The High Sierra Trail

“Awesome” is a wildly over-used word in the US, but the High Sierra Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California really is just that. If you’re into hiking, camping or fishing and you want to trade in a cool, wet, midge-ridden summer for something hot, dry, bug-free and spectacular then you should seriously check out the High Sierra Trail, which has the bonus of summiting the highest mountain in the continental USA (outside of Alaska) – Mount Whitney, at 14,500 feet.

Mount Whitney at sunrise
Mount Whitney at sunrise

Ian asked me the other day why I wanted to go to the Sierras, and I found it a difficult question to answer. Struggling up a steep track in 90 degree heat, or lying awake in your tent at over 11,000 feet because you can’t quite get enough air to breath easily and you do wonder why. On the other hand you are simply overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of the landscape; the tremendous sense of freedom that your experience in the backcountry; and the simplicity of the challenges you face.

Valhalla towers above us as struggle up to Hamilton Lakes
Valhalla towers above us as struggle up to Hamilton Lakes

Having my son, Mike, along was an added bonus for me, with the hope he’s absorbed some of the rewards of exploring wild and lonely landscapes. I’ve never climbed much above 10,000 feet before, so the chance to camp at that level and hike a good bit higher was an added draw.

We're headed over the distant mountains
We’re headed beyond the mountains in the background

I did very little fishing in the Sierras, mainly because I didn’t want to bore Mike too much, but for anyone who appreciates the context in which they fish it was superb. Alpine lakes in the 8,000-11,500 foot range held rainbow and golden trout, whilst the Kern river was a stunning little trout stream well filled with rainbows. Most were small 8-10 inch fish, but a couple of Californian teenagers who basically fished every chance they got had trout up to 17 inches on spinners.

Anyway, check out the little video of our trip and make up your own mind.

Having spent too many decades in Scotland I am fully conditioned to the need for warm, waterproof clothing, decent tents, insect protection, etc., etc. Switching to an environment where water and heat are major concerns takes quite a bit of adjusting to.

Kern River Valley
Kern River Valley

We had no rain at all and no bug bites at all on the trail in early September (both are more likely earlier in the summer though), and could have hiked the whole trail without a tent or waterproof. On the other hand the heat in mid-afternoon was exhausting and the need to be disciplined with water was pretty novel to a Scot.

Only about 20 yards away
A young black bear, only about 20 yards away

The wildlife is another consideration, but not one to get unduly bothered about. There are mountain lions, but these are very rarely seen and they almost never attack adult humans. There are no brown/grizzly bears, only black bears, and taking proper precautions to store food in bear canisters will greatly reduce any chance of one saying hello during the night. We only met two bears on the High Sierra Trail, both quite young, and one of these was in the trail head car park, so doesn’t really count.

Mike on top of Whitney
14,500 feet – Mike on top of Mt. Whitney

Numbers on the trail are heavily restricted under the wilderness permitting system used by the national parks, but early September does fall outside the main US holiday season and you’ve a good chance of getting access. It’s a one way trail rather than a loop and one of the biggest challenges is actually sorting out the logistics of travelling from the eastern Sierras to the western side, as public transport is limited. If anyone wants details of what we did then please add a comment and I’ll try and reply.

In parts the trail is blasted from solid granite
In parts the trail is blasted from solid granite

It would be unfair to the other parks we visited not give them a mention, as Death Valley (in my previous post), Zion and Grand Canyon national parks are all amazing in their own right.

Wading Zion Narrows
Wading Zion Narrows

Zion is famous for its slot canyons, where you ford your way through very narrow canyons with almost vertical walls 1,000 feet or more high. A mild adventure on a hot, dry day, but a flash flood killed 4 hikers a few days later.

Canyon viewpoint
North Rim, Grand Canyon

And the Grand Canyon is just as described. We headed for the more remote North Rim and were lucky enough to get a reservation at the lodge overlooking the canyon. The scale is hard to take in (a road trip from North Rim to South Rim is over 200 miles), and makes it rather hard to photograph.

A fantastic trip, and definitely one to grasp with both hands if the opportunity arises!

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Camping in Death Valley

We paused as we heard the distinctive rattle of yet another Death Valley local warning us to stay away. It had been quiet in the cool of the early morning as we climbed, but the sun was now hot in the sky and the reptilian inhabitants were waking up all around the trail as we descended from the 9000 foot high Wild Rose Peak.

Looking over Death Valley from Wild Rose Peak
Looking over Death Valley from Wild Rose Peak

Rattlesnakes warned Mike and I off over half-a-dozen times as we made our way back down the mountain, but none showed themselves and we didn’t look too hard for trouble.

Mike gets comfortable, 9000 feet up in Death Valley NP
Mike gets comfortable, 9000 feet up in Death Valley NP

We’d landed in Vegas a couple of days earlier, and had explored the real hot bits of Death Valley the day before, then headed into the surrounding mountains for an overnight camp.

