Lee Vining Peak

For our last hike of the trip, Richard and I had decided to climb Lee Vining Peak. I had pitched Mt Dana earlier in the week, but thought that snow conditions might complicate the hike, so opted for Dana’s nearby little neighbor. Hopefully the summit views would be equally as stunning! In researching the hike I was amused to find out that Lee Vining Peak (as well as the town of Lee Vining) is named after a Mr Leroy Vining. Frequently when driving through Lee Vining I see people who miss the 35mph speed limit change and go blasting through the main drag at 50 mph. Now, whenever I see such a driver, I’ll be picturing them shouting “Leroy Vining” (a la Leroy Jenkins) as they do so…

Richard crosses Route 120 toward the Warren Creek Trailhead.

We parked on the inside of the first large switchback coming up Tioga Pass where I was surprised to find a large gravel lot. Across from the lot on the uphill side of the road was a forest service road which appeared to be in great disrepair and long closed. Several resources had referred to the “Warren Creek Trailhead,” but none of my maps had such a trail marked. I finally found one map which had labeled the trailhead, but gave no indication of a trail — strange. We crossed route 120 around 9:30 and headed up the old road. It was quickly flooded with water and we opted to leave the road and head uphill along the east side of a large gully.

Many use trails lead the way through low brush.

Despite lots of chaparral growing along the route, we had an easy time negotiating the brush and made quick progress up the slope until we came to a patch of dense shrubby oaks. We frequently had to duck through tight spots and ocassionally had to backtrack to find a better path but soon the oak let up and we found ourselves on a steep field of loose red talus.

Richard fights his way through tight oaks; Dana’s Third Pillar towers in the distance.

At the top of the talus slope the terrain started to level off and we had a view down to the creek below us. There was still a lot of snow left in the steep ravine and I hoped we wouldn’t regret leaving our snow gear in the truck. We travelled through a sparse pine forest for a while, traversing into the drainage which would lead to Lee Vining Peak rather than climbing upwards toward a smaller peak which might prove more tricky climbing. We started to encounter more and more snow drifts in the sparse forest and although they weren’t too steep, the snow was very firm and it was difficult for our trailrunners to bite on the snow.

The snow drifts become larger as we get our first glimpse of the summit.

We decided to drop down to the creek below us and cross to the other side which was more south-facing and appeared to have much less snow on it. As we approached the creek, the ravine became steeper and therefore the snow also became steeper. I managed to keep my footing until about ten feet from the creek when I slipped and fell hard on my butt, sliding to the bottom of the snow (and luckily not into the creek). I suggested that Richard try to find a different route and it seemed like he was able to reach the creek with more grace.

A raucous creek drops down from Lee Vining Peak.

This was a minor creek which drained the only the west slope of Lee Vining Peak so I wouldn’t be surprised if it dries up before the end of summer. During the current peak snow melt it was sparkling with life and the surrounding meadows were lush and full of small flowers. Directly above us at the head of the drainage we spotted Lee Vining Peak. The summit appeared elongated and we weren’t sure where the high point was, but it was easy enough to make a beeline toward the ridge.

Richard makes his way up canyon toward the summit.

We crossed through some swampy grass to the other side of the creek and began the climb straight uphill. We crossed a few small snowfields which were now soft enough that they were easy to climb, and navigated through some tight evergreen shrubs which were somehow more annoying that the oak we’d encountered earlier. As we climbed higher on the talus, the view south began to open up. We had an incredible view of nearby Mt Dana, both the Dana Couloir and Solstice Couloir looking imminently skiable! Stretching beyond and east were the peaks of the Sherwin Range. We even spotted little Reversed Peak which we’d just climbed the day before!

Mt Dana dominates the view south.

We reached the summit shortly after 12 pm and Mono Lake came into full view, just as I had hoped. Or rather we thought we were on the summit. We didn’t find a register and it appeared that a highpoint nearby to the south might be a bit higher. Richard eventually found a register though and we took it down off the ridge toward the east to get out of the chill wind. The construction was a bit odd — a few papers stapled together in a large glass Prego jar. No pen or pencil. And, it seemed, the person who placed the register had left the lables on the jar as they were now littering the summit.

Mt Warren obscures most of the view north; White Mountain, Mt Conness, and North Peak, left.

The views into Yosemite were a bit obstructed by higher peaks, but we could see all of the striking smaller peaks of the Cathedral Range. I was also surprised to spot the many piles of tailings at Bodie to the northeast!

We had lunch in the small shelter we’d found before replacing the “register” and heading over to the other possible summit. We found no evidence of a register at this highpoint though, so after a minute we started the hike back down.

Richard traverses the ridge toward the south summit.

The hike down went much the same as the hike up. I had toyed with the idea of following the less-snowy north side of the creek all the way down, but eventually decided that it was better to take the route which we knew, as it was a decent route.

Richard crosses the creek below the summit.

We did decide to follow the creek quite a bit further on the north side before crossing back to follow the route down. It was delightful following the creek — Im not sure whether it was the terrain or the company, but I was reminded of the trip Richard and I took to Norway exactly a year earlier. We passed through a patch of wild onion so large that the entire meadow smelled of onion. Eventually the ravine became too tight and too full of obstacles so we crossed and rejoined our tracks.

The creek winds through fresh spring meadows toward Tioga Peak.

When we arrived at the top of the red talus field I hiked toward the ravine to have a look at the route along the other side. I was glad we hadn’t gone that way as it was much steeper and several large buttresses looked like they might prove difficult climbing.

The north bank of the creek is much less hospitable than the south.

We hiked back through the dense oak which wasn’t nearly as bad as we had recalled and soon it was easy going back down to the road. A couple hundred feet above the road I discovered what looked like a pipe buried in the ground. I wonder if this is an old pipe which diverted water from the creek to be used at the Warren Creek Trailhead. Perhaps this old pipe and the route people took to maintain it is the reason the hiking was so easy in this area.

A strange valve and pipe buried near the Warren Creek Trailhead.

We arrived back at the car shortly after 2 pm. We were both feeling quite grimy and, this being the first day that Tioga Pass was fully open, decided to head uphill into the park to visit Tenaya Lake. For a Monday there was a huge amount of traffic, backed up a quarter mile from the park entrance, but eventually we made it into the park and to the lake. As we drove through the park, I remembered why Yosemite is such a special place. I’ll definitely be back soon for more climbing!

After lounging on the beach for a while we hit the road, headed for home.

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 2,800

Total distance: 5.55 mi

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