Pacific Crest Trail from Boulder Lake Trail to Paradise Valley Trail

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The third hiking day of my car camping and hiking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) was only about 20 PCT miles away from the first day’s hike.  It seemed farther away, but perhaps that was because I’d driven most of the way back to the Bay Area the previous day, nearly bailing out on two terrific hikes due to some unexpected overnight snow.  This post describes the first of the two hikes in the southern portion of the stretch between Ebbetts Pass and Sonora Pass, in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness of Stanislaus National Forest in Alpine County.

The loop hike was fairly ambitious, covering about 17.35 miles with nearly 3900 feet of ascent and descent.  The first 6-mile section was a 2300-foot climb up Clark Fork and Boulder Lake Trails just to reach the PCT.  This was followed by 5.1 miles on the PCT between Boulder Lake Trail and Paradise Valley Trail.  The final 6-mile section included a short climb followed by a 3100-foot descent on Paradise Valley and Disaster Creek Trails.  The official PCT mileages from the PCT data book are 1035.8 (Boulder Lake Trail) and 1030.7 (Paradise Valley Trail).

The hike passed through a variety of habitats with wonderful views.  Indeed, the views began right at the trailhead, where there was a great view of The Iceberg, a prominent and distinctive peak.  The Iceberg seems impressively high: its peak is at 8350 feet elevation, compared to the trailhead elevation of about 6300 feet.  However, we would hike past that peak elevation before reaching the PCT!

photo of The Iceberg

The Iceberg

The trailhead is really a dual trailhead, located at Iceberg Meadows, about 10 miles off CA-108 at the end of the road that goes to the Clark Fork Campground, home base for two hikes.  I was hiking with three friends from a Tahoe area hiking club.  The trailhead services both the Clark Fork Trail and the Disaster Valley Trail, the outbound and return trails.  The GPS track shows the loop, with the trailhead denoted by the orange dot.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation profile shows the climbing and descent for the hike.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The first 2.7 miles was a gentle climb through forest, including a stream crossing on insubstantial-looking logs.  The primary remnants of the previous afternoon’s rain were water droplets on some of the leaves on the ground.

photo of droplets of the previous afternoon’s rain

Droplets of the previous afternoon’s rain

At a trail junction at 2.7 miles we continued on the Boulder Lake Trail.  Although the morning had begun with cool temperatures – a dish towel I’d left out overnight to dry had frozen stiff – once we started climbing in earnest we shed our outer layers.  Most of the climb from the junction to Boulder Lake was a 15% grade.  There were some impressive boulders next to the trail; in addition we could see that the nearby hillside was rather densely covered with boulders.

photo of boulders next to Boulder Lake Trail

Boulders next to Boulder Lake Trail

There was one area of the 15% climb where it was a little tricky to way-find hiking uphill.  I’ve found that, in these situations, it’s helpful to look carefully to the sides, since the intended trail may have a switchback.  We hiked down this trail the following day, and the way-finding was straightforward.  In another place the trail passes over some open bare granite, and there was a huge (at least 2 feet tall) cairn to mark the way.

The trail has a small crest at pretty Boulder Lake, which had nice reflections of the surrounding forest and (more) boulders.

photo of Boulder Lake

Boulder Lake

Above Boulder Lake there was an additional 1.4-mile climb at a gentler grade to reach the PCT.  It is noteworthy that the PCT map does not show that Boulder Lake Trail goes through to the PCT, even though the trail remains well-defined and easy to follow above Boulder Lake.  In addition, there is a sign post at the PCT junction to mark Boulder Lake Trail.

Along the way we passed some scarlet gilia and some Bloomer’s goldenbush (Ericameria bloomeri) with bright yellow blossoms at the tips of the stems/branches.

photo of Bloomer’s goldenbush

Bloomer’s goldenbush

At the PCT we turned left to hike northbound.  Very near the Boulder Lake Trail junction there was a nice view of a nearby ridge.  On the GPS track image it’s basically less than 1 mile due east from the easternmost point on our route.

photo of ridge near the PCT not far from the Boulder Lake Trail junction

Ridge near the PCT not far from the Boulder Lake Trail junction

We paused several times to enjoy views both behind us and ahead of us.  Close to the Boulder Lake Trail junction, as well as farther north along the PCT, we had dramatic views of a distinctive pointy-top peak to the south.  The peak is Stanislaus Peak, with a peak elevation of 11,240 feet, just about 4 miles away in this picture.

photo of Stanislaus Peak

Stanislaus Peak

From the initial section of the PCT we had nice views toward the southeast of the canyon in which the East Fork Carson Creek flows; southeast is upstream.  The next day we would be hiking practically along the creek bank toward the Boulder Lake Trail junction.

photo of canyon of the East Fork Carson River

Canyon of the East Fork Carson River

The PCT follows a curved path between Boulder Peak (9390 feet elevation) and a smaller peak, unnamed on the GPS track map (9100 feet elevation).  The climb, almost continuous from the trailhead at Iceberg Meadow, tops out at about 8900 feet, then descends 300 feet before climbing again, to 9250 elevation.  Near this high point we had more great views southward toward Stanislaus Peak, including some other peaks farther to the south, and to the east, with snow.  I presume this snow had fallen during the mini-storm that had come through less than 48 hours prior.

photo of new snow on peaks south and east of Stanislaus Peak

New snow on peaks south and east of Stanislaus Peak

For couple of miles the PCT undulates gently above 9000 feet elevation.  It passes very close to a bare talus-covered hill, which makes a striking contrast to the more prevalent forested areas and boulders.

photo of volcanic, talus-covered hill next to the PCT

Volcanic, talus-covered hill next to the PCT

All three of my maps show a small lake in the area around 9.3 miles from the trailhead, or 3 1/4 miles along the PCT, and in fact that was our original lunch stop destination.  We decided, instead, to take fuel breaks at the beginning and end of the PCT portion of the hike.  When we got to the indicated lake, we found it to more resemble a meadow.  The GPS track map shows Coyote Meadow, but the area in this picture is closer to the PCT.  Even though there wasn’t any water in the lake, it was pretty.

photo of meadow instead of a lake?

Meadow instead of a lake?

This is one of the areas where there were quite a few impressive boulders next to the trail.

photo of boulders along the PCT

Boulders along the PCT

In the high section of the PCT around 9200 feet elevation we encountered a fence with a simple gate for hikers to use.  Later we would encounter some cattle, and it is my understanding that there are grazing leaseholds in some areas of the national forest.  Fences like this one are used to separate grazing areas and to keep cattle from straying out of the designated grazing area.

photo of fence separating cattle grazing areas in the national forest

Fence separating cattle grazing areas in the national forest

In this general area there is a spring and an intermittent stream.  This moisture supports some wildflowers, and we passed late-season Anderson’s thistles, asters, and a few lupine.

About 11.2 miles from the trailhead, or 5.1 miles along the PCT, we reached the four-way junction with Paradise Valley Trail, to the left, and Golden Canyon Trail, to the right.  Here we departed from the PCT, taking the Paradise Valley Trail.  Some of our group had hiked to this same junction from the north two years ago and hiked down the Paradise Valley Trail on the way to completing a different loop hike in the area.

The Paradise Valley Trail is about 3 miles long.  Initially it climbs about 200 feet, to the 9450-foot high-elevation point of this hike.  After this point the trail descends steadily for the remaining 6 miles of the hike.  The trail passes mostly through forest, but also through a meadow; we passed a few mountain dandelions and broadleaf lupine, the latter well past the blooming phase but easily identified by the unusually large leaves.

About midway along Paradise Valley Trail we passed a nice view of a nearby isolated ridge, mostly bare volcanic rock or talus with just a few scattered trees.

photo of view of a ridge near Paradise Valley Trail

View of a ridge near Paradise Valley Trail

As the trail continues downhill, perhaps at the top of Paradise Valley itself, it passes more open meadows.  We finally saw a couple of the grazing cattle we had only heard before, via the locally worn cowbells.  Soon the trail intercepts the path of an intermittent stream, which tumbles down the steep hillside and down a small, pretty waterfall.

photo of waterfall in Paradise Valley

Waterfall in Paradise Valley

Particularly along the stream there were bushes as well as scattered trees.  The most spectacular trees were western (Juniperus occidentalis) or Sierra (Juniperus grandis) junipers.  This specimen had clearly survived fire or some other natural phenomenon.

photo of western or Sierra juniper

Western or Sierra juniper

We would see other junipers in this area, many heavily laden with dark blue berries.  This observation prompted one of my companions to comment that we were hiking past a bumper crop of gin!

After about 3 miles on the Paradise Valley Trail and descending almost 1400 feet, we reached a T junction with the Disaster Creek Trail.  Two years ago we had turned right, uphill, at this junction to return to the Highland Lakes area via Gardner Meadow.  This time we turned left, downhill, to return to Iceberg Meadows after a final 3 miles and over 1400 feet of descent.

The Disaster Creek Trail passes alternately through forest and open areas.  This was the view across one of the open areas.

photo of view from Disaster Creek Trail

View from Disaster Creek Trail

Although the trail follows quite close to Disaster Creek for a couple of miles, we did not get a clear view of the creek through the trees lining the creek bed.  There were a few wildflowers, though, suggesting that this area would be especially pretty in the spring.  About a half mile before the end of the hike we had a great view of a nearby forest-covered peak.

photo of forest-covered peak

Forest-covered peak

About 1/4 mile before the trailhead the trail exits the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.

Although this was a fairly ambitious hike, it was a beautiful one.  And the weather was just about perfect for almost-fall hiking: sunny, cool in the morning, and comfortable in the afternoon.  The following day we would begin hiking at Sonora Pass and hike to the Boulder Lake Trail, another PCT adventure!

