On this 6 day hike we took the bus from Mammoth Lakes ski area to Reds Meadows then followed the ‘Sierra High Route’ for 4 days to the road at Tuolumne Meadows. This was a mix of cross country and trail over some beautiful mountainous terrain past Ritter and Banner Peaks. We returned back south for 2 days via Koip Peak Pass on quiet trails, way east of the busier John Muir Trail and lovely in a more sparse arid way with wide expansive views.
This was a section of the Sierra High Route we had wanted to do since climbing Ritter in 2006 and returning to the trailhead past the stunning Iceberg, Cecile and Minaret Lakes on the SHR. With the opportunity to hike into Tuolumne Meadows via remote cross country territory, camp and then return to the start on lesser used trails it had all the makings of a great trip for us.
Thursday 29th August 2019 After a bus trip from Mammoth Lakes ski area to near Reds Meadow resort we hiked off on good trails past some of the basalt columns of Devils Postpile National Monument, over the creek and briefly joined the John Muir Trail.
We turned west and uphill following Minaret Creek in mellow woods with views slowly opening up to the Minarets range and all their spikey magnificence ahead. It gradually got better and better as we climbed past a tumbling waterfall over rockslabs. Minaret Lake has one of the greatest views of any and we skirted round before an easy scramble up to the next Lake – Cecile (banner pic). The Minarets tower above with Clyde Minaret dominating- it has a very classic rock climb up the face via a set of clean corners. The rock is not granite like much of the Sierra range but a slightly more brittle looking metamorphic. One for another day!
The air felt clear and alpine as we scrabbled round the lake over boulders and a few snow patches (microspikes came in handy). At the far north end we had a wee look around before Martina spotted the exit descent starting right at the lakes outlet stream. This was a bit loose and gravelly but quickly took us down to the next wonderful lake – Iceberg – well named!
From there we cross countried over grassy meadows round ridges to find a camp above Ediza Lake.
Continuing the next day cross country on the Sierra High Route involved fairly easily, but still beautiful, travel over some small ridges past Nydiver, Garnet and Thousand Island Lakes. The drop down to Garnet from Whitebark Col was a bit loose and gnarly and we were glad to get to the bottom and onto easier meadows. We turned direction from northwards to south west to follow the drainage up to North Glacier Pass- a splendid, windy and wild feeling place covered in boulders and with the snowy col between Ritter and Banner lending an alpine atmosphere.
The next section of hiking was not particularly hard but felt quite ‘out there’ without any trails through complex terrain – well described by the Steve Roper guidebook though. We found a welcome patch of trees just below an old mine working to stop for a rest before descending steeply past vibrant colourful flower gardens. After lots of winding between outcrops we arrived at the northern of Twin Island Lakes and found a way round the eastern shore on grippy, slabby granite. The outlet from the lake can provide a very deep wade but today it was about mid thigh and fairly gentle so turned out to be a pleasant, refreshing dip. Easy granite slabs gave a good route up to the southern Twin Island Lake and round the east side and we called it a day in the meadows to the south. A brilliant backpacking day! (Brian nipped up the hill to the south east after dinner but the views were limited in the dimming light).
Turning westward we contoured round some hillsides and down into the idyllic Bench Canyon with flat white granite slabs, meadows and water rivulets. More mellow hiking up to Blue Lakes where we went for a swim – jumping off some granite boulders into the still, frigid water. Our climb up to Blue Lake Pass was a bit eventful as we took a ‘sporting’ granite corner line (probably to the right of the easiest route) and ended up hauling the backpacks up with our cord to get over a tricky 30 foot section. From there it was easy scrambling to the pass and new vistas out west towards the domes around Yosemite valley.
The 400 foot descent looked steep, bouldery and unattractive so we traversed hard right along boulders to reach a prominent pure white quartz outcrop looking like a giant ‘Kendal Mint Cake‘ bar. From there the descent was easy down grass and slabby slopes before traversing benches north west and descending into the forest.
This was the point where we should have picked up a good trail to zig zag steeply down to the Lyell Fork creek. However we couldn’t find it despite us separating and sweep searching across the small forested valley. Brian even switched on the gps for help. We decided to keep descending in the general line of the trail in the hope that we would find it again and eventually after about 20 minutes Martina did! Looks like the top of the trail is positioned a bit to the west compared to our gps and as drawn on the map. Funny that after a couple of days of mostly cross country hiking, we lose our way when we were supposed to be on trail!
Set up the tent as it got dark in a well used large wooded camping area near to the creek- a nice spot all the same.
Today was a day of trail hiking northwards to the campsite and store of Tuolumne Meadows – a place we know and love being in the centre of some beautiful climbing and hiking areas. We enjoyed the relaxing hiking through open forest with the standout being the first Sierra Juniper trees we had noticed this holiday- incredible looking trees. Here is a quote from John Muir himself…
The Sierra juniper is one of the hardiest of all mountaineers. Growing mostly on ridges and rocks, these brave highlanders live for over twenty centuries on sunshine and snow. Thick and sturdy, junipers easily survive mountain storms. A truly wonderful fellow, he seems to last about as long as the granite he stands on. Surely he is the most enduring of all tree mountaineers—never seeming to die a natural death. If protected from accidents, he would perhaps be immortal. I wish I could live like these junipers, on sunshine and snow, and stand beside them for a thousand years. How much I should see, and how delightful it would be!
The river of Lewis Fork had a pleasant slabby trail up beside granite slabs and the gushing stream. We continued climbing easily to Vogelsang Pass and saw a few hikers again at Vogelsang Lake. From here to Tuolumne was another 7 or 8 miles of fairly hot and dusty hiking and we sped up in the hope that we would be able to get a camping spot at the Tuolumne Meadows campsite – and before the grill closed!
Made it into the backpackers campsite (I think there was no need to worry here as we could just squeeze into any flat spot remaining) and just in time before the grill closed at 6pm to gorge on veggie burgers and chips! Finished the day off with a fascinating campfire talk on woodpeckers -didn’t realise they have such long tongues.
Chatted to other hikers in the morning then hitched a lift for the 5 or 6 miles of road to the start of our 2 day return hike at the Mono Pass trailhead back to Reds Meadows- we didn’t see the point of walking along the busy road!
Chilled out hiking on trail up to the huge saddle of Parker Pass at 11,100 feet- it reminded us of hiking in the San Juan Rockies on the Continental Divide Trail in southern Colorado- we liked the wide open spaces and big sky views. From there we zig zagged forever upwards on a steady gradient to Koip Peak Pass at 12,270 feet. Great views east to Mono Lake and otherwise drier countryside down below in the valley. The terrain here is volcanic, red and scree covered and quite a contrast to the granite mountains to the west. A shower came through and we hunkered down at the summit cairn then dropped down quickly through some further showers to Alger Lakes. Gem Lake was our intended camp spot but it looked a bit overused by horse packers so we climbed south and pitched on a great little outcrop before Agnew Pass and looking back down to Gem Lake.
Our final day was another mellow one following the Pacific Crest Trail as it traversed south east along a valley side with splendid views back over to Ritter and Banner. We were soon at the horse stables of Agnew Meadows and picked up a bus ride back to Mammoth Lakes. This truly was a great 6 days out there in the Sierra…