Powderhorn 2022-08

My second trip of the season was in at Alpine Meadows trailhead, past Five Lakes, and camping near Whiskey Creek Camp. I did some brushing and winter debris removal on the Whiskey Creek Camp trail, and then headed down Five Lakes Creek trail. This trail is worse by the year, more down trees. Though backpackers can climb over or walk around all of the trees, not so for equestrians, because going around the down trees leads into thickets of down trees. I think this trail has to be considered closed to equestrians now, and will be, until and if the Forest Service eventually logs out the trail. I have given up on this trail, not doing any trail work on it. This is ironic since I’ve spent so much time working on the Hell Hole trail, for which the Five Lakes Creek trail was once the main access point. My trail work is brushing and winter debris removal. I have no capability to cut out down trees over about six inches.

Five Lakes Creek near Diamond Crossing

I camped near Five Lakes Creek below Diamond Crossing, where the creek pools below riffles. A beautiful spot to spend time. The next two days I worked on the Powderhorn trail, clearing winter debris, very heavy in spots, and cutting brush, not too bad but growing into the trail. Much of the trail has abundant white fir and red fir reproduction, so there are sprouts everywhere along the trail. A few of these will live, and crowd the trail, so I remove them when I can, keeping the trail corridor open. If I let them go, many grow to a point, and then die, leaning into the trail with what I call spars, waiting to rip clothing or skin. It is a lot of work pulling up young sprouts, nipping older sprouts, and fanno sawing young trees. My work only cleared about a half mile of trail, leaving a lot of trailwork for future trips.

The Powderhorn trail is similarly no longer accessible to equestrians. Though there are fewer trees, and easier bypasses than the Five Lake Creek trail, one down tree has no safe bypass. In the past an equestrian group went into Big Spring Meadows every year via the Powderhorn trail, and cut downed trees on their way in, but that group seems to have given up on the trips as more and more trees have come down.

It saddens me that the Forest Service has given up on keeping trails logged out and open. I realized they are being almost forced by political concerns to spend nearly the entire budget on fire fighting (meaning fire suppression). Years of fire suppression have left overly dense forests, and so the agency thinks it must continue to suppress fires. Of course, with fire, the question is not IF an area will burn, but WHEN. The Granite Chief Wilderness has overly dense forests, waiting for ignition. Of course the forest is gradually thinning itself in a natural way as large numbers of trees die off. But this will leave trails littered with down trees, and difficult to use or even unusable.

After the trailwork, I headed out the Powderhorn trail, walked the road to Barker Pass and went back in on the PCT/Tahoe Rim Trail, camping near the PCT/TRT junction on the crest. The last day I walked out the Tahoe Rim Trail to Ward Creek, which is being maintained and is in good condition. I walked out Ward Creek to the west shore and caught the bus into Tahoe City. Though I enjoy the Page Meadows section of the TRT in the spring with wildflowers and in the fall with aspens colors, it is boring during the summer.

PCT & Picayune 2022-07

This was my first trip of the season, probably the latest I’ve ever started. I had been doing a lot of short backpack trips along the Bay Area Ridge Trail, intending to complete that trail in a single year, but now taking a break because it is just too hot there. And I’ve been traveling and dancing a bit, which left shorter periods of few days for backpacking in the Sierra.

I went in at Palisades Tahoe on the Granite Chief Trail. This trail has been adopted by Truckee Trails, and is being appropriately maintained, so I’m scratching that one off my list of trails that I need to maintain. I headed south along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), over Granite Chief saddle and down Whiskey Creek drainage. I camped near Whiskey Creek Camp, and had a nice long conversation with five people camped there, parents, two children on their first backpack trip, and a friend from Chicago.

The next morning it was a little smokey, so I hung out and it didn’t seem to be getting worse, so I headed out the Western States Trail toward Picayune Valley. And then the smoke really came in! The Five Lakes Creek drainage was completely filled with dense smoke, and the ridgelines barely visible. So I sat it out for quite a while. When it thinned a little, I headed to Picayune Valley, wearing my N-95 mask, to one of my favorite camp spots.

smoke in Five Lakes Creek basin

The smoke mostly cleared in the evening, and the stars were good. Next morning I walked the rest of the trail down to Talbot trailhead. The wet meadows and seep areas along the trail were chock-full of flowers. Because the trail is not getting much use, the soft vegetation crowds in and obscures the trail tread, but is easy to push through.

I had partly headed to Picayune in an effort to get away from the smoke, which I figured might be less further west, if the smoke plume location was correct. But the next day was mostly clear, so I went back out and back to Whiskey Creek Camp area. The smoke was from the Oak Fire in Mariposa County.

