Saturday, August 29, 2020

Seven Gables Loop Backpacking

Feather Peak over Vee Lake
This trip was to be our big backpacking outing of the summer - a week spent exploring some pretty remote locations and connecting to areas we've been before and loved. But only days before our departure all the August fires in California started filling the state with smoke. On an outing just two days before we left, we hiked in Yosemite with virtually unbreathable conditions (it got worse as the day went on). But the day before cleared locally, so we decided to go for it. So glad we did. For the most part of our 7 days out we had near perfect conditions. Occasionally a little haze would be evident, and the last morning started out pretty awful, but it all worked out in the end. 

Our route would take us up and over Piute Pass and down into Hutchinson Meadow, an area we've been many times. From Hutchinson though we would ascend the steep canyon wall and explore the two forks of Pinnacles Creek separated by the amazing Pinnacles ridge. From there we crossed and obscure peak (pass) and dropped into Three Island Lake. Following that drainage down we turned up the East Fork of Bear Creek and climbed into the Bear Lakes Basin. We left Bear Lakes via the south exit over Feather Pass before descending to French Canyon. A climb up the south wall of French got us to Alsace Lake for an evening. Another obscure pass on the east shoulder of Pilot Knob had us returning to Piute Canyon in the Humphreys Basin. A traverse of this basin put us at Piute Pass again for the quick trip down to the trailhead. This route was completely invented at home staring at topo maps and reading various trips reports from others. It worked out perfectly to make a complete circuit around the beautiful Seven Gables (Peak) and visit some of the most beautiful and remote country in the Sierra Nevada. The vast majority of the trip was above 10,500 feet elevation, reaching as high as 12,320 feet at Feather Pass. About 2/3 of the trip was off trail.

Birding in the High Sierra in late August typically has much less diversity as earlier in the season. Breeding is over and many of the neotropical migrants have moved on. But it is migration season so anything can happen. And for us on this trip it was raptor migration that was amazing. Not so much the total numbers, but the variety. We had both eagles (Bald, Golden), three falcons (Peregrine, Prairie, American Kestrel), two accipiters (Cooper's, Sharp-shinned), Osprey, Red-tailed Hawk, and Northern Harrier. Out of 50 total species seen on the trip, 10 were raptors! All above 10,000 feet elevation!

I will include a sample of our eBird lists below, but its not all inclusive. Susan did 23 lists on our travels.

Day 1 - Piute Pass trailhead to East Fork Pinnacles Creek (13 miles, 3,500 ft. gain)

Piute Pass (Inyo) eBird list
Piute Pass (Fresno) eBird list
Moccasin Lakes eBird list

Loch Leven Lake on the approach to Piute Pass

Looking west from Piute Pass

Mt Humphreys over Humphreys Basin

The Glacial Divide south of Piute Canyon

Climbing above Piute Canyon to East Pinnacles, Pilot Knob on the left

Reaching the first ponds of East Pinnacles

Still some tricky hiking to go to get in the East Pinnacles basin

We reach Little Moccasin Lake and call it a day

The evening view from camp, over Piute Canyon, 2000 feet below

Day 2 - Explore East Pinnacles Creek and traverse to West Pinnacles Creek (7 miles, 1,600 ft. gain)

Morning breaks while we explore East Pinnacles basin

East Pinnacles Basin

The Pinnacles ridge separates East and West Pinnacles Creeks

Still a few wildflowers in the high country

The upper reaches of East Pinnacles basin

As we travel back down, the Pinnacles really show their form

Big Moccasin Lake

Traversing from East to West Pinnacles, on a bench
2,000 feet above Piute Canyon. Pilot Knob in the center.

The lower end of West Pinnacles hold some great slot lakes, like Spearpoint here

Pendent Lake

Spearpoint Lake

Big Chief Lake and our camp for the evening

An after dinner jaunt gives a great view of Spearpoint Lake from above

The after dinner objective - Hoopah Lake in a side canyon

Day 3 - West Pinnacles basin to Three Island Lake, via Pass Peak 11,840 (4 miles, 1,200 ft. gain)

It's morning, and time to hike up West Pinnacles Creek

Looking back at the downstream end of the basin in morning light

One of several waterfalls on West Pinnacles Creek

Some tricky hiking

Old Squaw Lake

Wampum Lake

Two different granites in one rock

Cool glacial erratic

Looking back as we head toward the pass

The pass ridge

On the pass ridge, looking down at Upper Turret Lakes

From the pass ridge, our first look down at the day's destination of Three Island Lake

Crossing Pass Peak 11,840

Plenty of talus hopping

Looking down from the saddle of Senger Creek toward Sharp Note Lake and Three Island Lake

Descending the talus from the saddle

Looking back up at the saddle, and the talus route down

Three Island Lake from our camp on a bench 200 feet above the lake

Three Island Lake in beautiful evening light

Day 4 - Three Island Lake to Vee Lake (7 miles, 1,700 ft. gain)

Leaving our delightful spot on the bench above Three Island Lake

Down canyon to Medley Lakes

Medley Lakes is a complicated series of tarns and granite ridges 

Sandpiper Lake. No, we didn't see any sandpipers.

