Follow the San Joaquin River from California’s Central Valley into the Sierra. Far into the mountains, the North and Middle Forks branch northeast to drain Mt. Ritter and the Minarets. Here there are deep canyons, hanging valleys and secluded basins with few visitors.
The South Fork turns southeast to drain a wide area extending south into Kings Canyon National Park. Its gorge gradually emerges onto a broad forested upland with gentler slopes before it divides into three major forks. These turn east to enter the real high country of twelve and thirteen-thousand foot peaks. Each enters a glacier-carved canyon between major divides extending eastward to join the crest.
This broad bowl below the peaks is bounded on the southwest by the lower divide between the South Fork on one side and other drainages.
Drive up Highway 168 northeast of Fresno, the western gateway to this region. After climbing a steep slope to the forest, it passes Shaver Lake, part of Southern California Edison’s extensive hydroelectric system. Climbing again, it turns a corner above long Huntington Lake lying at 7,000 feet and descends to its east end. Boy Scout camps are hidden on the south shore, accessible by boat from near the rustic and homey Lakeshore Resort on the opposite side. I have fond memories from several summers at Camp Mirimichi as a camper and staff member.
The trails of Sierra Summit ski area, far from the glitter and bustle of the Tahoe resorts, descend Chinese Peak east of the lake.
Just after crossing Rancheria Creek, turn right onto the road over Kaiser Pass to Florence Lake and Lake Edison, major trailheads for the high country. Though paved, the road is narrow and winding, fitting into the contours of the land. Drivers learn to work with each other to pass in opposite directions and to give a friendly wave to a fellow traveler.
Finally you reach 9,125-foot Kaiser Pass. On the other side is the wide basin of the San Joaquin. From here you can continue on to picnic spots, campgrounds, trails of adventure and the relaxing tubs and small store of Mono Hot Springs.
But before you continue, there’s a special spot that few people see. A dirt road branches east to the crest of the ridge at 9,600 feet, a bit over a mile away. The upper part is steep and suited for reasonably high-clearance vehicles such as utility vans. However, you can leave your vehicle off of this road before the climb, or back at the pass.
At the top is a broad, flat landing right on top of the crest. Walk to the edge. Before you is a broad panorama stretching from west of Mt. ritter encompassing the Silver Divide, Lake Edison and the divides above Mono Creek and Bear Creek, to Mt. Hooper on the divide above the South Fork.
It is peaceful and quiet here. The only sounds are the breeze soughing through the trees and the calls of birds. The combination of the view and the quiet is inspiring. Stay awhile. Better yet, plan to arrive in the morning as I did and spend the day. Watch the light slowly change. Enjoy the long shadows of late afternoon and evening. Let the peace and the view soak in.
As time and energy permit, wander south along the crest. A signed jeep track follows the forested southwestern slope. I had to admire the ingeneuity of drivers and the capability of their jeeps to maneuver up and down and around rocks. In many places, it’s easier to follow the smooth ground above the track.
In about three quarters of a mile, the north slope becomes a glacial cirque, with cliffs dropping to heavy forest that continues on across the basin. Find a perch and contemplate the view down and outward. Watch a hawk circle below you, then rise on air currents as it coasts away. Perhaps a small bird will perch on the edge of the cliff near you, then simply drop into thin air to fly away unseen. It’s wonderful how birds use the air as their element–so different from us ground-bound animals.
Hopefully you can stay overnight. This is a dry camp with no facilities, so bring your water and supplies.
Lay your sleeping bag out among the rocks, then watch sunset colors paint the mountains and lingering clouds. In the morning, watch the sunrise. All this time, you will be absorbing the special magic of this place and of the mountains beyond.