Next day I continued my way south on the PCT to Barker Pass. Though I’d seen very few PCT thru hikers previously, that day there were a more ‘normal’ number, about 70. I headed down the Blackwood Canyon jeep trail and camped near Blackwood Campground. The campground is no longer free ($17/night for a campground without water and trash service!), and the Lake Tahoe Basin has outlawed backcountry camping. Not sure what the rationale is, but the effect is to discriminate against people of low and moderate income. Of course I believe that people have a right to travel over the earth, and to camp where they need to camp, and that is what I do no matter what the bureaucrat bean-counters think.

There are alot of red firs (Abies magnifica) dead, sometimes in clusters, and sometimes individuals. They seem to die branch by branch until they are completely dead. It looks as though middle aged trees and the most susceptible, not so much young trees and very old ones. Though there are also dead white firs, the red firs are particularly noticeable because of the intense reddish brown of the needles. The primary cause seems to be prolonged drought and over-abundance of trees (due to fire suppression). Once weakened by drought, they are susceptible to root rot, mistletoe, fungus, and bark beetles.

Small and seasonal creeks are dry. Medium creeks are low but still flowing well. Wet meadow and seep areas are still green and wet, but drier ridge areas and crispy dry. Flowers are abundant in wet or moist areas, but long gone in drier areas. The two most common species of flowers are pennyroyal and yampah.

The trails I walked on this trip are in pretty good condition. Light to moderate winter debris. A few down trees, almost all easy to step over or bypass. The one tree that might not be able to be bypassed by equestrians is on the switchback down from the saddle into Picayune Valley. There are a few places that could use spot brushing, though the alder wet area on the PCT at the crossing of the Middle Fork really needs brushing.

I did something on this trip that I’d not done in years – I took a paperback novel to read. I’ve listened to books, with Audible, but my iPhone battery runs down pretty quickly. I rather enjoyed hold a book in my hands!

I’ve had for a couple of years the idea of creating a digital presentation or book on the flowers of the wilderness. So I took a lot of flower photos on this trip. Not everything, and of course missed the early season flowers. I’m better labeling them than I have before, with common name (if I can figure it out), species name, and plant family. I’m hoping that when I get to the project, that will make it easier. I’m using primarily Sierra Nevada Wildflowers, Karen Wiese, Falcon Press (Kindle edition); and Wildflowers of Nevada and Placer Counties, California, Redbud Chapter of California Native Plant Society. macOS Photos app now makes suggestions for photos that contain one flower. Sometimes the suggestion are exactly right, sometimes they are good to the genus level, and sometimes they are completely wrong. It is interesting to check, but the lookup is rather slow.

Mule Ears, Wyethia mollis, Asteraceae

Back in tomorrow!

PCT trailwork and exploring

This is a trip from last year, that I forgot to post. It turned out to be the last backpack of the season for me, as fires closed the national forests and the two or more trips were not made. The trip from Monday, August 9 through Friday, August 14, 2021.

Duck Lake

I went in at Barker Pass, coming up to Truckee on the train, then bus to Tahoe City and down the west shore to Kaspian Campground, then walked up the paved and dirt road to the pass, and camped a bit north of the pass. The air was clearer both up on the ridge and down in the Tahoe basin than it had been.

The main purpose of my trip was to finish off a section of the PCT that needs brushing, and had last been worked about five years ago. It was not brushed closed, but was approaching that. Cutting brush usually goes fast, but hauling he cut brush off the trail take up more than half the time, depending on how long I have to carry or drag it to a good location. Many people who do light trail brushing just drop the cutting where they are, but over time that results in a wall of cut brush along the edge of the trail, which looks bad and blocks views. I haul the brush so that it is at least six feet off the trail, often more, and out of sight. It is interested when my brush stashes evolve over time as the brush gradually breaks down. The air was clearer up on the crest, but seemed to be getting worse down below.

Doing trail work on the ridge, I have to haul up water for my trip from one of the sources below. In this case, the springs in the north fork of Blackwood Canyon, down the switchbacks and back up, with about seven liters of water. Though the air was clear, there is a layer of smoke aloft and it seems to be descending towards the ridge. I finished the section of brushing late in the day, with a few drops of rain from increasing clouds. With this section, there are no places between Barker Pass and Granite Chief that really need brushing, though there are locations that could use some attention.

Next day I headed south along the PCT. The smoke is thick now, and I’m hiking with my KN-95 mask, and walking more slowly than usual. The smoke seems to be regional now, not just plumes from the fires. Water at the springs, and more water at the creek south of Barker Pass which is flowing cold and well, though everything else including Miller Creek is dry now. I continued on to Richardson Lake, where I camped along with eight other backpackers. I’ve noticed that all along the PCT there are more campsites, and the campsites are bigger, the result of the huge increase in the number of PCT thru hikers. I see about 40 thru hikers a day now, whereas in the pre-Wild (the book and movie) days, it was about 5. I took an afternoon walk to General Creek, tip-toeing carefully through abundant tiny frogs. Tree frogs, I think.

