Section G of the Pacific Crest Trail introduces hikers to the Sierra Nevada, one of the worlds most magnificent alpine ranges. Starting at 5,000 feet at Walker Pass, the trail climbs over 8,451-foot Owens Peak, the keystone summit of the area and the first of the great granite castles of the Sierra. From there the trail ramps gradually up through the meadows and streams of Domelands and Golden Trout wilderness areas, then climbs steeply to the upper flanks of 12,123-foot Olancha Peak, considered the southernmost of the High Sierra peaks. This is a gateway section, giving hikers a taste of the world-class scenery to come.
3 JUNE 2015 (DAY 42)
I snooze in our sunny camp at Walker Pass until past 8:00am, rising to meet my friend Eric (from nearby city Bakersfield) by the highway 178.
He arrives promptly, bearing fruit and brownies and even a surprise 3-L box of cheap wine. To our disappointment, he informs us that he is unable to spend the morning with us in Lake Isabella, as we had casually planned. When he heads back for Bakersfield, Giselle and I stick our thumbs out and manage to catch a ride almost a full hour west to the crusty old town of Lake Isabella. The driver is a kindly old Mexican grandmother who rearranges her day around us so that we might have the opportunity to wash our clothes and dismantle a plate of authentic nachos.
The Mexican grandmother takes us all the way back to Lake Isabella, leaving us at Walker Pass in the sweltering mid-afternoon heat. Nothing to do but wipe our brows, strap the awkward yet delicious box of wine to my pack, and officially begin our journey into the vast and spectacular Sierra Nevada.
More than a little familiarized with long arduous climbs such as this one, we make short work of the 1,500 vertical feet up to Morris-Jenkins Saddle (6,300-ft).
From the saddle we contour the east flank of craggy 7,921-ft Jenkins Peak, our objective for tomorrow. As the sun dips artistically below the mountain, the wind increases severely, howling at an uninhibited 60-mph through the wildfire-scarred hillsides.
The alarming onset of incessant gales makes us understandably anxious about finding camp. Among such rugged unforgiving terrain, we flatten out a patch of dirt big enough for the tent, wisely utilizing the final half-hour of daylight to construct a solid rock wall.
Ignoring the incredible convolutions performed by our little tent that night, we stay fine and cozy with bellies full of warm red wine.
4 JUNE 2015 (DAY 43)
The windstorm disturbs my slumber at 4:30am; instead of trying to fall back asleep I lie back and watch the precious orange sunrise through the flapping gap of the tent.
Our righteous reward for enduring such a horrendously cold and windy night is an inspiring view of the East Buttress of Owens Peak. Standing at 8,488 feet elevation, this awe-inspiring battlement of long-awaited Sierra granite is the undisputed monarch of the region.
At 6:30am I finally wake Giselle; we pack up and hit the trail as it contours 1.5 miles around the precipitous east flank of Jenkins Peak.
After an hour of walking we find ourselves on the narrow east ridge of Jenkins Mountain, where we drop our rucksacks and make the short exciting scramble up to the 7,921-foot summit.
We follow a faint climbers trail to the base of the broken granite wall that guards the topmost ridgeline.
The final pitch up to the top crest presents an enjoyable array of class-3 and class-4 maneuvers.
The summit ridgeline of Jenkins Peak truly is a striking feature. Trending due north, the crest is built of narrow granite blocks – a short yet defined blade of stone protruding from the conifer forest.
It’s hard to imagine Owens Peak displayed more magnificently than from our 7,921-foot perch atop neighboring Jenkins Peak.
At 11:00am we descend Jenkins Peak, find our stashed rucksacks and follow the PCT for two miles to Owens-Jenkins Saddle at 7,200 feet.
Along the way we chance upon Dude and Genie, two giggling westerners sharing a pot of tea in the midday heat. All the while I gaze excitedly at the bumpy ridge that traces up to the summit of Owens Peak.
We set our rucksacks I’m the shade lf a pinyon tree and energetically start the 1,200-foot ascent from saddle to mountaintop.
The route is fantastic, following the exposed class-2 south ridge all the way up, skirting cliff faces, cutting back and forth across the crest, and finally ascending a narrow scree gully to the summit platform.
