For the final part of this trip report, I’m mostly revisiting terrain we crossed our first and second days. But the views are so great that it’s totally worth it! Unfortunately, our idea to climb Mt Williamson didn’t work out as planned. Feeling a bit spooked about the route after chatting with some other climbers and learning that just getting to the base of the peak was 9 hours round trip, we started considering other options.
The next morning, the intended day of our climb, we woke to gusting winds that nearly blew me off my feet, and waiting it out wasn’t working. The wind was picking up and we were well past the window of time where we should have left for Williamson.
So instead we decided to pack up and make it a long day on the trail, working our way back towards Forester Pass and hopefully making it to Kearsarge Lakes for the night. We estimated it to be about an 18 mile day with about 4000 ft of gain, including a 1500 ft climb to cap thins off right at the end. It wasn’t going to be an easy day. Considering we were already getting a late start due to our attempts to wait out the wind, I wasn’t completely confident we’d make it to Kearsarge Lakes that night. But we hoped to in order to meet up with some friends we thought might be staying there that night.
Despite being pretty wiped out from a long first day, I woke up feeling pretty refreshed and ready for another haul on Day 2 of our week long trip. This day’s plan would take us up and over Forester Pass, a 3200 foot climb from our campsite at 10,000 ft in Vidette Meadow.
Forester Pass is the highest pass on the Pacific Crest trail, and after only a day of acclimation it is no easy feat. And I hadn’t lost of a ton of weight from that heavy pack yet, either. But I’ve been over Forester before and knew what to expect, where the good rest spots were, where to refill my water, and how to enjoy myself on the climb.
There are plenty of options for getting to the summit of Split Mountain, from the walk-up to the technical. Split could be considered the easiest 14k peak in California when looking only at the route from Lake 3535. Secor calls it the second easiest 14er (after Whitney). Our climb took us on this ‘easy’ walk-up approach, however, you have to get to the Lake first. That requires a hike of nearly 8000 feet of gain in 14 miles, so the summit of Split doesn’t see as many people as, say, White Mountain or Mt Langley. I’m not sure how Secor rationalizes that. Split has two summits (presumably the reason for the name) and fortunately the northernmost and more accessible of the two is the higher one. The ‘split’ in the summit was clear from Arrow Peak and I remember saying something along the lines of “oh now I get it” while enjoying the view from there. It dominated the view and at that time I didn’t realize I’d be standing on it within a few days. I had made a mental note to myself: Get up that thing someday.
‘Someday’ ended up being Thursday. It was a perfect morning at Lake 3535 (despite the mosquitoes) and rather than get an alpine start we took our time getting ready to head to the peak. I enjoyed the last of my Packit Gourmet breakfast smoothies (the 400 calorie punch gets me going better than anything else in the morning) and we finally headed out, leaving David behind to fish for a while before catching up to us.
From our campsite on the northwest end of the lake we hopped boulders and hiked around the shore until we were at the base of several possible routes heading up to the low saddle between Split and Prater. The route from the east, via Red Lake, meets our route at this saddle. Sooz and I zigzagged up the nice green ramps while David took a more direct approach through a steeper talus field. Of course he beat us, because he is fast.
From the saddle the route is perfectly clear – just head on up. The terrain varies from sandy to moderate sized rock, but rarely steep enough to need hands (though I went into “four wheel drive” a few times). I still wasn’t sure what we’d encounter when getting closer to that snow near the top but it looked like we’d be able to get around it – I decided there was no reason to worry about it yet and kept going.
We found that it was easier to stick to the sandier use trails instead of hopping over the more unstable rock. One wonderful consequence of this decision was that polemonium, my favorite flower, was abundant in the sandy areas and it practically guided us to the top like the lights of an airport runway. I could have closed my eyes and navigated by smell alone.
We were unbelievably lucky to have a perfect day. The weather was perfect for a climb – not too hot, not too cold, and the mosquitoes weren’t bothering us. There were no clouds building and we had plenty of daylight to make the climb. We took our time enjoying the polemonium and the views as we climbed – it was just perfect.