While around the lake, I saw a mustelidae that was moving too fast to clearly identify, many grouse, dragonflies with green and blue bodies and bright blue banded tails, bright green frogs in the grass at lake edge.

The next day I hiked on to Lost Lake, which is south of General Creek. There is a new trail, constructed by TAMBA, replacing the old road. The road had problems, but so does the new trail. It loses elevation for no good reason, and then climbs very steeply to make up for it, and winds almost a mile out of the way for a so-so view. I have never been fond of trails laid out by mountain bikers, too much like pump tracks and too little like trails, but this one is particularly bad. Trees were cut off at waist height rather than the ground, brush piles right beside the trail, very steep tread with no attempt at erosion control. But once reaching the lake, it is nice. I took a swim, walked around the lake, and watched the end of the day cloud color. I took a walk around Duck Lake, which is really a pond, shallow, but an interesting place not much visited except by ducks.

Last day I walked out the General Creek trail to Sugar Pine Point SP, and took the bus back to Tahoe City and then Truckee, and the train home.

The Caldor Fire started that day, though I was not aware of it on that day. The Tamarack Fire, southeast of Tahoe, was still going but not producing much smoke, and the Dixie fire was still going and contributing to a regional smoke.

Here in February 2022, I’m wondering when the snow will melt enough to head into the Granite Chief again. The fall storms brought deep snow, and it was looking like a very late year, but it hasn’t done much since, so who knows. I have started backpacking again, but in the bay area and Sierra foothills.

Photos on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/albums/72157719722926893; Granite Chief collection on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/collections/72157637640215275

more PCT trailwork

This trip was mostly a trail maintenance trip, continuing the brushing between Twin Peaks and Ward Peak, particularly the very brushy section in the middle.

I went in at Barker Pass, walking up from Kaspian Campground to the ridge. Not the short way into the wilderness, but useful because the closest spring to my work area is along the PCT/TRT in North Fork Blackwood Canyon. Other springs are nearly dry, and streams are very low, but this one is still doing well, cold snowmelt water out of the talus slope below the ridge line.

I made progress on the brushing last trip, and this trip was able to fill the gaps between other short segments I’d done, leaving only the hardest part to do, the brushed-in ridge line switchback. So I feel good about the work accomplished, everything to the south done. But more to do. I replaced the cutting blade on my nippers before this trip, and it made a big difference. Below, the tools of the trade: nippers, folding saw, worn out gloves, and new gloves. The nippers and folding saw are both Fiskars, which make the best lightweight tools, about a pound each.

The majority of the brush I’m cutting is tobacco brush, Ceanothus velutinous, it grows faster than the others. Bitter cherry also crows fast, but the stems are easy to get to and cut easily. But even the slow growing pinemat manzanita and sagebrush do eventually encroach on the trail. The photos on Flickr (link below) show several of the brush species that I’m cutting, though not the most common tobacco brush. Huckleberry oak and white thorn are very common brush at somewhat lower elevations.


With all the time up on the ridge, I of course had ample opportunities to watch the sunsets, and this section of the ridge is one of the best places. I also watched the patterns of smoke from the fires. Last trip was mostly smoke from the Tamarack Fire to the southeast, with the smoke mostly heading north well to the east. This trip was mostly smoke from the Dixie Fire, well to the north but producing a lot of smoke. Sometimes the Tahoe basin, to the east, was socked in with smoke, sometimes clear. Less often the west slope of the Sierra was smoked in. Fortunately, at least during these weather and fire conditions, the crest is free of smoke most of the time, just a hint of smoke smell from time to time. The smoke does produce some spectacular orange sunsets. Though there are good sunsets any time there are layered clouds to the west, not just layers of smoke.

The weather was also unusual. Monday night it rained off and on throughout and into the next morning. Never heavy, but still enough to require my tarp. This kind of weather is common summertime in some other mountain ranges, but not common in the Sierra. The rest of the week it rained at least once a day, but light rain from the edges of the thunderstorms. The storms were forming over the crest before moving east to the Carson Range, a reversal of the usual pattern. It has been a while since the forest smelled largely of dampness and humus, and it was enjoyable. But the rain was never enough to thoroughly wet the soil, and it is still dry below.

The woolly mules ears are drying to yellow and brown, but not quite dry enough to rattle in the wind, that sure sound of fall. The less common arrowleaf balsamroot, however, is dry and rattling.