At 3:00pm we crown the 8,488-foot summit, highest piece of earth for dozens of miles around. The small summit platform allows unrestricted views in all directions.
The air is completely calm as I lean back on a comfortable boulder, situating myself nicely to identify the granite peaks alogned northward along the Sierra crest. Directly beneath us are the shorter pinnacles of the Spanish Needles and Lamont Peak; beyond that, the unmistakable forms of Olancha Peak and snow-capped Mount Langley mark the beginning of the High Sierra.
The two of us descend in order to retrieve our rucksacks at Owens-Jenkins saddle, preparing a feast of crackers and red wine before rejoining the PCT.
Here the PCT makes a knee-jarring 2,000-foot descent for the purpose of visiting a nasty-looking mosquito-infested trough.
We fill our bottles and press on, the sun casting it’s faithful late-day glow across the dappled crags. Across a span of some four miles we march up and over two successive saddles at 5,200-feet and at 5,850-feet.
We pitch our tent on the second saddle, which is located at mile 667. The peaks around us are nothing more than mysterious silhouettes to be better viewed in daylight.
5 JUNE 2015 (DAY 44)
Sure enough the surrounding summits decorate the landscape in a rugged way: hundred-foot pillars of grey granite protruding from the steep forested ridgeline. At the crack of dawn we brew coffee and hit the trail, descending 750 vertical feet to obtain water from the trickly mupuddle of Spanish Needle Creek.
The remainder of the morning is spent climbing 2,000 vertical feet in switchbacks up to the main Sierra crest. The Spanish Needles serve to punctuate the defined horizon line.
Now we find ourselves back above 7,000 feet on Lamont Saddle, positioned well to enjoy a few hours of scrambling around on the Spanish Needles. There appear to be over a dozen distinguishable needles ranging from 7,400-ft to 7,900-ft.
We fill up on snacks and begin traversing the ribs and chutes below the sheer granite walls. The going is tedious due to a superabundance of slippery scree; Giselle lags behind a good distance.
Eventually one of the chutes appeals to us, and we scramble straight up it to the 7,400-foot crest. From here we climb atop a 7,450′ needle, look south, and make the realization that the terrain of the Spanish Needles is far more rugged and complex than it appears to be from the PCT.
We attempt to traverse just below the main crest, but soon determine that there is an unsafe amount of loose rock. Carefully we return to our original chute and descend to the base of the needles. We have just enough time to bag one more of these fantastic summits. A remarkable burst of motivation propels us across the scree and quickly up another chute. A final block of class-4 climbing brings me to this exposed 7,550-foot pinnacle.
When we arrive back at our rucksacks on Lamont Saddle, we are delighted to find our friends Dragonfly and Galaxy sitting cross-legged, preparing their suppers on the sun-drenched grass. During sunset Giselle and I walk the scenic 3-mile ridge line to Lamont Flat. Looking west I spot the complimentary 7,500-ft sentinels called Lamont Peak and Lamont Point. The scene looks positively Scottish – and in fact the name “Lamont” is taken from a region in Scotland.
When we reach Lamont Flat (elevation 6,900 feet) we decide it’s time to make camp. We stomp off into the nearby forest and fashion an appropriate base-camp for an ascent of Lamont Point tomorrow morning.
6 JUNE 2015 (DAY 45)
We wait for the sun’s rays to strike the broad east flank of Lamont Point before launching a rapid class-2 ascent on the craggy 7,621-foot summit.
It’s a simple 700-foot bushwhack culminating dramatically at a moderate-sized granite tower. To achieve the true 7,621-foot summit of Lamont Point, one must summon the courage to make “The Leap” – a whimsy little three-foot gap with a perilous consequence for failure. I easily skip across the gap and dangle my feet off the edge of the outrageous cliffs. The attractive turrets of Lamont Peak stand above the pastoral valley below.
Views from the 7,621-foot summit of Lamont Point extend from the hazy blue San Gabriel skyline (south) to the snow-covered High Sierra (north).
Most impressive of all is the view of the north pinnacles of Lamont Peak, standing at roughly the same elevation as the Point on which we stand, well known to serious rock climbers in California.
