Hitting the Hogsback

Sharon Giacomazzi
Contributing Writer

A dry winter is a good excuse to hit some of the Eastern Sierra’s southern trails, those out of Lone Pine and Big Pine and Independence. Most of those trails are snowfree right now until you reach about 9,000 feet elevation and with the current forecast, that snowline will only drop to lower elevations over the next few weeks.

Take for example the South Fork of Big Pine Canyon, where a lovely trail can take you up the gorgeous canyon a mile, a few miles or even in this dry year, to the foot of the Palisades, a cloud-ripping Sierra sub-range.

Beginning at road’s end near Glacier Lodge, the path transports hikers through a landscape rich in contrasts. Not far past the trail sign, the view is enormous, offering an eyeful of things to come. It’s rare in canyon jaunts that you get to see the entire route of the journey at the get-go.

The trail parallels South Fork Creek through a stretch of high desert terrain filled with seasonal heat-loving flowers and fragrant chaparral, but now mostly graced with sage and chapparal, equally fragrant. Rising like mountain gods along the crest, a gang of spiky bare granite peaks impale the sky, heaven on earth for expert climbers and highly skilled skiers. Your destination is atop the Hogback, a rocky ridge above the talus slope at the headwall.

Nearing the creek at 1.2 miles in, rare Copper birch and not-so-rare aspens appear. At 1.8 miles, cross the stream on a log or makeshift bridge. This shady nook, at 8700 feet elevation, is a good turnaround if seeking a shorter hike.

Soon, catch sight of the South Fork spilling into the canyon on your right. A use trail leads to the willow-choked stream, if you need water.

Now put your legs in 4WD as the trail grinds up the headwall. Climb 1,000 feet on more than a dozen talus-covered switchbacks, juke around boulders and pace across narrow ledges for another 1.6 miles to a ridge locally-known as the Hogback.

From the steep-walled spine at 9,800 feet, an astounding mountain panorama will take your breath away – if you have any left. The stony ramparts of the Palisades seem close enough to touch. Break out lunch and behold utterly dramatic scenery few people witness. Check the map to identify the peaks.

The Palisade Crest is an imposing jagged ridge comprised of 12 pinnacles. They have been unofficially named by climbers for characters in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” Gandalf (the Wizard) is the highest of them. Two hundred feet below this is little Willow Lake, which, though quite scenic is more like a boggy meadow. Take note that it is the birthplace, I swear, of all the ‘sqeeters’ in the Southern Sierra during the warmer seasons! Should you be tempted to see little Willow Lake up close during the summer, you may need a blood transfusion.

When it’s time, retrace your steps 3.6 miles to the car. Be careful descending the rocky switchbacks. Stop often to absorb the splendor of this immense glacial trough. The grandeur of the landscape and the stupendous forces that created it are humbling.

No matter how often I’m ‘out there,’ I am always amazed by the fact that when nature greets us, it often does so in unexpected, unforgettable ways.

And so it is on the hike to the Hogback.