Category Archives: California

Genoa, Virginia, 9238

As is often the case this time of year, I find myself bagging peaks that are conveniently close to a long drive, rather than intrinsically interesting. Genoa and Virginia are similar peaks: drive-ups in the summer, close to my route, with a fair amount of prominence, and more interesting in early-winter conditions.


Lake Tahoe

There are a number of routes from the Eastern Sierra to northern Tahoe, one of which is to take Highway 50 over Spooner Summit. I had not been this way in awhile, perhaps not since moving out to take a job in the Bay Area toward the end of the dot-com boom in a previous life. This time I was looking for a half-day run/hike, and Genoa, about six miles south of the pass with almost 2000′ of prominence, fit the bill.

Ghostly woods

I slept in the summit lot, ate breakfast, then killed some time making cranberry sauce while waiting for the clouds to lift, or at least for it to warm up a bit. Unfortunately neither seemed to be happening, so I eventually gave up, starting south along the Tahoe Rim Trail through the heavily-rimed forest. The TRT is gentle and smooth, and I was not carrying anything, so I enjoyed the experience of running unencumbered for a change. Also, I needed to move quickly to stay warm, even in my mid-weight overshirt and windbreaker, meaning it was probably in the mid-twenties.

Sun briefly emerges

The trail had seen a bit of traffic, but that had dwindled to a single runner by the time I crossed a dirt road three miles out. Surprisingly, however, someone had driven this road since the last snow, so I was able to travel faster on the road. As the road climbed, I got occasional glimpses of the sun to one side, Lake Tahoe to the other. Checking my map, I turned off on the side-road leading to the radio installation on Genoa’s summit. No one had driven this, so progress became painfully slow. The wind picked up on the treeless summit knob, scouring and drifting the snow, and also encouraging me to summit quickly.

I got occasional views of the Desolation Wilderness peaks to the southwest, but the clouds were just a bit too high to give me an unobstructed panorama. I took a few photos in the lee of a building, awkwardly stumbled down the summit boulders to the road, then began the run home. It was slightly warmer by now, and generally downhill, so I enjoyed the return, and was actually able to generate some speed. Well, “speed” relative to my normal plodding. I’m certainly nowhere near matching my mile PR now.


Virginia from “trailhead”

Virginia Peak, northeast of Reno, is another drive-up to antennae. Like many Nevada range highpoints, it is an unremarkable mound covered in sage and scrub, with a fair bit of prominence. Rather than following the antenna road, I chose to come at it from the east, via a dubiously-legal route crossing an Indian reservation near Pyramid Lake. The lake is nearly as large as Lake Tahoe, though lacking in ski areas and kitsch stores.

End of riding

I parked my car across the road from the reservation, then waited for the sun to warm things a bit and for there to be no witnesses before riding the good dirt roads toward Big Mouth Canyon. The road deteriorated a bit as it climbed, but remained rideable until the final split, where the branch I wanted climbs steeply up the ridge to the canyon’s north. I locked my bike to itself, then set off hiking the steep but occasionally-driven road.

Summit to the left

While I was comfortable on the initial climb, a strong wind from the north or northwest made things uncomfortable on the ridge crest. I spent some time scuttling from juniper to juniper, sheltering behind each to warm my hands, then gave in and put on the down parka I had fortunately thrown in my pack. I wished I had also included my goggles and balaclava, but I was reluctant to admit that winter had arrived. With the parka, I was comfortable until I reached solid snow, which began around 6000′ on all but the southern aspects.

Buck at center

This is where I began to regret my choice of footwear: it was a bit chilly out for thin wool socks and trail runners with scree-holes. Thankfully, it was cold enough out that the snow remained powdery, so it mostly just refroze on or sloughed off of my shoes rather than soaking my feet. With some toe-wiggling and a couple of warming stops, conditions remained tolerable as I made my way up the long ridge. Side-hilling toward a southern slope to get away from the snow, I looked up to see a lone buck looking down at me, seeming remarkably unconcerned for a deer living somewhere he could likely be hunted. I had been seeing tracks for awhile, so I should have expected to see him. We eyed each other for awhile, then he headed over the ridge and out of sight.

Pyramid Lake on descent

I stayed on the south side of the upper ridge, climbing over and around basalt boulders, avoiding the snow and wind as long as possible, but I finally had to emerge on the summit plateau. I was hoping to pick up the antenna road, but it comes in from the other direction, so I had to alternately hop between rocks and posthole through snow and brush to reach the summit. Next to the building with the FCC notice I found a man-high cairn, possibly left by early surveyors, and an ammo box with a register. Clouds seemed to be coming in from the northwest, so I quickly signed my name and retreated, freezing my left eyeball as I cursed and postholed my way back to the ridge’s shelter. The descent was uneventful other than a brief encounter with a solitary wild horse, and I was back at the car by early afternoon. Time to see how much Nevada I could get out of the way before snow and/or fatigue got the best of me…

Peak 9238

Such inspiring mountains!

Currant and Duckwater on the left

This one was really scraping the bottom of the barrel, but thanks to poor planning and snow, it was the only convenient thing to tag. It was another drive-up in good conditions; indeed, I probably could have driven the road even now, as the snow was no more than a couple of inches deep. But I wanted to hurt myself rather than my car, so I parked next to the highway and biked to the snowline. From there, it was an easy road-walk to the highpoint, which oddly held only one antenna; for some reason the main cluster was located on a slightly lower bump to the north. I could see familiar peaks in all directions, particularly North Schell to the east, and Currant and Duckwater to the west.

