Sierra High Route Hike 2021 – Canyon Country

August 29, 2021

I’ve been picking off segments of the Sierra High Route for several years now, and decided that the northern-most section (aka “Canyon Country”, which lies between Tuolumne Meadows and Twin Lakes) was this year’s goal. Dave White had done some of the SHR with me in previous years, and it wasn’t hard to convince him to join me for this year’s adventure, which would start July 19th, 2021.

By reversing the route and heading south-bound, we could climb Matterhorn Peak with our friend Schmed, and he’d be able to facilitate a shuttle, by driving separately and giving us a ride from Bridgeport to the trailhead for Horse Creek near Twin Lakes and Mono Village.

The day started in fine form, with a drive from Nevada City to Bridgeport, some (expensive) beers at the Bridgeport Inn, and then a fast drive to the trailhead in Schmed’s 911. We were fortunate that the smoke from the Tamarack Fire south of Lake Tahoe was blowing north-east, and not impacting us (other than choking on smoke while switching drivers near Minden). But the weather had been threatening, and the start was pretty wet.

But the weather soon cleared, and even with our 2pm start we were able to reach camp near the end of the established trail along Horse Creek.

The next day we continued following Horse Creek up to Horse Creek Pass. There had been some discussion online about veering right earlier to pass below a pinnacle near the headwall, but that seems wrong – we did wind up forking right when the faint use trail headed left up a talus field, but that was past the obvious pinnacle. We dropped packs at the pass and started the relatively easy slog up Matterhorn Peak.

Interesting bit of trivia, The Dharma Bums describes Gary Snyder‘s climb up this same peak, and Gary lives just outside my town of Nevada City.

Ken & Dave at summit of Matterhorn Peak

After that Dave & I parted ways with Schmed, but not before posing for a photo looking south down beautiful Spiller Creek Canyon.

From here it was easy meandering through fields of beautiful wildflowers, until we had to cross talus and ascend cliffs (via narrow benches and loose chutes) to reach Stanton Pass, visible in the above photo between the two obvious summits on the skyline. It felt easier than Roper’s description of class 2-3, but that was because we were climbing up, versus working our way down the cliffs.

Looking north from Stanton Pass

What followed next was a super bone-headed move on my part. I blindly assumed the lake we could see from the pass was our destination (Soldier Lake), and made a rapid bee-line descent for it. When we got there, we found (a) other people, (b) no good campsites, and (c) that we were actually at Return Lake. Thankfully Dave didn’t hate me, and was in favor of continuing our day until we could reach Soldier Lake…and that was totally worth it. After a long day, dropping packs at a beautiful campsite with a perfect spot for swimming is good for the soul.

The next day we headed south-east down to the bottom of Virginia Canyon and up the other side, passing through some interesting forested terrain – not common on the Sierra High Route, which tries hard to stay right at timberline.

Dave and the circle of life

At Shepherd Lake we had a view of our next objective, Sky Pilot Col, which is just to the right of the small peak in the middle of the gap.

What came next was an un-fun climb very loose, steep, and sketchy scree to Sky Pilot Col. For those of you doing this same route, you really, really want to head to the broad saddle located just north of the high point that’s immediately north-east of Sky Pilot Col (left of the small peak in the middle of the photo above). Once you reach that saddle, there’s an obvious use trail which traverses below the high point over to the col. What we did instead was follow rocks towards the right (west) side of the col, which eventually became unstable, steep, and unsafe. Definitely the least fun part of the trip. I imagine Roper never reversed this part of his route, which is why he described the descent on this same slope as “not technically difficult”. I could see it being kind of fun to scree-ski down, but the reverse sucked.

We then made the easy descent past “Secret Lake” down to Cascade Lake.

We found some tents set up right next to the eastern shore (is there such a thing as a Citizen’s Backcountry Fine?). Note that you soon enter into the Harvey Monroe Hall Research Natural Area, at which point camping isn’t allowed – so if you want to camp, do it in the band that’s between 50 and 600ft south of Cascade Lake.

We continued past the “cascade”, over a small ridge, and down to the easternmost of the Conness Lakes.

We almost made another critical mistake by attempting to continue due south up some class 3-ish cliffs just past that lake. Luckily we saw two hikers heading down the ridge just west of the lake, which provided a much easier way to gain the east ridge of Mt. Conness. There was some unpleasant up-and-down while traversing east to get to the flat pass & ridge above Saddlebag Lake, but after that it was an easy walk south down slopes to Maul Lake.

Descending to Maul Lake
Nice spot for lunch

Continuing south past Spuller Lake, we encountered the area Roper describes as “a white, slabby section with a few class 2-3 problems”. This wound up taking longer than expected, as we were contouring while repeatedly down-climbing into a slot, then up-climbing the next ridge. We met a father-son duo who were finishing up their through-hike of the SHR, which sounds like an epic adventure.

Soon we arrived at Mine Shaft Pass, which left us with only a short section of easy XC to get to the northern end of the Great Sierra Mine, with its various shafts and crumbling cabins.

Soon after that we were descending to the northern-most Gaylor Lake, via an established trail. I was surprised at the number of people we started running into on the trail, until I double-checked the map and saw that this lake was just a short hike from the eastern entrance of Yosemite Nat’l Park.

The trip was almost over, though we did get a bit more XC from the lakes seen above down to the lowest of the Gaylor Lakes.

From here it was trail all the way to the Tuolumne Meadows market, and our 4pm YART bus trip down to Lee Vining. We got one final swim in the Dana Fork before returning to civilization.

At the market we met a number of PCT thru-hikers who were waiting to take the bus, due to trail closures caused by the Tamarack Fire. One guy decided to try his hand at hitch-hiking, and the rest of the group provided lots of useful input (“Take off your sunglasses! Look them in the eye! Dance!”).

We had a great dinner at the Whoa Nellie Deli, then spent the night at the El Mono Motel, caught the Eastern Sierra Transit bus back north to Bridgeport the next morning, and drove home.

A few lessons from this trip…

  1. Sometimes a bust-out should be coordinated. Both Schmed & I packed in beers for our first night, which made the next morning a bit harder than it would have been otherwise.
  2. Don’t trust anyone’s way-points. I had downloaded part of the SHR track, which felt a bit like cheating. And that almost bit us in the butt, when we almost tried to scale some cliffs just past the Conness Lakes to reach an incorrectly-placed pin.
  3. It’s more of an adventure to reverse the SHR, since Roper’s descriptions wind up being pretty terse for south-bound. But the real point is that the difficulty assigned to terrain is highly dependent on whether you’re heading up or down.
  4. You get hurt after you finish the hard stuff. Dave ripped off a toenail after we reached the real trail by the lower Gaylor Lake, when he hit a rock while walking around barefoot.
  5. Driving a bit further to make the shuttle easier is worth it. We should have dropped a car in Lee Vining (versus Bridgeport), as we could have skipped the last night’s hotel and driven home after dinner.