Hiking to Split Mountain, Eastern Sierra

Notes by piero scaruffi | Travel resources | Other California destinations | Other California trails
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Split Mt (4285m) is one of the highest mountains in California. It is also one of the most difficult to hike in a day. And of all the trailheads that i have used in California this is by far the most difficult to reach with a regular car. There are only two ways to reach this trailhead (the so called Red Lake trailhead) but only one really makes sense if you have an ordinary low-clearance car.

Trailhead for high-clearance vehicles

The Red Lake trailhead is located southwest of Big Pine. From hwy 395 it is about 24 km of unpaved road to the trailhead for Red Lake. The last 8 kms are a major adventure in itself. When in Big Pine, turn west onto Crocker Rd, then left on McMurray Meadows Rd. That's where the paved road ends. You are at an immediate fork. Turn left (as if you are going back to Big Pine). The road is ok for a while, but will get extremely bad for the last 8kms. There is a sign that discourages 2WD cars and it is not an exaggeration. In 2007 we managed to drive a low-clearance 2WD car all the way to the trailhead but it took about 3 hours (and 4 hours coming out). We frequently had to get off the car and literally pave the road, either to cover colossal holes or, more often, to remove stones that would have ripped the car apart. Whether you have a 2WD or 4WD, be prepared to seriously scratch the sides because of the overgrown thorny vegetation. In the summer they are dry, but in other seasons you also have to cross two creeks. (I subsequently used a different strategy: load a mountain bike in the car, drive till the point where a pipe crossed the road, park the car, ride the last 8kms on the mountain bike).
After taking the left branch of McMurray Meadows Rd, the dirt road will continue more or less smoothly for about 14 kms (30 minutes) until you get to a place with a large parking area on the right (that may look like a junction at night). As you curve left, you will notice a fence on the right handside. The road gets worse, but in 2007 it was still ok for a low-clearance car. When you get to a very visible fork, the sign is missing but you have to turn left and go downhill. These are the last 8kms that are really difficult with a low-clearance car. First you will get to a pipe that sticks out from the dirt (this was mostly covered in 2013 but it will certainly come out again). The pipe is actually one of the easiest obstacles. After this one the road goes down again, quite steeply, and it is in really bad shape. The next junction is only 1-2 kms away, but it will take you a while. Turn right at that junction (in 2007 there was a sign marking the Red Lake trailhead, and in any case the other side was gated). Basically you now want to bear right until the end, and follow any sign that says "Road 10S01". When you see the trailhead sign in the distance, try to remember that there is no limit to human stupidity: you will come to a final fork, and the trailhead is on the right, while the parking lot is on the left... but the sign that says so is completely covered with vegetation (it was completely missing in 2014), and the sign/board that says "Red Lake Trailhead" is at the parking lot, not at the trailhead. The "Red Lake Trailhead" sign is useless. It doesn't even offer a map of where the trail is and goes. GPS coordinates of the parking lot: 37.0364799500,-118.3597799540

(The occasionally publicized route via the Tinemaha campground and Fuller Rd was impassable in 2013 right after the gravel mine, even assuming that it is legal to drive this private road with all those "NO TRESPASSING" signs).

Trailhead for low-clearance vehicles

If you cannot drive to the Red Lake trailhead, a much better dirt road, Taboose Creek Rd, the continuation of Aberdeen Station Rd off Highway 395 just before the Taboose Creek campground (about 20 kms south of Big Pine, 23 kms north of Independence), leads to another trail that can take you to Split Mt.
If you take the exit clearly marked "Taboose Creek Campground", the road is paved for about 1km. When the asphalt ends, you are 7.2 kms from the Taboose Pass trailhead. This dirt road has some tough sections but (as of 2014) easily negotiatable. At night it might be confusing which is the main road because there are many "forks". Actually most of them dead-end or simply rejoin the main road. The main dirt road goes through an old broken gate. After about 1.6 kms you see the National Forest sign. After about 600 meters you get to a four-way crossing (in 2015 it came just after a "No Fires" sign). Now you can finally find out which road you are on: it is 11S04. To the right 11S101 seems to head towards the springs. Ignore 11S02 to the left. This is the only major 4-way intersection, and it does not show up (as of 2014) on any maps other than the USGS topomaps.
GPS coordinates of the Taboose Pass parking lot: 37.0091999769,-118.3269000053.
Park the car and walk on the trail for about 300 meters. As the trail bends west, leave the trail and head northwest. From the Taboose Pass trailhead you can see the line of trees marking the natural springs before the Red Mountain Creek. It takes about 45 minutes to reach these springs on foot. There is actually a dirt road that goes all the way up here, and that dead-ends at a nice parking area. That dirt road originates from the 4-way intersection mentioned before (GPS coordinates: 37.007199,-118.295805). This parking area on the southern side of the springs (GPS coordinates: 37.024723, -118.347511) is about 30 minutes from the Red Lake trailhead, in fact about one kilometer only. The problem is that you have to downclimb two prominents canyons and cross the Red Mountain Creek. If you proceed roughly north from the Springs parking area, you will cross the creek about 200 meters from the road that dead ends at the Red Lake trailhead. Crossing the creek is not trivial if you don't find an easy spot (more easily found on the way back). Hence the 30-minute estimate to cover just one km.
The total distance from the Taboose Pass trailhead to the Red Lake trailhead is about 4.5 kms. Coordinates of the Red Lake trailhead: 37.036496, -118.359967. There is a bit of elevation gain (Red Lake trailhead is at 2000m) Don't do this during the hot hours of the day.

