Southern Sierra Nevada 05/22/2020 – 05/24/2020

Day 1

It had been a month since my last trip to the Sierra, and I was already hungry for more. 4 weeks of warm temperatures had brought the snow level up a few thousand feet, so I was excited to hike at higher elevations. I took Friday off of work, hoping to beat the Memorial Day Weekend crowds into the mountains. I got up early as I usually do and hit the road at 5:30am Friday morning. I encountered no traffic issues while driving through the Inland Empire. Things were starting to open back up in the midst of the pandemic, but thankfully traffic still wasn’t at pre-Covid levels. I exited US-395 at 9 Mile Canyon Road which I took up into the mountains. I arrived at Kennedy Meadows Campground in Inyo National Forest around 10:30am. Developed campgrounds in the area were supposed to be closed still, so I was a bit surprised to see a number of campsites occupied. It’s a fairly large campground (37 sites) and most of the sites are shaded under large pinyon pines. I thought this seemed like a good place to spend the night, so I decided to park my car in one of the sites (in case the campground filled up throughout the day). My plan for the day was to climb 9480 foot Crag Peak, which is on the Sierra Club Sierra Peaks Section (SPS) list. Crag Peak actually has 2 summits, the true 9480 foot summit which is recognized by the Sierra Club, and a 9440 foot summit a few hundred feet to the south which is recognized by the USGS and is used on maps. I’m not sure why there is a discrepancy, but I was planning to climb both summits. The route would involve about 5 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which passes through the campground, and then another 2.5 miles cross country to the summit. I got started at 10:45am from 6148 feet. The trail immediately passes through a latched gate (to keep wildlife out of the campground?).

The weather was beautiful as I got started. I was perfectly comfortable in short sleeves. The trail begins by heading north through a forest of pinyon pines.

At 0.7 mile I passed a sign indicating I was in the South Sierra Wilderness.

The trail parallels the Kern River for the first 2 miles. The sound of running water made for some very pleasant hiking. At 2.25 miles there is a bridge crossing the river.

I waved at a couple hikers who were filling up there water down by the bank of the river. The bridge crosses over some cool rapids.

The Kern River is actually the boundary between Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Forest, so the remainder of the route would be on the Sequoia (western) side. The trail starts to gradually gain elevation after crossing the river.

At 4.1 miles the forest abruptly ends. This area was burned pretty badly in a recent fire.

I got my first good look at Crag Peak off to the west. The summit is the highest point along the ridge on the far right side of the picture below:

The trail crosses a small creek and then makes a 90 degree turn to the west (left). At 5.07 miles, I left the trail to begin climbing west towards the peak. I was at 7020 feet so it would be a 2400 foot climb in about 2.5 miles from the PCT. The first mile of this is up a gentle slope through a meadow.

I reached the end of the meadow, which was also the end of the easy part of the hike. From here it would be straight up the side of the mountain.

The brush wasn’t too bad, and the grassy terrain made for good footing. At 6.28 miles I saw a deer off in the distance to my left. We stared each other down for a few seconds until it ran away when I started to fumble with my phone to get a picture. After climbing a few hundred feet, I reached a small plateau.

I crossed the plateau and started climbing once more. I was a little surprised how much I was struggling, but I had to remind myself it’s not easy to go from sea level to above 8000 feet in one day. There was some burn evidence in this area too.

Since I was approaching from the southeast, I decided to climb the lower USGS summit first. Some knee high brush slowed me down a little near the top. Other than that, the peak was an easy walk up (no scrambling required).

I reached USGS Crag Peak at 2:08pm after 7.6 miles. There was no register. The true summit pinnacle looked impressive just a couple hundred feet to the north. 12,133 foot Olancha Peak can be seen in the distance behind it to the left.

I didn’t spend too much time on the summit since I was eager to get to the true peak. So, after a 5 minute break, I began descending off the north side of the peak. I quickly reached the saddle between the 2 summits at 9224 feet.

