I finally finished the project of placing the trails, junctions, and trailhead GPS data for Granite Chief on GaiaGPS. This is my platform of choice, selected after evaluating about 10 possible options, but if you use another, you can download the gpx files and put them into your own.
To view the trail, junction, and trailhead data, go to https://www.gaiagps.com/datasummary/folder/5b4e23c555d0dc5fd992f16948fb09de/. You can turn on or off (hide) the various elements, change focus, and, if you are a member, overlay and intermix a large number of base map layers. To be honest, GaiaGPS carries through some display elements even when the creator logs out, so I’m not sure exactly what you will see when you go there. Please let me know if you have comments or questions. The element ‘Granite Chief Wilderness’ is the new boundary of the wilderness, after the additions that resulted from the American River Conservancy purchase and restoration of timberlands in the northwest corner.
The trail maps and junction descriptions have been removed from this website in order to reduce the number of things I need to maintain. The trailheads page is still there. You will also see a page specific to the McKinstry Trail, which is the one trail or route that I have not yet been able to get a GPS track for. Maybe this year! I also created a new category of trail, a route, shown in yellow. These are old trails that used to be maintained but no longer are, and have deteriorated to the point where they require higher level route finding skills to use. I don’t want to discard them, but also don’t want anyone to get the impression that they are trails for average users.
This is the key to the map, which unfortunately GaiaGPS can’t display:
red = Pacific Crest Trail
purple = other trails within the wilderness
orange = access trails which are outside the wilderness
yellow = routes; these were formerly trails, but are now unmaintained and difficult to follow, and should be used only by people with a high level of trail finding skill
black = access roads (Barker Pass Rd)
I also dropped the Conditions page, as it was very out of date. The blog posts serve to share information about trail and snow conditions, to the degree I have the information, and I encourage users of the wildnerness and this blog to comment there.
All in all, hoping to be useful to you while making it easier for me to maintain the blog/website. Just like you, I’d rather be out there!
This is the time of year when people start asking for snow and trail conditions reports. I have nothing to report. Because I am a car-free person, and therefore dependent on trains and transit for getting to the wilderness, and my travel is not essential, I haven’t been up in the Granite Chief area this season, and won’t be for a while. Of course I will walk there if I must (from Sacramento), but that is a five day trip just to get up to the area, and so I won’t have anything to say until the middle of June, at best.
But… I hope that others will report snow and trail conditions. So if you are a reader of this blog, and get up to the wilderness, or even the approach trails, please leave a note here to help others out with trip planning.
As is not unusual, I forgot to complete my post on the final trip of the 2019 season. I only had two trips in 2019 because deep snow kept me out of the mountains until mid-July, so instead I backpacked parts of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. And was back at work in mid-August, with my long weekends otherwise occupied.
This was another trip into the Hell Hole Trail for maintenance and trail finding. I have tried many times over the years to create a single track for the Hell Hole Trail from Steamboat Creek down to the intersection with the McKinstry Trail, but failed. This time I finally succeeded, but it took two days of walking up and down, and some editing of the resulting GPS track when I got off track despite all my prior explorations. The trail is now available on GaiaGPS in my Granite Chief folder, labeled as ‘Granite Chief HellHoleTrail lower’. I spent some time working on the least obvious spots, but the trail is still hard to follow and I’d not be surprised if others lost the trail. The gully section is marked with cairns (rock piles of three or more large rocks), but unfortunately so are many of the less than desirable routes. In 2020 I hope go back and define the trail better. I cleared and defined the trail from Steamboat Creek to where it first comes into the gully, which stays higher on the slope than many of the other routes. I think this may actually be a bear trail rather than the official route, but it works better than the others, so it is the one I’ve used. I’ve changed the track color to yellow, which means a route rather than a trail, since much of it is still hard to follow. This trail is not safe for horses. Most of it is, but there are three cruxes where the trail has slipped away and the tread is too precarious. Though, long ago, this was definitely a horse trail. I’ve wondered if the gully was similar when the horse trail was still usable, or if it developed afterwards and is why it is no longer horse-usable. Don’t know.
