Horseshoe Peak P300
Cottonwood Head P500
Last Chance Peak
Wonoga Peak ESS

Fri, Jun 26, 2015
Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPXs: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2


My third and last day in the Horseshoe Meadow area was the easiest of three by design since I had to drive home today.

Horseshoe/Cottonwood Head/Last Chance

Three officially unnamed peaks around the Last Chance Meadow Research Natural Area would take up most of the time on a meandering loop. This small research area encompasses two of the unnamed summits and appears (given a quick online search) to be primarily designated for the study of the foxtail pines that grow within the boundary. Last Chance Meadow itself is outside the boundary, a small, high meadow found between two of the summits. Horseshoe Meadow lies to the west of the area which sees regular grazing (rant - does it really make economical sense to graze cattle here? Is it really that profitable? Is it really important to do this because your father and maybe his father did? Such a travesty to such a beautiful Wilderness area). There are private inholdings as well in the lower reaches which are probably related to the grazing activity. All of the surrounding area (with exceptions for the inholdings, roads and developed areas) are within the Golden Trout Wilderness.

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.

Wonoga Peak

This standalone summit lies north of the Horseshoe Meadow Rd by less than 3/4mi and I had expected it to be a quick up and back. Not so, as I found it would take almost two hours to complete. The TH I used was at a wide, paved turnout where Little Cottonwood Creek crosses under the road. There are no signs here of any sort and the trail is far from obvious. The topo map shows an old trail starting on the east side of the creek but that has been almost obliterated by rockfall. Without seeing a good alternative, I went through this short rockfall area just off the roadway to find the overgrown trail behind it. It soon meets up with the better version, a switchbacked trail that starts on the west side of the creek, first moving left away from the creek before returning to the drainage (I used this on the way back). Ten minutes from the start it was time to leave the trail. There are several ducks that have been built showing one of several places one might start up the drainage to the NE towards Wonoga. There are vestiges of a use trail, portions of which had been marked by yellow flagging (at least until I removed most of these), that may prove helpful, but I found reasonable routes through the brushy canyon that didn't make use of the trail during the ascent. When Wonoga comes into view you can see the direct route up from the south is steep and cliffy. On the way up I followed around to the right, circling to the northeast side where easier scrambling can be found. On the way down I used a more direct route off the SW Ridge to a saddle before descending into the same drainage. Both routes are class 2-3 with some minor trickiness to route-finding to avoid brush and small cliffs. I found a benchmark but no register at the top, views only getting worse as the smoke now dominated in all directions. On a clear day it would have a fine view of Lone Pine in Owens Valley below, framed by the Inyo Mountains in the background. To the southwest I could make out all three of the peaks I had climbed earlier in the morning, though barely. Olancha Peak behind them was completely obscured. I returned to the drainage as described, finding the trail of sorts and the annoying yellow flaggings. Judging by the very light traffic I found in the drainage and on the trail, I would guess the summit sees only 3-4 parties a year, hardly the sort of heavy traffic that would make the flaggings beneficial. There are far, far more deer trafficking up and down these slopes than people.

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).

hightinerary comments on 06/30/15:
I have climbed all of these. But you skipped what I like to call Cats Ears Peak (10,760+), between Horseshoe Peak and Last Chance Peak. It is very noticeable from Horseshoe Meadows Road.
hightinerary comments on 08/06/15:
Oh, you also skipped "Mulkey Peak" just NE of Mulkey Pass. It's marked 10650 on some topo maps. It happens to have a fun summit block and a register.
Shane Smith comments on 08/07/15:
Not to worry folks, he'll be back to get 'em (and more, or so much more)
Shane Smith comments on 08/07/15:
Not to Worry Folks! He'll be back for those and More (OH so Much More)!!
Submit online comments or corrections about the story.

More of Bob's Trip Reports

For more information see these SummitPost pages: Wonoga Peak

This page last updated: Fri Nov 27 12:53:08 2015
For corrections or comments, please send feedback to: