Kennedy Meadows in the early season is lush and green and surrounded by snow capped mountains and ridges. The wide meandering creek flows out of Kennedy Lake, which is pretty, but muddy this time of year.
My first trip to the Sierras this year was on July 4th for an overnight stay in Emigrant Wilderness. It was a big snow year after a series of late storms swept through the mountains dropping as late as May, so the high elevations were still covered, but the lower parts of Emigrant had just melted out.
I had my eye on Emigrant Lake which I knew was still frozen over, which would have been a long overnight, but I changed my plans last minute and instead planned a trip with a few colleagues and picked out a shorter route that everyone would enjoy. I had been through the bottom of Kennedy Meadow before when I came down Soda Canyon two years ago, but I didn’t get all the way up to the lake.
The trailhead parking lot is a half mile before the end of the road at the Kennedy Meadows Resort, both of which were humming on 4th July. From there we follow a dirt road which takes us to the wilderness boundary. The trail climbs up the granite alongside Middle Fork Stanislaus River, crossing over a footbridge, and continuing its ascent. A little further up Kennedy Creek tumbles down a steep ravine to join Summit Creek. Another footbridge crosses the swiftly flowing stream, and we shortly arrive at the trail junction.
The Kennedy Meadows trail forks to the left, climbing up a dusty trail, before flattening out after a crossing a bridge at the entrance to the valley. From here the trail ambles through forest and chaparral, crossing over seasonal streams, and providing occasional glimpses of meadows and mountainsides. It’s not until you get deeper into the valley that the wide open meadows start to appear, and at this time of year, framed by snow capped mountains, they are lush and green.
Kennedy Meadows is used for grazing cattle and horses and there’s some large fenced corrals in the meadow, which the creek meanders through. The best campsites are on the far side of the creek on the west bank, and the only way to get there is to wade through the river. It’s wide and relatively slow flowing but this time of year is still deep; thigh high and cool.
Now on the far side we scout out a campsite, there’s a far number of occupied sites already, but we find a nice site among the trees beside the river and set up camp. We have a little time before the evening so we decide to try and get up and see the lake. I had been warned at the ranger station that there had been reports that the trails to lake were muddy, but so far we’d had dry trails the whole way, but just below the lake we quickly realised these reports were accurate as we started to sink in. After everyone got their feet a little wet, not finding a way through, we decided to call it a day and head back to camp to dry our shoes by the fire.
The next morning I got up early and decided to try again to get to the lake by taking a higher route, we were only camped a little over half a mile from the outlet. This time I got all the way the lakeshore in time to see the dawn light reflecting off the still surface. I headed back to camp and had a cup of tea while I waited for my hiking companions to stir.
On the way back we tried the other side of the lake again, after crossing back across the creek, but the meadow again got just as muddy. At this time of year there’s no way to get to the top of the lake without getting your feet a little wet. But nothing was lost, we took in the snow covered ridges surrounding the wide open meadows as we headed back down to the trailhead.
A 25 mile loop from through the John Muir Wilderness from Lake Edison, over Silver Pass and Goodale Pass. Alpine lakes, soaring granite mountains, and lush green meadows make this a quintessential high sierra traverse.
This loop out of Mono Creek Trailhead at Lake Edison traverses two mountain passes high in the John Muir Wilderness of the Sierra National Forest, first taking the John Muir Trail over Silver Pass, and then leaving it to cross of Goodale Pass, dropping down into Graveyard Meadows and back to Edison.
We did this loop in mid-June as the Ferguson Fire was burning just outside of Yosemite, at these elevations, and being to the south of the fire, we were mostly unaffected by the smoke, but near the end of the trip the smoke started producing hazy and dreamy looking skies, obscuring the views of distant mountain ranges. This did nothing to dampen the experience though, the scenery was beautiful; alpine lakes, jagged granite peaks, and lush green meadows.
Lake Edison to Pocket Meadow
The Mono Creek trailhead is just past VVR at the mouth of Lake Edison and the terminus of the long and winding Kaiser Pass Road. The first 4 miles of the trail leads around the large reservoir, but this trail is dusty and uninspiring. Alternatively VVR operates a ferry service twice a day down the length of Lake Edison which allows you to cut out this section.
