn’t a lot to say about the final day since I was only perhaps three miles or so from the trailhead, a distance that I completed by mid-morning – with time left for a huge breakfast at the Whitney Portal store. (You have never seen a pancake as big as what they sell there. Really.) By midday the whole group had arrived – reporting that they had a good overnight on the summit – and it was time to put the reverse car shuttle in motion.
And that’s it for now… Photos later.
I’ll only post a brief note today, but I returned from a 9-day trans-Sierra pack trip earlier this week. We followed the High Sierra Trail from Crescent Meadow on the west side of Sequoia National Park to its opposite end on the east side at Whitney Portal.
Edie Howe’s Little Red Tent blog, that is. Edie lives in Yosemite Valley and often posts her photographs at her site and elsewhere. Recently she did the Four Mile Trail (from the Valley to Glacier Point) and she has posted a sequence of photographs from the hike. For everyone who wondered whether the smoke from California wild fires has gotten into the Valley, here is a partial answer.
(Another way to check on this is to look at the Yosemite Web Cam page, which hosts links to four web in and near Yosemite Valley and one at Tioga Pass. When I looked this morning the smoke was visible in the Valley but not as bad as it was a few days ago, but there is also a big smoke cloud to the west.)
Up at 3:00 a.m. and on the road yesterday morning with Yosemite Valley my goal. Photographed the usual spring subjects: wateralls, creeks, park visitors, new spring growth in the valleys and forests, and a sunset – this one at Glacier Point. (Oh, I made it home just before 1:00 a.m.)
Vernal and Nevada Falls, Alpenglow on Mt. Clark. Yosemite National Park, California. May 16, 2008. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.
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