The Nevada High Point and Backpacking Southern Yosemite

My motivation for this trip was to bag the Nevada high point, Boundary Peak. As with Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, I combined this with a medical conference just south of Yosemite. After our Wind River Range trip this summer, I realized our itinerary, including a four-day-65-mile-16,000-foot elevation change backpacking loop based out of Luken’s Lake in Yosemite plus Boundary Peak was too aggressive, unless of course, I wanted to cry. As it turned out, the Luken’s Lake Trailhead was closed due to fire. Back in 2012, Erik and I hiked the John Muir Trail and so we were looking for somewhere different in Yosemite to hike. We decided upon a loop hiking east out of the Chilnualna Falls Trailhead in Wawona. I also had some debate between spending an extra day backpacking in the higher mountains versus six hours of drive time to hit up the Nevada high point, but in the end Erik said we should do Boundary Peak.

We flew into Fresno and then spent a harried two hours searching for fuel for the cat food can stove. Previously we’ve had issues finding fuel but have always been able to buy denatured alcohol at hardware stores. Too bad for us but California outlawed this in 2019, along with 95% Everclear, a more expensive option at the liquor store. Fortunately there was an REI in Fresno and eventually we settled on buying the MSR PocketRocket Deluxe Stove. Not exactly Erik’s dream stove, but a significant upgrade from his MSR Dragonfly and it comes with a built-in igniter.

After that we drove up to Yosemite and through Yosemite to the Backpacker’s Campground ($6 per person the night before and after you leave the wilderness) at Tuolomne Meadows. Obviously it was well after dark when we finally arrived just before 10 pm. We couldn’t see much but in the morning we learned all the rocks we’d seen by headlamp were actually tents!

Boundary Peak 9/19/21
Boundary Peak route with the road in red and the hike in blue.
Erik’s GPS track for Boundary Peak.

Given the two hour time difference between Minnesota and California, I woke before dawn. Once it got light at 6:30 am, I roused Erik and we packed up camp. Before we left, we filled up all our water containers, including our wine bladder, just in case we spent longer than planned on the Nevada high point.

Then we drove to the Ranger Station to pick up our Wilderness Permit for the following day. This was because we assumed we wouldn’t be back from Nevada by 5 pm when the ranger station closed. It also didn’t open until 8 am and so we killed time by eating breakfast and brushing our teeth in the parking lot.

Wilderness Permit obtained, we began driving east, out of Yosemite, towards Lee Vining and eventually into Nevada. Boundary Peak sits just inside Nevada and is really a sub-peak of Montgomery which is in California. As we drove we enjoyed the mountain views, canyons, dessert, the weird Mono Lake, a brief pine forest (where we noted some camping potential), with the White Mountains, home of Boundary Peak, getting closer and closer.

The White Mountains from our drive. The white mountain on the left is Boundary Peak, highest point in Nevada, and the one of the right is Montgomery Peak in California.

Given it was less driving, we decided to start from the Queen Canyon approach. For us there were two challenges to Boundary: the road in and the hike itself. The road is a low-maintenance gravel road that climbs 3,000 feet in 6 miles. We knew this and so Erik rented an SUV. Except that it was a 2-wheel drive SUV. I don’t know much about cars, but I didn’t know they even made 2-wheel drive SUVs!

I got most of my beta, including the knowledge about the wild horses which I was really hoping to see, from this blog.

Wild horses on the road up to Queen Canyon Trailhead.

Fortunately Erik is a good driver and he only stalled out twice, had to back up, and get another run.

The upper part of the road up. You can see it’s a bit steeper on the left which is where we had problems.
Queen Canyon. The road starts way down in the valley, just left of center and climbs up this canyon. We parked about where the road ends on the right (this was taken from higher up).

By the time we got to the old Queen Canyon Mine, we parked (this was really about the first spot to do so) and walked the rest of the way up the road to the pass. Had we had a 4-wheel drive we could have kept going but we decided we were close enough. It was just after 10:30 am when we started hiking.

Looking west towards the Sierras from where we parked at Queen Canyon Mine.
Some of the old Queen Canyon Mine.

