Monday, August 17, 2015

Yosemite Marathon

Lyell Fork, Tuolemne River
No, not an organized running event in Yosemite, but our first near marathon length hike of the year. Our friend Hikin' Bill picked the destination - Ireland Lake - and one of us had the crazy idea to loop the hike through Vogelsang for some bonus scenery and miles. This could be a two or three day backpack trip!

On the drive up, while passing the north June Lake Loop road on highway 395, we notice a small stream of smoke coming from the west side of the highway. A few forest service fire trucks were parked at the intersection of the loop road and the highway. We didn't give it much thought at the time, but this would impact the rest of our day. We were on our way from the Tuolumne Lodge trailhead by 7:30, heading south on the John Muir trail into Lyell Canyon. This is the southern extension of the expansive Tuolumne Meadow and the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. The trail meanders along the edge of the meadow through mostly lodgepole pines and gains very little elevation for miles toward Donahue Pass. We were greeted almost immediately by a very noisy Red Crossbill. Over the course of the 6 miles to our trail turn away from the meadow we passed numerous flocks of Crossbills. It must be a great cone year for the lodgepoles in this area.

Lyell Canyon

We took the Evelyn Lake turn and immediately started climbing the west wall of Lyell Canyon. A nicely graded and switchbacked trail up 1,500 feet brought us to the plateau containing Ireland Lake. A two mile side trail took us to the lake nestled between Amelia Earhart and Parsons Peaks above treeline at 10,800 feet. It was unlike anything we were expecting; stark, open, windswept - really quite beautiful. I'm sure earlier in the summer there would have been plenty of rosy-finches and pipits frolicking about the alpine meadows.

Ireland Lake

Once back on the main trail we turned west toward Vogelsang. The trail climbs a small ridge then drops down to Evelyn Lake. The view to the west and the Cathedral Range was inspiring.

Cathedral Range
Back the way we had come from trouble was a brewing... Over the Kuna Crest to the east we could see a mushroom cloud indicating the small wisp of smoke we passed in the morning had become a full blown fire. This of course was troubling, but still miles from the car there was little we could do except watch and wonder what it would mean to us later.  We continued on as multiple air tankers started making runs from an airport somewhere in the Central Valley.

Fire beyond the Kuna Crest
We cruised down the ridge past Evelyn and soon came to Fletcher Lake near the Vogelsang High Camp and major trail junction.

Fletcher Lake and Peak

Fletcher Lake and Peak
Susan and I had been down this next stretch at the beginning of July on the Sierra High Route and knew what to expect on the trail down Rafferty Creek. What's the old definition of insanity? Doing something repeatedly and expecting a different result... Because of the Vogelsang High Camp ghetto and numerous mule trains each day used to supply the encampment, this 7 mile section of trail has to be among the worst in the Sierra. We hated every step of the way and have truly vowed this time not to do it again! Really, we mean it this time! 

Rafferty Creek and fire over the crest.  Contrails from the air tankers.
We were back at the parking lot at around 6:30. It was time to try our luck at getting out of the park - heading into the teeth of the fire...

Escape from Tuolumne

Leaving the Tuolumne Lodge area we turned east on Tioga Road and headed for the pass. Smoke filled the distance but other cars were going that way so we followed along. At the entrance station there were several park service vehicles and uniformed folks milling about. We continued through and moved down the hill. Little did we know at the time, but the Park Service was literally minutes from closing the gate. The westbound road had already been closed at Lee Vining. We rounded the corner at Ellery Lake and saw over a hundred vehicles stopped on the road ahead. This was not good...

Tioga Road
After about 15 minutes we saw from far below a CHP escort vehicle starting the line moving. Wow, we dodged a bullet there. If the pass had been closed or we were turned around at the top, it was at least a six hour detour to the west and north back to Bishop instead of an hour from where we were. There turned out to be only about 10 cars behind us. Amazingly the traffic moved along fairly well and we were back at the highway 395 junction near Lee Vining. The fire had crested the south Lee Vining Canyon and was now threatening the entire canyon. There is nothing in this world like watching a mature Jeffrey Pine torch - imagine the biggest roman candle you've ever seen times 1000.  Scary...

Lee Vining Canyon

Fire crests Lee Vining Canyon
Once southbound on 395 we just kept moving.  No reason to join the dozens of looky-loos parked on the side of the road.  Susan grabbed this image (and the other fire photos) as we kept going south.

West toward the crest
The Walker Fire is still burning mostly out of control as I type this Monday evening. There are lots of resources on the ground and in the air, so we hope these brave firefighters will make short work of containment (and be safe!), and all our friends in Lee Vining will be able to relax soon.

