For the first time, I hiked up the Granite Chief Trail which links Squaw Valley with the Pacific Crest Trail just north of the wilderness. I went on to the top of Granite Chief at 9006 feet, with a clear view in all directions.
The trail starts literally at the right side of the main fire station in Squaw Valley, which is just north of where the main road turns left towards The Village. There is a traditional Granite Chief Wilderness information sign, and a Granite Chief Trail sign, but no destination or mileage sign. The trail climbs past a ropes course and then steeply through private property below houses to a dirt road leading left to a large water tank, then becomes a trail again. The trail alternates steep rocky eroded sections with gentle smooth grades, all the way to the crest. I few seeps and creeklets are still flowing in the lower half of the trail. There are two major side trails, unsigned, that take off the trail in the lower half, not that noticeable going up but quite noticeable and confusing coming down. At the first split coming down, the right fork connects to the Squaw Creek – Shirley Lake trail, so take the left to stay on the main trail. At the second split coming down, I didn’t follow out the left fork, but the right is the main trail. When coming down past the water tank, the trail is not marked but leaves the road to the right not far down.
After shady forest sections, open granite slabs, and some short brushy sections, the trail gains the crest at a signed trail junction, having climbed from 6260 to 8160 feet (1900 feet). Since it is nearly entirely on a south facing slopes, I’m glad I went up in the early morning of a hot day.
Along the PCT, the cold spring at the granite flat is now dry, but Squaw Creek leaving the headwaters meadow is still flowing. It is underground at the trail, but available just up or down the creek.
At the Granite Chief saddle, a use trail goes up to Granite Chief peak. There are several routes, and I tried to stay on the most used one. From the top, one can see most of Lake Tahoe, north to Sierra Buttes (and at little beyond, but not Lassen today), west to the haze and moisture over the Central Valley (no coast range today), south through the Desolation Wilderness and the peaks of the Mokelumne beyond. This is the clearest I’ve seen since early June before the fires started, and it is nice to be able to see long distances again.
The season of flowers is largely past, though there are some lupine, California Fuchsia, paintbrush and a few species of the sunflower family. Instead, this is the season of seeds, berries, and beginning fall colors. I find the seed heads of many plants to be just as interesting if not as flashy as the flowers. Currant, gooseberry, thimbleberry, bitter cherry, red elderberry, and coffeeberry can be found along this trail section (the standard disclaimer: don’t eat berries unless you have identified them from a book you know how to use and understand the terminology – these berries range from delicious to strongly bitter to mildly poisonous). The thimbleberries seem to be drying out before they have fully developed, sadly, so my favorite berries are fewer and less juicy than some years.
The basin of the Middle Fork American River is developing fall colors as the knotweed develops a reddish brown color, the mulesears turn shades from bright yellow to pale yellow to brown. The shrubs that are evergreen, but of course lose leaves gradually (such as such as manzanita and huckleberry oak) have yellow leaves marked for dropping. The slopes below Squaw Peak already have a nice pattern of fall colors, which will develop further. Lower down dogbane is starting to turn its bright yellow. My perception is that fall colors are coming about three to four weeks early, due to the winter precipitation ending early and dry spring.
2008-08-31 to 2008-09-04