Monday, October 22, 2012

Alta Peak

View to Triple Divide Peak

Another of the great day hikes I did on my recent trip to Sequoia National Park was the hike to Alta Peak. This is a back post from that late September trip. I had not ever completed this hike before doing this trip, so it seemed like a new experience. Some years ago before starting up this blog, I made use of this same trailhead to hike to Pear Lake which was a memorable day, but my only other hike from Wolverton was an early season attempt at Alta Peak which I couldn’t complete. I was too early in the year and encountered dangerous conditions with deteriorating hard pack up in the higher reaches of the trail.

This time I had near perfect conditions except for the usual faint hazy/smoggy muck that always hangs in the air when you are this far south. Even in spring that kind of SoCal haze; partially natural but mostly human origin; has a tendency to hang in the air like a cheap suit on a sumo wrestler. Unless you hike right after a rain shower, you can always expect at least a slight haze effect stubbornly reminding you of our society’s over-dependence on fossil fuel. The best route to Alta Peak begins at a place called Wolverton. There are other routes to get there, but this hike has about 4,000 feet of vertical gain to the peak, so extra distance will only burn more time and energy. Better to use the shortest route leaving you time to enjoy the stellar views from summit and still make it back before the coin-op showers close at Lodgepole. Not to mention the store with its unexpectedly good selection of cold beer. Having these niceties at hand is rare and I took full advantage during my stay. Wolverton has plenty of trailhead parking and is easily reached from a signed turn off from General’s Highway a short distance from Lodgepole.

View from Panther Gap
Beginning on the Lakes Trail, the hike predictably begins within tall stands of mostly Red Fir at about 7,200 feet and immediately begins gently climbing. The forest is beautiful and fragrant leading past pretty meadows, and lush water courses, while climbing steadily but gradually. It didn’t take long before spotting wildlife. I spotted one large adult black tail buck, which managed to elude my camera, and further along I came across a couple of yearling black tail bucks, undoubtedly siblings, play-jousting as is typical of growing males in the wild. I tried my best to go unnoticed, but it was funny when they spotted me on the trail. They stopped for a few moments appearing slightly startled. They both stared at me as if puzzled, and seemed to size me up for awhile. Before long I suppose they determined that I was not threatening enough to be concerned with, and they just continued their antler wrestling shoving match for my amusement. I sat on a log and quietly watched several “falls” of play-jousting and even shot some video before they finally wandered off. It was all very cute. I posted a video at the bottom of the post.

View south from the peak
The first junction comes at 1.8 miles where the Lakes Trail goes left toward Pear Lake, and to the right the trail continues another 1.1 miles to Panther Gap at 8,400 feet. Up until this point the hike has been a gradual uphill forest hike with a thick canopy overhead. At Panther Gap you begin to get great views to the south across the chasm that holds the Middle Fork Kaweah to the green mountainous range beyond and you can see the Castle Rocks. Not bad for only just under 3 miles of hiking. After making the turn toward Alta, the trail follows along the southern slopes of a high rocky ridge which provides really great uninterrupted views to the south as you walk. Looking up to the other side you can spot many interesting rock formations high above. The trail along this section is mostly exposed and at some points has some steep drop-offs on the down side. You don’t want to be careless with your footing along there, but the visual input should easily inspire this caution to intelligent beings. Several water courses still had a few wild flowers even this late in the year. After just about 2 miles of admiring very nice views you have already passed the cutoff to the High Sierra Trail and have reached the junction to Alta Meadow. The meadow area is a great little side trip, and camping permits available. At this point, if you start running the numbers in your head you can start to get a little feeling of dread. My altimeter was reading 9,251 feet with the odometer reading 4.83 miles. The peak is known to be just over 11,000 feet and about 6.8 miles. Even using new math that still means the final 1.9 miles or so to the summit needs to climb over 1700 feet, which only reminds me why I waited until the last couple of days of my trip before doing this hike. Better to wait until you’ve had some acclimation time because heavy breathing follows.

Looking east from Alta Peak
If you look up from this junction you can see the rock outcrop called Tharp’s rock, and if you are unfamiliar with the trail could maybe mistake that for the summit. But by the time you reach Alta Peak you will be well above looking down on Tharp’s Rock. After making the turn the trail at first has led back into the tall red firs and you get some nice shade. There are a couple of well place watercourses on the way which seem perfectly located for topping off your water supply (using a filter) before making the final push to the summit. Soon the trail bends around and you begin to get views to the east and the stark peaks of the western divide. As you enter the sub-alpine the firs are gone and sparse weathered foxtail pines (Pinus balfouriana) dot the rocky landscape. The trail then begins a series of steep exposed switchbacks marked with cairns. The trail is easy to follow just by the usage evidence, but the cairns are the best reference. As you approach the top you can see that the actual summit is a jagged peak. With careful scrambling, you can reach the summit register locked in an old ammo box. The panorama is amazing. To the east you can see the entire serrated peaks of the Great Western Divide dominated by Triple Divide Peak and spreading as far as you can see. To the south you can see the landscape falling away in gradually descending mountain waves, all the way out to the central valley. And all around are mountainous views and deep valleys. You can see down to Alta Meadow in the shadow of the divide, and on the other side to Pear and Emerald Lakes. You need to spend some time to take it all in while enjoying the breeze. My altimeter was reading 11,120.3 feet. The hike back is really nice because you can still admire the views while heading down. The trail never does climb up and over any pass or gap, so the way up is all up, and the way down really is all downhill with the lower sections being a gentle grade. I absolutely love this trail. I uploaded a photoset to flickr and a created a trip report with a track log on EveryTrail.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reprieve for Umunhum’s Tower (for now)

Mt Umunhum's skyline will feature the "cube"

