Sentinel Peak ESS
Elephant Knob P300 ESS
Capitol Rock P1K ESS
Falls View Peak P900

Jan 23, 2014
Sentinel Peak
Elephant Knob
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPXs: 1 2 3 4 Profiles: 1 2 3 4


I woke up early, a dull pain in my shoulder bothering me for the last few hours of sleep. I thought my thrashing in the brush the day before on Speas Ridge must have gotten me stabbed somewhere around the collarbone, but upon inspection I found I had a tick embedded where the pain was originating from. This was the first time I'd ever even seen a tick in the Sierra. It was a difficult process to remove the tick mostly because I had a hard time seeing it. I had to take a photograph with the camera just to verify it, then get myself in an awkward position to use the van's rearview mirror to get at it with a pair of tweezers. I had done the same thing once before in Napa County, so it didn't cause that much consternation, and once the task was completed I got on with the rest of the morning routine.

Sentinel Peak

Sentinel Peak is the first Sierra summit I ever climbed back in the early 1970s. The 1 1/4 mile hike to its summit was one of the highlights of a week-long summer camp spent at the BSA's Camp Whitsett located just south of the peak across the Lloyd Meadows Road. Since then, I had been back in the area only once when I had visited Lloyd Meadows for a hike into the Golden Trout Wilderness to climb Angora and Coyote Peaks. I had passed by Sentinel Peak somewhat wistfully, figuring I'd come back and climb it again another time. And so I had. I didn't recall much about the peak after 40 years, but I knew it to have a class 5 summit block and a steep and sometimes sandy trail. One of the young adults in our group back in 1973 had considered himself a runner when running was something of a new sport for the general public. He made plans to set the record for climbing Sentinel Peak and our troop was very enthusiastic in supporting him. On the appointed day there were timers at the base and summit to record his effort and off he went at a sprint. We were disappointed that he did not set the record as he had talked up his chances as very good leading up to the attempt. What made it worse, I think, was that he blamed the failure on the conditions being "too sandy". He went on to say he thought the record would never be broken because the trail had deteriorated over the years from heavy use with too much sand now slowing any speed attempts. I always thought it would have been better if he had just said he gave it his best and came up short.

I had no intention of setting any sort of record when I started out after 6:30a. The trail is not marked with a sign and there is no roadside parking in the immediate area where I found it. The trail is consistently steep, rising some 1,400ft from the pavement to the summit. It appears to have originated as a use trail as there are no switchbacks to speak of and a great deal of erosion has taken its toll from heavy use by the Scouts. Still, the winter rains have washed most of the sand from the trail leaving compacted sandstone gullies in steep places. Halfway up, the trail reaches a false summit where I lost the trail momentarily. I found it again going around a slabby traverse with some exposure, but I'm not sure if this was just one possibility on a multi-threaded route. I found only short sections near the top that I would characterize as sandy, the rest had good traction and was in decent shape despite the heavy use.

I reached the summit area just as the sun was rising around 7:20a. Some class 3 scrambling gets one to the base of the huge, house-sized summit block. After examining it from all sides, the NW corner seemed to offer the shortest route to the top, but I could not find the will to give it a try. The problem is primarily a lack of hand holds at the start. I could get a foot on a sloping position, but without a good jug or a crack to wedge a hand into, I wouldn't risk a dangerous slip on a skimpy friction hold. The south side has a longer, more secure-looking route, but it would require a rope and partner, two items I was lacking in my daypack. I was somewhat disappointed because my memory had led me to believe that back in 1973 a fixed rope had been used to get us to the summit, but in hindsight I think that rope just helped us up the class 3 section to the base of the block. If nothing else, it would give me another reason to come back again in the future. The views were somewhat hazy due to a persistent, low-grade fire burning in the Mountain Home area to the north, the breeze this morning blowing in an unfavorable direction. I could see The Needles about seven miles to the north, but not much beyond that. To the south, haze filled the Kern River Valley, obscuring Speas Ridge though it was less than five miles distance. Even Elephant Knob, little more than a mile away to the southeast was indistinct. I returned to the van in about 20 minutes thanks to some easy downhill jogging, then took a few minutes to reposition the van another mile further east.

Elephant Knob

This small granite dome lies east of Camp Whitsett, barely half a mile from Lloyd Meadows Road. I have no memory of it though it appears to see frequent visits by the Boy Scouts. Though Camp Whitsett was spared in the McNally fire, Elephant Knob was not spared at all, having been completely charred. Blackened trees remain as reminders, but the brush has grown back vigorously since 2002. A use trail helps make the hike possible without heavy bushwhacking. I followed the route suggested in Jenkins' guidebook, starting at the saddle at the pavement and going over an intermediate bump with two large rock formations that vaguely look like to animal ears. The highest of these was a short but fun class 3 scramble. The lower one to the south was more difficult with more exposure and I didn't attempt it. Leaving these, I followed a brushy use trail over the ridgeline to another saddle, up and over a second bump and down to the third saddle at the base of Elephant Knob's northwest face. Though it looks more difficult from a distance, there are many ways to climb Elephant Knob at class 3 or lower. With careful attention to route, it's probable that a class 2 route can be devised. I went up one route and down another without much care in route selection, finding it a nice scramble regardless. Before returning, I took a few hazy pictures looking south to Capitol Rock and northwest to Sentinel Peak. Back at the van by 8:45a, it had taken just over an hour for the short excursion. I think this might have been the first time I had gotten to two summits before 9a.

