Adventures in hiking…

Posts tagged “Hiking in snow

Yosemite – Frozen Lower Cathedral Lake


Sometimes there are not enough words to describe Yosemite.  It is a land of enchantment, meaning one will fall in love with it. Today, we had another opportunity to venture out near the Tioga Road and explore.   We actually stayed in a hotel in Bishop and drove in to the park through the east gate.    I am jealous of fellow blogger who lives nearby.  Her blog is refreshing and provides a neat perspective on this beautiful area.

It was a chilly 19 degrees F when we pulled into Tuolumne Meadows.  Our plan was to hike up to Lower Cathedral Lake and poke around.  No one else was silly enough to hike this early but we were prepared.  Bundled up with a couple of layers, we hit the trail crunching through the old snow.  The snow was from a storm last November.   Unfortunately, it has been a light snow year in the Sierras.  It was New Years Day 2012 and a great way to start the year.

After 20 minutes of hiking through snow, we had to peel off a layer of clothing.  Funny, because the temps were still in the low 20’s.  As long as we were walking, it was warm.  Stop for too long and the cold sets in.  We hit the main junction going up to Cathedral and the elevation change was around 600-700 ft. per mile.  In the spring/summer, this is a very popular trail.


As we ascended, the silence of the forest enveloped us.  Sometimes the only sounds were my labored breathing and crunch of the snow under my feet.  As the sun broke through the clouds, it began to warm up some.  A Steller’s Jay followed us, watching us from a distance.  They are curious birds and like to observe humans.

The trail comes to a junction where the JMT keeps straight and the path to Lower Cathedral Lake breaks right.   There were multiple frozen streams to cross and it was difficult to follow the trail.  While it was a low snow year up here, the temperatures are still below freezing each night.  The creeks appeared to be frozen instantly in time.  It was an amazing sight to see.


A creek that appears to have frozen instantly

I so wanted to slide down the frozen creek, but wisdom prevailed.  We picked our way around the icy streams and managed to follow the trail where it emerged in a meadow.  By following the frozen streams, we made it to the lake.  A strange sound emanated from the shore.  It sounded like humpback whales clicking and groaning.   It was an awesome experience.  By now, the temps were around 40 and the sun was out.  The granite slabs that surrounded the shore were flat and warm.


The sound of the ice shifting was amazing.

We observed a few brave (if not foolish) souls venturing out on the lake about a half mile away.  We had lunch and took plenty of pics and listened to the sounds of the ice as it shifted and bumped against the granite shore.   I imagined how the glaciers of long ago formed this area.  This wonderful landscape has a way of capturing your soul.  For me, it reminded me that places like this were created for our enjoyment.  I wanted to linger, but knew that the days were short and the trip down could be slippery.  Some spots were steep with ice that melted and refroze.


Cathedral Peak from the frozen shore of Lower Cathedral Lake.


It looks like we are right on the water, but actually 8-10 ft. above on a granite slab.

The wooded area near the lake looked the same from the shoreline.  Fortunately, I set a waypoint  on the GPS and used it to follow our course in reverse.  We came across a few more people and pointed them in the direction of the lake.  The descent was a little challenging as we tried to keep our balance.  After this trip, I would get us some microspikes that slip over the boots.  Found some good ones here:  Kahtoola MICROspikes Traction System

This hike was quite the adventure.  If you have the opportunity to make it to Yosemite in the winter, see if the Tioga Road is open.  The trek to Lower Cathedral Lake is one that you shouldn’t pass up.  It’s not far from the Tuolumne Visitor Center which is closed during the winter.  You can park along the road.  Bonus:  If you enter through the east gate on (Tioga Road)  in the winter, you don’t pay the $20 park fee because no one staffs the entrance gate.  Round trip on Lower Cathedral Lake trail is approximately 7-8 miles from the trailhead.


A Hike in the Snow – Spitler Peak


Type of trail: Out and back, composition: sand, decomposed granite, soft soil.  That and about 18″ of snow.

Distance as hiked: 9.6 miles

Approximate elevation: Trailhead-4,900ft., Top of trail-7,000ft.

Temps: 35-50deg

Difficulty: moderate to strenuous.

