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!
Photos on Flickr (this includes the entire 10 day trip, not just the Hell Hole portion): https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/albums/72157710021027427.