US Sierra

Our first visit to the United States in 1996 was to the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains of California- home to the iconic Yosemite valley and John Muir Trail where we did some rock climbing, backpacking and touring around. After this taster, we came back in 1998 as part of our longer Pacific Crest Trail hike between Mexico and Canada. Since then we brought the climbing gear back in 2006 and then in 2019 explored the mountains by hiking some cross country.

Listed below are our outdoor trips- with links to blog posts.

2019 AUgust-september

We visited California in 2019 and this time went out backpacking, exploring some of the Sierra mountains away from the popular John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. Our aim was max out on the scenery with some off trail and scrambling over mountain passes and ridges. We used Steve Roper’s excellent ‘Sierra High Route‘ book as a reference along with some very useful websites and blog posts. See an overview map of our 2019 hikes.

McGee Trailhead to Mammoth Lakes

Reds Meadow to Tuolumne big loop

Twin Lakes to Tuolumne Meadows

Piute Pass, Lake Italy, PCT and Lamarck Col loop

Break in southern Utah

Cottonwood Lakes, Crabtree Pass, Guitar Lake, Mount Whitney

2006 September

A month long trip to California with a mix of rock climbing and hiking. Some photos here.

Tuolumne Meadows- Lembert Dome

Tuolumne Meadows- Tanaya Peak

Tuolumne Meadows- Dozier Dome

Mount Ritter plus Iceberg Lake, Mineret Lake traverse

White Mountain

Owens River Gorge rock climbs

Crystal Crag climb, Mammoth Lakes

Yosemite Valley loop hike

Mt Connes west ridge attempt

Cathedral Peak south face climb

Tuolumne Meadows – Mount Dana

1998 PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

A 2600 mile hike for about 5 months on the PCT between Mexico and Canada through the states of California, Oregon and Washington. Sierra PCT blog here.

1996 SEPTEMBER

Backpack – Lamark Col, Evolution Valley, Muir Pass, Bishop Pass

Owens River Gorge rock climbs

Side trip to Death Valley

Mount Whitney via Iceberg Lake and the ‘Mountaineers Route’

Tuolumne – Mathes Crest rock climb

Tuolumne – Cathedral Peak south face climb

Tuolumne – Fairview Dome north face climb

Yosemite – Snake Dike climb

Yosemite – Nutcracker climb

Yosemite – Various single pitch climbs

Mono Lake and Bodie Ghost Town

Cottonwood Lakes, Crabtree Pass, Guitar Lake, Mount Whitney

Tuesday 24th September 2019 The final hike of our holiday and we chose a southern part of the Sierra mountains near and over Mt Whitney. We picked up a permit easily again and left the car near the town of Lone Pine, relying on hitching a lift to the start at Cottonwood Lakes.

Up at Cottonwood Lakes at just under 10,000 feet it was clear, cool and windy and a forest of Foxtail and Lodgepole Pines poking out of the dry soil. We hiked up for quite a few miles on good trail towards New Army Pass. The scenery was stark with dazzling white granite boulders and rock, blue sky and the odd snow patch. The pass was windy so we nestled down behind some rock ledges then headed down an easy zig-zag trail on the west side to Rock Creek.

We turned off the main trail at Rock Creek, heading up Miter Basin, initially a wide valley with steep granite walls, gradually narrowing and becoming more rugged as we reached Sky Blue Lake in the evening. The sun dipped here and it was rather a cold wind that swept the lake surface so we decided to call it a day and camp at the north end in a wild alpine scene.

Foxtails at Cottonwood Lakes
Arid and windy!
Sky Blue Lake

After a very windy night we were glad to move on and upwards leaving signs of trail behind as we worked our way up over slabs and a few scrambly sections to a lake at 3697m. Here we sheltered facing the sun for a stop to take in the glorious views. A further easy climb from there and we arrived at Crabtree Pass. The descent down the other side was easier than it looked, on the east side of the gullys on broken slabs. Down at Crabtree Lake we sat watching a pika gathering grass for winter before hiking a wonderful cross country route down the valley past various Crabtree Lakes. Meadows, granite slabs, some scrambling but nothing too hard- this was great! At the final lake we spotted some golden trout as we meandered down through Foxtail Pine again on faint trails.

We picked up a more heavily used trail going back up east to Crabtree Meadows Ranger Station and saw a few people camping around here. This was us back on the JMT with big trails and people! We hiked past Crabtree on the path up to Mt Whitney with views back west gradually improving until we headed off trail to find a lovely granite slab to camp on below Guitar Lake.

In the morning
First of the Crabtree Lakes
Heading down between Crabtree Lakes
Camp below Guitar Lake

This was our last day hiking on the holiday but we aimed for a cool day by climbing over Mt Whitney and down the eastern side back to the Whitney Portal Trailhead and to hitch a lift back to our car lower down the valley.

We were flying by now, climbing steadily up the trail to Whitney Trail Crest with more than 4 weeks hiking fitness behind us. Some fantastic views higher up across the fluted mountains and lakes and we passed a few hikers coming up from the other side of the mountain. Saw some marmots and pikas on the way. After we had bagged the highest point of Whitney we then started the long, long descent east to the road- 6,500 feet roughly. The top half was particularly grand seeing into Whitney’s rocky east face and dotted lakes below.

Our final task was to get a lift which we managed quickly and were soon munching bagels in Lone Pine after another fantastic little backpack. Now back to Scotland!

Meadows low down on the east side of Whitney

More photos here

Sierra California- North Lake Loop

Monday 9th September 2019 Our aim was to do a loop hike starting at the North Lake trailhead, west of the town of Bishop, hiking north on a chunk of the Sierra High Route, returning via the John Muir Trail and then finishing with a cross country meander past Darwin Lakes and Lamarck Col.

Our route starting at North Lake Trailhead, west of Bishop

We started with a trip to Basin Bakery for some great bagels then the Bishop Visitor Centre and again managed to get a same day permit for the hike with no trouble. It’s a lovely drive climbing steeply out of the Bishop valley with some final dirt road to North Lake trailhead.

From the trailhead we had an easy gradual on-trail ascent past multiple lakes to Piute Pass at 11,423 feet. There were a few other hikers around and we met a nice guy with a donkey! The west side of the pass is gentle going over a plateau like area but we soon split from the trail to head north cross country to Puppet Pass. The area is flattish, dotted with boulders and lakes with mountains on the horizon all around. The descent from Puppet Pass was to the north of the lowest point – bouldery and slow going but the Puppet Lakes below were beautiful. We made it northwards to Elba Lake to camp in a lovely spot with sun and some shelter in amongst krummholz whitebark pine.

Mesa Lake looking back south to the Glacier Divide
Puppet Pass and Lakes

Pretty cold overnight with our water bottles freezing- I guess we are quite high at about 11,000 feet. Our start was a relaxed cross country descent down to French Canyon to boulder hop across the frost fringed river. We were both glad no wading was required as it was still frigidly cold! After a relaxed 1 mile hike west on trail we split again with some faint trails and xc up to Merriam Lake sitting in stark alpine surroundings. Easy going from there up a remote feeling valley across meadows and slabs to La Salle lake before a steep granite boulder and slab push to Feather Pass at about 12,300 feet. We met 2 guys here (first since Piute Pass yesterday) who are out for 10 days.

The descent was on better rock this time with some fun scrambling on grippy granite then onto a snow slope to easier ground. We then wound round various lakes with bear related names and all in a grand wild setting before reaching White Bear Pass with its beautiful lake near the top. The descent from this one though was a bit of a pain with endless willow scrub, gravel and loose rock! We were both glad to make it to flatter terrain and past two more lakes to reach the Hilgard valley where we would split west from the Sierra High Route.

A trail was marked in the valley but we found some rough going initially before a rugged trail gradually became a bit clearer. Cool valley though with granite slabs and green meadows. We made it to about 1/2 mile short of the John Muir Trail and pitched the tent fairly tired after a long rough but excellent day.

Leaving camp at Elba Lake
Above La Salle Lake
Hilgard Valley

Boy was it cold in the morning- our shoes had frozen as well as our water. We soon hit the JMT and headed south on a long gradual ascent to Seldon Pass – drying the tent out in the sun on some granite slabs. The lakes below Seldon were scenic and on the other side the trail was easy as it descended 3,000 feet down to Muir Ranch. This is a place where JMT hikers are able to resupply and stay the night. There is lots of spare food here, left behind by JMT hikers and we were able to stock up on bonus nuts and raisins and a few bars – superb!

Suitably replenished, we headed on south following the steep sided San Joaquin River on a grand trail camping just below Evolution Meadow after a fine day of JMT trail walking.

Nearing Seldon Pass
At Muir Ranch
Above the San Joaquin River

We started the next day with more chilled out JMT trail walking through Evolution Valley before striking steeply uphill off trail to Darwin Bench. Actually there was a pretty good ‘use trail’ much of the way but with some boulder hopping round the fine turquoise Darwin Lakes. After Lake 4 we stopped at its small beach before hitting the 1,000 foot climb up to Lamarck Col. The views opened out as we followed various sandy trails with the odd scramble to pop out at the col in late afternoon at 12,800 feet. A grand spot.

The descent involved crossing a snow slope which was in the shade and had hardened so we got out the micro spikes and ice axes to cross to the boulders below. From there it was easier arid slopes with a trail forming lower down. We stopped at a trickling water source then looked around a bit for a good viewful camping spot, eventually finding a wonderful place on the ridge above. What a view east over to Owens Valley and the White Mountain range. Even better was a full moon popping out over the jagged ridge to the south and no wind to rattle the tent even on this exposed spot.

After taking a few pictures over breakfast in the morning, we headed down steadily on trail in the morning back to the North Lakes trailhead. Another great loop !

Darwin Lakes
Lamarck Col
Snowfield descent from Lamarck Col
Camp below Lamarck Col

Twin Lakes to Tuolumne Meadows

5th September 2019 This three day backpacking trip had us roughly following the northern section of the ‘Sierra High Route‘ in the Sierra mountains of California with another mix of cross country hiking, scrambling and trails. We drove north from Mammoth Lakes to the town of Bridgeport on the east side of the Sierra mountains and arranged a hiking permit for the trip at the ranger station. Like the rest of of our hikes on this holiday, we were able to get a permit for the same day which was a pleasant surprise. A short drive west took us to the Twin Lakes RV resort (via Buckeye Hot Springs to drop off a hitchhiker!) where we paid a small fee to leave the car for a few days.

Our 3 day backpack from Twin lakes in the north down to Tuolumne Meadows

Scott the friendly campground host gave us good directions on how to navigate through the myriad of local trails to reach Horse creek and the wilderness area to the south. The weather looked a bit dodgy with foreboding cloud build up and on and off rain but the views ahead southwards to Matterhorn Peak were encouraging. The trail was pretty clear but one section by the creek through thick willow bush soaked us from the waist down. Gradually the terrain got wilder and more barren with scree sided metamorphic peaks and faint trail leading to a wonderful little snow bowl just before the pass.

We had decided to deviate from the Sierra High Route by following Spiller Canyon on the other side of the pass all the way down to meet the Pacific Crest Trail and then climb back over McCabe Pass back to the SHR itself. Spiller Canyon is a broad open glaciated canyon surrounded now by sweeping granite peaks. There was no trail but the hiking was easy down grassy meadows and lower down weaving through a thin forest cover. In the evening, rain built up and it got rather unpleasantly wet and we searched around a bit to find a flat spot to camp near the river.

Looking up Horse Creek
Nearing the pass

We heard the crashing of branches in the night and assumed a bear may have wandered past heading up or down canyon. Anyway if it was a bear it didn’t bother us thankfully. The rain was still coming down in the morning as we packed the tent up but there were patches of blue sky poking through giving us some optimism. Continuing down the broad U-shaped canyon, the forest thickened a little but there was always a clear way to hike through with a few river crossings to find the easiest ground. We scrabbled over old avalanche paths with lines of felled trees from the higher hillside down into the river. By mid morning we met the obvious Pacific Crest Trail and found some granite slabs to lay out the wet gear in the sun that had managed to break through. Spiller Canyon had provided an excellent hike with no trails or people.

Following the PCT southbound for a few miles was a chance to chill out and enjoy the sunshine. We left the PCT to head east climbing up on the smaller McCabe Lakes trail, firstly through woodland before we split to head cross country again to pick up McCabe Creek. After crossing some meadows and lodgepole pine the climb got a bit steeper and we had to pick a line between willow scrub and steeper slabs before we popped out near to Upper McCabe Lake. We stopped for a rest to take in the more mountainous scene and look at the route up to the pass.

The final push to the pass was about 700ft but on a gravelly trail with some grippy granite scrambling. The views at the top of McCabe Pass were cool particularly to the east and south where we were heading to lakes, snow and rocky peaks. We headed south for a bit along the ridge before zig zagging down ledges between slabs to get reach Secret Lake and then followed easier meadows and a trail down to the beautiful Cascade Lake to camp. Great day and great alpine feeling camp!

Spiller Canyon
Drying out on the PCT
Near Upper McCabe Lake
Looking south from McCabe Pass
Cascade Lake camp evening

A cold night but the sun soon hit the tent in the morning and we warmed up over breakfast. We started with an excellent walk south round the east ridge of North Peak to Connes Lakes where we chatted to some hikers heading up one of the peaks. We then scrambled up lovely granite slabs onto the east ridge of Mt Connes in grand terrain with extensive views. More meadows, streams, slabs, pools and waterfalls as we rounded some more ridges before the push up to Mine Shaft Pass where we had a look around at the namesake old mine workings and could now see south to the Tuolumne meadows area.

