Kennedy Trail at Sierra Azul

A great trail for views across south Silicon Valley and hill climbing, although be warned it’s scorching hot in the summer, early mornings are best.

Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve is a rugged and steep park on the edge of Santa Cruz mountains. The trail system is mostly old fire roads which were not designed for hikers and are persistently steep, but partly it comes with the terrain.

The trail system is actually pretty extensive, especially now that the trail to Mount Umunhum has opened, but you have to be a glutton for hill climbing to do any very long hikes.

Kennedy Trail starts at the base of the mountains near Los Gatos and follows a fire road as it climbs up to reach Mount El Sombroso. It’s mostly surrounded by people height brush, but due to its steep dry slopes there aren’t many tall trees so views over the valley open up.

The lack of overgrowth also means limited shade, and in the summer the trail is hot. So hot that, along with the usual mountain lions, ticks, and rattlesnakes, the trail signage has warnings about signs of dog dehydration for dog walkers.

Trail Junction where Priest Rock Trail meets Kennedy Trail

The trail is popular with dog walkers, mountain bikers, trail runners, and hikers alike, and is despite its heat and steep slopes, or maybe because of those steep slopes, on a weekend you’ll likely to see all of the above.

When I arrived at the trail junction, my turn around point for a total hike of just under 8 miles with 2,000 feet of elevation change, I was greeted with the fog rolling in from the Pacific and burning off as it hugged the crest of the Santa Cruz mountains. I guess that’s why this end of range is so hot and dry and the other side of the range is lush redwood groves.

Windy Hill Loop

An 8 mile loop in Windy Hill Open Space Preserve starting at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains and climbing up to the top and back down again. The undergrowth and hills are glowing green following the winter and early spring rains.

It’s springtime in the bay area and the temperatures are starting to climb, the skies are turning blue, memories of rain are receding, and the foothills are flush with green. In a few months they’ll be scorching hot and golden brown as the moisture evaporates into dust.

I have had a late start to the hiking season this year, not getting out until this past weekend for the first time. I’m hoping to spend a lot more time backpacking in the Sierras again this summer. I kicked off the season with a gentle 8 mile loop in the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve.

The trailhead I started from is at the last intersection of Alpine Road, which is also a trailhead for Coal Mine Ridge trail system. On the weekends the Santa Cruz mountains are teaming with lycra clad cyclists, both cycling and hiking are very popular in the Bay Area, and for good reason. A steady stream of cyclists zips past climbing up Alpine Road.

A sign post along Eagle Hill Trail; “Constructed 1973 as an Eagle Scout Project”

The loop I did takes a connector trail to Hamms Gulch Trail and then follows to Eagle Trail. Hamms Gulch is a very popular trail but I’ve taken Eagle Trail to Razorback Ridge Trail twice now and both times its been much quieter, usually only seeing a couple of trail runners.

Eagle Trail follows alongside Alpine Road, but at this point Alpine Road has turned into a dead-end so there’s no traffic on it, save for the cyclists. The trail connects back to the road in a couple of places to cross bridges before branching away and turning into Razorback Ridge.

Springtime wildflowers along Lost Trali

Razorback Ridge zig zags up the side of the mountain. It’s a very well-built trail and is a very gentle climb up to the top of the ridge. The whole loop is shaded, even early on a spring morning the exposed sun would heat you up so the shade is welcome. As the trail nears the top of the ridge, stopping just short of Skyline Road, some views across the preserve and bay open up. The sound of motorcycles whining along Skyline grows.

Razorback Ridge becomes Lost Trail and continues to zig zag, this time contouring the ridge. This early in the year there are little streams down some of the gullies, and this early in the morning the ground is wet from the morning mist. Along the way I passed two Open Space Preserve rangers cutting a tree out of the trail.

Lost Trail meets with Hamms Gulch, and continues on to the exposed windy hills for which the preserve gets its name (which this morning were not windy at all, although last time I was here were very windy). I take the branch and follow Hamms Gulch down to close the loop. Hamms Gulch is a much busier trail, and maybe it’s also just a little later in the day.

All in all this is a pretty springtime hike, and thanks to the mostly shaded route I imagine would be pleasant in the summertime too, especially early in the morning. From the top there are glimpses across the bay from Palo Alto up to San Mateo. My first hike of the season under my belt I’m looking forward to more to come.