This is late news by now, but I will go ahead and follow up on it. Midpeninsula’s public meeting on the evening of October 17 to vote on a resolution concerning Mt Umunhum’s radar tower was well attended and productive. Sue and I both attended, but didn’t stay until the end. I had an early morning ahead, and couldn’t help wondering what was happening with the Giants in the playoffs. I would estimate that 25 to 30 people in all got up and gave their comments which were limited to 2 minutes. Sue decided to get up and speak, and I declined. Of course the majority of the speakers were indeed a vocal minority in favor of preserving the cube, and for “going all in” on the idea of saving the cube; which was the phrase they seems to rally around, which basically translated into; You people at MidPen should quit messing around and just do whatever we ask, and by the way, you should also pay for it regardless of cost. According to a survey conducted by the board of the district constituents, about 1/3 of respondents were in favor of keeping the tower. The rest were split between the other 2 options, so the meeting attendance was obviously not truly representative of prevailing public opinion. Even still the meeting was polite and respectful, and eventually had a very productive outcome. The option decided on was to adopt what was called interim action A. The district will do temporary repairs on the tower in order to arrest decay and mostly preserve the tower for a period of 5 years. During that time the proponents of the save-the-cube petition will have time to raise the funding for doing a better job of permanently preserving the tower. There are already some pledges of support, and the County Historic Heritage Commission sent the board a letter stating it is willing to work with the board to designate it on the county inventory for landmarks, which would make it eligible for grant funding. But the best part is that in the interim, the district can go forward with plans to open the site for public access.

I am quite happy with this outcome. My biggest dread was that all this wrangling would further delay the opening, but now it appears it won’t. I am also actually happy that there is a way forward that provides for preserving the radar tower without burdening the district with the additional costs. In my opinion this seems like a win-win scenario, and is fair for the very reasons I stated in my last post. I am expecting that the deal will eventually come together to preserve the tower, and that the cube is now here to stay.

Click here to read the article posted in the San Jose Mercury News dated 10/18.
Click here to see MidPen’s updated project page.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Whither the “Cube”

Mt Umunhum's radar tower

Look to the southwest from anywhere in the south San Francisco bay and you can spot it up there on the mountain. If you get high enough in the Diablo range you can spot it from more than 50 miles away with the naked eye. So what is that huge boxy looking thing way up there? Its Mt Umunhum’s derelict remains of a cold war era radar tower. Long decommissioned, it sits there crumbling. So the question is; is that huge monolithic “cube” sitting there on the summit a glaring eyesore marring the skyline of the coastal mountain range, or is it really an important historical relic that deserves to be preserved? That is one of the most important questions to be addressed at the next public meeting scheduled for the evening of October 17th in Sunnyvale. Go to the Mt Umunhum project page on MidPen's website to learn more.

It seems that history can have a very different context depending on how you choose to look at it. Natural history of course would be that of the flora and fauna that flourished unimpeded across this range for untold centuries. Make no mistake; in times past, the natural beauty of this region as documented by first hand accounts in early times is nothing less than glorious. One only needs to read the personal account of John Muir’s 1868 ramble from San Francisco to Yosemite in order to get a sense of what the overall San Jose area looked like before being overtaken by modern times. It’s a classic. Sierra Azul is actually one of my favorite wild flower sites. Also of significance is the role of the mountain in the lore of the Ohlone people that dwelled here for many generations, long before Europeans had ever come to these shores. Modern history however is a very different story. Modern history brought us the history of the cold war and of the Almaden Air Force Base. The radar station that was built on top of Mt Umunhum was one amongst a series of similar sites that formed part of a defensive network of outposts keeping watch on the coast. First operating in 1957, and evolving thereafter, there were probably thousands of military personnel that once worked and/or lived there in the line of duty. The base was a bustling nerve center before technology finally outpaced it making it obsolete and leading to its decommissioning.

View to Mt Umunhum
Fast forward to present time; the site is now owned by MidPeninsula Open Space District. The district has been involved in a long and laborious cleanup and restoration project for years, with the eventual goal of opening the summit to public access as open space. The original vision was for a return to natural habitat, demolishing all remnants of the former Air Force base following toxic material cleanup. Following that the site would be allowed to slowly return to something like its former glory. The more simple and cost effective plan is for an unobstructed panorama of view, a decent road, parking areas, restrooms, a few picnic tables, some interpretive boards, additional hiking trails, and that’s about it. Give it back to nature. After all, lots of people see the tower merely as an ugly intrusion on the natural landscape, my own wife among them. Personally I am fine with that plan, and in fact have been eager to welcome the public opening, but there are others that have a different vision for what should happen on the site, and how the site should be developed.

There is a petition now being circulated to save the radar tower. The proponents of this petition, which appears to have been spearheaded by a group of retired service personnel, are of the opinion that the radar tower has historical significance and should be saved regardless of cost. They offer no financial planning or support for this idea, but that is their desire. This group has further deemed that they would like to have a visitor’s center constructed which would contain historical information about the cold war military history of the site with the centerpiece being the preserved radar tower. They further expect for the site at Umunhum to be grand enough to rival those of Mt Diablo or Mt Tamalpias in order to properly pay homage to what they see as the important historical context of the former Air Force base. And to top it all off, they expect for MidPen to cover all the additional costs to preserve the crumbling concrete cube, and construct all of the elaborate accruements they desire. One newspaper article published in the San Jose Mercury even makes a passing reference to the possibility of a lawsuit being files in an attempt to prevent the district from demolishing any of the remnants of the former Air Force base without being formally reviewed by the county for any historical significance that they might deem exists in all that decomposing and formally toxic debris.

In any case, The Mt Umunhum project page on MidPen’s website includes three possible options for how to approach this issue. The first option is to go ahead with the original plan to demolish all remnants of the base, including the tower, and return the summit to as near as possible to a natural state. The second option is to partially demolish the tower, and keep only the first floor outer wall of the structure, forming it into an open air monument. The third option is to completely seal and preserve the immense cube. Artist conception drawings are presented of all three options. The MidPen website makes no mention of any visitor’s center structure.