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Pacific Crest Trail from a road crossing north of Wet Meadows to the Nipple

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For the second day of hiking on my car camping trip I was planning to hike the section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) north from the Tamarack trailhead just off Blue Lakes Road, hopefully turning around about halfway to Carson Pass on CA-88. As it turned out, I made changes in my plan in real-time in response to weather conditions – and by the next morning I was grateful I’d made those modifications.

The first part of the hike involved a climb up to nearly 9200 feet elevation with spectacular views, such as this one of Lower Blue Lake viewed from almost 1000 feet higher in elevation than the lake.

image of Lower Blue Lake

Lower Blue Lake

In the original plan for the hike I would hike about 6 miles northwest from the Tamarack trailhead, past a distinctive peak called The Nipple and to a junction with Summit City Canyon Trail, where there is supposed to be a trailhead accessible from CA-88 via a dirt road, Forestdale Divide Rd.  However, I encountered so much wind on the ridge immediately northwest of The Nipple that I decided to turn around almost 3 miles short of my goal.  As kind of a replacement, after returning to the PCT junction near the Tamarack trailhead, I continued southeast for nearly 3 miles to the start/end of the previous day’s hike and then back to the Tamarack trailhead.  The route is shown on the GPS track image, where the orange dot near the middle of the track indicates the trailhead location.

GPS track

GPS track

The entire hike was in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and in Alpine County, covering 13.1 miles with 2060 feet of elevation gain and loss.  I encountered a lot of wind and wind gusts above 8500 feet elevation, and this seemed to confuse my GPS about the elevation gain and loss.  If you look closely at the elevation profile there is a lot of “hash” in the higher elevations – in fact, at the end of the hike the unit claimed that my actual elevation gain was 3700 feet, in contradiction to my later analysis that came up with 2060 feet.  I surmise that the constant wind gusts fooled the unit into thinking that I was making large, very rapid climbs and descents, as a response to the changes in apparent atmospheric pressure associated with the wind – I don’t have a better explanation.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The 13.1 mile distance corresponded to a PCT trail distance of 6.45 miles, plus a short spur trail access at the Tamarack junction.  With respect to official PCT mileages as reported in the PCT data book, the hike covered mile 1064.3 (the road crossing from the previous day’s hike) to mile 1070.75 (my turnaround point on the ridge near The Nipple).

From the trailhead parking area to the PCT junction it is just a short 1/8 mile long spur trail.  The PCT passes through a forested area for about 1/3 mile before crossing Blue Lakes Rd and continuing west-northwest.  There is more forest for the next mile and a half, up to about 8500 feet elevation.  Then the trail emerges from forest and begins to traverse nearly bare hillsides.  The grade gets steeper, though it is still less than 8%.  More importantly, on the day of the hike the wind definitely started to increase.  Shortly after emerging from the forested area I had a nice view of my immediate goal: the trail would pass just a couple hundred vertical feet below the top of The Nipple, shown here.

image of The Nipple

The Nipple

As I crossed this open area I found several wildflowers, including some broad scaled owl’s clover (Orthocarpus cuspidatus).  Although it had obviously finished blooming for the season, the plants were still recognizable as this species, growing among woolly mule’s ears (Wyethia mollis) that were also well past their blooming period.

image of broad scaled owl’s clover among woolly mule’s ear leaves

Broad scaled owl’s clover among woolly mule’s ear leaves

There was also a bit of lupine (Lupinus sp.), possibly sulphur flower (Eriogonum umbellatum), mountain monardella (Monardella odoratissima) and some scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata).

image of scarlet gilia

Scarlet gilia

I also found a few mountain dandelions (Agoseris sp.); I think this is agoseris, though the leaf shape does not quite correspond to any of the species that are supposed to grow in this area.

image of mountain dandelion

Mountain dandelion

About 1 mile after entering the open area and reaching nearly 9000 feet elevation I had the view of Lower Blue Lake pictured at the beginning of the post.  The wind kept getting stronger as I gained elevation.  Initially I just pressed on, since I knew that the trail would crest near The Nipple and then descend several hundred feet to the Lost Lakes area.  Perhaps 1/4 mile past the view of Lower Blue Lake there was a wonderful view of Upper Blue Lake.  I think my campground and camp site are in the forested area at the lower left part of the lake shore, nearly 1000 feet lower in elevation and less than half a mile away.

image of Upper Blue Lake

Upper Blue Lake

As the wind continued to get stronger I kept telling myself to go just a little farther and the trail would crest.  However, when I did manage to reach the crest, the wind was actually so strong that I could barely stay on my feet.  And the slope on the other side of the ridge was just as steep as the slope down to Upper Blue Lake.  Fortunately the trail passed a small rock formation on the lee side, and I sat down to look around me and figure out what to do.

There was a wonderful view to the north, basically along the West Fork of the Carson River as it passes through Charity Valley and Hope Valley, with the Carson Pass area in the background.

image of view north from The Nipple

View north from The Nipple

I could also see most of Lost Lake East, less than 1/2 mile away.  I think the spur trail from the PCT is visible just up the hillside from the lake.

image of Lost Lake East

Lost Lake East

In any case, given the strength of the wind – I’m no expert, but I estimated that it must have been 40 mph with stronger gusts – I decided to turn back.  Perhaps it is nearly always windy on this ridge, or perhaps it was windier than usual due to a weather front coming through.  Either way, I did not want to hike down to Lost Lake and then need to come back across the ridge again.

During the initial part of the descent I simply focused on keeping my footing, but I did stop briefly to take in this expansive view to the southeast. At the very left of the picture the dark rock formation is Jeff Davis Peak, just over 2 miles away; it had been a landmark of the previous day’s hike.  The jagged ridge top in the center of the picture is the volcanic rock Y-shaped ridge that the PCT passes (and I’d hiked) around, with Raymond Peak the highest point and about 6 miles away.  In the background there is another ridge that is probably near CA-4 and the Ebbetts Pass area.

image of view southeast from near The Nipple

View southeast from near The Nipple

I also noted a few more wildflowers: Bloomer’s goldenbush (Ericameria bloomeri), Anderson’s thistle (Cirsium andersonii), and even some mountain pride (Penstemon newberryi) that was well past its blooming peak.

After leaving the open, windswept area and re-entering the forested area, I passed by rock formations.  There were several isolated magnificent junipers, either western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) or Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis), somehow managing to grow from the side of the rock.

image of western or Sierra juniper

Western or Sierra juniper

I continued back to the Tamarack trailhead and took a break.  When I’d turned around on The Nipple I had tentatively decided to try to hike past the Tamarack trailhead spur trail to the road crossing that had been my start/end trailhead the previous day.  Not far from the Tamarack trailhead spur trail I noticed that I was passing a few quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides), some of which had already turned yellow – a sure sign of an imminent autumn season.

image of quaking aspens, not far from the Tamarack trailhead

Quaking aspens, not far from the Tamarack trailhead

The trail passes mainly through a forested area, with rocky areas and individual boulders with differently colored regions and veins.  Someday perhaps I will learn enough about local geology to be able to identify more of what I see!

About 2 1/4 miles from the Tamarack trailhead spur trail the PCT passes very close to Lily Pad Lake.  In fact, the trail also passes close to Tamarack Lake and another, smaller and unnamed, lake, both of which are not visible from the trail.  The approach to Lily Lake was so close that I went over to the actual lake shore.  The picture shows most of the lake, but there is a cluster of lily pads just out of view to the left of the image.

image of Lily Pad Lake

Lily Pad Lake

Less than half a mile further I was able to catch a glimpse through the trees of the volcanic rock ridge formation around which I’d hiked the previous day.

image of view of the nearby volcanic rock ridge

View of the nearby volcanic rock ridge

About 3 miles past the Tamarack trailhead spur trail I arrived at the road crossing that had served as my trailhead the previous day and, after a quick break, I started back to the Tamarack trailhead.  Along the way I noticed some interesting clouds and wondered if the pattern had been generated by higher-level winds.

image of interesting clouds

Interesting clouds

Farther along I had a good view of Jeff Davis Peak, pointing skyward behind the shoulder of an intermediate (unnamed) peak.

image of Jeff Davis Peak

Jeff Davis Peak

About a half mile before the Tamarack trailhead spur trail the PCT passes by an impressive rock wall.  On the return trip, as I stopped to take a couple of pictures, I noticed that there was a person on the top of the wall.  A moment later I encountered his climbing companion, who had just descended.

image of impressive rock wall with a climber on top

Impressive rock wall with a climber on top

I returned to my car without further adventure.  Although I’d decided to make a real-time change in plans because of the wind on The Nipple, the second part of the hike was essentially the hike I had originally planned for the following day.  I figured I would simply make a new plan for the following day.  I did not know yet that I would wake up to a snowy white fairy land and need to abandon any plan at all for a hike!

Posted in Alpine County, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Pacific Crest Trail | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pacific Crest Trail from Wet Meadows to Pennsylvania Creek

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This was the first of four day hikes within a five-day period on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT): hikes that were done as part of a car camping trip.  My home base for the first part of the trip was the Upper Blue Lake expansion campground, located south of Carson Pass and accessed via Blue Lakes Rd.

The title for this hike is slightly inaccurate, since neither of the endpoints was either Wet Meadows or Pennsylvania Creek.  The reason to use the description I did is solely due to space considerations!  I started at a road crossing about 1.3 miles north of the Wet Meadows Trail junction, and my turnaround point was about 1 mile south of Pennsylvania Creek, in the 29-mile PCT section between Carson and Ebbetts Passes in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and in Alpine County.

This section of trail features striking views of nearby peaks as well as a U-shaped journey around a Y-shaped ridge of bizarre and beautiful volcanic rocks and outcrops.  For someone more knowledgeable than I am, this hike is a wonderful geology lesson.  And I was pleasantly surprised to find several types of wildflower in bloom in spite of the calendar telling me that autumn was right around the corner.

