Moose Lake to Wolverton Trailhead via Emerald Lake
(12 miles, +1,000/-4,200 feet).
Yesterday I had a bit of a meltdown.
When I got back to camp I was so tired of walking in the slushy suncups and so anxious about doing icy traverses that I suggested to MixMaster that we just leave Moose Lake the way we came, heading back out via Alta Meadows.
I had that same feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had after climbing Forester Pass.
Objectively, I did not experience anything close to the level of fear I experienced on Forester. But the exhaustion and anxiety did make me doubt whether I really wanted to do snow travel.
Fortunately, a good night’s sleep almost always clears my head, and I awoke ready to stick to our original plan, but with a slight twist. Instead of heading all the way back most of the same route we traveled yesterday and then down to Table Meadows, we could short cut that ridge and head straight northwest from the outlet of Moose Lake down to the Kaweah River. From there we would head downstream to find the Pear Lake Ranger Station and then (hopefully) have dry trail to take us back to Wolverton.
As an aside, I just bought the premium upgrade for GaiaGPS and it has a wonderful tool for cross country travel — slope angle shading! A heat map shows which parts of the terrain are steep, and you can overlay this on your favorite feature map (I like the caltopo USGS layer).
I used to think that it was easy to figure slopes out by looking at how close the topo lines are to one another, but it’s really not. The shading makes a huge difference. I now know that if I can just stay on terrain that is not shaded at all, then it is very likely I will not feel uncomfortable on a snowy slope—even if the topo lines are close together!
The new path we planned did not pass through any shaded parts on my slope map, so I felt confident (sort of) that we could find a way down to the river.
We packed up our things and once again headed towards the Moose Lake outlet. Given our experience yesterday, we tried to get going earlier to take advantage of the crispy snow. By 6am we were on our way.
Boy does the sun make a huge difference out here.
One nice thing about retracing our steps is that we were much more efficient for the first mile and a half of the trip. For example, we knew it made sense to remove our crampons and climb this rock band above the lake as far as we could before we hit the snow again.
We both put in headphones to do the climb up to the ridge above the lake, but the crispy snow made it much easier work than we expected, and before we knew it we were at 10,900 feet and looking at our route down to the Kaweah River.
We started making our way down a very gentle slope, past pothole lakes.
At about 10,400 feet we chanced on a weather station.
We slowly descended to the one part of the route that made me a little nervous. A lip on the far end of the valley where the topo lines scrunched out of view.
At the top of the steep part we looked down and it did seem a little sketchy, but only a short bit before we could rest at some rocks and look at the rest of the route down.
Lo and behold! We discovered that the steep part was covered in huge granite boulders where we could climb down instead of navigating the snow.
With about 100 feet more to descend, we put on our crampons again and easily made our way down to the raging river.
The Kaweah River basin was spectacular, with waterfalls and beautiful trees. The air was full of the scent of cedar! I was worried about stream crossings, but we always managed to find narrow parts where we could just step across.
At about 10,000 feet the valley narrowed dramatically and we thought we might have to traverse another steep slope, but instead we went straight up and over, away from the river. On the other side was a beautiful series of granite ramps and boulders, leading us nearly all the way to the Pear lake Ranger Hut.
Our last challenge was a stream crossing right before the hut (the Pear Lake outlet). Water was streaming everywhere and I thought we finally would get our feet wet, but we figured out a series of log crossings and stream jumps to get across dry.
We sat down at a picnic table outside the Ranger Station, and out popped the ranger! We told her we had just come from Moose Lake and she said “wow!” (Mixmaster later said that maybe one of the coolest things we have ever done is eliciting a “wow” from a ranger!). It was the ranger’s day off, so after chatting with us she headed up canyon with two of her friends with daypacks and fishing poles.
MixMaster and I tried to eat lunch at the table, but we experienced a first for our trip: mosquitoes! We quickly decided to move to the sun where they left us alone. But then we had to contend with our old nemesis, the Great Sierra Rat (otherwise known as a marmot!). Three of them surrounded us on all sides at a distance of about 6 to 20 feet. A couple of strategically thrown rocks kept them at bay, but it was clear that they were just being polite. I kept my bear canister closed and my lunch close!
After lunch we hit the trail — literally! I mean, there was actually a trail. It felt great to go back into auto drive for a bit.
To get back to Wolverton, I was very much looking forward to hiking the Watchtower Trail (blasted from the side of a thousand foot cliff with views of the Tablelands) instead of the Hump Trail (a steep slog up and down a heavily forested and likely very snowy slope). ZoZoZoom and I did both last year, and it was the Watchtower Trail that inspired me to come back and explore the Tablelands.
But one of the ranger’s friends told us that the Watchtower Trail was officially closed. He also said it was unofficially “hike at your own risk.” In the past when I have heard that, it usually means the trail is passable, but the ranger’s friend also said that he tried it from Wolverton two weeks ago and it was impassable (presumably because of snow). Instead he went cross country up the mountain to the south of the Watchtower, “making his own hump trail.”
I say all of this to explain why I was so excited when, in the distance, I could see that the Watchtower Trail was snow free. Yay!
But MixMaster and I had three lakes to visit before we even got to the Watchtower Trail, and they turned out to be rather spectacular.
As we rounded the bend into the Emerald Lake/Aster Lake drainage, we found our old friend.
It was easy enough to handle without putting our crampons back on, but still somewhat annoying given that we expected the trail to be dry at this elevation.
It’s funny, we felt so saturated by all the beauty of the trip so far, but I was totally stunned by Emerald Lake.
It looks like this lake is pretty popular, but we did not see anyone camped there. The bear locker was already accessible, and some of the sites were snow free, but it seemed like everyone was headed up to Pear Lake instead.
We made our way next down to Heather Lake, the highest point that ZoZoZoom and I reached last year. It was also still partially frozen and quite beautiful.
The Heather Lake outlet had a very sketchy looking snow bridge, and alternatives for crossing didn’t look great. We sped across the bridge just fine, but I bet it is gone in the next few days.
After Heather Lake we had to decide whether to proceed on the officially closed trail. Given that what we could see was snow free, we decided to go for it and turn around if any parts looked too bad.
I was so glad that we did it. It really brought back memories of my trip with ZoZoZoom.
We did encounter one blowdown and some snowy patches on the trail where it was extremely steep both above and below. But they had good steps in them already. We put on our crampons to be safe, but it really wasn’t necessary.
After the Watchtower we lost the snow for good and it was smooth sailing back to Wolverton.
I am so, so glad we decided to hike out the rest of the loop as planned. Today just might have been the most beautiful day of hiking I have ever experienced. I know, I say that a lot, but the thing that really made today special was the fact that I conquered my fear and for the first time felt like I just might be able to manage my anxiety with snow travel. I am hopeful that today will help me have more fun on trips in the Sierra when it is snowy and extraordinary.