Sandpiper Lake

Our last lake in the South Fork Bear Creek, Lou Beverly Lake

Turning the corner and heading up the East Fork Bear Creek

East Fork Bear Creek

Not all easy walking

The Seven Gables ridge is on our right as we move up canyon

East Fork Bear Creek as we approach the Seven Gables Lakes Basin

Seven Gables ridge

The top of East Fork Bear Creek canyon as we enter Seven Gables Lakes basin

The first of the Seven Gables Lakes

Looking back from where we came, down the East Fork Bear Creek to the west

Looking South into the Seven Gables Lakes basin

From our campsite near the outlet of Vee Lake, east to Feather Peak and Bear Lakes Basin

Feather Peak over Vee Lake in gorgeous alpenglow evening light

Day 5 - Vee Lake to Bear Lakes Basin, with some exploring (4 miles, 1,000 feet gain)

The sun rises on Seven Gables

Seven Gables and The Gemini as the sun rises

Seven Gables as we walk along Vee Lake toward Bear Lakes Basin

Seven Gables over Vee Lake

Seven Gables, The Gemini, and Vee Lake

Seven Gables, The Gemini, and Vee Lake

Ursa Lake in the Bear Lakes Basin

Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Lake with Seven Gables beyond as we day hike to Coronet Lake

Coronet Lake in a secluded basin above Bear Lakes Basin. Seven Gables on the left

Big Bear, Ursa, and Bearpaw Lakes from the Coronet Lake ridge. Feather Peak on the back left

Looking down on Little Bear Lake from the ridge

Panorama of the Bear Lakes Basin

Coming down the steep ramps and cliffs from the Coronet Lake ridge

Feather Peak from our camp near Bearpaw Lake

Feather Peak and Bearpaw Lake in evening alpenglow

Day 6 - Bear Lakes Basin to Alsace Lake in French Canyon, via Feather Pass (7.5 miles, 1,200 ft. gain)

Feather Peak and Pass in early morning shade

Looking back down to Bear Lakes Basin as we ascend the pass

Lots of talus to navigate around as we go up

The 'feather' edge of Feather Peak

The creek running down from the pass looks like a paver stone sidewalk in places

Pushing up to the pass

Feather Peak ridge

The final tricky bit at the top, nothing too scary. Bear Lakes Basin below.

Looking into Bear Lakes Basin from the pass

And in the other direction, the basin with La Salle and Merriam Lakes

Talus hopping down to La Salle Lake

From La Salle Lake, Feather Peak in the middle with the pass just left of the peak

Heading down to Merriam Lake

Looking back from just below Merriam Lake

As we travel a short section of the French Canyon trail
we pass the outlet dramatic waterfall from Royse Lakes

Climbing the bench on the side of French Canyon to
Alsace Lake, looking across to Royse and Merriam Peaks

Alsace Lake with Pilot Knob. Our objective for the next
day will be over the pass to the left of Pilot Knob.

Alsace Lake from our camp spot

Alsace Lake

Elephant Head flower going to seed. It looks like ice crystals.

Pilot Knob in evening light with our pass for the next day in the center

Day 7 - Alsace Lake to Piute Pass trailhead, via Pilot Knob Pass and Humphreys Basin (10.5 miles, 1,000 ft. gain)

Merriam Peak as the sun comes up on a smokey morning

Merriam Peak and the Merriam Lake Basin in smokey morning light

As the sun comes up over Alscase Lake in a smokey haze, Mt Humphreys stands out in the center

As we hike toward the pass, we pass tiny Chevaux Lake at the base of Pilot Knob

A panorama with Chevaux Lake and Merriam Peak

Climbing to Pilot Knob Pass

The smoke improves as we ascend. Alsace Lake on the right, Merriam Peak the left.

The final push to the top

The view north from the pass. Thankfully the smoke is clearing out.

The view south from the pass. Knob Lake is directly below,
the Glacial Divide beyond, with Piute Canyon far below.

We descend the north side of the pass into Humphreys
Basin on easier terrain. Pilot Knob is on the left.

An objective for the day, the tiny Square Lake

The Glacial Divide over Tomahawk Lake in the Humphreys Basin

Lunch at Mesa Lake

Mesa Lake in the Humphreys Basin

Desolation Lake at the base of Mt Humphreys. From here it was a quick
jaunt to the Piute Canyon trail, returning the way we'd come over Piute Pass