Walking up the road was uneventful and relatively easy. We took the steeper cut-off road.

Even walking on the road didn’t take us long to gain elevation which is why we stopped driving. Our white 2-wheel drive SUV is barely visible above some old mine piles.

There was one truck at the saddle, what google labels as the trailhead. From here the trail heads south up a series of mild switchbacks before gaining the east-west ridge on the mountain just north of Boundary. Once on the ridge the hike is almost flat before a brief descent to Trail Canyon Saddle.

Erik walking along the seemingly endless ridge with Boundary in the background. From this view the taller Montgomery is hidden.

The weather forecast called for strong gales and a high of only 45 on the summit. As we ascended the almost sandy north slope that would bring us from 10,800 feet to 12,000 feet we often lost the trail. It seemed there were multiple ways to go. The wind really began whipping here and I stopped to put on my pants and down jacket. A solid trail picked up as we traversed across to a ridge and the wind died down. We took a brief break and then began the ridge climb.

The view of the ridge and the summit of Boundary from the small pass at 12,000 feet.

After passing the saddle of the “down route” for Trail Canyon, the trail petered out. I ended up on the west side of the ridge, a bit too low. It was fairly easy going, mostly small boulders and some looser scree with intermittent trail. The boulders got bigger on the last bump before the summit.

Part way up the upper ridge (the lower ridge is on the right).
Boundary is getting closer! This was one of the steeper parts of the ridge.

Just before the final push to the summit I regained the trail only to loose it amidst the bigger boulders by the last bump. After that bump the terrain leveled out. The final crest to the summit was less steep and quite easy with smaller rock.

Erik on the summit with the upper and lower ridges in the foreground and Nevada in the background. We could see a number of red rock outcroppings which were interesting.
Highpointing the USA- that’s us!
Crow pose on the highest rock in Nevada! That’s Banner Peak in the Sierras just above the highest part of my back!
Summit selfie with Montgomery Peak in California.
The eastern side of the White Mountains.

On the way down we followed the ridge more closely and it seemed easier than the west side. Usually I find descending more difficult so if it seemed easier going down to me, it probably would have been easier going up. Again, there is no well-defined trail here and anything will work, but consider sticking to the ridge.

The steep descent from 12,000 to 10,800 was pretty loose. Many times I just slid along in the sand and this was all well and good until I found a deeper smooth rock, which as Erik said, “slides quite differently.” Again, the trails branch here so pick and choose but overall it was doable if you don’t mind getting sand in your shoes! We stopped at Trail Canyon Saddle to dump out the sand.

Then it was back to the long lower ridge, down to the road saddle, and the short road walk back to our car.

Enjoying the scenery from the lower ridge- here noting the upper and lower tree limits on the north side of the mountain.

It was 5:30 pm when we got back to our car. Only 1.5 hours until sunset. In general Erik and I kept a move-on and it took us 7 hours. Not too shabby, especially considering we are flat-landers. I don’t take much stock in going from sea level to 13,000 plus feet, but then again, one week before this I ran a half-marathon at 85% max heart rate. Because of this I don’t worry about acclimatizing. I know what my body can handle.

We decided to start driving back to Yosemite with that forested spot by Mono Lake in mind. It was easier going down the low-maintenance road but still a bit sketchy. We could have benefited from a higher clearance vehicle.

Just before we got back to hwy 6 we stopped for a photo looking back at Boundary Peak.

Boundary (left) and Montgomery Peaks from the start of Queen Canyon Road. Considering we started hiking at the low spot on the left and made it all the way up to the highest spot on the left I was pretty impressed with our feat on the day. It felt good to be successful at something that looked difficult and it sure was worth the drive.

As we drove west on hwy 120 east of Benton, Erik had some fun with the “dips” on the road again as we had in the morning, on what might be the best rollercoaster road in America! By the time we got to Mono Mills it was nearly dark and we decided to stop, make dinner with our new stove, and find a spot to camp off a forest service road.

Mono Mills. Erik and I were super enamored by the thin forest without undergrowth and sandy soil.
Sunrise from our campsite with Mono Lake barely visible on the right.

