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.

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