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June 2001

Splendor Hiking The High Sierra

Take the finest mountains in the world, add high-country meadows, glacial valleys, alpine lakes, pine-and-hemlock forests, and what do you have? A recipe for backcountry bliss.

7. Benson Lake

Yosemite National Park

60-mile loop or 45 miles one way (T); 5 to 7 days

Author R. J. Secor refers to this area as “the last wilderness of the Sierra” because the canyons are so deep that shepherds rarely penetrated and whites hardly explored. There are Native American artifacts still waiting to be discovered, and even a peak that Secor says has no record of having been climbed. You’ll find distinctive T-shaped blazes left by the U.S. Cavalry when they patrolled as the park’s first rangers.

Leave the Lembert Dome parking lot at Tuolumne Meadows and hike past Tuolumne Falls to the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. Head north up Cold Canyon on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and in and out of various canyons until you come to Benson Lake. For a one-way journey, hike up Rancheria Creek and over the Sierra crest to Mono Village. To return to Tuolumne Meadows, either retrace a couple of miles and descend Rodgers Canyon to the Tuolumne River, or to add a few miles, continue over Seavey Pass and descend Kerrick Canyon, then pass Bear Valley and Table Lake on your way to the Tuolumne River. Hike up the glorious Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River back to Tuolumne Meadows.

Getting there: Tuolumne Meadows is on CA 120 just west of Tioga Pass. Maps: Yosemite National Park; USGS Tioga Pass, Ten Lakes, Matterhorn Peak, Falls Ridge, Dunderberg Peak, Buckeye Ridge. Contact: Yosemite National Park.

8. Tunemah Peak

John Muir Wilderness

65 miles (COT); 5 to 7 days

One of three places in California farther than 12 raven-miles from a road, this peak used to be a crux along the trans-Sierra Tunemah Trail cattle route. Combining this historic route with several spectacular trails and a long, lovely, off-trail hike up the sometimes-brushy Goddard Creek makes for one of the most remote and interesting journeys in the Sierra. About half of the route (timewise) is spent off-trail.

Take the Crown Valley Trail to the 8,000-foot level in Blue Canyon. Head cross-country over the saddle north of Burnt Mountain, then traverse past level Alpine Creek to Bunchgrass Flat. After a steep climb northeast over Tunemah Peak (labeled Peak 10,987 on some topos), descend sharply to Goddard Creek. Follow Goddard Creek and cross Reinstein Pass, then descend the trail along Goddard Canyon. Cross Hell for Sure Pass to return to Crown Valley via trails.

Getting there: From CA 168, take Dinkey Creek Road from Shaver Lake to the Wishon Road; the trailhead lies just after Wishon Reservoir. Maps: Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. Contact: Sierra National Forest.

9. Mt. Conness Circumambulation

Yosemite National Park

20 miles (MOT); 2 to 4 days

This mostly trail-free route is almost as wild as it is beautiful, which is amazing considering how close it is to the bustle of Tuolumne Meadows-the busiest place in the park outside of Yosemite Valley. It’s also one of the few High Sierra hikes on which you can see all the way to the basin and range country of Nevada.

Begin with a boat ride across Saddlebag Lake, or hike around it. Or begin at any of the other nearby trailheads. The trickiest route-finding comes if you try to stay above the crowds at Saddlebag Lake; you’ll have to cross the east ridge of 12,590-foot Mt. Conness on class 2 or 3 snowfields. Follow cairns over the cross-country saddle between Cascade Lake and Upper McCabe Lake. A low, easy pass east of Sheep Peak leads to Roosevelt Lake. Contour high (to about 10,400 feet) to stay above the popular Young Lakes on your way to Skelton and then Granite Lakes (or drop down to the trail at Young Lakes to return to Tuolumne Meadows). From Granite Lakes, cross the crest to the Mine Creek drainage and follow it to Maul Lake, then cross through the Sawmill Campground to head back to Saddlebag.

Getting there: Take CA 120 to Tioga Pass. Maps: Yosemite National Park; USGS Falls Ridge, Tioga Pass; Tom Harrison Maps Yosemite High Country. Contact: Yosemite National Park.

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