Mt. Williamson via Onion Valley
First of all, this is about Mount Williamson in the Sierra Nevada (14,380’). There’s another Mount Williamson in the San Gabriel Mountains (8,214’). It’s a great hike with amazing views, see pictures here, here and here (note how there's no snow in January).
Ever since we first went to Onion Valley, the sight of Mt. Williamson intrigued me (didn’t even know its name back then). It looms huge above the Owens Valley, dwarfing everything around it. No wonder, it’s only 125 feet shorter than Mt. Whitney.
Having done Whitney in 2012 and Langley in 2014, we set our sights on Williamson. Even before reading the trip reports, I had a strong feeling the other two were leisurely hikes compared to this one, meaning I was prepared to abandon the idea if the route is too technical. Turns out the "easiest" route involves a lot of rock-hopping and even more class-3 scrambling. Let’s try it. We’re not peak-baggers - of course it’s great to get to the top, but the journey is what matters more.
The other hard aspect of climbing this mountain is getting to the base. The shortest approach is via Shepherd Pass, but that trailhead is down in the valley and the hike to the pass is a slog with over 6,000’ in elevation gain in 10 miles.
We had another plan. For a long time, we wanted to experience Forester Pass. It’s the highest point of the PCT and said to be beautiful. One idea we had earlier was to hike from Onion Valley over Kearsarge Pass down to the PCT/JMT, turn south, then go all the way to Crabtree Meadows, climb Mt. Whitney again and head out via Whitney Portal. We may do this in the near future, but this time we didn’t have enough days off and could only get away for three nights.
We decided on a variation of this route, switching Whitney for Williamson. The plan called for our car to be left at the Shepherd Pass trailhead, so I looked at several possibilities of getting from there to Onion Valley, and finally had to settle on East Side Sierra Shuttle Service. If you’re not pressed to use them, don’t. Paul, the owner, is not the nicest guy around, and he raised the price on me last minute because he was busy and had to send his other driver. I think you can see from my gear reviews that generally I’m a mellow guy and pretty lenient, but that was really, really unprofessional. Anyway, on to the trip.
Day 1 – L.A. to the Shepherd Pass trailhead to Onion Valley and on the PCT west of Center Peak
It was a Friday in late July. By the time we scheduled the trip, all reservable slots for the Kearsarge Pass trail were taken, but I called the visitor center and they told me we have a realistic shot at getting a walk-up permit. So like a few times before, we got up- early and drove to Lone Pine, arriving somewhat before opening time. The crowd at the visitor center was pretty bad, forty-something people were standing in line to get permits, but almost all of them for Mount Whitney. A few minutes before 8am, a ranger came out and one person per group drew a number in which to be served. I drew twenty-something. We got the permit around 8:30, I called our driver, and we agreed to meet at the trailhead.
Getting to the trailhead is relatively simple: in Independence, turn west on Market Street (the road to Onion Valley) for cca. 4.3 miles, then left on Foothill Rd, a track beginning as a wide gravel road, progressively getting worse. Ignore the "Symes Creek Trailhead" sign (at around mile 2.7), keep left, after another half a mile turn right at the "Shepherd Pass Trailhead" sign. The road is pretty bad, but now awful, anybody with a little experience and patience can negotiate it with almost any kind of car.
We got to the almost full parking lot at 9:30am and our driver showed up a few minutes later. As mad as I was at the owner for raising the price on me, the driver, Bryan, was a very nice and knowledgeable guy. He told us many interesting things about the plant ecology of the Owens Valley and the Sierra foothills. We shared the car with another guy, a JMT through-hiker, who gave us detailed reports of the trail north of the Kearsarge Basin. For example, he said the mosquitoes were so bad, around Rae Lakes he was wiping them off his arm by the dozen.
I was hoping to get as high up and possible before they suck all our blood, but we had no idea how far we can get that day.
Around 10:30am, Bryan dropped us off at Onion Valley. The JMT guy disappeared up the trail quickly. I had a hydration-bladder malfunction – my fault, and not the bladder’s – so we needed to completely unpack my bag, take care of the issue, and repack it. By the time we did this, had a snack and finally got ourselves together, it was 11:20am. Late start to a long day.
