On the morning of Day 5 we got up early and packed up, saying goodbye to Pavla since she was heading in a different direction than us. Her plan was to meet up with some other friends who were heading out via Mt Whitney. Meanwhile, David and I were heading over to Shepherd Pass to set up a base camp for the next couple of nights in order to climb Mt Tyndall and Mt Williamson.
We exited Wright Lakes basin via the simple cross-country Rockwell Pass, a shortcut that would quickly connect us to the trail heading towards Shepherd Pass from the JMT. Rockwell Pass is famous as the location of the highest observed tornado, but I was perfectly happy avoiding such excitement when we visited.
The Sweetwater Mountains are an overlooked range thanks to their more showy neighbor, the Sierra Nevada. Occupying a piece of largely undeveloped land north of Bridgeport and bordered by highways 395 to the west, 208 to the north, 338 to the east, and 182 to the south, access is exclusively via 4×4 vehicle once you get off pavement.
From my glimpses into the Sweetwaters from 395 and my Sierra summits, I’ve never felt drawn to the range. But as the northernmost peaks in my favorite Desert Summits book they piqued enough interest to deserve further research. What I found was a geologically and historically fascinating area with relatively few visitors. I tucked the Sweetwaters in the back of my mind, planning to explore them some open summer weekend.
Poor Excelsior Mountain, always in the shadow (literally) of its bigger and more popular neighbor, Mt Conness. The next highest point to the north, Excelsior doesn’t have any dramatic cliffs or sharp ridgelines to distinguish it from other peaks in the area, and it is often overlooked. In fact, I had never heard of it until I was panning around a map a few months ago looking for interesting dayhikeable peaks between Yosemite and Sonora Pass.
Having never seen pictures, read trip reports, or even heard of this peak I was surprised to find it on the SPS list. I was also pleased to read that it is essentially a class 1 walkup (assuming you know the right route). About 10 miles round trip, split evenly between easy trail walking and mostly easy cross-country, I decided it would make a good Sunday peak before driving home. It had the added bonus of starting out of a trailhead I’ve never used, so the whole thing would be new and interesting!
Everyone talks about Half Dome. You can’t have a conversation about Yosemite without someone asking, “Have you done Half Dome?” But people should really ask, “Have you done Clouds Rest?”
Clouds Rest is what Yosemite means to me wrapped up in a nice little bow. A fun rocky summit, hiking through terrain that only means Yosemite, incredible views of the Valley, and yes, crowds of inexperienced but eager tourists. It was the site of my first backpacking trip in the park, and having very few memories of the trail I decided it was time to go back, but for a dayhike this time.
My second backpacking trip ever in Yosemite was to Young Lakes, a hike that I still remember as very difficult and strenuous. Of course, I was in no kind of hiking shape at the time and my pack weighed about 50 lbs, so when I realized I would be on the same trail again with a stronger body and a daypack I was interested to see if the trail was as difficult as I remembered it to be.
The answer is no, of course not. In fact, it is actually one of the easier hikes in Yosemite! It’s amazing how much experience skews your view of what constitutes ‘easy’. That’s why I never trust guide books that give ratings on a Easy-Difficult scale. But I digress. Why did I return to this trail? To hike a peak, naturally!
Back in…2000? 2001? …when I hiked in to Young Lakes I was impressed by the toothy peak that the trail carefully circled at a distance. It looked intimidating and completely unclimbable to my inexperienced eyes. Recently it popped up on my radar again and I was surprised to read that this peak, Ragged Peak, was a quite doable class 3 summit. So what else to do but pack up and go?
Within every community you’ll find people who like to nitpick things. A nitpicky thing among peak bagging enthusiasts is the true identity of the highest peak in Nevada. Some call it Wheeler Peak at 13,063 feet (see my Great Basin trip report for a description of that hike), but others declare it to be Boundary Peak, coming in at 13,140 ft.
“But Rebecca”, you might ask, “Boundary is higher – what’s the argument”?
Well, Boundary is one of a set of twins, neighbor to the higher Montgomery Peak. Despite being so close, Montgomery rests in California, the border between the two states running right between the peaks. If Boundary were not a state high point it might be considered a mere bump on the way to Montgomery, with only 300 ft of prominence. And in some circles, that’s not enough to qualify you as a ‘real’ peak.
Now that I’ve climbed them both I don’t really care about the answer. But to avoid the debate I’ll simply refer to Boundary as the highest POINT in Nevada, not the highest PEAK. I’ll let you decide for yourself based on whatever criteria you deem important.
Boundary Peak Route Overview
Boundary Peak has two common routes, one from the east (Trail Canyon) and another from the north (Queen Mine). We climbed via the Queen Mine route on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend in a very low snow year. I specifically mention that it is a low snow year (2013) for people who may stumble across this report in the future. Most years it will not be this dry. In fact, we climbed without any snow gear. There was only one spot where traction devices would have been nice, but not necessary. We also got a good peek into the Trail Canyon route so I’ll try to offer some opinions on that route.
The Queen Mine road is accessed from highway 6, about 9 miles east of Benton, CA. As you cruise along this desert highway, look for the rotting remains of an old brothel, Janie’s Ranch, on the north side of the road. There is a water tank with the initials “JR” painted on the side. Take the dirt road to the south as it climbs into Queen Canyon. There are several old mining roads wiggling around the hills, but most are overgrown and there are no confusing junctions – the main road is obvious. You’ll pass some wooden building ruins lower in the canyon, but continue on for a total of about 6 miles from pavement to the ruins of the Queen Mine.