I made my way to the eastern base of the pinnacle. There are actually 3 separate bumps on top of the pinnacle, and I wasn’t sure which one was the highest. I investigated a couple different routes before finding a way up the northern-most bump. There was no register on top, and after checking my notes I concluded that this was not the correct point. The middle bump appeared to be the highest, so I downclimbed the northern bump and tried to find a way up the middle bump.

This middle bump required a little class 3 climbing, but thankfully there was no exposure. I found a crack I was able to climb part way up, and then I managed to “hoist” myself up a section near the top. At 2:54pm, I finally reached the true summit of Crag Peak! I was at 8.12 miles so far.

I signed the register which was placed in 2009. The previous ascent was on May 9th. There was a lot of discussion in the register itself as to which location was the true point. Reading through some of the earlier entries it seems that the register had originally been on the USGS summit and then someone moved it. Another entry mentioned using some kind of instrument to measure elevation and they found that the northern bump (which I had just climbed) was in fact higher than the middle one. Some clouds were beginning to roll in which obscured the views somewhat. A few miles to the west I could see Smith Mountain, which I intended to climb the next day.

I had a good view of some of the peaks I climbed during my April trip to the Sierras. The high peak on the left is Sawtooth Peak and the highest peak in the middle is Owens Peak.

Fourteeners Mount Whitney and Mount Langley could be seen to the north.

I started descending just after 3:30. Here’s a good picture of the crack I used to climb up and down from the summit:

I made quick time down the grassy slope.

I soon reached the grassy meadow once more.

Just before reaching the PCT, I turned around to get one more good picture of Crag Peak. The rounded summit on the left is the USGS summit, and the peak with 3 bumps on the right is the true summit, with the middle bump being the high point.

At 10.77 miles I reached the PCT. It had taken 1 hour 25 minutes to reach the trail from the summit.

The rest of the hike went smoothly. I ran into a few more groups of PCT thru hikers on their way north. The purple wildflowers looked pretty in the evening light.

I reached the bridge crossing again just before 6pm. I noticed a dozen or so groups of thru hikers hunkering down for the night along the bank of the river.

My legs really started to get tired, but I made quick time over the last few miles. I reached the campground once more at 6:41pm. This hike was 15.92 miles, 4101 feet elevation gain, and 7:54:34 total time.

The campground had filled up a little more since the morning, but it probably wasn’t even 75% full. I’m guessing that it would normally have been packed (especially on a holiday weekend), but the online closure notices were keeping a lot of people away. I found it to be a really nice place to spend the night. The sites are rather large and spaced out, so you don’t get much noise from neighboring sites. I was kind of surprised how exhausted I was, so I was happy to not have to drive anywhere or do anything else that evening. After eating dinner and reading a little, I fell asleep before 9.

Day 2

My plan for Saturday was less ambitious. I wanted to save my energy for Sunday (more on that later), so I had a few shorter hikes planned. First up would be 7994 foot Chimney Peak. Chimney misses out on the SPS list, but it is the high point of the Chimney Peak Wilderness. I had recently taken interest in climbing wilderness high points, and it would be a fairly short and easy hike, so I thought it would be a good way to begin the day. I woke up at 5:30am, got ready, and drove southeast on Sherman Pass Road. My car indicated it was 37 degrees when I turned it on, and it dropped to 25 degrees while I was driving. There was no way that could be true – it was chilly, but it was not freezing (37 was probably accurate). After 16 miles I turned west (right) onto Chimney Basin Road which I drove on for a mile before parking just before a locked gate. Apparently, you used to be able to continue driving on this road, but the road was destroyed by a washout many years ago, so the BLM allowed the rancher who owns the adjacent land to gate it off. This didn’t really matter for my purposes though since I was directly north of the peak and wouldn’t have needed to drive closer even if there was no gate. I started hiking at 6:58am from 6646 feet.

This hike would be short and steep. I was only about a mile from the summit, but I would need to climb 1300 feet to get there. Similar to yesterday’s climb, the grassy terrain made for solid footing as I hiked through a forest of pinyon pines.

It got a little brushy as I ascended but never was horrible. The summit area was made up of some large boulders.

