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Alta Peak

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park Links:

July 4th, 1999

13.8 miles
4300 vertical feet
Total Time: 9:48

Rating: 10/10

Directions:   View Driving Map

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(Note: the trail route above was created post-hike using electronic maps and was not created using GPS, so it might not be completely accurate. It's probably pretty close, though.)

CJ, Jean, Jennie, Weihaw and I hiked in Sequoia National park.

While we were getting ready at the Wolverton parking lot, a couple of backpackers returned to their cars next to ours. They'd just been on a 5-day trip in the area. We asked them for some information and they obliged us with some useful info, including the fact that there were places to filter water just in case we needed to. They also extolled the virtues of freeze-dried food, which they told us we could get from some Mormon organization (apparently, Mormons are supposed to have 2 years of emergency food; these backpackers weren't Mormon, but were happy to buy their freeze-dried food from them).

At 9:35am we hit the Lakes Trail. It starts out climbing immediately, up some very dusty switchbacks. There were occasional peek-a-boo views through the trees to the left. I'm not sure which mountains we saw -- perhaps Mt. Silliman (11,188 feet) and friends.

That might be Mt. Silliman, or at least a peak along the Silliman Crest

After climbing for a while, the trail levels out. Noticeably absent are sequoia trees. Instead, the vegetation is more typical of Yosemite. We passed a small green meadow on our right. Tree mushrooms were common. After 1.7 miles, there's a trail intersection. To the left is the Lakes Trail, which leads to the Watchtower, Heather Lake, Emerald Lake, and Pear Lake. There's a ranger station near Pear Lake.

Jean saw this leaf and told me to take a picture of it, so I did.

Slanted meadow

A large group of people were gathered here, perhaps deciding which way to go. We took the fork to the right, toward Panther Gap. We shortly encountered a beautiful hillside -- green flowed above us up the hill and below us as well. It was a slanted meadow, with a small creek running through it of course. A beautiful mid-morning sight.

Climb up to Panther Gap

The trail actually descends for a bit before making a steep ascent up an even dustier trail than before. A solo hiker passed us by, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake. The trail ascends the inner part of a bowl. At the top of the bowl is Panther Gap, 2.7 miles into the hike. Here we had wonderful views to the south, stretching from the San Joaquin Valley in the west to the Great Western Divide in the east. Beautiful green valleys stretched on forever below us. Birds sailed high above the trees, yet well below us. We enjoyed these views before turning left onto the Alta Trail -- toward Alta Peak and Alta Meadow.

View from Panther Gap

More views from Panther Gap

We were now on a ridge line, with Panther Peak behind us. The trail climbs a bit before curving right and flattening out for awhile. We could now see granite rocks above us to the left, and steep drop-offs below us to the right. Wildflowers of all colors lined the trail. In the distance, seemingly deep in the valley below us, we could hear a deep drum-like sound. Most likely a bird or owl sending out a mating call, but it sounded more like Native American drumming.

Rock or Bear? You decide.

Four miles into the hike, we reached Mehrten Meadow. It's a relatively small meadow with a creek feeding it from above (to our left). Some backpackers were there picking out a place to set up camp. We stopped here to have lunch. We only had 2.9 miles to go to reach the top, but half the climbing yet to come.

Mehrten Meadow

After lunch we continued along the trail, which continued to be relatively flat. 4.8 miles into the hike, we reached the trail intersection with Alta Meadow to the right and Alta Peak to the left. From here we had impressive views of Tharps Rock and what appeared to be Alta Peak high above us. To the left were two shorter but more impressive rock spires which looked like they require rock-climbing equipment.

Tharps Rock (right); Alta Peak is behind the center peak

We were at about 9140 feet -- with 2.1 miles and about 2070 feet still to climb. Steep! An average grade of almost 19 percent! We started climbing switchbacks in another bowl, this time with little shade. As we climbed higher we glimpsed a tarp and sleeping bag below, in a nice small meadow near the Alta Meadow Trail. Looked like a nice place to camp.

We re-entered the forest and began our journey around the southern side of Tharps Rock. While the day was relatively warm, it wasn't too uncomfortable, and wonderful breezes cooled us in the forest shade. We soon reached a rock outcropping which we climbed onto and had great views of the Great Western Divide to the southeast. While we were admiring the views, a large group of hikers passed us coming down from the top. After our rest stop, we continued on up the trail.

View from rock outcropping along the trail

One woman we passed who was coming down said we were only half an hour away, but I knew we couldn't be that close. Soon after, we encountered a pair of hikers Jean recognized from the parking lot. They'd left about 30 minutes before us, and told us we still had about 80 minutes to go to get to the peak.

As we rounded the corner we had new wonderful views to contemplate. Below us to the right (southeast) lay Alta Meadow. A large meadow, it looked like a beautifully manicured golf course from our vantage point over 1000 vertical feet above it. Above the meadow lay destruction. Up, up, steeper and steeper was a slope filled with sharp rocks big and small. It looked like the summit of Mt. Tallac, only larger.

Marmots started to play hide and seek with us. One ran away from us as we headed up the trail. We turned the corner to the left. As we turned right, more views opened up. Sandstone formations towered above us. It looked just like Zion National Park. Quite a contrast to the typical granite of the Sierra Nevada. It looked like a rock climber's dream, with tons of cracks lining the walls. Tharps Rock itself looked more impressive from this vantage point.

We ran into another hiker coming down from the top. It turned out he was the owner of that sleeping bag we'd seen earlier! He told us it was definitely worth it, and there was a summit register waiting for us at the top.

Foxtail Pines near the summit

We were very close. The trail deteriorated into traversing over rocks and dirt. Our only guide to the trail were faint footprints and small stacks of rocks arranged to mark the trail. We were nearing 11,000 feet elevation, the trail was getting steeper, and the altitude was making a difference. We slowly made our way up. But soon we had a view of the peak itself, and our objective was clear.

We reached the ridge crest and took some group photographs. The peak itself lay just a few dozen yards further up the trail, massive rocks at the top. Persistent patches of snow lined the northern face of the mountain below us. A small group of people made their way down as we reached the top, so we had it to ourselves for the most part.

Summit at right (next to Jennie's head)

We walked up to the top, then scrambled up the rocks to the very peak. Wow. From the top, everything is visible. So many peaks to the east. The San Joaquin Valley to the west. Moro Rock, impressive when we were on it, looked so tiny from way up here. Unfortunately smog marred the view to the west. Interestingly, a couple of peaks appeared to pop above the smog, though I'm sure there aren't any coast peaks tall enough to do so. Perhaps it's some kind of optical illusion, some sort of reflection.

Daredevil Weihaw with the summit register

The register itself is at the edge of the top rock. Weihaw crawled out to it and signed our names. The rest of us decided it wasn't worth the risk. It's probably relatively safe, but there's a tremendous amount of exposure. The mountain drops off almost vertically to the east and north.

The summit rock

View looking west from the summit rock

View looking down and to the north (no, I'm not getting any closer to that edge)

I walked over to the north face and got a glimpse of what's probably Pear Lake, about 1700 feet below. I didn't take any pictures of it for fear of falling off the face of the earth (or at least falling 1700 feet straight down the north face of Alta Peak). Supposedly there's also a view of Emerald Lake, but I didn't bother looking. Mt. Whitney is supposed to be visible through a gap in the Great Western Divide to the east. I think I have it below, but I'm not sure.

Panorama from top of Alta Peak
(Click image to view full size)

I think that's the Mt. Whitney massif, second from right

Of course marmots scrambled around us as we rested at the top. They started to make an awful squealing sound near Weihaw. Fighting one another? Mating calls? Who knows.

Marmot eyeing Weihaw's lunch

We'd reached the top at 3:15pm. I'd estimated 4 hours to descend, and the sun would set at 8:30pm, so we left the peak at 4:07pm. Jean set a blistering downhill pace and we all struggled to keep up with her. Surprisingly enough, we weren't the last ones on the peak that day. Two people were reaching the top just as we started our descent. We met a solo hiker further down the trail who was still coming up. And we ran into even more people later. I'm not sure if they were (a) day hikers unconcerned with hiking in the dark, (b) backpackers who were camped relatively close to the summit and could return to their tents before dark or (c) too stupid to realize they'd be hiking in the dark.

Alta Meadow

We stopped briefly at the rock outcropping we'd stopped at before. Then it was back down the trail, past Mehrten Meadow, past Panther Gap, with hardly a break at all. We saw no one else on the trail for a long time until we saw two hikers kicking up dust in front of us as they descended near the trailhead.

I began to notice I had the makings of a slight altitude-induced headache. We'd hiked the day before to help acclimatization, but we'd never gone higher than about 7200 feet elevation the day before, and camped at 6500 feet -- about 4700 feet lower than the peak. Still, the headache was bearable and nothing compared to what I'd had on Mt. Dana. Besides, we were descending fast.

The bugs began to attack us late in the hike. I got bitten several times, but I didn't want to bother with stopping and applying bug repellent. We made it back down to the bottom by 7:23pm, just 3 hours and 16 minutes after leaving the top, and well before sunset.

I must say this is one of my favorite hikes. It's a challenge, but it's all worth it. It not only has great views throughout the hike -- it has different great views throughout the hike. The view from Panther Gap is very different from the one at Alta Peak. And there are views along the trail as well. And beautiful meadows, huge rock falls, impressive sandstone formations, granite formations (of course), creeks, marmots, views, views, and more views.

The interesting thing I found is that this hike seemed easier than Dana. Despite the fact that this hike is longer, has more climbing, and the last 2 miles are just as steep. Perhaps it's because we weren't 1800 feet higher, didn't have to scramble over rocks, and didn't have to run away from lightning. On the contrary, the sky was completely blue the entire day. So, despite how much I liked Mt. Dana, I'd have to say that given a choice, I would definitely hike Alta Peak again.

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