Early one morning when walking through a mules ear meadow to my work site, a dark sleek animal dashed across the trail, going downhill and moving very fast. The glimpse was so brief I’m not certain what it was. Probably a weasel, but could also have been a marten or fisher (all are in the same family Mustelidae). I also saw a Clark’s Nutcracker hanging out on the ground. I usually only see them in flight between trees, or in trees, but this one provided a close up view.

Tomorrow I’m headed up to finish off the brushing, probably two solid days of work. Depends on the smoke, however. The crest is often free of smoke, but the hike into the crest from Lake Tahoe level is in the thick of smoke, at least today.

PCT trailwork

This trip was primarily for trail work. I had noticed on my previous trip that the section of the PCT trail between roughly Twin Peaks and Ward Peak (actually, only part of that), was beginning to be brushed in again. Looking at past posts, it appears that I did some work here in 2014, but didn’t finish, and then finished in 2016. So it has been five years, at least, since this section was brushed. Most of my brushing I think of as ‘five-year’ brushing, cutting things back enough that the work will last about five years, so this works out.

As always, the tobacco brush (Ceanothus velutinus) is the fastest growing of the brush and the most likely to brush a section of trail closed. As with most plants, cutting it leads to it producing multiple stems, so the result of my 2014-2016 work is that a lot of the tobacco brush has multiple younger stems, which take much longer to cut. Sometimes I can get down to the root of the plant, and get it all out, but that is unusual, and doing this effectively would require different tools than I take, a pulaski or similar. I discovered, to my surprise, that at the oldest root wad of the tobacco brush, there is a large, deep taproot. Bitter cherry also spouts from the cut base and sends its stems into the trail, but it is easier to get out by the roots. Even manzanita, though slow growing, will encroach on the trail over time. Several other brush species, less common at least in this area, also encroach on the trail, but the fast growing whitethorn is not common along here.

The photo below shows a brushed-in section of the trail, the ridgeline switchback. And it still looks like that, because I did not get to this part in my work. In fact, I only accomplished about one-quarter of what needs to be done. My excuse is that it was hot in the afternoons and I could just not accomplish much. And it was hot – the rocks get almost skin-burning hot. The temperatures are funny. Up above the bridge the wind is often blowing, and was blowing the entire time of this trip, and it is comfortable. But when I squat down or sit down to cut brush, I’m out of the wind and it is very hot.

PCT brushed in

There are no water sources on the ridge between the springs in North Fork Blackwood Canyon and Five Lakes Creek, so I have to pack in water. I resupplied, from the springs, once during my trip, and when I ran out of water the second time, headed out. The three springs close together are very low, and I’m sure will dry up this summer. Another single spring further south is still flowing well. And of course North Fork Blackwood Creek is likely to have water all season. In years with more snow, I’ve been able to melt snow from the snowbanks that last on the east side of the ridge, but this year those snowbanks were gone back in June.

I primarily use two campsites on the ridge, the one heavily used by PCT thru hikers near the PCT/TRT junction, and a small one north of Twin Peaks that is not much used. I discovered that a wood rat lives nearby. It stole my plastic spoon, so I have to make a sort of workable one out of a stick, and also chewed on my pack straps and work gloves. After that night, I put everything away and hung my pack up in a tree.

On my way out the last day, a new fire southeast was popping up, the Tamarack Fire, which is still going as I write (Sunday, July 25), now about 66,000 acres and only a quarter contained. During my time on the ridge and then down at Tahoe, the smoke was all going north, along the east side of the Carson Range, so not affecting my area, but I understand that now some smoke is coming over to Tahoe and the crest.

Tamarack Fire

On this trip, I took both insect repellent and my inner netting tent. Ironically, there were far fewer mosquitoes than there had been two weeks before, but it was still nice to go to sleep without the buzzing.

For this trip, I walked from Tahoe City to Kaspian Campground, which is where Barker Pass Road leaves the highway, walked up the road and then the jeep road past Blackwood Campground to the crest. Blackwood Campground now charges a fee – it was the last of the campground in the entire Tahoe basin that was free. As a result, it was empty. I headed north on the PCT from Barker Pass to my work area. Going out, I took the TRT trail down to Ward Creek, where I camped the night, and then on through Paige Meadows to Tahoe City.

I’m falling into a pattern of wanting to hear music after my backpack trips, so I went to the Saturday afternoon music in Squaw Village, blues by Mike Schermer, which was fun. It seems it is mostly locals, people who have homes or shares in the village, who attend these. There were a lot of kids dancing, having a good time.

And then home on the Amtrak bus from Truckee.

Tomorrow, in for more trail work. Maybe I’ll get to half or 3/4 done.

