Highland and Silver Peaks

I pulled into the Wolf Creek Trailhead parking lot shortly before 7 am and found Rob’s familiar van. Winter seemed to be taking its sweet time to arrive, having not snowed since early October, and Rob and I were eager to take advantage of its slow onset. I was also keen to redeem my recent failed effort to climb Highland and Silver Peaks in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness.

After experiencing the horribly steep climb from Noble Canyon I opted this time to climb the peaks from Wolf Creek Canyon, several hundred feet lower on the opposite side of the ridge. I had thought to head directly uphill to Silver Peak, traverse to Highland Peak, and descend to the Wolf Creek Trail for a quick run back to the car. Rob suggested taking the opposite route and I had no strong objections so we set off up the trail in the early morning light.

Wolf Creek littered with aspen leaves.

The trail followed Wolf Creek up the canyon through a beautiful mixed aspen and pine forest. The aspen barely held on to their straggling yellow leaves and the floor was paved with their red and orange hearts. About a mile and a half in we briefly lost the trail at a creek crossing but found it and never had an issue again. The creek was dotted with aspen, cottonwood, and arroyo willow, each in various shades of yellow and stages of undress.

A magnificent pine along Wolf Creek. Cottonwood, Aspen, and Willow showing their fall colors.

We continued along Wolf Creek a bit longer than a topo map might have suggested but this was for good reason — I’d noticed from satellite and slope angle maps that there were some very large cliffs lurking between the topo lines and didn’t want to start the trip off with some sketchy climbing on crumbly conglomerate. Rob trusted my research and we eventually did see the cliffs I’d anticipated. They didn’t exactly look impenetrable but it certainly would have been a more technically challenging route.

I suggested to Rob that we should turn uphill and we immediately encountered a signpost marking a trail junction. The marker read “Bull Canyon Trail” and though I wasn’t previously aware of its existence, it seemed to head in the right direction so we decided to follow it.

The trail was obviously not often traveled and in places we had to rely on cairns to discern where it headed. We followed it two miles up into Bull Canyon, south of Highland’s south summit. From here we had a view of the south summit and it seemed like the trail would continue up and over the saddle to its south. From that saddle, it appeared that we’d need to gain another 1500 feet over stiff class 3 climbing. On the other hand a 1000 foot scree slope would lead us to the east ridge from which we’d have an easier time gaining the summit. Knowing that the south ridge could end up being more difficult climbing than it appeared we decided to go with the latter route.

Willows on the hill below Highland Peak’s south summit.

As we crossed the bottom of the canyon we passed through dense willows and encountered a surprising amount of water for such a late date in the season. A mix of bear crawling and willow trampling got us to the north side of the canyon and we started the slog up the ridge.

Willow forest along Bull Canyon Creek.

The climb was steep and loose and annoying and I found myself trending ever further east in hopes of hitting the ridge earlier. On the way up I was surprised to encounter what I was certain were the bootprints of another hiker and wondered who else would be crazy enough to climb this slope. I was deeply regretting the decision to reverse the route.

Bull Canyon.

Eventually I gained the ridge, but Rob had stayed along a more direct route so I began climbing towards the summit to meet up with him. I was worried that he might have continued without me when I came across some tracks, but found him shortly after. The route to the south summit was easy, and a small amount of scrambling brought us atop it just before 11:30.

Unfamiliar peaks to the south.

The views from the summit were grand. Although I didn’t recognize many peaks in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness, I spied The Three Chimneys and Granite Dome in Emigrant Wilderness as well as now familiar Tower Peak, far south in Yosemite. I also spied a distant peak between Sonora and Stanislaus Peaks and was amazed to later identify it as Mt Lyell, 60 miles distant on the far side of Yosemite!

To the north we had a view of the climb to come. Highland’s north summit rose 100 feet above us and beyond lay Silver Peak’s twin summits. Northwest was a striking view of the ridge comprising Reynolds and Raymond Peaks and Round Top beyond.

Reynolds Peak. Deadwood Peak, Thimble Peak, and Round Top beyond.

A fun class 3 downclimb brought us to the saddle between the two summits and we found a use trail. The trail led to a talus climb up Highland’s south ridge and promptly disappeared. By 12:30 we stood atop Highland Peak.

Silver Peak’s twin summits, near right; Freel Group, distant left; Mt Rose, distant center.

We didn’t linger long on the summit before continuing on to Silver Peak. We stayed along the top of the ridge, only occasionally dipping towards the left side when cliffs barred the way.

A peek into the head of Noble Canyon from the saddle.

We were a little worried about how much time we had remaining to finish our hike, but we maintained a decent pace and carried headlamps just in case we ended up finishing in the dark. By two we gained the south summit of Silver Peak which I’d stood atop utterly defeated only a few weeks ago. I was excited that this time I’d gain the true summit!

Rob eyes Silver Peak from its south summit.

After another half hour of scrambling we were atop Silver Peak. We spent a while on this summit, knowing that we’d have plenty of time to return to the trailhead before dark. We leafed through the register looking for Rob’s entry from his first summit which was one of his first cross country hikes. We didn’t find his entry but we were able to find an entry by Chris whom Rob had first met on the summit!

Highland Peak.

We also spent a while looking for Monitor Pass which was my original motivation for climbing the peak. I’d nearly given up looking for the narrow two lane highway when I saw a glimmer in the distance and realized it was a car crossing the pass (after reviewing my photos from the south summit, it turns out that the pass is also visible from there although equally hard to distinguish)!

Monitor Pass and Leviathan Peak (at 420mm or 8.4 times magnification).

From Silver Peak our return route continued to follow the ridge (in the end we’d traverse the ridge for a total of seven miles!). The climbing was tedious and often forced us to choose between staying along the top of the ridge climbing up and down every outcropping boulder or contouring along the ridge slithering through dense evergreen shrubs and occasional patches of snow.

Rob divines a route through the snow and shrubs.

We ascended two more small high points, the second of which was quite rugged and exhausting, before coming to a broad grassy plateau. We crossed the plateau and began the steep descent to the car.

Rob crosses a broad plateau on the descent.

We initially descended quickly through the pine forest before entering a massive burn scar. Here the slope was steeper and the footing less sure, probably owing to the massive loss of vegetation. We followed game trails where we could find them and admired the starkness of the charred forest in the evening light.

Memories of fire.

The pine forest became less dense and manzanita dominated the scene. New growth sprouted up among the skeletal remains of burnt shrubs. The ground was still loose, but with less debris strewn along the ground it was easier to pick up the pace without worry of twisting an ankle.

Life from death.

Along the last stretch of the descent the ground was so steep and littered with fine needles that even stepping slowly and carefully Rob and I frequently found ourselves on our butts as our legs slid out from under us. Although the climb this morning was annoying, I was very glad that didn’t climb Silver Peak first. This climb would have been brutal. Besides the difficulty of the climb, it would also entail 3,000 feet of climbing over the first two and a half miles followed by the tedious ridge traverse to Silver Peak! It’s also worth noting that this route is far superior to my earlier attempt up Noble Canyon which was relentlessly steep and far less interesting.

End of season.

We arrived back at the trailhead and found that the trailhead information board had been disassembled while we were away. Perhaps winter will take the hint and arrive soon!

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 6,500 ft

Total distance: 21.26 mi

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