AND OVER ALTA PEAK
Nov. 21, 2008)
chute that offered access off the north side
of Alta Peak.
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
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.
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.
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
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
So what do complete strangers
talk about when congregating on a High Sierra
peak? Politics, of course. After all, it is
an election year.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.