At the end of the lake, right by the ferry junction, the trail crosses the wilderness boundary and enters the John Muir wilderness. It counties along north of Mono Creek, which drains into Lake Edison, and after another mile joins up to the PCT/JMT just before it crosses the creek over a wooden bridge, but the trail to Silver Pass is in the other direction.
The trail continues flat for another half mile before crossing over the North Fork of the Mono Creek and then switch backing up towards Pocket Meadow, through sandy granite, manzanita, and stout Juniper trees. The trail flattens out again after about a mile at the base of Pocket Meadow. At the plateau is the best camping and the only legal place to have a fire before hitting the fire closure.
If taking the ferry, or perhaps taking an extra day, an alternative to camping in lower Pocket Meadow is to follow the trail to the top of the meadow and taking the side trail to Mott Lake, a beautiful alpine lake that sees a lot fewer visitors than the heavily trafficked JMT corridor. The trail to Mott Lake is steep at first, but levels out into a gentler climb through an open basin with short climbs over granite steps past multiple waterfalls and finally cresting at the wide flat mouth to the lake.
Pocket Meadow to Chief Lake
The second day takes us up above 10,000 feet as we begin climbing up the steep granite steps up towards Silver Pass. The cool temperatures of the morning are the best time to climb this section. The trail passes a waterfall that cascades over layered granite as Silver Pass Creek shoots down the steep mountain side. The stairs continue their climb up to base of large meadow. At the top of the waterfall you can cross over to the large granite shelf which offers fantastic views down to Pocket Meadow and up Mott Canyon.
From here the trail skirts a large meadow and continues a gentle climb as it follows Silver Pass Creek, before crossing the creek and continuing to climb as the trees start to shrink in size as we pass through tree line. After around 2 miles we reach a large open basin with Silver Pass Lake nestled in to the right of the trail. This marks the start of the final push to the top of the pass.
From here Silver Pass is within reach. A gentle climb takes us up to the top and offers great views in both directions. From the pass we drop down to Chief Lake and scout out a campsite, spending the evening relaxing besides the lake taking the grandeur of the jagged peaks that surround us, watching the sun slowly descend into the orange haze of the wildfire smoke hanging over Silver Divide to the west of us.
The sun, setting over Silver Divide, appears as an orange disc through the smoke from Ferguson Fire. An hour later the full moon rose over Chief Lake and the divide, illuminating the whole basin.
Tonight is a full moon, and it rises over a notch in Silver Divide to the south of us, shortly after the sun sets, bathing the entire basin in blue light that reflects off Chief Lake. I lay in my tent and watch it for a while before drifting off.
Chief Lake to Graveyard Lakes
The third day takes us over Goodale Pass and over to Graveyard Lakes. First we rejoin the JMT for a very short drop down to the trail junction towards Goodale. The trail drops a little further to cross over the outlet of Papoose Lake, which is fed from Chief Lake further up. Just downstream is the Lake of the Lone Indian, which is visible from the trail and initial climb up towards Goodale. It’s a good idea to fill up water bottles here, the trail is hot, dry, and steep for the next few miles.
Goodale Pass is slightly higher than Silver Pass, and marks the high point of the loop. The trail climbs up some steep steps and then snakes through some very dry sandy terrain. It is a little hard to distinguish in places as the sand has eroded away from recent storms, but with a little careful route finding it’s easy-going, tracking around and keep climbing up to the left, eventually topping out on an exposed plateau at the pass, 3 feet shy of 11,000 feet.
From the top of the pass there’s a great view down the top of canyon and the headwaters of Cold Creek. The descent down the other side is steep and incredibly dry. After around a mile the descent flattens as we arrive at the canyon floor, and follow Cold Creek downstream towards Upper Graveyard Meadow. Another mile down the stream, in middle of the upper meadow, we take the trail junction to Graveyard Lakes.
The trail climbs back up over another mile to the lake, which was a little trying at the end of the day as our energy levels were depleting. But the destination was worth it. We eventually arrive at a small meadow that leads along the side of the lowest Graveyard Lake and quickly found a campsite a little way from the lake, heaving off our packs. I quickly threw up my tent and then went to explore the series of lakes that make up Graveyard Lakes before dinner.
The maintained trail runs out at a meadow just behind the lowest lake but a use trail continues on, first climbing up to a middle lake with a large peninsula jutting out into the center, and then up the drainage to the large upper lake. Here the use trail peters out, but behind the upper lake is a chain of smaller lakes in pristine alpine setting. I was racing the sun as it was heading behind the crest of Silver Divide.
The whole day we’ve been experiencing the smoke from the Ferguson Fire burning just outside of Yosemite, at this elevation it’s not very thick, but it produces a haze on the horizon and taints the usually perfectly blue sierra skies.
Graveyard Lakes to Lake Edison
The final day takes us back down from the Graveyard Lakes back down to Upper Graveyard Meadow, following Cold Creek down the canyon. The trail follows the flat base of the canyon for 3 miles, crossing over Cold Creek once, and then twice, as it passes through the main Graveyard Meadows, which form multiple expansive open areas of bright green grass.
Just before the second stream crossing we actually cross from the John Muir Wilderness into the Ansel Adams Wilderness for the final 3 miles back to the trailhead. The final section again turns into a long and dusty schlep through the woods. Along the way there’s a some vast old Jeffrey Pine trees, some with boughs as big as the trunks of the surrounding trees. In one or two places these trees have fallen to the ground and the rangers have rerouted the trail around as the trunks are too large to cut with their 7 foot crosscut saws.
The final half mile, after the trail joins up trail around Lake Edison, feels like it will never end, every corner seems like it must the last, and finally, we arrive around that last corner and the trailhead comes into sight, we heft off our packs and lay out in the warm sun in the parking lot.
A 6 day tour deep in the wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park, through the spectacular Goddard Canyon and Evolution Valley. Vast granite basins, sparkling mountain lakes, and towering mountain ranges make this journey through one of the prettiest areas of the Sierra a trip to remember.
July 4th this year fell on Wednesday, I decided to join it up to the previous weekend and head into the backcountry for a 6 day tour out of Florence Lake. Evolution Valley and Goddard Canyon are deep into the wilderness in the northern reaches of Kings Canyon National Park. The John Muir Trail/Pacific Crest Trail follow Evolution Valley, and so is well visited by hikers passing through, but Goddard Canyon is off the beaten path.
I was originally concerned about snow at the high elevations of Goddard Divide in the early summer, but in the end the conditions were perfect. While 2018 had a snow year not far off average the exceptionally warm February meant the snow had no base, followed by the recent warm weather we’ve been having almost all of it had melted by the time I visited, leaving just a few snow fields on northern slopes.
I did some pretty big mile days and, in addition to the loop, I made a couple of side trips; first over Hell For Sure Pass into Red Mountain Basin in the John Muir Wilderness section of the Sierra National Forest, and later up to Darwin Bench. There’s no trail between Martha Lake at the top of Goddard Canyon and Wanda Lake at the top of Evolution Basin, instead I took a cross-country route through Davis Lake to close the loop, this section was all class 1 travel with a little boulder hopping in places. I had my eye on connecting through Ionian Basin but it’ll have to wait for another trip. This route passed through some of the most beautiful high country in the Sierra, if anything I could have extended it and spent a few more days exploring the basins.
Florence Lake to PCT/JMT Junction
I arrived at Florence Lake trailhead around lunchtime after the long drive down Kaiser Pass Road and the final fork to the lake. The trailhead parking lot is right before the lake and the road ends at the day use area on the lake’s edge. To the left is the Florence Lake store and the ferry service to take you across the lake. To the right the trail starts a little way up the gated road. The ferry cuts about 4 miles of walking around the lake, but I elected to hike around.
The trail alongside the lake doesn’t offer any great views across the lake, it climbs up and over a small granite ridge and drops down to cross the South Fork San Joaquin as it flows into the lake. The trail will continue to follow the river all the way to the split at the mouth of Evolution Valley, and the start of the loop.
Over the bridge the trail climbs up to the junction to the ferry landing, where it’s also intersected by a jeep trail, which is a weird sight to see in the wilderness. The Muir Trail Ranch was grandfathered in when the wilderness act was signed and have been allowed to operate a truck to make deliveries to the ranch, the trail criss crosses with the jeep trail all the way to the ranch.
