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Summer hikes

Big Five Lake number 4       Big Five Lake number 5



(Published Nov. 21, 2008)

The chute that offered access off the north side of Alta Peak.

It’s the most prominent landmark on the Three Rivers skyline. That’s why all local residents who are physically able must eventually trek to its summit and savor the vistas.
   Even though Alta Peak in Sequoia National Park reaches a height of 11,204 feet above sea level, it is easily accessible via a well-traveled trail. The Wolverton trailhead is located 1.5 miles off the Generals Highway from a junction about 20 miles from the Ash Mountain entrance station. The trail is seven miles one way with an elevation gain of 4,200 feet.
   John and I ventured out on this excursion in early September as a training exercise. We were ensuring we were acclimated and had the endurance to complete a strenuous dayhike that had been on our calendar for nearly a year, and the date was looming, just two weeks away.
   8:30 a.m.— As we departed the trailhead, there were a dozen other hikers preparing to do the same. We thought we might be leapfrogging with these various groups along the trail but we all went our separate ways into the woods and we never saw any of them again.
   For the first hour or so of this hike, the trail climbs gently through the forest while paralleling Wolverton Creek and crossing several of its tributaries. There are a couple of junctions – to Lodgepole and Pear Lake – but all are well-signed.
   Soon sky can be seen through the trees, which always means a ridgetop is near. In this case, it’s Panther Gap, at about 8,450 feet elevation, where we met our first hiker of the day.
   He was a college-aged, solo backpacker who we had first spotted on the final switchbacks to Panther Gap. Even though he was carrying a loaded backpack, he was moving along at a dayhiker’s pace. We would get to know him better later in the day.
   Now out of the forest and ascending along the south side of the Panther Peak ridge, the views increase exponentially. Directly across the Kaweah River’s Middle Fork canyon are Castle Rocks.
   The trail climbs gradually and passes a junction where the Seven Mile Hill trail steeply descends to meet the High Sierra Trail 1,340 feet below. Soon after this junction, Mehrten Meadow is reached, which has campsites and a year-round water source, although this late in the season it was a mere trickle. Within an hour from Panther Gap, we arrived at the cutoff to Alta Peak.
   10:30 a.m.— These last two miles is where the elevation gain gets serious. At first the trail contours east around the prominent Tharps Rock. As soon as it reaches timberline, it switches back to the west, then begins the final vertical ascent to the peak through sand, rock, and some very hardy foxtail pines.
   The views are impressive in all directions – east into the Sequoia backcountry, west to the Central Valley, south along the Great Western Divide, or straight up (and north) to study the massive wall of weatherworn rock that makes up the fortress of a ridgeline that culminates at Alta Peak.
   Near the top of the ridge, the trail turns east again toward a precariously perched giant boulder that is the highest point of Alta Peak. Up close, the peak looks quite different than it does from Three Rivers, and it’s impossible to make out the “elephant,” a feature seen from town when the peak is snow-covered.
   11:45 a.m.— Before you climb the final few yards to the peak, be sure to leave the trail and walk the short distance up to the ridge for a bird’s eye view of Pear and Emerald lakes a couple thousand feet below. Then scramble to the top of the rock, take a well-deserved breather, and sign in at the peak register, which is protected from the elements in an Army-green ammo box.
   The register was just replaced this year by Pear Lake backcountry ranger Rick Sanger, so we were not able to search for our previous three entries, one of which was written when we were with our two young children after we’d spent a cold, snowy October night at Alta Meadow. But it’s good to know these registers are preserved somewhere for posterity.
   Shortly after our arrival, we were joined by two Three Rivers women, Teriz Mosley and Chris Lynch. It was Teriz’s first foray to the peak and Chris had been there once before… on skis.
   On this sunny, warm day, we spent a couple hours at the top, eating lunch, snapping photos, pointing out landmarks, and chatting. We were joined by a couple from Santa Barbara and the college backpacker, who had already set up his camp at Alta Meadow (one mile beyond the Alta Peak cutoff) and returned to tackle the peak.
   So what do complete strangers talk about when congregating on a High Sierra peak? Politics, of course. After all, it is an election year.