Capitol Rock

This large granite dome is a P1K near Johnsondale, just north of South Creek and Speas Ridge. Despite its obvious, looming presence, Jenkins ignores it for some reason. Nathan Schultz has a detailed description online but I didn't find this until weeks later. My perusing of the satellite view found an old fire road leading up from the south. Parking is not obvious, however. Already lacking in a shoulder or turnouts, most of the places one might park along the roadway are signed for No Parking or No Trespassing. I did find a spot just off the road on the south side that could barely fit one vehicle. I then walked back down the road to the west a short distance to the start of the fireroad. It's possible with high clearance (maybe even possible with low clearance) to drive into this entrance and park above the road as there are no signs found here. The driveable portion soon ends and the old fireroad turns into a use trail, another over-ducked route like I'd found on Bass Peak the day before - really, do you need three dozen ducks to follow a fire road?

After climbing about 800ft in a mile, the old road ends on the slabby southeast side of Capitol Rock. Had I read the beta ahead of time, I'd have known right away to trend right towards the east side, but instead I spent about 10 minutes climbing up the slabs and exploring possible routes along the south side where brush and trees replace the more open slabs. Finding nothing, I traversed right and found one of several possible routes that make reaching the summit a brush-free effort. A short forest on the southeast and east sides have relatively free travel in the understory, even if one has to duck and weave some. After just under an hour's effort, I found my way to the class 2 rocky summit. A register left by Nathan in 2010 already had 21 pages filled, about a third by Scouts from Camp Whitsett, most others by locals including 6 ascents by Nathan and seven by Matthew Steward. My return followed a different route through the short forest back to the fire road, and by 10:30a I was back at the van.

Fall View Peak

This unofficially named summit is located about two miles due east of McNallys, rising 3,000ft above the east side of the Kern River with more than 900ft of prominence. The easiest way to reach the summit is via the Rincon Trail which starts about three miles southeast of McNallys and 11 miles north of Kernville. The trail is not well marked and the trailhead is not found at the pavement. Rather, it is about a mile up a decent dirt road that I had marked on the GPS (not sure I'd have found my way to it otherwise). The Rincon Trail is open to motorcycles as well as hikers/equestrians, but due to the ruggedness of the route, very few cyclists make it past the first couple of miles. The trail climbs steadily for the first mile, reaching a saddle. Here the trail drops some, crossing a number of normally dry streambeds and then Salmon Creek. There are several campsites located in the Salmon Creek drainage along the trail, including the most popular one right at Salmon Creek where a bridge is found along with a large trash dump dating back many decades. Past Salmon Creek, the trail climbs steadily again until reaching a second saddle just east of Falls View Peak. At this point, things get more interesting.

The summit is only about half a mile and 800ft above the saddle but no trail leads to it. The slopes are covered with a mix of forest and brush and it was not until I had a first hand look that I had much idea how the cross-country would be. I found no evidence of a use trail anywhere, but I did run across several small ducks and a much older, large cairn in a small clearing. None of these were much help in route-finding, but they did let me know that others had been this way before me. About 15 minutes was spent in the forest understory and finding my way through brushy sections before I reached the start of the lichen-laden slabs that reach nearly to the top. This marked the end of the bushwhack and the start of the scrambling which I found to be class 3. Another 15 minutes saw me reach to the apparent summit that I had marked on my GPS, Pt. 6,404 on the topo map. With the haze diminishing, it had a tremendous view of the Kern River Valley looking south towards Kernville. I had assumed that this marked point was the highpoint, but looking northwest, there appeared to be an even higher point about 1/4 mile distant. Another 15 minutes was spent traversing between the two summits, separated by a small saddle of perhaps 200ft in depth. The scrambling between the two summits was as fun as the scramble portion to reach the south summit, so I didn't really mind the extra effort.

After some searching I found two items of interest at the summit. In a rusted tin can I found the business card of Greg Kollenborn, a fish hatchery manager for the California Fish and Game Dept. He and a friend had climbed the summit in 2005 and left a single sheet of paper in a small plastic bottle at a second location closer to the highpoint. They had dubbed the peak "Falls View Peak" because of the fine view one gets of the Salmon Creek Falls about 1 3/4 mile to the SE and a few hundred feet higher. The falls were easy to spot because of the large areas of white ice that showed prominently. Little sunlight penetrates the granite channel cut in the side of the mountain, making it difficult for the ice to melt during the daytime. To the northwest, Speas Ridge was quite prominent, and across the Kern Valley to the west rose the Greenhorn Mtns with Baker Point and Baker Peak. After signing the register and taking a few photos, I returned to the Rincon Trail without returning to the south summit. This route proved a bit more involved with much traversing along the base of the lichen slabs to avoid dropping into the wrong drainage. Once back on the trail the rest was more or less routine and by 3p I had returned to the van.

I still had more than five hours of driving to get home that evening, but it had been a most productive and enjoyable day. I was hoping to get more visits to the Southern Sierra in the coming weeks but more snow would fall over the next few days to dampen my enthusiasm. And although the state could badly use the rain and snow, I was happy to have been able to take advantage of the drier conditions and extend the Sierra season into the new year.

Matthew comments on 02/21/14:
Inspired by your recent trip reports, I headed down to the Southern Sierra over President's Day Weekend. The recent storms seemed to miss that part of the state, so I found the same delightful conditions you did. (I enjoyed a wonderful hike out to Deer Mountain one of the days--Templeton/Monache/Olancha/Round Mountain all still looked basically snow-free.)

Keep me in mind if you head back out to Sentinel Peak. It's on my list.
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