Stanislaus and Sonora Peaks

I started my third and final day of hiking in the Sonora Pass area from the top of the pass, this time hiking north toward Stanislaus Peak. From the pass, a ridge rises up to Sonora Peak which continues northward, eventually to Stanislaus Peak. From Disaster Peak, I had seen that the west slope looked to be free of snow and I expected that the east slope would probably be snowier (because of the prevailing wind). Therefore, I planned to climb the PCT to the west ridge of Sonora and continue cross country to Stanislaus. If I had the time and energy I would visit some of the highpoints along the ridge.

Sunrise catches Sonora Peak’s ragged south slope.

I started hiking from the parking area at the pass a little after seven. The trail seemed to be an old 4×4 road and it meandered up and down some small hills, heading directly for Sonora Peak. As I neared the peak, volcanic buttresses rose up above me, reminding me of many features at Kirkwood — I definitely need to return earlier next year to ski!

A volcanic butte rises up on the south side of Sonora Peak.

The road became an increasingly steep single track trail. This seemed altogether too steep to be part of the PCT and I couldn’t imagine hiking this with a full backpack! I checked my map and, sure enough, for the second time in three days I had managed to lose one of the most popular trails in the Sierra!

A large conglomerate arch rises above my steep path.

I was a good deal above the PCT and more than halfway to the switchback above me so I decided to press on. I had to do some scrambling on loose conglomerate but eventually found my way to a spectacular arch, more than ten feet wide and twenty feet tall! I crossed through the arch, but it led nowhere so I returned to the route I was climbing.

Wild conglomerate features litter Sonora’s south slope.

Snow began to build along the conglomerate and I was regretting not having an axe or crampons or even my poles. I noted a traverse someone had made across the snow earlier, but it didn’t look like good footing and it would be hard to stop myself if I slipped, so I continued up the rock.

An old bootpack crosses the steep snow.

Eventually I came to some stiff class 4 climbing which didn’t look promising with the chossy rock. To the right I spied a narrow 10 foot section of snow. If I were to cross the snow, this would be the shortest route. I kicked my foot in but didn’t like the footing and turned back to the rock. After considering the rock I returned again to the snow and carefully kicked 10 steps, jumping across to the other side as soon as I was confident I could make it.

Ten cautious steps cross a narrow snowfield.

Twenty feet above me I found the trail. I was a couple hundred feet above the section where I intended to traverse the west side of the ridge so instead I decided to follow the PCT onto the east ridge. If there was too much snow on the east ridge I figured I could climb Sonora Peak directly and drop down onto the west side to continue onto Stanislaus.

The PCT rises toward Sonora’s east ridge.

Before I even arrived on the east side of the ridge the snow became deep and I regretted my choice. I didn’t see an obvious way to the summit of Sonora either, though, so I continued along, hoping that eventually I might be able to see the route and evaluate whether I should continue traversing or backtrack.

Miles of suncups lay between me and Stanislaus Peak.

Finally when I arrived on the east ridge I found that there was lots of snow but also a decent amount of bare ground which I could traverse to continue on the way without much detour. I followed a low bench around the first bowl, crossing the snow in only a few short places.

I look back at the bare patch on a long bench which helped me to avoid most of the snow.

As I continued the traverse, each bowl was much like the first. About half of the slope would be covered with snow but if I was strategic in my route choice I could manage to take a path with only about a quarter snow coverage.

Deep purple lupine grows below Stanislaus Peak.

Nearing the final minor peak before Stanislaus the terrain changed significantly as granite slabs rose up from the sandy slope. I climbed to the top of this small peak and found a beautiful granite formation rising like the prow of a ship from the ridge.

A stunning granite formation juts out from the ridge below Stanislaus Peak.

I studied the peak for a while, not sure what route to take. The south slope appeared steep and sandy but manageable, although it was quite steep just below the summit. My map seemed to indicate that the north slope was less cliffy but I decided to take my chances on the south, continuing straight ahead.

A steep loose slope leads to the summit of Stanislaus Peak.

The route was indeed quite sandy but I soon reached the cliff and, although there were many large loose boulders, I found an easy class 2 route to the summit, arriving at 11:30 am.

Snowy peaks line the southern horizon.

Upon arriving I was astounded by the view. Because Stanislaus is such a high peak in a relatively low lying section of the range I could see clearly in all directions. To the north I spotted all of major peaks of the Tahoe area including Mt Rose (67 miles NNE); to the east the entire Sweetwater range was visible and even White Mountain was visible (92 miles SE); in the south, Leavitt dominated the view, but Lyell, Maclure, Ritter and Banner were all clear as day (54 miles SSE); most delightful, Mt Diablo was clearly silhouetted on the horizon (125 miles WSW)!

I signed the register and had a slow lunch as butterflies flitted about, not wanting to leave the summit. I knew I had a long way back to the pass and I turned my mind to the route. Below me along the ridge I spotted a trail! No trail was marked on any of my maps, but it appeared to be heading toward the pass! I tried to follow it with my telephoto lens but the snowbanks covered it too often to know for sure where it led. I decided it was at least worth checking out and started back down the peak toward this mysterious trail.

A surprise trail carries me back toward Sonora Peak.

The trail led faithfully in the direction I was hoping until eventually it disappeared into a large snowfield. I was feeling up for the challenge of Sonora Peak so I started trending upwards on the ridgeline toward the summit.

Lush lavender lupine below Sonora Peak.

As I neared the peak I once again spotted a surprise trail which seemed to climb the west slope heading for the peak. I reached the trail and started the climb. A couple hundred feet from the summit I passed a couple headed the other way. After talking for a minute they told me that there was a trail down the other side of the peak which would join up with the PCT. What luck!

A small meltwater tarn gathers along the ridge connecting Stanislaus and Sonora Peaks.

I arrived on the summit at 1:45 pm and found another person just heading down. I confirmed with him the existence of this supposed trail which hooked up to the PCT and he took off.

Snowy peaks stretch south along the Sierra.

The view from Sonora was just as grand as from Stanislaus and it was truly a glorious day to be in the mountains! After a short snack I started jogging down the trail, glad that I had mostly downhill ahead of me.

Stanislaus Peak.

I lost the trail briefly but picked it up again, making quick progress and passing three hikers and a dog along the way. The last hiker was wearing sandals!

I found the PCT and continued onward. I was a bit distraught by how indirect the route was. Despite the difficulty of the morning’s climb it probably more than halved the distance covered by the PCT which never seemed to drop more than 100 feet without climbing at least 20.

Steep ravines wind between former lava tubes.

After a while I spotted the hiker I’d met on the summit and was confused how he’d gotten ahead of me. Apparently he took some shortcut (I wished he’d told me about it on the summit)!

A hiker traverses a large snowfield blocking the PCT.

I arrived back at the trailhead before 3 pm, not too surprised to find that it was several dozen feet away from the trail I’d taken that morning. I stowed my gear in the car and headed down from a great three day tour of Sonora Pass.

Snow Discussion

Snow Observations

  • 50% snow coverage along the east side of the ridge
  • 20% snow coverage along the west side of the ridge
  • Snow was soft but firm enough to boot without much issue

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 4,500 ft

Total distance: 14.63 mi

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