As a kid living in the northeast, I loved it when it snowed.  Enough of the white stuff meant a day off to play.   After you grow up and you have to shovel or scrape the ice off the car,  it isn’t so fun anymore.   Today, we would seek out a snowy trail south of the San Jacinto Wilderness.   I’ve been in this area a couple of other times and enjoyed the solitude and varied terrain.  We brought some friends with us today and I promised them a challenging hike with views of sub-alpine valleys and vast, arid Borrego Desert.

Within the past week, we’ve had our seasonal rains in San Diego County, so we hoped for a bit of snow above 5,000 ft. Just last weekend, we were on the beach roughing it in the RV.   The typical winter day near Oceanside was mid 60’s, great for walks on the shore watching the snowy plovers nesting.  Anyhow, there aren’t many places in this great country where you can go to the beach in shorts one day and hike in a foot of snow the next.


Our friends asked if they should bring their gaiters and I’m glad I said yes.  The trailhead had about 6 inches of powdery snow which meant the higher elevations would definitely have more.   It was strange to see snow amongst the chaparral, cactus and agave.  The wind was gusting around 10-15 mph and the temps were around 45-50.  After a couple of miles of intermittent snow and dirt, the trail gradually changed to all snow.  Eventually, the only tracks were our own and the occasional cloven hooves of a deer.  As the trail wound its way toward Spitler Peak, the northern exposure provided us with increasing snow depths approaching 18 inches.  We probably could have used snow shoes at this point, but the powdery texture made it easy to follow the footprints of the first hiker.


The chaparral gradually changed into mostly deciduous trees covered in a blanket of snow, which was falling on us.  The trees would continue their attack on us as the occasional gust would loosen clumps   As we neared the summit, the steepest part of the trail was also the deepest and the surroundings became more like an alpine wonderland.  We looked forward to the intersection of the Pacific Crest Trail where we would have lunch and some hot tea.

The 2,000 ft. of elevation gain was a challenge on any day.  Today, coupled with the snow it was slow going as the snow began to cling to our boots and gaiters.  Each step was a bit heavier, yep snowshoes would be good right about now.  We rounded the last switchback and the blue sky opened up as the trail marker for the PCT poked out through the rocks.  The desert vista to the east was beautiful as always.   Our shelter of trees gone, the wind chill made it feel like it was 30 degrees.

Lighting the small MSR Pocket Rocket stove proved to be difficult today.  The combination of wind, high altitude and low temps make these little stoves with the butane-propane a mediocre choice in these conditions.  Lesson learned-keep a small canister of fuel in my jacket to help the fuel condense.   The wind chill began to affect my dexterity too.   After 5 minutes or so, I finally got it lit, boiled our water and enjoyed a nice hot cup of Earl Grey.  It’s the little things…..

The trip down was much faster and a bit slippery.  The steady dose of sun created a frequent snow shower as we passed under the trees.  Mary put on some micro spikes and they really made a difference on the icy patches.


As we descended through 5,500 ft, the trail became a mix of mud and slush.  I gave up my trekking poles so that my friends could have that extra “leg” on the way down.  I’ve developed some trail legs over the last few years and rarely stumble.  Besides, I’m short and don’t have far to fall.  The last couple of miles became a bit tedious as sloshed our way to the trailhead.  Fifteen minutes later, the Paradise Cafe  near the town of Anza awaited us with the promise of amazing baby-back ribs, flatiron steak and delicious burgers.  Yes, the best way to end an awesome hike is with a fantastic meal.

Marion Mountain Trail – San Jacinto Wilderness

Sunset near Idyllwild

Mary and I have discovered our favorite area to hike in Southern California.  The San Jacinto Mountains are less than a two-hour drive from North County San Diego.   This range is on the northern end of the Peninsular Range that extends into San Diego County, all the way to the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico.  Off on our usual late start, it was a comfortable 68 degrees leaving home.  By the time, we passed Temecula, 88 and  the town of Banning on I-10 was a dry 97 degrees.  A general rule of thumb is that for every thousand feet you go up, the temperature drops 3-5 degrees.  We wanted to get above 8,000 ft. today so that would hopefully be in 70 deg temps at the summit.

