Thursday, April 19, 2012

Introduction to Backpacking Evolution Valley, Basin and Le Conte Canyon

Evolution Valley and Le Conte Canyon are some of the wildest parts in California and the Pacific Crest Trail. Bound by 11,000 and 12,000ft passes, it is the platonic ideal of wilderness and is the best backpacking destination in the Sierra Nevada.
Backpacking Evolution Valley
The Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail are on every backpacker's bucket list. Months of hiking from Mexico to Canada through deserts, mountains and forests of the west is the ideal vacation. However most of us also have full time jobs, families, bad joints and other commitments which aren't exactly conducive to 2,600 miles! So if you're looking for an ultimate wilderness backpacking destination that won't take months to do, I'd like to present Evolution Valley and Le Conte Canyon.

Located in King's Canyon National Park, these canyons are perhaps the furthest you can travel from civilization in California. First of all, the drive to get to the trail head will likely test the limits of your car. Second of all, it is a 2 to 3 day walk from the trail head just to get to these destinations. This, combined with the extreme elevation changes makes this the ultimate wilderness. Nevertheless, the towering mountains, clear streams, ancient glaciers and alpine lakes make it all worthwhile. I've encountered just a few places in this country which match the serenity and solitude you could experience deep in the heart of the Sierras.
Crossing Evolution Creek at 10,800ft
Most folks who travel through here are on the John Muir Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. The John Muir Trail itself is mostly the same as the PCT but I consider it like the "Best of the Sierra Nevada" trail. The southern portion of the JMT goes through King's Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and this is the most isolated part of the entire PCT. Backpackers have to pack almost a whole week of food to get through these sections as there are no re-supply locations for 100 miles. Therefore, the importance of preparedness and self-reliability cannot be overstated in this part of the Sierras.

If you're looking at making a trip just out of this section, there are several option all with their own advantages and disadvantages.

The map above should give you a good reference for the area. The blue line follows the PCT/JMT while the red lines indicate access trails. If you click the link, exact distances can be calculated. The John Muir Map Pack also has an excellent overview of the area.

Overview of Trail Heads, Routes and Entry Points 

Specific details on each route and backpacking logistics will be elaborated in future posts. There are no easy entry points and each has its advantages and disadvantages. The only access from the West is Jackass Meadow. From the East, there are 4 options but all involve traveling over 11,000ft passes. The starting elevation of each trail is included.
  • Jackass Meadow and Muir Trail Camp (7,200ft): Located on Florence Lake on the Western side of the Sierras, this location is the closest and "easiest" entry point for Evolution Valley. This campground is located about 90 miles from Fresno, CA and at the end of the infamous Kaiser Pass Road. This is a difficult and somewhat harrowing road that penetrates deep into the mountains. A 4x4 would be highly recommended. From here you take a water taxi to the 4.7 mile lost valley trail and Muir Trail Ranch.
  • Bishop Pass Trailhead (South Lake Trailhead) (9,800ft): This is the preferred entry point from the Eastern Sierras and is located 22 miles from Bishop, CA. The Bishop Pass Trail s 11.6 miles and is a grueling trek over the 11,972ft Bishop Pass. Its a popular route in the summer and although its the closest entry point for this part of the Pacific Crest Trail, it is very steep and challenging. You also must consider that the starting elevation gives you little time to acclimate.
  • Pine Creek Trailhead (7,900ft): This trailhead is also 22 miles from Bishop, CA and is 18.3 miles from the PCT/JMT trail through Evolution Valley. From here, the trail climbs over Pine Creek Pass at 11,100ft. Its a much longer approach than the Muir Trail Camp approach but much easier to get to from the East side. Also, the road is much easier to drive than the Kaiser Pass Road.
  • Piute Pass Trailhead (9,400ft): The Piute Pass trail brings you to the same point on the PCT/JMT as the Pine Creek Trail but starts much higher and is slightly gentler. It brings you over Piute Pass at 11,423ft and is 15.7 miles from the PCT/JMT. 
  • Taboose Pass Trailhead (5,500ft): This is the most isolated and roughest trailhead of the bunch. For folks who would like to go through the Upper Basin, Palisade Basin, the Golden Staircase and Le Conte Canyon, its closer than the others. However the elevation gain is insane and the parking lot is located at the end of an especially rough 4x4 trail. It is 10 miles from the trail head to the PCT/JMT and over Taboose Pass at roughly 11,500ft. 33 miles from Bishop, CA.
The insane, single-lane Kaiser Pass Road
As you can see, the incredible challenge of getting to Evolution Valley adds to the allure of hiking through it. You can be confident that anyone who's out there with you is every bit as much of a hard-core backpacker as you. I can confidently say that I've never traveled through a place that was further from any trace of civilization than my trek through Evolution Valley and Le Conte Canyon.

