Sawtooth Bowls

Sawtooth Ridge photographed from Bridgeport; photo and labels by Fred Hochstaedter

The Sawtooth Range, along Yosemite NP's northeastern boundary, hosts some of the Sierra's most spectacular skiing. And it's quite accessible: This tour, taking you through the heart of the Sawtooths, is short enough to be done in one long spring day.

On the other hand, there are enough diversions on this trip to stretch it out to four days. Numerous peaks, bowls, and passes surround you, tempting you to climb, traverse, or just to hang out and gaze.

Lucy O'Brien descending Mt. Eocene; photo by Fred Hochstaedter
This area is ideal for mid-spring to late-spring skiing. In fact, there tends to be decent skiing here, on some of the crest's higher and steeper slopes, well after things dry up in much of the rest of the Sierra. The route's average elevation is 8800', and much of it is on northeast-facing slopes above 10000'. The starting and ending trailhead for this tour is the RV camp at the western end of Twin Lakes, about 15 miles out of Bridgeport, CA. Parking is available at the camp for a fee.

Nearly everyone coming to ski the Sawtooths ascends towards Matterhorn Peak via the Horse Creek trail. Popular routes to the peak include the East Couloir just left of the summit massif, the hourglass-shaped slope left of that known as Skiers Dream, and the easier but less direct Horse Creek Pass route.

However, I'm going to describe a loop tour, which goes in via another canyon to the west, and follows the crest eastward to near Matterhorn Peak, returning to the trailhead via the Horse Creek trail. This loop could be done in either direction; I like the direction that I will describe mainly because I prefer to make the main camp in the less heavily used Blacksmith Canyon.

Cathy Bianco ascending into upper Avalanche Canyon
To get from the Twin Lakes trailhead to Blacksmith Canyon, hike westward through the RV camp along the north side of Robinson Creek for about a half-mile, where you'll find a bridge crossing to the south side of the creek. From there, proceed steeply up, west of south along the west side of Blacksmith Creek. There is no trail here, so expect it to be brushy and slow. At 8000', you should avoid the temptation to veer westward away from the creek, as you'll only have to fight your way back to the creek higher up, through thick brush and brambles.

At around 8200', start to climb ledges northwest of Blacksmith Creek. Hopefully you'll be on snow here, or soon above here. At 8400', you'll pass the departure point for 11581' Mt. Walt, a peak that boasts an excellent ski descent off of its north-facing summit ramp. Continue upcanyon until you reach Glacier Lake, our mid-tour camp. If you have time, consider a day-tour from Glacier Lake up to the summit of the round-topped Mt. Eocene (like Mt. Walt, this peak is also marked 11581' on the 15' topo map).

From Glacier Lake, you can continue the loop tour by ascending southeast to the 10850' pass north (left of) the monolithic triangular mountain, Blacksmith Peak. From this pass, you will need to descend about 100', then traverse about 100' to the east, and then ascend, steeply at first, about 200', reaching the spectacular upper bowls of Avalanche Canyon. Contour eastward to the obvious break in the striking side-ridge known as The Cleaver, which is briefly quite steep on the eastern side.

Once east of The Cleaver, contour southeast for about a half-mile, looking for the 10800' break in a line of rock bluffs, staying around 10800' after that until you pass south of a pointy rock formation. Go ahead and follow the drainage down from there (unless you want to go play on or near Matterhorn Peak, in which case you should try to stay high), traversing a little eastward around 10000' to avoid some steeper stuff. By that time, you'll probably be able to see the range of descent options, some of them with plenty of ski tracks.

If you run out of snow at around 8000', look for the trail which descends along Horse Creek's east side.

Story & photos from our 5/02 Sawtooth Bowls trip

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