I also worked the trail section from the jeep road to Grayhorse Creek to the junction with the lower trail (above) and the route that heads up Five Lakes Creek and sort of connects to the McKinstry Trail. This 4WD, high clearance most of the way until it starts dropping into Grayhorse Creek, take off from FR 24 near the Hell Hole Guard Station (not in use). The part from the trailhead, which is unmarked, to Grayhorse Creek was well overgrown in many places, but is now followable. If you are coming down the jeep road, the trail starts at a little grassy bench just before the last very steep road down to the reservoir. Early in the season, Grayhorse Creek roars down its gorge and may be impossible to cross at the trail. I did some work on the remainder from the creek to the trail junction, but it is not as clear and may be hard to follow in places. If the reservoir is down, you can also follow the shoreline from the base of the 4WD road and informal camping area, to the old mining road, and thence up to the trail crossing. The junction with the Hell Hole Trail lower is not obvious, but is on top of a ridge just beyond a bouldery dry creek. This section is available in GaiaGPS as ‘Granite Chief HellHole connector’, orange on the map. Note that this is the same Grayhorse Creek that the Grayhorse Trail follows, but the two sections are about four miles from each other.
I’ve done a little bit of work on the trail section east of the junction, but can pretty much guarantee you won’t be able to follow it. In fact, there are several vague routes, which don’t always connect with each other. It will be many days work to find, and then make obvious, that trail. Nevertheless, there are many wonderful things to be seen along lower Five Lakes Creek and the Rubicon River, so if you are adventurous, don’t let the lack of a trail keep you out. You might even run into the fragments of trail I have worked.
While doing trail work, I camped on the granite ridge which overlooks the Rubicon canyon, just south of Steamboat Creek. It is a great place to watch sunrises and sunsets, and the stars through the night. As I’ve stated elsewhere, Steamboat Creek is seasonal at the trail crossing, but it was still flowing for this trip. If it is dry at the crossing, either explore up or down the creek to find water, or just pick up water at Buckeye Creek on your way there. If you are coming up from the bottom, carry enough water to make Buckeye Creek in case Steamboat is dry. There are some small seeps in the gully, but I think they are seasonal as well.
In my previous Hell Hole Trail post, I had noted an old trail sign and wondered if it marked the old Buckeye Trail (no longer a trail) junction, and yes, it does. I followed the trail for a half mile, and it is clear that it was at one time, long ago, constructed, though I don’t know whether it an be followed further. Another exploration for another trip!
I spent the second half of my recent backpack trip working on the Hell Hole Trail, specifically the upper part between Diamond Crossing (junction with Five Lakes Creek Trail and Powderhorn Trail) and Steamboat Creek.
Over the last few years, there has been more and more down trees on the trail, but by far the worst part was a ways past Buckeye Creek where there is a tangle of down trees in an Incense Cedar forest. This had gotten so bad that the bears had stopped using it and made their own way, with trails above it and below it, and the trail itself had essentially disappeared. The issue with the bear trails is that, though they eventually reconnect, it is quite some distance before they do, and a hiker is likely to notice there is no people maintenance and no people marking, and figure they are ‘lost’. Happened to me twice, and once was quite a long detour. So, I spent some while finding the trail again, and defining it well enough that it can be followed. I only take light trail tools, including a folding Fiskars saw, so can’t do anything about most of the down trees, but most of them are easy to step over or climb over, so defining the trail well enough to follow, keeps hikers on track.
There is also a lot of winter debris (that is what I call the branch litter that covers the trail after the snow melts, though any wind storm contributes to the debris). This can also make the trail quite hard to follow, so in confusing spots, I cleared the debris, perhaps a quarter of the total. There are a number of leaning trees, young white firs mostly but other species as well, that make the trail hard to use, and I was able to cut many but not all of those.
The section from Diamond Crossing junction down to the crossing of Five Lake Creek is partly marked with small rock ducks. There is a defined trail in places, but trees keep falling on the trail at the lower end, and when I’ve made bypasses, trees have fallen on those as well. Coming from Diamond Crossing, if you just keep heading downhill along the drainage, you will hit Five Lake Creek close enough to the crossing. Going up hill, it is easier to lose the trail, but you will eventually hit either the Five Lakes Creek Trail or Powderhorn Trail, and get back on track.
So, the status is that anyone who has a careful eye out for the trail should be able to use the trail again. However, beyond Steamboat Creek, you are on your own. I have neither walked nor maintained any of the lower trail in the last two years, and even that was minimal.
At the time of my trip, 2019-07-21/25, Five Lakes Creek was a calf-deep wade across a wide bar in the river. I always stay clear of the down tree tangle downstream, far more dangerous than anything in the creek. Both forks of Buckeye Creek were flowing, and I believe at least the eastern fork is year-round. Steamboat Creek was flowing well, however, it dries up at the trail crossing at some point during the summer, and I’m sure it will this summer. I have in other years found water upstream and downstream of the trail crossing, but there are no guarantees. If you are going, stock up on water at Buckeye Creek, as it is a long ways to Five Lakes Creek below, or the reservoir shoreline, if Steamboat is dry.
I followed the lower Hell Hole Trail a ways from the Steamboat Creek crossing. This section used to be obvious, but it is getting harder and harder to follow, and I lost it before getting to the gully. The bears have abandoned this trail, seeming to go above across the slope, but there may be other bear trails I did not find or notice. Coming up the gully, one apparent trail leads into a pretty valley between two ridges, but so far I’ve not found a route out of that valley and back to the main trail, so this may be a red herring. If the bears have their doubts, then I have my doubts, and I am not sure that the old trail alignment is the best route anymore. My next trip will be in part to determine what the best route is. I know that the bears are still going between lower Five Lakes Creek and middle Five Lakes Creek, but I don’t know what they have decided is the best route.
A little tidbit. Steamboat Creek is NOT where it is shown on the maps. The USGS map, and every map based on it, which is probably every map including GaiaGPS and the Forest Service base maps, has it to the east of its actual location. It is not that far off, only about 300 meters, but it is off.
GaiaGPS now offers the Forest Service base maps (USFS 2016 CalTopo), and it is interesting to see what the Forest Service shows for trail locations as opposed to other maps such as GaiaGPS, USGS, and Trails Illustrated. I am not sure which maps are available to which membership levels in GaiaGPS, so you will have to explore that on your own. GaiaGPS now offers scanned 1930 maps, and the trail locations definitely vary, however, these maps have much less accurate topography, at least in rough country such as the Granite Chief, so the trails may be less accurate as well.
I noticed a trail sign on the ground that I had not seen before, below. I’m wondering if it is at one of the original locations of the west leg of the Buckskin Trail, so I will explore that on the next trip. I know that there is a vague old trail leaving the Hell Hole Trail just past Steamboat Creek, which is at least one alignment of that old trail, but there may be more than one, and some maps indicate that the trail takes off east of Steamboat Creek. I enjoy looking for and locating old trails which have not been maintained in decades, but at the same time, I want to do trail work on existing trails so that they don’t meet the same fate!
The American River Conservancy purchased about 10,000 acres of private land in 2015, and some of these lands were added to the Granite Chief Wilderness. As a stewardship project before the lands were turned over to the Forest Service, old logging roads in the new area were put to sleep or rehabilitated. Drainage and creek crossings were returned to their natural contours, and the road edge was removed in many places, leaving only space for a trail.
The Tevis Trail (also called the Tevis Cup Trail, and incorrectly, the Western States Trail – though the Western States trail run occurs on this trail, it never was the historic Western States Trail, which went through Picayune Valley) was realigned in the western portion, removing it from the heavily eroded logging roads to create an actual trail. The logging road from the Forest Hill Divide saddle to the trail (where the green gate used to be, if you remember) was turned into a trail. The trailhead for this trail is now the saddle, where a road comes up from the Soda Springs side of the divide, the North Fork of the American River. I created a track for the new trail alignment, available at http://bit.ly/GCW_TevisTrail. The old alignment is shown on a jpeg map.
I’m disappointed at the design of the new trail that is not on the old logging road alignment. There are lazy looping switchbacks, at many of which the trail actually descends into the turn and then descends out of it (from the perspective of going up hill). See the diagram below, from my journal. Each of these locations will end up as a user cut-across of the switchback. Switchbacks should have climbing turns, where the trail is at no point closer to the other trail leg than at the turn. In addition, several stretches of trail are completely flat, which is remarkable given the elevation the trail must gain. I don’t know who is responsible for the trail design, but it was not done correctly. I was a trail crew foreman and trail construction instructor for the Forest Service for a number of years, and I know my trail construction techniques. Ah well, it will get corrected some day, and in the meanwhile it is much better than it was before, which was steep, eroded, rocky logging roads.