North Schell

The ride back down to the car was miserably cold. Ely seems, like Alamosa, to be in some sort of cold sink, so it was still only 30 degrees at noon, and promised to dip into the single digits overnight. But it at least has internet in the form of a McDonald’s, so I could catch up on the outside world, and figure out what I could get away with during the upcoming storm.

Lost Cannon, Wells, White

Final climb up White

I had hoped to tag Disaster Peak from the Sonora Pass road on my way north, checking off my northernmost remaining SPS peak. Unfortunately the Caltrans site lied: while it claimed that the road was only gated at Kennedy Meadows on the west side, the almost-dry road was actually closed for the season a few miles past the Mountain Warfare Training Center. What would already have been a long 30-mile day along the PCT in the snow now looked completely unreasonable. I camped in a pullout near the closure and considered my options. Looking around on Peakbagger, I saw that I could still reach a couple of thousand-foot prominence peaks from the Silver Creek trailhead.

I wonder how they taste

Finding the trailhead proved to be a bit of a challenge: it is at the end of a Forest Service road that passes through the MWTC, with which the guard was unfamiliar. After looking for a way around the base, I returned to the guard station to find that he had apparently talked to someone else who knew about the road. Fortunately the Forest Service is much less aggressive than Caltrans with road closures, so I was able to drive the dirt road all the way to the trailhead, despite the treacherous inch of fresh snow.

Rime forest

I had downloaded a track from Peakbagger showing a loop up to Lost Cannon, then over Wells to Silver. It appeared on the map to start off cross-country, but fortunately there was a surprisingly good trail up through the sagebrush. The snow gradually got deeper as I climbed, the trail fainter, so I lost it somewhere below the ridge. Between the snow, which varied from a dusting to drifts a half-foot deep, and the underlying sand and krummholtz, it was slow going from there. Thick rime covered the trees and rocks on the ridge, much improving the nearby scenery. “Nearby” was the only kind of scenery I would have for most of the day, as clouds generally hovered below summit level.

Tricky climbing conditions

Fortunately I had a map and GPS, because Lost Cannon’s summit is the highest of a number of granite knobs, and not at all obvious with limited visibility. In normal summer conditions, it would be a simple class 3-4 scramble about which I would think almost nothing. However, the combination of fresh powder and rime covering the granite made it much more of a challenge. I tried several approaches unsuccessfully, and almost gave up, before finding a devious route that started on the left side of the peak, then nearly circumnavigated it counterclockwise to reach the summit. I took a picture of the iced-over summit stake, then carefully retreated, my hands freezing from grabbing snowy rocks with fleece gloves. I had not expected to do so much scrambling, and would have been happier in my winter gloves.

Escaping snowshoe hare

That was more or less the end of the day’s challenges. I had an easy walk down to the base of Wells, then found my way through bushes and carefully hiked up the final loose, snow-covered talus to the summit. The metal summit sign had accumulated a solid plate of ice overnight, which had fallen off with the day’s marginally warmer temperatures. From the summit, I had a long, obnoxious traverse across more loose and snowy talus before dropping across Silver Creek to reach White. Along the way, I managed to startle three snowshoe hares, all of which ran off before I could take a decent close-up photo. I had only seen one of these before, many years ago on my way down Bishop Pass, so they were a pleasant distraction.

Brief view of the sky

The climb up White would have been straightforward if I had not chosen to try to cross a permanent snowfield just below the ridge. The new snow was neither deep nor well-bonded enough to walk up easily, and I frequently slipped on the old ice beneath, pawing at it to look for edges and rough patches where I could carefully step. Above, a bit more easy sand and talus led to the summit, where I got a brief glimpse of blue sky.

The track I had downloaded continued south along the ridge, but given the conditions, I decided to retrace my steps and return via the Silver Creek trail. I bypassed the permanent snowfield on the way down, but found the loose and snow-slick talus to its side almost as obnoxious. I took a different line through the trees, angling toward home, and found pleasant open woods down to the creek. There was a good line of blazes in places, but the trail was faint to nonexistent, and I lost it going either through or around one of several boggy meadows. I instinctively tried to avoid the worst of the bogs, but my shoes were soaked enough that it did not really matter. I alternately hiked and jogged back to the trailhead, then drove back through the base and down the Walker River into Nevada, land of cheap gas and laundromats with beer and video poker.

Muah, Ash Meadow, Cartago

Cartago summit

Muah and Cartago are two more SPS peaks south of Horseshoe Meadow, lying on the eastern edge of the southern Sierra plateau; Ash Meadow Peak just happened to be in the way. Unlike the previous day’s all-trail outing to Kern, this outing was a somewhat more interesting lollipop, with more views and cross-country travel. Though my route started from the same parking area as for Kern, I thankfully did not have to repeat any terrain thanks to the redundancy of Trail and Mulkey Passes.

Owens Lake from Muah

I got another somewhat lazy start, heading straight across Horseshoe Meadow to intercept the Mulkey Pass trail where it starts to climb. It seemed much less-used than Trail Pass, with large sections faint or washed out, and no recent footprints. At the pass, I turned left on the PCT, heading southeast toward the unimpressive and mostly forested lump that is Muah Mountain. Where the trail levels out near Diaz Creek, I headed cross-country straight for the summit, crossing another trail that is not on any maps, leading who-knows-where. The forested climb up Muah was steep but easy, with generally solid ground and little deadfall or brush.

Langley from Muah

After a couple of frustrating false summits, I found myself on the small rock crest of the true summit. Mount Langley dominates the view to the north, Olancha peak that to the south; Cartago is hard to pick out, as it is merely a highpoint on the undulating eastern edge of the range. Below to the east, the dry Owens Lake dominates the view, with different parts being put to different uses (shrimp farming?). To the west I could see yesterday’s objective, Kern Peak.