The Red Lake route

There is running water, coming down from some other natural springs, at the Red Lake trailhead (right next to the beginning of the trail).

The trail has been improved (as of 2014) but remains one of the worst of the Sierra. It is easy to lose the trail if you hike in the dark, so make sure you know the general direction (which is NOT straight up west). The trail begins at the place with running water. It climbs steeply along the creek, then it moves left and gains no elevation (maybe even loses some) for a while: it is entering the canyon of the Red Mountain Creek. You can clearly see that this creek splits, or, better, that two creeks join further up (even when there is little water, you can see the two strings of trees). You have to follow the right (northern) one. The trail gets near this junction and then starts climbing very steeply (and it is still very sandy). Going up takes easily twice longer than coming down. When you have gained enough elevation, you start seeing the place where this northern branch is coming from. The trail eventually starts moving in that direction (after having crossed a dry creekbed). You will go through a couple of vegetation tunnels. And you may lose the trail, but now it should be obvious where the lake is. This is not Red Lake, it is just a minor pond. There is a use-trail on its eastern side that takes you to Red Lake. If you follow the use-trail, it will actually take you a bit higher than Red Lake in order to bypass a little promontory.

It is an 8km hike from the trailhead (2002m) to the first lake (about 3100m) and then 30 minutes to Red Lake (3188m). Split Mt is the wall west of Red Lake. The summit is the northern one (the southern one is unnamed) but from Red Lake it is not obvious which one it is.

The use-trail keeps you to the right of the creek in order to easily climb the slope in front of you. What appears to be a ridge is actually the entrance to a vast moraine (in the right season, it is a glacier). Stay on the right and climb towards the real ridge. Resist the temptation to climb the narrow steep notch to your left (it is icy) and continue climbing until you reach the ridge. When at the ridge, you should find a use-trail that runs all along the ridge (heading diagonally to the left) and therefore bypasses that narrow icy section. Keep climbing the ridge even if it looks like a false summit. When you reach the last of these false summits, you realize that you have reached the point where the "spine" of the summit begins. This spine (that comes up from the very visible saddle between Split Mt and Mt Prater) is incredibly wide, maybe 500 meters. You can easily bypass any snow patch. This ascent is the easiest part of the hike but it will feel endless: the summit is still much higher than where you are. You can follow any route to the top but eventually you will have to move to the right. On the way down remember that your ridge is to the right (otherwise you end up at the Prater-Split saddle).

The distance hiked from Red Lake to the summit along this route is short, but the elevation gain is more than 1,000 meters.

The view from the top includes all the biggest mountains: Mt Whitney, Mt Williamson, White Mountain, North Palisade, Mt Sill, etc.

Milestones:

  • Red Lake trailhead (2002m):
  • Sharp turn west into canyon: 30'
  • Junction with southern tributary: 1h10'
  • Climb ridge to creek's drainage: 2h15'
  • Vegetation 1: 2h30'
  • Vegetation 2: 2h50'
  • Vegetation 3: 2h57'
  • Campsite: 3h4'
  • 3100m lake (7km, 3100m): 3h35'
  • Campsites: 3h50'
  • Red Lake (8km, 3188m): 4h
  • Entering the moraine: 5h10'
  • Top of moraine (beginning of ridge): 6h10'
  • Top of ridge: 7h
  • Northern summit (4285m): 8h20'

Coming down takes approximately 5 hours non-stop.


The Taboose Pass route

From the Taboose Pass trailhead you can also reach Split Mt via Taboose Pass itself. It might actually be a more pleasant hike, just a lot longer. Catch: the parking lot and trailhead (often quite busy) is at very low elevation so be prepared for an impressive elevation gain.

The trail starts in the desert so expect torrid heat if you hike it after sunrise. It is 11 kms to Taboose Pass. What you see is not what you get: as you ascend, you think you can see the pass and you constantly have the illusion that you are getting very close. Alas, you cannot see the pass until several hours of hiking (basically, when you are above the tree line). After Taboose Pass, the trail continues to the John Muir trail (5 kms) and to the popular Bench Lake, but you are better off leaving the trail (in the general northwest direction) almost immediately after the sign of the pass to remain at the same altitude of the pass (roughly 3400 meters). Head for the mountain at the "corner":

And circle around it. Stay above these ledges and on the other side everything will be easier:

Split Mt is now east of where you are. You may not see Cardinal Lake (3493m) on your right but you have to cross the creek that drains it. It is about 4 kms as the condor flies to the marsh area of Upper Basin. After the two lakes you need to climb a solid ridge. On the other side there is another lake. The saddle between Mt Prater and Split Mt is above (south of) that lake. Ascend the saddle where you can and walk the north ridge to the top. This is all class-1 and class-2, but you have to gain 800 meters of elevation.

  • Trailhead (1650m)
  • Taboose Pass (3480)m): 11kms (5h30')
  • Turn right to keep elevation: 13kms (7h30')
  • Upper Basin: 20kms (9h30')
  • Northern summit (4285m): 25 kms (11h30')


There might be a shortcut through the western side of Cardinal Mt but i have not done it. From Taboose Pass head straight north to Cardinal Mt:

And you should be able to cross to the other side to Cardinal Lake, from which you can take the same route to the Prater-Sill saddle.

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The road to the traihead for high-clearance cars: