I never tire of Sonora Peak.
I spent high noon on a recent Sunday on its 11,464-foot summit taking in a somewhat diminished 100-mile view tainted by wildfire smoke lingering in the lower elevations with 30 mile per hour wind gusts battering the peak that straddles the Mono-Alpine counties’ boundary and whose western slope is the farthest eastern point of the Stanislaus River basin.
It was my ninth trip up the peak in five years including 2018 when I did it when half of the route was covered with snow in mid-May, during mid-summer when wildflowers were in bloom, and in late September when fall was starting to settle in.
I clearly have a thing for peaks as well as high Sierra lakes, passes, and canyons. But to be honest I’m a bit of a peak freak. Or more correctly, I’ll hike to the top of any peak or prominence with an unobstructed view above the tree line that I can do in a day hike from a trail head that doesn’t require a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach.
There is something about looking down on what the forces of nature have taken millions of years to shape that gives you a perspective.
All of the peaks I’ve tackled are doable by anyone in reasonable shape.
That said, two of the easiest peaks to access for beginners in California are within a couple of hours’ drive.
One is the 11,464-foot Sonora Peak with a trailhead just below Sonora Pass at 9,624 feet on Highway 108. The other is the 13,061-foot Mt. Dana with a trailhead just below Tioga Pass at 9,934 feet on Highway 120. The passes are the highest and second highest highway passes in California.
I’ve tackled Mt. Dana five times. I’m passing on a return trip this year because the pandemic requires reservations to access Yosemite National Park.
Either peak is a day
hike including travel
You can tackle either peak by leaving around breakfast and be back home in time for dinner.
For whatever reason, the Sonora Pass Area — essentially Dardanelle-Kennedy Meadows to Sonora Pass itself — sees significantly less use than Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4 and Carson Pass on Highway 88 that are at lower elevations. Tioga Pass as the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park and its close proximity to Tuolumne Meadows sees a ton of traffic and hikers.
On my most recent hike, I came across just six other hikers during the four hours I was on the trail. That was about average.
The 6.5 mile roundtrip with 2,093 feet of net elevation gain starts at the St. Mary’s Pass parking trail. The route is walkable meaning there is no scrambling. That said a good pair of hiking shoes are necessary as there are really two segments once you start the final ascent that are steep with loose dirt. You can slowly cover those stretches without hiking poles but it is much better with them.
The nice thing about it is the steep stretches aren’t “hairy”. By that I mean if you slip or lose your footing you’re not going to go over a drop-off. I’ve slipped twice — once on snow and the other when the trail was bone dry. The worst I did was slide five feet and not even get an abrasion.
Be warned: Once you clear St. Mary’s Pass and then later when you reach the summit, the vistas can fuel an addiction to tackle other peaks.
Mt. Dana is most
foot summit in state
That is where Mt. Dana comes into play. It is by far the easiest accessible 13,000-plus foot mountain summit in California. To reach the trailhead all you have to do is pull to the side of Highway 120 (Tioga Road). It has an incredible view of Mono Lake and the Great Basin as well as a stunning view of the Sierra ridge line passing through Yosemite to the north and south.
It’s a seven mile round trip to and from the 13,061-foot summit with an elevation gain of 3,103 feet. Compared to Sonora Peak the path up Mt. Dana is crowded. Part of it has to do with the fact it is the second highest peak in Yosemite and the easiest to reach. It also helps that you can do it in a good pair of tennis shoes although your feet would appreciate a low-end pair of hiking boots from Big 5 Sporting Goods that will set you back only $40. You can do a lot better if you think you’re young to get into hiking at Bass Pro or REI. And if you want a heavy duty hiking boot that is less expensive than REI backpacking boots, the 5.11 Tactical distribution center store in Manteca has several pairs that are the surest footing I’ve ever worn for all terrain whether it is granite and large scree fields in the high Sierra or unforgiving rock on Death Valley peaks.
Views atop Mt. Dana
The 4.8-mile round trip trail for Mt. Dana starts on the south side of the road at 9,624 feet. It goes through meadows and forests populated with small lakes (about half have dried up as the end of summer draws near). After a series of switchbacks some 1.5 miles and 1,500 feet into the hike you come across a relatively flat stretch before hitting what appears to be nothing but rocks to cover the remaining 1,000 or so feet.