The hike up was gorgeous, with everything green and blooming. We tried to take was few breaks as possible, but climbing up those 2,500’+ to the pass takes time. We got there at 1:45pm - actually, a record for us.
Then a quick descent into the gorgeous Kearsarge Basin, quick lunch break on the trail next to a little stream of fresh water, then onwards past Kearsarge Lakes and past Bullfrog Lake. I can’t say enough times how much we love this place and beautiful we find it.
We connected with the "freeway" (JMT/PCT) below Bullfrog and descended even further to Vidette Meadows. It was painful to know what every single step taken downhill will be needed to regained again, but then we could have stayed home...
The view from the hillside above Vidette is one of a kind. The upper part of Bubbs Creek Canyon with Forester Pass is in the back, East Vidette in the middle, looking much taller than it really is (12,350’), West Vidette and the lower portion of Bubbs Creek Canyon to the right. I remembered this vividly from our mini trans-Sierra trip, but regardless, late or not, we had to stop and take a ton of pictures.
Vidette was beautiful as ever, but not surprisingly, full of mosquitoes, so we couldn’t wait to get out of there and walked up the canyon as fast as we could. It was getting to be a beautiful mid-afternoon with the light becoming more amazing by the minute. That canyon is yet another mind-blowing Sierra valley with the East Spur on one side, Center Peak on the other and the Kings Kern Divide in the back.
We wanted to keep going as far as we could for two reasons: gain as much elevation as possible to get rid of at least some mosquitoes, and shrink the mileage to next day’s destination, as we wanted to get all the way to the base of Mt. Williamson (well, the base of Mt. Tyndall, to be exact).
If you look at the map of the PCT in this area, you’ll see that just south of Center Peak, there’s a bend where it goes east-west briefly. I heard there’s water and camping in this area, so that was the goal for the day.
It was approaching 7pm and we were pretty tired, having been up since 4:30am and having hiked over 13 miles. About half a mile before this bend, we met a few people camped right next to the trail. Some of them were coming from the north and they told us that there’s a huge campsite up there indeed, but it’s very, very crowded. Bummer.
This place was not ideal, either, and the only water source was a tiny stream, but we were tired and it sounded much better than the bigger "village".
We walked up the trail for another 50 yards or so and found a fantastic campsite, only about 60’ from the trail, but sort of hidden behind some trees, and also out of sight of the other guys. We have no idea why somebody didn’t set up camp there, it was a million times more private than the other spot, and those people down there did not all belong to the same group. Anyway, their loss.
Being really, hungry, we quickly made a soup, then set up camp and had dinner later.
I went back to get water, and in the process learned a trick I didn’t know before. I was struggling to get water from the flimsy stream, so one of the guys there showed me how to take a short piece of pipe (it was the emergency splint for his tent, the exact same as we got) and fashion a little spigot with that and a few rocks, providing a weak but steady flow of clean water.
The evening was stunning. Clear skies, calm winds, alpenglow on the rocks, and only a few mosquitoes. Dinner was ratatouille with sausage and putella (Nutella on pita) for dessert.
However, I had one of my worst nights in a tent that night. I simply couldn’t sleep. It was the altitude. We were at "only" 11,000’ or so, but I haven’t slept at altitude for over a month and it was getting to me. I wasn’t short of breath and didn’t have a headache, but my mind kept racing back and forth on completely stupid issues, I felt a tingling like I drank five coffees, and sleep just wouldn’t come.
Day 2 - On the PCT west of Center Peak to the base of Mt. Tyndall
My best guess is I snoozed for a total of about two hours that night before the alarm went off at 6am, just when I finally fell asleep a bit. I told Em I needed another hour, and she was happy to get some more rest, as my tossing and turning made sleeping hard for her, too.
We dragged ourselves out of the tent around 7:20am. The weather was perfect – no wind and sunshine blazing on the East Spur with the waning gibbous moon about to set behind it.
A Clark’s nutcracker (one of our favorite birds) settled on the pine tree above us and had his own breakfast while we were eating ours. The rehydrated hummus and tea woke me up nicely.