Exhausting heat in Death Valley
Exhausting heat in Death Valley

And the hot bits are hot! We saw 118 degrees around the Devil’s Golf Course, a barren landscape of rocksalt nodules.

Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley - rock salt nodules
Devil’s Golf Course, Death Valley

Devil's Golf Course Panorama

Almost as roasting at Badwater Basin, nearly 300 feet below sea level, with a strong hot wind desiccating you as soon as you dared to leave the safety of the car’s air-con.

Spot the sea level marker - 286 feet above us
Spot the sea level marker – 286 feet above us
Well below sea level, and 118 degrees.
Well below sea level, and 118 degrees.

Fortunately the surrounding mountains are much cooler and we had a very comfortable night at around 70 degrees at the fairly basic Wild Rose campground, about an hour off the main road through Death Valley.

Sunset over Wild Rose campground, Death Valley
Sunset over Wild Rose campground, Death Valley

We set out on the climb to Wild Rose Peak next day as a warm-up (in more ways than one) for the more serious leg of the holiday, but it was an interesting hike in itself, with great views and a chance to explore the old charcoal kilns at the start of the trail, which still smell of smoke well over 100 years after they were last used.

Start point for Wild Rose Peak, at the Charcoal Kilns
Start point for Wild Rose Peak, at the Charcoal Kilns
On the trail to Wild Rose Peak
On the trail to Wild Rose Peak

Later in the day we came across another hungry Death Valley inhabitant, although this one was wheedling rather than hunting.

Hot and hungry coyote, Death Valley NP
Hot and hungry coyote, Death Valley NP

I’d been a bit wary of Death Valley for camping, given the potential heat, but it was actually no problem at all in the surrounding mountains. The wind died to nothing overnight, there were no biting bugs and it was warm rather than hot. Happily do it again, although the campground was fairly remote and you wouldn’t want a breakdown getting there (we saw no-one at all in the one hour drive from the main through road).

Impressive as Death Valley was, the next step was the main aim of our trip – the 70+ mile High Sierra Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and a chance to hit the highest point in the continental USA outside Alaska – Mount Whitney, at 14,500 feet…

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Kayaking Desolation Sound, British Columbia

OK, this post has nothing to do with angling, and I didn’t even take a rod with me to Canada, but we were out kayaking and backpacking in a landscape every bit as grand and far larger than our sea lochs. I’d spent time in Ontario a decade before, including several days canoeing, but BC is in a league of its own…

Map showing Vancouver Island and Desolation Sound
Vancouver Island and Desolation Sound

The trip was born from a combination of things but I suppose it was largely an 18th birthday present for Mike coupled with an attempt on my part to recapture some lost youth and pick up the threads of some plans from earlier years. Anyway we settled on two mini-expeditions in BC with a few days travelling in between, and dusted off the tent and rucksacs.

View from Heriot Bay, Quadra Island, looking towards the Coastal Mountains
View from Heriot Bay, Quadra Island, looking towards the Coastal Mountains

We kicked off with a 5 day guided sea kayaking trip to Desolation Sound, around 150 miles and 3 ferry crossings north of Vancouver. I’ve never used a sea kayak although I’ve been on a sit-on-top before and also open canadian canoes in fresh water, so I was quite surprised to find out how stable they were once on the water (getting in and out was a bit more of an art form).

Our kayak group and guides, June 2014
Our kayak group and guides, June 2014
Our fleet of sea kayaks awaits
A mini-fleet of sea kayaks

Day 1 saw us getting familiarised with the kayaks and paddling across to Refuge Cove (looks a bit like a throwback to frontier days, apart from the regular seaplane flights and some satellite dishes). We set up camp a little further on, in a little bay on Martens Island and settled down for the evening. It rained a bit – the only real rain we experienced in over 2 weeks in Canada – but we were comfortable enough eating a large dinner under a decent tarp.

Next day started a bit cloudy but soon started to brighten up as we packed up camp and launched the kayaks across some rather tricky rocks covered in sharp oysters.

Just launched and off Martins Island, Day 2
Just launched and off Martins Island, Day 2

An easy paddle and a couple of hours later we reached the Curme Isles – a little group of dry, pine covered rocks sitting in Desolation Sound. We set up camp on South Curme, which is simply stunning with views of the forests and mountains stretching off into the distance.

Tiny but beautiful, South Curme Island
Tiny but beautiful, South Curme Island

Camping is restricted as the island ecosystem is very fragile, and a small number of tent pads are available – all very well laid out and making great use of the available space (we generally found the Canadian provincial parks to be more interesting and better managed than their national parks).

A superb spot for a tent, with the sea on three sides and the sun overhead.
A superb spot for a tent, with the sea on three sides and the sun overhead.