Photos on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/albums/72157719601232047; Granite Chief Wilderness collection on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/collections/72157637640215275/

PCT & Powderhorn 2021-06

The Granite Chief Trail, up from Squaw Valley to the PCT, is in good condition. A sign indicates it has been adopted by the Truckee Trails Association, so this is one trail I probably won’t have to maintain again. Yay!

I camped just off the PCT, looking down the North Fork American River canyon, with a good sunset and sunrise, probably in part due to some fire smoke from fires to the north. There are still some patches of snow on the north side of Lyon Peak ridge (Foresthill Divide), but not much left. I walked the PCT south to the junction of the PCT and TRT, where there is a campsite well used by thru hikers and others. I’m seeing about 40 thru hikers a day, mostly in bunches but some solo. As is typical, about half look happy to be there and the other half clearly does not. It is a strange thing that people do.

sunset over North Fork American River

I headed south on the PCT to Barker Pass, then along Forest Highway 3 to Powderhorn trailhead, and down to Diamond Crossing. There are a number of trees down on this trail, though all but one were easy to go over or around, and it could definitely use brushing and cutting back of the doghair firs that crowd the trail.

I helped two dayhikers, in from Powderhorn, to find the pools along Five Lakes Creek near Diamond Crossing, which they would not likely have found on their own. The Five Lakes Creek Trail is in poor condition, many trees down, many of them down now for years. The Forest Service has not maintained this trail in at least six years, and it was being somewhat maintained by a horse group that headed into Big Spring meadow every year, but seems to have given up on using the trail, it is so bad.

I camped at Big Spring meadow, one of my favorite spots, a great place to watch the beginning of the day and the end of the day, and enjoy the huge pines. The meadow is drier than usual for this time of year, but not fall dry. The spring is flowing well, and I don’t think it ever dries up. I explored up the east side of Five Lakes Creek, finding the old trail which used to be on that side. Some parts are easy to see, in the wet areas with willow alder and willow thickets, not, and I did not find the place where it crosses over to the west side. I’ve also explored down from the PCT/Five Lakes junction, but haven’t yet connected the two.

Big Spring meadow

I hung out at Whiskey Creek Camp to meet Paul Vandervoort, who I’ve been emailing for several years but never met. He was leading a dayhiking group from Reno, going over into Picayune Valley and then climbing out to the Tevis Cup Trail, and back out.

I headed out the Five Lakes Creek Trail, PCT, and Five Lakes Trail, with some exploring around the Five Lakes area, which I usually zoom by on my way elsewhere. The lakes were low but most still had water. There are anywhere from three lakes to fifteen lakes, depending on the time of year. The largest lake, the one to the west, breaks into two lakes as the water level drops, and the one I call third lake gets smaller but I’ve not seen it dry.

From there I went up over the old Squaw Saddle Trail, no longer maintained, and into Squaw Valley. It joins the Western States Trail (one of the many alignments) and heads east along the south side of the valley. Where the trail is closed for construction of the new Alpine to Squaw gondola, I dropped down to Squaw Village and hung out there for a while.

I took the bus into Tahoe City, where I camp out for the night before going to Truckee in the morning to catch the train. It is far too noisy in Truckee to sleep out, due to Interstate 80 with its constant roar of truck traffic. Tahoe City is much quieter. While charging my phone at the plaza overlook, a band came and set up to play, so I stayed to enjoy there semi-reggae and talk to people.

I was wondering how the flowers would be in the drought year. At higher elevations, they actually don’t seem much different, except that they are about half the stature of a ‘normal’ year. Their abundance is about the same, though.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamhoriza)

On this trip I did not take insect repellent, and did not take my inner tent with insect netting, so was quite bothered by mosquitoes. If it were cooler, I’d just hide in my sleeping bag and go to sleep, but the evenings were too warm to do that. They are not as thick as they used to be, but still…

I have some new hiking shoes. For years my toes have been turning, and as a result, I need a wider toe box, but my heel is not widening, so wide shoes don’t do it for me. I’m trying out Altra Lone Peak trail runner shoes. They have a wide toe box but normal width elsewhere. They aren’t really heavy enough for hiking shoes, so I probably won’t be doing any off-trail hiking in them, but I have to say, my toes were happy.

Photos on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/albums/72157719601028882; Granite Chief collection on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/collections/72157637640215275/

Hell Hole and Barker Creek

My late October to early November trip into the Granite Chief included the Shanks Cove and Greyhorse trails, which I’d not been on this year, the Hell Hole trail and explorations around there, and a off-trail hike up the Rubicon River and then out Barker Creek to Barker Pass.