Hiking up towards Muir Ranch the trail passes by a couple of meadows, Double Meadows and Blayney Meadows, which attract bugs in the early season, and then passes through a gate at the bottom of Muir Trail Ranch. From here it’s a short few miles up to join up with the PCT.
Just before the junction the trail comes right up to the river, and here there’s a number of campsites. I set up camp, cooked dinner, and climbed into bed for an early night, the real magic of the trip is yet to come, tomorrow will be a big day. As I lay in my tent bats dart around in the sky overhead and I drift off to the sound of rushing water.
Goddard Canyon and over Hell For Sure Pass
The second day I join up to the PCT and follow it the final few miles out of Sierra National Forest to the boundary with Kings Canyon National Park, at the mouth of Piute Canyon. A bridge spans Piute Creek, and the trail continues down the ravine cut by South Fork San Joaquin.
The river is flowing pretty swiftly as it’s still relatively early in the summer. The trail cuts through some pretty granite sections, past Muir Rock, and through some aspen stands. After mile or so another bridge takes us across the river and the trail skirts around the confluence of Evolution Creek and the San Joaquin as Evolution Valley meets Goddard Canyon. Just before a final bridge that spans South Fork San Joaquin the trail forks.
I was only on the PCT for a handful of miles, and, despite being miles from the nearest trailhead, the trail is thronging with hikers. The wilderness rangers call the PCT a highway, and I can see why, it’s hard to go more than 15 minutes without coming across another someone. After leaving the main trail and heading into Goddard Canyon though, the people melt away, between here and rejoining the PCT two days later I only saw one other person.
From the junction the trail climbs gently up Goddard Canyon, alternating through lightly wooded sections and open meadows, crossing over seasonal streams that flow down the steep sides of the canyon walls. The trail climbs above the South Fork San Joaquin, which cuts deeply into the canyon floor at places. After a couple miles hiking up I take break and wander over to find the river and come across a waterfall plunging into cavernous pool.
The trail follows along South Fork San Joaquin as it cuts into the canyon floor of Goddard Canyon. Looking up and down the canyon, and a large pool formed by a waterfall.
Continuing up Goddard Canyon the trail climbs up above the river and along a rock ledge, providing views down and up the canyon, and then following beside the river which continues to cut deep into the canyon floor. The trail passes by a couple of tall waterfalls; they plunge into a fine mist which blows across and gently wets my face, which feels nice as the sun beats down.
About 5 miles from the fork up Goddard Canyon an unmarked junction splits to Hell For Sure Pass. Up to this point the trail has been recently cleared out by a trail crew, the fresh cuts visible as sap leaks out. Despite not being signposted the trail junction is pretty obvious as a large cut tree straddles the trail on the fork. From here both the continuation of Goddard Canyon Trail and the Hell For Sure Pass trail are marked on the map as primitive, and are not actively maintained by the park.
Hell For Sure Pass Trail first climbs up, and then follows back parallel to the Goddard Canyon Trail, tracking along a ridge. It passes by multiple streams as they drain through vegetation, which obscures the path at points, and in the early season are host to clouds of mosquitoes that annoy while route finding. After a couple of miles of traversing sideways the trail finally bends back and starts to switchback up to the pass.
Hell For Sure Pass crosses below Red Mountain, and the red colored peak is briefly visible from the trail as it traverses the canyon. The switchbacks start through some thick vegetation, but soon leave it behind, to a carpet of green grass, and sandy rock. There’s a stream flowing down fed from patchy snow fields on the northern slopes. The trail arcs around to the left to a small plateau that cradles a few small pools of clear water, before making the final ascent up to the top of the pass.
The morning sky was completely clear, but each day the clouds start to build up through the morning and afternoon, and eventually burning off in the evening. From the pass the views across Goddard Canyon are interrupted and the valley floor is out of sight below, the steep canyon sides on the far side are shaded by the clouds.
The view over Red Mountain Basin from the pass really takes your breath away. The basin is large flat granite, among which are nestled many lakes, the biggest of which shares its name with the pass, Hell For Sure Lake. It drains down into Disappointment Lake, and is surrounded by Arctic Lake and Horseshoe Lake, with Devils Punchbowl, Little Shot Lake and, Big Shot Lake further into the distance. Whoever named the lakes in this basin clearly had some fun.
From the pass it’s an easy class 1 side trip up to the peak of Red Mountain, I dumped my pack and made the quick trip. The view from the sub-peak just next to the peak however are better, as the peak itself is so gentle. After spending a little while taking in the views from the top I joined back up with the trail, and headed down the other side, dropping into the basin.
The trail drops quickly down, and it’s less than a mile until I was sitting beside Hell For Sure Lake, resting my tired legs. The mosquitos had been bothering me all the way to Hell For Sure Pass and now again they surrounded me on the lake shore. I carried on in search of a campsite and a warm piece of granite to lie on. I left the trail behind and found a great ledge above Disappointment Lake, which contrary to its name, was not a disappointment at all.
I’m pretty sure I had this whole basin to myself, and if I didn’t, it at least felt that way. The ridge that Hell For Sure Pass traverses forms Le Conte Divide which divides Kings Canyon National Park from Sierra National Forest and the John Muir Wilderness. The west side, Goddard Canyon, flows into the San Joaquin, and the east side, Red Mountain Basin, flows into Kings River.
I watched the sun slowly descend in the sky as I cooked dinner. The clouds that had gathered overhead slowly burned off and the sun reflected off the top of the still lake water before ducking behind the horizon and turning day to dusk. I slept well tonight.
Hell For Sure Pass to Martha Lake and Davis Lake
I got up early, cooked breakfast, had a hot cup of coffee, packed down camp, and headed back up and over Hell For Sure Pass. The ridge was blocking the morning sun, and the climb up was pleasant in the cool morning air. As I got up to the pass the sun suddenly burst into view. The mosquitoes were just as annoying on the way down as the way up, especially in the wet streams as Hell For Sure Trail drops back down to join Goddard Canyon Trail.
The final push up Goddard Canyon just gets better and better. The light forest quickly gives way to open meadow as the trail climbs above tree line. The headwaters of the South Fork San Joaquin flow through lush green grass, the trail starts to disappear and soon becomes impossible to discern, but at this point it’s unnecessary, the basin is wide and flat and Martha Lake is just beyond the small ridge, surrounded by the towering Mount Goddard for which the canyon is named, and Mount Reinstein to the south.
Above treeline, the approach to Martha Lake continues to follow the headwaters of the South Fork San Joaquin through lush green grass surrounded towering granite cliffs.
I found a rock to sit down on and ate lunch looking over Martha Lake, and considered my options. From here I was heading off trail. I was originally thinking of climbing up the drainage behind Martha Lake, just below Mount Goddard, and into the Ionian Basin, but from where I was sitting it looked a little steeper than I had imagined. I didn’t really fancy climbing up and risking having to turn around, so I opted to leave the Ionian Basin for another day and instead take a high route over and through the large basin to the north west of Mount Goddard, and cut over to Davis Lake.
There’s a smaller unnamed lake just above Martha Lake, labelled as lake 11,184 (on the Forest Service topos some unnamed lakes are labelled with their elevations, and most are just unlabeled). Until Davis Lake none of the other lakes I come across today are named, all are nestled in high alpine rocky landscapes, and often form chains sitting in wide plateaus.
Behind Lake 11,184 water cascades down multiple streams of waterfalls, and there’s still snow on its banks. The next few hours I follow the water up as it flows down mini waterfalls from small lakes and clear pools of water that probably dry up in the late season, but in the early summer are primed with crystal clear water from the snow melt above. The short grass gives way to scree, which in turn gives way to talus.
Above Lake 11,184 there’s a large plateau with a chain of small lakes arching around, it’s a beautiful landscape. The distances here are relatively short but I’m moving slower now there’s no trail. The drainage from the largest lake, nestled in a large basin to the north of Mount Goddard, is entirely underground, and at points it sounds like a waterfall flowing underneath the tightly packed rocks I’m standing on top of. I climb all the way up to small, flat sub peak at 12,271 feet, which offers a fantastic view. From here there’s another plateau to the north and it looks like there might be a good view over Davis Lake, and it looks like I could loop around, but I elect to instead retrace my steps as the day is getting on, and I’m trying and make it to Davis Lake to camp.
I drop back down to the plateau and follow the chained lakes around, climbing up a little before dropping down a small drainage and following the ridge all the way across and around a small peak that sits just to the south of North Goddard Creek which flows from Davis Lake. The landscape at this point in the season, with almost all the snow melted, but so recently that everything is full of clear water, is so pretty. There are fantastic views down towards Goddard Canyon, and to Le Conte Divide on the far side, Red Mountain is easy to discern as a splash of red colors the tip.
The final drop down to Davis Lake descends quickly, the lake curves around multiple small peaks and from here only the tip of lake is visible. I have to cross the drainage, which is the first time I’ve had to get my feet wet so far, and drop down and back up the other side of a small subpeak. The water is refreshing on my feet, but it’s getting late in the day and my legs are letting me know that they’re ready to rest, the last push starts to test my endurance.
When I finally make it up to the shores of Davis Lake though I breathe a sigh of relief. I’m exhausted but the there’s great camping spots, a fantastic view, the sun still shining up the valley, and, for now at least, no bugs. Tonight I’ll sleep at 11,050 feet. I dump my pack, head to the shore, bathe my feet, and wash my socks. I scarf down dinner, and lay out in the sun, happy and content just to rest my weary legs.
Davis Lake to Evolution Valley and Darwin Bench
This morning I had breakfast in bed as I looked out over the lake. I got a later start than usual as I lay in my sleeping bag until the sun came up and over the horizon. I threw my things into my pack and head off around the north shore of Davis Lake.
The path around the lake first lead across a scree slope, I started around and stumbled across a path that had been flattened out around this first section. Past the scree there were alternating sections of talus, sandy areas, and then larger and larger boulder fields, shed as the mountains above slowly crumbling into the lake. Hoping over the large boulders was slow going and it took me two hours to make my way all around the mile long lake to the pass on the far side.
Just over the pass is Evolution Basin and the massive Wanda Lake, stretching a mile from end to end along the PCT. The sun is starting to get pretty intense on the exposed granite, I spot a large boulder and head to lie down underneath but when I get there the entire shaded side is covered with mosquitoes who clearly have the same idea. The entire boulder field is covered in mosquitoes, but the heat is forcing them rest in the shade, so instead I just find a spot in the sun and watch as PCT/JMT hikers make their way down from Muir Pass and around Wanda Lake.
I join up with the PCT at the base of Wanda Lake where it crosses over the drainage and find a rock to sit on and eat lunch between Wanda Lake and Lake 11,293 just below it. As I approach the rock a large high pitched chirp rings out as a marmot alerts me to its presence. I sit and eat lunch watching the headwaters of Evolution Creek flowing past while the marmot at first eyes me with uncertainty and eventually decides I’m not a threat and lies down sunning itself on its granite perch.
Evolution Basin is massive. The trail follows Evolution Creek all the way down a vast valley to the junction with Goddard Canyon. It’s often said that Evolution Valley is one of the most memorable sections of the entire PCT and it quickly becomes clear why, the top section of the valley in particular is simply spectacular.
From Wanda Lake, to Sapphire Lake, and then to Evolution Lake the valley steps down in cavernous mile long canyons, Evolution Creek cascading down the top of each. The trail clings to the side of the canyon which gives an awesome perspective, the huge granite walls on either side of the gigantic glaciated canyon floor, carpeted in green and blue. Along the far wall further basins stretch out into the distance, and in the early season they send streams of water down the steep granite. It looked like it would be fun to explore each basin.
Walking down the vast valley you feel both tiny and insignificant, dwarfed by the size the landscape, but at the same time completely immersed in it. The journey from Wanda to Evolution Lake also feels like an evolution of fauna, beginning at Wanda, desolate and baron, far above tree line, at first yielding to grasses, wildflowers, dwarfed trees, and by Evolution Lake the trees, while still sparse and not full size are now able to stand up relatively tall. It’s spring time in the valley and the spring flowers are out all the way down.
