Mount Conness has been on the top of my ‘mountain bucket list’ for a while now. There is no particular reason this peak is on this list, other than that it is a Yosemite classic and I felt like I was missing out on something by not climbing it (oddly enough, I don’t feel this way about Half Dome). As you drive east on 120, it’s the beautiful and striking peak seen in the distance beyond Tenaya Lake as you come around the curve from Olmstead Point. It’s also the highest peak in the Sierra north of this road. There is a large glacier (second in size only to Lyell Glacier as far as the ice in Yosemite goes). The views into 20 Lakes Basin are incredible. So, when David suggested it as a hike on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, I didn’t object.
David has done this peak a few times in the past so I thought it would be an easy ‘follow along’ hike. You’d think after 10 years of marriage I would know better, but apparently I still haven’t learned my lesson. Anyways, we started from Sawmill walk-in campground. If you walk through the campground you’ll eventually find yourself of a well-worn single track trail. It passes the Carnegie Institute Experimental Station (I believe they study high-altitude plants and ecosystems) and continues through beautiful high alpine meadows that were still teeming with wildflowers and wildlife, even this late in the season. As we got higher up the drainage the trail faded away as people disperse to the different routes up the face of Conness.
We were heading towards a ‘ramp’ that David vaguely remembered taking in the past. I was staring at a big wall of rock in front of us and wondering where the heck this ‘ramp’ was, but as we got closer the route became clear. At the head of the drainage leading into the meadow we found a steep talus slope hiding behind a ridge. This north-facing slope led straight up to a low point on the ridge between White and Conness. There was still a snowfield along this slope and I imagine it would be a far more complicated climb earlier in the season, requiring ice axe and crampons. On Labor Day weekend, however, it was a talus hop most of the way. Towards the top there are several likely looking chutes for the final 100 feet or so to the ridge, and we took the most obvious one. It was sandy and steep and difficult to keep our feet under us, but it was short and we quickly found ourselves on the ridge with a view towards Ragged Peak to the west. The summit of Conness was still not visible, hiding behind the ridge to the north.
From here the hike was quite easy, following a use trail along the ridge to gain another 1000 feet until we got to the foot of the exposed ridge that leads the final 200 feet to the summit. A few words on this ridge: I wouldn’t have been able to do this, say, five years ago. My skills (or more accurately, my comfort level and experience) have improved to the point where the exposure on this spine didn’t even bother me. The rock is sturdy and hand/foot holds are clear. It’s a bit scrambly but for the most part it’s simple one-foot-in-front-of-another terrain. I say this because depending on the trip report you read, this ridge is either not even worth mentioning, or OMG THE SCARIEST THING EVER!!!11!!! It really depends on your skills and comfort level.
On the summit we took some photos and video, especially noticing the smoke plumes to the west (Hetch Hetchy area) and south (Sheep Fire). Then, deciding that we had spent enough time getting up the peak, we began the descent. This is where David took the lead with his “it’s really easy from here, we’ll be able to jog it and be back at the car in no time!” Of course, we immediately dropped down onto the east ridge via a steep talus slope with tons of loose rocks and sand. The kind of terrain where you have to choose your foot placement carefully. Yep, this is going well.
What followed was a slow process of picking our way down the south face of the east ridge until we met with the trail in the drainage once again. This took us nearly two hours, and I didn’t get to ‘jog’ any of it. I know the standard East Ridge route is class 2/3, but we were not on it. I’m not sure where this ‘really easy’ terrain was that David had been on before, but it wasn’t anywhere we were. We picked our way down, mostly sticking to class 2 but there were several stops to evaluate the terrain and decide where to go next. After contouring along a steep granite slabbed slope we were able to drop into a steep valley with a creek that fed into the lower (original) meadows. Finally, back on the trail, we got back to the truck around 6 pm, really really looking forward to those Whoa Nellie fish tacos.
I think David was frustrated that he couldn’t find his previous route, but like usual, I actually had a lot of fun – I find that solving an unexpected challenge to be quite satisfying, even if we did get back to the car a lot later than expected. It’s all part of the fun of playing in the mountains. If it was easy, there would be a lot more people out there.
Lollipop with variations. Starting from Sawmill campground, a well worn use trail leads up the valley towards the eastern wall of Conness. As the valley ends the trail fades and one switches to boulder hopping and route finding. Alternates include catching the east ridge to the north of the valley. The map and GPS track include a route that involved both. The east ridge, the descent of the include GPS track and map, involved class 3 scrambling.
9.25 miles round trip from Sawmill Campground for the route shown
+/- 3200 ft
Trailhead and Permit Notes:
There are no permits required for day hiking Conness, but permits are needed for any overnight visit to the backcountry. This trailhead can be reached via Saddlebag Road, which is unpaved but relatively well graded due to the resort at the end. Tioga Pass and Saddlebag Road are open seasonally once the snow melts. This road is outside of the east boundary of Yosemite National Park so no National Park fees are required.
Camping in Yosemite requires patience and most often, reservations. There are National Forest campgrounds available outside the park with first-come, first-served sites. Sawmill Camp, at the beginning of this hike, is a walk in campground and quite lovely. If dispersed camping is your thing, check out the area south of Mono Lake along 120 to the east of 395.