Cherry Lake To Lake Eleanor Loop via Main Jack and Falls Canyon

  • Updated: July 05, 2016
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

July 1st to 5th, 2016
Sachse Monument (9,405')
Chittenden Peak (9,685')

Jen, Kristen, and I originally tried to do this loop for the 2015 Memorial Day Massacre figuring the low altitude made it a good fit for an early season high mileage peakbag.  We were corrected by a combination of a snowstorm and dangerously high water crossings which caused us to turn around during the second day of a planned five.

Having now successfully done the loop I'd strongly recommend not trying it that early and in fact even later than the 4th of July would probably be ideal.

For me this summer the 4th of July weekend was the only real option for doing a 5 day trip so I decided to go for it.  It would be the longest trip by a fair margin that I'd done since knee surgery last November but had a fair amount of wiggle room so we could adjust the trip as needed.

Stats ended up being 75 miles and 11,270 ft gain doing just two of the optional peaks but seeing a lot of really spectacular terrain in an area that a lot of us LA area based folks don't often go to.

Also this trip was notable for having the worse mosquitoes I think I've ever encountered in the Sierra.  And these weren't just your average isolated hoard but lasted for days in numbers that basically just had to be endured.

We left Orange County in the late afternoon since this area is a rather long drive.  400+ miles later we grabbed our night drop permit in Groveland and eventually passed out in the Cherry Lake Campground sometime after 2 am.


Day 1:  Lake Eleanor to Shingle Springs to Boundary Lake
16.1 miles, 3700 ft

The next morning we blearily climbed out of our sleeping bags and went about getting packed.

The loop we wanted to do would leave from the Shingle Springs Trailhead to the east of Cherry Lake and end on the eastern side of Lake Eleanor.  This meant we had a car shuttle or a hike to do and there was no way we were bringing two vehicles this far north.  So we decided to drop the car at the Lake Eleanor trailhead we planned to end at and hike up the painful hill to Shingle.

The Eleanor trailhead is right in the middle a large burn area a short distance from the locked gate leading down to the dam.  There were bear boxes and warnings about insistent bears.

We ran into a DWP employee who apologized profusely for not giving us a ride to the other trailhead but told us it was actually a firing offense to do so.

He also claimed we were going to hate the trail over to Cherry Lake, that it was so hot during the day we'd fry, and that there were so many mosquitoes in Jack Main Canyon we'd feel like we were flying.  Granted he was right on the last account but it was kind of the equivalent of the old local yelling about how the college kids going to spend the weekend at a haunted cabin were doomed..

We set off motivated to get to the other trailhead in less than the 3 or 4 hours he'd estimated for us.

A short way past the locked gate there's a trail that leads around the side of Eleanor to a walk in campground.  It started out in decent shape but was a bit overgrown in the middle.  Eventually we met the trail heading to the walk in campground and soon rejoined the road leading to the Shingle Springs trailhead.

There's a trail we could have taken at this point that we managed to miss so rather than walk the road (which switchbacks up about 1000 ft) we took a cross country shortcut to regain the trail.

When we eventually reached Shingle Springs Trailhead we found it packed with several paddlers prepping their boats.  We chatted with them and found out they were all hiking over Styx Pass to put in at Cherry Creek.  We spent most of the first day chatting with various paddlers on their way in carrying 75-80 pounds of gear and boats on their back.  This makes it a little hard to grumble about the pack weights we were hauling.

The hike in went a bit smoother than last time since we didn't have to deal with snow and flooding.  We decided to skip Mercur since it was a little late in the day and there were other peaks around we could come back for another day.

We started looking for campsites around Styx Pass but couldn't find anything we really liked.  We ended up crossing over the pass and dropping down to Boundary Lake.  It was just a small detour from our trail and seemed promising looking over from above.

We ended up staying a bit short of the lake on a small hanging platform with a nice view.

Day 2: Boundary Lake to Matlock Lake
13.7 miles, 1900 ft

The next morning we packed up and continued to Lord Meadow which is where we turned around last time.  The river was flowing much more reasonably and we waded across easily.

We started getting enough mosquitoes to use our nets and start grumbling a bit but they were relatively isolated and not that bad considering what we were going to be dealing with soon.

The terrain was really pretty between here and Huckleberry Lake and felt like it wasn't traveled very often.  We found a single set of boot prints and the occasional duck as the trail alternated between granite slabs and water crossings.

The point at which I gave up and just started carrying my pants across as well as my boots
We had several stream crossings all of which required us to take off our boots and wade.

A few we had to be careful on but none were dangerous like what we'd found before.  I could only imagine what it would have been like if we'd pushed onward that time.