The most distinctive feature of the first (northern) part of the hike is 9065-foot Jeff Davis Peak, shown here.  This peak is visible and highly recognizable from a several-mile long stretch of the PCT.  From the spot where I took the picture, it is less than 2 miles away almost directly due north.

picture of Jeff Davis Peak

Jeff Davis Peak

Usually I know the length of a hike before I start; it’s a critical part of the planning process, especially for an out-and-back hike where any mis-calculation gets doubled.  In this case there were uncertainties associated with both the start and turnaround points!  Although I had hoped to begin my hike at the Wet Meadows trail junction, marked on one of my maps as a trailhead, I was unable to figure out how to get there when I scouted trailheads the previous afternoon.  So I had to start at the next accessible location north on the PCT, and this added almost 1.4 miles to each direction.  In addition, my intended turnaround point was the turnaround point of a hike I did I 2014 (ping later) and, even with the information in the PCT data book, I wasn’t sure exactly how many trail miles it was from either Wet Meadows or Ebbetts Pass.  And my initial estimate turned out to be at least a half mile off, adding that distance (again, in each direction), to my eventual hike length.

The road crossing that served as the start/end point of my hike is located about 3 miles from Blue Lakes Rd on a side road that is signed for the Tamarack PCT trailhead.  (In fact, the Tamarack trailhead was the trailhead for the following day’s hike.)   After passing the Tamarack trailhead about 1/4 mile from Blue Lakes Rd you continue along the now-gravel road until reaching a T intersection, where you turn left and continue nearly 1/4 mile.  This is more properly a road crossing than a trailhead; the PCT is denoted by a modest 4×4 post on either side of the road, neither post signed.  There is room for 2-4 cars in nearby informal off-road parking.

The GPS track shows the route of the hike, with the orange dot denoting the road crossing.

GPS track

GPS track

Using mileages in the PCT data book this hike covered PCT mile 1064.3 to PCT mile 1055.9, or 8.4 miles; my GPS mileage was about 8.6 miles each direction.  For reference, the trail distance from the Wet Meadows junction to Pennsylvania Creek – my initial estimate for the hike length – is just under 6 miles.

The elevation profile shows that the elevation range (lowest to highest elevation) was only about 800 feet, but there was quite a bit of up-and-down.  The total elevation gain and loss for the 17.1-mile hike was a little over 3300 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The road crossing is in a moderately open forested area, and the trail climbs about 250 feet in the first 1.5 miles.  Near the end of this climb there is a marked junction with a spur trail to Wet Meadows, mentioned above.  Along the first part of the trail I encountered a few checkerblooms (Sidalcia sp.) as well as some Anderson’s thistles (Cirsium andersonii).  This one was a rather low-growing individual.

picture of Anderson’s thistle

Anderson’s thistle

There is a relatively short section that passes over smooth, bare rock; the way is marked here with three or four cairns.  In other areas there are a few isolated boulders, some with very smooth surfaces and colorful veining.  This was only a preview of the geology lesson that was to come later on!

Immediately after passing the Wet Meadows junction the PCT enters the Mokelumne Wilderness.  About 2 miles from the road crossing the trail crosses the Pleasant Valley Creek, then continues to descend a bit more before climbing again, to 8200 feet elevation.  At 8000 feet elevation a signed post reminds hikers that camp fires are not allowed in the wilderness above that elevation.  Shortly after I passed this signpost, at a switchback at the northernmost point of the hike, there was a pretty view toward what I presume to be Pleasant Valley, where several branches of the Pleasant Valley Creek join, along with the Raymond Canyon Creek and possibly others.  The town of Markleeville is less than 10 – maybe only 7 – miles away in this general direction.

picture of pretty view of Pleasant Valley

Pretty view of Pleasant Valley

Very close to this view I found a small cluster of lupine, possibly narrow-flowered lupine (Lupinus angustiflorus) or long-spurred lupine (Lupinus arbustus).  When researching this wildflower identification I was a bit surprised to find more than one type of white lupine that grows above 2000 meters (about 6600 feet) elevation in Alpine County and flowers in September.

picture of lupine, possibly narrow-flowered or long-spurred lupine

Lupine, possibly narrow-flowered or long-spurred lupine

Between about 3.2 and 3.7 miles from the start the trail is relatively flat and follows along a hillside that is rocky and steep.  I found myself focusing on staying on the trail rather than sightseeing-while-hiking.  Near the beginning of this section there is a nice view of Raymond Peak, with the trail in the foreground.

picture of Pacific Crest Trail with Raymond Peak in the background

Pacific Crest Trail with Raymond Peak in the background

The trail dips down about 100 feet to cross one of the branches of Pleasant Valley Creek.  On the way I found one of many clusters of Bloomer’s goldenbush (Ericameria bloomeri).  I have seen this pretty shrub many times; before I made this identification I mentally named it “yellow-tipped bush,” since the blossoms are at the tip of each branch.

picture of Bloomer’s goldenbush

Bloomer’s goldenbush

Near the creek crossing there were a few of what I believe to be hoary asters (Dieteria canescens var. canescens), with relatively wide ray flowers and bright yellow disc flowers.

picture of hoary aster near Pleasant Valley Creek

Hoary aster near Pleasant Valley Creek

There was also ranger’s button (Sphenosciadum capitellatum), a bit of late-season paintbrush (Castilleja sp.) and seep spring arnica (Arnica longifolia).

picture of seep spring arnica

Seep spring arnica

After the Pleasant Valley Creek crossing the trail climbs 600 feet in 1 mile via four switchbacks, the biggest climb of the hike.  It’s not really a big climb and, in any case, the grade is a reasonable 11%.  About half way up there is a nice view roughly northwest toward several peaks.  Jeff Davis Peak is on the right, The Nipple is on the left, and what may be Round Top, about 10 miles away, between them in the background.

picture of view of nearby peaks: Jeff Davis Peak (right), The Nipple (left), and possibly Round Top (center)

View of nearby peaks: Jeff Davis Peak (right), The Nipple (left), and possibly Round Top (center)

Just above 8600 feet elevation is a junction with a trail that goes to Raymond Lake, about 2/3 of a mile away.  Although I toyed with the idea of hiking up to the lake, as its setting appeared to be beautiful, I decided I would save it for the return trip – and later decided against making the side trip.  This was a good decision in light of the overall length of the hike – and my plan to hike a similar distance the following day.

Shortly past the Raymond Lake trail the PCT tops out at about 8700 feet elevation, the highest elevation of the hike.  From here there were nice distant views of the surrounding area, topped off by interesting clouds in the sky.

picture of view from the highest point of the hike

View from the highest point of the hike

The trail is now about halfway around the U mentioned earlier, and nearly at the top of the Y-shaped ridge formation.  The trail continues around the formation, descending 300 feet and regaining 200 feet in the next mile and a half.  Not far down from the high point there is another stream crossing, this time Raymond Canyon Creek.  Near this crossing I was startled, but delighted, to find clusters of explorer’s gentian (Gentiana calycosa).  Gentians are one of my favorite wildflowers, and explorer’s gentians are especially pretty with green stripes and dots on the inner surface of the petals and delicate fringes between the petals.

picture of explorer’s gentian near Raymond Canyon Creek

Explorer’s gentian near Raymond Canyon Creek

As I was passing the gentians I met my first hikers of the day, two women backpackers hiking northbound.  It turns out that they were just starting out on a multi-day hike and still getting used to the pack weight.  They were impressed that I was managing with such a small pack – until I told them I was only doing a day hike!  I was amused that they had apparently assumed I was backpacking, perhaps because of the location relative to trailheads.  I only met two other hikers/backpackers during the rest of my hike.

About 1/4 mile further I found a single linanthus plant.  I think it is either Sierra linanthus (Leptosiphon pachyphyllus) or Nuttall’s linanthus (Leptosiphon nuttalli); I was unable to distinguish these two species based on my initial research.

picture of either Sierra or Nuttall’s linanthus

Either Sierra or Nuttall’s linanthus

In this moist area I also found some broad-leaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus).  This is one of relatively few wildflowers that I can recognize outside of its blooming season, because the leaves are so distinctive – even for lupine.

At the crossing of Raymond Canyon Creek I found a couple of larger mountain monkeyflowers (Mimulus tilingii), about 6.1 miles from the start and at the bottom of the 200-foot descent from the highest point of the hike.

picture of larger mountain monkeyflower at Raymond Canyon Creek

Larger mountain monkeyflower at Raymond Canyon Creek

Near the second high point of the hike I found a few more Anderson’s thistles (Cirsium andersonii).  Some of the flower heads had completed the blooming cycle and had become the characteristic thistle puff balls typically found late in the season.  When viewed up close, I think this phase is also pretty!

picture of Anderson’s thistle puff ball

Anderson’s thistle puff ball

At the second high point the trail curves to the south and interesting rock formations begin to come into view.  These formations are black volcanic rock, and the surfaces are very jagged.

picture of volcanic rock formations

Volcanic rock formations

The trail now descends a little over 400 feet to cross Pennsylvania Creek.  On the downhill section I was startled to find some California fuchsia (Epilobium canum).  I see this wildflower frequently at sea level in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I was simply surprised to find the same species at over 8000 feet elevation.  In addition, I don’t think I have ever looked as closely at the blossom as my camera did in this close-up shot.  The petals are quite remarkable!

picture of California fuchsia

California fuchsia

Not far away I noted some unusual rocks, which I call cement rocks since I don’t know a more accurate term.  These “boulders” are 1-2 feet across.  There is clearly a cement-like material between the smaller rocks holding the entire mass together.

picture of “cement rocks” next to the Pacific Crest Trail

“Cement rocks” next to the Pacific Crest Trail

Still on this downhill section I came across a quite remarkable juniper tree, either Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis) or western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis), growing immediately next to a small rock formation next to the trail.  The juniper almost seems to be looking over the rock into the valley formed by the Pennsylvania Creek.