With all due respect to the military history of the site, and to those who performed their duty by serving there, in my opinion the real historical significance of the Air Force base is quite minimal. The site is not unique, and there were no battles fought there. It’s not like it was freakin Omaha Beach or Gettysburg or something like that. I suspect these guys actually had it good there compared to those who served in a real fighting war in some God forsaken corner of the world like some of my old friends. I would imagine that it was not unlike the duty that I myself performed when I in the service. I too am also a former serviceman, and during my 4 year stint on active duty in the 70s, I was stationed at Teufelsberg in Berlin. Teufelsberg was at the time a top secret facility with an intensive, live, cold war ear mission shrouded in mystery. We worked very hard, but we always had it comparatively good. I have to admit it makes me a little sad to see pictures on the internet of the dilapidated condition of the Teufelsberg site following it’s decommissioning after the close of the cold war era. And like Umunhum, it has a group of former servicemen who are trying to save it. In my opinion it’s really up to the people who live in the region to decide whether they think Teufelsberg is important to their history. Or is it just an eyesore?

Let me be clear about one thing. I would support the idea of preserving the tower, and even of constructing a visitor’s center, provided that some alternative funding can be worked out. I do not support the idea of forcing MidPen to pay for these costly developments if that is not part of their vision. As stated earlier, I do not support the idea that the tower on Umunhum has significant historical value. Just because it was military doesn’t make it noteworthy enough to sweat over. Sorry, but nothing really historical happened there. Sorry if that make anyone angry, and I mean no disrespect, but it’s the truth. If some county historical board decides to declare different, then we will all be forced to accept it, but in my opinion the natural value of the site and the profile of the landscape are more important than a gigantic monument to a bunch of people who were, at the end of the day, just doing their duty, like the countless many who served at other military outposts all over the world who have no monument to their service. Not to mention those who really sacrificed, and even paid the ultimate price, and likewise have no monument.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Twin Lakes and Silliman Pass

The larger of the Twin Lakes

In summertime the front country of Sequoia National Park is awash with tourists and their associated noise and traffic, but by mid September, it’s much more peaceful and far less populated. Labor Day is past, and most families have headed home from their vacation outings. Many of the campgrounds and services have already closed up for the season so it’s much quieter and much cooler in exposed areas. You are more likely to spot wildlife this time of year. On the downside; this late in the year the trails are dry and dusty, especially in a drought year like 2012. All but a few wildflowers have already gone back to seed, and the snow in the peaks is gone slowing water levels in creeks and streams to a mere trickle. You definitely don’t want to waste your time on waterfall hikes. The tradeoff is obvious. But the late summertime, only days before the fall equinox, is a good choice for day hiking to the more remote higher areas that are mostly exposed sub-alpine and above, while enjoying the cooler temperatures. If you are too early in the year you could find dangerous conditions at higher elevations created by still melting hard-pack. Wait too long and you will have more heat, and will have to deal with the crowds in the campgrounds.

Towering Red Fir and Lodgepole Pine
On my recent trip to Sequoia, one of the trails that captured my interest was the trail to Twin Lakes, and beyond to Silliman Pass. High mountain lakes have always been one of my favorite hiking destinations, and I was intrigued by the possible view opportunities offered by hiking on up to the 10,000 foot Silliman Pass, which is one of the popular backpacking routes that provide a passage over into the King’s Canyon side of the Kaweah Divide. I had already been camped out for a couple of nights getting acclimated, and amusing myself by hiking some of the sequoia groves and little offshoot trails, most of which I had to myself except for the wildlife.

Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
The Twin Lakes trailhead is located at the eastern end the Lodgepole campground just beyond the bridge over the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River at an elevation of 6700 feet. The trail is well maintained and begins climbing immediately but gradually heading north. The grade is easy as you hike completely shaded by tall stands of Red fir and Lodgepole Pine. As you hike you can notice the yellow triangle shaped markers placed on trees at about 15 to 20 feet. These are used to mark the way for cross country skiing when the trail is burried. Along the way there are a couple of moist meadows that seem like good places to watch for wildlife. Often bears are foraging in areas like these where there is lots of greenery. My first day up here I was hiking out to Muir Grove from Little Baldy Saddle and came across about a 3 or 4 year old chocolate brown black bear down in the creek alongside the closed for the season Dorst campground. It didn’t seem very concerned about me; but noting the direction it was headed, I held up my pace and diverted a bit so as not to encounter it on the trail. It looked at me for a few seconds from about 20 yards; assessing me to be just another bloody tourist; before casually strolling across the trail and up the hill. I could only imagine what a meadow like this would look like with the spring wild flowers all around. Perhaps some thoughts for next trip.

Looking across Twin Lakes (the "big lake")
The gradual forested uphill continues for about 4 miles before leveling out briefly at Cahoon Gap at 8659 feet. There aren’t any views to be had here to give you any sight bearing as the woods are too thick. Heading back downhill a bit the trail leads down to a lush creek bed area at 8437 feet where you can make a crossing using the rocks. It’s easy this late in the year without much water flowing. Shortly beyond the potential water stop at the creek, the hike transitions quickly back to uphill. After passing the junction for JO Pass at about 8900 feet, the trail soon makes a bend heading more to the east. You can notice how the environment changes as you begin to enter the sub-alpine region. The terrain shows lots of exposed rock and the weathered trees become fewer. The trail gets steeper for awhile and soon breaks out onto a little plateau where the twin lakes lie at 9400 feet. The area around the lakes has lots of tree cover and just beyond is the jagged granite bench where Silliman Pass lies; forming a natural wind break, with the larger lake just below (see photo at the top). On the other side of the pass are Ranger Lake, and Silliman Lake, and camping permits are available for all of them. Twin Lakes even has a bear box and a trail leads to an open air pit toilet. It was unclear to me whether this nicety was designed to be used with WAG bags or not. Who knows how they would pump it? I don’t know whether the other lakes have such fine appointments as that. No fires are allowed at Twin Lakes but apparently this rule only exists on the Sequoia side. Read the signs and be aware.

