Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Boreal Plateau

We had a weekend available, and our good friend "Hikin' Bill" needed to be reintroduced to backpacking after many years, so we planned a short trip to an area that had great interest to us in the southern Sierra. The Boreal Plateau is an isolated sky island at the south end of Sequoia National Park surrounded by lower elevation meadows (Big Whitney, Little Whitney, Tunnel, Siberian Outpost) to the south and east, the remarkable Kern Trench to the west, and Rock Creek to the north. Sitting in the middle of the plateau is Funston Lake. From everything we had heard, this was a must-see destination.

Day 1 - Horseshoe Meadow Trailhead to Rocky Basin Lakes (15 miles)

Horseshoe Meadow trail
Being the crazy hikers we are, the decision was made to visit the plateau by the roundabout route through Rocky Basin Lakes. These lakes sit on the south edge of the plateau several hundred feet below. An early start from the trailhead had us cruising through Horseshoe Meadow and up to Cottonwood Pass in the cool morning air. The giant gnarled Foxtail Pines mixed in with Lodgepoles are always a treat when you hike in this area. From the top of Cottonwood Pass we detoured a short distance to pick up water at Chicken Spring Lake.  In this severe drought year we weren't taking any chance on the entirety of Big Whitney Meadows being dry and it was still a long way to Rocky Basin Lakes.

Foxtail Pine cones

Chicken Spring Lake
Next up was the long descent to Big Whitney Meadow, from 11,130 feet to below 9,800 feet elevation.  The "Big" in Big Whitney is no exaggeration as this meadow stretches on for over a mile. The drought has taken its toll on this meadow.

Big Whitney Meadow
At the west end of the meadow we began a gentle ascent toward Rocky Basin Lakes, working over several ridges until the final hard climb up to the lowest lake. The lack of snowpack has punished many of the backcountry lakes evident by the large "bathtub" rings around the edges.  The smallest lakes in this basin were nothing but dirt.

One of the Rocky Basin Lakes
Fifteen miles and lots of up and down seemed like enough when we reached the shore of the farthest west lake, so we made camp for the evening.  This staged us right at the edge of the climb for the Boreal Plateau the next morning.
Bird Lists for day 1:

Horseshoe Meadow
Cottonwood Pass
Chicken Spring Lake
Stokes Springer Creek
Big Whitney Meadow Rocky Basin Lakes

Day 2 - Rocky Basin Lakes to Cottonwood Lakes Basin (14 miles)

When you only have a weekend for a long trip into the backcountry, there will always be disappointment in not being to explore an area more, and this day was no exception. The Boreal Plateau is amazing and a longer future visit is certainly in order.  We started the day by cross country climbing the ridge dividing the Rocky Lakes Basin from Johnson Lake, then turning north to finish the ascent to the plateau.  The entire world view opened up then with views extending for miles and miles in all directions. To the south, Kern and Olancha Peaks stood out. In the west, the Kern Trench gouged its way through the mountains and beyond was the immensity of the Great Western Divide. To the east, the Sierra Crest including Mount Langley and Mount Whitney.  And in the north stood the magnificent Kaweah group with Mount Kaweah dominating front and center. It was one of the most impressive Sierra views to be had anywhere. Unfortunately, even photos can't do justice to these amazing vistas.  A short traverse across the plateau brought us to the overlook to Funston Lake - another place to spend more time in the future.

Paintbrush and Kern Peak
Boreal Plateau with Kaweah Group
Boreal Plateau with Mount Langley (right) and Mount Whitney (slighly left of center)
Great Western Divide and Funston Lake
As we continued across the plateau we came to the cirque edge that allowed a look back down to the Rocky Basin Lakes where we spent the previous evening.

Rocky Basin Lakes
At over 11,000 feet elevation, the plateau itself was other worldly, a windswept expanse with the occasional hearty Foxtrail Pine and other arctic ground hugging plants. The grasses were in full seed and the birds knew it. We found dozens of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, adults and juveniles, gorging on the seed heads.  