picture of juniper next to a small rock formation

Juniper next to a small rock formation

After the Pennsylvania Creek crossing the PCT climbs up again, this time 300 feet in a half mile, to a saddle, described in the PCT data book as a deep crest saddle.  At the saddle there is a sign pointing north to Pennsylvania Creek and south to Eagle Creek.  I continued another 0.4 mile past the saddle before I reached the turnaround point of my 2014 hike, where I celebrated with a 15-minute sit-down lunch break.  It is noteworthy that I had pre-loaded a waypoint into my GPS so I was able to monitor my approach to the previous turnaround point.  I had a great view of some of the nearby fantastic rock formations.

picture of unusual rock formations near the turnaround point of the hike

Unusual rock formations near the turnaround point of the hike

After my break I began to retrace my path back to my starting point.  After crossing the Raymond Canyon Creek, about 3 miles from the turnaround point, there was a nice view of the nearby hills and ridges beneath an interesting cloud formation.

picture of view of ridges and clouds

View of ridges and clouds

Near the beginning of the section that hugged the hillside, where I had to especially pay attention to where I was hiking, I noticed a juniper shrub growing around a colorful rock and loaded with berries.  I think it is most likely a common, or dwarf, juniper (Juniperus communis).

picture of common, or dwarf, juniper loaded with berries

Common, or dwarf, juniper loaded with berries

Not far away I noticed that some of the rocks on the uphill side of the trail were partially covered with lichen – not one, but two, kinds.  The yellow and orange colors were very bright, almost day-glow colors.

picture of rocks with colorful lichen

Rocks with colorful lichen

As is often the case, the return trip mirrored the outbound trip.  Sometimes I see views differently, because in one direction it’s in front of me and in the other direction it’s behind me.  It is a good idea to periodically stop, turn around, and look behind – especially when the trail passes through such a variety of terrain.

This was a great hike in excellent September weather.  I was glad I was able to make it to the turnaround point of my 2014 hike.  I was highly motivated to do that, and it felt good to have succeeded.  It wasn’t just about filling in the blanks, though; it was an excellent hike on its own merits.

For the following day, day 2 of my car camping trip, my hike was planned for the section of PCT north of the Tamarack trailhead.

Posted in Alpine County, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Pacific Crest Trail | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hiking and car camping along the PCT: overview

Particularly in the last couple of summers I’ve placed an emphasis on hiking sections of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that are accessible for day hikes: either out-and-back, loop, or point-to-point hikes.  Some of my recent PCT hikes fill in gaps between sections I’ve previously hiked, while other hikes extend my range either to the north or south of my previous range on the PCT.  Since I am fortunate to have a “second home base” in the Tahoe area, and since I have hiked the entire Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), my first PCT segments were in the roughly 50-mile stretch where the PCT and TRT overlap.

I learned two summers ago that a good way to organize hikes on the PCT, once they are too far from a home base to do as day trips, is to camp at a nearby campground for a few days and do day hikes nearby.  Two summers ago was my first experience car camping in connection with hiking; when I was younger my family car-camped every summer.  Car camping can entail sleeping in a tent or in a car, depending on your preferences.  For now at least, it is working well for me to sleep in the car.

This trip covered most of six days.  The first day consisted of the drive from the San Francisco Bay Area and some trailhead exploration.  My original plan was to hike each of the following five days, changing from one campground to another about 100 driving miles away after a short hike on the third day, and either staying one last night (driving home on the seventh day) or driving home in the evening of the sixth day.

As I will show later in this post, even with advance weather forecasts, sometimes plans need to be revisited in real time – and this can be a challenge when there is no cell phone service, internet connectivity, or weather radio reception.  Without question, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip overall and was happy to be able to fill in nearly 30 miles of the PCT as part of a total of almost 65 miles of hikes.

The area for my first hikes was between Carson Pass on CA-88 and Ebbetts Pass on CA-4 in Alpine County in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, mainly between portions of the Mokelumne Wilderness.  I identified the cluster of campgrounds near Blue Lakes as a good home base.  Two years ago I had hiked about 6 miles in from Ebbetts Pass, and I was hoping to fill in the entire stretch from the turnaround point of that hike to Carson Pass.

Although I had hoped to be able to camp in the Lower Blue Lake campground, the closest campground to the paved entrance road, I found when I arrived that it was full.  So I drove north along the lake shore past two other campgrounds, either full or closed all season, and ended up with a very nice campsite in the Upper Blue Lake expansion campground.  On the way in there are pretty views of Lower Blue Lake, showing how apt the name is.

picture of Lower Blue Lake

Lower Blue Lake

Not far from the campground there is also a nice view across a meadow toward The Nipple, a prominent nearby peak where I would be hiking on my second day.

picture of view of The Nipple

View of The Nipple

While trying to figure out the protocol for selecting a camp site I consulted one of the Camp Hosts, who was happy to lead me on a tour of the upper campground and its companion expansion campground.  In short order I had selected a site just a short walk from the edge of Upper Blue Lake.

picture of view from my campsite toward Upper Blue Lake

View from my campsite toward Upper Blue Lake

It is noteworthy that each campsite in this entire cluster of campgrounds is equipped with – in addition to the usual picnic table and fire ring – a substantial bear box for food storage.  I ended up putting all of my food, food preparation and cleanup, and personal items in the bear box, so I only had clothing in the car with me.  It was great to not have to worry about whether any local bears would be interested in odors from my toothpaste or any other personal items!

At the end of the day, after an early single-pan meal, I could easily walk over to the edge of Upper Blue Lake to enjoy a serene immediate post-sunset view across the lake.

picture of serene post-sunset view across Upper Blue Lake

Serene post-sunset view across Upper Blue Lake

I had plenty of time before full darkness to study the maps for the next day’s planned hike.  The lantern I’d taken along for this purpose had originally been acquired as a costume accessory for an ice skating group number a few years ago, and I was happy to have a special use for it.

picture of evening map study by lantern light

Evening map study by lantern light

It was just a 3-mile drive from my campsite to one of the trailheads I used: 2 miles past the other campgrounds that were full, plus 1 mile on paved Blue Lakes Rd.  At the entrance to the campground complex there is a small paved parking area with some signage.  Here I happened to notice a cluster of flowers, either Western mountain aster (Symphyotrichum spathulatum) or wandering fleabane (Erigeron glacialis).  I have not yet learned how to reliably distinguish among asters, fleabanes, and daisies.  A bee was visiting the flowers one after another.

picture of flower (Western mountain aster or wandering fleabane) with a visiting bee

Flower (Western mountain aster or wandering fleabane) with a visiting bee

Along the paved road on the way to the trailhead there is a small pond that was particularly nicely illuminated in the morning.  There were quite a few lily pads and a few yellow pond lilies (Nuphar luteum) generating beautiful reflections in the water.

picture of yellow pond lily

Yellow pond lily

Before I left the Bay Area I was aware of a forecast for afternoon thundershowers for my third hiking day.  I had planned a short hike that I could easily complete before noon, prior to a 100-mile drive to a different campground near Sonora Pass.  Although I had brought a weather radio with me, on the first evening I discovered that there apparently aren’t any weather stations broadcasting within range of the Blue Lakes campgrounds, so I was unable to check for weather forecast updates.  During the night after my second hiking day I was quite surprised to wake up several times and realize that there was light precipitation falling on my car, at least 12 hours ahead of schedule.  Once daylight arrived I was even more surprised to discover that the precipitation had been snow!  I should point out that this was on 13 September, at least a month earlier than I usually think of for a season’s first snowfall.  This was the view from the shelter of my car.

picture of surprise morning snowy fairy land, viewed from my car

Surprise morning snowy fairy land, viewed from my car

As I mentally reviewed my hiking plan for the day and realized that it involved higher elevations than the campground, it was a quick decision to abandon the hiking plan.  However, the rest of my plan involved driving south to Sonora Pass to meet up with three other women for two days of hiking in that area.  They would be driving down from Truckee later in the morning, but I didn’t have a way to determine whether they were still planning to come down and whether there had been any other change in the weather forecast; the original forecast for the following two hiking days had been for good weather.  In addition, the driving route to the other campground was over Sonora Pass at 9600 feet elevation.  Even with only 1/2 inch of snow at 8200 feet, and clear pavement, I knew there could potentially be more snow higher.

My first decision was to simply load up the car and leave as quickly as possible.  I simply had no desire to be out in drippy weather trying to deal with a propane stove to cook a hot breakfast – even oatmeal and hot tea.  Fortunately I had brought an “emergency” alternative – a couple of baggies of Cheerios – so in fact I would be able to eat on-the-go.  The Camp Host did not have phone or internet service but directed me to a pullout about 2 miles up Blue Lakes Rd that he called the phone booth: a location where most people get phone reception.  So I loaded up my car and headed out to attempt to make phone contact with my other hikers.

On my way out to the paved road I again passed Lower Blue Lake, which had been so blue just the previous day.  Now it was slate grey and surrounded by a fairyland of show-tipped evergreen trees.

picture of Lower Blue Lake surrounded by snow-tipped evergreens

Lower Blue Lake surrounded by snow-tipped evergreens

It turned out to be easy to find the so-called phone booth, since there was already a car stopped in the large pull-out.  I still did not have phone service, but the kind driver of the other car let me use her phone to try a couple of calls: no answer so I left messages.  Meanwhile there was a clear view of The Nipple, where I had been hiking the previous morning.  The trail passes only a few hundred feet below the summit, so clearly the trail was now snow-covered.

picture of snow blanketing The Nipple just 24 hours after I’d hiked near the summit

Snow blanketing The Nipple just 24 hours after I’d hiked near the summit

I also noticed a small plant at the edge of the gravel turnout, peeking out from beneath some snow.  It turned out to be a lupine (Lupinus ssp.) which I didn’t try to further identify.  It is one of the types that grows fairly low.

picture of lupine in snow near Blue Lakes Rd

Lupine in snow near Blue Lakes Rd

I decided to take my time and enjoy the unexpected, but beautiful, snowy scenery along Blue Lakes Rd, since I’d abandoned my original plan for the day.  For the last 5 or 6 miles out to CA-88, the road follows near the West Fork of the Carson River, through Hope Valley.  I stopped near the Hope Valley Campground to enjoy this view.

picture of snowy view across Hope Valley

Snowy view across Hope Valley

Since I had been unable to reach my hiking companions my plan had become to return to the Bay Area, turning left (west) at CA-88; to go to Sonora Pass I would have turned right (east).  I stopped at the Carson Pass ranger station, since I could see that they were open, to see if they had a phone land line.  They didn’t, but one of the ranger station workers told me there is almost always more snow/precipitation at Sonora Pass than at Carson Pass.  Immediately across CA-88 from the ranger station the rocky hillside was covered with trees, possibly Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis).

picture of snow-covered junipers at Carson Pass

Snow-covered junipers at Carson Pass

I decided to stop at the nearby Meiss Trailhead, where the PCT continues north toward Echo Summit on US-50, the next major highway crossing.  As I drove into the large parking area, which was completely empty, I caught sight of a backpacker just leaving the northeast edge of the pavement, apparently on the trail.  I very quickly got out my camera and managed this shot as he passed by the PCT sign.  (I am assuming “he”.)  This picture is surely worth 1000 words about being prepared for the unexpected when hiking, especially something like a long-distance hike on the PCT!  I was especially glad I’d had a car to sleep in the previous night.

picture of backpacker on the snowy PCT at Meiss Trailhead

Backpacker on the snowy PCT at Meiss Trailhead

By the time I got to Jackson, at 1200 feet elevation and with nice, warm weather, I had begun to rethink my decision to return home.  In any case I had not yet reached my hiking companions and I felt that was necessary.  So I stopped again – I had stopped other places on the way, always without phone service – and finally I was able to place calls.  I learned that the other three women were well aware of the weather and the forecast – still nice for the next few days – and were planning to do the hikes that had been planned.  I continued to think about that as I continued to drive toward home.  By the time I got to the Stockton area I had essentially changed my mind about returning home and was prepared to drive up CA-120 and CA-108 to the Sonora Pass area from the west side instead of from the east side.  I stopped for yet more phone calls and was shortly on my way uphill once again.

My decision to resume the trip was a good one.  Although there was some intermittent rain during the afternoon as I drove up to the Sonora Pass area, it had stopped by 5pm and the campground was sufficiently sheltered by trees that the ground was dry for the two women who would sleep in tents.  One of the women brought firewood, so we had a nice campfire in our campsite’s fire ring.

picture of cozy campfire with hot drinks and enthusiastic hikers

Cozy campfire with hot drinks and enthusiastic hikers

We camped in the Clark Fork Campground near the edge of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness in Stanislaus National Forest.  The campground itself is in Tuolumne County, though our hikes were entirely within Alpine County.

We had a wonderful two more days of hiking.  Although the mornings were chilly – the first morning, the damp dish towel I’d left out to dry had frozen into a board – the afternoons were essentially T-shirt weather.  See here and here for descriptions of these hikes.

The second hike involved driving my car up to Sonora Pass in the morning, with a second car having been left at the ending trailhead a few miles from the Clark Fork Campground.  At the end of the hike we returned to the campground, finished breaking camp, and drove back up to Sonora Pass.  I would drive back to the Bay Area and my hiking companions would drive back to Truckee via US-395 on the east side of the Sierras.

Throughout the week the moon had been approaching full moon.  From the Sonora Pass trailhead parking area there was a striking view of the moon illuminating some clouds, with some nearby trees and not-as-nearby mountain peaks silhouetted against a darkening sky.

picture of nearly full moon over Sonora Pass

Nearly full moon over Sonora Pass

When I zoomed in with my camera I was able to get a detailed image of the moon’s features.  On the one hand, this is hardly remarkable since many amateur photographers have photographed the moon.  On the other hand, it is amazing to remember that, even though the moon is almost 2200 miles in diameter, it is almost 240,000 miles away.  There are not very many objects that are so far away that can be so clearly photographed in such detail with a straightforward consumer-based camera.  (Well, mine has a great zoom and I did use it!)

picture of full moon close-up

Full moon close-up

After enjoying the moon I drove nonstop back to the Bay Area, arriving home shortly before midnight.

This post was intended to be just an overview of some of the more interesting things that I experienced during my car camping and hiking trip that were not actually part of the hikes.  My next several posts will cover the hikes themselves.

Posted in Alpine County, car camping, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Pacific Crest Trail, Stanislaus National Forest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Wildflowers along the Mt Whitney Trail

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The proverbial icing on the cake for my Mt Whitney hiking adventure (overview, ascent, and descent) was seeing wildflowers along the Mt Whitney Trail.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how many wildflowers were still in bloom in late August, especially at the higher elevations above 12,000 feet.  On the other hand, I hiked much of the lower elevations (everything below 10,000 feet and one way between 10,000 and 12,000) feet in the dark – so my wildflower sightings below 10,000 feet elevation were significantly limited by the availability of daylight.

My favorite wildflower sighting was sky pilot (Polemonium eximium).  I had seen a few pictures on-line of this exceptionally pretty flower and knew it grows in the alpine zone – above the tree-line – and specifically along the Mt Whitney Trail.  I found this particular plant along the stretch of trail between Trail Crest and the summit, near the end of the pinnacles section at about 13,900 feet elevation. I was actually doing very well but, if I’d needed an energy boost to keep going, this beauty would have supplied it!

image of sky pilot

Sky pilot

As discussed in more detail in my post about the ascent, my group and I were hiking in darkness until we reached Trail Camp at about 12,000 feet elevation, already about 1,000 feet above tree-line.  Above Trail Camp is the famous switchback section of the Mt Whitney Trail, in which the trail climbs 1,600 feet in about 2.1 miles, traversing some 94 switchbacks.  (The official number of switchbacks varies between 94 and “approximately 99”; I counted 94 on my descent.)

Not far into the switchback section I began to see my first wildflowers: cushion buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium).  The plant consists of a pincushion of oval-shaped, succulent, light-colored leaves with bright pink flower heads perched on top.  This picture highlights a single flower head, but there are often one or two dozen flower heads on each plant.

image of cushion buckwheat in the lower part of the switchbacks

Cushion buckwheat in the lower part of the switchbacks

There was also a lot of alpine mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna) along the switchbacks. These plants typically grow practically underneath rocks, with the flower stalks reaching upward up to perhaps 12 inches in height.  This picture was taken at 7:30 am, about an hour after sunrise; the shadow shows the nearly horizontal direction of the sunlight.

image of alpine mountain sorrel along the switchbacks

Alpine mountain sorrel along the switchbacks

My next discovery – nearly all of these wildflowers were first-time sightings for me – was gray chickensage (Sphaeromeria cana), or tansy.  This plant is a clump about 1.5 feet in diameter growing either from a small crack in a rock or from a tiny bit of remnant-rock soil.  The flower heads are almost the same color as the surrounding granite rock and the leaves are a grayish-green color, so the plant is rather subtle in spite of its size.

image of gray chickensage in the switchbacks

Gray chickensage in the switchbacks

A bit higher, beyond the hand rail, I found a cluster of cut-leaf daisy (Erigeron compositus).  These flowers looked to be past their prime, and the information on Calflora suggests that they were late in the blooming season.

image of cut-leaf daisy

Cut-leaf daisy

Apparently there are two “varieties” of cut-leaf daisy, the second type rayless, with only disk flowers.  I found an example of this a bit higher and initially thought it was a different plant altogether.  However, the leaves are identical to cut-leaf daisy.  It’s possible that I’m mistaken, but these flower heads did not look like they’d ever had ray flowers.

image of rayless cut-leaf daisy

Rayless cut-leaf daisy

In the upper switchback section I saw several clusters of what turned out to be sky pilot (Polemonium eximium) after completion of the flowering phase.  There were some amazing clusters growing right out of cracks between the talus rocks.  When I first saw this plant I thought it might be an exotic form of buckwheat (Eriogonum), even though the foliage was all wrong.  Fortunately I got some good pictures, including close-ups like this one, and was able to solve the mystery once I uploaded the pictures to my computer.  The foliage and the remnants of purple blossoms are key distinguishing characteristics.  All of the sky pilot I saw in the switchbacks was, like this one, past the flowering phase.

image of sky pilot after flowering

Sky pilot after flowering

It turns out that the upper section of the Mt Whitney Trail, in the 2 miles between Trail Crest and the summit and above 13,500 feet elevation, is the place to find the most spectacular high-elevation flowers.  As mentioned above, this is where I found sky pilot blooming, and in fact there was quite a bit of it in the talus section above the pinnacles section around 14,000 feet elevation.

This is also where I found some beautiful, brightly-colored alpine gold (Hulsea algida).  This is a high-elevation, late-season flower and it, like the sky pilot, stands out from the surrounding gray rock and seems to grow in places where life forms shouldn’t be able to survive.  Also like the sky pilot, I had read about alpine gold ahead of the hike and was specifically looking for it – though it was hard to miss!

image of alpine gold at 14,000 feet elevation

Alpine gold at 14,000 feet elevation

After successfully summiting Mt Whitney and taking a needed rest break, I began my descent around 1pm.  The descent would take nearly 8.5 hours and end, once again, in the dark.