The forecast the week before the trip said we had a chance of thunderstorms and I kept watching clouds building off in the distance hopefully only to see them fizzle a few hours later.

It was damn pretty and despite a few mosquito bites generally pleasant.  And then we reached Huckleberry Lake.

Actually it wasn't right when we got there.  We had yet another stream crossing and spent a bit on the near side before crossing and finding we were apparently the only target for every mosquito within 20 miles.

I don't have any pictures that came out that properly captured just how big the clouds of mosquitoes we all had around us were.  We put on headnets.  We sprayed DEET.  We still got bit.  Jen had forgotten her net and dislikes DEET so she really got bit.

We did the only thing we could.  We put our heads down and hauled ass through there as fast as we could

The lake looked nice at least what I could see through the headnet as we ran by.

Whatever hope I had that the mosquitoes would fall away when we left the lake was soon dashed as we climbed straily towards Horse Meadow still being bitten.

We made camp at Matlock Lake and briefly thought we had escaped the worst of them.  We took the opportunity to go for a swim in the lake and clean up a bit only to have the hoards find us again.

Dinner was spent huddled in the tent trying to murder all the mosquitoes that made it in whenever one of us had to enter or exit.  Outside we wore nets, rain gear, and down pants to keep them from being able to bite us.

It could have been a bit more pleasant.

Day 3: Matlock Lake to Jack Main Canyon
11.6 miles, 1350 ft
Sachse Monument 3 miles, 900 ft

The next morning we were headed for our first peak which was a little bump by the lake called Sachse Monument.  Kristen was feeling sick and decided to stay in camp while Jen and I went for it.

The peak was a nice stroll from camp with a bit of solid scrambling and great views.

Matlock Lake from above

View of an old mine across the canyon
Looking the way we'd be hiking toward Summit Meadow
After enjoying a brief rest on the summit we returned to camp and collected Kristen and the rest of our gear.

Crossing Horse Meadow
Kristen rallied eventually though she still wasn't feeling well and starting having asthma issues related to being sick.

Summit meadow was really pretty and if we'd had enough time I really would have wanted to climb whatever that peak on the left side of the picture is.  Next time!

We crossed Bond Pass and dropped down into Jack Main Canyon aka the place our friend from DWP had warned us had bad mosquitoes.

It was pretty and it did have mosquitoes which wasn't surprising considering everything was wet down there.  I don't think it was quite as bad as Huckleberry but it was close.

We passed a lot of northbound PCT folks most of whom were hoping to climb beyond the mosquitoes and get some relief.  We had some bad news for them there.  One of the enduring images I have of that evening was passing two guys wearing bug nets huddled miserably around a fire hoping to smoke would drive some of the bugs away.

We'd eventually had enough and found a relatively dry patch of ground a short distance from the trail to camp for the night.

Jen braving the mosquito hordes to cook dinner

Dinner was a tent based affair with just the three of us and the 50 or so mosquitoes that got in every time one of us squeezed in or out of the tent.

Sometime after midnight emergency bathroom run did prove decisively that the mosquitoes didn't go away.  Fun times...

Day 4: Jack Main, Chittenden, and on to Falls Canyon
9.1 miles, 420 ft
Chittenden Peak 2.7 miles, 1400 ft

We were all a little worn down as we packed up the next morning but the constant bites and drone of mosquitoes were starting to become background noise and I was in high spirits once we got moving.  Today we wanted to grab Chittenden peak which would require crossing the river and was supposed to be fun class 2/3.

We found a crossing a mile or so from where we camped and started unloading our camping gear to stash.  Kristen still wasn't feeling well so elected to stay by the trail and set up the tent to hide while Jen and I forded the stream

I found it brisk and refreshing.  Jen found it freezing.  She was even nice enough to forget her sunglasses on the far side so I got to cross it again.

Better than coffee

On the far side we were soon climbing aiming for the saddle between Chittenden and it's northern neighbor.

After struggling through the last few trips I was finally starting to feel like my old self out here for the first time since my knee surgery and practically felt like bounding up sections.

In the saddle we found yet more flowing water and a small lake that would have made for a nice camp if you didn't know Tilden was just a bit further and even prettier.

And of course we still had our mosquito friends.

We had information that the north chute was class 2 / 3 but it was up to debate exactly what the north chute was since the north eastern ridge was marked as requiring 5th class climbing.

I'd call this the the north face.  The ramps were all less than ideal.  You want to go left of this.

Here we found something that could reasonably be called the north chute (more obvious probably if it wasn't filled with snow) and started up.