After some fun class 2 scrambling, I reached the summit at 7:54am after 1.1 miles. The register was badly water damaged but I still managed to sign it. I noted the previous entry was dated 5/4/29 and mentioned something about a time machine. I’m not sure why someone would travel to the past to climb mountains. The air was crisp and clear so early in the morning, so the views were superb. This was the same area as my April trip, so I recognized many of the peaks nearby, including Sawtooth, Owens, Lamont, and Scodie in the distance.

To the north was Olancha (right) and the High Sierra beyond.

I began descending after a 25 minute break. I scrambled carefully down the large boulders.

From there I was able to quickly descend down the grassy slope while keeping an eye on the road in the distance.

I reached the car just before 9. It took me only 40 minutes to descend after taking nearly an hour to reach the summit. This hike totaled 2.2 miles, 1325 feet elevation gain, and 2:01:05 total time.

Next up was 9520 foot Smith Mountain, my primary objective for the day, and the 2nd of 3 SPS peaks I planned to climb during the weekend. I drove northwest on Sherman Pass Road, passing Kennedy Meadows and entering Sequoia National Forest. Sherman Pass Road gains a few thousand feet of elevation as the scenery transitions from the high desert pinyon forest to the tall pines typical of the High Sierra. After 26 miles I reached Blackrock Ranger Station where I turned north (right). I drove north on paved Forest Route 21S03 for a few miles and then turned right onto Forest Route 21S36. This road was also paved but in rough shape (still passable for any car). I was stopped by a fallen tree blocking the road a mile or so from where I wanted to park.

This hike would be short, so I wasn’t concerned about a few extra miles. As I was getting ready, I couldn’t find my trekking poles anywhere. I realized I must have left them on the ground when I was packing up after Chimney Peak. I was pretty upset with myself – I was sure they would still be there but there was no way I would have a chance to go back and look for them until after the following day. While I was cursing myself out for being so forgetful, a couple pulled up in a Subaru of their own and parked beside me. I chatted with them for a minute and it turned out they were planning to climb Smith as well. I started hiking at 10:26am from 8331 feet. I immediately was blown away by how beautiful the forest was – some of the pines must have been over a hundred feet tall. At 0.6 mile I reached a large clearing known as Granite Knob Meadow.

Shortly after the meadow, a USFS ranger came the other way in a truck and we chatted for a minute. I told him about the downed tree which he didn’t seem to be aware of. Shortly after this, the pavement ends at a fork in the road at 1.16 miles. I could have gone either way, but I decided to continue going east in order to approach Smith from the north.

At 1.85 miles the road ends at a large turnaround. I certainly could have driven this far so the downed tree added over 3.5 miles to my hike.

Beyond the turnaround the road actually continues but it deteriorates into a rough trail. The trail is gated and there is a sign indicating that it’s closed to all motor vehicles (there are a lot of dirt bike trails in the area).

I left this trail and set off through the woods to the south. It was getting warm, but the shade felt nice.

At 2.11 miles I stumbled upon another bike trail. I didn’t realize there were so many in the area.

I followed the trail for a bit as I winded its way around the north side of the mountain. I left the trail at 2.72 miles to begin the climb. It would be about 900 feet in 0.75 mile from this point.

Similar to my previous hikes of the weekend, it was pretty easy climbing despite the steepness. I passed a cool rock formation about halfway up.

The summit area was steep and rocky. I found a way to climb up to the top on the east side of the summit block using some rock steps. I reached the summit at 11:53am after 3.54 miles.

I signed the register from 2014. The previous ascent was from May 8th. I located a benchmark but no reference markers. Interestingly, the benchmark says Smith “Peak” instead of Smith Mountain.

It was a perfectly clear day so I could see for miles in every direction.

Crag Peak, with its competing summits, which just a few miles to the east. The USGS summit is on the right and the higher SPS summit is on the left.

I had my first really good look at 11,480 foot Kern Peak, rising just above the tree line to the north in the middle of the below picture. I was planning to climb Kern the next day. A small amount of snow could be seen near its summit.