A short distance below Trail Camp I noticed some bright pink rock fringe (Epilobium obcordatum) that I had missed on the way up in the morning twilight.  This example was at about 11,900 feet elevation.  Unlike the sky pilot and alpine gold, the entire rock fringe plant and its flowers grow relatively low to the ground.

image of rock fringe not far below Trail Camp

Rock fringe not far below Trail Camp

About 0.4 mile below Trail Camp the trail is built on a nice series of rock steps and crosses Lone Pine Creek.  In this relatively moist area there was some larger mountain monkeyflower (Mimulus tilingii), or Tiling’s monkeyflower.  Since we were literally stepping over the plants I had noticed them in the twilight of the ascent and had mentally bookmarked them for photos on the descent.  They were growing literally in the cracks of the stone steps.

image of larger mountain monkeyflower

Larger mountain monkeyflower

About 0.1 mile below Trailside Meadow – a beautiful high-elevation (11,400 feet) hillside meadow – there was some crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa) growing right next to the trail, not far from another trail-crossing of Lone Pine Creek.  This was not a first-time sighting, but columbines are so pretty that it was a delight to see.

image of crimson columbine just below Trailside Meadow

Crimson columbine just below Trailside Meadow

Below Mirror Lake and approaching Outpost Camp we passed some Arizona thistle (Cirsium arizonicum).  According to Calflora this type of thistle is only found at relatively high elevations in the southern Sierras and in the White Mountains just east of the Owens Valley.

image of Arizona thistle

Arizona thistle

Approaching Outpost Camp I found a cluster of monardella at 10,450 feet elevation.  I have had a challenge with this identification.  On the one hand, pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima) is quite common in the Sierras, especially in dry areas at low-to-mid elevation (below 10,000 feet).  On the other hand, sweet-smelling monardella (Monardella beneolens) occurs at slightly higher elevations (2,500-3,600 meters, or 8,250-11,900 feet) and is less associated with dry habitat.  I found this cluster right next to another Lone Pine Creek crossing in a moist habitat.  Also, sweet-smelling monardella has wavy-edged and moderately triangular leaves and, if I look closely at my photo, these plants appear to show this characteristic.  Notably, sweet-smelling monardella is considered rare, threatened, or endangered due to limited range – but it has been observed along the Mt Whitney Trail.  So my tentative identification is sweet-smelling monardella.

image of sweet-smelling monardella (tentative identification)

Sweet-smelling monardella (tentative identification)

I found the monardella about 1/2 hour before dark and, as it turns out, it was the last daylight wildflower sighting of the day even though we were still 4 miles from the Whitney Portal trailhead.  It would certainly be interesting to return to the area some other time – in the daylight! – to explore and to enjoy other spring- and summer-season wildflowers.

Posted in Inyo County, Mt Whitney, Sierras, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Mt Whitney Trail: Day Hike from Whitney Portal to the Summit and Back – the descent

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This post is a continuation of my previous post describing an ascent of the Mt Whitney Trail as part of a day hike from Whitney Portal to the summit of Mt Whitney and back.  The hike was so amazing, and there was so much to see and experience, that I’m writing 4 posts in all: an overview, the ascent, the descent, and the wildflowers I saw along the way.  This post describes the descent from the summit to Whitney Portal.  My GPS tradk and elevation profile are in the overview post.

As a quick summary, I was with a group of eight hikers.  We’d agreed to start hiking at 2:00 am and, as a consequence, had hiked the lower part of the trail – up to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet elevation – essentially before first light.  Then came the heavy work, hiking up the switchbacks to Trail Crest and then the final 2 miles across talus fields to the summit at 14,505 feet elevation.  By the time we summited, we had spread out over more than 2 hours, with two people ahead of the main group and two behind, and with each gap at least an hour.

My summit time was about 9 hours 40 minutes for the 10.6-mile climb, and I was very happy to have made it in less than 10 hours with no elevation-related issues and with good energy.  In fact, it was pretty exhilarating to be at the highest elevation in the lower 48 states with incredible views and beautiful weather.

After almost exactly 1 hour at the summit it was time to begin the descent.  The two faster hikers and one of the main group had already started to descend, so three of us started the descent together.  We passed the last two about 20 minutes after leaving the summit.

Although I didn’t want to get ahead of myself, as I was preparing to begin hiking down I did briefly think ahead to a few of the significant milestones that lay ahead: the switchbacks, and hopefully seeing most of the lower trail below Trail Camp in daylight.  First, however, there was the difficult 2.1-mile section across talus fields and past the pinnacles to Trail Crest – and there were some incredible views in this section.  This preview view is across the upper talus field, with Keeler Needle on the left and Crooks Point on the right.

picture of Keeler Needle (left) and Crooks Point (right)

Keeler Needle (left) and Crooks Point (right)

As my sub-group of three hikers was getting ready to begin the descent, this was our view toward the beginning of the Mt Whitney Trail from a spot right next to the summit hut.  I am not completely sure of the landmarks, but I think the row of peaks just to the right of center includes Mt Kaweah, Black Kaweah, Red Kaweah, and Kaweah Queen, with Kern Canyon below.  You can see a couple of hikers on the trail, making their way among the talus rocks.

picture of view from next to the Mt Whitney summit hut

View from next to the Mt Whitney summit hut

Less than half a mile down the trail we came to the view of Keeler Needle and Crooks Point.  These features are not considered to be separate peaks from Whitney, as their prominence, or elevation difference from the surrounding baseline, is too small.  It is said that they are straightforward talus slopes to climb, but I didn’t see anyone over there.  If anyone did want to climb them, it would be important to pay attention to where the summit is, because the eastern face is a sheer drop-off for hundreds, if not thousands, of feet.

About 1 mile from the summit is the beginning of the so-called pinnacles section of trail.  Sharp, pointed rock structures thrust upward into the sky.  Some of the towers begin practically right next to the trail, leaving skinny windows with incredible views down and to the east.  These views were so amazing I photographed all of them!  Here is the first: remember that the Owens Valley floor is over 9,000 feet below, and the Inyo Mountains rise on the east side, just outside the western boundary of Death Valley National Park.

picture of view through first window in the pinnacles

View through first window in the pinnacles

Only a few minutes later I came to the second window.  Here you are looking down on Wotan’s Throne, almost in the center of the picture, with Candlelight Peak behind and slightly to the left and Lone Pine Peak further behind and to the right.  Lone Pine Peak is the most prominent peak you see from the town of Lone Pine, and its summit is at an elevation of about 12,950 feet, nearly 1000 feet lower than this viewing location.

picture of view through second window in the pinnacles

View through second window in the pinnacles

Barely 100 feet further along the trail there is a fantastic view of Mt Muir, with a peak elevation of 14,018 feet.  The Mt Whitney Trail passes by at an elevation of about 13,750 feet, and some brave souls do make this ascent – with proper equipment and skills, and most likely not as part of a day hike from Whitney Portal!

picture of Mt Muir

Mt Muir

The gap between Mt Muir and the next pinnacle to the left forms a third window with a spectacular view.  Here you can see Pinnacle Ridge on the left, with Wotan’s Throne in front of the ridge and Candlelight Peak to the right, behind Wotan’s Throne.  Again, the Inyo Mountains are visible in the background across the Owens Valley.  The views through these windows have been described as jaw-dropping, and it is hard to disagree with that description!

picture of view through third window in the pinnacles

View through third window in the pinnacles

As beautiful as the pinnacles – and the views through the windows – are, there are also exceptional views off to the other side of the trail, where the west side of the Whitney crest drops off steeply for about 2,000 feet to a basin that contains the Hitchcock Lakes and aptly named Guitar Lake, shown in this picture.  The longish ridge in the center of the picture is topped by Mt Young, with a peak elevation of 13,160 feet.

picture of Guitar Lake, with Mt Young behind

Guitar Lake, with Mt Young behind

Zooming in a bit over Mt Young, you can see a nice view of a more distant skyline in Sequoia National Park.  In between is the Pacific Crest Trail, which coincides with the John Muir Trail (JMT) north of Crabtree Meadow and continues south to Kennedy Meadows on the way to Mexico.  The peak on the skyline that is reminiscent of Half Dome might be Kern Point, about 9 miles away from the Mt Whitney Trail.

picture of Sequoia National Park skyline west of the Mt Whitney Trail

Sequoia National Park skyline west of the Mt Whitney Trail

About 2 miles from the summit is the junction with the JMT.  Here some backpackers leave the heaviest part of their pack weight in order to summit Mt Whitney with a much lighter load.  It is worth noting that anyone who intends to do this should leave all food in bear containers.  Although I’m not sure there are bears in the area, any unsecured food will probably be taken by marmots, ground squirrels, or chipmunks, all of which have been known to tear into fabric pockets and packs to reach unsecured food.  Indeed, one of the hikers in my group had found during the ascent that her water bladder was leaking, so she left her day pack here and summited with a bottle or two of water and a few snacks in her pockets.  When she returned, the rest of her food was gone! – but the more valuable items, such as her water filter and headlamp, were untouched.

picture of backpackers sometimes leave their heavy packs at the JMT junction

Backpackers sometimes leave their heavy packs at the JMT junction

For about 0.15 mile past the JMT junction the trail climbs – the only noticeable climb of the return trip – to Trail Crest.  Not far from Trail Crest, if you look away from your feet at the right place, you have a fantastic view of the upper switchbacks.  I somehow managed to miss this view, and borrowed this picture from the group member who had descended about an hour ahead of me.  I can only surmise that the lighting was more dramatic at the time she came through, since this view just presents itself to hikers who are paying attention.

picture of top portion of the switchbacks

Top portion of the switchbacks

Here is a look back toward Trail Crest from the long traverse above the switchbacks, with the south end of the pinnacles at the right.  In addition to the hikers visible in the notch at Trail Crest, by this time (almost 3pm) some clouds were beginning to come into the area.  In retrospect, I do think the lighting was better earlier in the afternoon to view the switchbacks.

picture of looking back at Trail Crest, just before beginning the switchbacks

Looking back at Trail Crest, just before beginning the switchbacks

In any case, I proceeded down the switchbacks.  By this time our little group of three hikers was somewhat spread out, and we simply planned to regroup at Trail Camp at the bottom of the switchbacks.  I thought it would be interesting to see what the switchbacks look like in a birds-eye view: This image of my GPS track shows the section between Trail Crest and Trail Camp.  The end of the orange section indicates the approximate location of the handrail mentioned in the post about the ascent.

picture of GPS track of the switchback section between Trail Crest (left) and Trail Camp (right)

GPS track of the switchback section between Trail Crest (left) and Trail Camp (right)

In order to keep my focus I decided to count the switchbacks on the way down.  As it turns out, another hiker who was close to me was doing the same thing, though he was counting more loudly than I was.  Our counts agreed at least into the 30’s, and then I was interrupted by someone calling to me to relay a message from one of my hiking companions via a stranger, to wait for her at Trail Camp.  In the process I may have counted 4 switchbacks as 2.  Some of them are quite short, so it’s not possible to distinguish them on the GPS track and do an independent count.  By my count, the hand rail was after #52, and I got a total count of 94.  Published counts of the switchbacks range from 94 to “approximately 99”.

