I posted a short version of this trip last year. Here are the photos, map and more details.
Ionian and Blackcap Basins, August 4-14, 2006
Day 1: To Goddard Canyon
Although two entry routes are reasonable, Courtright Reservoir or Florence Lake, I chose the latter. At the boat dock an Amish family who were doing the John Muir Trail was sending off four of their crew. They wore traditional garb yet their packs were high-tech! One carried a hand made walking staff and the other trekking poles. The boat ride was quick. The 7.3 miles to Piute Creek Junction was rather unimpressive and only took 4 hours. I carefully edged to the stream to fill my water bottle still freaked out. A lady had drown here just the day before! I was not “legal” on the John Muir trail because I left out the bear canister, so continued the 3.5 miles to the Evolution junction. From here on I saw nobody until Day 8. The first campsite up Goddard Canyon was occupied so I continued up the hill. Clouds quickly built forcing me to set up in a marginal site when the rain poured down making for a wet dinner and drizzly night. The 11.8 miles in 6.6 hours was a grueling pace with a heavy pack for the first day.
Day 2: Easy Day in Goddard Canyon
In spite of a clear sky the deep shadows of the forest were cold as I packed my wet tent and headed out, getting soaked by the still wet vegetation. Ice on a slippery log complicated a stream crossing and the trail literally was a creek in several locations. So far, I was not having fun. At the first open spot I threw everything out on rocks to dry and watched the creek roar down its mini-canyon. My warmed body was feeling better already. Maybe I was too mellow, because I missed my trail cutoff to Hell for Sure Pass! Oh well, guess I will do the loop the other way around. At the head of the canyon the trail became faint and the creek crossing was easy. The final ascent brought me to Martha Lake with its stunning view to all to myself. I washed up in a pool scattering several small fish. Puffy clouds were building in the windy afternoon but never became threatening. I could see the snow on Reinstein Pass and wondered if trekking poles would be sufficient. No point worrying now. This 6.7-mile/1,500-foot gain day was a more reasonable 7 hours.
Martha Lake Camp
Day 3: Martha Lake to Ionian Basin
The morning was totally clear. Although longer, I traversed left to avoid the snowy north-facing slopes. I reached the top of Reinstein Pass in 2.5 hours. The view south was breathtaking and I knew I would be heading down to the inviting dark blue lake below later, but for now I had to tediously work my way through the rocky maze between me and the Ionian Basin. It took some major detours to finally get across.
View South where I would head in a few days
Three hours had passed before I reached the icy crossing of the outlet of Lake 11,818. I had been here on a previous trip but now a steep snowfields extending into the lake forced me to detour south over a hill on class2 rock before I could reach my planned campsite at the lake below Mt. Scylla. I set up the tent on a tiny hummocky sheltered spot on the north shore. As soon as the shadows hit, the chill at this 12,000-foot spot drove me into my sleeping bag. Soon I was blessed by a magical full-moon. I had completed 5.8 spectacular but rough miles with 2,200-feet gain in 7 hours. All in all, a very good day!
Lake 11,818 and Mt. Goddard on skyline
Day 4: Day hike in the Ionian Basin
I awoke to frost and broke ice to get water from the shallow lake. I had hoped to climb Mt. Scylla, but snow conditions scuttled that plan. Instead I hiked a 4.6-mile loop to several lakes I had hurried by too quickly on a previous trip. First I scrambled to a high point to peek down into Enchanted Gorge. Tenacious Sky Pilot was clinging to meager soil wedged in the dark barren rock. Descending, I was temporarily stopped by cliffs and had to carefully kick steps in snow so that I would not slip into an icy bath of Lake 11,837.
The drop to the next bench down was aided by sun cups offering secure footing. Eight years ago when I had hiked the Enchanted Gorge I had found an old Indian campsite here with arrowheads. I could not find it this time. I circled Lake 11,592 finding nice campsites on both shores with the north shore being much more sheltered with great views of Mt. Charybdis.
As I headed back to camp the snow became soft enough to kick steps up steep slopes to the top of Peak 12,491, a sorry substitute for Mt. Scylla. Back at camp I took a refreshing but frigid bath, ate a leisurely dinner and explored several small lakes to the southwest. The minute the sun went down I hopped into my sleeping bag. Again it froze hard at night.