OMG that sucked

I set off south from the summit, aiming to regain the PCT just on the other side of Ash Meadow Peak. Things started out well, with a quick sand descent to Ash Creek, then turned utterly hellish as I had to thrash through 100 yards of willows and bog. Fortunately the willows were dense enough that I could walk on them, keeping my feet out of the muddy water below. After ten or fifteen minutes of cursing, thrashing, and backtracking, I reached the other side, re-entered the woods, and started heading uphill, using my phone to stay on track for the next summit.

Cartago summit area

Ash Meadow Peak is similar to Muah, forested except for the very top, with the summit being one of a few small rock outcrops. I climbed a couple before finding the Sierra Challenge register left a few years earlier. Despite being only a few hundred yards from the PCT, this minor summit apparently sees very little traffic. I quickly took in views similar to those on Muah, then again headed south, soon rejoining the trail. This part of the trail is actually interesting, staying close enough to the Owens Valley to have a view sometimes, and winding through more of the region’s granite outcrops.

Cartago Creek

I left the trail where it leaves the edge north of Death Canyon, heading downhill through terrain that was just sandy and brushy enough to make for slow going. Fortunately I had a map and GPX track on my phone, because Cartago’s summit is one of dozens of rock outcrops poking out of the sparse woods, and it is not obvious which one is highest. As is often the case, the summit turned out to be basically the farthest pinnacle, rising perhaps 100 feet above a sandy plain. I found a bit of fun third class scrambling for a change, and a couple of familiar names in the register. There were also some ancient scraps of paper dating back to the early 1970s, miraculously preserved in the metal canister.

To the south, Cartago Creek drops nearly 6000 feet through a mess of granite outcrops and spires, with Olancha Peak behind it rising over 8000 feet from the valley floor. While I had plenty of daylight, I was mindful that I had around 13 miles left to get back home. I jogged some of the easier cross-country, slogged up the sand-hill to the PCT, then managed a decent pace on the gentle and frequently runnable terrain back to Mulkey Pass. Though I returned to the car by mid-afternoon, it was already getting chilly at nearly 10,000 feet, so I rinsed the dust off my legs quickly before heading down to Lone Pine. With dramatically colder weather and up to a foot of snow forecast for the Sierra later in the week, these could be my last Sierra peaks for awhile.


Kern from Trail Pass

With fall holding on in the Sierra, I decided to take advantage of the still-open Horseshoe Meadows road to bag some minor southern SPS peaks. While I had gone north from this high trailhead several times, I had not yet ventured south, so it would be new terrain for me. Kern Peak can apparently be reached with more driving and less hiking from the south, but with gentle terrain and runnable trails, the 33 or so miles from the north would be manageable despite the short days.

I woke up to find myself unsurprisingly alone in the large Cottonwood Pass trailhead, and waited until after headlamp time to start. The temperature was not bad at the trailhead itself, but cold air had pooled in the meadow, making for a cold crossing toward Trail Pass. I finally reached the sun at the pass, where the PCT crosses east-west along the ridge between Mulkey and Cottonwood Passes, and got my first look at Kern Peak, whose size makes it look deceptively close. I shed a layer, then took off jogging down the other side into Mulkey Meadow.

Cow-paths in Mulkey Meadow

The trail was the usual southern Sierra sand, though not as bad as Cottonwood Pass, as it probably sees much less traffic, though most of that seemed to be horses. There was also a fair amount of cow manure, though none seemed fresh. The cows had, however, managed to create a half-dozen parallel tracks across the meadow, reminiscent of the multi-lane highways around Tuolomne Meadows. I continued west, passing through a gate on my way over a minor rise, then joined the South Fork Kern River, which is more of a creek here, on its way down to Tunnel Meadow.

Tunnel Station

I passed a large, disused corral in the woods, then some dilapidated fencing at the foot of the meadow, before returning to the woods and reaching the Tunnel Station. There I found an abandoned lookout tower, and a recently-painted cabin with an open workspace and padlocks on its multiple doors. The trail branches twice beyond here, with options leading to some other meadows; I took the well-signed but faint branch headed to Kern Peak, which used to house a lookout.

One thing of interest

As the lookout is long abandoned and the peak is only of interest to people chasing the SPS list, the trail through the gentle forest has nearly faded out of existence. It climbs a bit in crossing a gentle arm of the peak, then descends to follow the Kern Peak Stringer — another creek — up the peak’s north side, eventually reaching its northeast ridge. Where it finally breaks out of the woods below Kern’s rocky summit, the trail once again becomes clear. I followed the switchbacks through the sand and boulders to a shoulder west of the summit, then hopped through the boulders to the top.

Lookout remnant

The lookout’s floor and fire-finder were still standing, but its walls and roof had collapsed off to the north. It is well-situated, with long views to Langley, the Kaweahs, and the Mineral King peaks to the north, Olancha Peak to the east, and endless rolling terrain to the south and west. I took my time eating some pop tarts and chex mix, then began the long run home. Complaints from my knee slowed me a bit, but I still managed to jog the majority, and I had plenty of daylight and listening material.

Someone had dropped his driver’s license on the trail (how does that happen?), but I saw no one else until I returned to the trailhead. There I found two groups milling around, but no one matched the photo on the license, so I stuck it in the trailhead sign before rinsing off and driving a few miles to get cell service. Fortunately there are lots of trails leaving Horseshoe Meadows, because while my outing had been a pleasant run, I would not want to do it twice in two days.