The higher we got, the more things fell away below us. Mather Pass looked puny. Mountains that had towered above us that morning looked like quick little run-ups. Scale and perspective is so weird up here, but the more time you spend in these mountains the more you learn to read them. That puny Mather Pass? Really isn’t that puny. That nice looking peak over there? That chute is gnarly up close.
The summit is a nice area with some good lounging rocks where one can sit back and enjoy the view. I settled right on in – we were in no hurry. It wasn’t even 1 pm and the weather was perfect. With hours of daylight left there was nothing to rush us off the peak.
We spent over an hour on the summit. Reading the summit register, staring at the big Tom Harrison map while trying to identify distant peaks, taking tons of photos, getting dive-bombed by a kestrel, and simply sitting back and taking it all in. That’s how you spend over an hour on a summit. It was probably my most perfect summit experience. And the only 14er summit we haven’t had to share with anyone other than us.
To the north we saw the only peaks that were higher than us, the summits of the Palisade crest. I believe Split used to be called South Palisade, but don’t quote me on that.
After over an hour we decided that it was finally time to descend, but we took our time, stopping at the saddle for some fun photos.
And the best part was getting back to camp only to discover that Mr Speedy, a.k.a. David, had already caught limits and was ready to cook us some dinner of this extraordinarily colored rainbow hybrid trout.
Top it off with some bourbon and hot apple cider, sipped while watching acrobatic fish jump and the moonrise over Split, and you have what I call a perfect day in the mountains. Oh! And a spectacular shooting star – one of those that lasts long enough for everyone to see.
After this there was only one day remaining on our Sierra summer trip. The next day we hiked all the way from our campsite at Lake 3535 to the Taboose pass trailhead. We took the old trail that cuts over just north of the JMT South Fork crossing, and made it back to the cars by 6:30 pm after a 14 mile, 8000 ft descent day (with a 1500 climb thrown in the middle for good measure). We covered terrain we had mostly done earlier in the week so I’m not going to write about it in detail, but I’ll share some photos from the last day below, or just use the Photos tab at the top of this trip report for links to more.
This was the day with the biggest number of unknowns. The beginning of the day started off without concern, following the trail back to the John Muir Trail (JMT) and then down to the South Fork of the Kings River crossing. With this year’s high water that would be the first obstacle. From there we needed to find where the old JMT forks off of the current JMT, then follow it approximately a mile and a half down river. We would then have to find the point where the old trail turns northwest and switchbacks up the steep canyon walls to the lakes below Cartridge Pass. Followed by more climbing to the Pass itself through rocky terrain.
I had some good beta and GPS waypoints but still wasn’t sure how much time it would take us to hike this stretch. The old JMT hasn’t been maintained in eighty years, and that amount of time allows for lots of rockslides, fallen trees, washouts, and plant growth. Would we be able to follow the old trail? How much time would we spend route finding? Would it even be worth finding the old trail or should we just go cross-country and figure our own way? The information I had ahead of time seemed to vary from “it’s a piece of cake” to “it took me all day to go a mile!” So we really didn’t know how far we would make it and where we would end up for the night. Our ultimate goal was to get over Cartridge Pass and camp in Lake Basin that night, but we were open to the possibility of not making it that far.
We cruised down from Bench Lake that morning and made it down the South Fork Kings River pretty quickly. The crossing wasn’t nearly as bad as we had anticipated, though we did switch to our water crossing shoes and waded through a wide spot that was about knee-deep. We didn’t have far to go once we crossed – I had a waypoint in my GPS for the junction of the old JMT and it was a few hundred feet in front of us. As we approached the waypoint I could see the old trail clearly – in fact, it is so obvious that lots of sticks and logs have been placed across the junction so that people don’t go the wrong way when hiking the current JMT.
Relieved, we hiked for quite a while on the old trail. As we got further from the main trail it did get a bit faded and overgrown in spots but it was always easy to follow. Before we knew it we had knocked off almost a mile of the 1.5 miles along the river. Then we hit the first of the three rockslides. The rockslides aren’t that bad – pretty low angle, straightforward talus hopping that is still pretty easy with a pack. But there were some marshy, overgrown stretches in between them that had us spending some time looking for the best route through.