This is an introductory post with details on each route to come. Stay posted!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hiking the Chiquito Trail and Falls, Riverside County

Perfect 10 mile spring hike near Lake Elsinore, California
A classic hike in the Santa Ana Mountains of Orange and Riverside Counties
I lead somewhat of a double-life, split between both coasts. While I'm at school up in Maine, I have roots in Northern and Southern California which means I'm headed back to the West Coast with every break. The wonderful part of this is that I get to post about local hikes near several cities in the Northeast and the West. So if you're following my quest to climb New England's 50 Finest and 4,000-footers, this will be a brief respite. For my West Coast friends, here's a great place to hike in the spring!

Trailhead Location 
The Chiquito Trail is a well-marked trail running though Cleavland National Forest which preserves the Santa Ana Mountains of Orange County and Riverside County. Despite its proximity to major metropolitan centers, these mountains are usually free of crowds and offer a nice bit of serenity close to home. The trailhead is on the Ortega Highway (State Highway 74) which cuts through the mountains between the counties.

Here is the trail head location on Google Maps. It is located just across the way from Ortega Oaks Campground and Candy Store. Its well marked and there is plenty of parking. If you're in the South Orange County area, you would take the 5 South to San Juan Capistrano and take Highway 74 east. From the Riverside area, you would head south on the 15 to Lake Elsinore and take Highway 74 West. This is an amazing drive with many precipitous ledges. Fortunately there are some turnouts so you can enjoy the scenery!
The first part of the hike is shady
Trail Map

The hike begins by paralleling the highway until you come to the San Juan Falls which is more than likely the only waterfall which will be flowing. This gorge is dramatic and a short distance from the trailhead which is a great way to start! From here, it follows the river down a significant amount of elevation for about a mile. This part is shady and has chaparral and Coastal Oaks with some hints of the inland desert. It feels quintessentially So-Cal which is nice if you've been away for a while!

Just past a mile, you will start seeing several turnoffs which appear to be trails. This section is tricky because not all of the turnoffs will bring you to Chiquito Falls. There is one turnoff that is marked with a forest service sign. This trail will take you into an adjacent canyon which bears in a northwesterly direction. From here, it is roughly 4 miles to the falls.
Look for the turnoff sign.
The hike through the canyon is your last bit of shade for a while. Pay close attention to the trail as it is ambiguous in some sections. Also pay attention to speedy mountain bikers who favor this area for more technical riding.

The trail will soon leave the shade and take you up the canyon walls. This is steep and very exposed to the sun; bring plenty of water! There are only a few sections of shade which make good lunch breaks. After about 3 miles of hiking up this ridge line, you'll come to the top of the ascent and will see the next-door canyon with Chiquito Falls. The next mile to the falls is a nice descent with views of the Ortega Highway and Santiago Peak. At times you can see the waterfall itself. There is a small turnoff from the trail which will take you to the falls.
Southern California Chaparral
A word about Chiquito Falls... it will only be flowing during the spring and only after heavy rains.
Otherwise it is a little trickle of water. Even without the sight of a waterfall, the hike is enjoyable. Its best to visit in the early spring after a large storm. Generally, its too hot to hike in the summer.

Total distance is about 10 miles round trip. There's a significant amount of elevation gain and loss both ways. Also, the trail can be quite rough in some areas; might want to wear a pair of boots or sturdy trail runners. There are no purified water sources on the trail. Lastly, make sure you pay $5 for the Forest Service Adventure Pass- they can ticket you without it!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!