This is a wonderful hike through a dramatic and varied landscape that offers something worthwhile in every season, be it the snow-covered Clark Range in spring, the summer wildflowers or the aspen groves of autumn. There are several burn areas from different years, so it's also an excellent hike for studying forest fire ecology. Red Peak in the alpenglow of sunset is a beautiful sight in any season. In the half-dozen or so days I've spent on this trail, I have never seen more than four other hikers in a day, so it's also a good place just for peace and quiet.
Glacier Point Road to Lower Ottoway Lake
Take the Glacier Point Road to the Mono Meadows Trailhead. A steep but short descent brings you to Mono Meadows, a worthwhile ultra-short hike in and of itself (wet in the early summer). You soon enter the area burned in a fire in the summer of 2004 which you will cross for a couple of miles. Mostly the trail sticks to the woods, but an open area at the first trail junction has great views of Mount Starr King (directly ahead) and Illouette Ridge (looking back toward Glacier Point). After a gentle rise out of a minor fork of Illouette Creek, the trail descends fairly steeply for about a half-mile, losing perhaps 500 feet in elevation. Right where the trail begins to drop, a short side-trip (100-200' to the obvious bluff) gives nice views of Half Dome. Just before arriving at Illouette Creek, there is a nice overlook of the creek just before the final drop to the ford, about 2.5 miles from the Mono Meadow trailhead. The highwater ford is just 100 feet upriver. Inconsiderate campers using campsites right on the river have impacted this area and you can do your part to restore it by camping a short ways up and away from the sensitive riparian (riverbank) area.
From here you will gently gain elevation for the next 10 miles to Lower Ottoway Lake, passing through several burn areas in various stages of regrowth. The open forests rejuvenated by fire are home to some magnificent wildflower displays in the mid to late summer (I've seen them in profusion on August 15, 2004). You will also see some good specimens of Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine, White Fir, Red Fir and Jeffrey Pine, though for several miles there will not be much in terms of long-distance views since you will be on the valley floors. A few places may be muddy in the early season.
With little warning you will almost simultaneously arrive at treeline and emerge at Lower Ottoway Lake, a fine and quiet High Sierra lake at almost 10,000 feet (so campfires are prohibited in all seasons). As with the Illouette Creek ford, there is noticeable impact around the lake from fisherman's trails and careless campers. Reduce impact by walking on rocks (never grass!) near the lake, and by camping at least 100 feet from the water's edge. There are several flat, comfortable spots in the rocky-looking area downslope of the lake. There are also some rock bluffs on the southwest corner (basically the side the trail arrives at) that give expansive views west to the Buena Vista Crest and across the lake to Red Peak and Merced Peak.
Lower Ottoway Lake to Red Peak Pass (11,500') and Red Peak (11,699')
Beyond Lower Ottoway Lake the trail steepens for the stunning three-mile walk up to Red Peak Pass, with great vistas of Upper Ottoway Lake, Merced Peak and Ottoway Peak. There are a number of good spots to stop and have lunch or commune with nature and several possible side trips including Upper Ottoway Lake, Merced Peak and a few unnamed but scenic outcrops.
The final slopes to Red Peak Peak Pass are desperately steep, but the trail itself is always kept at a modest angle on well-crafted switchbacks. If you want to bag the summit of Red Peak, it's a relatively quick trip from the pass (less than an hour round trip if you). The easiest way to the top is to take the trail just past the pass, leaving at the first hairpin. From there make a bee-line to the either the noticeable gully leading up to the summit ridge (dirty and loose, but well-traveled) or somewhat left of that up steeper but cleaner slopes. Both are easier than they look from a distance. From there follow the path through the brush to the summit marker. You'll have nice views of Gray Peak to the North and Merced Peak and Triple Divide Peak to the south. Far away to the west lie the Minarets, which are also visible from near Red Peak Pass as well for those who don't want to go to the summit.