Cattle Mountain P300
Junction Butte P1K
Squaw Dome P1K CS

Sun, Oct 7, 2012
Squaw Dome
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profiles: 1 2


I had tried to drive my van to the Cassidy TH the night before, but couldn't manage the last mile where the road starts downhill and gets worse. I spent the night parked on a granite slab with a wonderful view looking north to Cattle Mtn and the Granite Creek canyon. Nevermind that is was night and the view was lost on me - I slept well regardless. I was at the far east end of Beasore Rd just south of Yosemite, primarily to tackle Junction Butte, a somewhat remote summit with 1,100ft of prominence in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. I had noticed it a few years earlier when Matthew and I were in the area to climb Balloon Dome and figured I would come back again to climb it along with nearby Squaw Dome, another P1K. Cattle Mtn was just a named bonus sort of on the way to Junction Butte. A high clearance vehicle can actually drive to the summit of Cattle Mtn from the Granite Creek CG as it lies right on the Wilderness boundary. Whether it also requires 4WD I don't know since I didn't actually hike the OHV route.

I did not get an early start because it was cold that night, in the mid-30s, and I didn't feel like getting up that early. I figured I should be able to fit the three peaks in during the available daylight and still get home at a reasonable hour. I left the van shortly after 7a, only moments before sunrise. Mt. Ritter was the first summit I noticed to light up with an orange glow, foretelling of fine weather for the rest of the day. Mine was the only vehicle anywhere near the TH and I would not see a soul the whole time I was out. Cattle Mtn could seen immediately to the north, and a few minutes after starting down the road to the TH I had fine view south to Squaw Dome - it certainly looked challenging from a distance. It took about 20 minutes to reach the Cassidy Trail and the Granite Creek Bridge where I found the coldest temperatures of the morning. Across the bridge one enters the Ansel Adams Wilderness and finds a trail junction. I had intended to take the fork to Millers Crossing, but as it started off heading due west I was confused and took the eastward heading fork towards Cassidy Crossing. While I expected the trail to climb to go over a pass on the SE shoulder of Cattle Mtn, it simply contoured around the mountain's south side closer to Granite Creek. I grew suspicious and pulled out my map. Oops. This was the trail Matthew and I had taken to Balloon Dome, not the one I intended at all.

Luckily I had gone less than half a mile and the mistake could be corrected easily without backtracking. I simply turned north and headed up the slope over easy cross-country until I intersected the correct trail. What I would find out later was that though the trail started off heading west from the junction, it almost immediately turned northeast towards the shoulder. I found the trail easily enough about where it was shown on the GPS and from there I followed it to the shoulder where it starts the descent to Millers Crossing. Here I left the trail, heading up the broad ridge. Lightly forested, there was plenty of brush in my way, but with patience and careful route-finding I managed to keep myself from all but a little bushwhacking. By 8:30a I had found my way to the open summit with only a few trees to block the views. A road and several fire rings were evidence that there were easier ways to reach the summit. It has good views in most directions - north to Green Mountain and beyond to the higher summits of Electra, Rodgers, Ritter and the Minarets, west to the southern peaks of the Clark Range, south to Balloon Dome and east to Junction Butte and beyond to the Sierra Crest. There was no register that I could find.

I headed back down from Cattle Mtn via the same route until I reached the Miller Crossing Trail, then turned east. The trail alternately traverses for a long distance with short intermediate sections that switchback steeply down to lose elevation, about two miles in all before it was time to leave the trail. There is no obvious location to start the cross-country. Between Cattle Mtn and Junction Butte is a deep canyon that must be crossed to reach Junction Butte. The trail gets close to this canyon but stays on the west side and drops in elevation as it gets closer. So my choice was somewhere between leaving early (more cross-country but less elevation loss) and leaving later (less cross-country, more elevation loss). I picked a section that looked to have less brush in the forest understory and started down from there. Oddly, I found a series of ducks leading about halfway down to the canyon before losing them - it's possible this had been left to help in refinding the trail, perhaps by hunters or other off-trail explorers. In any case, I had my GPS which would do a good job of getting me back to the trail nicely. I also came across some old cattle fencing - perhaps the ducks were to help cattlemen find their lost cattle down in the canyon and then find their way back again.