In the upper part of the switchback section I came upon a pika, presumably an American pika (Ochotona princeps) scurrying around on the rocks right next to the trail.  It had just grabbed a mouthful of leaves, I think from some sky pilot, and was most likely going to leave them on the rock to dry, to be stored later under a nearby rock.  This is a primary way pikas store food for the winter, since they do not hibernate.

picture of pika gathering food for the winter

Pika gathering food for the winter

After completing the switchbacks I arrived once again at Trail Camp.  On the one hand the most demanding part of the hike was done, but on the other hand there were still 6.5 miles to go and my watch assured me that the last part of the hike would be done, once again, in darkness.  I was the 4th to arrive at Trail Camp, out of what would become a group of 5 hiking the last 6.5 miles together.  We waited for my companion who had verbally messaged me higher on the switchbacks.  We had a light meal and refilled our water supplies at the beautiful small lake.  And we discussed what to do about our two companions who were most likely already over 2 hours behind us and hiking more slowly.  (We did not have radios and, of course, there is no cell phone service.)  Eventually we decided that it was more prudent for the 5 of us to get off the mountain safely and sooner, and then make further plans about how to meet up with the last two hikers when they reached Whitney Portal.

After a 45-minute break, we began hiking the last 6.5 miles at 5pm.  As it turns out, it took us about 4 1/4 hours to reach Whitney Portal, but a bit more than the first half was in daylight.

Trailside Meadow is a beautiful hillside meadow about 1 mile down from Trail Camp.  We had passed it in the dark during the ascent without being aware of it.  A small stream, which turns out to be Lone Pine Creek, trickles and tumbles down the hillside from Consultation Lake, with tiny waterfalls along the way.  The moisture gives rise to the beautiful green meadow.  This would be a beautiful place to explore with more daylight available.

picture of Trailside Meadow

Trailside Meadow

About 1/4 mile past Trailside Meadow there was a pretty view of Mirror Lake, about 500 feet lower in elevation.  We would pass this lake a bit later, just before reaching Outpost Camp.

picture of Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake

Another short distance past the view of Mirror Lake, just above 11,000 feet elevation, we started to see trees.  Here is what I presume to be a foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana).  The shadow line on Candlelight Peak was a reminder that we didn’t have a lot of daylight left, and we didn’t take time to stop and enjoy our first trees of the day – after hiking more than 16 miles.

picture of foxtail pine above Outpost Camp at 11,000 feet elevation

Foxtail pine above Outpost Camp at 11,000 feet elevation

After passing Mirror Lake at lake level we were treated to a pretty view down the canyon formed by Lone Pine Creek.  In the base of the canyon, near the water, there were more trees and other plants.  For reference, the elevation here was about 10,650 feet, which is about 100 feet lower than the summit of Mt Rose in the Lake Tahoe area and therefore the highest conveniently accessible hiking location for many Californians.  Amazingly, we had already descended 4,000 feet from the summit of Mt Whitney (and still had a little over 2,000 feet to go)!

picture of view down the Lone Pine Creek canyon

View down the Lone Pine Creek canyon

About 1.4 mile past Trailside Meadow, and nearly 1000 feet lower, we reached Outpost Camp, a very pretty campground that would make a wonderful home base for shorter day hikes in the area.  This was another landmark we had passed in the dark on the ascent, unaware of its very existence since we didn’t see the sign.  Just past Outpost Camp, Lone Pine Creek cascades down a lovely waterfall on a steep, rocky hillside.

picture of Lone Pine Creek waterfall near Outpost Camp

Lone Pine Creek waterfall near Outpost Camp

Less than 1/2 mile past Outpost Camp we came to a particularly nice view down the canyon, with the Inyo Mountains again in the background and still experiencing some sunlight, and with Lone Pine Lake appearing to be a perfect reflecting mirror in the growing twilight.  At last, we had dropped below the height of the peaks in the Inyo Mountains.

picture of Lone Pine Lake near twilight

Lone Pine Lake near twilight

About 0.8 mile past Outpost Camp we passed the sign designating the boundary of the Whitney Zone, where a permit is required for either day use or overnight use.  I was, frankly, delighted to pass this sign in the daylight.  While I might wish to return in the future to spend some more leisurely time between Outpost Camp and, say, Trailside Meadow, within the Whitney Zone, I had at least seen this area once in daylight.  It would be straightforward to revisit the area below and outside the Whitney Zone at my convenience, because a permit is not needed.

There was one more nearby goal that I was hoping to reach before dark: the so-called balance beam, a long water crossing just below a spur trail to Lone Pine Lake.  The water crossing is accomplished via some 8 to 10 logs placed end to end, passing through an area that must be wet for much of the year.  We had not been able to see very well in our night-time crossing during our ascent.  We just knew that the logs seemed to go on for a long time!

picture of so-called balance beam water crossing, crossed in the dark on the ascent and at twilight on the descent

So-called balance beam water crossing, crossed in the dark on the ascent and at twilight on the descent

Literally just a few minutes after negotiating the balance beam we stopped for our last 5-minute break and then turned on our headlamps for the remaining hour and 40 minutes – and 3 miles – of hiking.  Because we reached the Whitney Portal trailhead in full darkness, we did not linger for a celebration.  Instead, WAG bags were unfastened from packs and disposed of and our car, parked without a permit, was checked and found to have not been ticketed.  We climbed in and drove back to Lone Pine to meet up with our lead hiker, who had finished at least 2 hours earlier, and strategize about how to connect with the last two hikers.  It turns out that they finished their hike around 11:40pm, which meant that their hike had lasted nearly 21.75 hours.

For the record, my descent was accomplished in 8.5 hours, the ascent took 9.75 hours, and I spent 1 hour at the summit, for a total of 19.25 hours.  Among the many things I was grateful for were these: I had good energy for the last 3 miles of hiking in the dark (some people insist that they are the hardest miles of the entire journey); I had not developed any blisters or hot spots on my feet; my knees felt great; and my legs were not especially tired or sore, even a day or two later.  Last but not least, I had remained vertical.  I think preparation and focus, with a touch of determination, must have helped to carry me through.

In the final post about this amazing experience I describe the wildflowers I saw along the Mt Whitney Trail.

Posted in Inyo County, Mt Whitney, Sierras | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Mt Whitney Trail: Day Hike from Whitney Portal to the Summit and Back – the ascent

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I recently had the incredible experience of hiking the Mt Whitney Trail from Whitney Portal to the summit of Mt Whitney and back in one day.  This hike is truly amazing!  There was so much to see and experience, and that I’d like to share here on my blog, that I’m writing a total of 4 posts: an overview, the ascent, the descent, and the wildflowers.  This post covers the ascent.

Completing this hike in one day virtually requires starting before dawn.  In fact, the group of eight people I was hiking with agreed to start hiking at 2:00 am in order to have a good chance to summit by noon.  This is a safety concern, since summer thundershowers can occur and they are usually in the afternoon.  So it is a good idea to plan to be at and off the summit by early in the afternoon, especially if there is any question about the weather.

Jumping ahead for a moment: after a long hike in the dark we arrived at Trail Camp shortly after sunrise.  The small lake there captured a beautiful reflection of nearby Wotan’s Throne.  The promise of a beautiful morning was one of the things that spurred us on during the night hike.

photo of Wotan’s Throne reflected in the lake at Trail Camp

Wotan’s Throne reflected in the lake at Trail Camp

Note that a 2am start and noon summit meant that we were hoping to complete our ascent in 10 hours.  Since the hike is 10.6 miles each way, these simple numbers give an indication of just how strenuous the hike is.  Indeed, it begins at 8,400 feet elevation and tops off at 14,505 feet elevation.  If your body is not accustomed to high-elevation hiking, AMS (acute mountain sickness, or elevation sickness) is a very real possibility that can force a turn-around at any time.  Happily, everyone in our group summited successfully and, as a group, we had relatively few altitude-related issues.  Most hikers go somewhat faster at the lower elevations and more slowly as the elevation climbs.  As is evident from the elevation profile in the hike overview post, the grade could be described as relentless, but not especially steep – or flat, for that matter.

For about 4 hours we hiked in full darkness with headlamps on to light the way.  In this picture I have my headlamp pointed toward a plant at the side of the trail, but this image pretty much sums up the views during this first section of the hike.

photo of hiking the Mt Whitney Trail at night

Hiking the Mt Whitney Trail at night

Since there were other groups that started hiking almost at the same time that we started, there were a few occasions when I could see a row of bobbing lights on the next switchback below me.  Also, not long after we started hiking the moon rose: a waning crescent just 4 days before a new moon.

In the first few miles of the trail there were several water crossings, mostly rock-hopping but a couple in which it was inevitable that we would get our boot soles wet.  There was one exceptionally long crossing that is accomplished via 8-10 long logs placed end-to-end.  We decided it should be called the balance beam, perhaps in honor of the just-completed Rio Summer Olympics, so we channeled our inner Simone Biles to cross without falling off!  I hoped we’d return when there was still daylight.