At 10:00am we come down off Lamont Point, fetch our rucksacks and follow the PCT on its mind-numbing thousand-foot descent to Chimney Creek. We can no longer ignore the frightening storm-clouds that are accumulating to the west, but nothing to do other than hike onward.
Water sources are almost dangerously spaced from one another along this section of the PCT. When the opportunity presents itself, we fetch water from a crystal-clear pool adjacent to Chimney Creek.
The storm-clouds mostly dissipate, allowing us to continue up Fox Mill Canyon beneath sunny skies. This portion of the PCT ascends 2,500 vertical feet in less than four miles.
We steal our last glance back south at the Owens Peak Wilderness before entering a large zone of burned forest on an elevated 8,000-ft plateau.
From this 8,000-ft plateau we are awarded our first full view of the incredible Domelands skyline standing above Rockhouse Basin.
Halfway down the 2,000-ft descent to the basin bottom, I begin to develop nasty hotspots on my toes. “Could these be the beginnings of my first blisters thus far on the PCT?” I thought to myself. Miraculously I stagger through the rest of the descent and flop out onto the big open meadows of Rockhouse Basin. Almost all of the clouds from the afternoon storm threat have departed; it’s a worry-free night for us at mile 694 knowing that we have a mere ten miles left to Kennedy Meadows.
7 JUNE 2015 (DAY 46)
It’s such a glorious morning in Rockhouse Basin, I can’t help but smile to the sun with hot bowl of oatmeal in palms. It doesn’t take long for our damp overnight gear to dry under the bright blue sky.
Just past 8:00am we pack up and hit the trail, crossing all four miles of Rockhouse Basin at a steady elevation of 5,800 feet. The constant panorama of Domelands is a fantastic distraction for the otherwise monotonous trail. Unfathomable clusters of bulging granite domes pop in and out of our view as we hike north.
Around mid-morning we enter the miniature canyon of the South Fork Kern River.
We’re delighted to be able to wade into a real-life flowing creek. We relax on the grassy riverbanks, fill our water-bottles, and climb to the lip of the canyon. From this point we are able to see for many miles north across the broad Kennedy Meadows. All meadows and valleys seem to align toward the dominant 12,123-foot pyramid of Olancha Peak.
Thus far on the Pacific Crest Trail, the most talked-about rest stop is the tiny highland community of Kennedy Meadows. The reasons for which it is talked about are probably best not discussed on this website, but rest assured that it is a highly unique place.
As if from a movie, Giselle and I are greeted by raucous applause and outrageous chimpanzee noises. Somewhat-recognizable voices are heard shouting, “It’s Crayon and In The Works! Yeah!” as we march heroically up the front steps. Everybody’s out on the patio having a rip-roaring drunken time; we’ll join the festivities but first we’ve gotta pick up our pre-dropped food boxes from the mailroom out back.
Overall, Kennedy Meadows provides a good time for us. It’s hard not to be happy sitting around a big laughing table of homies with a hot juicy hamburger in your grimy palms. Giselle and I spring for a six-pack of Mojave Gold Lager and drink out on the deck with all the characters.
The table in the smack-dab center is easily identified as the rowdy table. It’s all the same drunken party characters that you find at any PCT town, but they’re acting extra crazy here on the patio, engaging in what appears to be an informal contest of one-upmanship in bodily modifications.
A small group has elected to stab the words “Hiker Trash” into their upper thighs using nothing more than basic art ink on the end of a flimsy stick taken from the forest.
A new trail name (and a timeless story) is born when one hiker mistakenly carves “Wail’d It” into his thigh when he’d intended, “Nail’d It”.
A zany Canadian fellow named Wishbone decides to shave his long hair into a skullet without seeming to give a second thought about it. Wail’d It steps in to deliver the finishing touches.
With such an exuberance of madness and hilarity, the General Store patio plays host to all sorts of bizarre shenanigans long into the wee hours of morning. When the time comes to catch a wink of rest, I simply roll out my sleeping bag alongside the others and it’s a wonderful night on the deck all together.
8 JUNE 2015 (DAY 47)
Hiking out from the General Store with some degree of hangover is practically a given at Kennedy Meadows. All smiles headed for the high country!
Giselle and I meet up with Max once again, thus reuniting the magic mountainclimbing trio for yet another adventurous stretch.
The three of us hike together for a period of four hours, pausing routinely to drink from the clear waters of the Kern River.
By 7:00pm we’re climbing steadily up through Clover Meadow; the whitened sun retreats lazily behind Crag Peak.
We continue hiking past nightfall, fully determined to make camp at the top of 8,000-foot Crag Pass, which is mile 712 on the PCT.
9 JUNE 2015 (DAY 48)
Early in the morning we pack up camp and tromp down to Beck Meadow, excited at the prospect of making an ascent of the class-3 southwest face of 12,123-foot Olancha Peak later in the day. It is the most prominent landmark of the southern Sierra, a pitch black pyramid standing high above all else.
It takes us two hours to cross Beck Meadow. We relax and drink tea with a big sprawling group of thru-hikers at the charming Swallow Bridge. (Side note: this bridge wins my unofficial award of most over-rated point of interest on the PCT. No photo included here… no need).
In order to skirt the west shoulder of Olancha Peak, the PCT ascends a whopping 2,400 vertical feet up Cow Canyon.
Above the headwaters of Cow Creek, we climb to the top of a 10,500-foot knob on the west shoulder of Olancha Peak. This is technically the highest point achieved on the PCT going north; there are excellent westward views into the Golden Trout Wilderness.
The great mass of Olancha Peak beckons us further up its sparsely-forested upper slopes. Raindrops burst from the grey ceiling, landing heavy and cold on our chilled skin. Max decides to skip out on the climb of Olancha Peak; we’ll meet up with him a couple days later in Lone Pine.
Despite the onset of dismal soppy rain, Giselle and I decide to try to climb Olancha Peak anyway just to get our kicks. We stash our rucksacks on the west shoulder and begin hopping up the mountainside from boulder to boulder.
Dwarf pine trees give way to big bare boulders around 11,300 feet, and already we’re stoked to be so far above everything else in sight.
As we scramble higher above treeline, the steepening of the mountainside is accompanied by thickening of fog. The giant wobbly talus boulders are now coated in a slick film of water; we try not to entertain any thoughts of slipping or tumbling.
The weather conditions deteriorate so much as we scramble higher that it’s actually snowing on the 12,123-foot summit plateau! Despite the very poor visibility, we stand shivering in pure amazement of the size of the eastern escarpment, which is somehow exaggerated by the bottomless soup of fluid grey fog.
We manage to play tough for almost twenty minutes on the summit, at one point even taking shelter from a spurt of hail under a large boulder but refusing to abandon the potential of a summit view.
As if by miracle, our diligence is rewarded with a perfect clearing of sky that happens to pass directly over the mountaintop. The whitened (saline) Owens Valley lies far below us, stretching eastward as an impossibly horizontal plane of alkaline lake basins and pathetic turquoise reservoirs. For a few magical minutes, the two of us are free to scramble to all of the most outrageous cliff ledges and pinnacles that we can find.
When we ultimately determine that our half-frozen extremities can finally endure not a single gust more of the howling wind, we start scampering back down to our rucksacks. We must be careful not to scamper too quickly, however, because nearly every single granite surface on the southwest face of Olancha Peak is at maximum slickness under these weathe conditions.
Our plan from here is to continue several miles along the PCT, but we don’t get far before we are forced to make camp when another rainstorm breaks out. We bundle up for a sub-freezing night above 9,600 feet complete with wind, rain and hail.
10 JUNE 2015 (DAY 49)
It takes a little while for all of our gear to dry out from the overnight storm, but we’re content ourselves to sip coffee and warm our bones.
Shortly before 8:00am we pack up and hit the trail, beginning with a scenic stomp down to the bottom of Gomez Meadow.
We shuffle our frigid bodies through the dewey forest, desperately trying to warm ourselves up.
It’s possible for me to ignore cold hands and climb through the discomfort… but impossible for me to ignore a handsome boulder problem.