View east from Silliman Pass
I picked a nice shady spot and filtered some lake water to mix some hydration fluid and sat for awhile enjoying the beauty of this place, and contemplating what views could be had from the pass. My energy level felt good, so after refreshing myself with food and fluid, I continued on up the switchbacks to Silliman Pass. The trail is steep with lots of exposure. At this altitude the cool umbrella of the red fir and lodgeplole forest has disappeared. The terrain is mostly granite and rocky soil and the predominant trees are the high country Jeffery Pines which look stunted and weather beaten. After hiking up many steep switchbacks the trail levels out and reaches the top of the Silliman Divide at about 10,218 feet, with my odometer reading 8.3 miles (as always GPS margin of error applies). Looking around I was quickly aware that it was a great choice to continue on to the pass. The Silliman Divide spreads out roughly north to south, and the bench has a smooth level summit area that is easily walked like a trail along its length. As you look out to the east, far below is a deep forested canyon, and you can spot Ranger Lake and Silliman Lake, perhaps 1000 feet down surrounded by heavily wooded terrain. Looking up scanning the easterly horizon looms a high range of barren, foreboding, jagged peaks stretching northward into King’s Canyon as far as vision allows. There are some interesting rocky peaks and outcrops along the bench, some of which can be easy class 1 or 2 scrambles. I found one such outcrop that provided a view back down to Twin Lakes, and another that provided great views to the east. But great views are provided by simply walking along the bench as well. More advanced rock climbing opportunities abound. Along the pass you get plenty of cooling breezes, and there are quite a few interesting Jeffery Pine specimens that tell a story of the seasons. This is a fantastic inspiring hike, and would be a great short backpacking route for a few days of lake hopping. On my way back down the trail; back into the red fir territory near those meadows, I had my second bear encounter of the trip. I noticed what looked like some movement and a dust cloud below me. A young black bear which must have been alone had seen me coming down the trail and lit out into the woods on a run. I only caught a brief look at it on the run, and didn’t see it again, or any others around. I continued on and made it back to Lodgepole campground in time for a $3.00 hot shower and a cold Mammoth Brewing Co craft beer. Sometimes the simple things in life can be so satisfying. I uploaded a photoset to flickr and created a trip report on EveryTrail for further topographical reference.

Monday, September 3, 2012

20 Lakes Basin; Inyo National Forest


Looking north across Saddlebag Lake
Just beyond the eastern boundary of Yosemite lies the Inyo National Forest and Ansel Adams Wilderness. These are some areas that I have really wanted to explore a great deal more than I have. I always have such great experiences within the national park that it’s very hard for me to pass up. Longtime Yosemite devotees often talk about the “Spirit of Yosemite” that just has a way of calling you back. I can attest that I often get a sense of this calling myself. It’s a strange ethereal kind of longing to get back there. On this trip however, I originally had planned to spend more time in the Lundy Canyon area checking out likely habitats of bighorn sheep. I wound up changing those plans with the weather I was getting the first few days playing a role in that decision. But I did make sure my schedule included a day in 20 Lakes Basin.

South end of Saddlebag Lake
Like the previous day on my trip to Mt Dana, I got a beautiful clear day with mild sunshine; nearly perfect conditions. The trailhead I was using is at Saddlebag Lake within the Inyo National Forest just beyond Yosemite’s boundaries. You get there by heading east on highway 120 a few miles past the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite. There is a turnoff to the left (if heading east) which quickly turns into a rather rough dirt road. The road is actually fairly smooth, but it is strewn with potentially sharp rocks. You might not want to try it on conventional street tires as you could easily get a puncture. You don’t need all-wheel drive unless its muddy, but you are much better off with at least crossover style all-terrain tires. After driving the dusty, bumpy, road for about 4.5 miles you arrive at Saddlebag Lake where there is ample trailhead parking near the campground at roughly 10,000 feet. Saddlebag Lake Resort is there too which has a boat dock and a little store/snack bar. If you stop in at the store you can get a free map of the trail system in the 20 Lakes Basin. This little hand drawn printed map is primitive, but it actually does a good job of showing all the trails, including various side trails. I did not find any other map that showed any but the main trails. There are some interesting side trips you can make while hiking the area. I would have liked to have at least a couple of days to spend here. The resort is popular with anglers, and incidentally, the homemade blueberry pie is fantastic after a hike, but wait; I am getting way ahead of myself. One other option is to purchase a round trip ticket for the water taxi to the north end of Saddlebag Lake and begin the five mile 20 Lakes loop from there. I didn’t do that, and was glad I didn’t because my return hike along the east side of Saddlebag Lake was really great, but again I am getting way ahead of myself.

Resort and dam at the south end of Saddlebag Lake

Not wanting to wimp out on the water taxi, I began hiking along the west side of Saddlebag Lake. You cross over a dam and find the trail which heads out along the very rocky slope of a mountain, basically like a huge talus. The trail is composed primarily of rock and there is absolutely no tree cover. This seemed okay for in the morning, but would probably be very hot in the afternoon with all that rock storing and reflecting the heat up into your face. The trail follows a ledge about 50 feet above the waters of the lake, which would make filtering water very difficult from this side. But its only about a mile and a half to reach the north end of the lake where there is a junction. You can wade across a creek to the main loop trail, or there is an interesting side trip along Greenstone Lake and up to Conness Lakes. I decided to take the side trip because I was interested to see if I could get a view of the Conness glacier.

Greenstone Lake
This trail follows a beautiful gently cascading watercourse flowing down into Greenstone Lake. The area was still green with moist soft grasses and mossy rocks, and I was finding lingering Sierra wild flowers. I followed the trail up alongside the water’s course and alongside a small waterfall. Looking for the cairns I found the trail heading across a rocky slope and up into a granite plateau where the first of the turquoise colored lakes lie. Looking up you can see the crest that includes Mt Conness with lots of lingering snow packed into the crevasses. The area looks pristine and starkly beautiful. I could not spot the peak of Conness or the glacier, but the diversion is well worth it anyway.

One of the Conness Lakes
Finding my way back to the main trail I began hiking the west side of the 20 Lakes loop trail, which is a 5 mile loop from the boat dock at the north end of the lake. Most of the terrain is rocky and barren, but I would characterize it as typical sub-alpine, having only a few stunted growth and heavily weathered trees. When you reach Steelhead Lake there is another side trail that climbs up beyond 11,000 feet to Secret Lake, and on to Upper Macabe Lake. I skipped this trail wanting to have time to descend into Lundy Canyon, but I really want to check out this trail some other time. Hiking along Steelhead Lake you can enjoy views to 12,242 foot North Peak and Sheppard Crest with its rocky soil having an intriguing coloration change along a natural delineation point of some kind. At the north end of Steelhead there is another side trail to an abandoned tungsten mine.

Hiking on past Excelsior Lake to Shamrock Lake I found more wildflowers, more stimulating views, interesting geology, and the trail transitions back to a rock talus at the base of a knarly rocky peak that is at the end point of Sheppard Crest. You need to find the cairns to be on the best route, but the trail is not hard to discern. After reaching the other side of the talus, the trail heads into some downhill switchbacks marked with cairns and across a flat over to Helen Lake. Near the trail junction to Lundy Canyon I found some really nice Colville's Columbine in three different color variations. It was interesting that all three color variations occurred within very close proximity to each other. The conditions were very rocky resembling the slopes of Mt Dana. Some were creamy white, some were a combination of a brilliant reddish pink with pale yellowish white, and others were solid (true) yellow.

Steelhead Lake
As I arrived at the other side of Helen Lake, I took the Lundy Canyon junction, but did not descend very far. I wanted to study the slopes for any signs of bighorn, and get a photo down the canyon and waterfall. It’s a great view, and I intend to hike the trails in Lundy from the bottom up some time in the future. After finding my way back to the 20 lakes loop, the trail leaves Helen Lake by climbing up a rock chasm with huge peaks looming above. Not surprisingly, I found wildflowers such as seep monkey flower, as this chasm also has a hidden watercourse beneath the rocks. I hiked on past Odell Lake and Hummingbird Lake waving to the anglers below. On the way back to Saddlebag more dramatic views of the weathered terrain and high granite peaks are available. After passing Hummingbird Lake, I also caught a glimpse of Mt Dana.

As you arrive again at the north end of Saddlebag you can make your way to the water taxi if you have a ticket. On the other hand, if you are possessed of a hiker’s spirit, you wouldn’t want to waste your time cruising on some pontoon boat, even though I’m sure the scenery is pretty good as you sit and enjoy the breeze. But that option is available if you want it. Instead I had planned on hiking the east side of Saddlebag Lake, and was glad I did. At one point I had hiked down a gravely slope to the edge of the lake in order to use my filter to replenish my water supply. After pumping my drink bottle full I happened to notice the distinctive leaf structure of Mountain Jewel flower near some rocks. At closer inspection I found it was pink Mountain Jewel flower, and looking around some more I realized it was all around. I was sitting in a mass of it. After hitting the trail again, I was really amazed at the views I was getting. The hike around this side of the lake is like a night ‘n’ day difference compared to the other side, which is mostly barren with uninspiring sights. I found a place where water cascades down from the Sierra Crest above into the lake, and the whole course is lined with six foot high stems of brilliant blue Larkspur. I also saw some nice fireweed and a few other flowers, and enjoyed the intermittent fragrant tree cover, and excellent sights. I also saw a bald eagle that had glided down from somewhere above on the Sierra Crest to swoop over the lake, obviously looking for some seafood (lakefood?). I didn’t get a very good picture, but it was unmistakable.

Overall I had an amazing day. I stopped in at the snack bar at the resort on the way back to my car, and could not resist some homemade blueberry pie with an ice tea. The pie is killer, and blows away the softies you can get at the Toulumne Meadows grill. It’s rare that you would get such an opportunity after hiking what is essentially a wilderness area.

Click here to view my photoset on flickr
Click here to see the track log at Every Trail

Friday, August 10, 2012

Return to Mt Dana

Mono Lake from the summit of Mt Dana
After enjoying the clear, bright, starry sky and pale moonlight overnight, I had every indication of a clear day ahead. These are the kind of conditions which are absolutely perfect for a peak hike. Having been above 8000 feet for 2 full days now, I was feeling like I was acclimated enough to make a return visit to one of the most awesome viewpoints I have ever seen. Mt Dana is the second highest peak in Yosemite after Mt Lyell. (Be sure to click the link to view the Mt Dana page on wikipedia. There’s lots of good information there and a really nice scrolling panorama). The peak is visible from many different locations around the Tioga Pass and Tuolumne Meadows areas. It’s not a big bad 14’er, but it has what is arguably a better overall panorama than any of them. The day I was on the summit I was talking to a couple who came up the mountain behind me, and as they reached the summit, they could hardly contain their amazement with the sights. It made me smile to hear their exclamations of joy, which seemed to validate what has been my own opinion ever since my first hike to Dana’s summit. After sharing some conversation they began telling me about how much more impressed they were with the views from Dana than from Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous states. And they were there without having to win a mail-in lottery, or needing a permit of any kind beyond simple park admittance fees. I call that a very well kept secret.

