Indian Head ESS
Peak 9,097ft P500
Peak 8,925ft P300
Doc Peak

Nov 8, 2016
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile


I recalled seeing Indian Head a number of years earlier while on a hike back from Kern Peak in the Golden Trout Wilderness. It sticks out as a bold, unexpected outcrop of metamorphic rock along Redrock Creek. I had briefly considered paying it a visit at the time, but decided against it since it was already a long outing. It had garnered my attention again recently as it gets mention in Ruby Jenkin's Exploring the Southern Sierra: East Side as a class 3 scramble. Someone on called it a crazy scary peak with a class 4 scramble. I figured it was somewhere in the ballpark of "fun" and decided to pay it a visit on the last of a three-day visit to the Southern Sierra.

I was parked at the Blackrock Mtn TH on the southern edge of the Wilderness, having spent a comfortable and uninterrupted night there (except perhaps for my bladder which needs nighttime relief these days). I'd gone to bed early, shortly after 8p, mostly because I was tired but also so I could get up early and do some hiking in the dark. There is some appeal to watching one's breath fog in the headlamp and seeing the new day slowly take shape in the sky overhead. And so I was up not long after 4a, breakfasted, and hitting the trail around 4:45a. It was 39F at the pass where I started, but grew gradually colder as I descended to Casa Vieja over the course of the first two miles until it was at or below freezing levels. I wore a fleece and balaclava and kept my hands tucked in my pants pockets for most of the way. It was still quite dark when I crossed the creek at Casa Vieja Meadows to reach the main trail junction (there is an earlier junction for Osa Meadows before the creek-crossing, but that trail is little-used and I missed noting the junction in the dark). There are two ways to reach Red Rock Meadows and Indian Head from Casa Vieja, both of approximately the same length. When I had looked at the routes on the map days earlier, I had simply noted the route through Jordan Hot Springs follows creeks the whole way and thought that would have less elevation gain & loss. Quite wrong, it turns out. The right fork going through Beer Keg Meadow has far less elevation change, but I was oblivious to this as I turned left to follow the left fork down Ninemile Creek towards Jordan Hot Springs.

It did not take long to realize I was descending a fairly steep canyon drainage. Even though it was dark, the noise of the nearby creek told of countless cataracts and cascades the water was descending through. Short switchbacks in the trail along with many steps told my legs the similar story. The stars began to disappear and the faint light of the new day filtered down through the trees as I descended those three miles, dropping 1,800ft in the process. I had put away my headlamp and the sun had risen on the highest ridges as I reached the relatively flat area around Jordan Hot Springs where Ninemile and Redrock Creeks converge. I had imagined stopping for a short time to take a soak in the springs, once a primitively developed concession whose lease was allowed to expire back in 1990 since it lies within the Wilderness boundary. I had no real plan for drying off and getting back to hiking with the temperature still hovering around 32F. It was a moot point, however, because their location was hardly obvious and I never did see anything to hint of their existence. Just a dilapidated cabin along the trail, a trail junction, and thousands of snags that told of a devastating fire that swept through here 5-10yrs ago. Had I done even a minimal amount of research I would have known to turn left at the trail junction to find the hot springs along Ninemile Creek a short distance downstream, but that would have to wait for another time. Instead I turned right to start the climb up Redrock Creek, having to regain all that lost elevation.

The good news about heading uphill was that I started to warm up and soon had my fleece and balaclava put away for the rest of the day. Things would start to warm nicely as I gained elevation and the day came on, though never exceeding more than about 55F, rather ideal for hiking. For the most part I was in the shade hiking up Redrock Creek, following the trail through a large swath of burned area with buckthorn and manzanita making a strong comeback over the past few years. Higher up, I moved into the sun as I made a series of long switchbacks climbing up towards Indian Head. Though it does not stand high above the neighboring ridges, it can be seen from long distances because of its unusual (for this area) color. I had seen it while down at Jordan Hot Springs briefly, but only in the last half mile does it come regularly into view. The fires had not burned higher in the canyon, bringing me back into the more mature forest environment as I neared the top. By 8a I had reached the nape of Indian Head where the trail goes over a forested saddle before dropping down to Redrock Meadows. Time for some scrambling.