In the morning on our way back to Yosemite we stopped at the South Tufa Area on Mono Lake to see the tufa. We learned Mono Lake, similar to the Great Salt Lake, is also in the Great Basin and salty. I guess this is fairly obvious but we hadn’t thought about it before. The tufa are calcium-rich freshwater springs that form underwater and when mixed with the salt water of Mono Lake that is full of carbonates will form calcium carbonate (aka limestone) deposits that gradually grow and grow.

Looking northeast across Mono Lake with lots of tufa.
Morning sun on the tufa and foam!

Erik and I enjoyed Mono Lake but it was time to get back in the car and drive the winding road through Yosemite. After three hours and hardly any stops we arrived at our trailhead in Wawona.

Backpacking Southern Yosemite

Our 4 day backpacking trip in Southern Yosemite.

Of note, Yosemite National Park requires wilderness permits. They also require bear canisters. We chose to hike out of Wawona because (1) we’d never been in that area before and (2) it’s unpopular so permits were easy to get.

Day 1 (9/20/21): Chilnualna Falls Trailhead to Buena Vista Lake
Day 1, Chilnualna Falls Trailhead to Buena Vista Lake in GAIA maps. Please note, I don’t believe this program correctly calculates elevation ascent and descent.

We began hiking from the Chilnualna Falls Trailhead at 12:30 pm, along Chilnualna Creek which was almost dry. There were a few day hikers within the first half mile, then after that, almost no one. It was 75 degrees and sunny and despite the haze, we were dripping sweat as we hiked up 2,200 feet in 4.3 miles. The gnats were getting to me. It made it hard to appreciate the chaparral we were hiking through- a biome we don’t have in Minnesota. Weaving in and our of the re-entrants reminded me of hiking along Cinque Terre, albeit without the Mediterranean.

Haze as we gained some views on the Chilnualna Falls Trail.
Erik walking through the chaparral with the Wawona Dome on the right. It was hot in the sun!
With the exception of one short section (coming later) the trails were very well maintained and even included a few areas with stone steps.

Once we arrived at Chilnualna Falls, we stopped to cool off in the pools above the waterfall. Given there was only a trickle of water going over the edge, we were plenty safe to do so. We also filled our water bottles as we had been warned by a couple other backpackers we had met that there was only water in the lakes.

At the trail intersection above Chilnualna Falls we began on the north route to Buena Vista Lake. Here we encountered a wetter environment with ferns and bright green moss climbing up trees. We also crossed a creek that had flowing water. Later we crossed a second creek with a bit of stagnant water. The hike was mostly through the woods with one open area where we could look out to Buena Vista Peak. It still looked to be a long way- and it was. This was a 12.8 mile day and having started after noon we knew we needed to hustle to arrive before sunset.

Wetter terrain here near the creek bed and a different biome than in the valley.
Buena Vista Peak looking far away from this open area.

So we kept up a good clip and were glad that the trail was mostly easy and didn’t gain too much elevation until we neared the Chilnualna Lakes. The trail goes by two of the three Chilnualna Lakes. We thought about camping at each of these but knew the scenery was better at Buena Vista so we pushed on.

Easy flat trail here without much undergrowth except for the fire weed.
Erik getting water from the first of the Chilnualna Lakes. Obviously not spectacular scenery and the lake was quite low.

Just before Buena Vista Lake we came out at the intersection with the trail that leads north to Yosemite Valley and got a good view of Half Dome and Mount Starr King.

Sunset with Half Dome and Mount Starr King!
And another one looking east towards the Clark Range.

Ideally we would have lingered longer but it was getting dark. Once we got to Buena Vista Lake we picked our tent site and then headed down to the lake to cook dinner. We got to camp just before 7 pm, barely before the sun set which meant after dinner we put up the tent in the dark. Good thing we had our new stove that boiled water in a jiffy! The nice part about September hiking is that it’s cooler. The downside is the lack of daylight.

Perfect reflections on Buena Vista Lake with the last of the day’s sun.
Day 2 (9/21/21): Buena Vista Lake to Lower Ottoway Lake via the Buena Vista Crest
Day 2 route from Buena Vista Lake on the left to Lower Ottoway Lake on the upper right.
A zoomed-in view of our route on the Buena Vista Crest.