The drop into the canyon was a steep affair, growing steeper the further I descended. I had not adequately grasped from the close contour lines just how serious a canyon this was. About 30ft above the canyon floor I found myself stopped short with cliffs below me. Pine needles littering the slopes made them prone to slippage and I was very cautious about approaching the edge of the cliffs to peer over for ways to get down. Somewhat to my surprise, I found poison oak in some thin patches around the top of the cliff. How could this be? I checked my altimeter thinking I was much too high for the stuff to grow. It read 5,300ft, lower than I'd suspected and just about the upper limit for poison oak - I've seen it above 5,000ft, but never above 5,500ft. There was no descent route I could find in the immediate vicinity, so I traversed upstream about 30-40yds until I spied a steep ramp leading down between some large rocks. Half sliding over a mat of pine needles and half stepping in deep plunges of soft, decaying forest duff, I made my way down to the bottom.

It was like another world on the canyon floor. Late in the season, there was no water flowing anywhere, but all around was much lusher than the canyon slopes and higher elevations I'd traveled to reach here. The trees, mostly western cedar, were enormous. Some showed old fire scars, but it appears the canyon is better protected from fires than the surrounding mountain slopes. The canyon bottom was also much wider than I would have expected, considering the creek reaches upstream less than a mile before petering out at a saddle with the North Fork of the San Joaquin River on the other side. The enormity of the canyon just didn't fit the size of the creek drainage flowing in it - then it hit me like I was an expert geologist - the North Fork of the San Joaquin must have flowed down this canyon eons ago, explaining the large size of the canyon. Then at some later time, it changed course to cut east and south around Junction Butte - this would also explain why such a modest elevation mountain in the heart of the High Sierra has such a large prominence - the river essentially created an island in the center of the range. This would probably have been obvious to any amateur geologist with a casual perusal of the topo map, but I felt like I was freaking Charles Lyell himself.

This was all well and good, but I came to climb Junction Butte, not write a geological treatise. I was only half a mile from the summit of Junction Butte at this point, but that seemed little comfort. The eastern walls of the canyon which formed the West Face of Junction Butte was far steeper than the one I had descended and all I could see through the trees were massive cliffs, broken and peppered with trees and brush, but looking no more climbable to me than walls of Yosemite Valley (which they resembled, to some degree). Perhaps, I thought, if I could work my way north to the saddle with the San Joaquin River, I could climb the NW Ridge which at least on the topo map looked less steep than the West Face. It seemed I could be wasting a lot of time in the effort if the ridge proved no better and I began to think I had cut off more than I could chew on this one. At least I would have fun exploring the canyon I reasoned, and set off to the north.

To my surprise, there was a decent use trail running up much of the canyon, crossing the stream channel from time to time. It was difficult to tell if it was laid down by animals alone or if people had visited it more than I might have guessed. In any case, it made the hike upstream a breeze by comparison to the several hours of whacking that I had expected only a few minutes earlier. Not that it was an easy stroll - there were steps in the canyon with broken rock to scramble over and some modest brush to contend with, but overall a pleasant experience. Thankfully there was no poison oak in the canyon that I could find. I kept my eye on the right side of the canyon, always looking for possible routes up towards Junction Butte. For almost a mile I plied my way upcanyon before I saw the break I was looking for. I was less than a quarter mile from the saddle (and only 1/3 mile from the San Joaquin River) and the NW Ridge, but through the trees I could see possible routes up the side of the West Face nearest the ridge and left the canyon to try my luck.

It worked nicely. Steep, some class 2-3 scrambling, moderate amounts of brush in a few short sections, reaching the ridgeline about 300-400ft above the floor of the canyon. Once on the ridge the terrain was more open and less steep, though there was more brush to contend with and I had to pick my way around it. All in all it was a decent scramble that kept me wondering if I would reach an impasse, but thankfully never did, and shortly after 11a I reached the summit. There was no register to be found, but lots of old wire littering the ground, likely all remains of a surveyor's tower that graced the summit at one time. The summit felt ancient and remote, a place that few have ever visited. It was a unique spot with which to view several branches of the San Joaquin River. To the north is the drainage of the North Fork, sandwiched between the Minarets on one side and the southeast Yosemite chain of mountains from Post Peak to Rodgers Peak on the other. To the east was the deeper gorge of the Middle Fork reaching to the Mammoth Lakes area, draining the east side of the Minarets, the north side of the Silver Divide and all the places in between. To the south rose the stately granite feature of Balloon Dome, Mt. Tom and the Kaiser Ridge behind it.