Clark through Merced

Gray Peak was my last remaining SPS peak in the Clark Range. After failing to tag it on the way out, I decided to do so from Mono Meadows on the way back, making it possible for me to never again drive through Yosemite. It is around 24 miles round-trip via this approach, but quite a bit of that is runnable, so it seemed like a short enough day to tack a few hours’ driving onto the end. I got up before dawn, shoved my bike and trailer back into the car by headlamp, and drove into the park and up Glacier Point road along with a few sunrise photographers, turning off at the Mono Meadows trailhead some miles before the good views. I had slept here before without harassment, but the angry-looking sign warning that cars parked overnight would be towed during the winter season deterred me this time.

Mono Meadow?

I got started sometime around sunrise making good speed down to what may have been the Meadow: a disgusting, partly-frozen bog with a precarious log bridge across it. With the help of a stick conveniently parked at a tree on one side, I made it across with dry feet, then continued running the descent to the Illouette Creek trail maze. With the help of my map, I made it through the various multi-way junctions, all signed but with some indicating the same destination with different mileages in multiple directions. I eventually made it through the confusion and was headed southeast toward Merced Pass.

Hey, bear!

Listening to a podcast while jogging the almost-flat trail through the woods, I was jolted back to reality by a sudden, loud gruuh?! and some movement in the bushes 10-20 yards away. It seems I had startled a mother bear with two cubs, just as much as they had startled me. We were both a bit defensive, keeping a sharp eye on each other, but knew what to do: she sent the momentarily-confused cubs up a tree, while I backed off and talked to her. Fortunately this was relatively open country, so we had room to maneuver. I moved off the trail to the side away from her and she, sensing that the threat was past, brought the cubs back down and disappeared into the woods in the other direction. I almost returned to the trail, then saw why I had managed to startle them so badly: they were in the middle of destroying a bees’ nest in a nearby rotting log. Figuring the bees would probably punish me for the bears’ trespass, I gave them a wide berth through the brush, then continued well up-trail of the scene.

A Yosemite classic

Based on others’ tracks, the route leaves the trail somewhere near Red Creek, following it to one side or the other until reaching Gray’s west ridge. The cross-country was moderately unpleasant, passing through burned areas choked with downed trees and brush, with the ground made unpredictably soft by what I think were rodent holes. I started on the north side, switched to the south, then returned to the north as the ridge rose away from the creek. I found easier travel here, using a strange sort of flat groove paralleling the ridge crest to one side.

Half Dome from summit

Above a steep headwall, the vague forested thing I had been following became more of a defined ridge, with the summit still looking unfortunately distant. I crossed some flatter, open ground, then gained a thousand feet through a classic Yosemite mix of boulders and evil krummholtz. Only in the final 300 feet did I find actual fun, scrambling along the narrowing crest of the ridge, with cliffs to the north and steep gullies to the south. The summit had good views of the entire Clark Range, from Clark at the north to Merced to the south. Most of the traverse looked like the brush-and-boulder terrain I had just climbed, so doing all the peaks in a go would be both inefficient and infelicitous. Back to the northwest, I could see Mount Starr King and the back side of Half Dome; to the east, Florence, Lyell, and the Ritter Range.

The return was like the trip out, except without bears and bees. I made good speed once back in the trail system, not having to stop and check my map at the intersections, and was soon at the base of the final climb back to the trailhead. I pushed myself to jog some parts of this, and made it back home well before sunset. I talked to a couple of tourists for a few minutes, then drove around and over Tioga, back to the rural comforts of the eastern Sierra.

Three Sisters and home

Courwright from the shore road

I had planned something easier after the previous day’s 40-mile trek, expecting to be somewhere between slow and near-useless. I took my time waking and packing at Maxson, then had a leisurely ride around Courtwright Reservoir to the trailhead near its northwest end that people apparently use to reach Three Sisters Peak, my last SPS peak in the area. At around twelve miles and under 3000′ of elevation gain, it sounded like a comfortable half-day that I could combine with a downhill return toward Shaver Lake, a head-start on the long ride home.

Cliff Lake

I locked my bike to a nearby locked gate, shoved what trail-food I had left in my pack (mayo bottle, cheese, tortillas), then took off at an ad lib pace. After jogging the initial descent I felt surprisingly energetic, and continued jogging the flats and some of the gentler climbs on the way to Cliff Lake. I slightly overshot the route up the broad ridge west toward Three Sisters, then stopped to get some water at the lake before getting back on track. I found occasional boot-prints and a cairn or two, but there was no established route for this easy and unremarkable peak, and none necessary.

Courtwrite area from Three Sisters

The peak’s west face looked obnoxiously steep, so I headed right, finding signs of passage through the sand and boulders of its northeast face. I sat on the summit for awhile, making myself a sort-of lunch and enjoying the views. While Three Sisters may not be of much interest itself, it is a fine perch from which to appreciate the many domes surrounding Courtwright Reservoir. I did not know it at the time, but it turns out that the area is a sort of “Tuolomne of the Western Sierra,” with well over a hundred single- and multi-pitch climbing routes of all difficulties. Since it apparently lacks Tuolomne’s crowds, it also seems much preferable to me. I did not visit the area during my brief trad climbing career many years ago, but having enjoyed fine climbing, free camping, and few other visitors in the Needles to the south, I suspect that Western Sierra climbing may be highly underrated.

Big Trees are big

I had a good time running back to the trailhead, passing a couple other hikers probably headed for one of the lakes, then made reasonable time on the ride around the Reservoir and back toward home. While it is downhill to Shaver, there is still a fair bit of climbing, but I made it back to Joe’s Market well before it closed. I bought more chocolate chip cookies (mmm, calories…), but also some heavier, “healthy” things like apples and tuna, as I was headed downhill. The owner/cashier remembered me from earlier, and we talked a bit about my adventure before I saddled up, failed to get WiFi at the library (it was a weekend), and headed down 168.