Perfection included mid-20s sunshine, and only a few bugs (with no midges). So good that we decided to stay the remaining three nights here, as it meant we spent less time making and breaking camp and could travel light in the kayaks.

Mountains, forests and sea - the view towards Homfray Sound
Mountains, forests and sea – the view towards Homfray Sound

Unfortunately for the angler in me, rod and line fishing is prohibited in most of the sound although it is allowed in most other areas. Not really a big deal as that wasn’t why we were there and it probably wouldn’t have been very practical anyway.

A stunning location, and even better viewed from a kayak
A stunning location, and even better viewed from a kayak

The seawater in Desolation Sound is the warmest in the Pacific Northwest and the braver amongst us made a point of early morning swims. Being conditioned by living in Scotland to avoid getting in the sea if at all possible, I have to admit that I didn’t join them – although an afternoon dip in one of the nearby freshwater lakes went down well.

Morning on the Curme Islands
Early morning swim on the Curme Islands

It’s hard to overstate the atmosphere of camping on islands like the Curmes – the combination of great weather, a breathtaking environment and giant natural landscape is overwhelming. The area does get more crowded with yachts and kayakers over the summer, but at the end of June there was plenty of space for everyone.

Our campsite for 3 nights, the beautiful South Curme Island
Our campsite for 3 nights, the beautiful South Curme Island

One fine evening a few of us managed a night-time paddle across the sound, with clear views of the stars and spectacular bio-luminescence every time the paddle bit into the water – but otherwise pitch dark as we made our way across and back at midnight.

Another group of paddlers, viewed from our Curme islands camp
Another group of paddlers, viewed from our campsite

We spent our time exploring the nearby bays and coastline, notably Tenedos Bay and Prideaux Haven (quite a few chunky yachts had made this home for a few days, but there was plenty of space for everyone)

View across Desolation Sound from our tent
View across Desolation Sound

Coming back from Prideaux the wind got up to a good force 4-5 in the late afternoon and evening, and it was quite a struggle to get back to camp paddling into the teeth of the wind. Being in an exposed site the tent took a battering but seemed to survive OK, and we emerged on our last morning to find the wind had died off quite a bit. Given the forecast was for strong winds later in the day we elected to break camp quickly and take advantage of the weather window to get back to Cortes Island whilst conditions stayed reasonable.

Our kayak route in Desolation
Our kayak route in Desolation Sound

It’s hard not to go overboard with superlatives, but we had an amazing time in an amazing place. Fia and Ashley, our guides, were fantastic and put a huge amount of effort into the trip – not least of which was the cooking, which was excellent and put my normal efforts to shame.

We went with Spirit of the West Adventures (www.kayakingtours.com) who I’d very happily recommend to anyone interested in a similar trip.

 

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Mount Robson and Snowbird Pass

A few days of R&R and some substantial driving following our kayaking adventure in Desolation Sound, we kicked off a 4 day backpacking trip in the Berg Lake area of Mount Robson. Coming from the south and west, Mount Robson remains well hidden amongst other mountains until a turn in the road suddenly reveals this snow covered giant (it is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, at over 13,000 feet high). It looks huge, is huge, and every tourist on the road promptly screeches to a halt in the layby to take a better look. Explorers 150 years before us described it as a “giant amongst giants” and they were spot on – it really hits you between the eyes on a clear summer day.

First glimpse of Mount Robson, approaching from the west
First glimpse of Mount Robson, approaching from the west

After registering for our trail passes at the information centre and watching the obligatory video on 10 ways to die/100 things not to do in the park we were set free to find our way into the backcountry of the Rockies, hopefully avoiding the bears along the way.

At the information centre, to collect our trail passes
At the information centre, to collect our trail passes
On the bridge marking the start of Berg Lake Trail
On the bridge marking the start of Berg Lake Trail

It was early afternoon and very hot as we made our way along the first few miles of the trail, weighed down by our rucksacs but otherwise happy enough on a fairly easy track. Up to Lake Kinney it was fairly busy, mainly with day hikers returning to the car park, but from there on it was quiet with only the occasional backpacker all the way up to the campsite at Whitehorn. At the 11km mark this campsite is not too far along the trail and I’d originally planned on heading straight in to Berg Lake, but the damage done from a broken leg back in March made a reassessment seem sensible, and I was quite glad to split the journey in over a couple of days.

Blue skies and emerald green water
Blue skies and emerald green water

I wouldn’t say Whitehorn was an exceptional location, but it does exemplify the care that BC Provincial Parks take with their campgrounds – each tent pitch is set out nicely with a proper tent pad and access is controlled to prevent overcrowding. I have to say that I was consistently more impressed with the Provincial Parks such as Desolation Sound and Mount Robson than with the National Parks like Jasper and Lake Louise.

