In August of 2008 I did a gorgeous backpacking trip through Hoover Wilderness and the Northeastern corner of Yosemite National Park. One of the highlights of that trip was getting a look at Sawtooth Ridge and its highest point, Matterhorn Peak, as I hiked between Burro and Mule Pass. The sharp western face of the ridge looked beyond my climbing comfort zone, but when I later learned that the eastern side had a much more tame class 2/3 scramble it shot to the top of my peak bucket list.

Trip Report

Sawtooth Ridge and Matterhorn Peak as viewed from upper Piute Canyon below Burro Pass, August 2008
Sawtooth Ridge and Matterhorn Peak as viewed from upper Piute Canyon below Burro Pass, August 2008

The peak does not share much in common with its European name-twin, though some see a similarity between the classic profile of Europe’s Matterhorn and the north face of the Sierra’s version. Our version sits at the Northeastern border of Yosemite National Park and tops out at 12,279 feet. It’s a destination for technical rock climbing, scrambling, and ski mountaineering in the winter. Even though it’s not the tallest or most interesting of climbs on my bucket list, I somehow felt like I couldn’t call myself a Sierra peak bagger until I stood on top of this year-round playground.

Matterhorn Peak, our destination, is the sharp summit on the right. This looks towards its north face, the one that most resembles its European name-twin.
Matterhorn Peak, our destination, is the sharp summit on the right as viewed from our climb up Horse Creek. This looks towards its north face, the one that most resembles its European name-twin.

Matterhorn Peak gained some notoriety in Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” where the author wrote of his attempt to climb this peak. Because of this, it draws people who might have no business attempting a class 3 Sierra summit. I read the book years ago but had forgotten the detail of the climb being this peak until I started researching the route up the peak.

It turns out our planned route was essentially the same one taken in the book – Horse Creek out of the Twin Lakes Campground, up and over Horse Creek Pass, and finally up the eastern sandy slope of Matterhorn to the solid class 3-ish summit block. By the end of the day we had gone over 13 miles and 5100 ft of elevation gain in about 12 hours. We kept a steady pace, neither fast nor slow, and took plenty of breaks to tank up on water, snack, and study the route ahead. All of us had been in the mountains for a few days and were acclimated. YMMV.

View to the west from Matterhorn Peak
View to the west from Matterhorn Peak

On that note, if you’re here researching this peak because you read about it in “The Dharma Bums”, I’d recommend you get some experience under your belt before attempting it. It’s not technically difficult, but there are plenty of challenges for even the experienced climber. It’s a long, long day at elevation. The trail only takes you half way. The remainder of the climb requires the ability to route find by reading different types of terrain and making smart route choices. This is the kind of skill you get through experience. It’s not impossible, I’m just saying know what you’re getting into.

As part of my research I found several examples of detailed advice and pictures of the route. Some ended up being helpful, and others wholly inaccurate. For that reason, I’m writing my own account of our route in the hopes that it clarifies some of the other trip reports that are out there. Our experience is detailed below along with annotated pictures.

Interested in going directly to the map and logistics? Get them here.

The Route

The five of us met up in Bridgeport on the evening prior to the climb. We knew we wanted to get an early start the next morning, so we pulled into a dispersed campsite near Buckeye Creek and got to sleep early. Alarms were set for pre-dawn, and we quickly packed up and made our coffee before hopping in our cars and heading down the road to Twin Lakes Resort. At 6 am we parked in day use parking and got our things together for the long day.

This route starts off with quite possibly the hardest part of the day – finding the trailhead. Just take a look at my track on the map below and try not to laugh at our aimless wandering through the pre-dawn campground, trying not to wake campers while simultaneously complaining about the lack of trail signage and trying to photograph the bear who was wandering from site to site looking for breakfast (he wouldn’t show us the way to the trailhead).

Hey bear, can you point us to the Horse Creek Trailhead?
Hey bear, can you point us to the Horse Creek Trailhead?

While I can recommend dropping a waypoint in your GPS, finding a place to cross the creek to the actual trail wasn’t trivial. Eventually we found a toppled tree to cross. 30 minutes into the day and we were still within spitting distance of our cars.

Once we gained the Horse Creek trail things started going much better. The trail climbs about 1000 ft over several switchbacks in the first two miles. It’s a well graded and maintained trail and we cruised up that stretch pretty quickly. I only snapped a couple of pictures, including the quiet sunrise over Twin Lakes below us.

Twin Lakes from the Horse Creek Trail
Twin Lakes from the Horse Creek Trail

On the topo map, the trail curves sharply to the east and heads over to Cattle Creek. In reality, this is a signed junction and instead of following the trail to the east, continue on a just as worn use trail south along Horse Creek. For the next ~3/4 of a mile you’ll be following a use trail along the creek on a gentle incline. Sawtooth Ridge and the Matterhorn start to appear from behind the canyon walls.

I took one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken on this stretch of trail. Our destination still looks far away – the pointy peak to the left of center in the shot below is Matterhorn.

Matterhorn Peak (point on left) as seen from along Horse Creek route
Matterhorn Peak (point on left) as seen from along Horse Creek route

At about 8 am we started to run out of easy to follow trail. Our first obstacle was a boulder pile that was easy to scramble over. Plenty of cairns marked the route through. Here we are, end of the trail:

End of the trail - into the boulders!
End of the trail – into the boulders!

After this boulder pile, a well defined use trail continued through the lower slope of the east side of Horse Creek Canyon. Ahead, I could finally see the first obstacle I recognized from trip reports, the false pass. This is what it looks like:

The false pass ahead
The false pass ahead

This part of the climb is where the beta I had found seemed to be the most inaccurate. See the white outcrop in the middle of the pass ahead? Most trip reports said to traverse under it to a use trail that went up the green chute to its right. The boulder field on the left was supposed to be awful.

As we got closer, we were still in very good use trail in the boulders. Half of our group decided to check out the green chute and scrambled over to it. Two of us (including me) stayed on the use trail in the boulders. We all ended up meeting up at the top (at a nice shaded campsite/lunch break stop), the boulder people arriving only a few seconds faster.

Our group on the use trail through the boulders before some cut over through the green. We all met up again where the trails rejoined above the white outcropping in the trees.
Our group on the use trail through the boulders before some cut over through the green. We all met up again where the trails rejoined above the white outcropping in the trees.

On the descent, I took the trail through the green chute and I thought it was steeper and slicker than the use trail through the boulders. I would recommend the rocks on the left over the chute to the right. Maybe the previous climbers were on a different use trail on approach (there are a few running up the canyon) and missed the use trail through the boulders?

Above the campsite we followed some steep switchbacks up the hillside that took us too high. Instead, look for the trail that leads along the creek from the campsite. We found it on the return hike and it was more direct and less steep. On the bright side, we found this cool rock shelter.

Rock Shelter on the way to Matterhorn
Rock Shelter on the way to Matterhorn

The next mile follows various use trails and cairns. It is pretty easy going along Horse Creek, even though it is easy to lose the trail. If you lose the trail, just stick to the creek. The water was so low this year that we actually spent a fair amount of time hopping from dry rock to dry rock through the creek since it was the most direct route.

At the end of the canyon you’ll head southwest up a steep slope. However, before you get there, you’ll see this broad inviting red slope to your right. Your GPS will tell you that’s the direction of Horse Creek Pass and Matterhorn. Your GPS is not wrong. You will really really want to go there. But don’t. It walls out at the top and you’ll be turned around. Instead, continue up the creek a little bit further.

Don't Go There
Don’t Go There

About 1/3 of a mile beyond the base of this slope, you’ll reach the end of the canyon and see several use trails heading up the slope to the southwest. It doesn’t really matter which one you take. From here on out you’ll be following poor use trails and occasional cairns. This is the stretch where experience reading mountain terrain comes in handy. You’ll have the option of staying lower or moving up higher on the hillside. It doesn’t really matter which way you go at the start. But as you get closer to Horse Creek Pass you’ll want to make sure you’re a bit higher on the slope.

This is what the terrain looks like down lower. Just pick a line and go.

Climbing through the rocks below Horse Creek Pass
Climbing through the rocks below Horse Creek Pass

Eventually you’ll see a big snowfield and the narrow Horse Creek Pass ahead. While you can certainly go to the pass proper (it’s kind of cool looking), if your goal is Matterhorn I recommend crossing higher, above the large boulders and rock walls next to the pass. It will save some extra distance and elevation gain, and it’s probably easier. It involves some scrambling and traversing through loose rock and sand, but that’s just expected on a peak like this.  This is why it helps to keep a higher line as you climb through the rocks towards the pass.

Avoiding Horse Creek Pass - more direct line to Matterhorn
Avoiding Horse Creek Pass – more direct line to Matterhorn

There was also a nice natural lunch rest spot at the place we crossed. We could finally see our target up close!

Matterhorn East Slope
Matterhorn East Slope

Traverse under the blocky rocks to the base of the sandy east slope of the Matterhorn. It really doesn’t look so bad from here, and we can pick out our route! In the picture below I’ve drawn in our route up in blue and the descent in yellow. It is hard to see from this angle, but we head up the sandy slope to the right of a large gendarme. We then traverse across the slope behind the gendarme to a small flat spot on the south side of the summit block. Then it is a class 2-3 scramble to the summit.

The slope was so sandy and slow going on the way up, but that worked to our advantage on the descent. The yellow line follows a steeper slope that we could just bomb down on the way back. Wheee!

Route up Matterhorn. Blue line is up, yellow is down.

Here is a closer look of the gendarme and the approach to the summit block:

Matterhorn Summit Approach
Matterhorn Summit Approach

You can see how sandy the slope is. The rocks were not solid enough for quick rock hopping so this stretch took a loooong time. Two steps forward, one step back. It’s an exhausting slog. That said, it’s really not hard, technically speaking. You can get all the way from the trailhead to the platform below the summit block on class 1 terrain. It just requires smart choices in the trail-less stretches and some slogging. But I’m still pretty tired by the time I get to the platform!

This is a closer look at the gendarme as I passed it.

Gendarme on Matterhorn
Gendarme on Matterhorn

Above the gendarme, you can either go straight ahead up the class 3-4 side of the summit block, or traverse over to the platform for an easier approach. Here is the traverse, and if you look carefully you can see Deb in red waiting for us at the platform.

Traverse to flat spot below summit
Traverse to flat spot below summit

And here is a look back on the traverse from the platform with the landmarks labeled. The steep chute between me and the gendarme is where we descended.

From the platform, the summit is a quick scramble away. The higher you stay, the easier it is. I found what I would call a class 2+ route through the pile. Here’s the group coming up the summit pile. You can see the flat platform just behind the summit pile we’re scrambling up. Whorl Mountain is further back on the ridge. That’s another bucket list peak for me…

Matterhorn Summit approach
Matterhorn Summit approach

Oh yeah!!

Matterhorn!
Matterhorn!

I will never tire of this experience.

View from Matterhorn
View from Matterhorn

Here’s another look at the summit scramble on our way down.

Descending matterhorn
Descending matterhorn

And a peek down the chute we were able to take on the descent of the sandy slope. 2 hours up, 10 minutes down. Fun. The large gendarme we passed on the way up is now on our left. You can see use trails zigzagging down the chute.

Matterhorn descent
Matterhorn descent

You can see Horse Creek Pass (and the big snowfield below it), so visually this is a pretty easy descent. You just retrace your steps the whole way back!

This was a long day, but I really really enjoyed this peak. I would do it again, for sure! It helped that I’d been out climbing for a week already, so acclimation wasn’t an issue. I felt pretty strong, except for that awful slog up the slope towards the end. That’s enough to take it out of anyone, I think. I don’t know anyone who likes climbing up that terrain.

I hope this long report clears up some of the information out there. If you have any questions, please comment below!