Hetch Hetchy North Rim: Hetch Hetchy Dome and Condon Peak

An easy off trail hike to Hetch Hetchy Dome, overlooking Wapama Falls, exploring Falls Creek basin, and to Condon peak, towering over Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

As the temperatures cool off in fall I headed to Hetch Hetchy for the weekend. Hetch Hetchy sits relatively low in the Sierra and gets very hot in the summer months. It was also the peak of the Orionids meteor shower in the early hours of Sunday morning so under clear skies I hiked into the wilderness.

I did the Lake Vernon loop in the spring so this time I was looking for a different route that’s doable in a weekend. Scouting the maps for a destination Hetch Hetchy Dome on the north rim of the valley looked like it had a large flat top, is accessible with an off trail hike from the top of the switchbacks, and looked like it would offer great views over the reservoir.

I checked in with the ranger while picking up my permit, and he remembered me from my trip earlier in the year. He said I should have no trouble getting over to the Falls Creek basin, which feeds Wapama Falls. He recommended going to the top of the granite cliff to the west of the falls and peering over and assured me that I would have the entire basin to myself.

Falls Creek basin at the end of summer. The sparse trees, golden grasses, and gently sloping granite encourages exploration.

The parking lot is on the south side of the dam and the trail immediately starts by traversing over the dam and through a walkway blasted through the granite. I couldn’t help myself from taking the same set of photos while crossing over the dam. The water level didn’t seem to be any different to the spring time, a testament to how much water was in the snowpack this year. At the highest elevations not all the snow melted and won’t now as the overnight temperatures routinely drop below freezing.

Looking up Hetch Hetchy from the top of the cliffs above Wapama Falls, Kolana Rock to the right and the slopes of Hetch Hetchy Dome to the left.

The trail follows a short way around before switchbacking up over 1,500 feet of vertical. At the last switchback the reservoir is hidden from view and the trail starts to head into the forest. Just past the top there’s a trail junction with a fire road to Miguel Meadow and Lake Eleanor. I take the trail towards Beehive and follow it for a short distance before turning right to follow the north rim of the valley off trail.

The pool at the mouth of Falls Creek right before it tumbles over the edge to become Wapama Falls.

The forest is pretty open at this elevation and it’s easy to follow around. I stick at around 5,400 feet elevation and follow the contour. There are many game trails through the brush that make it easy-going. There are rock outcroppings here and there which offer views down to the reservoir. At this time of year Tueeulala Falls is dry, but it’s pretty easy to tell which creek would have fed it as I climb over.

Looking to down to Hetch Hetchy reservoir at the mouth of Falls Creek as it falls over the edge to become Wapama Falls, Kolana Rock in the background.

I reach the smooth granite dome at the top of the vertical cliffs besides Wapama Falls at lunch time and lay out on the warm granite to eat my sandwiches. The views from here are really stunning, you’re just across from Kolana Rock, at about the same height, right where the valley bends around the rock, and the sheer cliffs just below offer a view up and down the reservoir as well as to directly below. I’m definitely a little timid when it comes to getting to the edge of such a sheer drop but the top was large and flat and I had a pretty good view without going right to the edge.

A small waterfall cascading over the rocks along Falls Creek. In the fall there’s a decent amount of water still flowing, but in the springtime this would have been a gushing cascade.

After lunch I skirted around the edge of the cliff to drop down to the top of the falls. The cliff edge here was vertigo inducing. The top of Falls Creek was actually really beautiful, there’s a little pool right before the edge with sandy banks. I imagine in the heat of summer it would be amazing to swim in, so long as you stay away from the edge!

But I had my eyes set on Hetch Hetchy Dome so I jumped some stones over the river and headed up the granite ledges on the other side. Getting up to the dome was the steepest part of the day, another 800 feet of climbing, and by the time the granite started flattening out I was starting to get low on energy as the sun beat down. I headed over to the dome peak. Because the dome is so large and flat on top the peak doesn’t actually offer direct views of reservoir, you have to walk down a little. Right past the peak there’s a set of eye bolts set into the granite, apparently during World War 2 there were cables strung between Kolana Rock and Hetch Hetchy Dome as an anti-aircraft measure.