We hit trail for the first time today as we descended gradually down past Gaylor Lakes and meadows dotted with white granite boulders. Surprisingly a whole bunch of tiny frogs hopped across the path through the meadow at one point – we found out later that these were tree frogs – cool!

Later on we saw some other hikers before we finally hit the Tuolumne Meadows park road and ended a fantastic final day to the hike. The only thing remaining for us after some calories at the Tuolumne Meadows grill was to hitch all the way round to the car at Twin Lakes. This worked out incredibly well- a lift down to the road junction before Lee Vining – a walk into Lee Vining- a kind person then gave us a lift all the way up to Bridgeport where he was staying then out of his way all the way west to the car at the end of the road Twin Lakes. Another great trip.

Cascade Lake camp in the morning
Up Mt Conness east ridge
Near Mine Shaft Pass

More photos here

Reds Meadow to Tuolumne loop

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.

Minaret Creek
Minaret Lake
Cecile Lake
Hiking down to Iceberg Lake
First 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).

Nydiver Lake
To the Ritter Banner col from the north

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.

Bench Canyon
We used our cord to haul backpacks above Blue Lakes

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.

Martina first in the queue for breakfast pancakes

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…

Zig zagging up to Koip Peak Pass
Mono Lake in the distance
Camp above Gem Lake
Final day on the PCT

More photos here

McGee Trailhead to Mammoth Lakes

Sunday 25th August 2019 We flew into LA from Scotland yesterday and drove up the east side of the Sierra mountains, stopping to pick up our hiking permit and bear canister on the way to the McGee Creek trailhead. It was a blistering 30C here as we packed our gear in the shade and emptying spare food into the trailhead bear box to hopefully prevent bears taking an interest in the rental car.

For this our first backpack of the holiday we aimed to warm up for 4 days following mostly trails, some cross country and to reach a high point on McGee Pass at about 11,800 feet for acclimatization.

Once we started hiking up McGee Creek through sage and past some aspen, the air cooled down a little and it was a very pleasant gradual ascent up to Big McGee Lake at 10,500 feet. We saw a few other campers here but found a cool spot above and away from the lake. A few mozzies around on the way up but tolerable at the campsite – phew!

After a beautiful sunrise over the lake with some snow patched mountains behind, we set off uphill on trail on a grand hike past lakes and some frozen snow patches. We had brought mini crampons- ‘micro spikes’ to fit over our trail shoes and these worked perfectly for moving quickly up the snow. The pass was fairly gentle and scree covered but had good views out west to the jagged ridge of the Silver Divide and the green meadows of Tully Hole below- our descent line.

This was an idyllic valley with lush green meadows and wildflowers, marmots, pika, chipmunks. We eventually connected lower down with the John Muir Trail at a river crossing at Tully Hole – mozzy central!- and followed the JMT northward for a wee while. It was obvious this was a heavy used trail, as well as seeing lots of people, the trail was wide and dusty from many foot and hoof marks. Still it was pleasant hiking and soon we reached Lake Virginia where we cut off cross country northwards up a shallow drainage over a small pass to the the Rams Lake area to camp. Man this was nice up here above the treeline, amongst the small lakes and rough hills around!

Crossing McGee Creek
Columbine
Morning above Big McGee Lake
Back down to Upper McGee Lake
Heading down to Tully Hole
Tent just visible at far side of the Lake (Rams Lake area)

We set off on a rather beautiful cross country rambling descent down through meadows, past dotted lakes and streams. We soon picked up a trail below Rams lakes that took us down to Purple Lake. Saw a white owl in the trees and an osprey catch fish on the lake. Back on the wide PCT we headed northwards and turned off soon again to climb up on another trail to the large Duck Lake. Someone kindly offered us some DEET mozzy repellent which Brian gratefully accepted! From Duck Pass we headed north west following notes for the Sierra High route on the broad ridge of the Mammoth Crest. We decided to haul water to camp on the plateau like ridge with panoramic views all round. Particularly north to Banner and Ritter mountains and south to south impressive swelling thunderclouds which we were thankfully able to watch from a distance.

Next morning we had an easy saunter down to Lake Mary on the outskirts of Mammoth Lakes town to end a rather scenic and wonderful ‘warm up’ backpack. We only had the small problem of getting back to our rental car at McGee Lake trailhead. Though yo!- we lucked out and we hitched a lift from a very kind gentleman who took us back to the car in one go along three different roads including the final few miles on gravel dirt road. Thanks!

Mammoth Crest camp

More photos here