Shortly before 6am we could see the eastern sky begin to turn red in the twilight anticipation of sunrise about a half hour later.  I surmise that the range of hills in the background of this picture is the Inyo Mountains on the east side of the Owens Valley and on the west side of Death Valley National Park.  We had already climbed to an elevation of about 11,450 feet completely in the dark!  In terms of trail landmarks, we had passed Outpost Camp and Trailside Meadow without being aware of our surroundings: just our headlamps illuminating the trail immediately in front of us and, often, illuminating the feet of the hiker in front of us.

photo of morning twilight view across the Owens Valley toward the Inyo Mountains

Morning twilight view across the Owens Valley toward the Inyo Mountains

As the sun approached the horizon behind us, the granite walls of the Whitney crest in front of us turned rosy in pre-sunrise alpenglow.  This was a quite ephemeral view, but it was so beautiful that it, alone, made the early rising hour and over 4 hours of hiking in the dark completely worthwhile.  In this picture Mt Muir is the prominent peak about 1/3 of the way in from the right, and I think Crook’s Peak is at the very right.  The notch at the upper right side of the steep flat slope, almost exactly in the center of the picture, is Trail Crest.

photo of alpenglow


Another 8 or so minutes later the sun finally rose above the topography behind us.  It was just after 6:30 am and we were about to arrive at Trail Camp at 12,000 feet elevation.

photo of sunrise on the Mt Whitney Trail, not far from Trail Camp

Sunrise on the Mt Whitney Trail, not far from Trail Camp

Trail Camp marks the end of the first section of the hike, the lower section where there are multiple opportunities to find water along the trail.  Above Trail Camp, an 8.8-mile round trip to the summit, there is no water.  Most hikers stop here for a longer break, including a light meal (I had a half sandwich) and a refill of water containers.  The refill is accomplished at a small unnamed lake less than 50 yards from the main trail (see the picture at the beginning of this post).

After about 35 minutes at Trail Camp, mostly taking care of the necessities while overnight campers were just getting up and heating water for breakfast, it was time to tackle the next section: the famous switchbacks.  The number of switchbacks is variously reported between 94 and 99.  They basically go up the flat-looking slope in the center of the alpenglow picture, gaining 1600 feet in 2.1 miles.  Since they begin at 12,000 feet elevation it is advisable to take them slowly.

photo of hikers making their way up the switchbacks above Trail Camp

Hikers making their way up the switchbacks above Trail Camp

One of the techniques I had practiced in my mostly low-elevation training was to achieve and maintain a good rhythm of stepping and breathing so that I could make steady progress with tolerable effort and not too many stops.  It took me a few minutes less than 2 hours to climb the switchbacks to Trail Crest, so I still paused quite a few times to drink and to appreciate the spectacular views.  This is a view of what I think of as the granite wall at the top of, and to the north of, the switchbacks.

photo of view of the “granite wall,” the Whitney crest

View of the “granite wall,” the Whitney crest

Although the slope of the relatively flat talus field criss-crossed by the switchbacks looks like it could be at a 45-degree incline, I think it is more like 35-40 degrees: still very steep.  You would not want to trip or stumble off the trail.  There is one section, a little less than halfway up, which traverses some flat rock and which apparently sometimes retains snow and ice well into the summer.  In this section a hand rail has been built to help ensure that hikers stay safely on the trail.  Fortunately the snow was gone for the 2016 summer season.

phto of hand rail section

Hand rail section

On steep hillsides like this one I tend to hike toward the uphill side of the trail, as far as possible away from the edge.  I found the footing to be quite secure, as long as I primarily looked at where I was placing my feet!  If I wanted to sightsee, I stopped.

The switchbacks end with a long traverse to the west toward Trail Crest, a small notch in the ridge-top topography.  In this picture Trail Crest is the notch near the center of the skyline.  If you look closely you can see several hikers pausing there for a short break.

photo of near the top of the switchbacks, approaching Trail Crest

Near the top of the switchbacks, approaching Trail Crest

At Trail Crest you are literally at the crest of the Sierras, and the views are quite remarkable.  If you look back roughly the way you’ve come up the switchbacks, you can see Consultation Lake as well as the smaller lake to its left at Trail Camp.  The distinctive notched peak in the background may be Candlelight Peak.

photo of Consultation Lake, Trail Camp, and (I believe) Candlelight Peak

Consultation Lake, Trail Camp, and (I believe) Candlelight Peak

The views to the west are equally impressive.  The two lakes nearly directly below Trail Crest are the Hitchcock Lakes, with Mt Hitchcock behind.

photo of Hitchcock Lakes in front of Mt Hitchcock

Hitchcock Lakes in front of Mt Hitchcock

While enjoying the views at Trail Crest, I was mindful that there were still about 2.1 tough miles to hike before arriving at Mt Whitney’s summit.  First there was a short-but-steep descent to the junction with the John Muir Trail (JMT), about 0.15 mile past Trail Crest and past a sign announcing entry into Sequoia National Park.  This is a point where many backpackers join the Mt Whitney Trail from adventures on the west side of the Sierra crest.  Some leave their backpacks at the junction to hike to the summit with minimal gear.  Day hikers generally just continue carrying everything to the summit.

This section of trail seemed to be mainly across endless talus fields.  Here is a view of the trail crossing a talus field just past the JMT junction.  Crossing this particular talus field is the only place where the trail seemed not quite well-defined in all places.  I was hiking with two of the women in my group, and we did get slightly off-trail at one point.  As we were trying to figure out whether to go uphill or downhill to find the trail, descending hikers came into view and essentially showed us the way.

photo of Mt Whitney Trail crossing a talus field after passing the JMT junction

Mt Whitney Trail crossing a talus field after passing the JMT junction

The step-and-breathe technique became more important, since we were above 13,500 feet elevation and needed to work a bit to get over some of the talus rocks.  I should note that my pedometer more-or-less failed throughout this section, as it seemed to detect that my foot was actually taking steps only about half of the time.

This section of trail passes a section known as the pinnacles, with spectacular other-worldly structures perched on the Sierra crest.  In this view, I realized only after I uploaded my photos to my computer that the summit hut is barely visible on the flat-topped nose just to the left of the jagged structures.  At the time my focus was, quite honestly, on slow and careful hiking and on minding my breathing and hydration.

photo of pinnacles along the Sierra crest

Pinnacles along the Sierra crest

Through this section from Trail Crest to the summit, my average progress was about 0.9 mph.  Besides taking care of my breathing and so on, I had a great curiosity to see what would come next.  And there were some spectacular views that I mention in the post on the descent.  Also, the highest elevation wildflowers were here: alpine gold and sky pilot, amazingly growing and apparently thriving in spaces between talus rocks where it seemed impossible for any life form to exist.

After passing Keeler Needle the trail curves to the west, then angles northeast and east.  Throughout this section the summit hut is not visible.  The ground is so steep that you don’t really have a sense of how much higher the top is.  Then, suddenly, the summit hut comes into view.  I think anyone who has come this far feels a surge of energy to complete the last 0.1 mile or so of the climb!

photo of Mt Whitney summit hut

Mt Whitney summit hut

As is evident from the picture, the weather was fantastic, and we knew that thunderstorms were not going to be an issue.  The hike overview post describes in some detail the official tasks for the summit: signing the ledger, finding the geodetic markers and the commemorative tablet, etc.  I even posed for a special picture holding a specific magazine cover I’d carried up in my pack for that purpose.  But the most fun thing I did at the summit of Mt Whitney was a (very small) celebratory jump – you can tell I was jumping because all of my straps, my permit, and my camera and GPS are flapping.  For the record, the wind was absolutely calm.

photo of celebration at the summit of Mt Whitney

Celebration at the summit of Mt Whitney

I had summited in approximately 9 hours and 40 minutes.  Although that is not considered a “fast” ascent time, I was very happy with a time under 10 hours.  Most of the other hikers at the summit seemed to be in their twenties, which meant that they were roughly 40 years younger than I am.  Here are a few of the others who were climbing around on the summit rocks just east of the hut.  I’m pretty sure I saw a GoPro-type camera mounted on the white helmet.  The short sleeves emphasize that the temperature was very comfortable.  I think that the two overlapping peaks just to the right of the fellow in the white helmet are Mt Keith and Mt Williamson, with Mt Russell at the right and closer.

photo of other hikers at the summit of Mt Whitney

Other hikers at the summit of Mt Whitney

Although the weather was clear, with no clouds in the sky, my impression was that the atmosphere was not as clear as it sometimes is at the summit.  Here is a view looking down to the east at the Owens Valley.  It is roughly 2 miles down and several miles away horizontally, yet seems hazy.  The Los Angeles Aqueduct carries water to southern California metropolitan areas.

photo of Owens Valley viewed from the summit of Mt Whitney

Owens Valley viewed from the summit of Mt Whitney

This is a stunning view generally south, showing numerous landmarks:  The arc-shaped ridge is Pinnacle Ridge; the angular lump in the basin-like area is Wotan’s Throne, with Trail Camp immediately to its right.  On the horizon, the flat-topped peak is Mt Langley, with Mt LeConte and Mt Mallory just to its left.  Probably just out of view at the left, and lost in the haze, is Telescope Peak at the western edge of Death Valley.  The pointy-top peak is Mt McAdie, with Cirque Peak and Olancha Peak behind it.  Crooks Pk and Keeler Needle are in the foreground at the right.  The pretty lake within the curve of Pinnacle Ridge is not named on any of my maps.

photo of summit view to the south

Summit view to the south

Altogether I spent about an hour at the summit, doing official things like signing the register, getting my picture taken, taking pictures, eating/drinking, and resting a bit with my pack removed.  After that it was time to begin the descent.  I should probably note that one of the cardinal rules, especially of out-and-back hikes, is to never hike up – or down – anything that you are unwilling or unable to hike in the opposite direction.  Part of the purpose of the rest was to regain the necessary energy for the 10.6-mile descent, described in the next post.

Posted in Inyo County, Mt Whitney, Sierras | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments