Carson Peak

Since first I visited the June Lake Loop I’d been entranced by Carson Peak. Visible from just about anywhere in the loop, I’ve been impressed by its sheer north face divided into several bowls by tall ribs. The largest of these bowls is home to a popular ski descent called Pete’s Dream but unfortunately I was too late to ski the peak.

Although impressive in form, the peak only rises to a height of 10,866 ft and sitting as it does in the shadow of San Joaquin Mountain, Mt Ritter, Banner Peak, and a host of other taller peaks along the crest, I’ve always overlooked it as the subject of a dayhike. After my recent visits to Mt Wood and Reversed Peak, however, Carson was the last major high point on the Loop which I hadn’t climbed so I decided to pay a visit.

The Rush Creek trail climbs up past Silver Lake toward Carson Peak.

I parked near the north end of Silver Lake around 10 am and took a cutoff from the road up to the Rush Creek trail which serves as one of the most popular access points to an incredible part of the Ansel Adams Wilderness (most notably Thousand Island Lake). As I hiked I passed three or four groups of backpackers. I said hi and out of curiousity asked each of them where they were headed. Sure enough all but one of the groups was headed for Thousand Island, and the last group was “eventually” heading to Thousand Island!

California Fuchsia accents the trail as it climbs past Horsetail Falls.

As the trail nears a spectacular cascade on Rush Creek it’s intersected by a steep old tramway line which I believe was built to help construct the dams along Rush Creek (perhaps it predates these dams and is actually a remnant of an old mining operation?). Several years ago when I’d visited, the tramway seemed to be a popular route to cut the many switchbacks. Now there was a sign unmistakably commanding hikers to keep off. I’m not certain, but it looks like possibly the tram was repaired recently. I’d heard some rumor about the dams being retrofitted because of the immediate risk they pose to the June Lake Loop in the case of catastrophic failure, but surely the tramway can’t still be in use? Either way, I didn’t terribly mind the switchbacks so I heeded the sign and kept on.

An old tramway line climbs the steep hill alongside Rush Creek.

Soon I arrived at the Agnew Lake dam and took the fork toward Clark Lakes. Rush Creek was running quite high at the outlet of Gem Lake creating a beautiful series of cascades and eventually coming to rest at Agnew Lake. After briefly losing the trail along the south shore of the lake (I wasn’t trying especially hard to follow it) I found it again and started the steep climb out of the canyon.

Rush Creek cascades from Gem Lake down to Agnew Lake.

Some snow lay on the trail near the top of the climb where the trail started switching back through a thin forest. When possible I tried to stay on the snow to avoid cutting the switchbacks and eroding the trail. In one spot I placed my feet atop some partially buried trees, thinking that I was less likely to posthole there, and one of the trees lurched up as the snow restraining it broke. I panicked for an instance and the image of my body being cartoonishly flung up the mountain flashed through my mind before I realized the tree had only rose about an inch.

Snow covers parts of the trail above Agnew Lake.

As I reached the top of the canyon I heard the thwock of helicopter blades cutting the air and looked around, spotting the helicopter climbing up from Agnew Lake toward the Gem Lake dam. It made a tight circle to gain elevation before landing a hundred feet north of the dam. A minute later it took off and I watched as it turned toward me and flew directly overhead (and quite low too)!

A helicopter buzzes me as I climb out of the Rush Creek Canyon.

Here I encountered the first major snowfield which covered both the trail and a creek. Presumably somewhere under the snow was a proper creek crossing, but this late in the summer on such a warm day I decided I’d rather stay on the left side of the creek. Soon enough the snow let up and I found a safe place to cross and regain the trail.

A large snowfield buries both creek and trail.

Carson Peak was now high above the canyon on the left. The peak’s west face was quite different from the one I was used to seeing from the road. All of the stunning cliffs and bowls were replaced with a large steep pile of rock. I eyed it hopefully — perhaps this could be an easy route down!

Carson Peaks west face drops precipitously in a jumble of rocks.

As it was, my plan for the ascent was to follow the trail up into the next bowl before striking cross country toward a shallow section in a broad cliff band. As I later learned, this area is called Spooky Meadow. Above the meadow rose a broad cliff but on the far left side I could see a route up. I made a beeline toward this shallow section, admiring the meadow as I crossed another small creek.

A large cliff band borders the south edge of Spooky Meadow.

I made my way to the snowfield and found it to be easy climbing. The snow was soft and shallow enough that I didn’t bother grabbing either my ice axe or crampons. Looking back down the canyon I could see that Carson Peaks summit plateau was quite broad. In fact, at the top of the snowfield I was already on the plateau and it would be a gentle climb to the summit from there.

Carson Peaks gentle plateau extends toward the summit.

From the plateau I could now see over the cliffs at the top of Spooky Meadows to the Ritter Range. Mt Ritter and Banner Peak were mirroring each other as always though The Minarets looked odd and less striking than usual from this angle.

The Ritter Range sits atop the Spooky Meadow cliff band.

I arrived at the summit at 1:15 pm and found it to be somewhat unremarkable. What was remarkable, though, were the aretes jutting out from the summit toward the June Lake Loop. I climbed down and out onto a high pillar to get a better look. Grant Lake was slightly obscured, but otherwise I could see the entire Loop!

The entire June Lake loop is visible from the top of Carson Peak.

After taking a short break I turned my effort toward investigating the shortcut I had seen on the way up. As expected the route was quite steep and I had to do some climbing down the rock to reach the talus. I took my time descending, making sure not to start any large rock slide or to get too far ahead of the moving rock where I might be hit from behind.

Mt Ritter, Banner Peak, and the Cathedral range frame the Rush Creek rainage.

Occasionally the rocks did start to slide and gain speed, but after stepping aside and letting the flow subside it would die down and I could continue. About halfway down the angle eased and I could plunge step down with less concern. Surely this was the fastest way down the mountain!

Loose rock cascades down Carson Peaks west slope.

I rejoined the trail and made swift progress down, opting this time to take the tramway shortcut. The route was steep and there wasn’t always a lot of room to step between the cable and the rails so I can understand why they wouldn’t want people hiking along it. I arrived back at the car around 3 pm, just in time to go for a swim in Silver Lake!

The tramway drops steeply back toward the trail and Silver Lake.

Snow Discussion

Snow Observations

  • Snow highly aspect, angle, and topography dependent, first observed at 9,000 ft

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 3,900 ft

Total distance: 9.9 mi