Rosy-Finches everywhere!
All good things must end, and we had many miles still to travel this day. We worked our way to the east edge of the plateau and found a notch to descend into the vast meadow that is the Siberian Outpost.  Continuing across this expanse for a couple miles brought us to trails again. We made our way to a fork of Rock Creek and the trail ascending to New and Old Army Passes.

Siberian Outpost below
Siberian Outpost with Mount Langley beyond
The original (Old) Army Pass was built in the late 1800 by US Army soldiers. With a mostly north facing aspect, this trail is choked with snow in most years for all but the latest part of summer.  A mile away in an adjoining cirque, is a newer trail (New Army Pass) with a more south facing aspect that clears of snow earlier in the season and has a much gentler grade with long wide switchbacks. Either trail would get us back to the east side of the crest but the old trail is the only one that goes directly into the scenic Cottonwood Lakes basin. Old Army Pass hasn't been maintained for a long time, is very steep, and is subject to rock slides.  None of us had ever been up or down this trail but were willing to give it a go.
Cottonwood Lakes basin from Old Army Pass

Descending the pass

Tricky footing in a few spots

Looking back up toward the top of Old Army Pass
A special treat awaited us on the climb down, the rare Polemonium eximium, or Sky Pilot, that only grows at very high elevation in the Sierra.

Sky Pilot
 Reaching the bottom of the cirque wall and the lake we quickly found a nice secluded campsite, and called it a day.

View from camp to the top of Old Army Pass
Camp at Lake 4
Bird Lists day 2:

Boreal Plateau
Siberian Outpost
Rock Creek
Army Pass
Cottonwood Lakes


Day 3 - Cottonwood Lakes Basin to Trailhead (10 miles)

Susan and I have hiked this section of trail many times, but it was Bill's first time here so we had to take some sightseeing detours along the way back.  We started off hiking through the Cottonwood Lakes basin with all it's magnificent views.  Muir and Hidden Lakes are off the main trail a little ways, but worth the effort.

Cottonwood Lakes 4 and 5.  Mt. Langley in the background on right.

Mt. Langley (back right) and meadows below lakes.
Hiking bums at Muir Lake
Ancient Foxtail Pine near Hidden Lake
The rest of the trip back was uneventful, passing lots of backpackers and day hikers heading in.  The high altitude trailhead and easy hiking make this is a very popular area. We were back to the car quickly and eating pizza in Lone Pine by early afternoon!

Bird Lists day 3:

Upper Cottonwood Lakes 
Lower Cottonwood Lakes
Muir Lake 
Hidden Lake 
Cottonwood Lakes Trail

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Finger Lake and North Dome

A quick recap on two recent day hikes...

Finger Lake (South Fork Big Pine Creek)

North Fork Big Pine Creek
This was a repeat hike for Susan and I, but new for our two friends Bill and Collette who we dragged along so they could see one of the coolest lakes in the Sierra. This hike starts near Glacier Lodge at the end of the road up Big Pine Canyon, taking the South Fork of Big Pine Creek instead of the far more popular North Fork trail.  Our trail for the day is the one the climbers take to tackle Middle Palisades in the Palisades Crest. The three southernmost glaciers in the US sit below the Palisades Crest - Palisades, Norman Clyde, and Middle Palisades. The south fork trail starts with the north fork for a short distance, crossing the North Fork Big Pine Creek on a nice bridge, before departing and climbing gently to a large glacial headwall that gets your attention as it ascends steeply up over a thousand feet. The flowers were putting on a show as we made our way up the switchbacks.  Foxtail Pine was the dominant tree on the wall with some fascinatingly weathered specimens near the top.



Foxtail Pine
Reaching the top of the headwall, a magnificent view of the Palisades Crest opened up.  