Tuolumne Meadows from the summit of Mt Data
The last time I hiked Mt Dana was back in 2005. I was with a group of people that were Yosemite Association members, now called Yosemite Conservancy, with a volunteer naturalist as a guide. I had signed up for that hike because I hadn’t even known that there was a trail to the summit of Mt Dana. I had always assumed that all the highest peaks required technical climbing, or at least an advanced permit. After seeing that there was a guided hike there, I had checked every map I could find, and never found anything marked as a trail on Dana. A trail does indeed exist, but it is what’s referred to as a “social trail”. Meaning that the trail is technically not maintained, and as such, it generally does not appear on maps. There is however is a group of volunteers that work with the national park service, who perform rudimentary maintenance on the Mt Dana trail. The trailhead is on the south side of the highway directly across from the Tioga Pass entrance station into Yosemite. There is a small parking area on the north side of the road which is the trailhead for the Gaylor Lakes basin. It’s not very distinct, and there is no sign. If you did not know it was there you would probably not even notice it, but it gets easier to follow further on. Most of the trail is actually very easy to follow, but you need to look for the cairns once you get into the rocky sections. Something else to look for if you hike this trail is the little blue flags that have been placed in some areas by the trail volunteers. The flags were actually a bit confusing for me because I am used to seeing little flags like those to indicate sensitive areas where you are not supposed to walk. But in this case they are used to mark the trail.

Zoomed view to the Mt Lyell glacier
The distance is actually very short. From the trailhead to the summit is only 2.58 miles by my GPS. Beginning elevation is at Tioga Pass at 9,985 feet, and the summit is 13,042 feet (GPS margin of error applies). Doing the math; that makes the Mt Dana trail the steepest trail that I personally know of. That’s a steeper overall profile than any trail in Henry Coe, Mt Diablo, or the Ohlone wilderness. That is even steeper overall than the Four Mile, Yosemite Falls, or Half Dome trails.  That’s why a couple days of acclimation is important even though the distance is short. At 13,000 feet your lungs will be working harder. I recommend trekking poles, plenty of hydration, and bring a soft shell, or some other layer(s) combining light warmth with a wind layer. The breezes at the summit can be quite chilly even in summer sun. This hike is not recommended on cloudy days when there is a possibility of thunder storms, so be sure watch the weather.

View to the Mt Dana summit from the shoulder
From my observations, I think of the trail as 5 distinct sections. Sub-alpine, the base slope, the shoulder, the peak, and the summit talus. The trail begins with a nice casual walk through the sub-alpine forests past some nice little ponds and green meadows rimmed with wild flowers. I was seeing 6 foot high mountain larkspur all around along with other offerings. One interesting historical point is a tree carving made by a Basque sheepherder in the 1870s. I remember this being pointed out by the naturalist we had back in 2005. The carving is said to depict a woman longed after by lonely men camped out up here for weeks on end having only sheep for company. After taking your time to admire the sights, the trail begins climbing in earnest and soon you loose tree cover completely and break out onto the slope. Down this low it’s much warmer than when you get up into the mountain breezes.

Mt Dana has a large base below the actual peak, and this section of trail ascends that base steadily using many switchbacks. The trail is not hard to discern but there are also some cairns to mark the way. The slope is a mixture of gravely dirt and rock. There are a couple of springs on the base slope, and you can easily spot where they are by the vegetation and wild flowers. At 11,593 the slope levels out onto a kind of plateau which I call the shoulder. The gentler climb on this section gave me pause to catch my breath and look up and begin to admire the landscape. I noticed that the views were beginning to get dramatic. Looking west you can see out over Tuolumne Meadows and Dana Meadows areas, and many peaks are already showing. Below you can see Tioga Road as a tiny strand leading off into the park. The mountain breeze begins to make itself noticeable as the air currents pick up. The cool air really mitigates the exertion keeping your core temp cooler. Having a short respite is nice before climbing higher.

View north from Mt Dana summit
Once you are on the actual peak section the trail becomes very rocky and steep, but the trail is mostly easy to follow. Looking up you can now see the summit talus above looking like some kind of crazy pyramid made of fragmented cinder blocks. Upon closer inspection the rocks reveal much more character though. I suspect a rock hound could find much to ponder on these weathered slopes. The story is there to be told for anyone with the knowledge. There is also lots of interesting plant life thriving amongst the rocks, some of which you simply won’t find at lower altitudes. At one point the trail seems to evaporate leaving you looking up the jagged slope searching for the best way through. You have to look closely to spot one of those the little blue flags that indicate where you can pick up the trail again. Otherwise it’s a lot more work to scramble up the talus section to the summit.

As you first make the summit you can see to the east for the first time on this hike. Mono Lake immediately jumps into your consciousness as it dominates the easterly view. I am impressed with the progress that has been made to restore Mono Lake. Even in a drought year like this one, the lake looks great. Judging by the historical water marks it's back to being nearly as big as it ever was. In my view this is a great success story for conservation. In my opinion the summit of Mt Dana is a 360 degree panorama that would be very difficult to beat from anywhere on earth, no matter how high. At the very least it must be the best view you can get without technical climbing ability, Mt Whitney included according to the people I met that day. Rather than wear out all my best superlative terms attempting to describe it, I will simple offer my pictures; for what they are worth, which is not enough to describe it. I have 2 photosets from Mt Dana. One from 2005 and one from 2012. I also uploaded a track log at Every Trail for further reference on the trail.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Return to Young Lakes

View to the Sierra Crest
I remember in July 2009 when I woke up in my campsite at Toulumne Meadows. It was 6:00 AM and I was wrapped up inside of two sleeping bags inside my tent to keep warm. It was early July and it was 29 degrees outside, and the top of my tent was covered with frost. Instead of rolling out early like I usually do on hike days, I just lied there letting myself drift back off to sleep to await some warmth from the rising sun. I wound up getting off to a slow start that morning, but actually the conditions were perfect for a hike to Young Lakes. The weather was clear and the high peaks were still mostly snow covered. The upper Toulumne and its many tributaries were flowing strong, and the meadows were green and vibrant.

View to the Cathedral Crest from the lower trail
This year during my sierra trip, I was planning to head back there, but the conditions were not quite as perfect. California is back in drought. Plus the weather on this day was predicted to be scattered clouds and possible showers. I remembered that on that hike back in 2009, I did not take time to explore the entire lake system. I was having such a great time enjoying the sights that I basically hung around at the lower lake, filtered some water, ate some food, and after noticing the passing time, headed out to find the eastern end of the loop trail down to Dog Lake, returning to my camp. On this hike however, I really wanted to be sure to check out the 2 other lakes lying in the secluded alcove at the base of that rocky crest anchored by Ragged Peak to the southwest and White Mountain to the northeast.