The new Talbot Trail mostly follows the alignment of the old logging road that used to connect the saddle to Talbot Campground area. Again, the roadbed was rehabilitated to a trail. Unfortunately, a lower segment that was pulled off the logging road has the same issue of lazy looping switchbacks that the Tevis Trail has. The trail comes out onto Forest Road 51 in a still open but very rough road section, where there is a Granite Chief Wilderness sign but no trail sign, then goes to the still maintained part of FR 51, which connects with the French Meadows Road going to Talbot Campground. It is unfortunate that trail energy was expended on the switchbacks when it could have been expended getting the trail closer to Talbot Campground. Again, someday, the trail will get to the campground without having to walk on hot ugly roads. The Talbot Trail track is available at http://bit.ly/GCW_TalbotTrail. This includes the portion on FR 51, which starts about where the last crossing of Talbot Creek is shown.
The cabin that used to be along the Tevis Trail is gone, with almost no trace of it remaining. I wasn’t even sure I was looking at the right place before I was able to compare photos after the trip. I understand why the Forest Service would want it gone, as it is an attractive nuisance and fire hazard, but it is still sad to see old cabins go, and the history they represent along with it. I do not know how old the cabin was.
I am making progress on my project to put all the trails, trailheads, and junctions into GaiaGPS for easier use, but it won’t be until after the summer backpacking season that I finish that and post on it.
This is a summary of the comments that I made to the original blog post while in the field, and a bit additional from the second part of my trip. These observations were made 2019-07-15 through 2019-07-24, so snow conditions and creek crossings will have changed by now. Peak snow melt is definitely past, and all the creeks are dropping.
Granite Chief Trail: good condition, one 42 inch tree tangle and a few smaller; first snow 2370m, more towards top but all passable.
PCT Granite Chief Trail to Granite Chief saddle: 20% snow coverage overall, but complete coverage up the north side of saddle. Thru hikers have beat out a reasonable route. Steep north slope requires snow spikes, or tedious step kicking.
Tevis Cup Trail: some snow at beginning and in trees west of old boundary. Several muddy areas and water running on trail, a few erosion problems. West part from old boundary rerouted and now a trail rather than logging roads.
Talbot Trail: no issues, other than it is boring and comes out onto FR51 way too early. No water past the creek near the north end.
Western States Trail (Picayune): overall good condition; a few medium trees, one large, several small; tangle of downed trees just below ridge is now cleared; some snow patches. Crossing of Talbot Creek rock hop or log. Crossing of Middle Fork, knee deep wade with poles for stability, or logs down below, rock hop not possible yet.
Five Lakes Creek Trail: about 30 down trees, all but one large easy to step over or go around. Crossing Five Lakes Creek, knee deep wade in moderately fast water; Bear Pen Creek, shallow wade; no rock hop for either yet. Grouse Creek is a rock-hop (Grouse Creek will dry completely at some point during the summer). Moderate winter debris on the trail.
Whiskey Creek Trail: one medium tree down at beginning. Whiskey Creek now a rock-hop (updated 2019-07-24).
from Alpine Meadows TH: Five Lakes Trail good condition; Squaw Saddle trail good condition; PCT Five Lakes jct to Whiskey Creek jct good condition, one small tree.
Powderhorn Trail: about 25 trees down, most small but one medium and two large; two might not be passible for horses. A lot of winter debris on the trail. All watercourses flowing. Snow from boundary up to ridge 40%, trail can be followed with a close eye.
PCT from Barker Pass to TRT: snow patches on east side of ridge after trail reaches ridge; multiple patches on the east/north side of ridge approaching the wilderness boundary, though the steep snowbank that stops people in many years is easy to navigate this year; snow patches through the trees to the PCT/TRT junction.