As I was getting ready to descend, I heard voices below and saw the couple I had seen before near the fallen tree. They were trying to find the correct route up the summit block, so I climbed down and showed them where I had ascended. The guy told me that five minutes after I started hiking, a forest service crew came and cleared the downed tree away, so they had been able to drive a little closer. I wondered if the ranger I spoke with had radioed it in. I wasn’t bummed about it though – an extra 3-4 miles wasn’t going to kill me! The descent back to the bike trail was pretty easy down the grassy slope.

At 5.31 miles I reached trail.

I thought perhaps the trail I was on reconnected with the road, so I kept walking down it beyond where I had originally found it. I checked my GPS and found that it was taking me straight west, parallel to the main road, so I ended up cutting north through the woods to reach the road again. I studied the map later on and realized that all the roads and trails were connected so I could have kept following it. But oh well, it was only a few tenths of a mile cross country. Once on the road again, I made quick time back to the car. There were a lot of other people out and about now. I passed a few dirt bikers and mountain bikers.

I passed the fork in the road at 6.02 miles and kept going west. I noticed the couple had driven their Subaru to this point. From there, it was only one more mile. I reached the car at 1:55pm. This hike totaled 7.21 miles, 1509 feet elevation gain, and 3:31:07 total time.

I still had plenty of time left in the day for more peaks, and my legs felt good still, but I really was concerned about saving energy for Kern Peak the next day. There also weren’t any more SPS peaks or wilderness high points in the immediate vicinity, so I decided to just do a quick ascent of a minor peak called Blackrock Mountain (9635 feet). This peak can be reached by a short climb from the Blackrock Trailhead, which is also the trailhead for Kern. I drove back to Forest Route 21S03 which I drove north on until it ends at the trailhead. The road is paved all the way so passable for any car. I was surprised by how large the parking lot is. There are 3 separate paved parking areas each with space for 15-20 cars. There were also restrooms, information boards, picnic tables, fire pits, horse corals, and even tent pads. I was also surprised to see how full the lot was (I guess not that surprising considering it was a holiday weekend). This trailhead is on the edge of the Golden Trout Wilderness, so I think it’s a popular starting point for multi-day backpacking trips. The trailhead sits around 8900 feet so it would be a quick 700 foot climb in under a mile. I began hiking directly west towards Blackrock Mountain at 2:46pm.

Similar to my previous hikes this weekend, it was easy going up the grassy slope. There were more dead trees to maneuver around than on the other peaks though.

There were patches of snow here and there.

The summit area is a large plateau. It was so flat that it was difficult to tell where the high point is. I ended up wandering around for a while looking for a register or any other sign indicating I was on the highest point but found none. I found some logs that appeared to be on the highest ground in the vicinity and sat down for a short break.

I was a little disappointed that there were no views due to the dense forest cover. Since I had quite a bit of time left in the day, I was hoping to take a longer break on this summit and really soak in the views. After about 10 minutes I started the descent. I had read a few reports mention a pile of rocks about a quarter mile southeast that had a register even though it was not on the high point. I decided to wander in that direction to see if I could find anything. After investigating a few different rock piles, I eventually found a broken glass jar that may have held a register at one time.

It wasn’t clear to me why there would have been register here, since it was clearly not the highest ground in the vicinity. After snapping a few pictures, I started heading back down to the parking lot.

Once more I made quick time down the forested slope. I reached the car at 4:09pm. This hike ended up being 1.95 miles, 715 feet elevation gain, and 1:22:56 total time.

I decided to call it a day at this point. My legs still felt pretty fresh, but I was really concerned about saving energy for the next day. I drove around for a little bit on some dirt roads nearby to see if I could find a good place to spend the night. I ended up not finding anything I liked so I drove back to Blackrock Trailhead and found a nice corner of the lot to park in for the night. I ate some food, read my book, and got to bed around 9pm. It was a very cold night at nearly 9000 feet, but I stayed nice and toasty in the back of my Subaru.