Driving up the 15, San Jacinto Peak stands out early, with its snow-capped peak in stark contrast to the flat, dry valleys surrounding it.  Our approach through Banning brought us up the northwest side and the curvy switchbacks on the 243 make for an enjoyable ride.   Since we would be hiking in the wilderness areas, we needed to obtain the wilderness permit at the state park headquarters in Idyllwild.  Not knowing exactly which trail we would hike, I wrote down Marion Mtn. and Seven Pines for the permit.  I usually print out a partial topo map of the areas we hike since we trail-blaze occasionally.    I picked up a Tom Harrison trail map of the San Jacinto Wilderness at the ranger station and asked for directions to the trailhead.   The Harrison maps work well for me since they are fairly durable and have UTM coordinates on the outside edges.  My little Garmin Foretrex GPS works ok using UTM.

Marion Mtn Trailhead

The Marion Mtn. trailhead is located near several campgrounds, none which are opened for the season.   The trail wasted no time increasing in elevation, the first mile was almost a 1,000 ft. gain without an abundance of switchbacks.  The path was well maintained and we crossed a couple of fire or maintenance roads before entering into a deeply wooded area.  The amount of dead timber was really high.  I haven’t researched it, but it was almost like these trees were hit by disease or a wind storm since the wood was not burnt.  Even so, there were plenty of thriving Sugar and Jeffrey Pines, along with some fir trees.  A mile or so into it, the trail became harder to distinguish and by the time we hit the second vernal stream around the 1.2 mile mark, we climbed onto a bolder in the middle of the stream and had our lunch.  Also brought my Kindle on this day and we did our daily couple’s devotion right there on the rock.  The one we use is named Moments With You by Dennis and Barbara Rainey.  It was an awesome time surrounded by God’s creation.  Once again, not a soul around but us.

Marion Mt. Trail looking north.

We jumped down and crossed the stream to what appeared to be the trail.  Not long after,  we realized that we were bushwhacking again.  After 30 minutes of picking our way up the mountain, I broke out the map and got a rough plot of our location.  Land navigation is a skill that is challenging to be proficient at and difficult to master.  The terrain was covered with tall pines and huge boulders, making it tough to pick out landmarks more than a few hundred yards away.  Our estimated position was about 400 yards east of the Marion Mtn Trail and maybe 1000 yards to a major trail junction.  We worked our way around the scrub, over a few streams and found the actual trail. From this point on, the path was a mix of blowdowns (fallen trees) snowed over, and streams that flowed down the trail.  The snow was crusty and slippery due to the cycle of melting and freezing over the past couple of weeks.  The snow was hard to hike in but a blessing because you could make out the footprints of those that had gone before.

The trail above 8,000 ft

Surrounded by the white stuff, it was noticeably cooler, almost like when you open the refrigerator.  We continued to trudge uphill and it leveled out around 8700 ft.   We hit the trail junction which was the intersection of the Marion Mt., Seven Pines Deer Springs and the PCT.  San Jacinto Peak was also “only” a couple of miles away.  Tempting, but it was already after 5 p.m. and we weren’t exactly prepared to camp out in the snow.  While each of us carries a small survival kit in our day packs, I could tell that Mary did not want to create an episode of survivor man/woman.  We decided to lay in the snow and pretend to make snow angels.

The descent was a bit more treacherous and slippery because the snow hid the rocks underneath;  a sprained ankle up here would make for a long trip down.  Picking my way around a fallen tree, I was following tracks in the snow and before I knew it I post-holed ( fell in a drift up to my thigh).  Funny thing was that it was just the right leg, so I awkwardly extracted myself from the hole and laughed at myself.  We were able to follow the trail the remainder of the trip and weren’t sure where we actually got off the trail going up.    We ran into another couple on the way down who said that they also lost the trail and turned around.  So, the path less traveled is worth it as long as you are prepared.

The Marion Mt Trail is a great trail that is moderate-strenuous with decent views. In early spring, there is plenty of snow and streams to explore.

Gear we recommend:

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Hiking poles: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue

Lessons Learned:  1. Take maps and practice land navigation with a compass.  2. A GPS is nice, but technology isn’t always reliable.  3. Hiking in the snow is tricky, especially going down a slope.