Hell Hole Trail: I did sufficient trail maintenance that the trail can now be followed from Diamond Crossing to Steamboat Creek, including through the downfall tangle past Buckeye Creek where the trail was lost. There are hundreds of trees down (really!), but almost all can be stepped over, climbed over, or bypassed on well established use paths. There is thick winter debris on the trail in many sections, only a small part of which was removed. The trail past Steamboat Creek has become more vague with time, and I’m not sure it can be followed anymore, but I did not explore extensively. Five Lakes Creek is a shallow wade, both forks of Buckeye Creek are rock hops, and Steamboat Creek is a rock hop. Though Steamboat Creek was flowing well 2019-07-24, it always dries at the trail crossing at some point during the summer, though water might be found upstream or downstream.
Trails not checked: Shanks Cove Trail (it was reported to me by hikers that they were unable to follow the trail from the junction with Western States to the ridgeline, probably in the downfall area climbing out of the little valley). Lower Hell Hole Trail. Greyhorse Trail. Bear Pen Trail. Most of the PCT. I figure information about the PCT is more widely available, so I did not do trail condition observations on the majority of the PCT through the wilderness.
Paul VanderVoort shared with me last year a post from his blog, which I’ve linked to here: https://paulvandervoort.wordpress.com/2018/10/05/tevis-cup-trail-to-picayune-valley-x-c-path/. I have not followed this route, so how you use the information is entirely up to you. I have heard for years rumors of both a route, and an actual constructed trail (from long ago, not maintained) between the Tevis Cup Trail at the south-extending point, and a point near the crossing of the Picayune Valley (Western States) Trail and the Middle Fork of the American River, and have looked to see if I could see such, but did not find anything. I’ll try it out next time I have some off-trail yearning.
The Granite Chief Wilderness was expanded in the northwest by a purchase of both logged and unlogged watershed lands by the American River Conservancy. Some of these lands were added to the wilderness, some are undergoing restoration. The wilderness is now about 115 km2 ( about 28,374 acres), an addition of 11 km2 (about 2800 acres) to the original 104 km2 (25,680 acres). These areal measurements are approximate.
With the deep snows of winter still lingering, I have been spending my backpacking time on the Bay Area Ridge Trail, which generally follows the ridge lines around the San Francisco Bay. There are 375 miles completed of an eventual 550 or so, and I’ve done about 64%.
My first trip to the Granite Chief will be July 15, and I’ll have some information on trail conditions at the end of that trip. The best source of trail conditions I could find is the Tahoe Rim Trail Association’s Current Trail Conditions page. Though the TRT only edges the Granite Chief Wilderness, the elevations are similar and trail conditions might therefore be similar.
If you, dear readers, have anything to report, please either comment on this post or send me an email (email@example.com). Since I’m out backpacking elsewhere, I might not get to posting for you for a few days, so better to comment directly, but whatever works for you works for me.
I have not been on all the trails yet this season, but will report on ones I have been. The PCT is in good condition; the Granite Chief Trail is in good condition; Five Lakes Creek Trail is in decent condition, some down trees but nothing that can’t be bypassed; the Powderhorn Trail is becoming quite brushy and though I did some work here, there are many days left to do, and there is a tangle of down trees about 2/3 of the way from the top that could not be bypassed by horses due to the terrain; Western States Trail is in decent condition from Whiskey Creek Camp to the saddle, with some brushy sections and some down trees, but the section just below the saddle dropping into Picayune Vally is a mess of down trees and the trail hard to follow; the lower section of Western States in Picayune Valley has had some trail maintenance and is in good condition.
Dan McGee commented on the Shanks Cove Trail on the Trails and Maps post. I think I had reported the issues with that trail, but now can’t find it, and it certainly was not on the Trails page. A number of years ago there was a significant downfall of huge red fir trees in the gully just past the small seasonal drainage south of the Western States Trail junction. This has never been cleared, and has gotten worse by the year. As a result, the whole trail is becoming less used, and is brushy and obscure in other places. I don’t have anything to report about the south section of the trail, from Greyhorse Trail down to Five Lakes Creek Trail, but will after my next trip. Unless you are good at route finding and enjoy clambering up and down over huge trees, this is a section to avoid until the Forest Service clears the trail again.
Water is still moderately plentiful at the normal spots in the backcountry, however, the lower elevations are getting really dry and the higher elevations will dry soon. By the end of the season, I’d expect only the largest and most reliable sources to be running.
As always, your trip reports and trail condition comments are welcome. I no longer am able to get in early in the season and review all the trails, so I and others depend on YOU passing along information.