Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Alta Peak

Great Western Divide from Alta Peak
14 miles round trip, 4000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park entrance fee required

As the only High Sierra peak accessible on a day hike by a maintained trail within California’s Sequoia National Park (besides Mount Whitney), Alta Peak delivers the sweeping panoramas you’d expect of a peak of its name. This lofty summit is accessible by a long and tough day hike from the edge of the Giant Forest area and offers the sort of High Sierra views generally only reserved for serious backpackers. The route to reach the summit is long but scenic and makes this one of the premiere day hikes of Sequoia National Park. The peak’s 11208-foot height may be enough to induce altitude sickness for some hikers, so pay attention to your body’s signals as you hike.

The 7-mile distance from the trailhead at Wolverton to Alta Peak can be broken down into four legs: an initial two-mile stretch along the Lakes Trail, an ensuing one mile stretch along the Panther Gap Trail to reach Panther Gap, a flatter two-mile segment on southern slopes of Alta Peak, and the final steep climb to the summit over the last two miles.

I hiked Alta Peak on a mid-May weekend during a year when a meager winter snowpack and early snowmelt made the hike possible about one to two months earlier than usual. The hike started from the Wolverton Trailhead in Sequoia National Park, which can be accessed from the Central Valley by either taking Highway 180 into Kings Canyon National Park or Highway 198 into Sequoia National Park. Both routes require taking Generals Highway to the stretch between Giant Forest and Lodgepole; the turnoff for Wolverton is well marked and heads east from Generals Highway. I followed Wolverton Road for about two miles to its end, passing the turnoff for the General Sherman Tree parking area along the way. There is a long parking lot with room for well over a hundred cars at the end of the Wolverton Road; the hike to Alta Peak starts from the segment of the parking lot just to the left of the entrance to the lot.

Leaving the Wolverton Trailhead, I started out by following the Lakes Trail north from the parking lot. The trail climbed briefly and in a hundred meters reached the crest of a ridge; here, the trail turned towards the right and began following the ridge to the east. The trail climbed steadily over the next 2/3 of a mile as it ascended along this forested ridge, passing patches of spring wildflowers. There were occasional peeks of rocky Mount Silliman rising on the other side of Tokopah Valley through the trees, but otherwise there were no real views to speak of in the opening stretch of the hike.

At a mile into the hike, the trail leveled out for a stretch and soon left the top of the ridge, instead passing through forested mountain slopes above Wolverton Creek while again ascending steadily. The forest gave way to some grassy and brushy clearings as the trail crossed a small creek; wildflowers were blooming quite nicely here in the spring, and I’ve spotted a bear in this area before. Just under 2 miles from the trailhead, I came to a fork in the trail: the Lakes Trail continued to the left while the Panther Gap Trail headed to the right.

Lodgepole pines on the Lakes Trail
I turned right at the junction to take the trail towards Panther Gap and Alta Peak. The trail continued climbing steadily, traveling mostly through the forest but occasionally passing through grassy clearings as it crossed multiple streams. After a mile of steady uphill ascent through the forest after leaving the Lakes Trail, I came to Panther Gap at just under 3 miles into the hike, arriving at the junction with the Alta Trail.

Panther Gap delivered the first views of the hike. While the north side of the saddle was forested, the south side was open, delivering a view across the Middle Fork Kaweah Valley to Castle Rocks. A portion of the Great Western Divide also featured to the left side of this view, including Sawtooth Peak and Vandever Mountain, two distinctive summits rising above Mineral King Valley. The Alta Trail split in two directions from Panther Gap, following the ridge both ways: the right fork led down to Giant Forest, while the left fork headed east towards Alta Peak. I took the left fork, which ascended for a bit along the ridge before heading out onto the exposed south slopes halfway up Alta Peak.

View of the Castle Rocks and the Great Western Divide from Panther Gap
The next mile to the junction with the High Sierra Cutoff Trail featured absolutely spectacular scenery, with the Great Western Divide’s snowy and rocky peaks unfurled majestically to the east. To the west, views extended past Castle Rocks into the dusty Sierra foothills. Rock formations near the trail were frequently quite interesting here: my favorite was a rock that had the profile of a standing bear.

View towards Castle Rocks and the foothills from the Alta Trail above Panther Gap
At 4 miles, the Alta Trail came to a junction with the High Sierra Cutoff Trail; while the High Sierra Cutoff Trail headed downhill and to the right to join the High Sierra Trail, I went straight through the junction to stay on the Alta Trail. The open views ended shortly afterwards, with the Alta Trail reentering a forest of stately lodgepole pines. The Alta Trail reached Mehrten Meadow, a popular campsite, not long after the High Sierra Cutoff junction, at 4.2 miles; a nice stream flowed next to the meadow but the meadow itself was quite underwhelming, just a small, sloping patch of grass in the forest.

Mehrten Meadow
The Alta Trail continued traveling through the forest, ascending gradually, until I came to the junction with the Alta Peak Trail at 5 miles from the trailhead. At this junction, the right fork led to Alta Meadow, an alpine meadow below the peak, while the left fork led up to Alta Peak’s high summit. Taking the left fork, I embarked on the final two miles of the climb, the steepest, highest elevation, and thus most strenuous stretch of the hike: with just two miles left, the trail climbed 2000 feet, packing in half of the hike’s elevation gain.

Leaving the junction with the Alta Trail, the Alta Peak Trail was initially somewhat open, with views of the Tharps Rock, a false summit of Alta Peak, rising directly above me. After a few hundred meters of hiking with some views of Alta Peak’s dramatic upper reaches rising above, the trail reentered the forest as it ascended persistently. The trail stuck to the forest for the next mile, although after rounding a corner on the ridge at 5.5 miles from the trailhead, occasional breaks in the trees provided astonishing and open views of the snowy granite peaks of the Great Western Divide.

Tharp's Rock
As the trail entered an alpine environment, flora and fauna of the highest elevations began to show up. I spotted a yellow-bellied marmot staring curiously at me: this cousin of the groundhog is common in subalpine and alpine terrain throughout the Sierra Nevada. Pasqueflower- a pretty, early-blooming flower that transitions to a fuzzy seed head later in summer- bloomed close to the ground.

Pasqueflower blooming
At 6 miles from the trailhead, the Alta Peak Trail made a sharp switchback; from here, there were magnificent views of the Great Western Divide rising above Alta Meadow in the foreground. As the trail reversed direction, it continued to climb aggressively up Alta Peak, with the lodgepole pines of the mid-elevations transitioning to the foxtail pines that appear just below the timberline. Foxtail pines are a close relative of the better known bristlecone pines that dot the Great Basin and live longer than any other tree; foxtail pines have similar wizened appearances to their cousins and also thrive in high altitude environments where other plants cannot survive, but they do not live nearly as long as their nearly 5000 year old cousins, with the oldest reported foxtail pines not even reaching half that number. These stout, windswept trees were the last arboreal outposts on Alta Peak before barren granite dominated the remainder of the peak’s height.

Foxtail pines and the Great Western Divide
At 6.3 miles from the trailhead, the Alta Peak Trail approached Tharps Rock, a massive granite outcropping that jutted out to the south from the main body of Alta Peak. Views from near the rock extended down into the Middle Fork Kaweah Valley and the Central Valley. Tharps Rock is named after Hale Tharp, a Gold Rush-era arrival in California who became the first documented European American to settle in Giant Forest. Tharp lived for a while in the hollowed-out trunk of a fallen sequoia, which today is still preserved as Tharps Log at Log Meadow in Giant Forest.

Tharp's Rock
Leaving Tharps Rock, the trail continued its final steep ascent, barreling up a shallow granite chute that was dotted with the last of the foxtail pines. The aggressive uphill grade and the high altitude combined to make this part of the hike the most challenging stretch of this otherwise-straightforward trail. The summit was now visible, rising at the top of the granite chute. A constant push up this trail finally brought me to the edge of the northern cliffs of Alta Peak, just short of the actual summit.

Foxtail pines on Alta Peak
From these massive cliffs above the north face of the mountain, I had a terrific view of the Lakes Basin below me, with Aster and Emerald Lake visible in one basin and Pear Lake in a separate basin of polished granite. Twin-summited Mount Silliman rose across the valley.

Aster, Emerald, and Pear Lakes with Mount Silliman
After briefly skirting the rim of Alta Peak’s north face, the trail ended at the base of the rocky summit block. A bit of scrambling brought me to the very top of Alta Peak, 11208 feet above sea level. There was not much space to spread out here, as the summit is angled to one side with cliffs off the other side, so on a busier day you might want to enjoy your lunch from the many viewpoints below the summit. However, you’ll want to at least spend some time checking out the view up here, as that view is nothing short of incredible.

From the top of Alta Peak, I had an expansive panorama encompassing not only the portion of the Great Western Divide that I had seen on the hike up, but the barren granite landscape of the Tablelands to the north and east and the rugged peaks of Kings Canyon National Park in the distance. Most remarkable was the high ridge that made up the northern end of the Great Western Divide, which included the craggy forms of Table Mountain, North and South Guard Peaks, and Mount Brewer. Behind the Tablelands I could see the Monarch Divide rising above Kings Canyon, with North Palisade rising even further in the distance. At the other end of the Great Western Divide, I could see all of the high peaks around the Mineral King valley, as well as the distinctive dip of Farewell Gap east of Vandever Peak. In between, Mount Stewart, Eagle Scout Peak, and Mount Eisen were among the most prominent of the peaks here, while the colorful Kaweah Peaks rising in the background provided a strong contrast with what was otherwise a sea of gray rock. Through a gap in the Great Western Divide rose distant Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the 48 states.

Great Western Divide and Mineral King peaks
Great Western Divide and Mount Whitney
Mount Brewer and Table Mountain at the northern end of the Great Western Divide
To the west, I could see down to Aster Lake, with Big Baldy, Little Baldy, Moro Rock, and Castle Rocks among the many granite domes dotting the otherwise forested landscape. On this clear spring day, I could see even beyond those peaks and past the foothills into the Central Valley, with the Temblor and Caliente Ranges visible far into the distance in the California Coast Ranges.

This is surely the most superlative view accessible by day hike on a maintained trail in the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. I spent a good amount of time savoring the view at the summit, although I was not alone: at least thirty other people were in the vicinity of the summit during the time I was at or near the top, as the amazing views make this is a somewhat popular hike despite its length, altitude, and difficulty. While less popular than the Lakes Trail that departs from the same trailhead, you should still expect plenty of company on the way to Alta Peak. It’s absolutely worth it for the views, though. No serious California hiker should miss the panoramas from Alta Peak.

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