Mike on the steep, narrow trail between Kinney and Berg lakes
Mike on the steep, narrow trail between Kinney and Berg lakes
Steeper than it looks, this is a serious haul in the sunshine
Steeper than it looks, this is a serious haul in the sunshine

Day 2 meant a steep hard climb from Whitehorn to Berg Lake, past a series of waterfalls (“Valley of a 1000 falls” is the exaggerated official name!). The most impressive of these is the Emperor Falls, and the cooling spray from this was most welcome after a long slog up the hill.

Thick spray from the Emperor Falls blankets the forest
Thick spray from the Emperor Falls blankets the forest
A chance to cool down in the mist from Emperor Falls
A chance to cool down in the mist from Emperor Falls

Twenty minutes later we burst out into the flat open braided streams just downstream of Berg Lake and into the full heat of the sun as we made our way along the rocky trail. By now Robson was truly dominating the skyline, almost 3km above our heads.

An area of bare rock and scree, close to Berg Lake
An area of bare rock and scree, close to Berg Lake
Simple wooden bridges make life much easier on the trail
Simple wooden bridges make life much easier on the trail

Berg Lake gets its name from the small icebergs that calve off the Robson Glacier as it runs into the water, and over the next few days we were treated to the regular rumbles and thunderous noise of ice protesting as it was forced down the mountain side. Being fed by meltwater also gives the lakes the very distinct turquoise colour as light reflects off minute particles of silt ground down by the ice and suspended in the water.

A stunning location for some lunch
A stunning location for some lunch
Feed Me! - a campsite visitor
Feed Me! – a campsite visitor

We set up camp for a couple of days at the Berg Lake campground, on a tent pad with a spectacular view of Robson, and close to the river below. A short snooze later and we were climbing well up the trail above Berg Lake, making for the Toboggan Falls and the Mumm Basin beyond. It was extremely hot in the sunshine and we were using water at an alarming rate, so we dropped the more ambitious plan of completing the Mumm basin trail (which would have taken several hours) and turned back an hour or so above the Toboggan Falls. Even at this point we were above the tree line and could see the route of the Snowbird Pass on the valley opposite us – our target for tomorrow.

View of the glaciers feeding Berg Lake
View of the glaciers feeding Berg Lake

Day 3 saw us going for my personal goal – the Snowbird pass. This 23 km trail only opens on the 1st July each year and we went for it on the 3rd. The first few km are very easy, flat, walking but you then start to climb up the side of the Robson Glacier moraine which is pretty hard going even in the morning sunshine.

Just about to get steep - we head up the left side of the glacier
Just about to get steep – we head up the left side of the glacier
Even travelling alongside it is pretty hairy in places...
Even travelling alongside the glacier is pretty hairy in places…

Once on top of this huge lateral moraine, you try not to stumble over the edge as the trail takes you along the steep and pretty unstable scree slopes. Most of the trail is fairly well marked, but there are a couple of areas where it’s both easy and dangerous to lose your way – I’d be wary here if the weather turned poor! It’s easy to see why the trail is described as “challenging”

Lush greenery thriving above the tree line
Lush greenery thriving above the tree line

That said, the lush and very green alpine valley at around 6,500-7,000 feet is both a surprise and stunningly beautiful. We saw quite a bit of life here, mainly marmots and ground squirrels, but the valley is also a caribou calving area and has a population of wild goats.

The reddish, bare scree of the actual top of the pass can’t quite compare to the valley below, but it does afford a spectacular view of the Reef Icefield beyond the crest of Snowbird. At 8000 feet it was a little chilly even in the sunshine so we didn’t linger too long before starting the long trek downhill.

Looking over the icefields on the far side of Snowbird
Looking over the icefields on the far side of Snowbird
Bare rock and snow at the crest of Snowbird
Bare rock and snow at the crest of Snowbird

Next day saw us break camp and prepare for the hike back to civilisation, some 21km away. Robson’s peak was covered in cloud, but I managed a few shots of the icebergs drifting across the lake as we marched along making good time for the first few km.

Small icebergs that give the lake its name
Some of the small icebergs that give the lake its name

As the sun got hotter and the packs heavier we were glad to take the chance of a break where the forest and trail allowed – even with sore feet the whole place is simply awesome.

The icy Robson River tearing through the forest
The icy Robson River tearing through the forest

 

A rather defiant looking rodent keeps watch
A rather defiant looking rodent keeps watch

We were back at the trailhead for lunchtime, although definitely feeling the pace a bit and looking forward to a cold drink just down the road.

Wildlife-wise we didn’t see anything bigger than a marmot in Mount Robson, although a few bears did materialise as we headed south along the Icefields Parkway towards Calgary and our flight home.

The only grizzly bear we saw - captured on a camera phone
The only grizzly bear we saw – captured on a camera phone
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