Day 3

I woke up Sunday morning at 4:15am and it was still completely dark out. As I’ve alluded to a few times already, I had quite a day ahead of me. My plan was to climb 11,480 foot Kern Peak (another SPS peak). Kern Peak is an extremely isolated mountain – it lies in the middle of the Golden Trout Wilderness within Sequoia National Forest. It is often climbed as part of a multi-day backpacking excursion from either Horseshoe Meadows or Blackrock Trailhead. The route from Horseshoe Meadows is about 34 miles round trip. The route from Blackrock is shorter but still clocks in around 28 miles round trip. My plan was to dayhike the entire thing from Blackrock. A trail can be followed due north from the trailhead for 11.5 miles to around 10,000 feet. The remaining 2.5 miles/1500 feet is cross country. Even though the net elevation difference between the trailhead and summit is only about 2500 feet, the cumulative elevation gain would be closer to 6000 feet due to numerous ups and downs on the trail portion of the route. I started my hike at 4:52am from 8874 feet by the light of my headlamp.

It was extremely cold so early in the morning, so I bundled up in my puff jacket. At 0.4 miles I passed the wilderness sign.

The first couple miles are downhill. I was dreading having to ascend this portion on the way back after having hiked 26 miles already. By 5:15am it was light enough to turn off my headlamp.

There would be many creek crossings on this hike.

At around 2 miles I reached a very large meadow known as Casa Vieja Meadow. I was surprised to see a layer of frost covering the grass. It must have dropped below freezing overnight!

Apparently, cattle graze here during the summer. There were cow pies all over the place. I’m guessing it’s still too cold this time of year so they must be at lower elevations. There is a pretty neat log cabin at the edge of the meadow.

Just beyond the cabin I crossed another creek. This would be the lowest point on the hike at 8307 feet. I had already dropped about 600 feet since the trailhead.

Just beyond the creek there is a trail junction for some hot springs.

Beyond the meadow the trail reenters the forest. This would be a common theme throughout the day as the terrain alternated between forest and meadow numerous times.

As it got brighter the weather warmed up pretty quickly, but I still kept my outer jacket on. At 4 miles I crossed another creek.

At 4.8 miles there is a trail junction for Long Canyon. I continued on towards Redrock Meadow.

Just beyond the junction I crossed another creek using a downed tree that spanned the length of the creek.

The sun was starting to poke out above the trees.

At 5.31 miles I reached another trail junction. Once again, I continued towards Redrock Meadow.

The forest wasn’t as dense as it was on Smith Mountain, but I was still amazed at the height of some of the trees.

Another meadow!

It took me about 2 hours to cover the first 6 miles. I was pretty happy with my pace so far. My goal was to cover 3 miles per hour while on the trail. I knew the final couple miles to the summit would be slower since they were off-trail, but if I could keep a 3 mph pace on the trail portion, I would make good time.

At 8.35 miles I saw a single deer off in the distance. It was pretty far away, and it took off before I could even think about a picture.

At 9.25 miles I reached Redrock Meadow. This is where people usually camp overnight if climbing Kern Peak over 2 days. Sure enough, I saw 2-3 tents scattered around, but no sign of any people. There are a number of trails that split off from here.

There are also the remains of an old cabin.

Redrock Meadow sits at 8626 feet, so it was a little depressing to think I was actually at a lower elevation than the trailhead. However, there are no more ups and downs from this point on – it’s all uphill from here. There are 2 different ways one could go from here. You could take the Cold Meadows trail to the west and then ascend the south ridge, or you could continue on the trail north and ascend from the east. I chose to ascend the latter option. I started to see patches of snow on the trail from this point on.

The next 2.5 miles from Redrock Meadow were steep compared to what I had hiked so far, but it wasn’t too bad. Honestly, it felt good to finally be gaining elevation.

At 11.74 miles I reached the point where it was time to leave the trail to begin the final ascent. I had just climbed above the 10,000 foot level so still about 1400 feet to go. There was a group of 4 hikers resting at this point on the trail. It turned out they had camped at Redrock Meadow (the tents I saw must have been theirs) and they were now on their up to Kern Peak as well.