Looking across from Hetch Hetchy Dome to Kolana Rock. There is a triangle of eye bolts drilled into the granite from which lines were strung to Kolana Peak during WWII to protect the dam from aircraft.

I had eyed up heading up-stream to explore the pools along Falls Creek but I decided to have an easier afternoon and scout out a campsite on back down on the west side of the creek. Finding a campsite in the basin was easy, the granite on the west of creek rises pretty gently and there’s a lot of flat ridges to choose from. I selected a site, put up my tent, inflated my mattress, and lay down in the late afternoon sun in the golden grasses.

The moon setting shortly after dusk, the stars starting to come out in the night sky.

Early Sunday morning was scheduled to be the peak of Orionids meteor shower. The Orionids are residue from Halley’s comet as it rotates the sun and the earth passes through its path. They’re named as they appear around the Orion constellation in the night sky. As the sun set the moon was visible low in the sky, it was only 3 days since the new moon and it setting just an hour or two after the sun. As it disappeared into the faint yellow glow of the sun the sky was illuminated by the milky way.

The milky way visible in the night sky overhead. Later in the night Orion was visible directly overhead along with shooting stars from the Orionids meteor shower.

I crawled into my tent as the wind picked up slightly and was causing a chill lying outside. I saw a couple of shooting stars but my eyes were feeling heavy so I decided instead to poke my head out of the tent in the early hours when it was meant to be the best viewing time when I inevitably woke up in the night. Sure enough, as I checked my watch, 3am rolled around and I opened up my door and lay my head outside. By this time the milky way had disappeared and Orion was clearly visible in its place. I trained my eyes on the sky and watched out. I saw a few more shooting stars but my eyes were still feeling heavy, so I called it good and closed my eyes until the morning.

The sun rising behind trees overlooking Hetch Hetchy, the light at this time of morning is magical.

As the night sky made way to dawn I had my morning coffee and packed down my tent. The hike back was retracing my steps from the previous day, contouring back around trained on 5,400 feet. The landscape in the morning light is magical, the sun rose over the reservoir and peeked through the trees.

Instead of heading straight back down I took a small detour right before the switchbacks. When I got to the trail I crossed straight over and headed up to Condon Peak. It’s right at the top of one of the granite ridges that the O’Shaughnessy Dam rests on, to the north. The slopes leading up to the domed peak were fairly steep and covered in brush which required a little bushwhacking, scratching up my arms and legs in the process. But it wasn’t too far and it was well worth it for the view from the top. Looking down to the valley below I couldn’t help but wonder if John Muir had looked down on green meadows from this point and felt a little heartache that the dam had been built at all.

The weekend was really a lot of fun. I think it would be a great day hike to reach the cliffs above Wapama Falls. While Hetch Hetchy Dome sounds a little magical, after all Yosemite is famous for its granite domes, I think it might actually have been more fun to explore the Falls Creek basin. Condon Peak was also well worth the detour and could also be done as a day hike, taking the whole day and going to the top of Wapama Falls and Condon Peak would offer views over the reservoir that few see.

Granite Dome in Emigrant Wilderness

The views from the top of Granite Dome look out across the entire Emigrant Wilderness and there are many pristine mountain lakes nestled in the expansive and gently sloping granite slopes, polished smooth by glaciers.

Two weeks after my last trip to Emigrant Wilderness I went back for another overnight backpacking trip, this time with Granite Dome in my sights. My last trip there was a blanket of snow over the mountains but in the time since almost all of it had melted, only remaining in shady or north facing slopes at high elevations.

I started out from Kennedy Meadows Trailhead, bright and early, after a cool motorcycle ride in. This time I had heated socks, and, other than that my right sock came unplugged when I threw my leg over the bike at the last fill-up, they worked a treat. I made breakfast and a cup of coffee at the trailhead, and set out.

The dam at Relief Reservoir. You can walk down to the dam and across the back side.

On the way past Relief Reservoir I took a small detour to venture down to the dam itself. There’s even more rusted out machinery scattered all over as you get nearer to the dam, and what looks like the entrance to a mine as a concrete doorway leads into the granite. I couldn’t tell whether there was an official trail to the dam but it wasn’t too hard to get to. There’s a walkway all along the backside of the dam and you can get to the other side, but I only went to the middle. From the dam you can see right across the reservoir and to Granite Dome behind it.