There are various ways to reach the top but the easiest is a clearly worn path that makes its way through the rocks with the help of occasional cairns or piles of rocks placed by other hikers to help serve others as guideposts to help them stay on the route.
The views on the way up are impressive. The panorama at the top is stunning. To the east and 5,500 feet below is Mono Lake. From there a turn to the south takes in the Long Valley Caldera — one of the largest calderas on earth that are created with the eruption of super volcanoes — and Glass Mountain covered with its black volcanic glass-like rock, endless other peaks such at Mt. Gibbs, and Cathedral Peak in Yosemite, and as you complete the loop turn you can make out Highway 120. And in each direction you look there is mountainous vastness whether it is the Great Basin to the east or the imposing Sierra — John Muir’s beloved Range of Light — in all other directions.
Each time I spend a half hour at the summit soaking in the view that defines inspiring. The last trip included a nice 15-minute nap snuggled among rugged rock as I drifted off gazing at Mother Nature’s 760,000 year-old creation that’s one of the oldest lakes in North America — Mono Lake.
Mt. Dana is a moderately hiked trail. If it is your first mountain peak hike, you should have no problem attacking it especially if you make frequent stops that also serve as a perfect excuse to take photos. There is always the danger of slipping if you are not careful but a fall per se as in over a drop-off isn’t going to happen unless you get to the top and are completely irresponsible.
Weather wise September
best time for beginners
to tackle either peak
This isn’t exactly the most lush time to hike either mountain but the views are still beyond what you can see sticking with more mundane hikes. Weather wise and in terms of trail conditions September is probably the best time for a novice to attack either peak. The weather isn’t as hot, the chances of mild-afternoon thunderstorms drops off drastically, mosquitoes at the lower elevations of the hikes are history, and the trails are virtually dry eliminating crossing rocks that are slick as snow is melting.
There are only three other peaks that I’ve gone back to four or more times: Mt. Whitney, Wildrose Peak in Death Valley and Mt. Diablo from various entrance gates to the summit.
Diablo is what I tackle in the winter which explains the 10 plus hikes to the summit.
The other two I’ve hiked four times.
Mt. Whitney is an obvious repeater given at 14,505 feet it is the highest peak in the continental United States. I’ve always done it as a day hike starting at 2 a.m. and getting back by 6 p.m. It is a 22-mile odyssey with a net gain of 6,616 feet. The drawbacks are you need to get into a lottery by March 1 and even though the trail is limited to 300 people a day that is a lot of people to be hiking through the wilderness.
The view from the top isn’t astronomical but it is still impressive.
Wildrose Peak is one of only two Death Valley peaks that have trails. It’s an 8.9 mile round trip and 2,200 foot net gain to the 9,064-foot summit that is the size of two football fields. I’ve hit snow twice on November hikes.
Right across from it is Telescope Peak, a 14-mile jaunt with a 3,000-foot gain that takes you to the roof of Death Valley at 11,049 feet. On a November hike to the bathroom sized summit I encountered snow and freezing temperatures. On a July hike with my nephew it was temperate with relentless sunshine and little shade. Why we only stayed for 8 minutes at the small summit was due to being bombarded by droves of lady bugs being swept up all four sides of the summit.
My list of peaks in Death Valley include about eight that are cross country affairs that means there are no trails and require some class 2 scrambling.
I have bagged one other 14,000-foot plus peak. White Mountain just 253 feet lower than Mt. Whitney at 14,252 feet is considered the easiest accessible ‘14er’ in California. That’s because the trail to the top of the Inyo County peak that is the most prominent summit in the White Mountain Range is a dirt road that leads to a weather research station at the summit. You can actually mountain bike the trail on a few select days in the summer. The fact you gain only 3,000 feet in the 15-mile trip is what makes it easy but it also makes it a slog. The route is completely exposed. I did it in summer although there are people who do it in winter and brave freezing temperatures, incessant wind and even snow. The only redeeming feature on the way up is that you pass the bristlecone forest that harbors the tree known as Methuselah, the second oldest living thing on earth at 4,852 years topped by 10 years by another bristlecone pine in Nevada’s Wheeler Range.