Hiking the Middle Palisade

Notes by piero scaruffi | Travel resources | Hiking in California
Pictures of the hikes | Middle Palisade' weather

The Palisades region of the Sierra Nevada is located west of the town of Big Pine. It includes some of the highest mountains in California, including the Middle Palisade (4271m).

The main approach to Middle Palisade is via Big Pine's "south fork".

From hwy 395 in Big Pine (130 kms, about one hour) take the only road that goes west (right), Glacier Rd. The trailhead parking lot for the "north fork" is almost at the end of the road (before Glacier Lodge) on the right handside. There is a campground about 200 meters before this trailhead on the left handside. At the end of the road there is a parking lot for the Glacier Lodge that can be used also for day hikes. That is the trailhead for the "south fork", the trailhead you want.

This South Fork trail starts at the Glacier Lodge (2300m) and reaches Willow Lake in 6.5 km at 2900m of elevation. At the beginning you walk between the river and a residential area. Then pay attention to signs that direct you to the South Fork trail, and memorize these trail signs because on the way back one can easily make the wrong turn. The trail initially gains little elevation. Note that soon (in less than one hour) you have to cross a creek that may be impassable after a rain or in early summer when a lot of snow is melting. (The national forest has money to hire rangers to check your permits but doesn't have money to place a couple of logs on this creek).

Here to the south one has the first clear view of the Middle Palisade, with Norman Clyde Peak to the right and Disappointment Peak to the left. The trail dead ends at Brainerd Lake but a use trail winds its way up to the west and then south to Finger Lake. Follow the gentle slope above Brainerd Lake between pine trees. Coast Finger Lake to the left (there's a little cliff than can be easily climbed) all the way up to the waterfall. Climb around the waterfall and you find yourself in a basin with a little pond. Coast the pond to the right and enter a wide gully. To your left is a wall of slippery granite that is best avoided. The gully is full of loose scree.

After a waterfall that originates underground, turn left and reach the glacier.
Note: most people now prefer to cross Finger Lake at the very beginning (northern tip) and walk up its western ridge and then enter the glacier from the east. Lots of cairns on this route. The big advantage is that you avoid most of the snow fields.
The glacier is neatly divided by a prominent rib of rocks. Ascend that rib that ends against the Middle Palisade. To the right is a chute of red rocks.
Some people ascend the red rocks to reach the main chute that traverse diagonally right to left. (I personally have never met anyone who has done this, but it is listed in a famous book).
The red-rock route to the main chute: ascend the screen slope and then enter the prominent reddish U-shaped ledge and then climb the wall to its right to enter the main chute:

(Note that the real summit is not what you see in this picture, taken from the glacier: it is way to the left).
It is safer to walk to the end of the rib and then about 50 meters on the snow to the left and reach a point where you can safely cross the bergschrung (there is usually a solid bridge of ice/snow here). This is also the easiest place to climb up the rock.

You are below the Secor chute. Once you are safely above the snow, if you head slightly to the right you will enter the Secor (north) chute. This chute is class-3 and eventually intersects the main chute coming from the "red rocks" that heads straight up to the top.
In 2008 i used the "eastern" chute to the left of this popular "northern" chute. To enter this eastern route you need to go left after climbing up from the bergschrund. This is a much wider chute (never mentioned in any of the books as of 2013). Alas, also a lot steeper. Because it is so wide, you can always find a spot to climb up, and a series of chimneys to the left helped me to get around the steepest drops. This steep is the straightest way to the summit. When you get to the end, the real summit is the ugly peaklet to your right.

  • Bridge (2500m): 30'
  • Willow Lake fork (2950m): 1h45'
  • Brainerd Lake (3150m): 2h30'
  • Finger Lake (3280m): 3h15'
  • Pond (3450m): 3h45'
  • Glacier (3600m): 4h15'
  • Glacier's rib (3700m): 4h45'
  • Top of rib (3800m): 5h30'
  • Summit (4271m): 7h

Norman Clyde Peak

Middle Palisades sits between Disappointment Peak (4242m) to the south and Norman Clyde Peak to the north. Disappointment Peak is class-4 from whichever side you try it. Norman Clyde Peak is more easily climbed from the south, which involves climbing Scimitar Pass, but even from the south it still has class-4 sections.

Mt Kafka

Just before you enter the Middle Palisade glacier, to your right, almost exactly south of Mt Clyde and northwest of Finger Lake, there is a lower mountain that i named Mt Kafka (3748m). It separates the Mt Sill glacier and the Middle Palisade glacier, with great views of both sides. It is relatively easy to climb from Finger Lake: once at the southern end of the lake, move to the right and start climbing as you keep heading southwest.