From the dam the trail follows around the reservoir, first dropping down to cross the Grouse Creek drainage, and then climbing up to a fork, one way leading up Relief Valley and the other towards Lunch Meadow. From here there’s probably many different options for climbing up to the lakes below Granite Dome, but I chose to follow the trail up to Lower Relief Valley and follow the drainage up from there.

The meadow in Lower Relief Valley looking up towards Granite Dome. I skirted around the meadow and followed the drainage up and around to Ridge Lake.

Lower Relief Valley is a large meadow, encircled by granite. After grabbing lunch I left the trail and skirted around to the creek on the opposite side. The creek cuts down layers of gently sloping granite, draining from Ridge Lake and Iceland Lake 1,200 feet above. The walk up is easy to navigate but it’s a straight walk up and the elevation gain was starting to take its toll on my energy level. When I finally crested the drainage and gazed over Ridge Lake I was ready for a break, and I couldn’t have asked for a prettier place to take one.

Looking over Ridge Lake and the cliffs to Granite Dome behind.

Nestled in the folded granite on the north side of Granite Dome there’s a number of pristine mountain lakes and views down to the valleys below. I walked from subpeak to subpeak, taking in Ridge Lake, Iceland Lake, Sardella Lake, Lewis Lakes, and smaller unnamed bodies of water. The huge granite ridge climbs up behind, the north slope still blanketed in a layer of snow. For the most part the granite is huge, smooth, and gently sloping, with a few boulder fields near to the cliffs below the ridge.

The walk up to the top of the ridge is pretty easy, I walked around to Lewis Lakes and curved up through a permanent snow field to the top of the ridge, which is large and flat. The wind was much stronger on top, and freezing cold. The peak isn’t very prominent on the ridge and the views are fantastic all along, although as it’s so flat you don’t get to take in the entirety of both sides at once.

Looking south from Granite Dome peak, Long Lake is visible in the distance

To the south you can see far into the distance, across Emigrant Wilderness and towards the peaks in Yosemite, Long Lake with its little islands is prominent in the valley below. To the north you can see the lakes directly below the ridge and further down to Relief Reservoir. I had been considering camping on the ridge but the wind was too strong so I instead headed back down to camp below the north ridge.

Looking north from Granite Dome peak, Lower Relief Valley meadow, Iceland Lake, and, below it, Relief Reservoir are visible.

I had the entire set of lakes all to myself. Overnight the wind died down and by morning the air was completely still. The moon was a couple of days off full and I got up pre-drawn to watch the light change and sun rise over the lakes. Morning is my favorite time backpacking, the smell of coffee brewing and the warm cup heating cold hands, the darkness of night fading through deep blue, then orange and yellow, the heat of the first rays of sun as it crests the surrounding mountains, and the anticipation of the day ahead.

The sun just cresting the horizon over Lewis Lake in the morning.

After eating breakfast, watching the sun rise, and breaking down camp, I spent a little time walking around the lakes, seeing them again in morning light, before following the drainage of Ridge Lake back down to the valley below. I decided to just retrace my steps back down to the trailhead instead of seeking out a different route.

The aspens in the valleys are turning yellow with fall colors

On the hike out I stopped at Relief Reservoir for lunch and there was a helicopter landed down near the reservoir. I couldn’t see any people and it didn’t look like a SAR helicopter. I also saw multiple groups of horses and pack animals. Right now is hunting season and it seems like the hunters like to use pack animals to come into the wilderness, but I’m guessing that there are horses coming out Kennedy Meadows Resort throughout the peak season.

Granite Dome was an amazing weekend destination, but it was pretty enough that I could easily have spent a few days in the vicinity. It would also be amazing to see in the early season with frozen lakes.

Grouse Creek to Soda Canyon in Emigrant Wilderness

An overnight backpacking trip over a 10,000 foot pass just below Relief Peak in Stanislaus National Forest, the first snow of the season had blanketed the high elevations with around half a foot of snow and the mountains were just gorgeous.