25+ miles, 4,000 feet elevation gain


Bird Lists:

Tuolumne Meadows
Lyell Canyon
Evelyn Lake Trail
Ireland Lake
Rafferty Creek

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Ritter Range

Agnew Meadow
We had no definite plan for the day other than starting at Agnew Meadow and checking out Cabin Lake off the Ediza Lake trail. We had heard it was a nice spot off the beaten track (thanks Barb!).  We had to beat the mandatory Devils Postpile bus by getting through the Minaret Summit checkpoint before 7:00, so it was an early start.  The meadow is already showing signs of fall with frost on the grass and bits of color in the willows. We made good time and got to Shadow Lake 4 miles in well before 9.  The late summer flowers are presenting well now.

Sierra Gentian
Approach to Cabin Lake
We weren't sure how exactly to get to Cabin Lake; one report on the internet talked about going most of the way to Ediza Lake and backtracking on a use trail up to the lake. Being the ever intrepid explorers that we are, we simply followed Shadow Creek until it met with the outlet stream from Cabin Lake and headed up.  Straight up...  A few hundred vertical feet later we were there at a pretty little lake tucked into the edge of the Volcanic Ridge.

Cabin Lake
After a short break we continued west and then north on the obvious use trail towards Ediza Lake. A pleasant meadow sits just a short distance west of Cabin Lake with nice views in all directions.

Meadow west of Cabin Lake
Crossing a ridge we started the descent back toward Shadow Creek. The view from this elevated perch of Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak was excellent. This was just a taste of what to come for views of those two impressive mountains. We were back down to Shadow Creek a short time later with half a day left to adventure.

View northwest to Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak
Shadow Creek and Hikin' Bill walking on water

At the end of June, Susan and I had passed this way and by Nydiver Lakes on the Sierra High route. We were eager to go again with a little more time to explore, and our friend Hikin' Bill had never been there. To Nydiver Lakes we go!  These lakes are a cross country amble up nearly 2,000 feet from Shadow Creek. We took the direct route and headed up the outlet creek from the lower Nydiver Lake for a while before contouring around some cliffs to the north. This was the same way Susan and I had approached earlier in the summer so we knew the way. We eventually reached the Nydiver bench above the lowest lake with a nice view of the lake to the south.

Lower Nydiver Lake with Volcanic Ridge in the background
Instead of dropping down to that lake we continued west toward the upper two lakes.  With a bit of scrambling we made the shore of the middle lake for a nice extended break.

Hikin' Bill doing a short class 3 scramble.  He wasn't happy with me for taking him on this part. ;-)
Middle and Upper Nydiver Lakes with Ritter and Banner
It was decision time... We could backtrack for the shortest distance, or continue on past the upper lake, over the ridge near the base of Mt. Ritter, and descend to Lake Ediza after bypassing some steep cliffs.  This would add several more miles but would take us to new territory and even better views of the big peaks. Of course we went the long way! We ascended the ridge then dropped to a tarn at the base of Mt. Ritter.  The melt water streams cascading off the snow fields were impressive at close range. It was a good choice going this way - some of the best mountain views ever!

Ritter and Banner from the ridge with the tarn below

Nearer to the tarn as we descend the ridge

Mt Ritter
Once at the tarn we picked up a climber use trail that led us easily down to Ediza Lake through a magnificent grove of Mountain Hemlock. The storm clouds continued to build, and while a few drops fell now and then, we never had to break out the rain gear.  

Use trail to Ediza Lake with Mountain Hemlock

Fireweek and Ediza Lake with the Minarets beyond
Once on the cruiser trail at Ediza Lake we pounded out the 7+ miles to the Agnew Meadow trailhead pretty quickly.  There was real food waiting at Mammoth Lakes!

20 miles, 4,600 feet ascent


Bird Lists:

Agnew Meadow
Shadow Lake
Cabin Lake
Nydiver Lakes
Ediza Lake

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Twenty Lakes Basin

Saddlebag Lake
Just a few short weeks ago Susan and I were in the middle of a section of the Sierra High Route and passed right over this spot. When I say "over," that is to say we were literally looking down on the Twenty Lakes Basin from high above - at least until we dropped in at the north end just for an evening and promptly left over a very high col the next morning. The day we went over the east ridge of Mt. Conness is quickly becoming one of my favorite hiking memories ever. So it was very special to come back last Sunday and view the High Route from the basin floor, constantly looking up at the route and figuring out where we were on the airy traverses.  

