In mid-August I was supposed to be out on a nine day backpacking trip in the Sierra. Unfortunately, my stress fracture hadn’t healed enough by the planned start date and I had to back out. By the next weekend I felt like I could start getting back on the trail with a small daypack, so I decided to head out for a couple of easy peaks. As a bonus, I would get to meet my friends coming off the trail from the trip I was supposed to be on.
I chose two peaks based on their relative simplicity, short distance, and basic terrain in case my foot acted up and I needed to bail. It occurred to me that both are great starter peaks for someone looking for an introduction to off-trail peak bagging in the Sierra. They are both relatively short, easy to navigate, straightforward terrain, and have great rewards in terms of views. So, if you’re thinking about getting into the addicting and rewarding activity of Sierra summiteering, here’s a good place to start.
Both peaks are accessed via Horseshoe Meadows Road out of Lone Pine.
The complete failure of our original Memorial Day Weekend plans ended up being a blessing in disguise. Relocating to the un-stormed-on southern Sierra region meant we could play in my favorite mountains. And luckily someone had the perfect idea to hike Trailmaster Peak, a summit near Cottonwood Pass out of the Horseshoe Meadows trailhead.
Trailmaster isn’t a formally named peak, but it’s the high point to the north of the Pass and just south of Cirque. I believe the summit elevation is 12,337 ft, and the trailhead is at about 10k ft. This hike is split 50/50 between trail and cross-country, but the route finding is straightforward and the terrain is relatively simple. I would consider this a great ‘beginner’ peak for someone looking to start exploring off-trail in the Sierra. Use the map of my GPS track below or at this link to follow along with the description.
Park at the Cottonwood Pass trailhead and store all of your food and food related materials (coolers, etc) out of view or in the bear boxes or risk a ticket from the patrolling rangers. Bears are a problem up here, please don’t contribute to the issue! At 10,000 ft you’ll already be gulping for air when packing up your stuff, and you’re not even hiking yet. Make sure you’re well fed and even better hydrated. The only time I’ve had altitude issues is when I haven’t been properly hydrated. Drink drink drink.
Follow the trail to Cottonwood Pass. As far as Sierra passes go this one is really easy. The trail is well graded and even flat for the first couple miles. It’s only about a thousand foot climb to the pass from the trailhead. Piece of cake! But you’ll still be gulping for air, because hey, 11,000 ft is 11,000 ft.
Go about 100 feet past the pass, then leave the trail and angle up a gully. You’ll be off-trail for the next ~3.5 miles or so. Climb up the gully until you have a better view of the sandy eastern slope of Trailmaster. Angle up this east side, making sure not to climb all the way to the top right away since the still-not-visible northern high point is the summit.
You’ll be climbing through sand and boulders. Look down and you’ll see some dark crystal rocks – excellent examples of smoky quartz. They make a nice distraction during the slog to the summit. We took a long time on our climb, sometimes down on our hands and knees to find particularly nice crystals.
Eventually the summit comes into view and you can scramble through the rock and sand to the top. I would classify this peak as Class 1, though you can easily make it class 2 in sections by choosing the boulders over the convoluted sand paths. Enjoy the view from the summit – Cottonwood Lakes below you to the north, along with Mt Langley and Whitney. The Kaweahs to the west. Chickenspring Lake directly below you to the west.
Notice the sandy looking ramp heading down into the meadows to the east? That’s our descent.
To descend, head down the north side towards the broad, sloping, sandy plateau below Cirque. Angle to the east until you reach the broad saddle at the top of the sandy ramp pictured above. We dropped our packs here and made a quick run up the little point to the east, naming it “Shortcut Peak”. This is a fun little side trip – a sandy walk with a cool Class 3-ish summit block.
Back at the saddle, tighten your shoes and your gaiters (you’ll need them) and start down the ramp to the meadow below. I dare you not to run. It’s one of those great plunge-step sandy slopes that you can run. Wheeeeeeee.
Down at the meadow, start following the creek. Stick to the northeast side where the terrain stays easy and you’ll even see footprints and the occasional use trail. Follow this creek about a mile and a half (along stunning meadows) and you’ll intersect the trail that you hiked in on at the creek crossing. Take the trail back to your car. Enjoy a cold one and toast to an awesome Sierra summit!
Lone Pine is a long drive for us. LONG DRIVE. Like, 7+ hours. But as John Muir once said, “The mountains are calling and I must go,” and this past weekend it was Cottonwood Basin that was calling. The trail to Cottonwood starts from the Horseshoe Meadows area out of Lone Pine.
We took off Thursday night and drove out towards Yosemite. We were hoping to snag a campsite at one of the higher campgrounds near Tioga Pass but everything was full. Even Lee Vining Canyon was packed – we finally found a spot in the Lower Lee Vining campground around 12:30 am in between two RVs. The following morning we hiked Gaylor Peak (trip report) and then headed into the Mono Visitor Center to pick up a permit for Cottonwood Lakes trailhead for Saturday. This was followed by fish tacos at the Whoa Nellie Deli. My first of the season and they were as good as always.
Having had a productive morning (1 peak, 1 permit, and 2 fish tacos), we headed south along 395 and took some time to fish along the way. We were completely unsuccessful at both Rush Creek and Rock Creek. Plus the mosquitoes were out. By evening we had reached Lone Pine and after dinner in town we headed out to camp at Tuttle Creek. It was hot so we enjoyed some cold beer and nighttime photography before heading to bed.
We met up with Sooz, Robin, and Rachel at 7:30 near the trailhead. After dropping our cooler in a bear box, we went back to the Old trail and started off towards Cottonwood Lakes. I was feeling good and hardly noticed the altitude. It helps that the trail climbs gently. Eventually, we reached the junction to Muir Lake and headed towards our intended campsite.