A word on the road conditions: We were in a 4×4 pickup truck and it was easy peasy to the Queen Mine. A friend in a 2WD pickup also did fine, but had to take it slower and had some problems on the steeper sections. I would have been fine taking my Outback. That said, there were several places where we could see washouts happen regularly, and this road could easily deteriorate into nastiness. It may have been fine last week, but one storm could make things much different. Use your own judgement.
From the Mine, there is an additional mile of driving up to a saddle next to Kennedy Point. This section gets steeper, has a tight switchback, and is a bit offcanter. We left the 2WD truck at the Mine and drove the Tundra up to the saddle. If you doubt your vehicle’s ability or if being offcanter makes you uncomfortable, you can park at the mine and walk the extra mile and ~700 feet gain.
The saddle is wide and open with plenty of room to maneuver, park, and turn around. There was a large firepit, and although it would be a cool place to camp the wind must blast through there. There are additional campsites down in the canyon that are much more protected.
The Trail to Boundary
From parking, follow the old road up the slope to an old wooden trailhead information sign. With, uh, no information. Pick up a trail behind the sign. The trail switchbacks about a thousand feet up to a relatively flat and pleasant ridge. Look for wild horses – we saw several – and deer.
Upon gaining the ridge you’ll have your first view of Boundary Peak. The peak is rather striking, especially with some snow, and after getting lulled into the mindset of a pleasant stroll the view might jar you a bit. In fact, here is the view – click for larger.
This is the best view you’ll get of the entire route since as you get closer the view of the actual peak will be blocked. Here is a cropped version of the above picture with the route roughly drawn. The route contours around the backside of the bump in the middle (arrow points to where the route is out of view).
Eventually the pleasant walk along the ridge ends at Trail Canyon Saddle at about 10,800 ft. There is a windblock made of old logs and rocks, so take a moment to hydrate and fuel up for the climb ahead. You have about 2300 more feet to go to the summit. The easy trail you’ve been following until now quickly deteriorates into several use trails, but sticking to the most worn track worked for us.
It climbed and then switchbacked up the slope.
In order to avoid unnecessary climbing over the intermediate bump shown on the route image above, the main use trail cuts over to the ridge to the right, then contours around the bump’s backside and rejoins the ridge. We had a few snow fields to cross but nothing that was sketchy. Once on the ridge we were rewarded with a much closer view of Boundary – the summit is in sight again. This ridge is at about 12,000 ft. A little over 1100 ft to go to the summit.
The well worn use trail continues along the ridge until a pile of larger boulders blocks the way. The use trail goes to the right of the pile, and then gets a bit lost in the boulders. Because snow was partially obscuring the terrain and I didn’t feel comfortable crossing beneath the loose rocks, I scrambled up to the ridge. From here I lost any specific use trail and just continued along the ridge. The terrain is easy going and there are lots of use trails wiggling along the ridge.
Just before the summit there is one last large boulder pile to negotiate. The rock was too big to scramble over, so I looked for a place to go around. There were snow fields on either side, and they were still iced over. I have a feeling this is probably pretty easy with a use trail when not snowy, but no matter what I had to make an uncomfortable snow crossing. I went to the right side of the large boulder, tightly hugging the rocks and using iced over footprints from previous climbers. After a limbo maneuver around the final rock I was free and clear of the obstacle and the summit was in sight just ahead.
The final stretch to the summit is an easy walkup. The summit has plenty of room for people and we spent about 45 minutes admiring the view and reading through the register. It finally got a bit too cold for us so we headed back down, retracing our steps to the saddle.
It took us almost nine hours to do this ~8.5 mile hike to the summit of Boundary Peak. However, our time is based strongly on the fact that this was the first time any of us had been above 10k since October. We moved slow on purpose to prevent over-exertion and to listen to our bodies. We stopped frequently to make sure we were eating and staying hydrated. If I climbed this in, say, September, after a summer in the Sierra I would move much faster. So, take my round trip time with a grain of salt.
Extended Option: Montgomery Peak
From the summit of Boundary, Montgomery is accessibly via a class 3-ish ridge. I’ve heard this is a fun scramble and would have liked to have included it in our climb. However, with our speed (see above) we didn’t have the time to add on the extra few hours of climbing. There was also still a bit of snow on the ridge and we did not bring along crampons or other mountaineering gear. Finally, while sitting on the summit of Boundary we heard a rockfall from the slopes of Montgomery. That put it firmly in the ‘NOT TODAY’ category. That said, I’d love to get back here someday later in the season when I’m stronger, used to altitude, and the route is clear.
Trail Canyon Route
Another approach to Boundary is via Trail Canyon. This starts on the east side of the peak and follows the bottom of the canyon that runs along the ridge we had hiked. Eventually the canyon spits the climber into a wide bowl that can be followed up to the ridge. Here is what it looks like from above:
It looked loose and awful. We met a couple of climbers coming from this direction and they did not seem to happy with the slog up the chute. I don’t know what the advantage is to coming in this way - maybe the road is better for more vehicles? I don’t know. But I don’t think I’d come in this way.
About twenty miles east of Lee Vining and Yosemite National Park there is a small high desert mountain range known as the Granite Mountain Wilderness. There are hundreds – thousands – of these small desert ranges across the western states, and frequently they are driven by at highways speeds, from a distance appearing brown and grey and desolate and boring. But during my years of exploring the backcountry of California I’ve learned that these ranges are full of life, history, and exciting adventures.