                                                * * *
   1:30 p.m.— It was during the drive to the trailhead that morning when I first informed John of my plan to take a different route down from Alta Peak. Now it was time to put that plan into action.
   As I sat on the peak, I was eyeing possible routes down the back side that would ultimately take us cross-country to Pear Lake and the Lakes Trail, which also begins at the Wolverton trailhead. As we all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, John and I headed to the north side of the rock to search for a route off the peak.
   There is an obvious chute that drops north and that was our first attempt at a descent. What was troubling, however, was that near the bottom there were boulders obscuring the view so we couldn’t determine if there was a drop-off. This may have been okay to try except that the chute was steep enough that the climb back up would have been difficult if a dead end was encountered.
   We turned our attention to another chute that parallels east along the backside of the ridge. This route was just as direct, but the possibility of becoming ledged out was lessened as the endpoint was in sight where it merged with the bench below.
   Since this was all my idea, I was the first to embark on this class 3 descent. Every step had to be matched with a handhold, and each footfall let loose a cascade of sand and rock, some as large as basketballs.
   It was slow-going, and John couldn’t make a move until I was out of the way or I’d be in his line of fire. I would descend 30 feet or so, find a boulder to duck behind, and he would follow as I watched the rocks bounce by.
   The chute got steeper before it terminated and for a time my hands gripping the rock were the only way to stay upright as the scree beneath my boots was like standing on a pile of marbles. Including the time spent scouting the route, this quarter of a mile took about 45 minutes to complete.
   We arrived on the flat, glaciated rock below and were relieved to once again be on solid ground. From here, we stair-stepped our way down the slabs toward the east side of Pear Lake.
   3:30 p.m.— Still well above the lake, we traversed toward its north side, dropping to lake level near the campsites there that were occupied by several groups of overnighters. There is a solar outhouse here and a long list of rules and regulations, which is testament to the lake’s popularity with backpackers.
   4 p.m.— After dipping our heads in the lake and taking a rest along the shoreline, we started down the mountain via a well-maintained trail.
   Upon leaving the lake, we were determined to make quick work of this trail. But we only made it a few hundred yards before meeting up with a solo backpacker who we recognized as one of our son’s friends from Exeter Little League days. This delayed us for about 30 minutes as we reminisced and, something new in this digital age, shared photos of our hikes before they were even concluded.
   4:30 p.m.— Once on the trail again, we passed the cutoff to the Pear Lake Ranger Station (which transforms into a ski hut in the winter) and passed by Aster, Emerald, and Heather lakes before coming to a trail junction that offers a choice of the shorter, steeper, wooded Hump Trail or the longer, more scenic Watchtower Trail. We chose the latter, which offers dizzying views of the Tokopah canyon and Lodgepole below.
   Just before the downhill side of the Hump-Watchtower trails junction, we paused to watch a doe and her two spotted fawns grazing. Besides some squirrels and chipmunks, it was the only wildlife we had seen all day.
   Ranger Rick Sanger’s handiwork was noticed again as we passed the trail sign here. He had posted a handwritten recommendation to all who did not fear heights to take the Watchtower Trail. This is a thoughtful gesture as it would be a shame for anyone to miss the scenic route.
   For the last couple of miles, we joined back up with our original trail and were once again traipsing through the woods along Wolverton Creek.
   6:30 p.m.— Just before we arrived at the trailhead, there was the undeniable, mouthwatering scent of a barbecue. We were ready to shell out the $20 per person to participate in Delaware North’s “Dinner with a Ranger,” a barbecue dinner that is held daily during the summer at Wolverton. But Labor Day was the week before, so we realized the event had ended.
   If it would have just been me who smelled dinner grilling, I would think it was a hallucination after a long dayhike. But John smelled it, too. The origins of the wafting scent remain a mystery as we didn’t see anyone in the parking lot, but we assume it was some tailgaters somewhere nearby celebrating another special day in mountain majesty.











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