We also had a bit of a military spectacle. There was a low rumbling first, coming from the direction of Vidette Meadows, and as it grew louder, it was pretty obvious that it’s some kind of big chopper. Sure enough, there it was, a tandem-rotor CH-64 Chinook maneuvering in the canyon at least a few hundred feet below us, disappearing to the east somewhere in the Golden Bear watershed. We really don’t like aircraft shattering the peace and quiet of the backcountry, but if it doesn’t happen often, what the heck. I guess this terrain is perfect training ground for places like the Hindu Kush. What’s really annoying, though, are the constant overflights of F18-s (from China Lake) around the Whitney area.
Anyway, we got ourselves together and left at 9:15am, much later than planned. The aforementioned bend in the trail was right there, not even half a mile in front of us, with at least a dozen nice campsites. Most were already empty, but some ladies still lingering there told us it was chock full last night.
Here the trail climbs a bit more, practically leaving the tree line, to a very cool little plateau with some tarns, and enters the boulder field leading up to Forester Pass. We had around 2,000’ to climb to the pass, so we took it easy, but the going was great. The place is gorgeous, with huge mountains towering on every side and the environment looking more desolate (in a good way) by the minute.
The trail winds its way across creeks and beyond little tarns, going up and up and up, passing pretty big lake below Junction Peak (no name for this lake on my map. Anybody?). Then it turns sharply by almost 180° going the opposite way for a quarter mile or so in order to climb the ridge that’s the final approach to the pass.
There was an intimidating-looking snowfield on the trail, but a guy coming down told us not to worry, it’s smaller than it looks, there’s no reason to bypass it, just exercise caution when crossing. A group of four in front of us was not that lucky to hear this advice, they started climbing on a really steep mini-ridge, away from the trail, and by the time they realized their mistake, they had to descend at least 200’ again. We could have ended up in the same situation easily of not for the tip from the fellow hiker. At least that group got a consolation prize, we shot a few really cool pictures of them walking in the middle of nowhere and emailed it to them later.
It was time for a snack break, and though we could see the pass a quarter mile in front of us, it looked really crowded, so we decided to eat on a nice big rock next to the trail. Then almost exactly at noon, we arrived at the pass. At least 20 people were crowded there, but everybody was in a great mood and the air smelled great – sky pilots were blooming in full force. These endemic flowers only grow above 10,000’ and bloom for a very short period of time. We got very luck to see them. Their beautiful smell was so strong, a lady even joked that the rangers planted them here to mask the smell of all these hikers.
It goes without saying, the pass is amazing with great views all around. Back to the north, we could almost see Kearsarge Pass, but it’s obscured by the peak south of it.
We spent only 10 minutes or so on top, taking pictures and chatting with the fellow wildpeople, most of them northbound JMT trough-hikers. Then we began the descent on the north side. Now I really understand why those early PCT-ers in May said they had a hard time here when it still had lots of snow. The trail is well made, but it’s brutally steep at the switchbacks and it’s terribly exposed. We really enjoyed it, but anybody negotiating this in snow, whether going up or down, has my full respect.
After this really sharp descent of 600’ or so, the trail evens out, gently sloping down on an alpine plateau, crossing a few creeks and passing two lakes on the east. We wanted to have a nice long lunch break, so we settled next to a creek a few hundred feet off the trail and cooked soup. Warm sun, soft grass, cool water to soak our feet in... perfect. Em met a couple coming up the trail with the 18 months-old son in a carrier backpack. They were having a great time.
The place was just too good, we spent way too much time there, over an hour and a half. By the time we left, it was 3pm.
Here I made a mistake. We should have cut east-south-east cross country to our trail leading towards Shepherd Pass. The terrain had some creek crossings and boulder fields, but it was not bad at all. Travel would have been slower for a mile or so, but it would have saved us at least a mile and a half in distance and hundreds of feet in elevation. I think I was too tired to make the decision and suggested to Em to stay on the trail. Usually, she leaves navigational decisions to me, so she agreed. We descended past the Kern trail to the Tyndall Creek junction, just around the tree line. Great place, by the way, with perfect camp spots, but by the looks of it, another village on the freeway.
After crossing Tyndall Creek, we turned left on the Shepherd Pass trail and started climbing slowly. The afternoon light was becoming soft and gorgeous as we left the tree line again and worked our way east. The route we should have taken was painfully obvious and easy, especially from this angle, and I was pretty mad at myself. Thankfully, Em didn’t hold it against me.
