In the northeastern corner of Yosemite National Park, jutting above the craggy Sawtooth Ridge, is the Matterhorn Peak, a rocky point that is one of the best snow-kissed mountains in the Sierra Nevadas to ascend without needing climbing gear. While no mountaineering expertise is necessary, this is still one hardcore day hike – a 14-mile round trip, it starts above 7,000 feet along a stream and gains some 6,500 feet in elevation, ending in a windswept, craggy summit.
To get to the trailhead, take 395 South from Bridgeport to the Twin Lakes. At the end of Twin Lakes Road is Annet's Mono Village, a small RV park and campground with a clear view of Matterhorn Peak, six miles away. Follow Horse Creek through fir, pine trees, and sagebrush, past standing water (in early summer, from snowmelt) and wet, grassy areas teeming with migrant songbirds, juncos, steller's jays, and hummingbirds. As you gain elevation, from 7,600 to 9,200 feet, the plants thin and the rocky terrain of Horse Canyon takes over, with boulder fields giving way to snow, gravel, and loose, sharp volcanic rocks. At about 9,200 feet, the creek ends. Turn right and continue the ascent. At 11,000 feet, the wind steadily whips, the sky has noticeably darkened (a trippy trick of elevation as you make your way closer to space), and gravelly rubble and a few dense pockets of ankle-high conifers cling to the 80-degree slopes we're about to ascend. This is the spot to lunch, drink up (water, and lots of it) and ready yourself for a half-mile, 1,200-foot climb that is the roughest on the trail. Legs burn, the thin air fails to give recovery, and every six steps require a breather. It's a straight shot to the peak, and tauntingly slow.
At the top, elation. The Matterhorn Peak (12,279 feet) is the highest in the northern Sierras and your views – south into Yosemite, east to California cattle country, and west into the heart of the Sierras – are wholly unobstructed. Soon enough, the wind and sun take their toll and it's time to descend. The adrenaline, thin air, and exhaustion all help to make the slopes of snow below us look soft and inviting – a thrilling shortcut straight back to Horse Creek.
In fact, it was on this peak that Jack Kerouac's character, Ray Smith, from the semi-fictional 'Dharma Bums,' came to a similar realization: "I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps…then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it's impossible to fall off mountains." This is not exactly the case, and it's certainly not the safest course to glissade down an unexplored slope without an ice ax or skis. But someone in our party had skied these slopes just four weeks prior and knows the terrain well. So we hiked to the most forgiving drop – an 800-foot slide that ends in a flat snowfield. We tightened our packs, sat on the wet, slick snow, and descended in one long, crazy (for one, yodelaying) sail down the side of the world.