At the bottom end of Evolution Lake the valley opens up ahead, and after a short traverse the trail switchbacks down to the valley floor, once devoid of trees it disappears into a forest of them. At the very top of the switchbacks an unmarked trail, and there is an actual trail here despite not appearing on the maps, leads up to Darwin Basin and beyond, over Lamarck Col, and into Inyo National Forest. The trail climbs steeply up, switchbacking right alongside the drainage, which is flowing very well this time of year.
Darwin Bench is well named, it’s a large granite shelf that sits above Evolution Valley, and from the edge offers stunning views out across. It also immerses you back into solitude, away from the traffic of the PCT. I find a good campsite overlooking the lake and dump my gear. It’s already been a long day and I’m running out of energy but I’m keen to go explore the pair of canyons above Darwin Bench.
To the north is a small canyon that houses 3 unnamed lakes, two lower lakes and a third elevated above and to the side labelled The Keyhole on the map. The drainages from both canyons are flowing well and the bench is incredibly pretty. I climb up to the mouth of first unnamed lake, labelled Lake 11,540, and try to scout a route around to the middle to climb up to the third. The path along the far side looks steep, and a potentially time-consuming scramble, so I try to climb up the near side and see if I can drop down. In the end I don’t find an easy path down so I take a moment to take in the view and head for Darwin Canyon.
Darwin Canyon hosts a chain of lakes, and arcs around at the end to Mount Darwin and Darwin Glacier. I make a path from the north canyon down and back up to the mouth of the first Darwin lake. I would have loved to follow the trail up and around to the back of the canyon but I’m too exhausted. I sit down lake side and watch as the fish spot me and dart for cover, taking a few minutes to take it all in, before turning around and heading to camp.
I set up my tent and stretch out on the warm granite overlooking the lake while I heat up some water for dinner and cup of hot chocolate; it’s never tasted so good. From the very beginning of Goddard Canyon all the way to here the scenery has been outstanding, there’s been no boring section of trail, no point that didn’t offer an amazing view, a crystal mountain lake, or the humbling presence of towering granite peaks.
Darwin Bench to Florence Lake
It’s a long day today, the longest in terms of mileage, from Darwin Bench I follow the PCT to Muir Ranch and branch back off to Florence Lake, losing all the elevation gained over the first 3 days. The start of the day takes me down the switchbacks, following the the outlet from Darwin Bench all the way to the valley floor.
Again surrounded by trees the trail follows the now slow Evolution Creek along miles of forest, skirting huge open meadows. First is Colby Meadow, and not long after is McClure Meadow. Just off the trail between the meadows is McClure Ranger Station.
Further downstream the trail crosses Evolution Creek, and there’s no bridge at this crossing. In the early season the crossing can be dangerous so there’s an alternate crossing at Evolution Meadow. I checked with a hiker coming the other direction and they let me know that the creek crossing was safe, the water only came up just above the knees. When I was planning the trip I wasn’t sure if the beginning of July was a little early—in high snow years it can still be very high this early—but given the rapid snow melt this year it was already safe to cross.
I ate lunch on the far side of the creek while I dried my feet in the midday sun. Just past the crossing the trail starts to descend very quickly down to the mouth of the valley and the confluence with South Fork San Joaquin as it flows from Goddard Canyon. This section of trail is steep, exposed switchbacks and hot in the intense sun, I’m glad to be going down and don’t envy the hikers I pass climbing up. The trail up Goddard Canyon was much gentler.
Once I reach the bottom I’m retracing my path, following the deep valley cut by the South Fork San Joaquin back through to the mouth of Piute Canyon, and the border with Sierra National Forest. It’s all down hill but very hot in the afternoon sun, doing this section in the relative cool of morning on the way up was much more pleasant.
From here to Florence Lake was another test of endurance, I wanted to shoot to camp at the inlet to Florence Lake, which had some nice campsites, and would let me get back to the trailhead early the following day to head out. After many many miles I made it to the bridge and picked a campsite a little away from the river. I scarfed down dinner and headed up to the ridge to watch the sun set of the lake. I again fell asleep to bats darting overhead.
Florence Lake to the Trailhead
The final day is a short trip from the campsites at the bridge, over the inlet to Florence Lake, around the lake, and back to the trailhead. I pushed through the previous day and did a really big day so that I could get up early and head back across the Central Valley as early as possible to avoid the intense heat of the afternoon and rush hour traffic in the Bay Area.
I got up before sunrise, cooked breakfast, and broke down camp, hitting the trail just before 6am. I was most of the way around Florence by the time the sun crested the mountains. From the bridge to the trailhead is 4¼ miles and with semi-rested legs I did it in just over an hour, and was on my bike riding out before 8.
The ride back over Kaiser Pass seemed shorter on the way out, although no less bumpy. By the time I hit the two lane section my mind was already racing ahead to the great big bowl of fresh food, the long hot shower, and curling up on my soft soft bed in the evening, and yet, I was still riding the highs of the landscape I was leaving behind.
Lillian Lake and its surrounding lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the Sierra National Forest is the perfect high sierra weekend destination, only 6 trail miles from the trailhead.
The Ansel Adams Wilderness is in the Sierra National Forest bordering Southern Yosemite. Lillian Lake loop is rightly the most popular backpacking destination in the wilderness, offering multiple lakes nestled into the granite ridgeline that forms a barrier with the park.
The hike starts at Fernandez Trailhead, not too far from Clover Meadow Ranger Station. The trailhead is off the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway, a large loop through the northern Sierra National Forest made up of Minarets Road to the south and Beasore Road to the north. Minarets is longer drive but is paved all the way to the Clover Meadow junction, whereas Beasore Road turns unpaved just after Beasore Meadows. Both ways are easily accessible by car (or motorcycle), although the last 2 miles down the trailhead access road is particularly bumpy. There’s restrooms at the trailhead but no water so if arriving the night before bring some extra.
The most popular direction to hike is clockwise, passing by Vanderburg Lake first, however the approach to Lillian Lake this way is steeper, for a slightly longer but less steep approach take the Walton Trail and head counter-clockwise. The lakes are by far the prettiest places to camp, so ideally the first day should cover the 6 miles to Lillian Lake, but there’s some camping options by Madera Creek halfway to the lake.
Lillian Lake is prettiest in the late spring, as the snow still lingers on the surrounding mountain ridges, and the day time temperatures are cooler, although the early season means bugs, so be prepared for mosquitos, particularly in the morning and evenings. In the late season the bugs mostly disappear and some the smaller creeks dry up.
From Lillian there’s multiple opportunities for side treks. To the north is Flat Lake and Rainbow Lake which can either be accessed by following the Lillian Lake trail back down and splitting north at the trail junction, or by a simple cross-country over the granite ridge to the north of Lillian. Another short and simple cross-country trip loops around the north of the lake and up to Shirley Lake. To the south the trail drops down and climbs back up to Chittenden Lake. Chittenden Lake is one of my favorites in the area, it’s nestled high up in the shadow of Sing Peak and offers a fantastic view over the entire basin and across to the Ritter Mountain Range.
From Lillian Lake, continuing counter-clockwise, the trail drops down the exposed granite (another reason to prefer counter-clockwise is that this is a pleasant morning drop down, but could be a gruelling afternoon climb up the shadeless slope) to the chain of Stanford Lakes. In the early season these lakes are bursting with the snow melt.
From Stanford Lakes it’s a small climb up and over a ridge and a drop back down to the junction to Lady Lake. There’s good camping spots at Lady Lake and to my eyes it’s actually a little prettier than Lillian. There’s actually two lakes here, a slightly smaller lake feeds into the main lake, and in the early season there’s a waterfall cascading down the mountains behind from the snow melt that is the perfect background to fall asleep to.
Past the Lady Lake junction, after another short drop, is Vanderburg Lake. The trail goes right past the lake. From Vanderburg the trail climbs back up and over one more ridge and then drops down what the rangers call “the wall”, a granite staircase that switchbacks on itself. The trail then continues to meander through the forest, past a couple of meadows, eventually arriving at the wilderness boundary and dropping back down to the trailhead.
I’ve done this loop three years in a row now, the past two years working with National Forest rangers and trail crews to clear the trail of fallen trees. It’s a beautiful corner of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, a very accessible hike that is rewarded with multiple mountain lakes nestled into the granite.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.