This plateau is very beautiful too, with its marmots, rocks and little creeks, where we took a break after Em complained that her back hurts. Some rest, a snack and adjustments to her pack took care of that.
Approaching Shepherd Pass, I was committed not to repeat my earlier mistake. The plan was not to sleep around the pass (there’s a nice lake), but to find a tarn half a mile south-east and around 100’ higher, close to the base of Mt. Tyndall. There should be water and it’s much closer to our route towards Mt. Williamson. Approaching from the west, it made a lot of sense to cut cross country and climb directly to this spot. The only issue I worried about was water, on historic satellite imagery (Google Earth) that tarn looked like it can dry up in low snow years.
The map showed the drainage of this tarn is crossing the trail half a mile before the pass, and I planned on going up that way. Everything worked out well. We found the drainage (double-checked on the GPS map), there was even water in the little creek. After climbing a bit and crossing a plain, we arrived at the tarn (more like a mini lake) at the foot of Mt. Tyndall. Williamson already loomed tall above a bit further beyond.
One single guy was wandering around the plain, he said he’s with a larger group down by the pass and they’ll attempt Mt. Williamson tomorrow.
This was a really desolate place, almost completely void of vegetation - and nonetheless, we saw a few mosquitoes, I guess they must have flow up from the creek below. It was a bit windy, though I can imagine that here this was the calmest it gets.
Previous campers built a nice wind shelter around a big rock, with a perfect campsite on the lee side. It was 6:45pm, way too late for our taste, but we felt pretty good.
While Em started unpacking, I got water, then we pitched the tent and went for a walk around the tarn. There was still a bit of wind, but it wasn’t very cold and the place looked ethereal in the light of the setting sun.
Some idiot left a cheapo tent stuffed between the rocks – I guess it’s easier to just leave it and buy another $20 tent for the next trip, other than carrying it down. I’m sorry, but I just can’t understand the people who do such a thing. We decided the carry this tent out when leaving.
We had dinner in the wind shade of the rocks, then went to bed quickly. We never slept at such altitude, even the previous record holder (above Guitar Lake, 2012) was at least 300’ lower, but I slept a million times better than the night before. When we got out for a potty break at 2am, the moonlight was so beautiful, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of our tent and hte mountains. I wasn‘t even very cold as the wind died down during the night.
Day 3 – Mt. Williamson
We set the alarm to 6:00am, and half an hour later, we were actually out of the tent. The plan was to leave the tent of most of the gear there, take day-hiking stuff and try for the summit.
A large group passed by our campsite, up on their way. We really took our time, first there was long futzing around with the food and the gear, then we couldn’t filter water. Our Sawyer Mini was ripe for a change, but we didn’t realize this before the trip and it took forever. Also, one of our really old Platypus bladders (used for dirty water) finally gave up and burst from the pressure when I was trying to force the filtration.
Still, I don’t know how we managed to leave camp as late as we did, at 8:45am. Anyway.
The weather was still perfect - light winds, clear sky. We worked our way up on the gentle slope towards the entrance of the Williamson Bowl. On the map or the satellite imagery, this bowl doesn’t look like much. It’s not even a mile across, dotted with two lakes and a few small tarns. However, I read that traversing it is really arduous, so we were prepared.
First, there’s a very steep descent of about 200’ into the actual Bowl. This part is by far the easiest. Then there’s the traverse, about three quarters of a mile (as the crow flies) of really, really bad boulder fields. Some cairns mark sort of a route, and in parts it’s truly the easiest (ehm, least hard) way to go, but in many parts it’s just hopelessly tedious. Most of the time, we like scrambling around on boulder fields, we really do. But this was too much, especially knowing that the actual climbs begins on the other side.
It took us almost an hour and a half to get through this, then finally started ascending the slope of Mt. Williamson. This is your "usual" steep talus-scree-rocky Sierra hillside and we actually enjoyed the task of slowly making our way up the mountainside.
We could see at least one group way ahead of us, around the "dark spot".
