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.

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