Morning dawned beautiful and relatively warm. After breakfast we hiked up to Buena Vista Pass and then began heading off trail along the Buena Vista Crest. The initial walking was easy- maybe too easy- along large granite slabs and open sandy soil. Just before the summit of Bruce Mountain we hit the boulder field and the remainder of the ridge, at least what we saw, was boulders.

Erik enjoying breakfast at Buena Vista Lake- one of my favorite photos from the trip.
Nice granite slabs for walking. The Buena Vista Crest stretches on in the distance. Unfortunately it was a very hazy day.
If only all off trail hiking were this easy:) Erik walking before we got to the boulderfield on Bruce.
Summit view to the north from Bruce Mountain with a couple lakes in the foreground and Mount Starr King barely visible through the haze.

Once off Bruce Mountain we stayed to the south, hiking along the open sandy soil with occasional rocks. There were also a few bushy areas. I don’t like the alpine bushes- the ones that cover up boulders when I’m going down hill.

The alpine bushes! We contoured to the south of the next bump in the distance.

After contouring around on the south side of a couple bumps, we returned to the ridge for the narrow section to get in some good views and get on some boulders cause we didn’t want this day to be too easy:)

Even though there was no view of the Clark Range (what should be in the upper left of this photo), we still got a good view of the Hoover Lakes. Here the Buena Vista Crest stretches on to the east.
Boulder hopping along the crest. This photo looks back to the west from where we came. There’s a descent drop-off on the north side and a nice slope on the south side for good walking should one not like boulders.

After the ridge we returned to the south side and began contouring north to Merced Pass. Just above Merced Pass we got a great view of Merced Peak and the Clark Range, only it felt like we needed to clean our eyeballs.

Me with Red Peak in the middle and Merced Peak on the right, hardly visible through the haze.

We caught the trail a bit below Merced Pass and took it down to the junction where we then started heading towards the Ottoway Lakes. It was afternoon by now and we were getting warm as we climbed up and then went down a couple times before finally climbing up to Lower Ottoway Lake by 4 pm. Since it was early, or at least early for us, I found a nice deep spot to swim from the northwest peninsula. I meant to dive under but instead spent a long time treading water and trying to breathe before I finally ducked under the surface. Good thing we still had an hour of sunlight to dry off. Meanwhile Erik just jumped in.

Lower Ottoway Lake. Put this on your list!
A couple years ago one of my students got me these socks. Technically they’re supposed to be about gardening but I decided to wear them on this trip and I think Merced Peak frames them nicely.

There were abundant tent sites on the northwest side of the lake and as we cooked and ate dinner out on our peninsula two women joined us on the lake. It was the only time we had company of our three nights out.

I stayed outside for a long time after dark, enjoying the view, the warm night air, and then finally the full moon came up and then I went to bed.

Dinner view.
Day 3 (9/22/21): Out and back to Red Peak Pass and then Lower Ottoway Lake to Royal Arch Lake
Day 3 route.

Had we had an extra day (or had we not done Boundary Peak) we could have done a much sweeter loop, going up and over Red Peak Pass and by Isberg Peak and Fernandez Pass but life is full of trade-offs and so we had to suffice with an out and back to Red Peak Pass.

Hiking up to Red Peak Pass with Lower Ottoway Lake, a full moon, and smoke clouds.

I love high mountain passes and Red Peak Pass did not disappoint. We had some plans of doing Red Peak but we also wanted to do another swim at Lower Ottoway Lake and get to camp before sunset. So when we saw the approach was a solid class 4 from the pass and given it’s not a state high point, we decided to save our energy.

Erik on the nice trail with Upper Ottoway Lake to his south.
Looking up towards Red Peak Pass. Can you guess which one it is? It’s the farthest one to the left. Looks crazy, huh? There were really nice switchbacks. I also love the contrast between the red and gray rocks that was everywhere in this area.
Good old Banner, now seeing it from the west side, in the distant clouds from the north side of Red Peak Pass.
Looking northeast from Red Peak Pass. Very barren landscape.
Red Peak.
Coming down from the south side of Red Peak Pass with Merced Peak and Upper Lake Ottoway. I tried to capture the switchbacks in this photo but they didn’t turn out so well. You can still see them a bit on the lower right.

