Hoffman Mountain P500
Finger Rock CS
Castle Peak P1K
Volcanic Cone
Crown Rock Fail CS

Jul 25, 2012
Finger Rock
Castle Peak
Volcanic Cone
Crown Rock
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile

In looking at a list of peaks over 10,000ft with more than 1,000ft of prominence, I spotted Castle Peak in the John Muir Wilderness, west of SEKI NP. In perusing the map, I noted a handful of named 9,000-foot summits north of Rancheria Creek, southeast of Wishon Reservoir, all around Castle Peak. A factor in favor of visiting these summits was that the first peak was not far from the TH, little more than 3 miles. That it would not require an arduous approach I thought was a good thing - despite what those who know me might say to contradict this. The other peaks would require a good deal of cross-country to link up making for a long outing, but the intervening terrain seemed relatively gentle and managable.

Arriving late, I slept for some hours at the Rancheria Trailhead before rising around 6a. There was no need to start early today because I would not be on the trail long before starting cross-country. Just before 6:30a I started off on the Rancheria Trail heading east. Sunrise came half an hour later when I reached the Duck Lake Trail junction. I headed northeast up Rancheria Creek towards Duck Lake, leaving the trail not long after 7:30a. There was one stretch of not-so-easy bushwhacking at the start with waist-high bushes that tripped me up some. Five minutes later I was on easier ground, cruising up a much gentler fern meadow. Hoffman Mtn could be seen off to the north on my right, looming impressively. Behind me, views opened up looking south to the Obelisk and Spanish Mtn. The upper third of the hillside was characterized by granite slabs which I traversed to a forested gully on Hoffman's south side. Granite talus and slabs marked the rounded summit. In all I climbed about 1,400ft from the trail, taking just over half an hour to reach the class 2 summit.

I found no register, just a small cairn atop the highest rock. Although a good view spot, the Central Valley was shrouded in haze at an early hour and the view east to the White Divide was marred by the glare of the early morning sun. To the northwest could be seen Courtright Reservoir, Three Sisters and the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness. Forest stretched out for many miles on almost all sides. Of particular note was Finger Rock to the northeast, a short distance away and a much more impressive-looking summit. It took only half an hour to make the jaunt from one summit to the other along a ridgeline that required little elevation loss. The cross-country travel was very easy with open forest and a beautiful meadow of shooting stars. The easiest route on Finger Rock is at the short neck that connects it to Hoffman's ridge, with a bit of fun class 3 to reach the summit.

By now it was 8:45a. Barely two hours into the outing and I was already at the second summit - this was kinda nice not having those long approaches. Again there was no register. There is a fine view looking northeast to Round Corral Meadow and beyond into Woodchuck Country. After taking a picture of Hoffman Mtn showing its more dome-like profile, I turned my attention east to Castle Peak. This uncastle-like summit (from the west, anyway) was almost three cross-country miles away and would take some time to reach. I dropped northeast and then east off the summit of Finger Rock, taking me across Round Corral Meadow and then the trail which I crossed without utilizing. Though I could have followed trails to Duck Lake, it was shorter and easier to continue cross-country on a more direct route to the lake that was more or less on my way to Castle Peak. Along the way I ran into an old snow-survey cabin with a quaint, almost pleading Do Not Molest sign. There were no high entrances, so how it could be useful (or even found) with ten feet of snow on the ground was a bit of a mystery.

Duck Lake itself is nice, in a picturesque setting, but by no means dramatic. There was a sign indicating No Camping to lessen environmental impact, but that seemed a bit of a lark considering the numerous horse and cattle prints I found in the mud on the lake's shore. I really can't see how camping has more of an impact than grazing. Directly above Duck Lake I climbed through broken slabs to the east, spending more than an hour to reach Castle Peak at over 10,600ft, the highest point of the day. There is a thin, tall line of granite rock not unlike a castle battlement stretching across the summit ridge which probably led to its name. Getting to the highpoint was no more than easy class 3 despite the intimidating appearance when first approached. Not surprisingly, Castle Peak had the best views of the day. The sun was now high in the sky and the horizon was filled with High Sierra peaks looking north to southeast. Again, no register.

Last on my list was Volcanic Cone, about two miles to the southeast. It is almost 1,500ft lower and has almost no prominence, so I didn't expect much from it. It took just under an hour of mostly descending, the best part being right off the east side of Castle Peak where some fun scrambing was found. That was followed by much forest romping and another trail crossing before the final class 2 talus heap to the summit. As advertised, the rock was entirely volcanic in marked contrast to the surrounding terrain which is predominately granitic. Rocks had been piled into a cairn with an old wooden stick protruding, but for the fourth time today came up empty on a summit register.

Dropping back down the crumbly west side of Volcanic Cone, I took 15 minutes to find the trail heading south to Crown Valley. The peakbagging done for the day, the return route would be longer but entirely on trail and more relaxing. I took pictures of various flowers and watched a brown-colored black bear run off into the woods when I approached. I paused to take a picture of Kettle Dome to the east - a purported class 4 summit not far from Tehipite Dome that I have yet to visit. I reached Crown Valley and Cow Camp around 1p. This seemed the mother ship for cattle grazing in this part of the Sierra. While I have no love for cattlemen, I was later sent a short anecdote via email about the current owners:

The Ed Johnsons of Orange Cove own Crown Valley and are genuine ranchers/cowboys and are some of the kindest/generous people on planet earth. I taught 3 of their kids at Immanuel HS. Before I even knew them, I stayed a night in one of their cabins. Then, about 6 yrs ago, they invited me and my son up to Crown Valley (as they call it) for a visit. Typically, they go up for several weeks at a time in the summer, packing in plenty of provisions. After the hike up from the trail head, I was pretty spent (it's different hiking when you are in your twenties than when you are in your fifties!). After a warm welcome, Ed coyly asked, "Mark, how would you like a nice warm shower?" I thought he was playing a joke on me until he pointed to a little shed with smoke billowing out of a small stack. "It's all ready for you!" Probably the best shower of my life. In the main building they have a full kitchen, a dining area, and a "living" room. We hung out in there when a bank of thunderclouds appeared, followed by a tremendous Sierra Nevada cloudburst. I was sure glad to be under a tin roof, as opposed to a large tree or rock.

What I know of Crown Valley is fragmented, and since I am a HS history teacher, I want to do some more research before I can write with any authority about the area's history. My recollection is that 80 yrs ago it was a "dude ranch" -- and wealthy folks from the Bay Area and SoCal would come up for a week or two (brought in on horseback) and enjoy the beauty of the Sierras -- staying in those outer cabins, and having their meals cooked in the larger bldg. Then for decades it was part of a working cattle ranch. The herd would be brought up from the valley in the late spring, munch on the lush grass of the meadow (Cow meadow -- maybe the origin of the name?) then, in the fall, be driven by way of Pine Flat back down to the valley. What a Trek! Then the place kind of fell into ruin (it was all broken down when I first stumbled on in it '76 en route to Tehipite Valley). Ed and Char started to restore it, and they have tried to make steady improvements through the years (i.e. built-in shower!!!!!). As a side note, they told me that 3 or 4 yrs ago, a huge tree fell directly on the main cabin, and they had to spend a lot of effort to clean it up and rebuild. Another side note, Ed said that when they have heavier things to bring in, they hire Rogers Helicopters out of Fresno to "deliver" stuff!

Mark Hayward, via email

While I was cruising along the trail that skirts Crown Valley, I happened to look up and notice the fine shape of Crown Rock. It seems I had missed a local summit when I was looking at the maps before the trip. I decided I had plenty of time and maybe not plenty, but some remaining energy, to pay Crown Rock a visit. I continued west on the main trail, climbing 600ft to the Spanish Lake trail junction southwest of Crown Rock, near Wet Meadow. Leaving the trail at this point, it took me 40 minutes to climb the 800ft or so to Crown Rock where I was confronted with a most difficult summit. The top is composed of some very massive granite blocks that offer no easy route to the summit, not even a moderately difficult one. I spent almost 20 minutes checking it out on all sides, trying several options but backing down each time. This one would require a rope and partner to complete. I did find a small register however, a white cannister tucked under some rocks on the north side, under a large, leaning slab. Inside was a single sheet of paper left by a party two years earlier. I added my name and tucked it back in its hiding place.

Shortly after 3p I was back on the Crown Valley Trail heading west. It would take nearly two more hours to hike the five and a quarter miles back to the TH. I came across a pair of backpackers shortly after starting on the trail, the only folks I saw in the backcountry the whole day. It was almost 5p when I got back to my car, making for a rather full day. With another day to spend in the mountains, I planned to climb several peaks in the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness. After showering and a fresh change of clothes, I drove to the end of the road on the west end of Courtright Reservoir where I would spend the night. I had dinner (soup) and a movie in the van, comfortably seated in the back in a most leisurely manner, beer in hand. It had been a good day...


Matt Yaussi comments on 07/27/12:
Nice little loop there. I remember walking around Finger Rock on the last day of my backpacking trip from July 4-8 2012. All I could think of staring up at that rock was "I wonder if Bob has done that one yet." Much to my surprise when I got home, you hadn't! Now I see you have.
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