Another Try at Mt MorganFollowing our successful summit of Matterhorn Peak on the northern border of Yosemite, the second major stop on Ruvicha’s and my 2013 Sierra “Unfinished Business Tour” was Mt Morgan – the southern Morgan above Little Lakes Valley. Along with friends Brian and Jim, in 2012 we had attempted Mt Morgan via Little Lakes Peak. That being the first hike of the year (and several of us had just come up from sea level), we collectively ran out of gas a few hundred feet below the Little Lakes Peak summit and turned back. This year, Ruvicha and I decided the Francis Lake route offered a greater prospect of success.
We arrived in the area on August 15 and set up camp at the East Fork Campground, finding a pleasant shaded walk-in site, a few miles below Rock Creek Lake and the Francis Lake trailhead. The drive up Rock Creek Road from Tom’s Place afforded great views of Mt Morgan from the north.
Starting up the Trail to Francis LakeWe found the trailhead at Rock Creek Lake just across from the day-parking area, marked with a sign that simply read “Trail.” The sandy and sometimes wide trail climbed in a few switchbacks through pine trees, providing nice views of Rock Creek Lake, Mt Starr and Mts Dade and Abbot, and then hit a T. We took the left trail and almost immediately saw a sign for Dorothy Lake, Kenneth Lake and Wheeler Crest (you will want to follow the signs toward Kenneth Lake, which ultimately leads to the fork to Francis Lake). The trail generally headed toward the east to circle around the end of the northeast ridge of Morgan, after which it turned south toward Francis Lake.
Continuing up the TrailAfter about a mile, the trail split, and we took the right fork toward Tamarack Bench and Kenneth Lake. The sandy trail now climbed gently through a meadow and more pine trees, and we enjoyed good views to the east of Wheeler Ridge. At 1.8 miles from the trailhead, we found the signed fork to Francis Lake (actually, this was the first and only sign that we saw marked “Francis Lake”). At 2.3 miles, we had our first view since hitting the trail of Morgan’s summit and at 2.6 miles arrived at the north end of Francis Lake, at which time we were at an elevation of about 10,830 feet. The trail all the way to Francis Lake had been very clear and easy to follow – in some places wide enough for a car to drive.
Francis LakeLooking across Francis Lake, we could see two rock and sand slopes up the ridge at the southwest side of the lake. We had reviewed Kathy Wing’s pictures from her 2006 hike to Morgan’s summit, which we found extremely helpful: she and others had counseled ascending those slopes as opposed to staying in the drainage above Francis Lake, which would necessitate a lot of boulder-hopping. We followed a use trail to the right that led to the south side of the lake and chose to ascend the second (southernmost) of the two slopes, finding it a mix of rock, sand and slippery scree.
Ascending Above Francis LakeGoing up the slope – and slipping back down on the scree – wasn’t much fun, but we soon stood atop the ridge above the lake. From there, we could have proceeded further to the west to get to the top of the northeast ridge of Morgan; while that would have afforded earlier views of Little Lakes Valley, it would have made for a longer hike. We instead followed Kathy’s advice and headed toward the saddle below two hills on the ridge (we named the two hills the Camelback). To get to the saddle, we headed directly south up a sandy wash filled with short trees, sometimes spotting cairns and a trail but often hiking cross-country.
Ascending to the Northeast RidgeWe reached the saddle below the Camelback at 4.1 miles from the trailhead and an elevation of about 11,900 feet. After a short rest at the saddle, we continued climbing over rocks, talus and sand. Moving past the Camelback, we ascended to the ridge, reaching it at 4.7 miles and an elevation of 12,380 feet. At that point, we gained great views of Little Lakes Valley and the high mountains on the valley’s west and southwest sides.
Moving up the RidgeFrom there, it was a matter of simply following the ridge to the summit, crossing talus and doing some boulder-hopping, all with generally solid footing. We occasionally found short bits of use trail, but they quickly evaporated, only to turn up again higher up on the ridge. Although the slope of the northeast ridge looks dauntingly steep from afar, we found it not bad at all. We briefly lost site of the summit but at 5.1 miles and an elevation of just over 13,000 feet regained the summit view.
Atop MorganWe needed some use of hands to get up the final stretch of boulders and reached the summit at 5.6 miles, an elevation of 13,748 feet, passing a chute that points dramatically down toward Little Lakes Peak. The views from the summit were stunning: most of Little Lakes Valley, the mountains surrounding it and beyond, back to Francis Lake, east to the White Mountains and southeast to Mt Tom (our next “Unfinished Business Tour” target). The view down the ridge to Little Lakes Peak confirmed our sense that, had we reached the summit of that mountain in 2012, we would not have made it to the top of Morgan.
Heading Down, then Traversing Back to the RidgeAfter a half hour on top of Morgan and lots of pictures, it was time to head down. Instead of following the ridgeline back down (to the Camelback), we hiked more directly toward Lake Francis. That quickly brought us to a steep, rocky slope where the footing was not so solid, and we decided then to traverse back to the ridge rather than descending directly.
Returning to Francis LakeOnce back on the ridge, we retraced our steps to the saddle below the Camelback and then down the sandy wash. We had to search a bit for the slope down to Francis Lake. I ended up going down the northernmost slope, also a mix of sand, rock and loose scree. Ruvicha descended directly down to the drainage south of the lake through the trees between the two slopes, finding somewhat more solid footing there.
All in All, an Enjoyable HikeFrom Francis Lake, it was a straightforward hike back to the trailhead at Rock Creek Lake, and a celebratory Mountain Home dinner at the East Fork Campground. According to Ruvicha’s GPS, the out-and-back trip was 11.0 miles with a net altitude gain from trailhead to summit of about 4000 feet.
All in all, a very enjoyable and scenic hike.
(Thanks again to Kathy Wing for her very useful pictures and to Ruvicha for reviewing this report; photo credit for "Reaching Morgan's summit": Ruvicha)