Palisades Crest.  Middle Palisades in obscured by low clouds.
After a short breather we continued along the trail dropping a couple hundred feet to near Willow Lake.  A quick turn uphill and we were gaining altitude again on our way to Brainard Lake.  
Brainard Lake
On the far side of the cirque cliff behind Brainard Lake sits our real goal for the day - Finger Lake. A short but very steep scamper up a scree and talus slope brought us to the top of the ridge and the outlet of this fascinating lake.  Finger Lake sits in a very narrow canyon, its waters coming directly from melt of the Middle Palisades Glacier, thus the incredible aqua blue color.  
Finger Lake
With afternoon storm clouds brewing, our stay was shorter than we would have liked.  The return trip was uneventful but we did make sure to see the sights along the way.

Palisades Crest under threatening sky

View back down canyon toward trailhead
We made it to one of the most interesting lakes in the Sierra, beat the rain back to the car by minutes, and celebrated in Bishop with delicious Mexican food. That's what I call a good day!

12 miles, 4,450 feet elevation gain


Bird Lists:

South Fork Big Pine Creek
Brainard to Finger Lake
Finger Lake

North Dome (Yosemite)

First views along the trail
Third time is the charm!  Years ago on our first attempt at North Dome, Susan's acrophobia got the better of her and she wouldn't go out on the exposed section to the top of the dome. This was before I beat her senseless with endless cols, passes, cliffs, talus, scree, and other epic cross-country hiking adventures. A second attempt a couple years later and she came down with a nasty virus on the day of the hike and had to stay home in bed. This past Saturday was her third go at this hike out to a spectacular Yosemite view and was met with unqualified success!  North Dome is a glaciated granite feature on the north side of Tenaya Canyon directly across canyon from the face of Half Dome. This moderate trail is roughly 10 miles out and back, unless you add some extra side trail miles like we did. The trail takes off the Tioga Pass Road from the Porcupine Creek Trailhead. The first couple miles meanders up and down through a mature forest with beautiful examples of Red Fir, Western White Pine, and the occasional Jefferey Pine and Sugar Pine. As the trail approaches the edge of Tenaya Canyon the views begin to show through the trees.  

First look at Half Dome through the trees
As you approach the edge of the canyon, the trail dips down several hundred feet to a connecting ridge that takes you out to North Dome.  The view across the canyon to Half Dome, the Clark Range, and points beyond is among the finest in Yosemite.

Half Dome, Clark Range and beyond
North Dome from the edge of Tenaya Canyon, just before descent.
After descending on a steep and sometimes scrambling trail, the final walk out to the top of the dome is really spectacular.

Half Dome from the top of North Dome
Yosemite Valley from the top of North Dome
We took a detour on the way back to add some miles to the hike, heading northwest along the Yosemite Falls trail until connecting with the Lehamite Creek trail.  Along the way we passed over the mostly dry Arch Creek where we ran into a small flock of warblers, kinglets, and such.  Mixed in were two young Hermit Warblers at eye level who gave us fantastic looks.  Very cool!  The rest of the hike was pleasant in a beautiful forest ending another spectacular day.

12 miles, 2500 feet elevation gain.


Bird Lists:

North Dome Trail
Ridge trail
Lehamite Creek Trail

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sierra High Route (Day 7)

Day 7 - Below Stanton Pass to Twin Lakes (16 miles)

Stanton Pass between Virginia and Stanton Peaks
Our final day, assuming we can manage two cross-country passes and hike the miles. After being "serenaded" by the fighting ptarmigan last night we were up early and out the gate by 6:30. First up was Stanton Pass (11,170 feet) a short distance from camp. The approach was straight forward and we were at the summit in no time. The view from the top was excellent, with Whorl Mountain and Matterhorn Peak dominating to the north and west.  Spiller Creek was directly below and our next objective. 

Climbing to the pass

View northwest to Spiller Creek from pass.  Whorl Mt (center) and Matterhorn Peak (right)

Going down...
Again, advanced reading of the route down the north side of this pass told a mixed story.  Roper warned, "the descent from Stanton Pass can prove tricky if the hiker does not find the easiest route possible." This is followed by more dire warnings and ambiguous route suggestions. Thankfully I had read and stored on my phone a trip report from another hiker who suggested ignoring Roper and moving to the left side of the pass at the summit where some manageable class 3 chutes could be used to descend the first 100 feet to more reasonable footing. As we gazed down the wall I wondered how in the world I would get Susan and her pack down this section that required a good deal of balance and hand work...  It was time to relieve Susan of her pack and let her deal with the class 3 chutes unencumbered.  We slowly worked the chutes, first Susan and then me with her pack in one hand, the other grabbing the hand-holds on the wall.  Since I am writing this I suppose it is reasonable to assume we survived. As Susan says, "it's either a story or an obituary," so this must be a story!

