Northern Yosemite Loop
Twin Lakes & Mono Village
Unlike most (all?) other trailheads in the Sierra, the Robinson Creek and Horse Creek trailheads are only accessible via private property, specifically the Mono Village RV campground. Matt had to travel in to California, so we arrived at the not-so-early hour of 9pm. They currently charge $15 per car for 7 days of parking in “backpackers’ parking lot” which is just a large dirt lot near the marina. There was no one at the gate when we arrived and no way to pay after hours; luckily one of the security folks was able to help us. I’d recommend arriving during business hours or contacting them ahead of time if you plan to arrive late. Unfortunately there were also no food storage lockers available at in the lot; pretty weak for a paid “service”. After begrudgingly throwing away some extra food, we wandered through the completely full and very smoky campground by headlamp, aiming for the trail out to Robinson Creek. The road through the campground has tons of spurs and forks, but we managed to follow it out to the National Forest boundary with only one wrong turn.
From the boundary, the trail climbs meadows gently, more or less following Robinson Creek. After a couple miles, we called it quits, setting up camp on a flat area just off the trail. At 6am the next morning, a group of boisterous climbers awoke us, ribbing us about camping on “thier” trail as they passed. Apparently we had discoved the turn off for the use-trail up Little Slide Canyon which is used to access the Incredible Hulk. Ooops.
Our first full day took us up out of Robinson Creek’s valley to Peeler Lake. I loved this area and would like to return to spend a night. Here Matt managed to shatter his only sunglasses by stepping on them. With some ingenuity and medical tape he managed to get them back into a useable, if less fashionable, condition. From Peeler we traversed extremely dry Kerrick Meadow and then made the short but steep climb up to Seavey Pass. This area has weird topography with lots of lush pockets with tarns interrupted by cliffs. We set camp at one of these tarns with a good view of the north-west ridge of Piute Mountain, our goal for the next day.
Piute is one of those peaks deep in the Yosemite backcountry that is infrequently visited and rarely dayhiked. It towers over Benson Lake to the south. From the east, where we were, it extends a long ridge with many bumps towards Seavey Pass. Instead of climbing directly from camp, we first descended to about 8,500ft and stashing our gear. From a flat meadow there is a class 1 grassy slope heading north west up to the ridge at 9,700ft. We made quick progress and were feeling good about our rate of attack. On the ridge, a few bumps must be avoided as one approaches the vertical looking east face. Secor’s description here is spot on. As you get closer to the face, a small bowl at the very top of a long chute appears. There was still a very small snow patch here in mid-August of a dry year. We scraped some snow to top of our water bottles before proceeding up the left hand, zig-zag chute. This chute is very, very steep but it has some grass and plants and looked better than the sand of the right hand chute. Eventually we reached the north ridge. The scrambling from there to the summit was very easy class 3 and enjoyable after the chute.
From the summit we got a good view of our next few days. Volunteer Peak and Pettit Peak were obvious to the south-east. Farther to the east-north-east we could see Whorl Mountain and the rest of the Sawtooth range. To the north was the impressive massif of Tower Peak. Secor suggests that the best descent route is a talus face a half-mile south-east of the summit. Getting to the top of the bowl was easy, but the descent was anything but. It felt like 5,000ft but was really only 2,000ft. Higher up it’s loose talus, in the middle it’s a boulderfield, and lower it’s steep forest. Near the bottom there’s a small cliff band that must be negogiated. Were I to do this peak again, I’d just reverse our ascent route.
Once back on the trail, we powered past Benson Lake and up the circuitous trail to Smedberg Lake. After seeing very few people, we were surprised by the number of parties camped around this picturesque lake. We found a great site up in the slabs above the lake.
Volunteer Peak and Pettit Peak
We awoke and went to work on Volunteer Peak, hoping to climb up to the saddle directly from camp. What looked like fun ledges turned out to be more cliffy than we hoped. We were forced to contour far to the east before gaining a gully on the east side of the peak that lead us up to the saddle. From the saddle, a short 400ft talus hop brought us to the summit. Unlike Piute, Volunteer sees a lot of traffic, likely due to the straightforward route and its proximity to the PCT.
From Volunteer we studied the route to the south. Pettit Peak was at the end of the valley and we could see a clear path about halfway there. We headed out, not realizing that the second half of the traverse is much trickier than how it is described in Secor. About half way along, below Peak 10,600+, we were confronted with a choice: either climb directly up steep talus to the 10,600 shoulder, traverse some brush and cliff band to unknown talus beyond, or descend much lower towards Rodgers Lake. We chose the middle route and found an excellent ramp that led up to a beautiful small hanging basin at 10,300ft. From there we followed the long north ridge out to the summit of Pettit. The view from the top was sweeping. The walls of Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne were just south with Mount Hoffman and Tuolumne Peak prominent just beyond. Further south, we could see Clouds Rest and the very very top of Half Dome. Of course, the Cathedral and Ritter ranges were in full view. I was amused by a distant view of the Clark Range which I had visited a few days earlier.
