Why Window Peak?
The seeds for this trip were planted years ago after reading about Randy Morgenson in the book, The Last Season
by Eric Blehm. Mr. Morgenson was a SEKI (Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park) backcountry ranger for 28 years, and of all the places he visited, Window Peak Lake was his favorite. It must have been around 2006 when I read that book.
Segway several years later with plans to backpack into SEKI twice during the 2012 season, I knew this would be an opportunity to finally visit Window Peak. Better yet, by scheduling the trip in late August, there would be an off chance my son, Chris, could join me. Chris and I backpacked together for six consecutive years starting back when he turned 10. At 16, Chris had other more pressing matters to tend while I resumed solo trips. Now a UCSB senior, Chris cut his summer session short and managed to carve out the necessary time to rejoin his dad for another SEKI backpack trip.
August 19, 2012: Lone Pine
It used to be I’d overnight in the back of my Toyota pickup at the trailhead or even arrive at the trailhead near sunrise after driving from San Diego in the early-morning hours. Over the years, the protocol evolved into spending the first night at Lone Pine’s Dow Villa Motel.
Lone Pine does a surprisingly brisk trade in tourism and staying at the historic Dow Villa adds a relaxed and restful beginning to these otherwise rigorous backcountry visits. Room rates are far better than can be had in Bishop only 60 miles to the north, and there are plenty of choices for dining out.
While driving from San Diego to Lone Pine, Chris and I stopped at the Borders bookstore in Mission Valley to find a book on CD. We came up with Stephen King’s, Wind through the Keyhole
; nothing like a good tale to reduce the monotony of traveling high-desert roads.
Awakening to the cell-phone alarm in the midst of deep dreams was the day’s first difficult task the morning of our departure into the mountains. No eggs and bacon at 4:00 A.M. in the likes of Lone Pine, only cold pastries, fresh fruit and bottled water purchased at Joseph’s local grocery. Going over Sawmill Pass with a 4500-foot high desert trailhead demands the early start. Pulling away from the motel in darkness, we managed another CD chapter of Steven King's, Wind Through the Keyhole
while driving north up the 395 some 25 miles. With a goal of hitting the trail by 5:30, we figured we were still good when we began making our way at 6:20.
Sawmill Pass is an ideal entrance for making a Window Peak Lake visit. The eastern Sierra escarpment has four high-desert trailheads starting between 4,500 and 6,000 feet. With 6,000 to 7,000 feet of elevation gain, these entrances may sound intimidating, but our ability to acclimate is much more “physiologic” when trekking upward as opposed to driving. The numbers can be deceiving.
Below the eastern side of Sawmill Pass is Sawmill Lake. It served as a good candidate for our first campsite, but with energy to spare, we continued over Sawmill Pass and found a lovely alternative near Woods Lake.
Our success in making Sawmill on day one provided an extra 24 hours to recover our legs prior to proceeding to Window Peak. We were rewarded our first morning with a beautiful sunrise on Arcodeetes Peak. Chris took a long swim and I had time to work with newly acquired photography equipment. We enjoyed the tail end of a monsoonal climate pattern with beautiful cumulous clouds filling dark azure skies.
Fishing Woods Lake (brook trout waters)
Our second night in the basin was somewhat sleepless with the constant pitter-patter of light rainfall and the intermittent yips of a nearby coyote. It was peaceful enough, or at least peaceful enough once the five count between lightening and thunder increased beyond 15!
Time to refresh!
Day Three, August 22, 2012
The seven-mile second leg of our journey to Window Peak from Woods was under the protection of cloudy skies. The rain had thankfully stopped long enough in the morning to allow for a good drying out prior to breaking camp. The last mile or two was slow going, off trail, and with 1500 feet of climbing. The effort was rewarded beyond expectations!
Window Peak Lake
Morgenson knew exceptionally beautiful backcountry when he saw it; Chris and I were dumbfounded by the surreal nature of Window Peak Lake and its steep granite enclosure encompassing 2/3 of the shoreline; 1500 feet of steep granite with blotches of vibrant yellows and greens. We got dizzy from constantly looking up as we stumbled along in our amazement, tripping here and there, unable to avert our eyes from the surrounding beauty for more secure footing! Its shoreline was studded with a series of small peninsulas testing the imagination yet further, something reminiscent of a scene out of The Hobbit
Then it started to rain! That was enough to get us back on track and find a level enough location to pitch our two-man Hubba Hubba MSR tent. Pitching a tent in the rain needs to be an efficient affair in order to avoid everything getting terribly wet! We made a good team and shared more laughs while enjoying a respite from what was a brief but heavy downpour.
Window Peak Lake
The following morning was filled with anticipation of a fine day exploring the area, but not until after securing more sleep-favorable terrain to where we could move the previous night’s campsite. We enjoyed three nights altogether while savoring this mind-boggling location; fishing, hiking, laughing, recollecting past trips together and simply enjoying the time of our lives as only a father and son can know.
The fish were keen to our game, mostly 11-inche rainbows. Chris wanted a bigger fish, so we tried fooling them with grasshoppers, but even when armed with live bait, the 11-inch size did not change. We did get pretty good at catching grasshoppers.
A rainbow beauty
At one point, while Chris fished, I explored for alternative exit options figuring there might be a better way out than the route we had entered. But of even greater importance, I was able to explore different perspectives of the canyon below Window Peak. These perspectives all faced in a northerly direction towards Fin Dome and Rae Lakes. It was a breathtaking canyon view, one I had only imagined existed within SEKI, but had yet to discover, until now, that is.
Working the scene
On our last of three evenings below Window Peak, Chris and I returned to the chosen perspective of the canyon, you might say it was a “kingly” view! We chatted while I worked the scene with camera on tripod. As the light began fading to darkness, we did a self portrait together and then celebrated my mother’s life. My dear Mom passed the previous March. In her memory, I had brought along a few pinches of her ashes for this special occasion. More tears and laughter followed as we committed a token of her remains to the winds above Kings Canyon.
Father and Son
The Exit, August 25
After five wonderful nights spent together in the prodigious confines of Kings Canyon, Chris and I headed back towards its entrance. Well acclimated by day 6, we made the 17-mile exit in about 9 hours with plenty of time to spare before reaching Lone Pine where we would enjoy one more night at the Dow Villa after a dinner of grilled salmon and cold beer! We raised our glasses to memories and lessons shared.
Window Peak gets its name from a window in its peak. From lake level, it looks more like a peephole, but up close, it is probably closer in size to a garage door!