Another reason to hike this area was the reported Chestnut-sided Warbler (eastern vagrant) that had been seen at least twice in the preceding few weeks.  So off we went down the length of Saddlebag Lake to Greenstone Lake where the bird had been hanging out. We scoured the area for a good long time but had no luck finding any unusual birds.

Greenstone Lake with Mt. Conness and North Peak
Giving up on the warbler allowed us to focus the rest of the morning on hiking a beautiful area.  After Greenstone Lake we passed by several other lakes including Steelhead, Mill, and Cascade which had been our night 5 camp on the High Route. This was also our closest approach to Sky Pilot Col, our first high pass on day 6 of the route. It looked WAY up there from the valley below!

Shepard Crest (left) and Sky Pilot Col (notch just right of the tallest peak in the  middle left)
North Peak over Steelhead Lake
From there the trail turns northeast and continues toward Lundy Canyon. There is a fairly abrupt change in the geology in this area going from clean gray granite to a more reddish black metamorphic rock. This stretch brought Shamrock Lake and Lake Helen right at the edge of the serious descent into Lundy Canyon.  

Helen Lake with North Peak in the far background
 After the outlet of Lake Helen the trail turns back toward the south and the finish of the hike.  Flowers in this area were still very good.

Green Gentian or Deer's Tongue
Mountain Spiraea
The last stretch of this large loop took us over Lundy Pass and along Odell and Hummingbird lakes before finishing on the east side of Saddlebag Lake. There isn't a bad view anywhere along this entire route.

Odell Lake and Lundy Canyon 
Mt. Conness and North Peak from next to Hummingbird Lake
Last look back at North Peak across Saddlebag Lake
9+ miles, 1,100 feet elevation change


Bird List

Monday, August 3, 2015

Tenaya Canyon Top to Bottom - Yosemite

What goes down, must ride up! This day hike had been many years in the making - asking questions of friends who had done it and getting the guts to try. The premise: hike from the Tioga Pass road down to Yosemite Valley and ride the YARTS bus back to the trailhead. There is only one bus at 5 PM that can get a hiker back up the Tioga road, miss it and you will have trouble in the valley... We chose the Snow Creek trailhead, one of several choices for hiking from the north rim of Tenaya Canyon to the valley. This was also one of the shorter routes down and would have spectacular views of the face of Half Dome for much of the way.  

The trail starts at 8,400 feet elevation and actually climbs for a short distance before starting the rambling descent down to Snow Creek and the edge of the canyon. Indian Ridge, dividing Snow Creek from Lehamite Creek was evident through the trees as we cruised down the forested trail.

Indian Ridge
Bridge over Snow Creek
The first views of Half Dome through the trees came well before we got to the canyon edge. No matter how you see this mountain it's always amazing.

Half Dome through beyond the forest
A short distance after crossing Snow Creek on a nice bridge we came to the edge of the canyon at an elevation of 6,700 feet.  Next came the knee busting, quad pounding drop of 2,500 feet in less than a crow-fly mile on the face of Tenaya Canyon.  Actually, it wasn't too bad - the trail was cut in a notch in the canyon wall and was beautifully graded with many switchbacks all the way down.  There were some late season flowers in a few wet spots to help take your mind off the drop.

Canyon wall trail

Indian Paintbrush and Chinese Lantern
The star of the show for the entire way down was Half Dome, always in your face and forcing numerous stops to ooh and ahh.  Views up and down the canyon were also pretty spectacular.

Half Dome
Half Dome
South Wall Tenaya Canyon
Half Dome and Yosemite Valley
Reaching the bottom we had an easy cruise down the Tenaya Creek trail past Mirror Lake and on to civilization that is Yosemite Valley in the middle of summer. In reality, we'd all rather walk there than attempt to drive a car into that madness...

Valley trail
One last look at Half Dome from the valley floor

We got to Curry Village on foot well before 2 PM and had to kill three hours before our bus ride back up.  Ice Cream!!  

We managed to fill the time eating, drinking, and watching a movie at the Visitor Center. We had our good luck charm "Hikin' Bill" with us so the rain didn't fall until we were under cover at the V.C. The bus was right on time and 90 minutes, and 45 road miles later, the kind driver dropped us right next to the car at the trailhead. The easiest 5000+ foot elevation change hike we've ever done!

Distance: 10+ miles
Elevation change: Up - 1,250 feet, Down - 5,800 feet


Bird Lists:

Snow Creek - Upper
Snow Creek - Middle
Snow Creek - Lower
Mirror Lake