I did convince Erik we should detour to Upper Ottoway Lake. While not in the trees, there is some camping potential here. This would be a good base camp for anyone going for Merced Peak via the pass that’s due east of the lake. It’s also a short hike should anyone have a base from Lower Ottoway Lake.

Upper Ottoway Lake.
Looking back up to Red Peak Pass, just left of center between the two smaller prominent peaks.

After first lunch, we returned to Lower Ottoway Lake for some late morning swimming. Then we packed up camp and headed back the way we’d come the day before. As we hiked we noted the sky was clearing up and so just before Merced Pass we detoured onto the big granite slabs to appreciate a better view than the day before.

Much clearer Red and Merced Peaks.

Then we disappeared into the trees for the next four hours until we got to Royal Arch Lake a tad before 6 pm. This allowed us to set up our tent, find a dinner spot, cook dinner, and eat dinner all before it got dark. We used the last of daylight to brush our teeth.

Forest walking, albeit sometimes very open forest.
Ferns and trail clearing magic.
Angel hair pasta for dinner at Royal Arch Lake. I also love the trees on the far shoreline.
Day 4 (9/23/21): Buena Vista Lake to Chilnualna Falls Trailhead
From Royal Arch Lake on the right to Chilnualna Falls Trailhead.

At daybreak we were up, taking down the tent and eating breakfast. Then we were off, ready for our 5,000 feet of descent on the day.

Besides a better view, I also figured the water access would be better at Royal Arch Lake, so even though we had to hike almost an extra mile out and back, I knew it would be worth it. The next morning I confirmed that theory as we hiked past Johnson and Crescent Lakes.

Great early morning walking by Johnson Lake.
Johnson Lake was pretty- but water access was lacking.
Crescent Lake. This is not a joke people. The lake was pretty dry- oh- it looked like there were maybe a few river channels out there but don’t camp here in September thinking there will be water (and we almost made that mistake!)

We expected a smooth hike out through the trees but we had our comeuppance in the section of trail just above the Chilnualna Falls Trail where we encountered fire damage and then massive blow-downs. Perhaps we didn’t pick the best route through- Erik liked to walk on the long blow-downs whenever possible- but it took us a very long time to go a mile. It was quite the juxtaposition from the remainder of the very well maintained trail. Erik said we needed something to make the day more challenging.

The trail before we got to the blow-downs. I really dislike walking on overgrown trails where the plants are touching me. That’s what happens when you get poison ivy when you’re seven.
Erik walking along a blow-down.

Finally we were through the blow-downs. We stopped at Chilnualna Falls to dip our feet in the clear pools before heading down to the trailhead. It was hot but we didn’t sweat so much with gravity doing most of the work.

The nice pools just above Chilnualna Falls.

I’d highly recommend this route with an extra day for the Fernandez Pass loop. It’s definitely off the beaten track and as such very easy to get permits. There were lots of open permits when we got ours- probably why we only saw five or six people (unsure if we saw the same guy twice or two different guys).

Mariposa Grove

My GPS track from our epic run- 12.5 miles and 1,931 feet of ascent!

On the second afternoon of my three day conference we did a long run from our hotel up to Mariposa Grove. Technically we were supposed to have reservations to enter Yosemite given COVID but we cheated by entering on the small forest roads. It was National Parks Day so park admission was free anyway. The trees did not disappoint!

Me and a big tree that had fallen over and been cut.
A tree tunnel!
Erik and the clothespin tree.
But perhaps my favorite thing is these trees are so valuable they have fire hydrants around!

I assumed given National Parks Day that there would be throngs of people but due to COVID, it was a 2 mile hike just to get to the first tree in the grove, and an 8 mile walk (or run in our case) to do the whole loop. It was kinda sad that most people weren’t willing to go the distance because these giant trees are astounding.

2 thoughts on “The Nevada High Point and Backpacking Southern Yosemite

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