Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Fall in the High Sierra

Shhh! Don’t tell anyone, but fall can be one of the most beautiful times of the year to enjoy the High Sierra (spring, summer and winter are my other top picks). Fall colors – yellow and gold aspen trees, red tundra – are on full display in late September and October, and with colder temperatures and less predictable weather scaring off many would-be hikers, you can enjoy your favorite trails in relative solitude. Day-time temperatures are generally moderate and pleasant, but night-time temperatures can be well below freezing so bring a warm sleeping bag and bundle up!

This year in late September I found myself at Saddlebag Lake, just East of Tioga Pass and Yosemite National Park. Saddlebag Lake is a popular destination with both fishers and hikers in the summer months, and can be very crowded during summer weekends. Even in late September, we encountered several other hikers on the trail and saw a number of people fishing in Saddlebag Lake, but this represented only a small fraction of the number of people visiting the area only a few weekends before.

The trail around Saddlebag Lake into the Twenty Lakes Basin is gently graded trail through beautiful terrain. We passed through alpine meadows and lakes beneath the rugged, imposing faces of White Mountain, Mount Conness and North Peak until we reached the head of the basin. We continued following a use trail, then ventured off-trail to finish climbing to the top of the ridge and McCabe Pass. I was hoping to continue down the steep, rugged West side of the pass into Yosemite National Park to camp at upper McCabe Lake, but I was outvoted. After enjoying the view we hiked back to a high alpine meadow to make our camp.

When the sun went down around 7:00, we quickly discovered anew why so few people venture into the High Sierra in the fall. Temperatures dropped rapidly, and we bundled up in our sleeping bags for a long, cold night. When we woke the next morning it was twelve degrees (colder than on many of our spring ski tours), and the nearby stream was frozen. We watched as the golden glow of the sun slowly worked its way down the peaks to our camp, instantly raising the temper. Across the way a group of hardy ice climbers ventured from a bivy and began inching their way up an icy couloir on White Mountain. We decided to venture out in search of warmer pursuits, hiking to the nearby Hess Mine and several lakes before heading back to our cars.

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