Day 5: Leaving the Ionian Basin
Another perfect day dawned. After following the string of lakes from my camp in hopes of finding an easier route, I ended up climbing the same hill I had encountered on my route in. Back to the lip of the canyon, I again crossed the icy creek and this time descended slabs adjacent to braided waterfalls following narrow ledges with a few easy but exposed class-3 sections. Soon I was walking on the lush bench below the falls in an amazing micro-ecosystem of wildflowers among the barren dark rock. I photographed for half an hour and wanted to stay here at this 10,800-foot lush bench forever!
From the flowery bench I climbed back up a small rib and stayed high until I was across the slot canyon that gave me grief on my way in. Now I descend the last 600 feet to the west shore of Lake 10,232, where I immediately became hung up in brush and tiny cliffs. I finally reached the outlet and took a break.
Lake 10232 and looking up at my descent route
I followed the broad valley to the 10,000-foot elevation. My original route was to go down from Tunemah Lake directly to Goddard Creek. Now I was looping the opposite direction and did not want to drop 2,000 more feet and ascend the 3,000 feet to Tunemah Lake. I instead turned southwest and camped at the unnamed upper lakes below Finger Peak. The mosquitoes were horrid so I quickly hung my food and hunkered in my tent, read after a wonderful 6-hour day traveling 7-mile through absolutely enchanting country.
Day 6: Day of Mountain Passes
I awoke to an amazing reflection, quickly getting photos before the wind picked up.
Although north-facing, by the time I “zigged” north to get up on the next bench to “zag” south to Blue Canyon Pass, the northeast morning sun had softened the snow sufficiently to cross with trekking poles. There were a few breath-holding moments. Descent into upper Blue Canyon was easy and I traversed to Lake 10,401 and then took the most obvious “pass” to Alpine Basin. As the difficult descent became class-3 cliffs I realized this was NOT Dykeman Pass. Additional tricky slab climbing was required to get around the lake at the base of this unnamed pass and now I had walked off my maps! The route was now complicated by terrain that trended perpendicular to my desired travel direction. I was relieved to return to map coverage since this remote country is no place to wing it without a map!
I slowly climbed the last 600 feet of ascent through large talus blocks before reaching Tunemah Lake. Surprisingly I found a man-leveled spot on the shale hillside. Others had obviously been here. After my 7-hour, 7.2 mile day with 3,200 feet gain over three passes, I had fun basking in the late afternoon sun building little tables and nooks of slate.
Day 7: Day Hiking at Tunemah Lake
It was a relief to be day hiking with a light pack. I crossed the outlet and zig-zaged down slate ledges to a granite bench of isolated unnamed lakes. I came to the cliffs dropping into Goddard Creek and scrambled another 1,000 feet down beautiful granite slabs and up tiny slot canyons full of alpine wildflowers. My originally planned route would have taken some time to figure out. I was glad of my decision to instead take the Blue Canyon Pass route. Back up on the bench I followed the southern string of lakes and to my surprise found fresh bear droppings! I stopped to swim in Lake 10,458 and enjoy the warm sun rays. Like a lizard, I did not want to move, but my camp was at Tunemah Lake!
Back at camp by 3:00PM I decided to hike up the unique contact zone of granite and the slate of the Sierra roof pendant. On top I peeked over the edge and saw several remote lakes perched on the adjacent bench that also dropped into Goddard Creek providing another possible route to Tunemah Lake. The sun was now low so I quickly descended easy sand slopes and slabs back to my camp ending a lazy day of only 5.1 miles and 2,300 feet gain.
Day 8: Long Hard Day to Blackcap Basin
I awoke and peeked out my tent amazed at the still visible full moon over a perfect reflection. I quickly snapped photos. My previous night’s worries about bears were relieved as I retrieved my food hung in scrub trees that only provided protection from marmots. This is not a place to end up without food! By the time I packed, the sun was shining on me. This seemed to be my mode of operation – find a great campsite and then I hated to leave.
Today I was determined to find Dykeman Pass. Thankfully, from Alpine Basin the pass is obvious – up the first major drainage after descent from Tunemah Lake. Much easier – just a matter of zig-zagging up improbable but easy ledges. I descended into Blue Canyon to the 10,200-foot timberline passing many beautiful small ponds.
Ponds at head of Blue Canyon
Then I traversed northwest up 1,000 feet to a small lake on Kettle Ridge. A few class 2 moves up ledges and I was over the pass and dropped into Hummingbird Lake through lush flowery meadows.
Here is where I should have stayed! Little did I know that swarms of mosquitoes were waiting for me in Crown Basin! I dropped over steep slabs and soon found out that there is no rest for the wicked today! Mosquitoes fluster me. In my “bug fit” I missed the trail and trudged cross country into the upper reaches of Blackcap Basin and at Portal Lake I met the first people I had seen in a week - three biology students collecting bugs. There was no dearth of bugs! I headed north, crossed outlet of Pearl Lake and exhaustedly climbed the steep hill to Regiment Lake, too tired to go any further. I had covered 10.6 hard miles, with 2,800 feet gain. I quickly washed off the sweat, set up my tent on a flat glacially polished rock and was rewarded with a fine sunset as I cooked dinner.
Regiment Lake Camp
Day 9: Change of Plans
The plan was to reach Schoolmarm Lake (dashed line on route map) by way of Confusion Lake and Holster Pass. Travel now was easy through the barren alpine country of the upper reaches of Blackcap Basin, full of miniature gardens. I took a circuitous path trying to see every lake in the basin! From Ambition lake I dropped down through little slot canyons with ponds and meadows traversing east about a mile. Here my camera batteries gave up.
Headed towards Confusion Pass I walked low angle slabs of smooth granite, cut by tiny parallel slot canyons, some filled with rushing melt water. After skirting Rainbow Lake on the west side I followed the drainage that was coming from a distinct slot canyon below the pass. I crossed the creek and stayed right of the chute on ever steeper slabs where, finally, I was on a bench above the south shore Confusion Lake. Although the guide book recommends staying in the slot, I found the slabs on the east side easier. Reaching the lake I chose to traverse counter-clockwise over a small peak rather than get into the difficult talus on the west shore. Once I spotted Holster Pass I realized I needed an ice axe and crampons and admitted defeat. The campsites on the shore of Confusion Lake had poor views so I explored an obvious narrow ledge system to the north and found that not only would it provide an escape route to Goddard Canyon, it contained a beautiful grassy campsite complete with a view and melt water stream. I had traveled 6 miles with 1,200 feet gain in 6 hours of pleasant travel. Although disappointed about missing Red Mountain Basin, I was thoroughly enjoying my view and finishing my book as I sat in the sun on my little perch, devoid of mosquitoes. Although it was early afternoon I was in no hurry to descend into Goddard Canyon.
Day 10: Goddard Canyon, Again
Another crystal clear day dawned. I reluctantly left my perch and traversed north on the obvious bench above cliffs until I reached the grassy slopes that descended to Goddard Canyon, intersecting the trail I left 8 days earlier. This alternate descent from Confusion Pass avoids the cliffs and talus and remains class 1. This time, going down Goddard Canyon, I enjoyed the views, regretting that my camera was dead. As I reached the junction to Evolution Valley solitude suddenly ended with the hordes of backpackers on the John Muir Trail. Some boy scouts wanted to know where they were, a group of Sierra Club climbers were headed to Mt. Goddard and some ultra-light fast packers had heads to the ground and were literally running up the trail. If only they knew what wondrous country lay just off their heavily tread path.
At the Piute Creek junction I stopped for lunch with three other backpackers. We all being old farts sat in the shade and had hilarious conversation. As we finished our lunch the two fellows headed up Piute Canyon and the other lady, a UC Santa Cruz professor of education, joined me for the trek out. She had just finished some of her own off-trial exploring of McGee Creek. We headed to Belaney Meadows in hopes of soaking in the hot springs but the San Joaquin River was still too high to cross so we settled for conversation at dinner at this popular and crowded campsite. The day had started in solitude and happily ended in good company but still the quick change of conditions was a bit surreal. I had hiked 11.6 miles and dropped over 3,000 feet in 7.8 hours.
Day 11: Missed the Boat
I left early to catch the 11:00 AM boat. Unknown to me, my watch was off about 15 minutes and as I topped the hill I saw the boat leaving the dock. I figured I could walk out about as fast as wait for the second boat. I had not realized the walk involved 1,000 feet of elevation! On the positive side, the views of Florence Lake were great and I saved $10. It was a tie- the next boat arrived just as I hit the parking lot! The 8-mile trip from Belaney camp only took 3.7 hours. I threw the pack in the car, retrieved food from the bear boxes and headed out. It was surprisingly crowded and I had to settle for a discrete bath in my swim suit at a small reservior while nearby anglers watched. I regretted not going back to Mono Hot Springs for a hot shower! Five hours on the crowded, noisy US99, 100+ degree heat and smog shocked me back into “civilization”. The Ionian Basin was a lot more civilized to me!
22,200 elevation gain
60% off trail miles