A few words about the route: according to most descriptions, the least technical climbs of Mt. Williamson is this way. There’s a dark spot on the side of the mountain left by snow and water, a bit above there you’re supposed to enter a chute, climb another 1000’ or so, then look for a narrow chimney that takes you to the summit plateau via a short, class 3 climb. This website has a really good description.
We took our time, climbing slowly, taking a snack break on a big rock around 11am, maybe halfway up to the dark spot. Those guys above us disappeared, but we didn’t see exactly which way.
It took us another hour to get to the entrance of the chute, and this is where I screwed up. My instinct told me to go left, in the narrower and steeper chute. The main chute was in front of us, still very steep, but wider. The route description of was not obvious enough, at least not while interpreting it at that elevation. I was almost ready to go left, but then the real problem occurred: we saw two people coming down the wide chute. They were too far away to shout questions and descending too slowly to wait for them.
This was one of those times when you know you’re making the wrong decision, but you still make it: we started climbing in the wider chute. The people coming down were two girls, and they gave us the bad news: they didn’t reach the summit. Their companions went ahead and climbed higher, but they turned around. When I asked them about chimneys and stuff, they had no idea, and they seemed generally pretty clueless anyway, so I still had some hope that we’re in the right place. We kept going higher and higher, taking quick beaks and enjoying the view. This picture gives you a good idea how steep it was.
I kept looking for the chimney on the right side, but no luck. Soon we were close to the top of the chute where – we couldn’t see it clearly - it looked like it terminates in some sort of window to the other side (of the mountain, not some other dimension). Em stayed behind and I climbed the last 100’ or so by myself arriving at the window at about 13,900’ (estimated with Google Earth).
There I was, looking out at the Owens Valley. Gorgeous view. Some footprints led out the window and up the other side, but it looked way beyond our skill level. Like my old gaffer friend used to say: "We’re stupid enough to live for this, but we’re not so stupid as to die for this." He meant working in the movie business, but same thing.
Anyway, I turned around and while still keeping a glimmer of hope and looking for the chimney, I knew our summit attempt was fubar. It was almost 2pm, and though the weather still looked perfect, we were way too late to go up the correct chute.
So we sat down for a minute, still having a great time, then began the slow descent. We saw two guys appear in front of us from the right (the good chute), then after we passed that point, some more people appeared there behind us. I was really mad at myself, but had to focus on the downclimb and the great surroundings. By the way, the view from this mountainside is really cool. Below there’s the Williamson Bowl with the lakes, then Lake Helen of Troy to the left, Mount Tyndall right in front, the Great Western Divide in the back...
We didn’t have a proper lunch break yet, so we were pretty starved when we got down to the Bowl and settled on the shores of the higher lake. It took over two hours to get down from the window to here. In the middle of the long lunch break, the guy we met the previous day appeared and said he’s got to the summit. He went the wrong way, just like us, then exited the window and there was some pretty serious climbing, up to class 4, but then we got to the top and descended via the chimney and the chute. We were happy for him, honestly, not jealous at all, we know class 4 is not our thing and we would have been in real trouble.
After sitting around for more than an hour, it was time to go back to camp. The rest of the traverse in the Bowl was just as annoying as the way in, but despite everything, we were in high spirits and kept joking how a few more rocks would really make this place nicer.
The climb out of the bowl was really awful, but only because the setting sun was shining directly in our eyes, meaning it was almost impossible to find the way, plus it made my eyes water, dissolving sunscreen and then making it sting and water even more. I had to admit, for those 10 minutes getting up to the rim, I felt really annoyed and miserable.
However, as soon as we got out of there, it was great. The early evening light on the high plateau was just gorgeous. Soon we could see our tent, waiting for us in the middle of nowhere.
We got back around 7pm. No summit today, but a great day. The climb was very interesting and we saw many cool things. Maybe we’ll do better next time.
While I was getting water, I had a quick chat with some folks who just came out of the Bowl. They said they were camped at Anvill, got up at dawn, summited Williamson, and now they’re on their way back to camp. Holy crap. All my respect.
The wind picked up a bit, but it was not bad at all. We cooked a two-course dinner, soup first, then pasta with sauce later. The night was calm, chilly, and I had no trouble sleeping.