My goal was to put in more miles toward home, at least getting past the vacation homes and their angry “POSTED no trespassing” signs to find a place to camp. Highway 168 drops dramatically from over 5000′ to around 1000′, and I was unsure what elevation would be most comfortable. I had spotted a likely fire road on my map, but stopped just before it on a whim, camping instead at a helipad around 4000′. While less scenic than Maxson, it was my easiest camping of the trip, with a great big, perfectly flat concrete slab and comfortable temperatures. I dumped the tuna and the rest of my Parmesan into some pasta and watched the sun set over the smoggy Central Valley, then turned in anticipating an easy half-day.

Helipad to home

I think I could have returned via Italian Bar Road, but I chose a different route for variety, dropping to the valley via Highway 168, then taking another little-used side-road that meanders through various small towns, then crosses the San Joaquin at the upper end of Kirchoff Reservoir. Climbing back out of the river valley, I learned that I was back in the land of face flies. And goatheads — my tire sealant worked overtime plugging the holes, but the little bits of pressure lost as it did so meant my tires were noticeable softer by the time I rejoined my departing route near the tiny town of North Fork. I had only been gone about a week, but it felt like longer as I passed through familiar terrain on my way back up to Bass Lake.

As I had unfortunately not found long-term parking at the lake, I stashed my trailer at a pullout near the base of Beasore Road, making the final three steep miles back to my car somewhat easier. They were still pretty miserable, as I was tired and low on water, and the face flies were out in full midday force. I finally reached my side-road, pulled out my key fob, and… nothing. Well, crap. As I feared, my battery was completely dead, as was the jump box I carry for such situations. A bit of detective work showed that I had somehow left the tailgate overhead light on. WTF?! I never even use that!

Fortunately I was parked facing outward, and only about 50 yards from Beasore Road, which is reasonably popular. I patiently waved at about a dozen cars before finding one who had cables and was willing to help. It was an ancient Toyota truck, driven by an old man from Fresno wearing coveralls; exactly the sort of car and person I expect to be willing and able to help a fellow motorist. He took out his old cables, hooked them up, and my car started right up (yay, new starter!). We (mostly he) then ended up talking for most of an hour, both of our cars running. He proved to be the kind of fascinating, handy, self-reliant person who makes me doubt my manhood. In addition to his passion for woodworking, he had all sorts of fix-it skills, with tales including splicing an old tow rope to replace a missing fan belt, and cracking an egg into a radiator to plug a hole long enough to drive home. I have seldom felt less useful or capable.

I eventually drove down to the pullout, shoved the trailer and dry-sack in back around my bike, then reveled in my new ability to move at 60 MPH and carry hundreds of pounds without effort, driving down to the nearest town for groceries and gas, then up toward Yosemite to camp just outside the park before doing one final bit of peak-bagging on my way back to the east side. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable and mostly successful experiment.

Henry, Emerald

Emerald from Hell For Sure Pass

Henry and Emerald are both remote SPS peaks, west of the Evolution Valley near the center of the Sierra. Bob had done them separately, reaching Henry from Courtwright Reservoir and Emerald from Florence, the latter taking about 15.5 hours. Since they are only a few miles apart as the crow flies, I had long planned to do them in a single trip; and since I had just done the tedious Florence Lake approach for Hooper and Senger, I chose to do them from Courtwright, a route that would consist almost entirely of new-to-me terrain. However, those separating miles include Goddard Canyon (confusingly not home to nearby Goddard Creek), a 4000-foot trench adding an extra vertical mile to the day.

Since I was planning to spend two nights at Maxson, I opted to split my headlamp time in half, putting in an hour in the morning and anticipating another in the evening. I woke to chilly but surprisingly comfortable temperatures, drank breakfast, and shouldered a pack heavy with almost all of my remaining high-energy food. Small hands and a bit of manual dexterity allowed me to secure my remaining food in the bear box, though the local ursines seemed well-fed enough not to have eaten the potato or onions that had long been lying in the open box. With that, I was off down the trail, which briefly coincided with a thirty-plus-mile OHV route to Kaiser Pass that had nonsensically suggested as the best bike route over from Florence.

Fleming Lake

Once off the jeep road, the trail crossed Maxson Meadow/Bog on an old wood walkway, then slowly climbed through the woods. Starting from a dry trailhead, I knew I was low on water, but my water hose was frozen, so I had no idea how much I had left. I stopped to lie down and suck a bit of water out of one creek, but did not want to deal with the cold and misery necessary to get more inaccessible water. fortunately did better at routing me to Lower Indian Lake, because I was outside the area of my downloaded maps, and there are a mess of confusing trails in the area.

Henry’s west ridge

It finally started getting light on the climb away from Post Corral Creek, where the views simultaneously started opening up. In keeping with Courtwright’s dome-rich surroundings, there were pleasant granite slabs breaking up the west-side woods, including Corral Mountain behind and the unnamed peaks flanking Fleming Creek. Water and warm sunlight finally coincided at Fleming Lake, where I found a faint path leading to a place where I could reach open water without wading through a grassy bog. From there, I continued along the trail to the mouth of Lower Indian Lake, then took off cross-country toward Mount Henry, previously hidden by an unnamed and un-surveyed 12,000-foot peak to its south.

Evolution junction from Henry

The west ridge looked like it would probably work if I joined it late enough, and the cross-country was surprisingly easy and pleasant, with some nice slabs and relatively little brush or sand. I contoured south of the ridge to avoid some jaggedness, and was reassured to find some cairns on the route I had chosen to reach the final summit slope. Henry lies near the northern end of the Le Conte Divide, with the ridge dropping 4000 feet to the San Joaquin River to the north at the JMT/Piute Pass junction, and continuing jaggedly south past Hell for Sure Pass toward Tunemah. I hoped that, unlike Tunemah, Hell for Sure was not named for its nature.

