Sunday, August 12, 2007

High Sierra, clean air

High alpine lake in the Sierras' Kaiser Wilderness Area

Katie in prototypical Sierra boulders

Another alpine lake in the Kaiser Wilderness
If you live in Montana you don’t usually think of California as a place to go for clear, clean air.
But I’m here to tell you that the freshest air I’ve breathed in recent years was in the High Sierra Mountains last week between Yosemite and Kings Canyon national parks.
My wife, Katie, and I vacationed at the site of her family’s former cabin area at Huntington Lake, about 70 miles east of Fresno.
In escaping the mountain fires that have smoked up the Great Plains and Great Falls all summer, we found crisp, pure air and the bluest of skies. Temperatures reached the mid-70s during the day and were in the 30s at night; Perfect sleeping weather.
When we got back to Great Falls the city was covered in the smoky pall of the Ahorn, Meriwether, and Fool Creek fires to the west and south. Temperatures were back in the 90s.
This has been a hellish summer here.
We concentrated on the Kaiser Wilderness Area in the Sierra National Forest, to the east of Huntington Lake.
Huntington Lake is a recreational paradise. It is an impoundment of Big Spring Creek, which is one of the streams that feeds the fantastic California water system that keeps Los Angeles in drinking water, and provides irrigation for the powerful agriculture industry in the Central Valley.
The wilderness area is small by Montana standards, about 22,000 acres, but abuts other national forest lands that rise to the high Sierra peaks.
The wilderness area is not overcrowded because a permit is required to camp overnight in the backcountry. A horse concession services the main trails and even the highest point in the area, Kaiser Peak (elevation: 10,380 feet).
There is a main, loop trail of about 15 miles that allows a hiker to climb the peak (a 3,400 feet gain) and traverse the western half of the wilderness.
A complex of alpine lake sits on the eastern half of the wilderness.
Big trees everywhere
My wife and I climbed Kaiser on a good trail directly up from a Forest Service campground. Then, coming off the peak, we traversed off trail into the lakes region, dropping about 1,000 feet down to Lake George and then Upper and Lower Twin Lakes. Then it was trail up through Potter Pass and back to the campground.
Along the way we encountered giant Ponderosa, Redwood and Sequoia trees, as well as enormous granite outcroppings and rocks, the distinctive markings of the Sierra Mountains.
On top of Kaiser Peak we were able to look into the adjacent national parks and attempted to identify the high peaks in the distance to the east. We spied 7 different lakes from the summit ridgeline and top. To the west, Huntington Lake spread out below some 3,400 feet below.
We encountered only one hiker on the trail coming out of the wilderness early in the morning. We also saw several parties at Lake George and the Upper Twin Lake, but no one else on the trail back to camp.
I liked this area well enough that I did the Kaiser Loop Trail, going clockwise from Kinnickinnick Campground the following day. I set out at 8:30 a.m., and hit the top of Kaiser Peak at 1:30 p.m., and was back in camp by 4:30 p.m.
I saw one other couple on top, and passed a Boy Scout troop hiking to Nellie Lake on the way up.
Hardly crowded.
My suggestion to anyone visiting this area is to buy the Forest Service Kaiser Wilderness Area map for $10. I made the mistake of buying a Huntington Lake USGS based map in Fresno produced by National Geographic. New trails have been cut, and old ones abandoned that are not indicated on the National Geographic map, which is far inferior to the Forest Service map.


Anonymous said...

sounds spectacular, tom. i'd love to know where you steyd on the lake, as we are looking for something comfortable and us, a 30 something couple, plus a 15 month old. is there a little beach? and places to eat?
thank you so much, kelley

Out there with Tom said...

We stayed at Kinnickinick campground, although there are a couple of nice lodges and cabin sites there. One is the Huntington Lake Lodge, the other Cedar Crest. Yes, there is a little beach, too. And, the lodge has a fine restaurant.'

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