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Sierra-Nevada Mountains: Hiking through Parker Pass and beyond

Parker Pass Meadow

During the summer of 2009, two friends and I journeyed west to Yosemite National Park to spend five days hiking along the John Muir Trail. The third day of our trip was the first day of our five-day backpacking hike from Yosemite National Park to Reds Meadows Campground. The first day started at the Mono Pass Trailhead within Yosemite National Park and took us through three passes and up to almost thirteen thousand feet in elevation before dropping down to Alger Lakes for the night. The following post chronicles the second of three parts of the first day of the backpacking trip. Starting at the Mono Pass intersection we climbed through the meadow of Parker Pass followed by the beginning of the climb up Parker Peak under increasingly threatening skies.

Upon returning to the intersection we retrieved our backpacks and began hiking down the trail toward Parker Pass (this is a description of our hike from the trailhead to Mono Pass). We crossed the stream running through the meadow to Mono Pass and climbed over a rise to the south. The vegetation was quite different than on the climb up to Mono Pass although the herbaceous ground cover was still very sparse there were now only scraggly pines scattered about.

The majestic Mt. Gibbs rose behind us with Mono Pass at its base. This broad reddish mountain had remained hidden from us from the north when we hiked into Mono Pass but its southern face was on full display now. The mountain was mostly devoid of vegetation with scattered trees only reaching half-way to the summit from the Mono Pass meadow.

Mt Gibbs was not the only mountain within our view. Mt. Lewis remained the most dominant feature to the east while the ever-present Parker, Koip and Kuna Peaks stood in front of us to the south. Kuna Crest stretched out to our west with the reddish lower portions in full contrast with the whiter rock near the summit. Patches of snow were visible upon many of the peaks scattered about us in the distance.

Appearing at the base of Kuna Crest we spotted Spillway Lake. A side trail we passed back prior to reaching the trail to Mono Pass ended at this lake. This was the point at which the bushwhack the ranger suggested back when we got our wilderness permit the previous day would have started (read about how the unavailability of the proper permit forced us to change our plans). This bushwhack would have been a 6 or 7 mile bushwhack from Spillway Lake to Donohue Pass on the John Muir Trail.

Southern shoulder of Mt. Gibbs

Oh, the fantastic bushwhacking opportunities missed! Although this bushwhack may have been an interesting opportunity, the trail we took instead provided more than its share of adventure so it turned out for the best.

Soon the scattered small pine trees gave way to an expansive alpine meadow. The green-tinged meadow with peaks lining both sides unfolded before us with the outline of the trail visible going right down the center and disappearing into the distance. The wide-open spaces in these meadows were deceptive to our eastern US sensibilities making judging distances very difficult. Although it appeared to be a short distance to the opposite end of the meadow it actually turned out to take over an hour for us to traverse.

Mt. Lewis bordered the meadow to the north with Mono Pass lying well out of sight at the base of its northern slope. Kuna Crest remained to the west with Kuna, Koip and Parker Peaks to the south and southeast. Since I was not actively consulting the map I had no idea we would be climbing through the pass between Koip and Parker Peaks at the time. From this vantage point I would not have believed it was possible anyway, at least not without extensive climbing gear.

Hiking through Parker Pass

Kuna Crest from Parker Pass

The landscape of the meadow was almost surrealistic. The ground was covered with numerous differently colored patches from a dark green to tan to gray. The patches of green marked the obviously wetter areas where lush vegetation grew. The gray areas were mostly bare rock where little vegetation could grow. The trail cut a ribbon of brown meandering down the middle of the meadow toward its inevitable destination of Parker Pass. In places the trail cut a six inch deep rut within the meadow vegetation obviously from the many years of heavy use it endured.

Mingled amongst the grasses and rock where numerous types of low-lying herbaceous plants, many displaying brilliantly colored flowers. The scattered yellow, red and violet flowers stood out prominently on the background of gray, green and tan forcing us to stop and admire them for a moment before continuing. The species of most of these delightful plants remained a mystery except for the bright red ones that appeared to be Indian paintbrush.

Indian Paintbrush

Although the trail appeared fairly level it was soon apparent from the slight ache in my legs and the increased frequency of my gasps for air that we were slowly climbing. With the mostly sunny skies and dry conditions I was thankful for carrying the Platypus Big Zip Hydration System. The bladder allowed me to keep well hydrated without constantly removing my backpack as I typically do on most of my bushwhacking trips.

After about a half hour of continual hiking, the signs marking Parker Pass and the Yosemite National Park/Ansel Adams Wilderness border appeared far on the horizon. As we approached the signs the vegetation slowly gave way to more rock and gravel until we reached the signs where few plants grew at all.

The metal sign indicated the elevation of Parker Pass as 11,100 feet above sea level, a record high for me. This record would not stand for long although as within a few hours we would climb nearly two thousand more feet to Koip Pass before finally descending to Alger Lakes for the night.

Parker Pass Sign

Another metal sign indicated Tuolumne Meadows was back 9.8 miles to the northwest. Given all we had seen this day it was hard to believe Dave and I explored Tuolumne Meadows during the previous day’s morning (read about our exploration of Tuolumne Meadows).

After leaving Parker Pass we followed the trail as it descended along a drainage from Spillway Lake and Kuna Peak. Numerous small ponds dotted the landscape here as did many small rushing streams. We seemed to be continually crossing these streams evidently being fed by the many scattered patches of snow higher on the mountain summits. Lush green vegetation grew along the shore of the streams and ponds in contrast to the majority of the area where bare rusty red rocks dominated.

Alpine ponds between Parker Pass and Parker Peak

An alpine pond

At one point the trail came exceptionally close to one of the larger patches of snow. I could not resist the temptation of climbing up onto the snow pack where I stamped my foot into the snow; a small marker of my passing and accomplishments of the day. Leave no trace, remember!

Footprint in the snow

This part of the trail was fairly rugged with numerous short steep scrambles and rocky stream crossings. Numerous times it appeared the trail headed right off a rugged cliff to only find it worked its way down a steep section before continuing on. At these deceptive points would be an outstanding view of the valley to the east with each succeeding view being more impressive than the last.

At one of the many stream crossing we encountered a solo hiker coming from the opposite direction. After his passing we would not see another human being this day, except, of course, for ourselves. Soon after crossing another stream we stopped for lunch since it was well after noon.

Alpine stream

Lunch was a pleasant break and our first substantial one since leaving Mono Pass hours ago. This was our first meal of the backpacking trip and my bear canister
was so crammed full that even after a single lunch I had trouble fitting everything back in.

After finishing lunch we quickly got back on the trail since we had to climb up and over Koip Pass and descend to Alger Lakes before setting up camp for the night. It was a climb of nearly two thousand feet in a relatively short time and easily the most arduous challenge of our entire backpacking trip.

The trail became increasingly more rugged as we began to approach Parker Peak. The trail was nearly on a precipice the entire time with a steep drop off to the east were almost constant stunning views to the east. The diminutive Parker Lake and the larger Grant Lake were in view in addition to the flat Mono Basin far in the distance. Occasionally, part of Mono Lake would come into view to the north peeking around an eastern shoulder of Mt. Lewis.

Precipice at the edge of Parker Peak

View of Mono Basin

Although fluffy cumulous clouds remained scattered over the valley to the east, increasingly darker clouds began to move in overhead. And just in time for our climb to the highest elevation for our entire hike too!

We hoped to avoid any adverse weather conditions on our last climb of the day but unfortunately it was not to be….

Threatening skies near Parker Peak

Climbing Parker Peak

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