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My third and last day in the Horseshoe Meadow area was the easiest of three by design since I had to drive home today.
For some reason I thought the easiest way to climb the first of these, Horseshoe Peak, would be by first taking the trail to Mulkey Pass. It may be the lowest gradient possible, but certainly not the easiest route. From where I started I was only 4/5mi and 1,000ft below the summit which lies to the southeast, but the Mulkey Pass route I followed was more than 3mi in length - it looks like a pretty stupid choice when you look at the map, but fortunately it was a harmless mistake. The cross-country from Mulkey Pass was really easy thanks to the foxtail pines' mysterious ability to kill off pretty much all of the forest understory. They seem to grow well in poor soil and talus slopes, taking centuries of slow growth to reach maturity where they can live for thousands of years. They are a fairly rare tree, but the Southern Sierra seems to be their stronghold. But I digress. In truth I couldn't identify a foxtail pine if my life depended on it (Bill Peters has spent years trying to teach me about trees with little to show for it) and I wouldn't have known these were there if my curiosity didn't get me to do a little research while I was writing this.
After about an hour and quarter hours' effort I found my way to the interesting summit rocks which can be climbed from the northeast side via an easy class 3 route. The easiest route is up a groove found behind the tree (yeah, probably a foxtail pine) that grows on the NE side. A register I found had the peak as "Horseshoe Peak" which seemed appropriate enough so I used it here. Placed in 2009, the register shows it popular for several informal hiking groups: the KRV (Kern River Valley) and OPG (Occasional Peaks Gang), with Nathan Shultz recording 7 ascents and Tom Witte a similar number. Bob Rockwell has several entries as do a number of other recognizable names. The views were marred by smoke invading the High Country from the west. Blues skies were a blurry gray and would remain so all day.
About a mile to the ESE and half an hour of nice rambling lay Cottonwood Head, another name derived from the register. This one appears to be missing most of its content - The inside cover from a MacLeod/Lilley register dates to 1981 and then a second booklet from 2014. The summit lies on the crest of the Sierra's eastern escarpment with Cottonwood Creek cutting a canyon that drops more than 7,000ft from the summit down to the Owens Valley in about 5mi. Unfortunately, the smokey views did not improve at all looking east as the valley appeared to be filling with the brown-gray haze.
The last summit of this trio was further north of the first one, so much of the next hour was spent retracing my steps off Cottonwood Head and then going over the northeast shoulder of Horseshoe Peak through a saddle with a minor summit (described as "Cat Ears Peak" in the comment below). Last Chance is easily visible from this saddle to the north. I then dropped off the north side, crossed Last Chance Meadow and made the final class 2 climb up to Last Chance. The rocky summit held a register left by Terry Flood less than a year earlier. Returning from this point was easy enough, less than 25min with a quick descent to the west, recrossing Cottonwood Creek (little more than a trickle) and then a short climb back through grazing and forest areas to find the van where I'd left it. The loop took around 3.5hrs, but could probably have been 30-45min faster without the detour to Mulkey Pass.
It was shortly before noon when I returned and with the heavy smoke I was none too sad to be leaving the area. It would take most of the remaining daylight to make my way back to San Jose, some backups on Interstate 5 making the trip longer than usual (overturned trucks make for quite the spectacle).
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Wonoga Peak
This page last updated: Fri Nov 27 12:53:08 2015
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