The Alta Peak Trail is a showcase of grand panoramic vistas, most dramatically in the last mile and a half before the peak. The rocky environment around the peak is strikingly beautiful, with sights that are unique to the alpine environment such as some fascinating alpine flowers and the rare Foxtail Pine (a long-lived relative of the Bristlecone Pine, the world’s oldest trees). Even at lower elevations, the woods on the trail are lusher and more scenic than elsewhere in the park, with bigger trees and richer colors.
Alta Peak is a strenuous climb; the trail gets steep and the air thins just when you have the least amount of energy to handle these challenges, so it feels like you’re climbing endlessly without getting any closer to the peak. The first 5 miles took me 2 hours; the last 2 miles took 1 and a half hours, and I was starting to feel pretty lightheaded near the top. Fortunately the return trip is all downhill.
The trail can be covered with snow as late as mid-August. Check the park’s trail condition page before hiking.
Here’s the trailhead location in Google Maps.
Start from the Wolverton parking lot. The wide, dusty, and well-used trail immediately starts climbing at an 8% grade though dense pine forest, passing through a few small wildflower-strewn meadows. The rushing sound of an unseen creek fills the forest.
After the Pear Lake turnoff, the trail isn’t so wide and dusty and the scenery improves as the trail climbs past a series of progressively larger and more scenic meadows.
Turn left onto the Alta Trail, which continues to climb through woods for a bit. Reaching the ridge, it then breaks out into open chaparral with striking views over the Middle Fork Valley, the hills marching off into the haze toward the San Joaquin Valley. Across the Middle Fork valley are the large granite outcroppings of Castle Rock. The trail, which cuts across a steep concave hillside, continues to climb.
The trail reaches the Alta-High Sierra Cutoff Trail and soon after re-enters the pine forest. This part of the pine forest is especially attractive, with large trees and a lush understory. The dirt path through the woods is much easier to hike on than the rocky gravel of the more open areas.
At the intersection with the trail to Alta Meadow, turn left to stay on the Alta Trail. The grade increases from an insistent 8% to a strenuous 15%, but the scenery is still mostly pine forest with occasional meadows. Tharp’s Rock, a dramatic rock outcropping, towers over the meadows.
The woods very gradually open up, allowing dramatic views of the jagged peaks of the Great Western divide. Around the first switchback are some especially stunning views of the deeply green Alta Meadow far below, surrounded by granite peaks, their lower slopes clad with conifers. Pictures fail to show the grand scale of this sweeping vista.
The grade increases to a bruising 23% over the last three-quarters of a mile, but this is also where the landscape is at its most intriguing. As you aproach Tharp’s Rock the trees start to get gnarled and twisted, looking a lot like Bristlecone Pines, which grow at about the same elevation just 60 miles to the northeast. The trees are Foxtail Pines, which are related to Bristlecone Pines and are also very long-lived, up to 2,000 years. The trees become more gnarled, more sparsely distributed, and increasingly striking as you climb.
Although the ground is just rock and sand, some interesting wildflowers also manage to grow here. I especially liked the Western Anemone.
Soon after Tharp’s Rock the trees and flowers disappear completely and the trail switchbacks upward over bare rock. Little piles of pebbles (called "ducks") indicate the location of the trail, which is hard to see in places as it zigzags through the scree.
The hardest bit of trail is the last few hundred yards, where it gives up switchbacking and just goes straight up. The trail ends at a large pile of granite. To reach the top you have to climb up the granite, briefly making your way along a precariously narrow ledge to the top of a large slab that’s sloped like a roof. If you don’t want to go to the top you can pick your way through a jumble of rocks to the left of the granite formation, which is little easier and earns you the same dramatic views, just not all at the same time.
One of the most striking views, which is only visible from the peak, is the stark, bare granite wasteland to the northwest. To the south is the richly green Middle Fork valley surmounted by the jagged peaks of the Great Western Divide.
As you start to descend, just a few yards below the top, look for some low granite outcroppings to your right. If you leave the trail and climb up on the granite, you’ll get a great view of Pear Lake, Emerald Lake, and Aster Lake, far below. This view is blocked from the peak.
Return the way you came.
© 2011 David Baselt