The trail that forms the western loop is accessible from the same trail that goes to Glen Aulin HSC, but don’t get fooled by the “social” cairns that you find on the way. I learned from my last trip that these were placed there by horse riders to mark the way to a view point of some kind that is not worth the effort considering the views you will get on the Young Lakes hike. The actual junction to Young Lakes is marked with a sign as is usual for hiking trails within Yosemite. Not that it’s easy to forget that there are stables nearby. The lower trail intermittently stinks of horse urine and road apples, and sand has been placed in some areas because it’s easier for horses. Once you hit the real junction you start climbing and leave the horse evidence behind. This western loop trail can actually be skipped because the eastern loop is so much better you could make it an out-n-back. This part of the trail is unremarkable because there is just enough stunted tree cover to effectively block all but a few view opportunities, while not effectively creating shade. But I was glad I came this way. With the skies being mostly cloudy, shade was not an issue. The character lines of the granite infused terrain are interesting to study as they show the signs of the extremes of seasonal change. I also spotted some nice mariposa lilies that were not showing on the other side. My track log begins from my campsite, but it shows the trail climbing slowly but steadily for 5.3 miles to the junction to Young Lakes at 9,859 feet. The margin of error for my GPS should be quite small. I had rapidly moving clouds all day with intermittent, brief, light, rain showers, with a few patches of attenuated sunshine. This was the pattern all day.

View across the lower lake; Ragged Peak anchors the rocky crest
After taking the junction you are back into much thicker stands of trees and the area is much more moist and green. As you get close to the lake you enjoy great views of the summit of appropriately named Ragged Peak, and you get intermittent glimpses toward Mt Conness and Sheep Peak to the north. The lower lake is at about 9,905 feet. The high rocky crest looming above is the primary source of the lake as this area forms a natural bowl effect for snowmelt runoff. It is striking and beautiful, and of course the water is crystal clear and plenty suitable for filtering, and it tastes great. Following the trail around the west side of the lake will lead to the unsigned trail that will take you up to the other source of the lower lake; the middle lake, which flows slowly downward by way of a rocky, gently cascading creek.

Close up of Mt Lyell glacier
After a short climb through a lush forest you reach the pretty little middle lake at about 9,993 feet. As you pass by you can begin to hear the rushing creek that is the other source of this lake. Hiking onward, and climbing higher into the rocks, the trail becomes more obscure. Before long the trail becomes what is basically a rocky staircase up a lush waterfall. This section of trail is not maintained to the same kind of standards that park trails usually are. You need to make your way through some overgrowth and carefully climb up some rocks alongside the cascade. It might be difficult early in the season when the water levels are higher. You reach the little plateau that holds the upper lake at about 10,226 feet. As you break out into the rock strewn plateau, the trail has all but disappeared. Making your way over to the upper lake you can notice the rocky area to the north which is the backpacking camp area. There were a few camps setup there as backpackers with permits are allowed to do. This area has no facilities of any kind, and seems quite pristine even though it obviously gets many visitors. I’m not sure what kind of off-trail day hikes you could find if you were camping here, but the possibilities look inviting. My photos of this area are not going to come close to showing the beauty. The weather was not facilitating very good photography, and I was also concerned about battery life in my camera. I took a few photos and combined them with photos from my last trip on flickr.

Looking south across the upper lake

I was looking forward to my route back on the eastern loop trail. After descending back to the lower lake, and back to the junction, the eastern loop them climbs back to about 10,036 feet where you break out onto a stunning high meadow area. When the conditions are right, the meadow is brilliant green and flowering. The whole area is studded with smooth granite rocks, and the view to the Sierra crest to the south is breathtaking. The panorama shot that I use for the title banner on my blog was taken from this meadow on my trip here back in 2009. Even with 100% exposure, I was not in a hurry to reach the tree line at all. I could have probably spent the whole day just hanging out around here. The conditions on this hike were not quite as good, but my photoset on flickr is now a combined set including some my shots from this trip. I also created a trip report at Every Trail and uploaded the track log. This is a fantastic day hike, and with a proper permit, is a great camping spot for a short backpack.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mt Hoffmann

Yosemite Valley from the Mt Hoffmann saddle
Among the trailheads to choose from for a partial-day hike on the way up Tioga Road, the May Lake area offers what is arguably one of the best payoffs in terms of the interestingness and character of the landscape, compared with the relative ease of accessibility. The May Lake trailhead provides access to the 10 Lakes Basin, and other longer distance trails, but is also a great area for some fantastic hike destinations that provide a real back-country feel, but can be reached without embarking on an all day trek covering scores of miles and challenging elevation changes. The trailhead elevation of 8700 feet also makes it a good acclimation day hike venue. That’s important if you live at virtual sea level as I do nestled in the heart of the anthill in the bay area. The weather-beaten sub-alpine terrain and ubiquitous granite features are stark and compelling and a lot of fun to ponder and explore. Plus there are lots of little un-named lakes and ponds all around, and plenty of wild flowers to keep you interested. One of the most prominent features in the area is Mount Hoffmann. The striking profile of this peak is popularly recognizable and is a visible feature from many of other vantage points around Yosemite; which tends to make one wonder what sights you could see if you were to hike to the top. The actual summit of Mt Hoffmann, being a collection of jagged rock pinnacles and crests, is not accessible to hikers, but there is a hike-able “saddle” at the top which is covered by what is essentially, a high meadow. There’s a lot of room to wander up there, and yes; there is a trail despite it's absence on most maps.

