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Sawtooth Wilderness, ID High Route – 8 Day Solo Hike Aug 2017

Sawtooth Wilderness High Route – 8 Day Solo Hike August 2017

 

 View All Sawtooth Wilderness Photos | Watch the Sawtooth Wilderness Hike Video On Youtube 

  • Park Administration – National Forest Service
  • Fees & Permits – No fees to access the Sawtooth Wilderness. You need a permit which is FREE. Permits are available via self-registration at the trailheads.
  • Trailhead – Tin Cup Trailhead at Pettit Lake
  • Length Of Time Hiked – 8 Days, 7 NIghts
  • Miles Hiked – 67
  • Route Difficulty – On marked trails, 6. Off trail sections, 9
  • Fires Allowed – Yes, on a fire pan or fire blanket. Campfires are not allowed: Off-trail from July 1st through Labor Day. In the following drainages: Alice/Twin Lakes, Toxaway/Farley Lakes, Goat Creek (tributary of the South Fork of the Payette River), or Alpine Creek. Within 200 yards of Sawtooth Lake, Goat Lake and Alpine Lake near Iron Creek, Alpine and Saddleback Lakes in the Redfish drainage, and Scenic Lakes.
  • Scenic Beauty – 9
  • Solitude – 4 on Trail, 9 Off Trail

Sawtooth Wilderness Pre-Hike Planning Notes

Actually, the route I set out to hike was much longer, closer to 90 miles and over 25k feet of elevation gain. Averaging 8517′ over 89 miles, I called it “The Ultimate Sawtooths High Route”. Over 50 miles of the 89 mile route was off trail. A route like this would have a lot higher chance for successful completion if one had firsthand knowledge of what to expect in key sections. I didn’t have that luxury though, this will be my first visit to the Sawtooths, and first to the sate of Idaho. I will be sharing more info on the Ultimate Sawtooths High Route later on. 

My goal with the route was to to stay as high as possible, while hitting as many of the places I could that were on my “must see” list. As far as planning a hike goes in the Sawtooths, you’ll find information from scattered sources online but there is no dedicated forum or “go-to” resource for the Sawtooths. I gathered what info I could about my route between trip reports and pictures, google earth, and studying the topo maps to create the route. 

Sawtooth Wilderness Weather Forecasts

For weather in the Sawtooth Wilderness, I was using mountain-forecast.com for Mount Cramer:

https://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Mount-Cramer/forecasts/2500

Sawtooth Wilderness Backpacking Maps & Route Information 

Here’s my caltopo map I used to plan my route:

Total distance: 68.42 mi
Max elevation: 9921 ft
Min elevation: 7011 ft
Total climbing: 22789 ft
Total descent: -22822 ft
Download

Download GPX file of this hike

 

Day 1 – Friday August 18th, 2017

Miles Hiked – 6.35
Elevation Gain – 2090′
Route Hiked – Pettit Lake to Alice Lake

The road to Pettit Lake from ID-75 was well graded and in great shape for a dirt road. I was driving a Chevy Cruze, and wouldn’t hesitate to take the smallest car. High clearance not need whatsoever. I arrived at the Tin Cup Trailhead (located at Pettit Lake) around 6pm, and man was it packed. I was able to find a spot, but there were’t many left if any at all. I changed clothes and did my final packing, and was on the trail at 6:30pm. 

My destination tonight is Alice Lake, hopefully. I have 2.5 hours of daylight max to work with, better get moving. I quickly passed several groups of hikers, walked past the lake and hit the Wilderness Boundary sign. Here is where you self register for your permit. 

The trail is mostly forested for the first few miles. Eventually, it emerges into a couple of open areas where boulders and talus have spilled down the slopes above. Hiking is still easy through these sections because this is such a well traveled trail, and in great shape. Once the first set of switchbacks are encountered, roughly half the way there to Alice, you start to get some nice elevated views. The Sun was already going down fast at this point.

Hiking to Alice Lake

sawtooths wilderness hiking near alice lake

The hike to Alice Lake was pretty nice for a day 1 hike. Normally, the trail taking you to the high country is in a low valley, long and rather uneventful. I would say the trail to Alice Lake is much more interesting, and if nothing else, shorter than many of the approach hikes I’m used to. 

Dusk near Alice Lake

Alice Lake at sundown

Right before I reached Alice Lake is a couple of small ponds, with great views and lots of people already camped there. Farther up the trail, at Alice Lake proper, I was again out of luck finding a campsite in a prime location such as the outlet. With the Sun fading quickly I hurried on farther along the lake. The trail starts to climb above the lake offering no viable campsites.

Towards the center of the lake, at a point where the trail had veered farther from the water, I found a place to hang my hammock. Not the most scenic spot, but who cares, it was already time to bust out the headlamp. Nothin’ to see here tonight. No need to use the tarp over my hammock, skies are looking clear and will remain so for the next couple of days according to the weather forecast.

I arrived at camp around 9pm, and after setting up headed to bed at 10. I’ve got a long week ahead of me!

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Pinto Valley Wilderness, NV (LMNRA) – 3 Day 25 Mile Loop Hike March 2017

Backpacking The Pinto Valley Wilderness, Nevada (Lake Mead National Recreation Area)

Pinto Valley Wilderness Viewed From Hamblin Mountain

 View All Pinto Valley Wilderness Photos | Watch the Pinto Valley Wilderness Hike Video On Youtube 

  • Park Administration – National Park Service (Lake Mead National Recreation Area)
  • Fees & Permits – No fees or permits to access the Pinto Valley Wilderness, but there IS a fee to enter the Lake Mead National Recreation Area (in which the Pinto Valley Wilderness is located)
  • Trailhead – Northshore Summit Trail parking lot off Northshore Rd.
  • Length Of Time Hiked – 3 days, 2 nights
  • Miles Hiked – 25
  • Route Difficulty – 6.5, except where on descent into Pinto Valley near the “choke point” on my GPS file where it’s an 8.5
  • Fires Allowed – Yes, but only if you bring your own, or use driftwood below the high water line of Lake Mead (which is not nearby)
  • Scenic Beauty – 9
  • Solitude – 8

Pinto Valley Wilderness Pre-Hike Planning Notes

The Pinto Valley Wilderness is relatively new, only being designated a wilderness in 2002. Therefore there are not a whole lot of references to this wilderness online. Many people just refer to the area as the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which is technically also correct since the Pinto Valley Wilderness is located within the LMNRA. 

The northern boundary of the Pinto Valley Wilderness is Northshore Rd, and this is pretty much the only place to park unless you have a 4×4. Here, there are several pull-offs along the road where you can park for a day hike. But what about overnight hikes? Well, you aren’t supposed to park in the pull-offs overnight, and even that was OK with the park service, would you want to leave your car there? Probably not. For me, the only real option was parking in the Northshore Summit Trail parking lot. It’s located approximately a half mile east of mile marker 20 on Northshore Rd. The southern boundary of the wilderness is Lake Mead, the western border is Callville Wash Rd and the eastern boundary is Boathouse Cove Rd. Also not that Boathouse Cove Rd separates the Pinto Valley Wilderness (39,173 acres) from the Jimbilnan Wilderness (18,879 acres) to the east. You can access the Pinto Valley Wilderness from the east, west and southern boundaries, but by far the easiest is Northshore Rd.

Water sources in the Pinto Valley Wilderness are limited. While there are likely other water sources located in the Pinto Valley Wilderness, the two most prominent sources (from my pre-hike research) are Sandstone Spring and Cottonwood Spring. I did not make it to Sandstone Spring to check if it was flowing. I passed by Cottonwood Spring, but did not search for the source. I did see that an animal had dug down into the wash near Cottonwood Spring and there was a pool of water about 6 inches down. Neither one of these springs are reliable enough to count on as a easy water source (you might have to dig for water). Pack in all water you will need for this hike and assume you will not find any!

It does not appear that backcountry camping is very popular in the Pinto Valley Wilderness. The lack of trail heads with overnight parking, marked trails and water sources seem to indicate that most people use the area for day hikes. However, the off-trail enthusiast will find that the Pinto Valley Wilderness provides some excellent 2-3 day hikes to those willing to haul their own water. 

Pinto Valley Wilderness Backpacking Maps

Total distance: 23.66 mi
Max elevation: 3320 ft
Min elevation: 1631 ft
Total climbing: 6220 ft
Total descent: -6152 ft
Download

Download GPX file of this hike

Here’s my caltopo map I used to plan my route:

Day 1 – Saturday March 25th, 2017

Miles Hiked – 8.26
Elevation Gain – 1228′
Route Hiked – Northshore Summit Trail parking lot to Pinto Valley near Sentinel Peak

lake mead national recreation area from northshore rd

Driving along Northshore Rd

Dan and I spent the previous day in the nearby Valley of Fire State Park, and camped in the Arch Rock campground. From here, it was about a 30 minute drive to the Northshore Summit trail head. It was cloudy this morning and was sprinkling when we were packing up our gear, but that quickly faded away. The drive along Northshore Rd was very scenic, and worthy of spending some time here by itself. However, we did not have the extra time, and drove directly to the parking lot.

When we arrived at the Northshore Summit Trail parking lot, we were the only ones there. Good sign. Yesterday, Valley of Fire State Park was packed. There’s a bathroom and garbage cans here, but that’s it. We left the parking lot around 9:30am and started walking east on Northshore Rd. While road walks are never ideal, this was the best route I could come up with that fit together a starting point, the destinations I wanted to hit and the time frame. Despite walking this paved road for 2 miles, it was beautiful country. Big views to the north, looking across Bitter Spring Valley. 

entering the pinto valley wilderness from northshore rd

Leaving Northshore Rd behind

Climbing up Pinto Ridge

dead turtle shell found in the pinto valley wilderness

We found this turtle shell hiking up Pinto Ridge

After 2 miles, we reached a pull-off where another vehicle was parked. Here, we leave the road and head south towards the Pinto Ridge. We hiked up over a small ridge to start the climb up. The terrain is pretty jagged here, with lots of sharp rocks. As we climbed up the ridge, I came across a turtle shell. The turtle itself was long gone, but the shell was an interesting find. A few hundred feet farther and I saw a second shell.

On the “pass” at the top of Pinto Ridge

Farther up the ridge, the path narrows as we reached the top of the “pass”. The vegetation was a little greener, thicker, and thornier here. Lots of wildflowers in bloom, and some of the cacti as well. There’s not much of a view form the high point, but this changes as you descend into Pinto Valley.

Descending into Pinto Valley

descending a steep rock slab in the pinto valley wilderness

Looking back up the way we came. Very steep!

The descent from the top is pretty gradual at first. We could tell there was a steeper section ahead, which I anticipated. Now the views of Pinto Valley were materializing, and they were impressive. However, the immediate problem was the terrain that lies between us and the valley below. The steepness would have been enough to worry about, but of course, loose rocks and debris compounded the difficulty. The angle was such that you could grip decently walking down slowly, but only just. Any steeper and this would have been questionable. I crab crawled in a few spots after watching Dan fall a couple of times. 

The chute funnels you to this choke point

It took a good amount of time to safely work our way down this steep slab, only to be led to a choke point… a couple of boulders wedged between the steep, narrow canyon walls. There’s no easy way to climb down it, but there’s a route around it. Backtrack about 50 feet from the boulders and go up a ridge on your left (to the east). Here, there’s a more manageable route down and the rest of the way is less frightening. 

pinto valley wilderness upheaval

Them rocks ain’t supposed to be angled like that!