Final Evolution descent

From the summit, Emerald Peak looked distant, Goddard Canyon deep, giving me some pause. However this is what I was here for, what I am meant for; returning to Maxson by mid-afternoon and trying to amuse myself at the deserted trailhead simply would not do. I shouldered my pack, then set off down the steep, loose slope toward the unnamed and unknown lake and creek leading to the San Joaquin across from its junction with Evolution Valley and the JMT. After the initial nasty descent, I found easy travel beneath the mystery 12er’s northeast ridge, then an ominously steepening descent into the Manzanita Zone.

Typical Goddard cleft

Consulting both my map and the terrain, I cut the corner to the south, skipping the JMT entirely and nearly escaping the brush. However, a final tactical error forced me to bash through some aspens just above the trail; at least I was headed downhill and “with the grain.” I had previously traveled this trail on my escape from Tunemah, and found it much as before: little-traveled but still in decent shape. However I did not travel mindlessly, as I needed to figure out how to reach Emerald from this side; between the vertical cleft often surrounding the San Joaquin, the creek itself, still an unpleasant ford this late in the season, and the steep walls rising 3000 feet or more to the summit, the route was not obvious.

Emerald from 11,000-foot bench

I left the trail near a “campsite” marked on the map before the “pig chute” (whatever that is), and almost immediately found a nice rock crossing. I grabbed some water, then started meandering up the 3000-foot climb, foolishly optimistic as always that I could make something work. Preferring class 3-4 rock to brush, I found a decent line to the weird plateau around 11,000 feet, then continued straight up a seasonal stream toward the peak’s north ridge, thereby avoiding the worst of the upper talus and cliffs. This worked well, and I reached the summit sooner and fresher than expected.

Evolution Ridge and Darwin Bench

Looking straight across Evolution Valley up the familiar Darwin Bench was a distressing reminder of my proximity to the east side. Still, I took my time enjoying the views of frustrating nearby Peter, McGee, and The Hermit, and perusing the register. It seems that the (mostly familiar) crew had come at the peak from just about every angles, some encountering an easy scramble, others unexpected difficulties. I was reassured to read that one group had found an easy route from upper Goddard Canyon, boding well for my plan to shortcut straight across to Hell for Sure Pass.

Freezing San Joaquin

Unfortunately this route was worse than my line of ascent, with more loose talus up high, and more brush and obnoxious cliff bands lower down. I think the party in the register started from higher in the canyon, but I did not want to do the extra distance. The Hell for Sure trail leaves the Goddard Canyon far up-canyon, following a bench around 10,000′ for at least a mile. However, it seemed feasible and faster to cross the river down around 9400′, then climb 600′ straight back up through class 2-3 terrain. I lucked out, easily finding another rock crossing below a freezing waterfall, then climbing a virtual staircase to the trail, which is faint but still usable.

Hell for Sure Lake

There was no question of tagging nearby Red Mountain: I was running low on daylight, and wanted to cover as much distance as possible before headlamp time, when I would become much slower on faint and/or rocky trails. I enjoyed the view of large Hell for Sure Lake against Mount Hutton’s steep north face, finding a surprisingly decent trail on this side of the pass. The trail faded somewhat past Disappointment Lake, but there was still a sign at the Devil’s Punchbowl junction, and I reached the junction with my outward route well before dark.

Other than an ill-conceived attempt at a slab shortcut, the return was mostly uneventful. Near Post Corral Creek, I was startled out of my music-aided coma drive by two men gathering wood to add to an enormous campfire, then put on my headlamp somewhere past the supposed Corral on the final, gradual 600-foot climb toward home. I was energetic enough to jog some of the flatter uphill sections here, but began suffering in the pool of cold air in Long Meadow, and stopped enjoying myself on the final climb. Mindful of the dry trailhead, I filled up on water near what I guessed (correctly) was the last creek crossing, then sloshed and slogged home. Emerging into the lot, I was surprised to find another party messing around next to their pickup truck. They were probably at least as surprised to have me suddenly pop up out of the woods, hacking out a lung and poking at my phone to stop Strava. I eventually found the correct pair of bear boxes, shoveled down some pasta with canned oysters, and fell asleep as the others finished what they were doing and departed to wisely leave the strange woods creature alone.


Spanish from false summit

Spanish Mountain is a relatively short and easy hike from the Crown Valley trailhead, and an even shorter one via the Spanish Lake OHV route. Since I had a sort of OHV with me, I figured I could make it even shorter by biking at least some of the road. Unfortunately this road turned out to be messed up even by Colorado standards: I pushed my bike more than half of my time on the way up before stashing it, and while I managed to ride most of the descent, I probably did not save much time, and managed to coat my bike in gross west-side dust. At least I saved some wear-and-tear on my knees…

Messed-up road

I waited until it was just warm enough, then coasted the brief downhill road stretch to the OHV route, where I almost immediately questioned my decision to try riding it. When assaulted by horses or jeeps, the dirt in this part of the Sierra turns loose and powdery, erodes, and exposes the embedded rocks. This road is steep enough for the damage to be severe, and apparently sees regular enough traffic that it does not recover. I alternately pushed and rode my bike for awhile, then stashed it behind a stump about 3.5 miles up, just past a flatter section, deciding it would be faster to run and hike from there.

Slabs on Spanish

Continuing to the end of the road, I found an outhouse, a few fire rings containing the expected trash, and an obvious use trail leading up Spanish’s northwest ridge. I followed this until it faded and disappeared, then continued to a false summit a bit less than a half-mile from the summit. After a bit of a down-thrash through some brush and boulders, easy slabs led to the large summit boulders. Even though Spanish is a much less impressive peak than Tehipite, the hike was far more enjoyable, with good views much of the way.

Obelisk and not-Tehipite

From the summit, I had good views of the Obelisk and Tehipite Valley to the west, the Kaweahs and Great Western Divide to the southwest, and deep into the Kings River valley to the south. I made a decent effort at jogging on the descent, then actually managed to ride a surprising amount of the road, though often little faster than a walk. I returned to the bear boxes, packed up my stuff, then took off with the trailer for the Maxson Trailhead near Courtwright Reservoir.

Courtwright domes from spillway

Not paying much attention to the topo maps for my bike legs, I didn’t realize that Courtwright Reservoir was almost 2000′ higher than nearby Wishon, putting it almost on the level of the high east-side reservoirs. Fortunately this road was also better than the Florence horror-show, but it was still a long afternoon climb, and I reached the trailhead with only a bit of time to enjoy sunset on the many domes surrounding the reservoir.


There were many parking spots and bear boxes at Maxson Trailhead (“absolutely no camping!”), but most seemed to be in disrepair. The pit toilets were open and in good shape, though, and there was only one car in the lot, so a flat spot behind one pair of bear boxes seemed like a good campsite. My slight exasperation and disgust at the trash left in the abandoned boxes turned to delight when I found two onions, a potato, an unopened bottle of mayonnaise, and a can of Trader Joe’s smoked oysters in one of the bags of “trash.” Score! The mayonnaise alone was an extra 1700 calories and, at this point, a welcome addition to my bologna or cheese tortillas. I left the potato, but sauteed one onion in a generous amount of olive oil, then cooked some pasta and mixed in lots of Parmesan for an unusually-tasty dinner. Questioning the necessity of “proper food storage,” I set my alarm for early and quickly fell asleep ahead of the longest day of my trip.

Tehipite Dome

First view of Tehipite

Florence to Wishon

After a mere day and a half of peak-bagging, it was time I tried another 75-mile bike day, from Florence Lake to the Rancheria Trailhead near Wishon Reservoir. I figured that, starting earlier in the day, from a much higher elevation, with a slightly lighter trailer, I could actually pull it off this time. The rolling route still had plenty of elevation gain and loss, but I managed to reach the trailhead with a lunch break and only a few minutes of headlamp time.

I took my time waking and packing at Florence Lake, getting started around 9:00 AM when I thought my hands would not freeze. The road was every bit as rough as I remembered, but I found the climbs almost all rideable, and was back at Kaiser Pass at a reasonable hour. Once past the one-lane part of the descent, I enjoyed the fast, smooth road back to Huntington Lake, then turned left on the high road to Shaver Lake. The road had more climbing than I expected, reaching a highpoint over 7000′ at Tamarack Hill before dropping 2000′ to Shaver, but the good pavement and civilized grades allowed me to make good time.

After several days incommunicado, I finally had cell service in Shaver, which I used to determine that Bob’s Market seemed to be the preferred local store. It had perhaps a slightly better selection of fresh fruits and vegetables than expected, and the usual insanely high prices for packaged goods. I bought the most caloric, least healthy things I could find — a pound of bologna, a block of cheese, a package of chocolate chip cookies, and a Coke — then sat outside the store to drink the soda and make myself a couple of bologna tortillas. I struck up a brief conversation with the owner, who seemed impressed that I was headed all the way to Wishon that evening, then headed to the southern end of town and turned back east toward the mountains.

Fortunately this road was much better than the one leading to Florence, and not very crowded. Almost all of the traffic consisted of large white pickup trucks, about half from various utility and tree-trimming companies, the rest seemingly hunters. The long, uphill ride took longer than I had hoped, so the sun was just setting as I reached Wishon Dam. The temperature dropped suddenly and dramatically as I put on all my clothes and turned on my taillight on its far end, then continued the remaining few miles to Rancheria Trailhead. Seeing that the trailhead itself was dry, I filled up on water from a creek near the final intersection, then finished the last half-mile of dirt by headlamp. There was a truck parked at the trailhead, but I did not see anyone around, so I quickly made dinner and packed for the morrow, once again set an early alarm, and threw down my bivy stack in a flattish spot right behind the bear boxes.

Tehipite Dome

Tehipite Dome was one of two SPS Mountaineers’ Peaks I had yet to climb, the other being the Hermit, whose summit block proved too hard last fall. It is an impressive sight from the south, where its most photographed side rises 3000′ or so from the deep and remote Tehipite Valley. From the north, however, it is a small bump at the end of a dusty 14-mile trench, invisible in the forest until you are about 20 minutes from its summit.

There’s no camping at Cow Camp!

I stashed my dry-sack in the bear box, left the rest of my stuff behind the bear boxes, and started from the Rancheria Trailhead by headlamp. I knew I would see this part of the trail at least once, and I figured once was enough. The trail climbs a bit, then drops on its way past Crown Rock to Crown Valley, home of the famous Cow Camp, where there is ABSOLUTELY NO CAMPING! (Perhaps this rule does not apply to cows.) From there I dropped still farther, crossing Crown Creek and entering Kings Canyon with views of Kettle Dome to the north, a much more impressive formation than Tehipite from this direction.

Crown Point and Kettle Dome from Tehipite

After following the trail to a saddle, I left it to make my way cross-country through several small drainages to Tehipite’s north ridge, from which I could finally see the summit and the upper parts of Tehipite Valley’s south side. Unfortunately the smoke on this day was the worst of my entire trip, obscuring the least-often-seen and possibly most-impressive views I would have. The route up Tehipite’s summit was fairly obvious: start off on a sloping ledge to the left, turn uphill at a tree, then sort-of mantle onto a short third class slab which leads to the summit plateau. There was a faded and dubious-looking sling on the slab, which I would have cut and removed if I had a knife. I instead pulled it up after me and left it at the top, to discourage anyone from pulling on this dubious and unnecessary handline.