I’ve spent several weeks this summer volunteering in the Sierra National Forest wildernesses maintaining trails, so the first weekend of fall was the first chance I got to do a regular backpacking trip since July. The week before I was due to go a low pressure system sat over the Sierra, and on Thursday it snowed up to 6–8 inches at the high elevations, with the cold temperatures lingering into the weekend.

The frost covered floor glistens in the rising sun as I set off down the trail after a frigid motorcycle ride to the trailhead.

I planned to start out at Kennedy Meadows Trailhead in Stanislaus National Forest and hike into the Emigrant Wilderness. The early morning motorcycle ride into the forest was frigid, my heated jacket and gloves kept me toasty but my toes felt like they were about to drop off by the time I reached the parking lot.

Old rusting cast iron equipment alongside the trail towards Relief Reservoir.

The trail starts out passing through Kennedy Meadows Resort and follows the river, crossing once and then twice, the section in between looks blasted out of the granite in a steep-sided canyon. Past the second bridge there are a couple of pieces of old equipment lying by the trail, probably used for the construction of Relief Dam, a cast iron winch and boiler, rusted from age, dated from the late 1800s.

Past here the trail follows around Relief Reservoir, at first hidden from view, but then as the trail starts to drop down, reveals the length, from the source down to the dam. As I get nearer to the source I branch off from the main trail towards Grouse Creek. There’s no trail here, at first it’s a relatively steep incline but after the climb it opens up into a large flat valley. On the climb up I crossed through the snow line from the early season storm, the snow was still powder as it had only fallen two days earlier, but it carpeted the entire basin.

The snow blanketed the floor and trees in alongside Grouse Creek

From here I had originally set my eyes on Relief Peak, but I wasn’t expecting the snow, which made travelling much slower, so I just headed up towards a pass that would take me over to Soda Canyon, topping out just below 10,200 feet. The climb up took a lot of energy but the views more than made up for it. Relief Peak wasn’t visible from my route up, but I could see right across to Upper and Lower Relief Valley.

Looking across Relief Valley, the meadows at Upper and Lower Relief Valley are visible in the distance.

At the pass I took in the view, Soda Canyon stretched out before me and Kennedy Lake peaked out beyond the ridge. The gleaming white mountains bright in the afternoon sun. From here I dropped down a short distance to set up camp above a small lake at around 9,500 feet.

When the sun dipped below the mountain tops the air temperature dropped below freezing to 25 °F (−4 °C), although it was completely still with no wind, not even a breeze. After dinner, as the stars started to come out, I climbed inside my bag and the temperature continued to drop, eventually reaching 15 °F (−9 °C) for most of the night. This was much colder than I expected, my bag is rated for comfort at 32 °F (0 °C), and I was wearing all of my layers (including my wonderful down socks). Despite the layer of frost on top of my bag I was mostly comfortable.

As the sun sets and the tip of Leavitt Peak is illuminated the temperature drops to 25 °F (-4 °C)

Eventually the stars started to disappear one by one, and the sky started to brighten, the sun at first lit the mountain tops, and then creeped down their slopes, until it crested the horizon and the morning rays hit me, and boy did it feel good. The frost covering my gear started to melt to water droplets, and the snow around me glistened. With my morning coffee mug heating up my gloved hands, and the entire mountain basin all to myself, it doesn’t get better than this.

After packing up my stuff and following the stream down to Soda Canyon floor, the snow started to fade away. As I reached the bottom I saw the first signs of hunters, who had packed in. September is the start of hunting season in the Sierra national forests. I wandered into a series of trails in the canyon floor, which aren’t marked on the maps. There is cattle grazing in the valley to Kennedy Lake and there is wire fencing up to gate in the cattle, the trails led me through primitive gates in the fences, and eventually to the river.

Joining up to the Kennedy Lake Trail the rest of the hike out was mostly long and flat and dusty as it’s clearly heavily used by packers. After a few miles following the river downstream it connects back up to the inbound trail, and eventually back to the trailhead.

I haven’t done a lot of off trail hiking but on this trip the off trail traverse was 10 times better than the on trail section. It’s not entirely a fair comparison because a chunk of the trail miles were just getting to the trailhead, but the combination of the fresh snow, amazing views, and mountain solitude was hard to beat.