Unicorn Peak

After a couple slow weeks following the Sierra Challenge, I wanted to do some hikes to get in shape for a Labor Day attempt of Mt Brewer. Having just one day, though, I decided that I should keep the miles down and instead focus on some fun and difficult scrambling so I set my sights on the Cathedral Crest near Tuolumne Meadows.

The Cathedral Crest is one of the more spectacular regions in all of Yosemite including, from West to East, Cathedral Peak, Echo Peaks, Echo Ridge, the Matthes Crest, the Cockscomb, and Unicorn Peak. Each of these peaks are quite diminutive in stature, rising less than one thousand feet from the surrounding area, but what they lack in height they make up for in beauty, rising like great frozen waves of granite. Perhaps more importantly, they have some stellar climbing!

Since I needed to meet up with Rafee by sunset in Kings Canyon, about six hours away, I set my sights on just the two easterly peaks, Unicorn Peak and the Cockscomb. Some research showed me that the easiest route up the Cockscomb might be class five and beyond my capacity without a rope, so depending on how much time was left after Unicorn, I’d decide whether to head for the car or continue on.

I arrived in Tuolumne around 8 AM on a crisp late-summer morning and made my way to the Elizabeth Lake trailhead, driving through the Tuolumne Meadows campground which was brimming with Labor Day campers. I’ve never seen such massive constructions of tarps, hung twenty feet tall to segregate each camp, presumably to afford some privacy from each other — it seemed like most were still asleep, but it must have been a mad-house the previous night!

A window to Mt Conness along the dry bed of Elizabeth Creek.

I put together my pack and hit the trail at 8:30, passing more deer than fellow hikers along the way to Elizabeth Lake. It’s astounding how the trail can be so serene only a quarter mile from some thousand sleeping souls!

Unicorn Peak above Elizabeth Lake.

Arriving at Elizabeth Lake, I had my first clear view of Unicorn Peak and tried to scope out the route I should take to the summit. Based on the topo I had planned on taking the gentle northeast slope, but the route seemed to start off through trees of unclear density. Instead, I noted a talus slope leading south from Elizabeth Lake and it seemed like from there I should be able to find some benches which would lead me to the saddle south of Unicorn. This route looked more direct and predictable, so I continued around the lake to the talus.

At the bottom of the slope it became obvious that a woman was following me. I stopped to ask where she was heading, hoping that she might join me if I continued onto the Cockscomb where an extra set of eyes could be useful. She was indeed heading up Unicorn but not certain how much further after. She asked me for some advice on the route and I made it as clear that I was making the route up, and should be followed at her own risk.

Looking down the talus slope towards Elizabeth Lake. Mt Conness, left; Mt Dana, right.

A few hundred feet up the slope I angled west and followed a series of benches towards the ridge, finding and toppling the occasional cairn. I really don’t understand who erects cairns on this sort of cross country route…

Unicorn Peak high above Tuolumne Meadows.

Once atop the ridge, the terrain opened up onto a slope of broad granite slabs, rising gracefully from the meadows to the fin-like summit. I contoured across the ridge to the obvious notch between the northern and middle summits. Up to this point the climbing was all fairly mellow class two scrambling, but from the notch the slope quickly steepens.

My small amount of research had indicated that the most popular route was to climb the ridge from this notch to attain either of the middle or north summits (supposedly the north summit is higher, although the middle and north summits are close enough that most people climb both if they want to be sure to have climbed to the highpoint). Attaining the notch, I looked down the west side and found that it was a vertical face for at least one hundred feet, and looking north to the summit, I did not see an easy route along the ridge.

Mt Conness and Lembert Dome from the sandly ledges below the summit.

Instead I followed some sandy ledges until I was directly below the summit and climbed a system of hand cracks and flakes for about fifty feet. The granite there has large crystals and was very rough on my skin and clothes, but the climbing was great! The wall is mostly 70+ degrees and as long as your hands can stand the cheese-grater rock there are plentiful holds. I needed to traverse between crack systems once or twice on the way up, and after some quick and fun climbing and I was at the summit.


The Cathedral Range from Unicorn Peak: The Cockscomb, The Matthes Crest, Echo Ridge, Echo Peaks, Tressider Peak, and (far right) Cathedral Peak.

From the summit is a sweeping view of the Cathedral Range to the south, the endless domes and forests of central Yosemite to the northwest, and Mt Dana, Mt Conness, North Peak and the rest of the Sierra crest extending out of site to the northeast.

Cathedral Peak, Tuolumne Meadows, and endless granite domes.

It was a remarkably clear day and I took my time at the summit, particularly entranced with the other summits of the Cathedral Range and Mt Conness’s beautiful southern face.

Mt Hoffman and Cathedral Peak. Two climbers visible surmounting the last pitch of Cathedral’s SE Buttress.

While on the summit, I watched the woman I’d met earlier traverse over to the notch and heard the sound of voices coming up the northeast slope. Soon there was a party below, discussing what route to take to the summit.

Mt Conness.

I made my way back down the route I’d come up, although I think towards the bottom I took a slightly different and more difficult route. The other group was watching me and based on their comments I must have made it look particularly difficult. I assured them that I was not a great climber and that the route probably was not as bad as I’d made it look, but they seemed unconvinced.

I made it back to the notch and climbed the middle summit, which was much easier going than the north. About fifteen feet of class three climbing delivered me to the top and I decided to wait up there to watch the other group and maybe recruit some part of it to join me on the Cockscomb.

A group of climbers weighing their options twenty feet shy of the summit.

Perhaps owing to my demonstration, they decided to climb the ridge directly from the notch and after about thirty minutes the whole group had made it about halfway up and decided they were at an impasse. I didn’t see a good way up from their perch and when it was clear they weren’t going to attempt to climb any further, I shouted across and tried to convince them that they other route really wasn’t too bad.

I asked if any of them were interested in joining me to climb Unicorn Peak, and after a confused silence and a shout of “Huh? Isn’t this Unicorn?”, I realized I’d misspoke and invited them to join me to climb the Cockscomb. None seemed overly interested and I had wasted a good deal of time watching them climb, so I decided I would head back to the car and onto the next adventure.

Since that group had come up the northeast slope, I decided there must be a decent route back down that way so after climbing back down to the notch I struck off on a beeline to Elizabeth Lake. The slabs were easy going and I jogged most of the way to the lake, only slowing a for a couple short talus slopes and later some dense sections of trees. This was definitely a better route than that which I had taken on the way up.

Unicorn Peak from the northeast slope.

I joined the trail below Elizabeth Lake and jogged the rest of the way to the car, passing a few dozen hikers heading the other way. A woman bid me be careful and I laughed to myself, thinking how easy and carefree I found this part of the hike.

I made it back to the car and drove a few miles down the road, stopping at Tenaya Lake to enjoy a beer and a bath before the five hour drive to Road’s End.

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 2,200 ft

Total distance: 7.28 mi


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