Now down off the worst of Pinto Ridge, jumped down into one of the two washes, which merge, and headed out into the valley. It’s a whole new landscape here. In the wash we could see chunk of earth pushed upright, with a variety of layers visible. This isn’t solid rock like granite, though. It’s made up of compacted, crumbly dirt and smaller rocks. 

prickly pear cactus flowers in bloom in the pinto valley wilderness

Sentinel Peak behind a blooming Prickly Pear cactus

pinto ridge

Vibrant colors of Pinto Ridge

Looking west into Pinto Valley. Pinto Ridge on the right

After emerging from the wash, we found ourselves in the expansive Pinto Valley. Sentinel Peak was in front of us, dominating the view with shades of orange and red. We decided to camp here, on the north side of the valley, so we could have a good view of Sentinel. 

pinto valley campsite near sentinel peak

My campsite in Pinto Valley. That’s Sentinel Peak in the background

flowers in front of sentinel peak - pinto valley wilderness

Sentinel Peak from Pinto Valley

We found a couple of flati-ish spots and cleared the sharp rocks to make way for our tents. The view was great, but there’s no shade anywhere nearby. After setting up camp, we took a break for lunch. Afterwards, Dan rested while I took some pictures.

Approaching Sentinel Peak

After our break, we headed over towards Sentinel in an attempt to climb to it’s summit at around 2:30pm. The path to Sentinel from our camp involved dropping down into and climbing out of several washes along the way, before finding the main wash that runs through Pinto Valley. We took this to the Base of Sentinel where the route I had planned begins. The path up to the top was not very obvious from here, so I was hoping the track I created in Caltopo, based off someone else’s route up Sentinel, was accurate. 

At the base of Sentinel Peak

Climbing up Sentinel Peak

We started climbing up Sentinel, and quickly found the most promising route to be blocked by a huge boulder. We moved farther east and started uphill here. Dan wanted to go right up the mountainside whichever place looked easiest from his point of view, while I wanted to try and stick to the GPS route I created ahead of time. We both pursued various route options but keep finding ourselves in tough spots. I ended up breaking one of my Gossamer Gear LT4 trekking poles, again. Looking back, I think I’ve broken more of these poles than I have completed hikes with them. I don’t think I can use those poles anymore, need something beefier. 

Dan carefully walking across a rock face with a healthy fall below

Coming own Sentinel Peak looking north towards Pinto Ridge

The climb was a lot harder than we anticipated. While we probably could have made it to the top and back to camp if we continued, we decided that it was getting late in the afternoon and didn’t really want to be getting back right at dark or after if the route continued to be as challenging. We turned around and headed back to camp, somewhat defeated. At least there’s Hamblin Mountain tomorrow, which should have an easier route up. 

Main wash running through Pinto Valley

hiking the main wash in pinto valley

While we walked back to camp in one of the washes, we saw what looked to be bobcat tracks and poop. We saw lots of similar tracks throughout our hike, but of course, never saw anything.

pinto valley wilderness from from camp in pinto valley

When we got back to camp we still had no shade. Dan set up his emergency blanket (he was using it as a footprint under his tent) as a lean-to, and we had a nice shaded spot to escape the sun for a while. 

There was a TON of plane and helicopter traffic overhead in this region. Commercial planes I understand as we’re not that far from Las Vegas. The helicopter though, I don’t understand why there were so many. Throughout the day we saw a couple per hour. Right before nightfall, I saw 6 in row, flying the same flight path spaced about 1 minute apart. Maybe some sort of training exercise? 

pinto valley

View to the west before sunset

Looking to the east, the views of Sentinel and the mountains beyond were colorfully illuminated by the sun now. To the west, the distant landscape looked lush and green as the sun shined on it, although it in reality the vegetation is much more sparse up close. Dan said it looked like Jurassic Park. I watched the sun set and headed to bed shortly after.

 

Day 2 – Sunday March 26th, 2017

Miles Hiked – 9.88
Elevation Gain – 2173′
Route Hiked – Pinto Valley near Sentinel Peak to Pinto Valley Castle

It was a calm night with no animal sounds or high winds. The only sound I could hear was Dan snoring, as we set up our tents a little too close together. I got up around 6:30 to watch the sunrise, and tried to wake Dan. Of course, Dan continued to sleep and didn’t get up until 7:30 or later. 

pinto valley wilderness sunrise

Sunrise in Pinto Valley

While Dan wrestled with the agony of leaving his tent, I sat on a small hill near camp and took some pictures. The sunrise was not very impressive from this spot though as it was so high in the sky by the time it peaked out over the top of Sentinel Peak. I was already packed and ready to go by the time the sun rose and Dan finally left his tent. 

View of Hamblin Mountain from our camp in Pinto Valley

We broke camp around 8:30, following the nearest wash to the main wash running through Pinto Valley. Walking in the washes is the easiest route through Pinto Valley. This is not because the terrain outside of the washes is difficult, but because the washes are cut steeply and often deep into the surrounding earth. Hiking in and out of them gets old after a while. 

Hiking west through the main wash through Pinto Valley

Hiking the main wash was very easy. We made good time as we traveled west through Pinto Valley. We passed an outcrop of rocks and boulders that people have been signing their names on for years, dating back to the 1920s. Even though some of the writing is nearly 100 years old, it still looks brand new. Is is really that old then? Surely they would have been weathered somewhat in 100 years, right?

Wash leading to Pinto Valley Castle (the tallest point in the very center of the horizon) 

interesting geology in the pinto valley wilderness

What a mad place!

West of the rocks with writing along the main wash, we could start to see the colors of Pinto Valley Castle in the distance. Soon we left the main wash, and headed up another wash towards Pinto Valley Castle. This is a really interesting area, visually and geologically. Lots of upheaval going on, exposing many different layers of sediment. Small patches of “badlands” can be found all over here too. 

backpacker in front of pinto valley castle

“And behind me is Pinto Valley Castle…”

pinto valley castle panorama

View south near Pinto Valley Castle

Pinto Valley Castle

Pinto Valley Castle was impressive. Erosion has shaped the walls of PVC in an unusual way, with sharp edges and symmetry. The top is made up of some lighter colored sediment, while the bottom is comprised of a contrasting red color. 

sunflowers near pinto valley castle

colorful badlands

Looking northeast from the small pass, where we just came from

pinto valley wilderness badlands

Looking southwest from the small pass, towards Hamblin Mountain

After heading general north for a while through the Pinto Valley Castle area, we abruptly turned west after passing by PVC. After hiking through a small patch of badlands, we noticed an obvious path up one of the ridges, which led us to the top of a small pass. This is the general area I wanted to camp, since it looked so colorful from the satellite maps I studied before coming out here. It certainly lived up to the hype I had in my mind. Now, we just needed to find a place to set up camp. 

pinto valley wilderness best campsite

Campsite 1/4 mile west of Pinto Valley Castle

sunflowers in front of colorful mountain background

pinto valley wilderness

colorful mountain scenery pinto valley wilderness

Coming down from the little pass, we followed an obvious path down and along the side of the high ground. This path appeared to be an old mining road or something. We followed it a short ways before find a couple of small flat areas for our tents. Excellent views, and enough space to spread out more than we did last night. 

After setting up camp and eating lunch, we headed out to climb Hamblin Mountain. From camp, it appeared that there was a high and low path to take. We opted to take the high ground since we were already up here. This path led us generally where we wanted to go, but then started curving south. We backtracked a little and realized we had to go over a ridge to get to where we wanted to go. We should have taken the low ground from camp as it would have gone around this ridge, but I didn’t realize that at the time.

pinto valley wilderness

Wow!

Still not on the trail yet

We followed the ridge for a while looking for a weakness. After a short but steep climb over it, we still didn’t see an obvious route to follow. We headed down hill and along the top of a very deep cut wash below. On the other side we could see a trail, but we needed to cross this wash. We found a spot to descend, and even saw a cairn in the wash. We figured we were on the right path now. 

A faint path led up hill

Looking back the way we came

view of pinto valley wilderness from hike up hamblin mountain

The land was changing from red washes and badlands to green, rocky mountainous terrain. We followed our new trail up a ridge and along the mountainside. The path was very narrow and barely cut into the steep slopes. Eventually this path merged with a larger one, and it was much easier to follow from here on out. We hiked a short ways before seeing a path that led down into  the wash below, which looked easier and more direct than the route we took up here. We noted this and decided to go this was on the descent. 

hamblin mountain trail

Next we encountered are first humans of the trip, a couple from Henderson, NV who a had just left the summit of Hamblin Mountain. We chatted for a few minutes and parted ways, knowing they had only been hiking 25 minutes from the top. I was really looking forward to this view!

 

The hike up was not technically challenging or particularly steep, but there were a few false summits. Really great views as your near the top. Not far from the summit, we passed an older couple from Colorado making their way down. The woman seemed bewildered that we had “large” backpacks on, and asked if we were camping at the top. Ha, nope. Just carrying our water, snacks, camera gear, etc.

hamblin mountain summit view southwest

View southwest over Lake Mead from Hamblin Mountain

view from hamblin mountain summit south/southeast

View south/southeast from Hamblin Mountain summit

Lake Mead from Hamblin Mountain. The narrows is just out of frame to the left (east)

Hamblin Mountain Panorama

view of sentinel peak from hamblin mountain

Sentinel Peak from summit of Hamblin Mountain

 

We had the summit of Hamblin Mountain to ourselves when we made it up here at 2:30. It had taken us 2 hours from camp. From the top I could see Lake Mead, Bowl of Fire, Sentinel Peak, Pinto Valley and all the other landmarks for many miles. Las Vegas lies hidden from view in a valley, but beyond that the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Charleston can been seen. Several USGS markers dot the summit as well as a summit log/register. 

view of the pinto valley wilderness from the summit of hamblin mountain

Hamblin Mountain Summit View

view of the muddy mountains from hamblin mountain

Muddy Mountains to the north

view of the pinto valley wilderness from hamblin mountain summit

Pinto Valley & Sentinel Peak Viewed From Hamblin Mountain Summit

View northeast from Hamblin Mountain

We stayed on the summit for about an hour taking pictures and soaking in the view. However, we were also soaking in quite a bit of sun, and with no shade, it was time to head back to camp. 

hamblin mountain hike

Trail down Hamblin Mountain

Dan went ahead of me as I snapped a bunch of pictures on the way down. For some reason, I enjoyed the view better going down than up. 

Before we knew it, we reached the path that leads down into the wash that we noted on the way up. We headed down here and found this route to be quite obvious, and in fact, the actual route. The first trail we found on our way up was actually an alternate route the just happened to meet up with this main trail. This was confirmed by passing the same cairn that we passed in the wash on our way up. We originally thought the cairn marked the way to the main path that we took, instead, it marks the main path which we crossed right over without realizing. 

pinto valley wilderness hiking in a wash

Almost back to camp

Our path in the wash was leading us directly back to camp now. We passed the junction of the old 4×4 road that passes by Cottonwood Spring and heads out to Northshore Rd. This would be the route the day hikers would have taken, parking at a pull-off along the highway. We walked past this junction and the path led us right back to camp in a very direct way, much more so than the way we took up the mountain. We made it back to camp in only 1 hour from the top of Hamblin, half the time it took to reach the top. 

Back at camp, we sought out the only shade around and exploited it for a while. Having not eaten anything since noon, which was just some snacks, I devoured my bacon & cheese wrap for dinner. Dan was running lower on water than I, so I gave him a half liter. That’s about all I had left myself when I went to bed.

sunset in the pinto valley wilderness

Sunset at camp

Dan was whooped and went to bed at 6pm. With another hour and a half of daylight left, I couldn’t do that. I found a decent spot to sit and wait for sundown. Several bats were out at dusk, and flying closely overhead too. 

Day 3 – Monday March 27th, 2017

Miles Hiked – 4.99
Elevation Gain – 531′
Route Hiked – Pinto Valley Castle to Northshore Summit Trail parking lot

I woke up at 5:45 this morning. From my tent I yelled, “Hey Dan, time to get up”. To my surprise, he actually did get up without any additional prodding. That’s good, because I have a plane to catch at 12:45pm this afternoon, and we need to hike back to the car, drive back to Vegas, get some food and clean up. Originally I planned to hike an off-trail route back to the car, but worried about time, we opted to take the route the Hamblin Mountain day hikers use to get to Northshore Rd, then road walk a few miles back to the car. This would be the safest route from a time perspective.

