Kern Peak P2K SPS / WSC

Mon, Oct 6, 2008

With: Tom Becht

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile

Kern Peak is the second highest peak in the Southern Sierra after Olancha Peak. It's location in the center of the Golden Trout Wilderness means that along with its fine views, it's not so easy to get to. It can be reached from either Horseshoe Meadow to the northeast, or by a somewhat shorter route via Blackrock Pass to the south. Matthew had done this dayhike out of Blackrock Pass a few years earlier, and it was this route that Tom and I would head for to repeat the hike.

The first Pacific storm of the season had passed across California two days earlier, but mostly skirting over the northern portion of the state. What little precipitation fell in the Southern Sierra was almost entirely rain with only the scantiest of snow. The bit of rain actually helped to dampen the dusty trails and make them easier on the lungs. By the time Monday rolled around the clouds had completely dissipated and we were left with a sky full of stars and half a moon.

Leaving San Jose around 7:30p, I got to the junction of Nine Mile Canyon Rd and US395 shortly after midnight, finding Tom's car off to the side of the road about a mile up the canyon as we had arranged. I immediately went to sleep after pulling up next to him, figuring there was no need for a midnight start for the moderate effort it would require. Tom woke me around 1:30a after noticing I had arrived, and I promptly suggested we sleep til 4a, and so we did. Once we were up, it took longer to get to the Blackrock Pass TH than I had supposed it would, not helping that we had a wayward detour of the Kennedy Meadows CG and TH that probably annoyed the few campers we found there. Though the road is paved the entire way, it was more than 35 miles to the end of the road, much of it narrow and winding. It wasn't until 5:45a that we parked the van and got started.

Though we started with headlamps, they were only needed for the half hour it took us to descend to Casa Vieja Meadows. It quickly became clear that the meadows and surrounding areas in this region were regularly grazed by cattle. Lots of horse and cattle prints, braided trails, and more cow pies than I've ever seen in a Wilderness area told of the extent. We didn't see a single cow the entire day, but that is likely because the herds have been removed ahead of winter storms that could start at any time.

The trails were not difficult to follow, though there was some minor confusion when multiple braids would develop without warning. The terrain is undulating forest cover broken by intermediate meadows, the most interestingly named one being Beer Keg Meadow (no sign of beer kegs as we passed through). The trail passes by the source of several springs, highly useful since much of the other water sources are of suspect quality with so much cow activity in the area.

It took us three hours to reach Red Rocks Meadows, about three miles south of Kern Peak. The name most likely derives from the red rock of Indian Head that overlooks the meadows on their western edge. There is an old cabin located at the trail junction here, the roof long gone and the remaining four walls about waist high. We took a short break to eat a snack and check our maps. Tom and I had drawn different routes to the summit as we came to find upon looking at the other's map. My route followed the trail north to a pass before heading cross-country to Kern from the east. Tom's route followed the trail northwest towards Cold Meadows, then up the South Ridge of Kern. We decided to take my route up, Tom's down. I think the South Ridge was the fastest and easiest of the two, not just because we were going downhill, as it seemed more direct.

Continuing on, we followed the trail for a bit more than an hour, striking off cross-country before we actually reached the pass. Once atop the ridgeline east of Kern, the slope was very gentle leading to the East Face of our peak. Almost all of the cross-country travel in this area is very easy. It wasn't until we were on this east-running ridge that we had our first real views of the day. We could see Olancha rising high to the east, Langley and Whitney to the northeast, the Kaweahs and Kings-Kern Divide to the northwest and north. A large expanse of forest dotted with meadows lay in between, probably home to yet more cattle herds in the summertime.

Though the East Face looked steep from the contours on our map, we found the slope tame and barely class 2. There is good, grassy footing most of the way up, or one can scramble over boulders in a more direct line as we did. It was after 11a when we neared the summit. A few small patches of snow were found left over from the recent storm, but through the entire expanse of High Country that spread out to the north, there was almost no visible snow, even at Whitney's 14,500-foot summit.

Kern's summit has the dilapidated remains of a lookout tower that crowned the summit at one time in the past. Most of it has fallen down over the years, but there is still a usable platform that probably wouldn't pass muster with OSHA. Oddly, the roof was somewhat intact though it had fallen off the structure when the sides holding it up collapsed. We stayed almost 45 minutes at the summit before heading back. There was no wind to speak of and the weather was quite nice sitting up there. We could easily have taken a long nap, but knew we still had a long way to get back.

The descent off the South Ridge was rather pleasant and easy. After half an hour we dropped off the ridge towards the east intending to intersect the Cold Meadows Trail further down, but managed to miss it entirely. Seems we dropped off a bit too early, but it didn't really make much difference since it was easy traveling with no serious bushwhacking. It took only about an hour and fifteen minutes to return to Redrocks Meadows.

Not long after we passed Beer Keg Meadow we took an unintended turn at a small unnamed meadow. We caught our mistake about fifteen minutes past the junction by consulting the GPS, but found we could continue on our way via an alternative trail that would meet up with our original trail back at Casa Vieja Meadows. This new route took us through the large meadow at the lower southwest end of Long Valley. A large and seemingly well-maintained cabin was boarded up at the edge of the meadows in the woods - an odd find for a Wilderness area. More odd were the tire tracks that we found as we continued past the cabin on a trail leading towards Dry Meadow. We were still about a mile within the Wilderness boundary, so it was hard to see how the treads could be there legally. Our map showed a ranger station at Casa Vieja, so we figured we'd ask there about the cabin and tracks.

Now heading southwest, we followed through the heavily grazed area around Dry Meadow and onto Casa Vieja Meadows. We found the ranger station boarded up and locked - looking like it hadn't been opened all season. Perhaps the station is no longer active. Ironically, the entire area around it was densely covered in cow pies. We'd get no answers here.

In order to take a more direct route, we hopped a fence and hiked across the middle of the large meadow at Casa Vieja. The fence enclosed the majority of the large meadow, and judging by the extent of cow droppings found inside and outside the enclosure, the fence's only purpose seems to be to keep wildlife out of the meadow. Nice.

We got back to the car around 4:20p, making for a 10.5hr outing. It was 5:30p before we got back to Tom's car where we'd left it in the morning. I was going to hang around the east side of the range for a few more days, but decided to head back home, same as Tom. Tom had to work the next day, but I had no similar commitment. Guess I was just getting my fill of the Sierra for one season as it starts to wind down in mid-October.


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