Down, down, down

Looking back up at the class 3 chutes
Susan didn't get through unscathed
More talus, granite ramps, and grass slopes and we were down in the Spiller Creek Canyon far enough to turn north and begin the ascent toward Horse Creek Pass.  Whorl Mountain and Matterhorn Peak towered above on the left while Virginia Peak and Twin Peaks kept watch from the right. The canyon was replete with springs all trickling down slope to join the creek.  As had been the theme for much of the hike, flowers carpeted the canyon floor at this elevation of 10,000 feet.  A couple of miles later we reached the head of the canyon at Horse Creek Pass, elevation 10,650 feet, directly below Matterhorn Peak. 

Spiller Creek Canyon looking north toward Horse Creek Pass
Lemmons Paintbrush
Elephant's Head

Alpine Penstemon

Narrow notch at the head of Horse Creek Pass
This pass is unlike any that we have been over in nearly 150 miles of the Sierra High Route. It is a cleft in a rock wall, leading to a snow tongue and multiple glacial terminal moraines to work around and over. Several relatively steep snow fields and lots of talus require careful navigation. As we are descending the first half mile of the narrow canyon I keep thinking I'm hearing voices from behind. But that can't be, there were no other hikers in Spiller Creek.  Weird... Then I happen to glance up and behind me toward the summit of Matterhorn Peak and see 4 young men cruising down the talus slope of the mountain. These guys intersect our canyon well below us so I don't have a chance to speak to them. A few minutes later a man and his daughter follow the same path down and come up from behind us.  I ask and it is confirmed that we have intersected the class 2 day hiker route to the top of Matterhorn. This becomes fortunate for us as now we have a marginal use trail to follow as we continue down this very steep talus choked canyon.


Ice field below the pass.  The pass is in the tiny notch on the right.

More giant talus
Snow fun!

It's steep!
Mountaineering use trails can be steep, and this one is exceptionally so - no switchbacks here, just go straight down!  We finally shed enough altitude and the canyon begins to flatten out; the trail becomes more reasonable and the hiking gets pleasant.  Just a handful of cruiser miles to the car...  Boom, boom, BOOM!  Thunder roars from the crest as the afternoon storm clouds raise their ugly heads and chase us down from behind.  Splat, splat, splat; the first big raindrops fall and we fear a good one coming.  Quickly donning our waterproof ponchos, we just beat the torrent and continue down canyon.  The path is good but the wet vegetation hangs over the trail like the brushes in a car wash.  It wouldn't be normal if we weren't soaked from the knees down anyway!  The flowers are insanely good in this last few miles so we have that to keep us entertained as we finish the distance in steady downpour.  





We reach the Twin Lakes Resort campground in the late afternoon, the hundreds of 4th of July campers not looking too happy about having their holiday drenched.  Navigating the campground roads we find the bridge across the creek and finally have our staged car in sight.  On to Lee Vining for some real food!

This section of the incredible Sierra High Route challenged us quite a bit.  Compared to the middle section we did last year, this was more difficult and occasionally frustrating.  There was plenty of Type 2 fun on this one, that is certain.  As much as we would have liked better weather, it could have been much worse as real snow fell over much of the route just a week later.  The crazy weather continues...  But, in any other than this severe drought year, even thinking about this route at the end of June would have you digging in the gear closet for the ice axe and crampons.  This is normally an August route. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to do it when flowers were at absolute peak in the high country. 

One more section to get, the southernmost - bring it on!

Bird Lists:

Tarns below Stanton Pass
Spiller Creek Canyon
Upper Horse Creek Canyon
Lower Horse Creek Canyon