Day 4 - The base of Mt. Tyndall – Shepherd Pass Trailhead – L.A.
The alarm went off again at 6pm to another sunny morning with a bit of a light breeze. True to form, by the time we took care of everything, including filtering water with the sputtering Sawyer and packing up the rogue tent, we left the plateau only at 8:30am.
We had a hike of 10+ miles, almost all downhill. Emphasis on almost.
First, we walked down on the plateau to the pass. This is around half a mile, descending 300’ or so. The lake at the pass there’s one of those almost feature-less alpine bodies of water with their own kind of beauty.
Several campsites dotted the shore, some too close to the water, some further up, none of them very private. Nobody was around by this time. We didn’t linger, either, just took a few pictures and went to the pass, a hundred yards or so to the north.
There's a great view from here all the way down to the valley. A 1-2 mile section of the 395 is visible, and I made a mental mark to look from the pass from down there.
The scientific formula for the hike down to the trailhead goes something like this: [(steep + steeper + oh my + steep + oh fuck) * scenic].
First, there’s a gorgeous descent in alpine country amongst huge rocks. The tree line begins with a lush meadow above a place called the Pothole. A few campgrounds could be seen next to the trail here.
Then it’s sharply downhill again, eventually arriving at Anvil Camp (cca. 10,000’), one of the most popular trail camps. Only a few people were there this time, but it looked like one of those usual "villages" with dozens of sites. It’s a very nice place, by the way, with beautiful trees and creek, but of course, it was infested with mosquitoes. We kept moving downhill quickly.
Somewhat further down, the trail has been washed out a few years ago, and there’s a big gully to be crossed. It’s not bad at all, going uphill about 30 yards and then crossing carefully takes care of it.
A few long switchbacks follow, leading down into another meadow-ish area, where we sat down in the shade for lunch. I was really disgusted by how much trash people left here. Food pouches, shopping bags, wads of paper, you name it. We gathered up as much as we could for removal.
It was getting warm by this time, the canyon drawing up the heat from the valley.
The "saddle" was next, the heartache and annoyance of everybody on this route. In order to cross from the Shepherd Creek watershed into the next canyon north (Mt. Bradley’s creek’s watershed?), the trail climbs about 5-600’ in cca. half a mile, seemingly unnecessarily. By looking at the geology, there are some hints why they built the trail like this (looks like way more dynamite would have been needed), but it’s still very annoying. It’s even worse when you’re coming up, having to lose this much elevation on a really arduous climb.
Anyway, it was getting really hot, but there was a small creek at the bottom of the incline. Here we drank lots of water, wetted a few bandanas to tie around our necks, then slowly worked our way up. The uphill is not pleasant at all, but we were prepared for it and so it wasn’t bad. If this would have come as a surprise, I’d have been really bummed out.
The quarter mile around the top of the saddle affords great views of both canyons and the valley below. We met two guys who were coming up, one of them had a pretty hard time as he wasn’t even wearing a hat. He looked like a boiled lobster. They asked where the next water was and were relieved to heart that it’s not that far away.
From the saddle, the descent to the trailhead is almost another 3,000’. Right after the top comes the "oh fuck" section where the trail drops more than 2,000’ in a mile or so. It’s well graded and built, but man, how great it was going down here - hurting knees or not -, and not up. A couple came uphill with huge packs and they were completely exhausted. I hope they knew the worst is yet to come.
Soon after we got down into the canyon, we took another quick break to drink some water from the creek in the jungle-like riparian area down there. What a change in climate from where we were only an hour before! The wet bandanas around our necks were a huge help.
The canyon gets really narrow here and there are a few more creek crossings. I heard they can be a problem when the water is high, but this time, simple rock-hopping took care of them.
Half an hour later we were by the car in blazing sunshine and 95-degree heat. The parking lot was almost full again, our trusted old Mitsubishi waiting for us in the middle. It was 2:15pm, and after getting our gear sorted, we were on our way home.
Summit or not, the trip was gorgeous and it left us with a sense of accomplishment.
I would definitely like to try this again, but what I don’t want is climbing up to Shepherd Pass directly from the valley. I’d rather try to plan another long trip, involving some other pass, and trying Williamson as a side trip.
Take a look at all the pictures in the full gallery.