The trail to Mt Hoffmann is not marked on many of the maps I’ve seen including my own National Geographic topo map. Apparently, it’s not an official park trail, but many people know of it, especially if they’ve ever stayed at May LakeHSC. Many of the peak trails in Yosemite are referred to as “social trails”; meaning, that they are not officially maintained. Often, on this type of a trail, it is your responsibility as the hiker to look for the cairns that mark the way, and recognize the signs of usage routes in order to discern the trail. And they often can have some very steep sections requiring careful footing, or even some scrambling. A GPS device is always a good thing to have, but not essential for this hike. The trail to Mt Hoffmann is one of the friendlier of the social trails. It’s very easy to follow despite the lack of permanent markings. To find it, you need only make your way to May Lake.

May Lake from the Mt Hoffmann saddle
The trailhead at May Lake has plenty of places to park a vehicle, and there are bear boxes available in case you are carrying scented items. A signed turn off along Tioga Road leads to a narrow, bumpy, partially paved road for about 2 miles to reach the trailhead area. From there you can easily find the trail to May Lake HSC which is only a little over a mile with a gentle climb up to about 9300 feet. When you reach the camp just follow the trail around the south end of the lake, and you cannot miss the junction even though it’s unmarked. After bearing left, before long you begin climbing, cross a little creek, and pass along a really nice little grassy green meadow rimmed with pines and dotted with wild flowers (in season). Leaving the meadow the trail drops a bit before beginning to climb a rocky talus where you need to spot the cairns for best route through. From here you get a nice little view to the lake before turning around to the west side of the mountain. Soon you are climbing quite steeply and heading up the rocky south-western slope of the mountain, switching back many times to gain altitude more gradually. After climbing for about a mile, and reaching 10,400 feet, you break out onto the saddle. Still climbing, the views to the west are awesome. You can see quite a bit of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Cloud’s Rest, and beyond to the Clark range and scores of high peaks. If you are willing to go off trail a little bit, you can walk up to the northeast to a cliff alongside the rock pinnacle that is seen from the May Lake camp. This vantage point will give you a staggering view straight down to May Lake. From this location, you are also treated to commanding views of a panorama of easterly high mountains, clear lakes, jagged peaks, and tree covered slopes. Yellow bellied marmots love to dwell amongst the rocks up here feeding on a variety of plants, and lots of little birds and smaller rodents are active too. And keep your eye peeled for raptors. The trail leads over to the summit which has some kind of man-made tower on it, maybe for weather information. I suppose you could scramble up to the summit but there is no trail and I didn't bother with it. After spending some time enjoying the breezes and admiring the gorgeous panoramic views, or in my case dodging raindrops, just head back down the trail the same way. I spent nearly five hours on this hike, but you could complete it in far less time, provided you are able to pull yourself away from such a striking and commanding location. Total elevation gain on the hike is only about 2116 feet, with a round trip distance of 6.3 miles. The hike is plenty do-able even for beginning hikers. I don’t think you can find a much better ratio of payoff verses effort than this. The weather was a little iffy the day I did this hike, so that played havoc with my photography as you can tell from the pictures displayed here. I also have a photoset and track log at the links below.

Click here to see my photoset on flickr
Click here to see my track log and trip report on Every Trail

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Foresta Hike

View from the Foresta Trail
I was feeling a little harried when the first day of my Sierra trip got off to a lousy start. Sometimes things just go a little awry, but still turn out alright. It's the law of averages. I had made a reservation for a campsite at Crane Flat for one night only. I could not set up camp at Tuolumne Meadows , which was my real destination, until the next day. So the plan was for this site to give me an extra day for a hike at slightly lower elevation. I wanted to hike the route from Tamarack Flat to El Capitan, but as luck would have it, I ran into some unexpected circumstances. First there were no bear lockers at the trailhead at Tamarack Flat, and my vehicle was full of camping supplies including a week’s worth of food. I was stunned at this development! Trailheads at Yosemite generally always have bear boxes available for general use. It is technically illegal, that is; you can be cited for a violation of federal law for not properly storing food in bear country. After having visions of my car doors being ripped off (literally), I drove over to Crane Flat to see if they had any bear boxes I could use. I could not check in there until noon, and there was nothing available there either. But the ranger told me about some lockers at a pullout along Tioga Road a few miles beyond Tamarack Flat. I drove there only to find out that they were all being used, and there was not enough room for all my stuff. Still not willing to risk my car becoming a statistic, I remembered that there was also a trailhead to El Capitan at Foresta. I drove out there and finally found a bear box I could use. However the route from there adds an extra 4 miles being a 20 mile round trip, and it was getting late in the morning. It was also reaching over 100 degrees in the open that day. Ironically, if I had not made the reservation at Crane Flat, I could have simply rented a campsite at Tamarack Flat, which is first come first served, and used the bear box in the site. The route from there is a shaded 16 mile round trip, and I could have started early enough to complete the hike, and still had time to setup camp before dark. Bummer! (g-rated term).

View to Mt Clark
The area around Foresta was once beautiful and thickly wooded with lodgepole and sugar pine, but has suffered the effects of several devastating fires. There was a huge fire there in 1991 which did considerable damage, and another fire in 2009. Recovery is well underway, but the first 4 miles of trail is very exposed due to the lack of mature trees. With the temperature soaring to over 100 degrees, and the extra distance and elevation gain; and with the late start due to my screw-up over bear boxes, I knew there was no freakin’ way I could still make El Cap and get back. (bleep!) Instead, I decided to set a turn around time and hike the trail anyway. Even with my energy waning in the exposed heat, I figured I could at least make the junction with Old Big Oak Flat Road, and I would always rather hike then sit around. This turned out to be a good decision because I discovered that even with the fire damage causing devastation of the trees; the wild flowers are already coming back. The trail passes through several areas with seeps and creeks, and there are still some wooded sections. I found some really nice rein orchids and lots of scarlet monkey flower, along with some other interesting surprises that kept me occupied for the afternoon. I also got some fairly interesting views before heading back. I really want to come back here again sometime without the oppressive heat, and with more time so I can make the summit. Of course I still have the other route from Tamarack that remains un-hiked by me for some other time as well. I added a photoset on flickr if you want to see the wild flower pictures. I will be adding posts of my other hiking on this trip as time allows.