On my trip up to the area, I slept out near Truckee, and it was very, very cold, well below freezing, so I guess I can call summer over. After tea and breakfast to warm up, I headed into the wilderness at Alpine Meadows TH, thence to Whiskey Creek Camp. I explored around Five Lakes lake, the largest one, which is the only one with significant water late in the year, which I’d not done in years. I generally avoid this most popular destination for day hikers, but it was early and on a weekday, so I figured correctly there would be few people. It is a beautiful lake, the only really alpine looking lake in the Granite Chief.

Five Lakes main lake

From Whiskey Creek Camp I followed the Western States (Picayune Valley) trail to the junction with Shanks Cove trail, and thence up to the ridge where I camped for the night. It was much warmer up there than it had been in Truckee, though I was 650 meters higher, since cold air drains away from the ridges and towards the valleys. In the morning I walked out the Greyhorse trail to the trailhead, which is no longer marked by anything, then back to the ridge and down Shanks Cove trail to the Five Lakes Creek trail. The Shanks Cove and Greyhorse trails have not been maintained in a long while, and there are many trees down, most easy to bypass but a few not. The winter debris (which this year came mostly from high winds in the fall) is thick in many places. And brush is encroaching on the trail in many spots. On the plus side, there were small flows of water in some of the little creeks that I was sure would be dry in this dry year.

I camped near Diamond Crossing and spent time just watching the creek and seeking out the brightest fall color trees. Then down the Hell Hole trail. The two forks of Buckskin Creek were flowing a little, but Steamboat Creek was completely dry. I explored downstream, where I have found water in the past, and did not find any, but I didn’t check upstream. Steamboat is always one of the earliest creeks to dry. Down the the bottom, where there is a vague junction with the trail coming from the 4WD road at Greyhorse Creek, with the route up canyon parallel to Five Lakes Creek. I have found and maintained about half this trail, but the other half is still uncertain, just wandering through forests and finding vague traces of trail here and there.

I continued my exploration of trails and routes in the Hell Hole and Rubicon River area, trying to make sense of how they fit together. I made some progress. I walked out the official 14E02 Hell Hole Trail to the dam and across. It is not marked in any way at the trailhead, but if going in that way, one would park at the boat trailer parking lot, walk down the steps, across the dam, and to the beginning of the trail on the south side. The dam is not open to vehicles but there is a hiker gate. This trail is not much used, but is surprisingly pleasant given how close it is to the reservoir, and is decently maintained. At a point just above the Upper Hell Hole Campground, which gets very heavy use by boat-in campers when the reservoir is up and the weather nice, a connector trail goes down through the old upper campground and to the east end of the lower campground. Continuing on the main trail, it gets harder and harder to follow, but traces of it exist and seem to lead to the Rubicon River just where it narrows in its first canyon. From the eastern-most campsite, a route marked with rock ducks heads along the ridge, then down to a crossing of the Rubicon at what I call huckleberry camp (there are more red huckleberry bushes in this area than one would expect at this elevation), then back up onto the ridge between the Rubicon and Five Lakes Creek, connecting with the route from Five Lakes Creek end of the Hell Hole trail and the route that goes down to the Rubicon at the same canyon point as the possible trail. With a better understanding of how the trails and route fit together, I have updated my tracks on GaiaGPS.

Rubicon River

I then spent half a day trying to figure out where the McKinstry trail goes, but at this I failed completely. There are little fragments of trail along the Rubicon River, but they don’t seem to connect. I know that when I walked the McKinstry trail years ago, it was not that hard to follow though not maintained, but now I can’t even seem to find the place where it climbs up out of the Rubicon Canyon. So, that remains for another trip, and I still don’t know what the condition of the McKinstry trail is.

Leaving the trail finding project behind, I ventured out on a no-trail trip up the Rubicon River and then Barker Creek. The river canyon was dark and cold, probably never getting direct sunlight at this time of year, so I decided against continuing up canyon, which is beautiful, and only possible in low fall water. Instead I headed up Barker Creek, which is incredibly beautiful. There are here and there traces of a route marked by rock ducks, but it pretty much is just walking up the bottom of the canyon, walking around pools and jumping the small creek. The canyon eventually gets too rough to follow and I climbed out alongside the canyon to the more gentle terrain above. From there cross-country, and along some of the OHV trails (fortunately empty on this day), and then the PCT/TRT up to Barker Pass. And then down to Blackwood campground for the night, and out to catch the TART bus in the morning to Tahoe City.

Barker Creek,cottonwoods

I bought some gloves from Alpenglow, which I had most unfortunately forgotten on this trip, and have only some heavy waterproof gloves at home, and spent the rest of the day just enjoying Tahoe City. The following morning to Truckee, and caught the Amtrak California Zephyr home to Sacramento.

