Kaiser Peak P1K

Fri, Oct 15, 2010

With: Steve Sywyk

Etymology

Kaiser Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

Kaiser Peak is the highpoint of the Kaiser Wilderness, a 10,000-foot island on the western side of the Sierra in the heart of the Sierra National Forest. It is most easily reached from Huntington Lake and SR168, accessible year-round thanks to plowing done to reach the nearby ski resort. I had driven by the area on many trips up SR168 to reach Lake Thomas Edison and Florence Lakes, staging areas for the surrounding peaks in the John Muir Wilderness, but never stopping to visit this one. The first snow of the season had fallen in the Sierra 10 days earlier, much of it melting off, but some still lingering around the higher peaks. Kaiser Peak seemed a good choice due to its lower elevation and southern approach, assuring we would find no hindrance due to the snow.

Steve and I left San Jose shortly after 2a, zipping across the Central Valley on our way to Huntington Lake, stopping only for gas and some caffeinated sodas at the Pilot station north of Madera. We had no trouble finding our trailhead after a turn off SR168 at the north end of the lake, and eventually near the end of Upper Dear Creek Lane. A simple but effective sign indicates the small hiker lot that can hold up to six vehicles comfortably. Our timing was quite good for lighting - though we used our headlamps to get ourselves organized and ready for the hike, they were unnecessary as we started off some ten or fifteen minutes later, shortly before 6:45a. It was 37 degrees when we started, but it seemed much warmer than that due to the lack of any wind. Steve started in his t-shirt while I had a fleece on, but the latter only lasted about 15 minutes before I grew too warm.

A faint trail leads from the north end of the parking lot up about 50 yards to the main Kaiser Loop Trail that we intended to use. At a junction not far from the D&F Pack Station we turned left and started the uphill climb of the Kaiser Loop towards Kaiser Peak. Entering the Kaiser Wilderness, daybreak came soon after, some clouds on the eastern horizon adding some color to the morning ritual. It is not a hard climb, the trail switchbacking sufficiently to make it easier for humans and pack animals alike. Not long after 8a we reached College Rock, a short 50yd excursion to the right off the main trail. Our first effort to find a way up was less than successful on the north and northeast side of the rock outcropping, but eventually we found the easy class 3 route on the west side.

There is a very fine set of views from the summit, most notably of Huntington Lake to the south. To the east could be seen some of the higher points on the Mono Divide, a hint of the High Country that lies beyond the forested hills in that direction.

We continued up the trail, emerging from the forest onto the more barren slopes above 9,500ft. The trail plateaus here for a short while, making for a very delightful walk with grand views the rest of the way to the summit. We stopped for a break at a saddle southeast of the summit, the first really good view of the high peaks along the Sierra Crest. One can see Ritter just peeking through a break on the ridgeline ahead, but to the east is a 120 degree view of peaks from Mammoth Mtn in the north and south to Red Slate, Red & White, the Silver Divide, the Abbot group, the tip of Mt. Humphreys, and portions of the Glacier Divide on the northern boundary of SEKI National Park. Lake Thomas Edison was easily visible to the east, lying below the high peaks.

Another half hour on the trail brought us to the trail junction just below the summit, less than a minute from the top. We arrived at the summit around 9:45a under mostly blue skies, some picturesque clouds still hanging over the range to the southeast, and a light breeze. The temperatures were very compfortable for hiking, nearly ideal the whole day. At the summit one quickly gets a feel for how small this Wilderness island is, with a radius of about 5 miles north and south, a bit more looking east and west. The Central Valley is as prominently displayed as the Sierra Crest. It would make a lovely view spot for a night hike with the lights of the valley stretched out north to south for 100 miles looking west. One can see the southern boundary of Yosemite National Park to the north along with the Ritter Range. Balloon dome stands out prominently to the north below these other peaks as it rises above a main juncture of the San Joaquin River. I was particularly curious to see this view since I had been to Balloon Dome with Matthew only a few weeks before. Between it and Kaiser was the prominent Mt. Tom (not to be confused with the much higher Mt. Tom near Bishop), it's lookout tower clearly visible. The Sierra Crest covered the views from the northeast through the southeast, a much clearer day than I've seen most of the summer.

I didn't really expect to find a summit register here, guessing it was too popular a hike to hold one for very long. So it was no surprise that the register we did find went back only a month. It had been placed by the San Diego Sierra Club duo of Richard Carey and Mark Adrian. The last visitor was from the previous week and presumably the person that left two five dollar bills inside. There was nothing in reading the register to indicate this was so, but we couldn't imagine others leaving the money. I've seen random dollar bills occasionally, sometimes a bit of loose change, but $10? We guessed it was a test to see who could really transcend above materialism when surrounded by so much of the natural world. If so, we failed miserably. I gave one bill to Steve and told him it was a good thing they didn't leave a $10 bill because I would have kept the whole thing. "Really?" Steve replied, almost looking hurt that the lack of premeasured shares would have kept me from equitably distributing the booty. It's a cruel world.

We were on our way again twenty minutes later, heading west along the Loop Trail as it follows the ridgeline in that direction. This is the nicest part of the whole loop, easy walking and swell views all around. The trail makes a detour on its way down that gives one a nice view of Kaiser Peak's more impressive NW Face. There was a bit of snow lingering on the ground in the shady places along the trail here, but we had seen very little of the stuff all morning. As the trail nears Peak 9,658ft at the west end of the ridgeline, it begins to veer south as it starts dropping back down towards Huntington Lake. We were soon in the forest and would remain so for the remainder of the hike, without any of the clearings that afforded nice views on our ascent.

Our conversation switched from discussions of the mountains and the views to more important topics like politics and teenagers and whether U-Verse is a better deal than cable. We passed by a number of additional trail junctions, most nicely marked. We met up with a solo backpacker who had stopped to enjoy his lunch before we interrupted him. He had a southern-sounding accent but hailed from Indiana which launched us on a discussion of settlements in the midwest, the Civil War, and related topics. It was clear in the first 30 seconds that our new friend was quite the history buff beyond us, rattling off the statehood dates of various states in so casual a manner that you'd have thought everyone was expected to know this. I interrupted the topic only briefly to comment, "We just met Mr. History Channel!" In the end we left him to eat his lunch on the log he had chosen for his picnic, the last thing we heard him say as we were walking away was, "I'm sorry, but I'm not going to share my sandwich with you." We didn't know that we had been eyeing it so longingly and found it rather humorous that he would appologize for such a thing.

We crossed a few creeks as the trail contoured along the south side of Kaiser Peak, each with an inviting look as they cascaded through granite pools and small waterfalls. The water was too cold to consider enjoying a swim, however. About a mile from the end we unexpected came upon an unmarked junction. We turned left thinking that was the way to continue the contouring route we'd been on, coming to a small dam and some construction work around a leaking pipe that undoubtedly fed water to some of the nearby cabins by the lake. The trail didn't seem to continue past this point so we returned to the junction where we'd last been sure of the way. A closer examination showed that branches had been laid on the two sides to block the incorrect routes. This was some sort of service road that intersected the trail and was used to access the water source we'd just visited. We then noticed the trail continuing downhill and went off in that direction.

It was about 2:15p when we returned to the parking lot. There were four other vehicles there now. A middle-aged couple were just returning and noticed the license plate on my van - MAXBURD - and commented that they recognized the last name from the signature in the summit register. They had started some hours after us and had gone to the summit, choosing to return the same way. They had been up this way a number of times as locals, and knew the way we went to be less scenic. We managed to get back to San Jose around 6:45p, just after sunset, fifteen minutes ahead of the plan. I had a Scout meeting to go to with my son at 7:30p, so the timing worked out quite nicely. A second cold front was expected to drive across the state in a few days with some fresh snow, this may be my last visit to the Sierra before winter sets in...


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