Wanted to avoid the tricky traverse, we took a sandy slope down to the basin above Rodgers Lake. While descending we startled a small black bear who took off a full speed across the valley. Matt, a runner himself, was in awe of the bear’s speed and agility. For the rest of the descent, we made sure to announce our prescence in advance. Contouring around the east shore of Rodgers Lake brought us back to the trail which we took back to camp.
We were tired and briefly considered crashing, but ambition got the better of us and we packed up and over Benson Pass (weirdly sandy) and down into Matterhorn canyon.
Our goal for day 5 was to put us in position to climb some peaks at the apex of Spiller Canyon. To get there, we first had a long climb out of Matterhorn canyon. I found Miller Lake at the top of the climb to be very charming and wish we could have camped nearby. A fast descent led us to Spiller Creek and the start of our cross-country route. Secor describes travel through Spiller Canyon as “easy” without further description. While the route finding was easy, it’s a long, trailess canyon, with many areas of fire and blow downs and many areas of soggy meadow. It took us the better part of the day to make our way up canyon and above treeline. The last two miles we were racing thunderstorms. We ultimately lost the race and took cover underneath some rocks near the tarn just below Horse Creek Pass.
Once the storm passed, we found a spot with a great view back down the canyon to call home for the next two nights. Our objective for the next morning, Whorl Mountain, loomed large to the south. It rained more overnight and we were surprised to hear a number of coyotes howling to each other at dusk and again at dawn.
Whorl Mountain & Matterhorn Peak
Whorl had been on my climb list from my first stint in the Bay Area and I was excited to finally have the opportunity to climb it. We had a good amount of beta; I had heard the route finding was tricky. The approach along the bench from Horse Creek Pass is obvious. The trickiest part for us was finding the enterance to “chute #3”. The face here is so steep that it’s hard to distinguish the chutes as chutes. We kept contouring around following the advice of previous climbers and eventually recognized the chute delimited by the “granite dome” and the “large boulder”. Heading up the climbing is loose scrambling, followed by better scrambling. The traverse into chute #2 required a slight downclimb of a ramp to access the main part of the chute. The traverse into chute #3 is made much, much simplier by climbing directly up the dividing ridge until a narrow walkway between two verticle slabs is accessed.
The infamous chockstone at the top of chute #3, which we had seen from the floor of the canyon the day before, turned out to be very fun. Thankfully the snow had melted and the underside was clear. “Tunneling” is an apt description of the process of surmounting this obstacle, as you literally go under and through the gaps inside the “cave” formed behind the chockstone before climbing up. From the top of the chockstone, a short climb up brought us to the “catwalk” section. I was reminded of Longs Peak’s Keyhole route and all of the different sections to that route. Easy walking and climbing brought us to the summit. What a fun mountain!
Our descent was much easier as we knew the tricks to the route. We were all the way back to camp by noon; a great morning.
With thunderstorms building to the south, we wasted to time in heading out for Matterhorn Peak. Unlike Whorl, this is a very obvious scree and talus slog directly from the Horse Creek Pass tarn area. Matt set a blistering pace up. I could barely keep up. The summit area requires a bit of scrambling, but we found ourselves on the top in short order. It took us a mere 1:04 to climb from camp. The storms were much closer at this point, so we promptly turned around and descended back to camp in 40 minutes. Just in time too. As we headed into tents, the storm opened up. We were treated to a 30 minute, intense hailstorm followed by two hours of thunder, lightning, and rain.
Horse Creek Canyon
Our route back to Twin Lakes took us over Horse Creek Pass and down the canyon. We had expected a good use trail through the pass, but icy snow on north facing slopes made getting through the pass and down to the creek a bit trickier than we had expected. The upper part of the canyon did not a have a good use trail, and we found ourselves wandering a number of times. The worst part of this section was a steep, loose slope along a waterfall. Matt slipped once here and I cut myself on some sharp rock. After surviving a weak of tough backcountry hiking, we did not want to wreck ourselves on the last day. We proceed slowly down the middle canyon, before finally picking up a good use trail through talus slopes.
Once the trail improved, we started to run across backpackers, and, once we connected with the developed trail, day hikers. The Horse Creek trail is very pleasant, working it’s way up from Twin Lakes on a series of nicely shaded switchbacks. That said, we were very glad we did our loop starting up Robinson Creek and not Horse Creek. Eventually we found ourselves back in the confusing mess that is Mono Village, and, after some wandering, back at the cars.
We stopped for a quick bite in Bridgeport before heading our separate ways. A great trip with great weather and thankfully no smoke.