We packed up quickly this morning and were moving by 6:30. We took the low ground this time for a direct route to the junction with the old 4×4 road, now called the Cottonwood Wash Trail. 

Cottonwood Wash Trail

Hiking the Cottonwood Wash trail was easy. Some spots were more narrow than others, and made you wonder how a vehicle passed through. Much of it is wider though. This road would have been in use up until 2002 or prior, when the area was designated as the Pinto Valley Wilderness. 

Lone tree at Cottonwood Spring

dense green shrubbery at cottonwood spring

Cottonwood Spring

A lone Cottonwood tree stands in the middle of the wash at Cottonwood Spring, hence the name. I did not see an obvious source, but I didn’t look around much either. There were lots of thick, green shrubs and bushes in some areas, an indicator of water, but I had no desire to wade through them looking for water. We did see a small hole dug in the middle of the wash with water about 6 inches down, but no natural emergence of water to the surface. 

Cottonwood Wash Trail

After leaving Cottonwood Spring, we headed down the home stretch. This was offered the same interesting geological features as others, a variety of rock and sediment layers exposed by upheaval.

backpacker walking along northshore rd in the lake mead national recreation area

Road walk along Northshore Rd

When we reached Northshore Rd, we headed east. We still had about 3 miles to cover before getting back to the parking lot. I didn’t even mind walking the road so much since the views were so great. It was a steady incline the rest of the hike back.

We reached the Northshore Summit trailhead at 8:30, plenty of time to take care of my pre-flight needs. Another successful adventure under the belt. 

 

Final Thoughts About Hiking The Pinto Valley Wilderness

This place exceeded my expectations. It’s uniquely colorful, and an all around cool place. Access is tough and some of the off trail segments can be challenging. Lots of aerial traffic remind you of how close this place is to civilization, yet we still felt solitude. Especially at night. The nights were calm and silent, with no animal sounds. We saw few animals the entire trip, just a couple of chipmunks and birds. The vegetation wasn’t too thick or thorny overall, only a few short spots where we encountered that. We saw no snakes or spiders, just a couple of butterflies and a beetle. I was expecting wildlife to be a little more active this time of year. 

Camp on our second night was my favorite. You can’t go wrong pitching your tent anywhere near Pinto Valley Castle in my opinion. Hamblin Mountain is an easy hike with a great view, and would make a great day hike (as the two couples we passed had done). 

 


Coxcomb Mountains 3 Day Hike – Joshua Tree NP, CA – Dec 2016

Joshua Tree National Park – Coxcomb Mountains 3 Day Hike

sunrise over the coxcomb mountains

View All Coxcomb Mountains Photos | Watch the Coxcomb Mountains Hike Video On Youtube 

  • Park Administration – Joshua Tree National Park
  • Fees & Permits – Free permit, self register at one of 12 backcountry registration boards (none near the Coxcomb Mountains) or at one of the Joshua Tree national park visitor centers
  • Travel Logistics – Flew into Ontario, CA airport, drove (with a local friend) to Joshua Tree NP
  • Trailhead – There is no dedicated trailhead to access the Coxcombs. However, you can park along Hwy 62 (TwentyNine Palms Rd) at 34.095135, -115.420799. This is 11.9 miles west of the Hwy 62/Hwy 177  junction. This starting point is recognized by the park though as the main point of access to the Coxcombs. BEWARE of deep sand here at the parking area! We found another place to park (north side of hwy 62) a half mile or so east of the designated spot if you don’t have a 4×4. 
  • Length Of Time Hiked – 3 days, 2 nights
  • Miles Hiked – 25
  • Route Difficulty – 7.5 
  • Fires Allowed – No
  • Scenic Beauty – 7
  • Solitude – 9.5

Coxcomb Mountains Pre-Hike Planning Notes

The Coxcomb Mountains are situated in the northeast corner of Joshua Tree National Park. This region is seldom visited, and considered the most rugged area of Joshua Tree with many jagged peaks. The highest peak in the Coxcombs is Aqua Peak. Although most maps label the high point as Aqua Peak, Aqua actually refers to 3 separate peaks… Spectre, Tensor and Dyadic. Tensor Peak is the lowest, and Aqua is the tallest at 4,416′. 

There are no dedicated campsites in the Coxcomb Mountains.

There are no reliable water sources in the Coxcombs. We hauled our own water in for this 3 day hike.  

The Inner Basin and Aqua Peaks are day-use only, but I could not find any official information on this within the Joshua Tree National park website. There’s no signs telling you where you can/can’t camp, and there’s nobody around to enforce it, but still you should try and honor these regulations as the are set in place to protect the local population of Big Horn Sheep. When I arrived at the park to get my permit, I asked the ranger to show me on the map the boundaries of the day use area. His map was a Trails Illustration/Nat Geo map of Joshua Tree National Park, and it the boundary was clearly marked on it. Later at home, I created this image to show the boundary of the day use area in the Inner Basin of the Coxcomb Mountains:

inner basin day use area boundary lines marked on a map

The day use boundary for the Inner Basin area of the Coxcomb Mountains can be seen on this map

Coxcomb Mountains Hike Maps

Download GPX file of this hike

Total distance: 24.3 mi
Max elevation: 3412 ft
Min elevation: 1667 ft
Total climbing: 6558 ft
Total descent: -6414 ft
Download

 

This is the caltopo map of the route I hiked. I’ve highlighted the Inner Basin day use are for your convenience.

 

 

Day 1 – Friday December 2nd, 2016

Miles Hiked – 7
Elevation Gain – 1704′

Dan’s Mustang stuck in the sand

When it came time to park at the trailhead, we tried to drive on some sand that was way too soft for my friend’s Mustang, and the car got stuck. Very stuck. We had to call a tow truck to pull it out, which was a 4 hour ordeal. The only reason we we able to call that tow truck is due to a passing motorist, who stopped and drove Dan to an intersection several miles away that had cell service. 

We didn’t start hiking today until around 2pm. I was hoping to make it past the Inner Basin today, but was also considering camping before the Inner Basin if it didn’t look like we could make it before sundown. 

We parked about .85 miles east of the “designated” spot. From here, it would be slightly out of the way to walk back towards the standard route. which runs west of the outcrop of small mountains (marked 806T on my caltopo map). Instead, we started hiking south and aimed east of the 806T benchmark. This wash appeared to be easy and take us to the same place, so we felt confident about of choice and headed out into the desert. 

distant view of the coxcomb mountains in joshuia tree national park

Coxcomb Mountains from the wash near Hwy 62

The desert floor consisted of soft sand in the washes, and slightly firmer sand elsewhere. Not the hard-packed desert soil I’ve hiked in much of the time in the past, in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Vegetation consisted of low brush, much of it very thorny. No Joshua Trees here on this side of the park. We saw an occasional Prickly Pear and even a Sotol plant. Along the washes were some larger trees, at least compared to the rest of the scrub. 

a tarantula in the coxcomb mountains

Not 10 minutes into the hike, and we saw a tarantula walking around, making it’s way back into it’s hole. This was the first time either Dan or myself had seen one in the wild. It was only about 55 degrees today, and being December I thought most of the snakes and spiders would be laying low somewhere. Cool to see!

coxcomb mountains approach from a sandy wash

 I’m not sure it would have been any easier had we taken the standard route, but walking along the wash east of the outcrop was really easy. We made great time through here. Looking back towards the car, we couldn’t see hwy 62 running through the desert. Pretty quickly you feel isolated here. The mountains around us were really rugged looking, especially compared to the rounded boulders of the iconic Joshua Tree landscape. 

When we reached the point along our route where it intersects with the standard route, right before it heads uphill to Inner Basin Pass, we had a decision to make: camp here, or push on and hope we make it out of the Inner Basin before dark. We’d made great time so far, so we decided to chance it and keep moving. The terrain here remains easy, hiking up a sandy wash as the canyon narrows. I saw a jackrabbit darting through the wash, just about the only wildlife wee’d see this whole trip. 

coxcomb mountains inner basin pass

inner basin view at dusk in the coxcomb mountains

Hiking down the pass into the Inner Basin

Eventually, our route in the sandy wash becomes a boulder climb. Not terribly difficult or long, but a bit of a scramble in spots. Once at the top, it’s actually a bit of a flat plateau. Our first views of the Inner Basin were impressive, but the view is best right before the trail drops down in elevation. 

hiking a sandy wash in the inner basin of the coxcomb mountains

After dropping down into Inner Basin, it was back to an easy walk in a sandy wash. There’s a lot of thorny bushes around to snag clothing, but nothing too thick. The sun was really disappearing now, and the entire basin was shaded at this point. 

When we reached the end of the Inner Basin, there were cairns leading southwest. I was expecting the route to continue southeast and up hill. I could have taken the route I had marked on the map, but I just followed the cairns. The route winded through some narrow canyons and involved a little more boulders. Eventually, we popped out into the large flat area nestled in the heart of the mountains seen from my map. I originally thought this was the Inner Basin, based on the look of it on the map and the piss-poor descriptions available on the web. To be clear, I am talking about the open area on the map at these coordinates: 34.0195, -115.3733. Since this area is not part of the day use area, we started to look for a campsite. It was really windy, so we walked to several outcrops of rocks to see if they provided ample wind break. Wind always seemed to be hitting us no matter where we stood, so we just picked a spot. I had to use my headlamp to finish setting up my tent. The sandy soil was so soft, I had to weigh down my stakes with rocks to keep the tent from blowing over. 

After setting up camp, Dan and I ate dinner. It was 5:30 now and the stars were shining bright already. In fact, we could clearly see the milky way despite competing with the moon’s light. It was also getting pretty cold. Tonight was supposed to get down to near freezing. After shivering in the wind for a while, Dan and I decided to turn in around 6:30. Nights in the desert are long in the winter! 

 

Day 2 – Saturday December 3rd, 2016

Miles Hiked – 10
Elevation Gain – 1671′
I woke up at 5:50 this morning, hoping to get in position for the sunrise. I walked over to Dan’s tent and woke him, but he didn’t get out of his tent by the time I was ready. In fact. he was snoring again. So, I let him sleep while I climbed up rocks behind our camp. 

first light over the coxcomb mountains

Sunrise in the Coxcomb Mountains

coxcomb mountains mountaintop view at sunrise

huge open basin in the coxcomb mountains

My camp is along the base of the rocks I’m on

From my spot on top of the rocks, I had a pretty good view of the large flat basin in which we’re camped. I could tell the sun wasn’t going to be directly in view, but I had had a good spot to capture the glow of light in the distance.

mosaic of colors at sunrise in the coxcomb mountains

coxcomb mountains sunrise

I spent a good while up here taking pictures of the sunrise and enjoying the excellent scenery. This was one of the better views of the whole trip. 

cholla cactus in the coxcomb mountains

Some variety of Cholla Cactus

sun peaking over mountain in the desert

sun shines behind tree on rock in desert

When I returned to camp, Dan was still snoring. Again, I let him be and continued with my search for some good early morning photo ops. Next, I headed southwest from camp to the edge of this flat open area. Here, the map shows a large drop off down to Pinto Basin below. 

view of pinto basin from the coxcomb mountains

View of Pinto Basin and the Pinto Mountains beyond

Once at my destination, I realized most of it lies within the shade currently. maybe this would be better to return to this evening. I took a few pictures here before moving around some, trying to get to a higher vantage point. I bounced around from spot to spot along the tops of the nearby hills, but eventually I gave up on the area and decided to head back to camp. 

Dan still wasn’t up when I returned after 8am now, so I tried waking him again. This time, it worked. After Dan ate breakfast and got ready, we headed out to do some exploring. Today, our plan is to go wherever we feel like going! 

A small cave in the Coxcomb Mountains

sitting inside a small cave in the coxcombs

First, Dan wanted to check out a small cave we saw last night as we exited the Inner Basin area and entered the flat open area we camped in. The cave was a rounded cavity in a rock face, sitting about 8-10ft above the ground. With some effort, it’s possible to climb into it from below.

vibrant sun shines down over the coxcomb mountains

hiking off trail in the coxcomb mountains

Dropping down into the wash below

After this, we headed south across the open flat area. We hiked up over some boulders and dropped down into a wash below. We followed this was downhill for a ways. I had this marked on my map as a potential spot of interest, as the canyon looks like it narrows further down and is flanked by some cliffs ranging from 400′-1200′ plus. Might be worth checking out.

The hike down this wash was pretty easy at first. There were some occasional boulders that needed to be climbed in order to continue along our path. We had no intentions of following this canyon out into the desert, just to follow it for a ways. We didn’t see much of interest here, so we decided to turn back at our first real obstacle. There was a short drop off along the wash that might have been hard to get back up if we had continued down past it, so we figured this was a good turn around point. 

We hiked back uphill and eventually made it back to the spot where we had originally entered the wash. From here, I suggested hiking higher up the same wash. On the satellite maps I saw at home, I saw a sizable patch of green here, which might indicate a spring or seep. Since thee was nothing marked on the map and no info on natural water sources in the Coxcombs online, we decided it might be an interesting destination. 

a class 3 boulder scramble in the coxcomb mountains

Climbing up the rock chute

View north from the rock chute

Dan enjoying himself

At first, our hike was again easy, winding through a sandy wash. Soon enough though, it turned into a boulder climb. This was a fairly long and sometimes challenging scramble, too. There were large boulders here, stacked on top of each other creating huge spaces in between them in which to fall. Sometimes, traversing the boulders meant walking along steep faces of the boulder with little or nothing to grip. A slip could result in a slide down the boulder and then a fall of up to 25ft onto various size and shapes of boulders below. Not exactly a high exposure type danger, but a real risk of injury if one step is out of place. 

green trees in the coxcomb mountains

Lots of green around. I didn’t see water, but this is the closest to it I’ve seen out here

After a tough scramble to the top, there wasn’t much to see. The vegetation was thicker up here, and this meant mostly more thorn bushes. We had already been cut up pretty good during the rest of today’s hike, but the worst of it seemed to be up here. We pushed through the thorn bushes and headed for the spot of green I saw on the satellite map. Once at the spot, we did see a high concentration of some coniferous trees, the exact species, I’m not sure. They were so thick that I couldn’t penetrate them to check for existence of water, either.  

We took a break here in the sun and relaxed for a while. We debated taking another route down, but that would require traversing some steep territory. Who knows what that will look like when we get there. It was early afternoon now and we end to start thinking about heading back to camp. We ultimately decided to take the same route back as we know it’s traversable already. 

Descending the chute

Red rocks. Yup

skull of a big horn sheep sits on boulder in the coxcomb mountains

Big Horn Sheep skull

rugged landscape of the coxcomb mountains

The jagged peaks that surrounded us looked more impressive going down than it did when we went up. It was hard work, but offered up some of the best views of the day. We also saw a big horn sheep skull that we didn’t see on our way up. It had both horns intact. 

campsite in the coxcomb mountains

My campsite

Coming down was a little easier. Before long we were in the sandy wash again and headed back to the place where we entered this wash. We could go over the little ridge we did this morning, or take another route, running northeast from benchmark 927T. We opted for the second choice. This took us back to camp, where we relaxed and rehydrated.

cholla cactus at sunset in the coxcomb mountains

Sunset over the Pinto Basin

It wasn’t long before the sun was on it’s way down again, and fast. We decided to head back to the spot I visited this morning, on the southeast corner of the large open area. It was aonly a 10 minute walk to get there, but when we did the sun was just going down over the Pinto Mountains. It wasn’t the best vantage point base don the angle of the sun, but I snapped a few photos I was happy with. We ate dinner here as we watched the glow of the sun disappear. 

Back at camp, we pretty much mirrored last night: sit on the rocks, watch the stars and chat. By 7pm we were both in bed again, seeking the relative comfort of the tent and the warm it provides. 

 

Day 3 – Sunday December 4th, 2016

Miles Hiked – 7
Elevation Gain – 375′
I woke at 6am this morning, and Dan even woke on the first try. My original plan for today was to bag Tensor and Spectre peaks today on the way back to the car. However, Dan was not really wanting to do that after the climbing we did yesterday. He’d rather get back to the car early and spend the rest of the day driving through Joshua Tree or other areas nearby. While I was really looking forward to the great views from Aqua Peak (the name for Spectre, Tensor and Didiac Peaks), you really can’t go wrong with his plan either. So, I went along with the idea and started packing up my gear. 

Hiking through the Inner Basin

We started hiking at 7am. It was a little warmer last night, and so this morning was easier to get moving. He hiked back towards the elevated cave, then down into the narrow wash leading into the Inner Basin. 

We were able to follow our tracks back through most of the wash, not that that was necessary. The route is very straight forward, just follow the wash through the canyon. There is one large side canyon running northeast, but it’s obviously not the main path. This is the alternate route that’s marked on my caltopo map. I know nothing about this alternate route though, and skipped it because it looked like it would involve more climbing and steeper terrain that we won’t have to deal with if we continue the way we came. 

inner basin coxcomb mountains photography

Looking south into the Inner Basin

coxcomb mountains inner basin pass view

Inner Basin Pass, looking south

shadows of hikers in the coxcomb mountains

Heading out of the Coxcomb Mountains

We made it to the top of Inner Basin pass in good time, and had some nice views of the basin. We continued on down hill through a couple of patches of boulders, but the rest is pretty much sandy wash from here on out. 

Back down in the main wash, we followed it out of the canyon and took the same path we took in two days earlier. We followed our own footsteps on and off as we hiked through the small canyon. I saw another jackrabbit through here, and wondered if it was the same one I saw Friday. It was practically the same area. 

walking through the desert near the coxcomb mountains california

The landscape looked unfamiliar as we returned, as we now had a huge open desert in front of us. On Friday, all that was at our back and we only saw it as we turned back. It was nice to have this contrast as we left the mountains and now entered the desert. 

desert hiking panorama in the coxcomb mountains joshua tree national park

The final stretch of desert had us talking about our dreams of a hot lunch. It took a while to actually spot hwy 62. The car was parked behind some boulders along side the road where others had clearly camped, and we headed for a graffitied rock that marked the spot. We were relieved to see that the car had not been broken into. The time was just before 10am, so almost a 3 hour hike from our camp. 

From here, we headed back into 29 Palms and ate ate the Andreas restaurant. Good burgers, they really hit the spot! After this, we headed into Joshua Tree National Park on Utah Drive road to explore the park by car. 

 

Final Thoughts About Hiking In The Coxcomb Mountains

The Coxcomb Mountains are a great place for a weekend hike, provided you’re OK with hauling in all the water you’ll need. Without a reliable water source though, longer trips aren’t really possible here. It doesn’t look like this place gets much use. The access probably keeps many people away, as well as the day use restriction in what might otherwise be the best camping spot.

 

As always, questions and comments are welcome!

If you found my trip report useful, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment! Alternatively, if you feel you have any information you’d like to share with others regarding this hike, please feel free to leave that below in a comment as well.


10 Day Sierra Loop Hike – Kings Canyon NP & John Muir Wilderness – Aug 2016

bear basin panorama from dancing bear pass

Kings Canyon National Park & John Muir Wilderness 10 Day Loop Hike Starting From Florence Lake

All Photos From This hikeWatch the HD video of my Sierra hike on Youtube

 

Kings Canyon/John Muir Wilderness Loop Hike Maps & GPS Files

Total distance: 89.02 mi
Max elevation: 12372 ft
Min elevation: 7375 ft
Total climbing: 25453 ft
Total descent: -25443 ft
Download

 

Pre-Hike Travel Logistics

To access the Sierras, one typically enters on the east of west side. People have mentioned using the town of Bishop as access from the east, but I chose to fly into Fresno, rent a car, and drive in from the west.

There are few direct flights to Fresno, so from Detroit I had to stop in Dallas. The problem was, bad weather in the Dallas area when it was time to leave, lots of red on the radar. We sat on the tarmac in Detroit for an hour before taking off, then we got diverted to a small airport in rural Arkansas to wait on the tarmac there for another 2 hours. Apparently, the entire DFW airport had closed down for a while due to the storm. By the time I landed in Dallas, pretty much all the flights had been cancelled. Great, gotta call the car rental company and change my reservation, as well as try to cancel tonight’s hotel in Fresno.

Now the real “fun” began… dealing with American Airline’s customer service. Calling them is a 2+ hour wait, and they suggest to leave your name and number and be called back later. Meanwhile, I waited in an hour long line to talk to an AA agent at one of the gates. I was given another flight to Fresno tomorrow morning at 10:37am, the earliest they had. I’m still optimistic at this point, thinking I could still get to Fresno, rent the car, get last minute supplies, drive to Florence Lake and hike a few miles in without wasting a whole day.

dfw airport yoga area

This is where I slept in DFW

Now I’m left with the task of finding somewhere to sleep. Since the cancellation is due to weather, American Airlines doesn’t offer any kind of compensation for the delays and you’re basically shit out of luck. All the hotels inside the airport are booked. Sleeping in the chairs was not working for me, and the armrests prevented you from laying down on them as well. They did bring out cots, but at a 1 to 20 person ratio. I didn’t get one. In fact, I spent 4 hours walking all the terminals looking for a decent place to sleep, and eventually found a yoga area that had a few yoga mats. I stacked a few of these up and at least had some cushion for the cement ground. All night people were coming into this little yoga area and I could hear them murmur “ah shit”, as they realized it was taken, just as I did for 4 hours prior.

In the morning, the plane was 5 minutes from boarding and all of the sudden there was a 20 minute delay. Every time I checked back, there was another small delay added. By this time, people were getting upset as there had been no announcement as to the reason. In order to get information, I had to wait in another 1 hour line to speak with someone. The American Airlines agents kept giving me different information and the delays kept getting longer. Finally after a 3.5 hour delay, the plane boarded and I was on my way to Fresno. On the plane, my seat didn’t lean back and the charging plug underneath the seat didn’t work. The flight attendant said “old plane”. American Airlines, you gotta step up your game! Why do I even fly with you?

In Fresno, I got my rental car and headed to my hotel. I did the “name your price” thing with priceline, and got a room nearby. The room ended up being a smoking room, and there were no other rooms available. I had no idea that smoking rooms were on the table when I bid on a room. I had to sit in this ashtray of a room all night before the hike. Disgusting.

 

Day 1 – Sunday August 21st, 2016

Miles Hiked – 12.49
Elevation Gain – 1976′
Route – Florence Lake to Evolution Valley/Goddard Canyon Junction

Coming from Fresno this morning, I drove to the ranger station in Pranther to pick up my permit. I had called them yesterday morning to let them know that my flight was cancelled and that I could not make my intended start date, and to try and push that date back by one day. The rangers they have working there at that station are great. They accommodated my request and were very nice to deal with all round.

