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TR: Tiltill Creek

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TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby Wandering Daisy » Sun Oct 16, 2011 10:51 am

Hetch Hetchy Bushwhack/Death March
Oct 12-15, 2011

Three major creeks flow into Hetch Hetchy north of the Tuolumne River: Rancheria, Tiltill and Falls. None have trails and all have intrigued me. Late season with low water, less heat, bugs and vegetation provide ideal conditions. The “plan” was to loop via Tiltill and Falls Creeks with side trips to Branigan and Vernon Lakes.

At the parking lot I discovered I had forgotten to pack the rain gear. Oh well, weather reports only had 20% chance rain and I had a large garbage bag. At least my pack was light! I left the parking lot at 11AM hoping to get the 10 miles and 3,400 feet elevation gain to Tiltill Valley before dark. It was hot; the death march began! Other than pit stops, I marched quickly sweating profusely, mind over matter, reaching Tiltill Valley at 4PM, luckily finding a nice established campsite with running water. Little face-swarming gnats added to the death-march ambiance. I quickly abandoned the idea of drinking treated water (I only had chlorine tabs) and filled up on whatever water I could find. As it was, I had plenty of daylight left to hike around Tiltill Valley, check out going directly up the creek and have a leisurely dinner. I could have slowed it down a bit and enjoyed the hike a more. It was dark by 7PM but soon the nearly full moon arose providing enough light to make shadows. I ached; it was a 2 Advil/electrolyte supplement night.

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Tiltill Valley

Next morning I got up at 6:30 in moonlight and left at 8AM as the sunlight hit camp. I had decided to go up the trail 600 feet of elevation before traversing into Tiltill Creek. Where I had planned on leaving the trail I found a cairn which gave me hope of a use-trail. Hope soon faded as I repeatedly walked game trails that ended in thickets of scrub oak, Manzanita and cliffs. I would have to bash through the brush, literally climbing on limbs and crawling under tangles and had to drop 400 hard earned feet of elevation to reach the creek at 6,400 feet where the jungle turned into car-to-refrigerator sized talus. I took a snack break at a small pond above the talus. The next 3 miles to another pond at 7,400 feet alternated between easy rock slabs, rock scrambling, dry brush and outright jungle conditions. At one point I had to take off my pack and drag it under a tangle of branches. I swear I went back and forth from the east to west side of the narrow canyon a million times searching for paths through the jungle. Thank goodness there were no more gnats. It was still warm but a nice breeze had picked up. I made steady slow progress upward. I reached the pond at 2PM and ate lunch. Although only 0.8 mile to Branigan Lake, I “zigged” a million “zags” to find a route to the inlet. I had come a bit over 6 miles and 2,200 feet gain in 7 hours- really not bad considering conditions. It really was a more relaxing day than the previous. I immediately jumped in the lake to cool off, washed clothes and drank enough water to make my stomach slosh. I found a sandy campsite on the top of a rock, set up and then tried fishing to no avail. Back at camp I cooked dinner and at 6:30 near dusk the lake became alive with fish. I grabbed my pole and tried but my location was on the shallow side of the lake and all the fish were out of my puny casting distance. I retreated to the tent at 7PM. The moon soon came up as did the wind. It howled all night; I put in earplugs but the tent still shook so I slept poorly.

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Tiltill Creek above lower Pond

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Upper Pond

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Branigan Lake

Next morning I got up in the moonlight and moved down off the rock to a more sheltered spot to cook breakfast. I was off at 7:30 AM on what was to be a long day. My first objective was to get to the inlet of Middle Branigan Lake; the most difficult terrain so far taking me 2.3 hours to get a bit less than a mile! It was hideous brush again, this time on the steep northwest shore with the addition of cliffs. At times I was hanging precariously on Manzanita where a slip would mean a dunking into the lake. Many times it took two to three tries to find a route that would go; many times my feet never touched solid ground. The large talus blocks were actually a nice relief from the brush. I was in the shadows, kept my “cool”, one step at a time, and concentrated on positive thoughts that I really would make it. At the inlet I decided to bail to the east and bypass Upper Branigan Lake; a good decision as the terrain became more open slabs. In an hour I intersected the trail and in another half hour crossed the beautiful Falls Creek in Jack Main Canyon. I was surprised that there still were large snow patches on the ground (7,700 feet elevation) and the creek was still knee deep. I took my first long break of the day. I abandoned the idea of a side trip to Mahan Lake since I had my fill of off-trail travel at this moment. I walked 3 miles down Jack Main Canyon, full of lush meadows, little lakes and following the beautiful creek until the point where it leaps over the cliffs south to Lake Vernon. The “plan” was to descend the rocky slabs next to the creek, but I was not sure it would work and my appetite for adventure was low at this point. So I trudged up the trail in spite of the trail route being 6 miles and the direct route 2 miles. I found a nice campsite at Lake Vernon about 4:30PM, too tired to fish after a 12-mile day with by far, the most difficult off-trail travel. I built a fire since I did not have enough fuel for both dinner and breakfast. I had forgotten what a pain it is to cook on a fire although I enjoyed the ambiance of the fire. I barely got camp chores done before dark.