Jenkins describes a brush-choked class 3 chute on the south side, other class 4-5 routes available. I thought I would first check out the north side to see if there were any class 4 routes I might find on that side before investigating the standard route. I clambered over loose boulders at the base of the formation as I looked for ways up, but found nothing I would put in the class 4 category on either the north or west sides. Moving around to the south side, the brushy chute becomes immediately obvious as the first possible route up. It is indeed choked with brush, though with careful attention one can find a path through the brush made by others and offering the least resistance. Gloves were a big help as the chinquapin has sharp, spikey balls that are painful to grab with bare hands. Higher in the chute the tunnel mentioned by Jenkins becomes evident. It makes for a neat little keyhole to pass through into a brushy alcove where the crux is found. Immediately to the right (east) is a short, vertical step with smallish holds, class 3+, that can be climbed to reach easier ground above. Alternatively, you can climb left or west out of the tunnel on easier class 3 rock, but then you have to make a daring 3-foot jump or very reachy step-across to get to the highpoint to the east. I used this jump on the way down which I thought was easier, but as always, ymmv. There is a rather large cairn built at the summit with a very busy register dating back to the 1980s. In all there were almost 80 pages of entries, surprising for a somewhat obscure, backcountry summit. There are a few trees growing robustly around the summit but they do nothing to block the views. Views are somewhat limited by the surrounding ridgelines that are much higher, but still it makes for a nice perch to take in the scenes nature offers up.

After returning back to the trail, I continued north and east to Redrock Meadows, intending to take the alternate trail back to Casa Vieja that has far less elevation gain/loss. After finding several trail junction at Redrock, I got on the correct path heading south, following this for several miles, past views of Indian Head and a high meadow filled with desiccated cow patties. Checking my GPSr as I hiked along, I noted a bonus peak less than a mile from where the trail goes over a forested shoulder and decided to pay Peak 9,097ft a visit. This sort of snowballed into a long, 4mi cross-country ramble going over two other bonus summits as well. Peak 9,097ft was an easy hike, capped by a neat little class 2-3 summit block with views open towards the south and the Ninemile Creek drainage. From there I noted Peak 8,925ft was a little more than a mile to the south, prompting me to drop down into Long Canyon, an interesting descent down a boulder-filled drainage. I then wandered through forest and meadow, eventually making my way up Long Canyon before climbing out up steep, forested slopes to find my way to the second bonus peak. It had an easy class 3 summit block that afforded views in all directions. Behind me to the north could be seen the earlier bonus peak, Indian Head, and rising above the others, Kern Peak in the background. A last bonus, Doc Peak, was yet another mile to the south overlooking Casa Vieja Meadows. I followed the enjoyable ridgeline connecting these last two, finding myself at the rocky summit shortly before noon. Terry Flood had left a register here in 2014, having already collected a handful of other visitors, including Eric Su, in the interim.

It took less than 10min to drop down to Casa Vieja where I picked up the trail very near to the creek crossing I had made more than five hours earlier. The creek was flowing gently here, the temperature having warmed nicely since the early morning. As I went by an old cabin along the trail I surprised a pair of backpackers who were standing on a bench to peer inside the locked cabin through a hole in the roof. They looked guilty of grave sins when they spotted me, but I just gave them a wave as I passed by. Another 30min saw me back to the TH and the conclusion of what turned out to be a rather enjoyable day. I still had some seven hours of driving to get back to San Jose by evening, but a shower and change into fresh clothes did wonders to revive my spirits. It was election day and I would have hours to listen to the various talk-radio pundits in the Central Valley wet their pants over an impending Trump victory. Glory days ahead...

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