I took hwy 168 to Huntington Lake, where I took Kaiser Pass Rd the remainder of the way to Florence Lake. The road is fine all the way up to Kaiser Pass Rd. From Huntington Lake, it’s about 23 miles to Florence Lake along a one lane road. This road happens to a cliff on one side much of the way, along with blind curves and blind hills every couple hundred yards. Some sections where really rough and had lots of loose gravel. There were few areas to pull off and let opposing traffic through as the non-cliff side of the road was often also a rockface itself. This was a white knuckle drive to say the least. It will take at least 1 hour to drive from Huntington Lake to Florence Lake. But, it’s totally feasible for any small car. My Chevy Sonic rental made it just fine.

view of the florence lake trailhead parking lot

Florence Lake Trailhead parking lot

The trailhead parking at Florence Lake was much busier than I expected. I was lucky to find what appeared to be the last parking space. I had about 20 minutes before the 10:30am ferry leaves to take me from the northwest side of the lake to the southeast side. This saves about 4 miles of hiking from what I am told. I bought my ticket for one way across the lake, unsure of what I’ll be doing on the way back and what time I’ll be making it to the ferry. As of 2016, the ticket prices are $25 round trip and $13 one way. When picking up my backpack to walk over to the ferry, one of the straps holding the top compartment down broke off. Great, not how I want to start a hike.

florence lake

View of Florence Lake from the north side

The ferry across the lake was on a little boat that fit 8 people, 4 across two rows of benches. The captain of the boat was a skinny kid who looked about 25. He was wearing what looked like a 10 year old girl’s shirt with some home made hearts on it. Interesting thing for a guy to be wearing, but who am I to judge. There were two forest rangers on the boat with us, and they checked our permits during the ride. The boat ride across the lake took no more than 15 minutes or so. The boat lands at slab of rock with a floating dock. It’s a short uphill climb to get a lay of the land in front of you from here. I stopped to readjust my shoes and pack, and realized that I had forgotten my phone in the car. Bummer, no music this hike, but I’ll be fine without it.

old truck on south shore of florence lake

South side of Florence Lake looking north. Not sure why this truck is here, but it was gone when I returned 10 days later.

a meadow near florence lake

I began hiking around 11:15am today. As always, the first mile is pretty tough. My pack is at it’s heaviest, 56 pounds including 4 liters of water, and I’m not yet acclimated to the elevation. There were a lot of small ups and downs in the beginning as well. Regardless, I was making good time and eager to get out of the rather unimpressive lowlands. There were likely some better views from the meadows, where Muir Ranch and Blaney Hot Springs are for example, but on the trail the views were minimal.

Within the first 2 hours or so, I developed a blister on my heel. Before the hike, I was looking to replace my Inov8 Roclite 315 trail runners, but was disappointed to learn that model was discontinued. I settled for the next closest thing, the Roclite 295. My 315s required no break in, and so besides trying the 295s on to confirm the fit, I did not really test these shoes out. Big mistake! Although I don’t think this was the problem causing the blisters, I also noticed the shoe had a coarser mesh allowing much more debris into the shoe. This trail was pretty sandy so far, and I was getting tons of it in my shoes. These are just not the kind of problems I want to be dealing with, let alone on day one.

The skies had clouded over now, with rain looking very possible later. I’ve been seeing a lot of people on the trail so far, but all going the opposite direction. The trail gets a little more scenic after passing Blaney Hot Springs and Muir Trail Ranch. There’s a steep trail heading up to Seldon Pass just east of Muir Trail Ranch, which I took on my return on day 10. About 1.3 miles east of here is the official JMT/PCT route up to Seldon Pass. These two routes merge together about 600ft up, so either way, you’re going to reach the same place.

The landscape opened up a bit and the super fine dirt and sand on the trail seemed to subside. This was more akin to my style of hiking. Sometime around 2pm, it started to rain. I put on my rain jacket and covered my pack, but it was pretty light and so I left the rain pants off. The rain was very light and intermittent for a couple of hours, and was not too big a deal.

san joquin river near piute creek

Small waterfall along the San Jaquin River

Small waterfall along the San Jaquin River

I crossed the bridge over the Piute River and entered Kings Canyon National Park. From here, the canyon narrows and is a nice change of pace. There were few tress in this canyon and the trail was mostly rock now, much better!

kings canyon national park san jaquin river

When I made it to the point on the map labeled “Aspen Meadows”, I didn’t see any meadows. I did see a campsite, but it didn’t offer much of a view and I decided to keep moving. About a mile and a half further, there was another campsite. While there were multiple sites here, several were taken and I would be camping a little too close to others. I kept moving once again.

The next potential campsite location was at the junction of Evolution Valley and Goddard Canyon, just south of the point where Evolution Creek and the South Fork San Joaquin River intersect. I figured there’d be some people here, and sure enough, I was right. I crossed the bridge over the South Fork San Joaquin River and scouted the east side of the river. More people. I eventually found a spot, but it offered no view and no immediate access to water. This is it, even if I have to walk a little ways to get my water. I saw 2 deer near camp while searching for it.

campsite along the john muir trail along the san jaquin river

I set up my tent and got started on water. For this trip I have a new water filtration system, a Platypus GravityWorks setup. The jist of it is, you scoop up your dirty water into this 4L bag, then carry it back to your campsite where you can hang it from a tree or set it on a rock. The bottom of the dirty water bag has a quick connect fitting, where you connect the a hose leading into the filter, which empties out another hose as a clean water via gravity. I can remove the bite valve on my 3L Platypus bladder in my backpack and with a connector fitting, connect the GravityWorks hose to the bladder. No need to remove the bladder anymore from my backpack when filling it, and never have to open it during a hike. Just keep the dirty water bag above the container used to store your clean water and let gravity work for you while you do other stuff. This thing filters fast too. I didn’t time it, but it was about 1L per minute.  After filling the bladder, I can then fill my water bottle (32oz gatorade bottle). I keep extra water in the dirty bag by clamping the little shut-off valve closed on the hose below the filter.

After water, it was on to fixing the broken strap on my backpack’s top compartment. The strap is attached by being inserted into a hole in the corner of the top compartment, and then sewed in place. Since I had no needle and thread, I used super glue. I put some glue on both side of the strap, inserted it into the hole it came out of, and used my fingers to clamp it together for a while. Yes, I got super glue all over my fingers. It took a couple of days to wear it all off. The repair seemed to be working well after a few minutes, but I let it sit overnight.

Even though I could have had a fire tonight since I was still below 10,000ft, I didn’t. Instead, I went to bed shortly after sundown. My heels were pretty sore and I was really wondering how I’m going to make it another 9 days without doing too much more damage. Oh well, no choice!

Day 2 – Monday August 22nd, 2016

Miles Hiked – 10.46
Elevation Gain – 2649′
Route – Evolution Valley/Goddard Canyon Junction to McGee Lake

It rained a little bit last night around 3am, so my tent was wet this morning. I was going to be slow at packing up my stuff this morning anyways as it certainly takes a few days to get my routine polished. I put some moleskin over my blisters and covered them with Ace sports tape. I was on the trail by 8:30 this morning.

The skies were pretty clear at this morning and I had high hopes of good weather. The trail starts climbing up some switchbacks immediately after leaving camp, literally within 20ft or so of camp. Nothing like an 800ft climb to get the blood pumping in the morning!

Lower Evolution Creek

Lower Evolution Creek

waterfall along evolution creek

Waterfall along Evolution Creek

Once near the top, the trail hugs the banks of Evolution Creek on and off as it tumbles over a few waterfalls. There are more people now, and there’s a sense of wonder among them. Hikers are moving slower and taking their time. And, many of them are older. I didn’t see so many people here under 40 it as I somewhat expected and planned, with school starting around this time.

There was a ford of Evolution Creek that required getting wet. Fortunately, the creek was very mellow here and barely knee deep at the max. I stopped on the other side for a snack and talked to a few nice people. Many of the hikers seem to be local Californians, and well familiar with the area. At least, the popular areas. I mentioned my plans to visit Ionian Basin, but many had not heard of it. That tells me I’m going to the right place!

view southwest from evolution meadow in kings canyon national park

Evolution Meadow

After the water crossing, the trail passes through a mix of forest and meadows. The meadows were pretty nice, and would make a great place to camp. There’s a ranger station in McClure Meadow, right off the trail. I didn’t stop in to see if it was manned, but it looked like it could have been in operation still. I saw some pack llamas on the trail in this section as well.

view of The Hermit from the John Muir Trail in Evolution Valley

The Hermit

Eventually, The Hermit came into view. This marks the entrance to McGee Canyon. When I reached the Evolution Creek and McGee Creek, I did not see any time of trail leading into the canyon. I was pretty surprised as this is supposed to be a very popular area (Evolution, not McGee). I just assumed the nearby canyons would all have some sort of use trail at the very least.

I headed off-trail for the first time this trip towards McGee Canyon. After hiking through a small field I was at Evolution Creek at what appeared to be the perfect crossing, despite the lack of trails or tracks here. A tree spanned the width of the creek allowing for a quick and easy crossing. On the south side of Evolution Creek now, the land starts heading uphill into McGee Canyon. I headed towards McGee Creek so I’d have something to follow and started the climb up.

Waiting out the rain

Waiting out the rain

Shortly after my ascent into McGee Canyon, around 12:15pm, it started to rain. A sprinkle at first, then it started picking up. I stopped to don my rain gear, and thought I might wait a few minutes under a couple of pine trees to see if it cleared up. It didn’t. Instead, the storm intensified with a display of hail, thunder and lightning. I decided to abandon my pine trees and head for more solid cover. I found a large boulder with an overhang that allowed me to stand underneath without getting wet. I ended up waiting around until around 2pm until the rain let up. I was getting pretty cold just sitting around, and was glad to get moving.

I continued uphill with grey, dreary skies above. There was no trail still, at least on the east side of McGee Creek. I crossed it for the first time around 10,250ft, but didn’t see a trail here either. The climb up to this was only 450+ feet, but felt like much more. My feet were soaked at this point.

mcgee canyon view of mountain peaks and creek

Mt. McGee & Peter Peak from McGee Canyon

Out of the forest and into the meadows now, the views were more to my liking. I followed the creek upstream through a soggy meadow, with increasingly impressive mountains revealing themselves as I drew closer. Patches of snow remain on Mt. McGee. It was  very nice to look at, but the going was a little slow through this area as the best path through here seemed to cross the creek often.

mcgee canyon below the lakes

Climbing up to McGee Lakes

At the south end of the meadow where it starts to climb uphill, I stayed west of the creek(s). There is still no trail visible though here that I’ve seen. After another 450+ft climb, I reached the first lake in the chain. Great views, more scenic than I was anticipating for this area.

lower mcgee lake

mcgee lake shoreline

McGee Lake 10,816

After leaving the first lake behind, I noticed a faint trail around the lake, which I followed. I’m fairly close to camp now and done with the hardest part of the day, so it was time to slow down a bit and take some pictures around these lakes. I just wish the sun was out, the grey skies weren’t helping my cause.

mcgee lake campsite

mountains reflecting in the water of mcgee alke

McGee Lake reflection

I eventually found a place to camp on the little peninsula between upper and lower McGee Lakes. After doing all my camp shores I headed down to the lake to do some fishing. I had seen some small brook trout in here on my way to camp. The sun was out now too, and I was feeling pretty good. I had a couple of bites on my mepps #2. but unfortunately I didn’t catch anything. Oh well, I wasn’t expecting much out of this lake fishing wise. The better-than-expected views and lack of people her more than make up for it. I haven’t seen anyone since leaving Evolution Valley.

The blisters on my heels didn’t get any worse today, and were much less of a problem with the moleskin and sports tape. Without the tape, the moleskin always falls off after a couple of hours as my feet sweat and the moleskin gets rubbed out of place. This is the first time I’ve used it in conjunction with that sports tape and so far, it’s working.

Not much of an appetite yet, even though I was hungry earlier. I ate what I could and headed to bed at sunset.

 

Day 3 – Tuesday August 23rd, 2016

Miles Hiked – 4.32
Elevation Gain – 1323′
Route – McGee Lake to Lake 11,196

mcgee lake panorama view mountains reflecting in lake

McGee Lake

It was an amazingly calm night last night with zero wind. I expected it to be windy out here on this peninsula. But the lack of wind came with a cost… lots of condensation in my tent this morning. It was a nice clear morning, and I took some extra time to let my tent dry out a little.

Today I plan to hike to Ionian Basin. The Davis Lakes side of Pass 11,720 didn’t look like a sane option, so I planned to work my way up towards Davis Lakes Pass from McGee Lakes. It looks a lot easier than Pass 11,720 itself. Then I will hike around Davis Lakes, through Goddard Basin, down to Martha Lake, over Goddard Col and over to Scylla. At least, that’s the plan.

 

After leaving camp there were some excellent views, with the mountains reflecting in the blue water. Ah, I love the high country! I took my time around the last bit of Upper McGee lake.

Going up my first pass. One of the many false summits above

One of the many false summits above

When it was time to confront the first uphill battle of the day, it didn’t look so bad at all. A grassy hill with some occasional boulders. Of course, the higher I climbed the less grass there was, and eventually it was almost all boulders.

unnamed lake in upper mcgee canyon with clouds reflecting in blue water

Unnamed lake below Pass 11,720

It was about 400ft up to the next small lake, and another 100ft to yet another lake. The higher lake, at 11,276ft, had a spectacular reflection on it that showcased the puffy while clouds above in contrast to the turquoise blue water. Really beautiful, and basically a “nothing” on the map.

clouds reflecting in alpine lake

The next section of my route takes me up to the small lake just north of point 12,262. It’s a climb of almost 500ft over boulders and large sections of granite slabs. More excellent views along the way up. I reached the top of the pass, just northeast of point 12,262, at 10:45am. From here, my view was mainly to the east/southeast towards Wanda Lake.

Davis Lakes

Davis Lakes

After a 30 minute break I moved on. From here, I had to work my way around some boulders that form a ridgeline running south/southeast from point 12,262. The pass I’m on now isn’t named, but the ridgeline I took drops me down to Davis Lake Pass. This looked like the best way over to Davis Lake from McGee Lake. On the HST map, viewing the cross country passes in the Sierras, there is a pass that more directly connects McGee Lake and Davis Lake directly called Pass 11,720. It’s labeled a class 2 route, but from the looks of the counter lines, I was extremely skeptical.

off trail hiking through boulder field

My terrible choice of route down Davis Pass

Along the ridgeline is a series of ups and downs. I didn’t follow the ridgeline far enough south to the low point at Davis Lake Pass, where the route down to Lake 11,1196 is the most gentle. Instead I started heading down sooner, eager to get out of this boulder field. The route I chose down was steep and time consuming. There were many loose boulders and treacherous chutes to traverse. I should have just continued south on the ridge a little farther! The sky was also clouding up fast, I’ll have to keep an eye on that.

trash balloon found in the sierra mountains

Along the way down, I found a balloon that had the following written on it; “Go Dodgers”, “RIP Eddie” and “Miss you bud”, along with a date of 9-23-1993. Wow, these balloons sure do last a long time. So, friend of Eddie, next time you release a balloon into the sky, remember that it might end up somewhere like this.

The route down was long and tiring. To be honest, I felt “off” today. The scenery was great, but I was just having a hard time moving. Sure I was tired, but it was more of a mental thing. I guess I just didn’t feel like kicking my own ass today on this tough terrain. I still had a long way to go to my planned campsite, and it was already going on 1pm. It was around this time when it began to sprinkle. Now I really wanted to get a move on, but of course, there’s no shelter up here.

Now it was time to make some decisions. Strong storms look imminent now, so I’ll be very exposed with little or no shelter all day if I continue. I’ve heard Ionian Basin gets a lot of lightning and is a frightening place to be during a storm. If I do continue, it’s probably going to be pretty slow going, and I might not make it to Scylla tonight. I decided my best bet is to set up my tent for now and see if the storm passes quickly.

campsite near davis lake

storm clouds over lake 11196 in kings canyon national park

Storm looms over Lake 11,196

I hurried around Lake 11,196 looking for a place to set up my tent, and found a spot on the southwest side. There were a couple of other people camping on the southeast side of the lake as well. After getting my tent up, it rained on and off all afternoon. During this time I tried to do some repairs to my gear. One of the straps broke on my water shoes, so I repaired it with 550 cord. I added some carabiners to the bottom of my backpack on the outside so I had some way to keep my rain fly in place and taught.

Later in the afternoon I took shelter inside the tent for about an hour as heavy rain/hail, thunder and lightning pounded the area. Hail was piling up around the tent after it slid off, and it was starting to accumulate. I had a feeling it was going to storm heavily (as the weather indicated a few days ago), and I think I made the right call by staying put.

glacier on the goddard divide

Goddard Divide

At this point I knew I was done hiking for the day. My new plan is to skip Ionian Basin. Instead, tomorrow I’ll go over the same pass I went over today, Davis Lkaes Pass, but will be taking a better route this time. Once at the top, instead of following that ridgeline, I’ll just go right over and drop down to Wanda Lake where I’ll pick up the PCT/JMT. I’ll follow that through Evolution Basin and over to Darwin Bench, where I planned to camp on night 5 anyways. I’ll be there a day early, which gives me wiggle room with the rest of my hike. I’m liking this plan, as I typically create a route and almost never deviate from it. I was disappointed in myself for not completing the route I set out to do, but at the same time, happy that I have some extra time to play with.

davis lake sunset sierras

stormy looking clouds at sunset in the sierras

After the rain let up, the sky still didn’t clear. Storms loomed in the distance and the weather was still looking rather questionable. It stayed this way until I went to bed. The sunset was nice, with some reds illuminating the storm clouds.  I hope this weather moves out by tomorrow.

 

Day 4- Wednesday August 24th, 2016

Miles Hiked – 7.7
Elevation Gain – 1372′
Route – Lake 11,196 to Darwin Bench

Reflection over lake 11,196

Reflection on lake 11,196

The storm seemed to vanish shortly after bed last night. It was very clam again, and there was a lot of condensation inside my tent again this morning. The sky was clear this morning, and I had a good feeling about today.

After breaking camp I headed around Lake 11,196 towards Davis Lakes Pass. I passed by the other group of hikers at camp who were set up on the southeast side of the lake. The terrain immediately before the route goes uphill is basically a flood plain, with various streams running through it. Combined with the rain yesterday, everything through here was drenched. Gotta love wet feet first thing in the morning.

Hiking up Davis Lakes Pass, looking back towards Lake 11,196 and Davis Lake

Hiking up Davis Lakes Pass, looking back towards Lake 11,196 and Davis Lake

The route up was much easier here than it was going down yesterday. Not only is the terrain less steep, but the route is a little shorter and doesn’t climb as high. There were still a lot of large boulders to contend with and some hard work, but I made great time going up nonetheless. There was another guy at the top when I arrived, although he was a little farther the ridgeline I traversed yesterday.

Wanda Lake from Davis Lakes Pass

Wanda Lake

wanda lake along the john muir trail

Wanda Lake

 

I stopped to eat some snacks real quick and kept moving. The path down to Wanda Lake was much easier than the Davis Lake side. The PCT/JMT runs along the east side of Wanda Lake, so I made my way towards the northern end of the lake and picked up the trail near the outlet.

hiking into evolution basin

Evolution Basin

Next, I headed north through Evolution Basin. I started to see a lot of people now. Almost every person I saw today was hiking south. Good views and easy trail to follow. Mostly downhill all the way to Evolution Lake too. I stopped several times to eat along the trail this morning, as I was in no rush today.

view of sapphire lake in kings canyon national park

Sapphire Lake

I passed by Sapphire Lake which was nice. The trail runs high above the lake though, at least until the northern end of the lake. Here, it drops down to lake level as it rounds the final bend before reaching Evolution Lake.

evolution lake looking north

South end of Evolution Lake looking north

The first views of Evolution Lake from the south end are nice. I stopped here for a snack. I was actually eating today, at least in small doses. The jagged peaks of Mt. Mendel and Mt. Darwin to the east were impressive.

Middle of Evolution Lake looking south

Middle of Evolution Lake looking south

The middle section of Evolution Lake nice too, but less impressive than the southern side. There weren’t many established campsites in this area. I passed by a couple of rangers, I believe, on horseback with a team of horses in tow, carrying gear. Looked like they were going to do some trail maintenance. Well, my feet could use some maintenance. The blister on my right heel seemed to be getting worse. I’ll deal with that later when I get to camp.

evolution lake panorama

North end of Evolution Lake looking south

Evolution Lake

Evolution Lake

The northern end of Evolution Lake is where it’s at. There were more people here hanging out around the lake as this appeared to be the best view of all. I’m glad I got to see the lake since I didn’t get to see Ionian Basin. This would definitely be the spot to camp, if you can stand camping near a ton of other people. Me, I’m headed up to Darwin Bench today.

evolution valley overlook

Overlooking Evolution Valley

Hiking up to Darwin Bench

Hiking up to Darwin Bench

view from darwin bench

View from lower Darwin Bench

After passing the lake, I knew I’d have to start climbing uphill soon. I wasn’t sure what to expect for an existing trail leading up to Darwin Bench, but I figured there had to be something. I was right. At the last moment before the trail starts heading down some switchbacks, there’s a very obvious trail junction with a path leading up to Darwin Bench. It quickly peters out though, and you’re left with a very faint, but super manageable path uphill. There’s probably a couple of different paths up at this point, and it really doesn’t matter which way you take as long as you follow the creek uphill. There’s an occasional cairn marking the way through this section.

Lower Darwin Bench looking north

Lower Darwin Bench looking north

darwin bench campsite

Beautiful scenery near the top of the hike up Darwin Bench and all throughout this area. I didn’t see anyone up here once I reached the lower lake, so I decided to set up camp on the east side. There’s a nice spot with some decent cover and good views. It was only about 1:15pm now, so I still had a lot of time left to enjoy the day.

When I went down to the lake to get water, I noticed the bottom had a lot of algae. The lake was shallow around the shoreline here on east side of the lake. I was careful to not stir any up as I filled my bag. On the way back to my campsite, I noticed a backpack hanging over the edge of a rockface by a trekking pole. Huh, I wonder how long that’s been there.

After getting water and doing some other camp chores, I headed off to explore the lake a little. First things first, though. I need a bath! I passed a couple of small waterfall pools along the way up the creek that looked enticing, and that’s where I headed.

My view while I washed up in the creek

My view while I washed up in the creek

At the waterfall pool, a scared away a bunch of small trout as I entered the water. It was cold, but nice to clean off. Definitely one of the most scenic places I’ve ever bathed. No soap in these creeks, of course, just rinsing off. It’s amazing how much better that makes me feel out here. The cold water really gets your blood pumping, even long after getting out of the water.

After cleaning up, I headed up to the lake outlet where I saw some small trout earlier. These guys are really alert though, and they know you’re coming from a mile away. I had a bite, but didn’t catch anything. They mostly ignored everything I threw at them, which was just Mepps spinners and rooster tails. Oh, and a Crickhopper, which normally slays bass here in Michigan. But they ignored that too.

Defeated, I headed off to get some pictures of this beautiful area. There were a couple of small hills and high points near the southerly edge of the bench that I gravitated towards.

After exhausting my stay down by the lake I retreated to my campsite for the evening. Today was a really good day all around. I sat around camp all evening in awe of where I was. When the sun set, I followed suit.

 

Day 5 – Thursday August 25th, 2016

Miles Hiked – 7
Elevation Gain – 1650′
Route – Darwin Bench to Muriel Lake

I slept pretty poorly for the first few hours last night, but much better the second half. Once again, more condensation in my tent this morning and a very calm night. At least the weather is predictable here.

Today my plan is to go over Alpine Col and over to Tomahawk Lake, if I make it that far. While packing up my gear, I noticed 2 guys climbing up a steep rock chute right above my camp. They were just dots at this point, but I could see them up there and hear the rocks tumble down as they made their way up. I wonder if they were climbing Mt. Mendel?

Darwin Bench, around 11,250'

Darwin Bench, around 11,250′

 

After leaving camp, the trail follows the lake briefly. There is a trail here around the lower lake on Darwin Bench, but north of the lake there’s a ton of streams that converge here and in this chaos, the trail is lost. I’d bet there’s one leading off into Darwin Canyon and up over Lamarck Col, but I did not see a trail for the rest of the day after this point along my route up and over Alpine Col.

Route up to Lake 11,540

picture of lake 11540 in the sierra mountains

Lake 11,540

Looking down upon Darwin Bench from Lake 11,540

Looking down on Darwin Bench from Lake 11,540

After passing the area where all the streams converge, it was time to find a line up to lake 11,540. It’s a climb of about 250′ up some rocks slabs, choked with a little vegetation. I ended up following the creek flowing out of lake 11,540 up the hill. Near the top though, the path along the creek becomes narrow and was no longer the easiest route up. I skirted the hillside to the east and climbed over some rocks to reach the top and gain my first view of lake 11,540.

Lake 11,540 reflection

Lake 11,540 reflection

This is the section that forced me uphill

This is the section that forced me uphill

While I did not check out the north/west side of lake 11,540, the south/east side appeared to be the best path. However, along the northeast side of the lake I ran into a bit of a snag. The path along the shoreline abruptly stops due to a cliff butting up to the lake itself, with no way around it other than backtracking a bit and climbing up and over it. Without any other option, I reluctantly headed up the steep mountainside looking for a route around the cliff.

Lowering my pack while down climbing the slopes along lake 11,540

Lowering my pack while down climbing the slopes along lake 11,540

The climb around the cliff was not as easy as I’d hoped. It was steep and there was no obvious line around it. I was working my way along a narrow path along a cliff when that dropped down to a lower section, requiring me to remove my pack and lower it down. Then, without my bulky pack on, I was able to maneuver around this obstacle and keep going. Much of the talus was loose here due to the grade of the slope. At one point, I stepped on a rock that moved, causing my foot to slip and my leg then became wedged in between two rocks. I lost my balance and fell over, with my leg pinned between the rocks. This caused a large scrape on my leg, but it could have snapped my leg had I fallen the other way. Whew.

Eventually I made it around the cliff and back down to the lake. Looking back the way I came along the shoreline, it was only a couple hundred feet of cliff along the shore that I had to work my way around, but it took much, much longer than I thought it would. The depth of the lake next to this cliff only appeared to be a couple of feet deep at the max, but there was no avoiding getting in the water. Because of this I chose to go up and around the cliff. Looking back though, I would seriously consider just getting in the damn lake and walking along the cliff. Keep this in mind when moving through this area.

In between Lake 11,540 and Lake 11,546 looking northeast

In between Lake 11,540 and Lake 11,546 looking east

My route now passes in between lake 11,540 and lake 11,546. Good views through this stretch. It may have been possible to setup a one man tent here, but of course, I had more distance to cover today. Just a thought for someone passing through here.

The route up to Lake 11,910

The route up to Lake 11,910

Looking back at Lake 11,546 & 11,540

Looking back at Lake 11,546 & 11,540

Past the section in between the two lakes, my route then climbs about 400′ up to lake 11,910. This section featured some really large slabs of granite. Higher up, pools of melt water lay in the shadows with small pockets of snow alongside them.

lake 11910 viewed from the south looking north

Lake 11,910

Amazing that this sandy beach exists here among an otherwise boulder-filled shoreline

Amazing that this sandy beach exists here among an otherwise boulder-filled shoreline

About halfway through the eastern side of lake 11,910 there was a small sandy beach. The water was crystal clear and had a tropical look to it. Stunning, actually. But no time to stop and enjoy this, or those no-see-ums will have chewed my arms and legs down to the bone.

It only gets worse from here

It only gets worse from here

Almost the entire hike from the midway point around lake 11,910 on to lower Goethe Lake consisted of boulder hopping. These boulders were manageable along the lake, but as I’d find out later going over Alpine Col, this was nothing in comparison to the large boulders on the Goethe Lakes side. There were tons of no-see-ums in this stretch too, and they were relentless.

My route up

My route up

Lake 11,910

Lake 11,910

view of lake 11910 while hiking up alpine col

Looking down on Lake 11,910

Now on the northern side of lake 11,910, it was finally time to start heading up Alpine Col. I had read some notes about going over this pass before heading out here. Those notes basically said to angle up above some small sections of grass before you’re directly underneath the pass. From there, you’ll see 3 rock faces with sections of talus in between them. Choose the one on the right. From there, the path to the top is relatively straightforward. Those notes seemed to be spot on for me.

hiker on top of alpine col in the sierras

At the top of Alpine Col

Looking down on upper Goethe Lake from Alpine Col

Looking down on upper Goethe Lake from Alpine Col

On the top of Alpine Col, I rested for a while and took this opportunity to refuel. Awesome views from the top in both directions. From Alpine Col, you can’t help but feel isolated and alone. There were no use trails here and  almost no signs of human intervention.

goethe lakes side of alpine col, near the top

Looking back up at Alpine Col

huge boulders on goethe lakes side of alpine col

Now it’s time to descend Alpine Col to Goethe Lakes. The path down was a nightmare. Giant boulders everywhere, and steep in several sections. These boulders ranged in size from a beach ball to a large SUV. Imagine the space in between a couple of SUV sized boulders piled up together. Negotiating these boulders required a lot of patience and care with every step. I normally have my camera hanging from my neck when I hike, but I had to put it away going down Alpine Col. I didn’t want it bouncing around and getting in the way, or falling and breaking it. As a result I got few pictures through here. Most of the ones I’m posting through this section are snapshots from my GoPro footage.

Steep drop off around 12,000'

Steep drop off around 12,000′

The top section was very steep and required some time to find a feasible line down. The best route appears to be one that angles left on the way down, as the right has even larger boulders. Dark clouds were building above the pass and it looked like it could potentially rain. The next section was not as steep as the route I just descended, but the boulders provided no relief in the difficulty of the route. Around the 12,000′ mark, there’s a steeper drop off of about 200′. If you go right, it looks even steeper and the boulders look larger. So naturally, I went left.

Coming down a rock chute

Coming down a rock chute

steep rock chute on goethe lakes side of alpine col

Looking back up the rock chute I came down

Now working my way west along the 12,000′ mark, I began to realize that this route is not very good either. It was more of the same, large boulders and steep slopes. At one point, the only way I could see to continue was to traverse this section of slick rock which happened to be sitting above a rather large drop off. Water was running down a section of rock a couple of feet wide, with algae on it making it very slippery. I didn’t dare walk across it standing up, but I did need to cross this area to keep going. By crab crawling on all fours I was able to cross this slick rock. That worked, but lead me to a steep rock chute shortly after. This was the only way down from where I was, and so I had no choice but to traverse it. Each step knocked rocks down the chute and caused me to slide down hill.

I continued west along my line around the 12,000′ mark for quite a while looking for a feasible route down. I started angling downhill and west, and ended up hiking over the first moraine shown on the map west of Alpine Col, farther than I wanted to go. After that I came to a another steep chute that was very loose. This one was even looser than the last one, and as a result the remaining rocks in the chute were smaller. This allowed me to turn sideways, dig in my heels and just do a controlled slide down. I got a lot of debris in my shoes from this, but it was the only way down. It appeared I was done with the worst of the descent from Alpine Col now, but definitely not done with boulder hopping just yet. I still had a ways to go to the lake, and a sea of boulders was strewn across my route as far as the eye could see.

goethe lake

The only patch of grass for miles

view of alpine col from goethe lake

East side of Goethe Lake looking back at Alpine Col on the left

Finally, I made it to upper Goethe Lake. I let out a loud victory cry, unable to hold back my enthusiasm for being off the pass. Even though I reached a small section of grass, the terrain moving forward appeared to be more of the same large boulders piled around the lake.  I stopped and dropped my pack on one of the boulders near the lake and took a break. More of a mental break than a physical one, although I was dog tired too. Think about the mental strain that comes with needing to make sure every step is right for hours on end. That’s one thing you really can’t prepare for. It was really nice to be able to relax my mind for a couple of minutes here. Having just gone through the roughest section of my entire hike, I didn’t seem to mind the no-see-ums as much on this side of the lake as I did by lake 11,910.

East side of upper Goethe Lake

East side of upper Goethe Lake

Traversing Goethe Lake. That's Mt. Humphreys beyond lower Goethe Lake in the distance

Traversing Goethe Lake. That’s Mt. Humphreys beyond lower Goethe Lake in the distance

goethe lake shoreline

I was glad to be done with the worst of it, but looking at the terrain ahead of me, it was clear that I was not out of the woods yet. The general consensus online was to take the west side of Goethe Lakes, as the east side has huge boulders. The east side was still a pain in the ass.

I guess there is no good way down Alpine Col on the Goethe Lakes side, from what I can tell. I think that many who have done Alpine Col and wrote about it online have done it in times when there was more snow, quite possibly making this route easier. Make no mistake, this route is NOT for the faint of heart. I’m not saying this route should be avoided altogether as it’s totally feasible with the right experience and mind set, but do not even think about doing this route if you have any qualms about boulder hopping for several hours on end without any breaks in the terrain. It sucks, but damn is it beautiful.

In between upper and lower Goethe Lakes

Lower Goethe Lake with Mt. Humphreys in the distance

Lower Goethe Lake with Mt. Humphreys in the distance

cirque behind goethe lake

Looking back at Goethe Lake

The boulders didn’t let up until I reached the lower Goethe Lake. Finally, I was walking on dirt and grass. From memory, I want to say I spent a solid 5 hours working my way through that nightmare of a boulder field that people call Alpine Col. However, looking back at upper Goethe Lake and the cirque behind it was breathtaking.

Muriel Lake & Mt. Humphreys

Muriel Lake & Mt. Humphreys

Mt. Humphreys dominates the skyline

Mt. Humphreys dominates the skyline

After passing lower Goethe Lake, the landscape really opened up and flatted out before reaching a rock outcrop above Muriel Lake. From here, there was a great view of Humphreys Basin and Muriel Lake to the north, and Goethe Lakes and the cirque with Goethe Glacier to the south. Scenery wise, this would have been an excellent place to camp. However, the dark clouds to the south still threatened rain. Being as exposed as it was, it was windy too. It was quite a walk back to the lower Goethe Lake from here as well, so it wasn’t ideal in terms of proximity to a water source. I kept moving downhill to Muriel Lake, bummed about not being able to stay at this otherwise beautiful place to camp.

On my way down to Muriel Lake, I saw 2 guys crest a ridge coming from Wahoo Lakes. They were headed towards Alpine Col, and so I asked the first guy if that was his plan. He said, “No, the guy I’m with is 84 years old, he’s not going over that. But he did 30 years ago!” I When I passed the 84 year old guy, I was shocked to see how good he looked. If I had to guess I would have said he was 60 years old. He barely had any wrinkles and had no physical impairments. I was tired and worn out from my hike today, but after seeing this guy out here I told myself to shut up and quit whining. I wanted to say to him, “You’re like the Jack LaLanne of hiking!” I’m sure he would have gotten the reference. Oh, and they both made comments about me going over Alpine Col in trail runners, basically saying I’m crazy doing so without the ankle support of boots.

Muriel Lake

Muriel Lake

Camp above Muriel Lake

Camp above Muriel Lake

The hike down to Muriel Lake was easy, with a solid trail to follow now. When I arrived at the lake I was a little surprised to see nobody camped here. That’s great news for me though, as I had the entire place to myself. I found a small flat area among some small trees and a few large boulders to set up my tent. From here, I had a pretty good view of Muriel Lake and Mt. Humphreys.

I didn’t eat much today. Not because I wasn’t hungry, but I was so involved in the route over Alpine Col. I mean, who wants to stop in the middle of terrain like that and eat? I just wanted to keep moving and get out of the boulder field before it started raining. But tonight, I was ready for dinner. I had a tortilla with pre-cooked bacon and cheddar cheese, as I did most nights. Simple and delicious, and last forever in my pack even in fairly mild temperatures.

Mt. Humphreys

Mt. Humphreys

Muriel Lake

Muriel Lake

After eating, getting water and doing all my camp chores, it was finally time to relax. There was some small brook trout in the lake but I didn’t bother to throw in my line. Instead, I hung out near camp enjoying the expansive view of Humphreys Basin. At this time of day the light wasn’t great over the basin, but Mt. Humphreys was perfectly illuminated. The view of Mt. Humphreys from Muriel Lake was pretty impressive. While walking around near camp, I spotted another backpack stashed in a little opening below a few boulders. It was an older model pack, and looked like it was full of gear. Why are so many people leaving their backpacks behind out here?

 

Day 6 – Friday August 26th, 2016

Miles Hiked – 9.31
Elevation Gain – 1226′
Route – Muriel Lake to Elba Lake

This was the first morning that I had no condensation in my tent. Finally, I could put it away dry. I heard some coyotes howling last night in the distance. My legs were a little sore for the first time this trip as well. Not surprising after what I went through yesterday.

The views into Humphreys Basin were not great as it appeared to be filled with a thick haze or smoke. It looked like forest fire smoke to be honest. Huh, hope this doesn’t get worse, and hope there isn’t a fire nearby. Either way, this doesn’t bode well for photography.

muriel lake early morning reflection

There were a couple of trails here in the Muriel Lake area, and I followed one towards Piute Pass. I could have just dropped downhill, cut across the valley west of Summit Lake and head uphill where I could intersect the trail, but I chose to stay on trail. While the terrain was open and grassy in the valley below, it also looked like much of it was wet and marshy. I figured I’d just stay on trail here even if it meant adding a little extra distance.

Trail to Piute Pass

Trail to Piute Pass from Muriel Lake

View of Humphreys Basin from Piute Pass

View of Humphreys Basin from Piute Pass

The trail to Piute Pass was well worn and easy. However, with the haze in the basin, I didn’t take many pictures.

From Piute Pass, I headed northwest into Humphreys Basin. The trail remains solid through this section. Humphreys Basin, which was a massive open area, was mostly grass and dirt with less rocks and boulders than my last few days, a welcome change. I made good time through this area. I started to see more people here too. I ran into a group of people along the trail and it was at this point that I realized I had gone a bit farther than I intended to. I was planning on leaving the trail somewhere south of Lower Desolation Lake, and head towards Tomahawk Lake. I had to backtrack a couple of minutes to avoid going up a steeper slope covered with thick vegetation.

Mt. Humphreys

Mt. Humphreys

Now back on track, my off trail journey for the day began. Fortunately, this was some of the easier off trail hiking I did on this trip. Huge open fields with little in the way of obstacles. Not necessarily the most spectacular views of the trip, but being alone in the middle of such a vast open area and surrounded by distant peaks like Mt. Humphreys certainly set a different mood. I was enjoying today’s hike, and just felt really good overall!

view of tomahawk lake

Tomahawk Lake

When I reached Tomahawk Lake, I had a pretty good view of it from the hill around 11,200′ to the south. I had planned on dropping down to the lake and walking along it’s western shore, but instead I chose to stay high above the lake and work my way around the slopes to the east. This saved me some ups and downs. Staying west of the long ridge southwest of Desolation lake near the 11,400′ mark, I made my way towards Mesa Lake.

Glacier Divide from Mesa Lake's south shore

Glacier Divide from Mesa Lake’s south shore

Mesa Lake with Mt. Humphreys in the distance

Mesa Lake with Mt. Humphreys in the distance

sandy beach on alpine lake in the sierras

West shore of Mesa Lake

I took the western shore around Mesa Lake. There was a nice section of sandy beach here along the shore, and the deep blue waters sparkled in the sunlight. Just the kind of place that looks perfect for swimming, until you remember just how cold the water is. I also saw some crap here along the shoreline that looked like it came from a coyote, only bigger. Mountain Lion? There was a lot of hair in it.

Looking back at Mesa Lake and the Glacier Divide

Looking back at Mesa Lake and the Glacier Divide

Looking down on the lower of two shelves below Carol Col. Mt. Humphreys in the distance

Looking down on the lower of two shelves below Carol Col. Mt. Humphreys in the distance

Past Mesa Lake, there was a decent trail to follow, at least for a little while. The trail faded as I made my way up the slopes leading to Carol Col, also called Puppet Pass. This section was not too difficult, and it was only a couple hundred feet up to the pass from here.

view of carol col from the south

On the upper shelf below Carol Col. The pass is the low point on the horizon, dead center.

Up on the last shelf below Carol Col, the landscape consisted of smaller talus strewn about a somewhat soggy field. Carol Col, while not very distinct, can clearly be seen from here. The final approach was super easy.

View west from Carol Col

View west from Carol Col

View east from Carol Col

View east from Carol Col

view of puppet lake from carol col

Looking north/northwest from Carol Col

The view from Carol Col is awesome. Clearly though, going down the Puppet Lake side is going to be much harder. For now, I stopped to eat and take pictures. My favorite views are typically from mountain peaks and passes, although peaks reflecting in a lake of turquoise blue water is right up there too. Enjoy this moment while I can!

When it was time to descend the pass towards Puppet Lake, I ended up taking the wrong path down twice. I didn’t make it too far before realizing this was probably not the right way. The path looked steep, too steep. I backtracked and kept looking. I found the best path down starts from the extreme northeast side of the pass, south of point 12,225′.

Coming down the pass was hardest near the top. The best route follows an obvious rockface down hill, but the rockface isn’t reached until you’ve descended 200′ or so. Also, when taking the path I took from the top, you must angle west a little in order to reach that rockface. Until then, there were some large boulders to negotiate along with some tricky sections, but nothing as bad as Alpine Col.

Follow this rockface

Follow this rockface

Once you’ve reached the rockface, it looks like you can take a high or low route. The high route hs you pretty much walking on top of the rockface, and this left me with some uncertainty about getting down from said rockface later on. Therefore I chose the low route, which basically follows the base of the rockface. This is what I recommend. This keeps you out of the worst of the boulders and gives you good landmark to work with.

After working my way past the rockface, the going became a littler easier. From here, it was more boulders to hop downhill. A couple of guys were heading up the pass now, and I stopped to chat with them. They had been fishing too and we exchanged info on our experiences so far. They had camped at Elba Lake, directly north of Puppet Lake, and said the fishing was good near the outlet. They also said there were some good campsites near the outlet. They had a dog with them, and I wasn’t sure how that dog would be able to make it up to the top of the pass considering some of the sections I had to go through.

Puppet Lake

Puppet Lake

Instead of just walking down to Puppet Lake directly from here, for some reason I worked my way around the slope east of the lake. This was a mistake as the entire hillside was more big boulders. I would not recommend this. I started dropping down towards the lake as soon as I could, but by this time I had already traversed the worst of it.

Puppet Lake

Puppet Lake

East side of Puppet Lake

East side of Puppet Lake

Once I got down to the shores of Puppet Lake, I started looking for potential campsites. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to camp exactly, but was considering here or Elba Lake, going on the recommendation of the guys I passed earlier. With no great campsites in sight near Puppet Lake, I kept moving. I’m sure there are plenty of campsites here but I just didn’t see anything that caught my eye. I was kinda bummed about passing by Puppet Lake since I heard the fishing was good here.

Elba Lake

Elba Lake

Past Puppet Lake, I found a clear trail heading downhill towards Elba Lake. Thankfully the trail was here, as this section was a lot steeper than I was expecting. It started to sprinkle a bit on my way down, but quickly tapered off.

At 10,900′, Elba Lake had more trees around it now than Puppet Lake did. I also found lots more people camped here. There were none at Puppet Lake, actually. I worked my way from the southern shore of Elba Lake east, and then around to the northern side of the lake. There were people camping in the areas the guys I had passed earlier mentioned, so I had to keep moving. There was a clear trail around both sides of the lake which made it easy to hike, but I wasn’t seeing a lot of good campsites near the water. There were a lot of places I could camp, but not a lot of places I wanted to camp. Finally, I just took a spot well off the trail and away from the lake. It was windy and still looking like rain, so I figured the trees here might provide the cover I need.

View from Elba Lake's north shore looking east

View from Elba Lake’s north shore looking east

After setting up camp, I headed down to the lake to do some fishing. Again, no luck. For some reason these trout want nothing to do with my mepps spinners. In my past experiences fishing in alpine lakes, fish bite anything shiny. Hell, they’ll bite a damn hook by itself! Not this trip though. Good thing I didn’t bring all my stuff to clean and cook fish: stove, fuel, frying pan, spatula, scrubbing pad, zatarains fish fry breading, cooking oil, etc. I hike without a stove most of the time actually.

Camp 200 hundred yards from Lake Elba

Camp 200 hundred yards from Lake Elba

View northeast from camp

View northeast from camp

I didn’t really care for this campsite much compared to my others so far. There were much more scenic campsites along the lake, but the best ones had already been taken and I guess I just settled for this one. I didn’t have a great view of anything, there were a lot of people around, I wasn’t close to the water and the fishing was not good here, at least for me. If I could do it again, I would have looked harder for a good spot to camp by Puppet Lake. The skies had been threatening rain for much of the afternoon and evening as well, so tonight I pretty much just waited for darkness so I could go to bed. I looked like some serious rain was moving in, but it avoided my exact locale and I never got wet.

Day 7 – Saturday August 27th, 2016

Miles Hiked – 6.8
Elevation Gain – 1634′
Route – Elba Lake to Granite Park

I awoke to clear blue skies again this morning. The haze and smoke that were plaguing my long distance views yesterday didn’t seem to be a factor today. It ended up being a calm night with no rain, and no condensation this morning. Today, I planned to camp at one of the Royce Lakes, making a somewhat short day and giving myself time to explore and fish.

The trail form Elba Lake to Pine Creek pass was rather uninteresting. From Elba Lake’s outlet, the trail drops  down roughly 280′ into the valley below. You’re below tree line now, although it’s still pretty open. Still, you can’t see much.

On the shelf below Pine Creek Pass, looking south towards Elba Lake

On the shelf below Pine Creek Pass, looking south towards Elba Lake

At around the 10,640′ mark, the trail starts climbing up again. The trail reaches a flat shelf around 11,000′, where the views start to improve.

View north from Pine Creek Pass

View north from Pine Creek Pass

After another 100′ or so, I was at the top of Pine Creek Pass. I stopped here to take some pictures, and then eat some food. Two other hikers came up Pine Creek Pass and they stopped to chat with me for a while. Martin & Maria were their names, and they had a base camp at French Lake. Nice people, great to talk to. Martin was a former mountain guide with experience all over the world. It turns out they were heading up to Royce Lakes too, and possibly beyond. They planned to return to their base camp later tonight. Martin had a map of the area that was maybe 1:100,000, so I showed him my map of the area that was 1:24,000, and let him take some pictures of it.

Looking north at point 12,245... the mountain with the zigzagging veins running through it

Looking north at point 12,245… the mountain with the zigzagging veins running through it

Hiking up to Royce Lakes from Pine Creek Pass

Hiking up to Royce Lakes from Pine Creek Pass

My route up to Royce Lakes was off trail from here. Fortunately, this part was pretty easy. There were few large rocks and boulders to deal with, as the terrain was generally just dirt and small rocks. Some sections of granite slabs too.

Miriam & Royce Peaks reflection

Miriam & Royce Peaks reflection

royce peak & miriam peak

I hiked up the hillside until I reached a shelf with a small pond. The reflection of Royce and Miriam Peaks in the water was stunning. Such beauty for such a lackluster spot on the map. This is a perfect example of why I like to explore off trail!