Sonora to Sawtooth

(north to south)

  Sierra Crest near Grizzly Peak
Mellow terrain approaching Grizzly Peak (on right)
Are you looking for a tour that is one big perfect tele-slope after another? Then don't do this tour, go to the Ionian Basin instead. Now, for the few people still reading this, particularly those of you who don't mind putting in some mileage, I can tell you that this tour, Sonora to Sawtooth, is a real gem! The route offers variety, with everything from gentle touring (particularly Day 2) to spectacular bowls (Days 3 and 5). There is a variety of scenery as well: The gorgeous rolling terrain surrounding Grizzly Peak, the sweeping glacial canyons of northern Yosemite NP, the wonderful cliffs and chutes from Tower to Hawksbeak Peaks, the pretty little valley containing Robinson Lakes, and the stunning terrain as you finally reach the Sawtooths.

Before I describe this tour, note that there is a slight gap between my tour just to the north (which starts at Sonora Pass) and this one (which starts at Leavitt Creek a few miles east of Sonora Pass). What should you do? Ski it of course! A fine day tour, just after Sonora Pass opens, is to start at Sonora Pass, ski up the ridge to the south, and ski the excellent east-facing bowl just to the north of Peak 11245'. When you get to Sardine Meadow, ski a mile southeast to Leavitt Creek. Good job!

  Tower Peak
Tower Peak, and the bench along its northern side
Now, let's do Sonora to Sawtooth. This tour could be done in either direction, but I've opted to describe it north-to-south because of the epic 4500' descent off of Sawtooth Ridge at the southeast end of the tour. This stretch of the Sierra Crest tends to hold its snowpack longer than most; its 9600' average elevation makes it fine for mid-to-late-spring. You may want to wait until Hwy 108 is open, or at least open on the east side to the starting trailhead, about 3.5 miles east of Sonora Pass (for the most accurate information about exactly where the closure is, call the local Caltrans maintenance station, 760-932-7261). But then, the starting trailhead isn't all that far from the winter road closure at Leavitt Meadow.

Start by skiing up along Leavitt Creek from where you park along Sonora Pass Road (the route leaves the highway at 8400'). Go to Leavitt Lake, and then head east of south to attain the Sierra Crest. Traverse southward, staying east of the crest at the head of Kennedy Canyon. Then cross over the crest, and contour around the headwaters of Kennedy Creek. Head up the northeast bowl to just east of the summit of Peak 10824', then drop down the bowl east of the peak's south side. This is a good place for Camp 1.

Day 2 is filled with the kind of mellow terrain that might lend itself to waxless-patterned skis (or perhaps narrow skins). There are several options, all starting from the above Camp 1:

From the Dorothy Lake Pass and Stella Lake area, ski southeast to Lake Helen, Camp 2.

  Upper Slide Canyon
Evening colors in the upper Slide Canyon area
Take a nice pass from Lake Helen to Tower Lake, then ascend southward from Tower Lake to the Sierra Crest overlooking Mary Lake. From the crest, turn east, then southeast, as you ascend to the spectacular bench along the northeast base of Tower Peak. Descend wonderful east-facing bowls, and traverse east to the base of the striking Hawksbeak Peak. Turn southeast to cross the Sierra Crest yet again, at the top of Thompson Canyon, a fine place for Camp 3.

Cross over to the east side of Thompson and traverse south to the 10100' pass that takes you across to the top of Kerrick Meadow. Continue east to and across Peeler Lake. From Peeler, proceed south of east to a little over 9800', and descend eastward into Robinson Lakes. Proceed south to Crown Lake, and take a winding route, generally south and then east, over 10450' Mule Pass. (An alternate route from Kerrick Meadow to Mule Pass is to go to lower Kerrick, and ascend a bowl to the east, traversing around to Rock Island Pass. Get from Rock Island to Mule via a traverse around 10300', or via the lower trail route.) Descend Mule Pass generally via the trail route, east, then north, then east again, finally traversing north to take Camp 4 in the bench area overlooking Slide Canyon, at 9900'.

There are two options for the final day:

With both of the above options (particularly Little Slide), you should allow a couple extra hours for possible low-canyon bushwhacking. The tour ends at the RV park at the west end of Twin Lakes, where overnight parking is available for a fee.

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One negative aspect of this tour is that much of the route, particularly the first half, has gotten rather popular for illegal wilderness snowmobiling. Unfortunately, land managers are not even a little serious about enforcing motorized access laws in the snow season, and the sled-necks know it. For this reason, you might consider starting this tour mid-week. Call or write the local Forest Service and Park Service offices and let them know what you think about their allowing such a wonderful natural area to be turned into an arena for high-speed motorized thrills. A snowmobiler responds to these comments about illegal wilderness snowmobiling.

An account of our 5/01 Sonora to Sawtooth trip, and more photos.

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