I started climbing up the steep slope to the northwest. The forest was finally starting to thin out as high elevation limber pines replaced the taller pines that had been dominant below.

I reached a plateau around 10,600 feet and turned directly west. The rocky summit came into view for the first time. Finally seeing my destination definitely gave me a burst of energy.

There were more and more patches of snow the higher I climbed.

I bent slightly to the southwest to begin the final climb up the rocky ridge.

The ridge curves to the west and then eventually to the north.

I was finally starting to warm up, so I took off my outer layer. I was now right at the tree line – only a few scraggly limber pines remained.

There were large patches of snow above 11,000 feet but I was able to avoid them on my way up. The boulder hopping was a lot of fun, especially after the endless miles through the forest.

I finally reached the summit at 10:17am! I was pretty happy how good I felt after covering 14.34 miles already (maybe that was just the euphoria of the moment).

I was pretty overwhelmed, not just by the incredible scenery but also the physical accomplishment. After catching my breath, I located 2 benchmarks and a reference marker.

I signed the register which I was surprised to find had only been placed 2 days prior. I also investigated the remains of an old fire lookout which used to crown the summit. A stove could be seen beneath the old foundations.

Kern Peak has over 2000 feet of prominence and sits in the middle of an isolated wilderness area, so it’s easy to see why it was chosen as the location for a fire lookout. I spent a long time admiring the magnificent views.

To the north, Mount Langley and Mount Whitney could be seen rising above 14,000 feet.

Additional high peaks could be seen beyond the Whitney area.

To the east, the snow-covered north face of Olancha Peak could be seen, as well as Telescope Peak rising above Death Valley in the distance.

To the south I could see Owens Peak rising above the southern reaches of the Sierra. Much further to the south it was so clear that I could even see Mount Baldy rising above the Los Angeles Basin (too far away to show up in a picture though).

As I was resting and having some snacks, one of the 4 hikers I had met earlier climbed up and joined me on the summit. It sounded like he was a much faster hiker than his companions, so he had gone on ahead. After 45 minutes on the summit I began the descent. I would have liked to stay longer, but I had such a long way to go I didn’t want to waste too much time.

I saw the other 3 hikers just below the summit making their way up. After passing them, I decided to descend directly down the east face rather than follow the ridge as it curls around from the south.

The east face had looked intimidating from below, but it was actually pretty fun to scramble down.

I soon found myself below the tree line once more.

I decided to cut more directly southeast towards the trail, rather than go directly east.

The slope was easy to downclimb.

At 16.67 miles I reached the trail once more.

It was nice to be on the trail again. The hard part was over, but I had to remind myself that I still had 12 miles of hiking to go. At 18.48 miles I reached Redrock Meadow once more. This time I spotted the reddish rock formation that gives the meadow its name.

I took a long break at Redrock Meadow and had some more food to fuel up for the remaining hike. This is where I really hit a wall. I was dead tired, and it was depressing to consider I still had 9 miles to go (with a lot of uphill). I thought about other long distance hikes I had done. I’ve done ~22 miles a few times but only once had I gone to 28. That was on my February ascent of Toro Peak. I recalled the last 6 miles of that hike being absolutely miserable.

It was really starting to warm up now. I had taken all my jackets off and was applying sunscreen every 2 hours. Thankfully, I still had 2 liters of water which would be more than enough.

Despite my exhaustion, I still took time to admire the massive trees.

About 5 miles from the trailhead I started to run into other groups of hikers.

At 25.61 miles I reached Casa Vieja Meadow once more. There were lots of people around this area. I got a final burst of energy at this point – I think it was that “I’m nearly done” 2nd wind.

I still had to ascend 600 feet over the last 2 miles, but it wasn’t as bad as I had feared.

I finally reached the car at 4:15pm! This hike ended up being 27.71 miles, 5902 feet elevation gain, and 11:22:29

I was pretty happy that I was able to complete the hike in under 12 hours. On my way out of the mountains, I stopped at where I had parked for Chimney Peak and found my poles still there! I managed to make the long drive back to San Diego that evening and was home before 10.

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