Matterhorn Peak 12,279' (08.19.2014)
92 photos
  • The trailhead is tricky to find and we wasted 30 minutes wandering aimlessly through the campground. The locals weren't much help.
  • Follow me!
  • Once we got on the right track it was a quick hike up the switchbacks to Horse Creek. View of Twin Lakes along the way.
  • Once we get into the valley we get a view of the peaks ahead. Not sure yet which one is Matterhorn, but we figured it out later.
  • It's the pointy one. Whee!
  • Everyone takes a picture of this sign. I don't know why. Follow Horse Creek. Trail is good here. Not complicated.
  • Some beautiful still ponds along Horse Creek
  • Getting out of the trees, starting to get a better view of our route. Matterhorn pokes up on the ridge on the right.
  • Gorgeous Horse Creek with Matterhorn above.
  • I really loved this stretch of the hike. It's a long day, might as well enjoy it.
  • End of trail! Begin boulder hopping!
  • Morning light on Matterhorn
  • Looking ahead to our first obstacle. Apparently this false pass is a bit tricky to figure out.
  • Waterfall to our right - scenery still entertaining me during the long hike.
  • WE start up through the boulders on the left side of the white outcropping below the false pass. There is good use trail.
  • Looking down the boulders. Trip reports said this was difficult and to cross over to the green gully on the right of the white outcropping, but I found the bouldery side just fine.
  • Rock shelter
  • Above the false pass the use trails come and go. All go the right way - up the canyon.
  • Lost use trails in here, but no biggie. Continue up the canyon. Do NOT go up that lovely looking red chute on the right.
  • This. Do not go up this, despite it looking so inviting and close to the peak. It walls out.
  • Looking back down Horse Creek
  • Hiking up Horse Creek. Water is low this year, meaning the walk is a nice rock up up the creek bed.
  • Then we get into the boulders again. It's like this all the way to the pass.
  • Working our way up to Horse Creek Pass
  • Use trail comes and goes. Cairns come and go. We just head up.
  • Bouldery terrain
  • Still some snow fields up here as we get closer to the pass.
  • Horse Creek Pass is the low point on the left. We stay high, contouring up and around to a higher crossing point on the ridge. No reason to lose elevation.
  • Approaching the pass
  • Looking down on Horse Creek Pass and the giant snow field that blocks the way much of the year.
  • Our pass, a bit higher than the pass proper.
  • Looking down on the pass and the giant snowfield.
  • We can now see beyond the pass to Twin Peaks and Virginia Peak
  • And our first close-up view of Matterhorn!
  • Virginia Peak towers over Spiller Creek
  • Matterhorn! Now we start the sandy slog up the slope.
  • Blue line is the route up, yellow is down. We head up to the right of a large gendarme, then traverse over to a platform from which we can scramble to the summit. On our descent, yellow, we bombed down the sandy chute to the left of the gendarme.
  • Up the sand. We kept trying to find solid rock but it was mostly loose stuff.
  • Still in the sand, the gendarme is getting closer.
  • A closer look at our final summit approach.
  • A nicer view of Spiller Creek and Virginia Peak
  • Looking down on Horse Creek Pass
  • Next to the gendarme. We climb a bit higher before traversing to the left. Summit is above Deb (red jacket)
  • Gendarme and summit.
  • Looking down on the sandy slog we've been climbing. It looks like solid rock ahead, thank god!
  • Above the gendarme, I look to the left and see that Deb has made the platform. It's an easy traverse across the face here.
  • Alternately, I believe one can scramble up to the summit from here,  but I think it's trickier. I go the way I know works.
  • Holy views, batman
  • Looking back after I have traversed across the face.
  • Deb at the platform
  • Taking a break at the platform. Not for long, though. Clouds seem to be building, and it's already been a long day. To the summit!
  • It's a class 2 scramble from the platform if you stick to the high ridge.
  • Finger Peaks and Slide Mountain
  • Final approach to the summit (on nice rock)
  • Here comes everyone!
  • Deb on the summit
  • Made it!
  • Upper Slide Canyon, Mule Pass
  • Looking North from Matterhorn
  • On the summit. Yay!
  • I've wanted this one a long time. So happy!
  • Summit selfie with Sooz!
  • Dangling feet over Slide Canyon. I am happy.
  • Taking in the view
  • Matterhorn Canyon and Whorl
  • Heading back down the summit block. Piece o' cake.
  • It was a loooong hike to get to this fun short scramble.
  • On the descent, we stayed on the other side of the gendarme and bombed down the sand. Fun!
  • Looking back at the traverse/gendarme. Heading down the chute instead.
  • 2 hours up, 10 minutes down.
  • Looking down on Horse Creek Pass after we've descended a bunch of the sand.
  • Spiller Canyon
  • As we descend the storms build in the distance. We never get wet, though the cars were back at the trailhead.
  • Back at Horse Creek Pass (well, above it)
  • Pics don't do it justice - this is quite a large snow field.
  • Heading back down.
  • And now for the long hike back.
  • Back down the canyon we look back to find Matterhorn
  • Along Horse Creek
  • Descending back to the trailhead, in the trees at the bottom of the canyon.
  • As we started the day, we end the day. Lost 500 ft from the car.
  • Crossing the inlet. Yes, I got wet.
  • Back at the vehicles - celebratory tailgate party!
  • My GPS track on a map.

Map and GPS Track

  1. awesome trip report and beta as always!
    thanks.
    will have to add to my peak bucket list as well.

  2. Great trip report! Very useful. Do you have waypoints available?

  3. Rebecca,
    Just came back from Matterhorn peak following your trip report and GPS tracks
    It was a great long day (5:00am – 16:00pm) and the story + GPS were of great help.

    Thank you!

  4. I took the trip last year but because of some trouble with my foot, didn’t summit.

    Do you know the name of the area you see from that big drop off before you get the the peak base?

    My companion said that he backcountry skis to there from Virginia Lakes but I can’t remember what he called the area.

    Great trip report.

    1. Also, I’m writing a scene in my novel that depicts my characters camping overnight at the base of the peak…or somewhere near it.

      Is that even in the realm of possibility from your recollection?

  5. great information!
    I am going this September with my 17 year old daughter and friend but we are making a multi day counterclockwise loop around the mt and will be hiking up spiller creek and (hopefully) summit before we drop over horse creek pass
    Thank you

  6. Just what I needed to see 🙂 Planning on doing this next summer

  7. Thank you Rebecca for this report. It was quite useful to get some understanding of the terrain before I’m going to climb it.

  8. thanks for the posting. we will try a winter ski cimb next week

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