Upper Tehipite Valley

The summit register was more or less evenly split between Real Climbers doing hard routes on the big side, and peak-baggers like Yours Truly sneaking up the back side for SPS points. The long approaches for either deter the crowds, so I recognized most of the names. I sat around for awhile taking in the views of the Tehipite Valley and the long, deep upper valley of the Middle Fork Kings River, which is still a major internal Sierra divide far upstream where it passes through Le Conte Canyon between the Palisades and the Black Divide.

West-side dirt tan

The return was uneventful, and I found my stuff unmolested at the trailhead. I rinsed off as much of my dirt tan as I could, packed up, then filled up on water on a short ride down to the Crown Valley trailhead, where I planned to start the next day’s hike/bike to Spanish Mountain. Looking through Tehipite’s register, and at the map later, I realized that I could have done both peaks in the day. However this would not have saved me any time, as I planned to ride to Courtwright Reservoir the next day. I set up camp in the empty trailhead parking lot, then almost regretted it as truck after big, white truck crawled by creepily slow. I at first thought they were rednecks checking out the outsider, but later realized that they were just hunters looking for deer foolish enough to venture within rifle-shot of the road. It would be another cold morning followed by a much shorter day, so I turned off my alarm before settling in for the long night.

Hooper, Senger

Hooper from Senger

These two remote SPS peaks, on either side of Seldon pass, were the reason I had suffered the brutal road to Florence. While Senger is an unremarkable pile of sand and talus, Hooper has an impressive east face and a non-trivial summit block. Bob had intended to tag both in one trip when he climbed them many years ago, but uncharacteristically ran out of energy and had to make two trips. Fortunately I was able to them in a single trip, sparing myself the need to repeat the long approach. Curled in my bag waiting to sleep, I read through Bob’s trip report on my phone to see if there was anything non-obvious about these peaks. I was glad I did this, as it informed me of the old trail leading from the Muir Trail Ranch directly up to Sally Keyes Lakes. This shortcut saved me a great deal of time and frustration plying 2500′ vertical of Jolly Manure Trench switchbacks.

How did this road get here?

It had not cooled off overnight as much as I had feared, and the stars were out as I made my headlamp start on the long hike around Florence Lake. The trail crossed the San Joaquin River on a nice bridge, then very slowly gained elevation on the way east, passing below North Rock on the way toward the Ranch. I was surprised to find a jeep road paralleling the trail, with tracks indicating recent use, since I had not seen any road leading there from the west side of Florence. Perhaps cars can drive across the dam, or there is an old truck stuck at the Ranch, with fuel brought in by mule.

Nice trail, nasty brush

I found the shortcut trail exactly where Bob had described, and had no trouble following the line of cairns to the base of the manzanita-choked hillside. I had expected a use- or game-trail, but believe it had actually been built, as it passed two old signs indicating the wilderness boundary. This trail stayed well west of Sally Keyes Creek as it climbed steeply toward the lakes, becoming indistinct once it entered the woods around 9400′. Fortunately I was recording my track, because the trail is much harder to find on the way down, and the off-trail brush is savage.

Ice on lakeshore

The previous afternoon’s snow had melted off lower ground and the south-facing slope I was climbing, but a dusting remained in the meadows above 10,000′. I thought I was almost at the pass after passing the three lakes, but it is another 800′ past (yet another) Heart Lake and up to a narrow cleft. The high plains around large Marie Lake were nearly solid white, and snow of course clung to the north-facing talus fields. Bob had mentioned time-consuming boulder-hopping getting to Senger in fresh snow, so I decided to attack Hooper first, giving the sun more time to do its work. It turned out not to make much difference, as there were similar amounts of slow talus on the way to both summits. There were also some small, rock-hard snowfields left over from the winter, which gave me more trouble than they should have.

Hooper summit block

I reached Hooper’s south-southeast ridge well above its lowpoint and, after playing around on the fourth class crest, dropped down onto the easy sand and boulders of the south face. Reaching the summit rocks, I briefly checked out the 5.4 crack on the front, then thought better of it and went around to the easy backside step-across. Gemini, Seven Gables, and the high peaks around Lake Italy rose impressively to the east and north, while Senger looked disturbingly far away on the other side of Seldon Pass. I plotted a course that would minimize boulder-hopping, then retraced my route to the pass.

Seven Gables, Gemini, Humphreys and Emerson distant, and Senger (r)

I managed to stay mostly on snow-free slabs, much more efficient than the snowy talus, then wasted time dealing with steep brush and boulders trying to bypass 12,068′. Unlike Hooper’s, Senger’s summit is a broad plain whose highpoint is not at all obvious. I walked over to several potential summits, found no register, then took off down the sand in a straight line for the Sally Keyes Lakes. The descent was mostly easy travel, with surprisingly little nasty brush lower down in the woods.

San Joaquin bridge

I emptied my shoes out at the trail, then jogged it for a short distance before heading cross-country to find the shortcut trail. I found a line of cairns higher up, lost the trail by sticking too close to the creek, then used my track to find it again before I got into any real trouble in the manzanita. I felt energetic enough to put in a respectable jog along the San Joaquin, but found it hard to maintain good speed or mood on the spitefully-rolling, horse-ravaged trail around the lake. I returned to my camp in the picnic area just before the headlamp hour, made myself hot glop and a boiling thermos, then settled in for another long night.