With the route dialed in, the return went easier. I did not have the confidence to try something different (like descending the South Ridge to Millers Crossing) so I pretty much stuck to the same route I had taken to reach the summit. The GPS was helpful in descending the West Face to keep me away from the cliff areas and on the same track, and similarly useful in finding the exit point while I was hiking south back down the canyon. The climb back out of the canyon up to the saddle on Cattle Mtn's shoulder was some 2,000ft, making for more than 5,000ft so far on the outing - no wonder I was getting tired by the time I got over the hump. From the highpoint on the shoulder, the next mile was all downhill to Granite Creek, most of which I jogged. Squaw Dome loomed to the south in the distance and I studied the east and north aspects that were presented to me, still wondering if there would be a way to reach the very top. Once over the bridge I had another 400ft and another mile to return to the car - no more jogging on this one.

It was 2p before I was done, with plenty of time and not plenty, but sufficent energy to tackle Squaw Dome. Driving back out, both my car and I had had just about as much dust and dirt as we could stand, and it was with no small relief that we celebrated the return to good pavement as we drove south on Minaret Rd. It wouldn't last long. I had originally planned to climb Squaw Dome from the southwest where Minaret Rd runs closest to it. But at this point I found a spur dirt road with a USFS sign labeled Squaw Dome Trailhead - 2 miles. This road traverse around to the north side where I surmised I might actually find a trail running to the summit - how great would that be? The road was in excellent condition but dusty as all hell and I sent a billowing cloud of dirt up behind me as I lumbered along. There were several parties camping along the road, looking more like long-term visitors than weekend ones. The area appears to be used for dispersed camping and wood-cutting, lying just outside the Wilderness boundary which runs over the summit of Squaw Dome a short distance away.

I found the trailhead at the end of the road, but there was no trail heading to Squaw Dome as I had hoped. The trail starting here is marked "French Trail" on the topo map and winds around the east side of Squaw Dome as it drops to Mammoth Pool Reservoir some miles to the south. The road continued a short distance past a berm into the forest where it ends in a clearing where one finds more evidence of wood-cutting. No matter - it turns out it's pretty easy to reach the base of Squaw Dome from the north, mostly easy hiking through open forest, then less forest but still open terrain above. The interesting part begins when you reach the base of the dome's north side. Overlapping granite slabs like the layers of an onion characterize this side. A direct route up the north side would probably be class 4, maybe low 5th, but it was a little too spooky to try without the comfort of a rope and belay. Moving a bit to the left reveals a clean class 3 slab that runs up most of the way towards the summit on the NE side. Even this could be bypassed by class 2 further left to reach the base of the large summit blocks, but it looked more fun to take the slab route - so up I went. The granite has excellent grip with plenty of rough protrusions to hold the rubber soles nicely. I was so confident of the friction quality that about 2/3 of the way up I moved onto the harder overlapping onion slabs on my right side (though lower angle than the stuff further down I first looked at). Fun, but carefully considered class 3-4 scrambling led to the summit rocks and then along an airy stretch to the highest point.

The highest rocks sported an old eyebolt (for rappels?) and what looked like a small lightning rod drilled into the rock. I had no idea what purpose the latter might have served. The summit was a fine perch with good views, especially looking down to Balloon Dome. Shuteye Ridge rose high to the west (where I'd been the previous day), with higher peaks to the north (Ritter and the Minarets) and the Sierra Crest stretched out to the east. I scrambled along the summit towards the south to see if there wasn't any easier descent off that side. I found some short cliffs and a rappel anchor that provided me with a few booty carabiners. After exploring around on all sides, I found a class 3-4 descent off the southeast side through some broken rock, landing me on easy terrain after about 30ft. A jogging descent had me back to the TH in short order, barely a mile distance. The whole outing to Squaw Dome had taken just over an hour and was the best scrambling of the day, much to my delight. Overall it had been a very enjoyable day, one of the better ones I could recall over the last month. And I even managed to get home before 10p - not bad at all...

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