It made for a steep but fun scramble with a few more exposed moves scattered throughout.

We found an old SC register on the top which had seen a fair amount of visits.  At least one of the books was a MacLeod and Lilley register from 1987.

And of course the bugs were still with us even here.

View from the summit of Chittenden Peak with Lake Tilden on the right and Tower Peak visible in the background
To the north we could make out Tower Peak which I'd led with Neal Robbins last year.  We could also see a number of other interesting looking peaks and resolved to do another trip to Tilden Lake (which you can see on the lower right) to get them.  Preferably sometime when it wasn't mosquitos season.

We could also look off in the direction we'd be going but that wasn't helpful beyond giving me a few more minor peaks I really wanted to pick up (Andrew Peak in particular looked interesting)  We had mileage to make if we wanted to get out at a decent time the following day however so it was time to move.

The stream was noticeably lower which was surprising considering it was much warmer now.

We found Kristen waiting for us below and continued south along Jack Main.

Chittenden looked awesome from the south

Interestingly enough a lot of the trees along the trail were marked by cut up license plates which I can't remember seeing anywhere else.

We left the PCT at this point and headed west through Falls Canyon.  This area was spectacular in a way the pictures don't really capture.

The trail is cut into the rock and you have a series of waterfalls the entire way.  I'd actually really like to see the place in early season with more water but parts of the trail would likely be impassable.

We had plans to get as far as Laurel Lake that night but we were dragging and the camping options started to look a bit too appealing.

Some of the lakes were surrounded by dense vegetation

We reached a set of three small lakes which all had exposed campsites (to help with the mosquitoes)- and fire pits.  We decided the extra milage we'd have to do tomorrow was more than made up for by the chance for a decent camp.

The lakes were shallow and therefore warm.  We washed up, swam, did laundry (since we were recycling previously worn and slightly dirty items at that point), and watched the deer on the far side of the lake.

We set up camp on a rock overlooking the lake which enjoyed enough wind to help keep the worst of the mosquitoes at bay.

We made use of the firepit and to Jen's horror ate the last meal we'd brought for the trip Mountain House lasagna and mac and cheese.

She was not a fan.

Day 5: A long day out
19.5 miles, 1600 ft

Kristen and I slept well but the birds and frogs that I found so pleasant as background noise apparently kept Jen up most of the night.  Go figure.

The mosquitoes were back in force once we left our camp and descended back into the vegetation.

We soon reached the point where the stream dropped down to Lake Vernon leaving the trail high and dry.  From here the terrain was increasingly warm and a large chunk was burned leaving us exposed to the sun.

Around Laurel Lake we planned to take a connector over to to Miguel Meadow but found it had been abandoned and was now overgrown.  Rather than risk a 1.2 mile bushwhack we followed the trail down toward Hetch Hetchy before cutting across.

Hetch Hetchy has an interesting history as it's a valley that was dammed up to act as a reservoir for San Francisco something which is controversial to this day.  There's been periodic talk about removing the dam and restoring the valley but I somehow doubt that's going to happen anytime soon considering the drought.

The map showed a ranger station at Miguel MEadow but that must have been another victim of the fire.

The old road which looks like it used to be drivable (it even had patches of pavement here and there) was entertainingly overgrown in places.  Jen and I were up ahead pounding out the hill when we heard something from behind.  Stopping we realized it was Kristen giggling uncontrollably as she swam through vegetation over her head.

After what felt like a very long time we reached the lake.  We were all close to running out of water at this point and had been hiking in 85+ degree heat for hours so we did the only logical thing.

That let us rally a bit and we finished the last mile or so to the car in much higher spirits.  There's a ranger station on the far side of the dam from the trailhead that you can hike in to but more interesting was the dam.

According to the signs there was also a tunnel built connecting this lake to Cherry Lake which is where most of the water goes in non drought years.  It was comforting to see the lake was actually at full capacity which is a rare sight the last few years.

Finally we reached the cars saddened but not surprised to see the beer and soda we'd stashed in a cooler had long turned warm.  This led to a very enthusiastic drive down the hill only stopping briefly for soda, iced tea, gatorade, and jelly beans before making a beeline for post trip mexican food back in civilization...

...only to have Kristen's Subaru freak out and refuse to shift into park briefly leaving us stranded in Modesto.  But hey, at least it happened after we ate.

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  1. Great trip log and photos -- thank you! Planning to do this loop Labor Day weekend this year, do you think water levels will be similar to what you experienced 4th of July week last year?

    1. Hard to say of course but I'd feel pretty comfortable going by Labor Day. And hopefully the mosquitoes will have died down a bit by then!