When we crossed the third and final rock slide I knew it was the point where we had to look for where the old trail started switchbacking up the canyon wall. I had a waypoint for the bottom of the switchbacks but as I stood there (next to a nicely built cairn), I simply couldn’t make out a trail. Everything in the forest duff looked like a switchback, so eventually we just started working our way up and hoped we’d find the trail eventually. And that’s exactly what happened.
The old trail was not built with the sophistication of current trail engineering. Each switchback was incredibly steep and had washed out in many places. It was still easy to follow (once we found it) and we slowly picked our way up the canyon wall. There is one point where it flattens out and contours along the wall for a short distance and we lost it there for a while – a large fallen tree blocked the view of the trail to our left, so we kept looking for a non-existent trail above us. I scrambled up the hillside and looked back down, and only then the trail was clear on the other side of the fallen tree. I scrambled back down and we continued up to the big lake below Cartridge Pass. This little detour of mine is clear on the GPS track (see Map tab) and labeled as waypoint 107 right around 10,300 ft.
The lake was beautiful and we had it all to ourselves. From here we could see Cartridge Pass and the snowfield running next to it had me a bit concerned. But we continued along the use trail around the lake and followed a nicely sloped ramp (with remants of trail) up to the small lake below the pass. From here I could clearly make out a trail angling up to the pass. With no trees or bushes to grow over it the trail is obvious and clear all the way between this small lake and the pass.
We reached Cartridge Pass at 6 pm and were all pretty much running out of gas. The first view into Lake Basin took my breath away. On second look a wave of disappointment fell over me. There was a lot of snow on the north side of the pass. We couldn’t see the entire route, and the part we couldn’t see was the steepest. We hadn’t carried crampons or ice axes, hoping that our route would be free enough of snow to let us pass. The snow was in the shade and already icing over for the night. We were tired and prone to making those end-of-day mistakes. It is quite possible we would have been able to find a route down through the snow. But we discussed the situation and given the pros and cons we decided to turn back. It was not a happy decision to make, but the Basin will still be there for us to go back some other day.
So we returned to the gorgeous large lake below the pass. Finding a campsite perched on a nice bench to the north of the lake, we ended the day frustrated yet still delighted to have an amazing spot all to ourselves. It’s really hard to be disappointed in that as a consolation prize!
We deferred making a decision about the rest of the trip until the morning so we could have a night to think about it and weigh the options. The next morning was spent at a leisurely pace, slowly packing up as David fished and fried up a breakfast of some trout. Finally we decided to head into Upper Basin and climb Split Mountain, a new 14er for me and David.
We left camp late, around 10:30, but due to our new familiarity with it the return trip down the old JMT was pretty quick and we were back at the junction with the current JMT at 1 pm. As we sat at the South Fork Kings crossing and soaked our feet we saw the first people since the previous day at the same spot. I love getting off the beaten track!
Hiking north along the JMT through Upper Basin is a really enjoyable experience. The views are among the best on the trail and the grade is a steady but easy climb. South of Mather Pass we left the JMT and cross-countried over to Lake 3535, a large round lake below Mt Prater and Split. Along the way we saw several bucks lounging around a smaller lake.
We settled in to a campsite at the lake and contemplated a snow field we could just barely see near the summit of Split. I was worried it may cause us trouble tomorrow, but for now it didn’t matter – we thoroughly enjoyed watching the moon rise over the peak and enjoyed our beautiful surroundings. Tomorrow: another 14er to add to the list!
Sierra Point is a viewpoint on the eastern end of Yosemite Valley from which you can see four waterfalls: Yosemite Falls, Illilouette Falls, Vernal Falls, and Nevada Falls. This old map shows a trail to Sierra Point from Happy Isles (look between Happy Isles and Grizzly Peak). However, this trail was closed back in the 1970s due to rock slides.
It is still possible to hike to Sierra Point but it is not a nice and easy trail like the others you’ll find out of Yosemite Valley. I personally found the route pretty straightforward and easy using detailed instructions and GPS waypoints given to me by a friend (and readily available via some googling), but I hate to gauge difficulty since it is so subjective. People inexperienced with off-trail travel (especially on steep terrain) and routefinding might find this to be very difficult. So the typical caveat applies: Only you know your skills, comfort level, and abilities so it is up to you to make the call when out there.