An imposing and remote peak located on the northern boundary of Yosemite National Park, Tower Peak is the prominent monolith at the headwaters of the West Walker River. The peak is easily seen from along Highway 108 in the Leavitt Meadows vicinity, as well as from many northern Sierra peaks, including most of Yosemite's major summits. Given its prominence, it is hardly surprising that the peak should have received early visitors. As with so many other Sierra summits, the first recorded ascent was made by the Whitney Survey Party in 1870. In this case, they’d been beaten there by Indians, as they found a small cairn and an arrow on the summit.
In many respects, Tower Peak marks the northern end of the High Sierra, with peaks further north taking on a distinctly different character, being generally volcanic in nature and correspondingly more subdued. In fact, as such, it has the distinction of being the northernmost of thirty-five "mountaineer’s peaks" on the SPS list, so designated by the Sierra Club for the quality of their climbing.
The origin of the mountain’s name becomes obvious as one gazes upon the picturesque spire that makes up the summit. However, despite the peak's imposing appearance from a distance, the usual route up (the NW Face) is a surprisingly easy scramble over solid rock. One of Moynier and Fiddler’s hundred “Sierra Classics,” this is a very popular climb, as evidenced by the abundant footprints and use trails along the north ridge--not to mention the frequency with which the summit registers are filled. Several other routes are reported in the literature, including the SE Chute from Stubblefield Canyon (class 3) and the West Face (class 4 from Mary Lake). Some technical routes have also been established on the NE Face.
The peak is occasionally dayhiked, but most folks seem to climb it as part of a multi-day excursion into the surrounding wilderness. The approach from Leavitt Meadows may be best enjoyed in the autumn, when aspens in the lower reaches of the canyon would add colour to an otherwise boring section of a long approach.
The usual approach is from the Leavitt Meadows trailhead, located along Highway 108. Backpacker camping is located at the trailhead lot; day use parking can also be found in the Leavitt Meadows campground. Walk through the campground to find an unsignposted bridge over the West Walker River; cross the bridge and follow the trail towards Piute Meadows and then, at a signed junction in Upper Piute Meadows, up to Tower Lake (a little under sixteen miles from the trailhead). Older 15’ maps are in error about the location of the trail in places, but all junctions are well-signed and the trail is easy to follow. Only one spot along the trail merits special mention: At Upper Piute Meadows, the trail comes to its first crossing of the West Walker River. The hiker crossing is a couple of minutes walk downstream from this pack crossing; you should find a makeshift bridge there.
Roper’s “Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra” suggests an alternate approach from Twin Lakes, located west of Bridgeport off Highway 395. From the resort, follow the Barney Lake trail up to Buckeye Pass, from where easy cross-country travel takes one over the gentle pass between Wells Peak and Ehrnbeck Peak to the head of Stubblefield Canyon. While it’s doubtful that this approach is quicker than Leavitt Meadows, it’s likely to be both more interesting and more scenic.
Jere crawford adds the following:
I've approached the Tower Peak area from Leavitt Meadows, Twin Lakes and Buckeye Creek. Leavitt is probably the best access for the northwest ridge route.
Twin Lakes is probably the quickest but not by much. With due respect to my hero Steve Roper, the "gentle" pass between Wells and Ehrnbeck peaks is not all that gentle. It is easy, but has rather tricky route-finding, until you try to descend into Stubblefield Canyon, where you may encounter steep and hard snow, even in mid summer. I made it without my ice gear but it was sketchy. Also the trail from Barney Lake directly to Buckeye Pass no longer exists so I would suggest going to Peeler Lake and then east across Kerrick and Thompson Canyons.
Another route, especially if you want to escape the crowds, is up Buckeye Creek to Kirkwood Pass, go south into Thompson Canyon (tricky route-finding), then west to the head of Rainbow Canyon, where you can then cross the pass just west of Ehrnbeck Peak (you may need an ice axe here). This route goes right by Hawksbeak and Ehrnbeak Peaks as well. This route is longer than Twin Lakes but much prettier than Leavitt Meadows, and has a nice hot spring near the trailhead. There are nice campsites along Buckeye Creek and at the heads of Rainbow and Stubblefield canyons. If you have an extra day and like to fish try a side trip to Beartrap Lake for pan size Brookies.
A permit is required for all overnight visits. (The West Walker River area has been proposed for wilderness designation in the form of an addition to the adjacent Hoover Wilderness, and hence is subject to similar permit requirements). There are currently no quotas in place, and self-issue permits are available at the trailhead. Permits may also be picked up from the Stanislaus National Forest Summit Ranger District office, located on the south side of Highway 108 in the town of Pinecrest, or from the Toiyabe National Forest Bridgeport Ranger Station, located just south of Bridgeport on the east side of Highway 395. Dayhikers are not subject to any restrictions.
A ranger is stationed in Upper Piute Meadows, and he was out talking to backpackers when I visited--there’s probably not much else to do up there. So pick up the permit.
As with most peaks around here, Tower Peak is most easily climbed when Highway 108 is open, generally late May through early November. A significant portion of the long approach is at fairly low elevation, and so should be snow-free fairly early in the year. Snow likely lingers at Tower Pass into the summer, but even when this is the case, this may be easily bypassed by class 2-3 rocks to the side.
Even when Highway 108 is still closed, it appears to be gated shut only a couple of miles east of Leavitt Meadows, raising the possibility for those who like solitude of a lengthy spring ski tour during April or early May.
As with much of the surrounding country, the combination of meadows, lakes, and granite allows for many camping opportunities. One caveat applies about Tower Lake, the last reasonable camping below the peak; the lake is nestled in a small cirque below its namesake pass, and appeared to have somewhat limited camping options. Some parties have reported stopping in Upper Piute Meadows instead.
Outside the wilderness, if you don’t object to paying to sleep on dirt--or more likely, don’t object to stealth camping illegally in such places--several forest service campsites are found nearby along Highway 108, including Leavitt Meadows and Sonora Bridge. Further west, but of particular merit, is Pigeon Flat, which offers several walk-in sites. Free camping can also be found at some of the Stanislaus National Forest trailheads along the highway, including St. Mary’s Pass. More information about additional campgrounds along Highway 108 can be found from Stanislaus National Forest.
There is an excellent campsite on the north end of Tower Lake, near the trail leading down to Tower Canyon. If that one is occupied, there's a smaller campsite on the north end of the small tarn that sits just above and to the NW of Tower Lake.
There are also a couple of excellent campsites on the north end of Mary Lake just the other side of the pass (1.5 miles away). Base camp here provides great access to four other peaks: the Saurian Crest, Keyes Peak, Craig Peak and Snow Peak.
Current highway conditions can be found on the Caltrans website.
Your best bet for up-to-date weather/mountain information is probably to call the Bridgeport Ranger Station at (760) 932 7070.
The NWS Forecast tends to be the most reliable source of weather information for the area.
Recent trail conditions for the Leavitt Meadows area may be found in the Stanislaus National Forest trailhead status report.
"The Whitney Survey named that peak after the first ascent by Charles F. Hoffmann and his party in 1870. The name Castle Peak had been given to it more than ten years before by George H. Goddard but was transferred by mistake to a rounded peak about 18 miles away."
- Erwin Gudde, California Place Names
"'I recognize also several other well known peaks, one of which was a lofty castellated peak south of the Sonora and Walker River Immigrant Road, named the Castle Peak, and whose position I had determined when on the Railway Exploration under Lieut. Moore, U. S. A., in 1853.' (Goddard, Report, 101.)
'The grand mass of Tower Peak is a prominent and most remarkably picturesque object. This is one of the three points in the Sierra to which the name of "Castle Peak" has been given, and is the first and original one of that name, having been called so by Mr. G. H. Goddard. ... By some unaccountable mistake the name was transferred to a rounded, and not at all castellated, mass about eighteen miles a little south of east from the original "Castle Peak," where it has become firmly fixed. Hence we have been obliged to give a new name to Mr. Goddard's peak, which we now call "Tower Peak." (Whitney, Yosemite Guide-Book, 1874, 131-32.)
The lake and canyon were first named on the 15-minute quad."
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada
"June 15  we came on to Crane Flat, on the Yosemite Trail, a very rough country, through open forests of enormous trees, with some grand views of the mountains. In crossing a mountain over seven thousand feet high, we had a grand view of Castle [now Tower] Peak, and the higher, snowy Sierra. After crossing the summit we struck a pretty, little, grassy flat, called Crane Flat, where we camped -- a pretty place, a grassy meadow surrounded by forests, and lying at an altitude of over six thousand feet."
- William Brewer, Up and Down California