This will be my last long backpack trip (nine days) and my last mountain backpack trip of the year, but I’ll continue shorter backpack trips in the Sierra foothills and the bay area throughout the winter and spring, until next summer backpack season in the Granite Chief.

Photos on Flick: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/albums/72157716780807318; Granite Chief collection on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/collections/72157637640215275/.

Picayune Valley and smoke 2020-09

My September trip into the Granite Chief was to Picayune Valley, my favorite, and then north along the PCT to Donner Summit, and Truckee, running from the smoke.

Middle Fork American River, at Picayune (Western States) Trail

I went in at Squaw Valley on the Granite Chief Trail, and camped just a bit north of the junction with the PCT. The air was reasonably clear up high, but very smoky below and in the Tahoe basin. The creeks crossed on the way up were either dry or very nearly dry.

Next day I headed south on the PCT, and took a side trip to the top of Granite Chief, which I’ve not done in a while. The smoke was thick in the valleys, and there were streaks of smoke aloft, but at this level the air was quite clear and I could see Sierra Buttes to the northwest. Also took a side trip to Little Needle Lake, which has a vague use trial leading from the junction of the Tevis Connector. The meadow has been grazed down, probably by bears, but the lake is still pretty full, sitting in a granite basin surrounded by volcanics.

I went by Whiskey Creek Camp, where there were a LOT of people, not surprising for Labor Day weekend. I headed over the Western States Trail to Picayune Valley. Late in the afternoon, a huge dark red smoke cloud towered overhead from the south, I assumed then from a nearby fire. But later found out it was just the smoke from the Creek Fire way south. The smoke in the valley came and went, but was mostly overhead and not ground level.

I explored all the way down Picayune to Talbot campground, and a ways up the Talbot Creek Trail, looking for possible shortcuts from that trail to the Middle Fork, rather than the long way around down the road. I followed out several old logging roads, but none went through. There is one more significant logging road to check, but for another time. Some maps show a trail paralleling Talbot Creek, but I was unable to find even traces of a trail going up along the creek, so I think this is false.

In Picayune, I also explored the benches between the trail and Picayune Creek, looking for petroglyphs that I’d been shown several years before on a American River Conservancy backpack. I found some of them, but not all. The trail is in good condition the entire way, someone has been maintaining it. Both Picayune Creek and the Middle Fork are quite low but still flowing. I camped near my usual spot, just above the creek in the area where the trail first switchbacks down toward the upper waterfall.

I spent the morning exploring the ledges south of the creek, fascinated as always by the micro variety of the metamorphic rock pattens and textures, but the air quality got worse and worse during the day, so I decided to head north in an attempt to get away from the smoke. So, back out of Picayune, to Whiskey Creek Camp, and north on the PCT. I camped at Granite Chief saddle, initially in a cold breeze that ascended through the night to a howling wind, and shifted from west to east.

In the morning, the crest was clear, and by mid-morning, it was completely clear to the east, all of the smoke being blown back into California. The wind increased with gusts to about 60 mph, and it was very hard to walk the ridge between Tinkers Knob and Anderson Peak, taking tiny steps and re-balancing after each one. The air east became the clearest I’ve ever seen during the summer, revealing mountain ranges across Nevada, which were later obscured by dust rather than smoke.

Seeking shelter from the wind, which I knew would not allow me to sleep that night if I were out in the open, I stayed at Benson Hut, a Sierra Club sponsored hut on the PCT that is supposed to be for winter use and emergencies, but I decided that gusts of 60 were sort of an emergency. The high winds also blew up existing fires, and the Bear Fire to the northwest produced huge streaks of smoke and cumulus clouds, and the winds aloft blew that south, initially missing the crest but eventually coming back eastward.

I continued north to Donner Summit (Hwy 80), and then west on the Donner Lake Rim Trail. To be honest, I hate this trail, at least the newer part of it. It was clearly laid out by bicyclists. There are looping switchbacks that lose maybe 10 feet over a quarter mile, adding unnecessary length to the trail. Ack! I am so tired of trails designed to keep bicyclists entertained, with no consideration for hikers. The switchback turns are deep dust pits as the bikers swoop around them and pulverize the tread. I am one of those people who believe we can’t “all just get along” on the trails. Mountain bikers need to have their own trails, which they build and pay for.

At any rate, I camped along the trail, and saw good stars for part of the night, but then the smoke descended and I was in heavy smoke the rest of the way into Truckee. Headed home on the Amtrak bus, as the train was more than five hours late, and seeming likely to lose more time before it got to Truckee.

Photos on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/albums/72157715976003121

more Hell Hole area trail work

My July 18-24 backpack was into the Hell Hole area of the wilderness, mostly for trail work.