The PCT here meanders through a series of nondescript meadows, each accented by stunt granite walls and gorgeous crystal-laden boulders. The fragrance of dewey pine needle is thick in the air.
Climbing steeply up to a 10,600-foot crest, we take a moment to glance south over our shoulder at Olancha Peak. We note that the weather looks similar today as it did yesterday when we visited the 12,123-foot summit grounds.
We stop for a water break with some of the Homies in Death Canyon, filtering out of a revolting puddle of red algae that I elect not to depict in photo here (but apparently I elect to drink it anyhow…)
Beneath a thick grey ceiling of cloud, the first major peaks of the High Sierra (namely the Mount Langley massif) dip in and out of our view. Needless to say, our pace quickens at the thought of reaching those great heights promptly.
By 1:00pm we reach an outstanding point of interest on the PCT: an exposed section of ridgeline that hosts the only cellphone service for over ten miles in either direction. Call it the PCT Internet Café if you please.
At 3:30pm, the first lightening flashes illuminate the sky above us. Giselle and I realize that we are three-quarters of the way up to a 10,600-foot pass, and if we can surmount this pass, we can descend safely to Horseshoe Meadow on the other side. To our amazement, some thru-hikers are actually running backwards on the trail, seeking immediate shelter! Yet the two of us skip energetically to the top of the craggy pass and over, whistling through the violent gales. Snow is now accumulating on the higher peaks around us, and the storm is not showing signs of letting up.
We set ourselves feverishly to the singular goal of making it to Horseshoe Meadow as fast as possible, so that we will be on time for our arranged meeting with Casey and his father Jon. Our timing comes into question when the forest floor slowly accumulates a layer of yucky wet snow, reducing our walking speed greatly.
When at last we finally reach the snowy flatland of Horseshoe Meadow, our legs have taken the consistency of gelatin. Both Giselle and I confess to feeling chilled to the bone (for the temperature could not have risen above 50*F all day) – not to mention the discomfort generated by my beaten-up hiking shoes (riddled with holes) that have been thoroughly soaked beyond overnight salvation.
In short, we drag ourselves to Horseshoe Meadow and arrive in rough shape. After a discussion of itinerary (while waiting for Casey and Jon to show) we came to the conclusion that we ought to take a ride down to Lone Pine in order to clean up and get ourselves ready for our upcoming ten-day stretch to Independence.
We don’t go down to Lone Pine that evening, however, because we have planned for Casey to stay overnight and spend the following day exploring the high country with us. He arrives in the middle of the night carrying an enormous bundle of firewood; he and I stay up nearly until sunrise stoking the fire and enjoying the company of one another.
11 JUNE 2015 (DAY 50)
Our first day spent in the high country with Casey starts exactly how I’d dreamed: giant pots of coffee on the fire (like old men) and deep conversation in the long grass by the river (like little boys). Its refreshing to see Casey out in his element!
Once we’ve got everything packed up, we embarked on a aimless walk through the forest, admiring strange colorful flowers and stretching ourselves horizontal on gargantuan logs of fallen pines. We ramble up the Cottonwood Lakes trail, pausing at a phenomenal little creek-bend meadow to rest and meditate.
Our patience for the trail did not last much longer beyond this point; instead we play “point-a-peak” on the crags above us and dedicate the afternoon to climbing a 11,123-foot granite spur that we named China Peak after its vague resemblance to the forested cliffs of a Chinese silk painting.
From the summit we enjoy outstanding views of Mount Langley – the southernmost of California’s fourteeners, and our first major objective in the High Sierra.
In keeping with our off-trail adventure, Casey leads us down a risky little chute that nearly traps us into a dead-end… but with simple goodnatured adventure perseverance we find a safe chimney passage that deposits us on the forest floor. From there it’s a singing whistling three-mile jog downtrail to Horseshoe Meadow where Casey’s father is blissfully awaiting our return among the wet fragrant pines.
Altogether the four of us drive down to the Owens Valley. Casey and his father continue north to their home in Mammoth, while Giselle and I managed to score a free night at the Mount Whitney Hostel in Lone Pine. We’ll get our bodies rested, meet up with Max, and begin making plans for our prompt return to the High Sierra.
END OF SECTION G