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.

The Summer 2008 Trans-Sierra Hike

September 7, 2008

Every summer I try to get in one long hike. The past two years this has focused on sections of Steve Roper‘s Sierra High Route, as described in his book.

Last summer Dave White & I went from Convict Lake up to Lake Wit-so-nah-pah, then cross country over Gemini Pass, down to the McGee Pass trail, cross country over Shout of Relief Pass and Bighorn Pass, then down to Laurel Lake and the Laurel Creek trail.

From here we descended into the Mono Creek Canyon, then up the Second Recess along Mills Creek, over Gabbot Pass, on to Cox Col, and then out via the Rock Creek Trail to the Mosquito Flat trailhead. Near Cox Col we met up with friends – you can find a brief description and some photos from that leg of the trip in the “Krugle Climbing Trip” section on the Vulgarian Ramblers Summer 2007 Tour page.

The Laurel Creek trail from Laurel Lake to the end of the hanging valley was beautiful, and we passed some killer campsites right where the trees peter out at the edge of a large meadow.

I decided that this would be a great destination for a family backpacking trip. Unfortunately there were a few problems, namely that there was no way my wife & 8-year old daughter were going to hike in the 12+ miles from either the east (via Mono Pass) or west (from Lake Edison) approaches.

Luckily I found that High Sierra Pack Station does spot trips in to the First Recess area along the Mono Creek. They’ll drop you and your gear off, then come back and pick you up a few days later. And thus began the planning for this year’s summer hike.

After surviving the drive in on the Kaiser Pass Road, so accurately described here, we took the ferry from Vermillion Resort across Edison Lake, and met up with the horses on the far side. Unfortunately the lake level was to low for the regular boat to operate, so we got shuttled across in a smaller boat, and wound up arriving 2 hours later than expected.

The drop off at Fish Camp was also further from the Laurel Creek trail than I’d expected, and the slog up the north side of Mono Creek canyon was  a lot steeper than I remembered, so our arrival at camp was a bit later than planned. But once we settled in, it was every bit as gorgeous as I’d remembered from last summer.

After four days of fun family camping, we hiked back down to Fish Camp, where the horses met us. I said goodbye to the family, then retraced my route from last summer up the Second Recess and over Gabbott Pass. A drizzle made the tedious talus hopping near the pass more exciting than it was the first time. I dropped down to Lake Italy, where the drizzle finally turned into rain, forcing me to stop my death march.

Early the next morning I reached the Italy Pass trail, and put it into cruise gear. But two snowfields that covered the trail down to the lake presented the biggest challenge of the entire trip – crossing crusty snow at 6am in trail running shoes and no ice axe was not what I expected. After about 45 minutes of very careful sun cupping I was past that ugliness, just in time to lose the trail as it ascended towards Jumble Lake.

For once, the god-awful ducks I’ve been seeing everywhere came in handy, as somebody had clearly marked where the trail crossed the creek. So as much as Roper hates ducks, they do have their uses, as otherwise I’d have been wandering a talus field trying to find the trail using the bogus location printed on my topo map.

Once over Italy Pass, it was an easy but painfully meandering tromp down to Honeymoon lake, where I met Dave White and Grant Glouser. They’d hiked in on the Pine Creek Pass trail yesterday afternoon. So far we were three for three on back country rendezvouses (and yes, that is the plural form).

We caught some big hail on the other side of Pine Creek Pass, but once it stopped we found ourselves descending through the most amazing wildflowers I’ve ever seen in the backcountry. Lush meadows covered with bright red, blue, yellow, orange, purple and white blossoms. Burbling brooks winding their way past twisted pines. And three hikers without a camera between them…sigh.

Eventually we split left on the unmarked L Lake trail, passing a large group of high school kids toiling away on trail maintenance. Our campsite was lovely Elba Lake. The next day we went cross-country past Puppet Lake, over the first pass I’ve found with three names (Puppet, Carol Col, and Roget), and then down past Mesa Lake. This area made me feel like we were wandering the Russian steppes, that is until we came across a huge encampment (hauled in over the fragile meadow via horses) complete with the Taj Masquito Tent.

We picked up the Piute Pass trail and took that up to Piute pass, then split right on the unmarked trail to Muriel Lake. From there it was a short cross-country walk to Goethe Lake, and some more spectacular views that continued to be unrecorded anywhere but in our minds.

The following morning was the start of a long and fairly unpleasant climb via big talus to Alpine Col. We descended more talus to the lake on the other side, then traversed around the east shore (the west side was a no-go) over still more talus and through huge clouds of gnats, until finally meeting with with Schmed and company at the gap between lakes 11540 and 11546. Four-for-four, we must be living right.

Schmed leaves a note for Ken

Schmed leaves a note for Ken

Schmed, Laurel, Kirsten and Dan had entered via the Lamarck Lakes trail a few days prior. They reached the Darwin Canyon via Lamarck Col, after which Schmed and Dan climbed Mt. Mendel. You can read a brief description of their trip in the Darwin Canyon Trip section of this page, along with photos.

Schmed & Kirsten convinced me to climb nearby Mt. Goethe, which wound up being a good call. Excellent summit views…

Schmed & Kirsten celebrate another summit

Schmed & Kirsten celebrate another summit

…and more beautiful benches on the way down…

Wandering through wildflowers

Wandering through wildflowers

Now we were supposed to be all camped at the Darwin Benches just below these lakes, but those slackers in the other group had left their camp set up at the top of Darwin Canyon. So Grant, Dave & I hauled our gear up the canyon, which wasn’t all that bad given the views:

Darwin Canyon Lakes

Darwin Canyon Lakes

We then joined up with their cozy camp, between the two highest lakes in Darwin Canyon:

The starkness of the surrounding terrain was mitigated by the views of nearby peaks and lakes:

View down Darwin Canyon Lakes

View down Darwin Canyon Lakes

The following morning we hiked over Lamarck Col, then down the Lamarck Lakes trailhead. A dinner stop at the Whoa Nellie Deli (cleverly hidden inside a gas station) on the long drive home helped take care of some of those food fantasies I’d been experiencing after 8 days of freeze-dried.