The Sierra High Route

Silver Divide to Rainbow Fall
Sunlight pokes over the Minarets, from Cecile Lake
Looking heavenward

The Silver Divide, noted for its twisted, colorful rock, is crossed next, and one soon descends into a verdant parkland dotted with small lakes and clusters of conifers. It is an ideal place to pause for a number of days, relaxing or exploring. Izaak Walton Lake speaks for itself. For the adventurous soul, the summit of Red Slate Mountain, at 13,163 feet, provides a sterling view of virtually the entire High Sierra.

Birders seeking out the nest of the tiny Hammond's flycatcher can appreciate a wry anecdote related by Ralph Hoffmann in his Birds of the Pacific States:"When Theodore Roosevelt first met John Muir, it is reported that his first question was, 'How can one tell the Hammond from the Wright Flycatcher?' It is doubtful whether any future President of the United States will have the slightest interest in the problem."

Refreshed, the backpacker moves north along gentle terrain for several days. Beyond Duck Lake the route ascends to Mammoth Crest, the very spine of the Sierra, proceeding along expansive open areas strewn with obsidian chips, evidence that Indians once fashioned arrowheads here.

Soon one is traversing a high plateau covered with picturesque whitebark snags, sentinels guarding the western front. The mountains on all sides seem disembodied, for their lower ramparts are hidden beneath the rim of the plateau. Because of these "floating" mountains and the primordial foreground, a mystical quality pervades this region.

Near Mammoth Pass one can see, 25 miles distant, the shimmering surface of that enchanted desert phenomenon, Mono Lake. Mark Twain called it the "lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth." Nowadays, of course, it is far from lonely, as environmentalists battle water-hungry Southern Californians for water rights.

One can exit the High Route, replenish supplies, or take a rewarding break at nearby Devil's Postpile National Monument. The Postpile itself is a truly bizarre geological formation, a stunning example of columnar basalt. Be sure to visit the top, where glaciers have sliced and burnished the columns into an exquisite mosaic. Nearby, at Rainbow Fall, the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River plunges over a basalt cliff into a turbulent pool, great for swimming.

Finding Solitude in Ritter Range

The Ritter Range, a monster uplift paralleling the main crest, governs the backpacker's movements for the next two or three days. Famous for its twin sentinels, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak, as well as the spires known as the Minarets, the area is justly popular. The trekker will see more people here than anywhere else on the High Route, and this overcrowding can pose certain problems.

One summer our party was setting up a tent beneath some hemlocks near Ediza Lake. A middle-aged couple arrived and asked if they could establish their camp at the same site, for "sentimental reasons." I looked around, saw no one within a quarter mile, and suggested firmly that they enjoy their second honeymoon at least a hundred yards distant. As they walked away, disgruntled, I felt like a curmudgeon but took comfort in the fact that they would undoubtedly find an equally nice campsite away from others. Don't we go to the mountains to enjoy solitude?

The Ritter Range's metamorphic rock, with its contrasting hues of red and black, provides a welcome change from the usual sober granite. Minerals abound; there are even some abandoned mines to explore. The lakes, especially handsome because of their setting, have evocative names: Minaret, Iceberg, Garnet, Thousand Island. Above the last-named lake rises Glacier Lake Pass, the northern end of the Ritter Range and the gateway to the uneven terrain around the North Fork of the San Joaquin River.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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