I went in at Granite Chief trailhead in Squaw Valley, and up to the PCT. I camped along the ridge with a view west and particularly northwest, but there was a band of clouds in that direction and I did not see the comet. From there I headed south on the PCT, turned to Whiskey Creek Camp, and south along the Five Lakes Creek Trail. From Diamond Crossing I went down the Hell Hole Trail, doing some light trail work along the way, and down to the junction near the reservoir with what I call the Hell Hole Connector Trail, which goes to the road into lower Greyhorse Creek, and the McKinstry ‘trail’ route down from south of the Rubicon.

I manage to follow the Hell Hole Trail all of the time from Diamond Crossing to Steamboat Creek now, with the trail definition I’ve done, but I sometimes still lose the trail for a while from Steamboat Creek down to the bottom. The problem is that there have been many trails, many of them marked with rock ducks and cairns, so if I get off the main trail, I find other trails and it takes me a while to realize. Nevertheless, it is now much easier to find your way than it used to be. Someone has marked parts with orange flagging, and there was only one place the orange flagging was in the wrong place, and I removed it.

From the junction near the reservoir, I went upstream to where the ‘trail’ route crosses Five Lakes Creek, and camped near there. My time down in the canyon was split between exploring to find trails and doing trail work. I walked about half way out to dam along the trail 14E02. I had thought this trail did not exist, but it does, and it is actually in pretty good condition. From the Upper Hell Hole Campground, there is a clear trail to the upper campground area, and then a vague short trail connecting to this trail, and that is how I accessed it. Coming back, I followed it eastward. Though the trail becomes vague, and then mostly disappears when it drops into a forested flat, it does seem to go all the way to the Rubicon River, very near where a waterfall area forces the route from Five Lake Creek area up and over a bench. The official maps show this, more or less, though I did not really believe them. I also explored the many routes between the trail at Five Lakes Creek and the Rubicon River. There are several routes in places, only one in other places. Where the seemingly main route comes down to the Rubicon River, there is a campsite with a heart shaped rock wired to a tree, not far from a pond on the divide between the creek and river. Just upstream along the river is a thicket of huckleberries, which are rare in this area and at this elevation.

My main objective was to further locate and define the trail between the Hell Hole junction and Five Lakes Creek. I partly found the trail, though across the manzanita flat I could not really tell where the trail had been because the manzanita had grown so thick over the years. I cleared a new or old trail through the manzanita, so that there is now a visible trail for about half the distance. I also think that I have located the traces of trail to link together to complete the other half, but there will be at least one more trail work trip to make that visible. And, then, there is the whole question of the McKinstry Trail which crosses the river and climbs south to a road. I don’t know whether it exists anymore. I’ve heard various and conflicting information. That will probably have to wait for next year, as it will take this year to clear the trail to get to the Rubicon.

I have a GPS track for the section of the McKinstry Trail I’ve made visible, but it needs some editing, so is not posted the my GaiaGPS maps yet.

All of the creeks are now rock-hopable. Some of the smaller creeks and the ones which are seasonal every year have dried. Steamboat Creek was still flowing at the time of my trip, but was dropping, and I very much doubt that it still flows, at least at the trail crossing.

I went back out via the PCT and Five Lakes Trail, to catch the bus at River Ranch.

Trail conditions:

  • Granite Chief Trail: good condition, some brushy areas but no problems
  • PCT, Granite Chief Trail to Whiskey Creek Camp Trail: good condition with a few downed trees and a few brushy areas
  • Whiskey Creek Camp Trail: good condition, one downed tree
  • Five Lakes Creek Trail, Whiskey Creek Camp to Diamond Crossing: many downed trees so that it is becoming unpleasant and slow to walk; this trail has not been logged out in many years; severe tread erosion in may places
  • Hell Hole Trail, Diamond Crossing to junction with McKinstry Trail: hard to follow from Diamond Crossing down to Five Lakes Creek, easy to follow to Steamboat Creek, challenging to follow from Steamboat Creek to junction, but mostly visible and marked with rock ducks; many downed trees but with ways around or over all of them
  • McKinstry Trail: no longer a trail, but a route that can be followed with close attention to maps/GPS tracks and visible remnants and rock ducks; unknown condition past the crossing of the Rubicon River
  • PCT, Whiskey Creek Camp Trail to Squaw Saddle Trail: good condition, some brush
  • Squaw Saddle Trail: good condition
  • Five Lakes Creek Trail, to Alpine Meadows Trailhead: good condition

I’m off for a trip in the Mokelumne Wilderness, and then back to the Granite Chief for my next trip in September. For my readers and backpackers, enjoy your travels, and let me know of your experiences.

Photos on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/albums/72157715387628207; Collection on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/allisondan/collections/72157637640215275/.