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Rough northwest shore of Middle Branigan Lake

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Lake in Jack Main Canyon

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Lake Vernon

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Camp at Lake Vernon

The “plan” for my last day was to follow Falls Creek to the top of Wapama Falls then traverse a mile-and-half to the trail. I debated until the last minute. The first two miles would be easy slab walking but the remainder would be difficult and hot. The off-trail route was essentially the same distance and the trail route. When I planned the trip it was supposed to be cloudy, but it was 8AM and already hot. I had strained my arch the day before. I was nearly out of food. I lost my “mojo”. A quick 10-mile walk out the trail won the debate. Falls Creek will have to wait for another trip. As I reached the switchbacks, I now ran into many groups going up the trail, after my three days of solitude. I ate lunch at the dam, ironically observing that here I was, a few hundred yards from a parking lot, and this really was the best view of the trip! I had satisfied my yearning for low-elevation off-trail Yosemite canyons. I am glad I got rid of this “itch” but would never do it again.

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Hetch Hetchy



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Re: TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby balzaccom » Sun Oct 16, 2011 2:15 pm

Nice report, Daisy. And a good time to aim for those slighly lower elevations....
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Re: TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby Wandering Daisy » Sun Oct 16, 2011 7:59 pm

I actually think I aimed too low in elevation. It was almost unbearably hot. I had forgotten how hot Hetch Hetchy trails are as they are on the north side which bakes in the sun against all those rock walls. I think 7,000-8,000 elevations would have been a better bet. I was amazed that the ground was wet, even at low elevations. There were still puddles all over. It evidently snowed quite low and enough last week that small streams were still seeping and the trail was damp- which was great because there was no dust. All that ground moisture however made it quite muggy. It was strange seeing reddish crumpled Mules Ears (??- that tall big plant) next to a few bright spring-like flowers. The aspen were just beginning to turn. Many small streams that in normal years would be dry were still running. I had however fogotten about the fire a few years ago- unfortunately much of the area on Moraine Ridge and around Beehive are now partly burned. Had I realized how much along the trail was burned, I probably would have stuck with more of-trail travel in the areas south of Moraine Ridge.
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Re: TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby SSSdave » Mon Oct 17, 2011 1:19 pm

In 1978 we went to Branigan via pond 7496 (ssw of Branigan) and the narrow pond at 7575. Although gradients in those areas don't look difficult, dense manzanita is often difficult to avoid. Going through even short distances of manzanita can be horrible with one liable to get rather scratched and gouged. Over the years I've learned that at these mid elevations where manzanita grows, the blank lower gradient areas on topos are not always the easier routes expected until one can actually see what is there. Same story going to Edyth Lake or climbing up from Glen Aulin to Mattie Lake. Note the usual way to Branigan is to skirt Vernon's south shore, push through areas of willow and brush, then ascend the south side of Branigan's outlet which is steep friction slabs.

Don't understand why you chose to crosscountry on the west shore of Middle Branigan because the 7.5 topo gradients show that to be way too steep. We had climbed up atop of dome 8120+ east of Branigan and looked down on Middle BL seeing how it was very burshy and unfit for anything but squirrels. The obvious route I did in 1979 was to swing west around the Branigan outlet then northeast past Andrews Lake, across the saddle to cross Falls Creek and then onto the trail.

Although it appears one might be able to drop along the west side of Falls Creek where it drops steeply at 7400 feet, the top of that area has a horrible mass of willows and aspen against a steep wall. A very unpleasant tarzan jungle route I took in September 1979. On the way out came down steep friction slabs a half mile west that starts at 7720+. The steepest section required a bit of grabbing brush while dropping along the side of the slabs
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Re: TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby Wandering Daisy » Mon Oct 17, 2011 5:06 pm

I was not trying to find the easiest route to Brannigan. I have this thing about just being curious if a route will work. I knew where the "standard" routes were. Tiltill creek just looked interesting on the map! And there were a lot of short game trails, so it was not all bushwhacking. I have also been to Edyth, dropping down from Laural Lake and then going up Elenore Creek. Same kind of stuff. (Also have done Enchanted Gorge- really a bit easier than a lot of the stuff in Yosemite). The east side of Middle Brannigan is a sheer cliff down to the water so the west side, although steep, was the only other option once I reached the outlet, because I sure was not going to retreat back to Brannigan Lake after all the effort to get to the outlet of Middle Brannigan. It was slow, but I made steady progress and really never felt too stressed. Thanks for sharing your experience in in Falls Creek. It looks so "nice" when viewed from the trail to Lake Vernon.

I have always had a curiosity about descending both Piute Creek and Matterhorn Creek, all the way to the Tuolumne. At least these canyons would have more spectacular scenery. I would not do these alone, and certainly would take rappel gear. I doubt I ever would be able to talk anyone into doing these. In general, I feel bad putting anyone through my epic bushwhacks.
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Re: TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby oldranger » Mon Oct 17, 2011 6:18 pm

I can't believe you chose a route that SSSdave dosen't approve of! :D That is tough country isn't it! I totally wimped out on my trip from Leavitt Meadows to Hetch Hetchy once I passed Mary Lake. My mind was wierded out so I became much more conservative than usual so I missed Branigan and Vernon and came out a day early.

I rather enjoyed going down Moraine ridge as I am really into fire ecology. Last time I was inthe area there was fire all around Laurel Lake (1980).

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Re: TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby SSSdave » Mon Oct 17, 2011 9:46 pm

http://mapper.acme.com/?ll=38.03079,-119.68506&z=15&t=T

As one can see on the above link, the distance between the Branigan Lake inlet and Middle Branigan outlet is about a half mile via the stream route. Lots of manzanita. However the outlet narrows such that just getting there is a difficult effort in the tiny dry stream bed. Note the cliff against the lake of dome 7880 WD mentioned on the southeast side. If one was intent in going by Middle Branigan, the obvious route if want looks at the topo, would be to climb 300 feet over likely easy slabs to the saddle east of dome 7880, and then hope to find a way through the one steep 40 foot line section. However to do so one would have had to made that decision at 7400+ feet before doglegging northeast up the MBL outlet stream since the effort above that is increasingly ugly. Some of us with fishing poles actually started up that way to see if fish were in those waters but it was obviously only going to get worse closer to the lake and after a bit of pain we'd seen enough.
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Re: TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby Wandering Daisy » Tue Oct 18, 2011 8:19 am

When I left Branigan Lake in the morning lots of fish were rising, but as far as I could tell, none in Middle Branigan. The lake was still in the shadows yet I did not see a single rise on the water. I did not go up the drainage per se, but rather due east through a saddle that intersected the drainage a few hundred yards from the outlet of Middle Brannigan. I figured that no matter how I went it would be rough, so I simply aimed for the shortest distance.

Middle Brannigan, however, is quite easy to reach going in from the northeast from the cross-trail east of Jack Main Canyon. It is actually only about half hour off the trail. Leave the trail at the two little ponds, skirt southwest along the edge of a dome to your right, scoot west through a notch, descend a small trickle (southwest again) and you get to the bench just above the inlet. There actually is good camping on this bench that is about 30-50 feet above the lake level. For anyone curious about fishing Middle Branigan, this is the way to go.
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Re: TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby balzaccom » Tue Oct 18, 2011 11:06 am

Ya know, Daisy, as I read through your great report one more time, i couldn't help but start thinking: "There's a reason that trails go where they go...and a reason that some destinations don't have trails to them!"

Thanks again for the report and the adventure. And we look foward to spending some time in that area exploring as you did next summer...
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Re: TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby tim » Tue Oct 18, 2011 12:25 pm

Looks like fun (at least for those with a masochistic streak!). I was wondering about doing the on trail version of the Lake Vernon loop (possibly even in the next couple of weeks if the weather holds out). It seems like most people do it clockwise over 3 days, which I guess makes sense if you can't get all the way to Vernon in the first day and then have the option of stopping at the Beehive spring instead.

You obviously went the other way round, presumably because the off trail stuff worked better that way. However, I was wondering if the fire damage would also make you think twice about camping for the night in near the Beehive? In addition, after the Wapama falls accident in late June, it seems there is a good reason to not be faced with coming out from Rancheria Falls at the end of the hike, if the weather forecast is potentially uncertain (though maybe that is really a consideration for snow melt season?). It looks like the hike from the dam to Tiltill is about the same distance and elevation gain as going from the dam to Vernon, so that part of the decision is probably a wash - is that right?
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Re: TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby Wandering Daisy » Tue Oct 18, 2011 2:03 pm

I personally think the Lake Vernon loop is over-rated. It is a lot of work to visit one mediocre lake. Earlier in the season, when wildflowers are out it is better than now. I do not recall a good water source at Beehive right now- you would have to go over to Frog Creek. The walk along Hetch Hetchy is scenic, but neither Rancheria Falls or Tiltill Valley are particularly scenic spots to camp. Rancheria has better campsites and water source. The entire hike from Rancheria Falls to Lake Vernon is very hot and dry. There is water in Tiltill Creek but it is running quite low. I would do it counter-clockwise, with the option to stay first night at Rancheria Falls (with probably time to drop to Hetch Hetchy to fish) or go on to Tiltill Valley if you prefer more time at Lake Vernon. It is an easy 4-5 hour hike from Lake Vernon out via Beehive. I would not worry about being stuck at the bridge at Wapama. It would take quite a storm to make it unsafe, and even in that rare event, water should receed in a day. There is a nice flat about quarter mile east of the bridge where you could camp in an emergency, carrying water up from the falls.

If you had someone to drop you off and pick you up, a better 3-day hike would be the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.
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Re: TR: Tiltill Creek

Postby tim » Tue Oct 18, 2011 4:38 pm

Thanks for the heads-up. I've been to Rancheria Falls before (as an out and back to LeConte Point) and it was quite pleasant if you get the exposed campsite with the view down the reservoir (we figured that out the second day after camping in the trees with the skeeters the first night). Maybe I'll think about alternatives (unfortunately not GCT because I'll be on my own) - I'm mainly trying to figure out options that involve staying fairly low, assuming its going to get colder quite soon.
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