I finally got back into the Granite Chief this week for three days, going in at Powderhorn Trailhead which is just west of Barker Pass. Fall colors are coming, but the aspen trees which are often the brightest are just starting, and the vine maple seems subdued this year, as likely to be pale white or pale yellow as bright yellow. I don’t think there have been any freezes since August, and though the calendar says fall, the days were still summer, quite warm. And the mornings refreshingly cool. I did quite a bit of exploring, checking out Little Powderhorn and Laddie’s Cove, the lower end of the Five Lakes Creek gorge, and the mesa between Powderhorn and Little Powderhorn canyons.
The trailhead sign has been fixed up, with a new wilderness map and stock information, and the mileage sign was replanted in the ground. The road to the trailhead is becoming rough, especially past the Road 3-4 junction, so passenger cars might want to park at that junction and walk the 0.3 miles to the trailhead. I hope that this road is closed off anyway, because it serves no real purpose, it is a dead-end, and allows quadrunners into remote forest areas to tear them up. As I’ve said before, I am pretty sure the Barker Pass Road was intended to continue all the way to Foresthill, to carry the trees of Tahoe and the upper Rubicon out to the mills there, but since that didn’t and never will happen, it seems pointless to have the road. I suspect Sierra Pacific Industries has lost interest in this area as well since they have such a long haul distance to the closest mill, which I believe is in Truckee, though that mill is a fraction of its former size and maybe close to closing.
Though some birds are still active, and flies, and even a very few mosquitos, the fall quiet has come, with sounds distinct. Powerderhorn Creek, Five Lakes Creek, and Bear Pen Creek are low, but still flowing and about average for this time of year. The tiny creek near the postpile meadow is even still flowing.
The trail was logged out this year, so there is only the one very large tree remaining high up, and I suspect since the use trail around it is now well established, it will stay there. Some brushing was done by others, and I did a bit more, so though brush is beginning to intrude in a few places, it is still easy to get by. The thick patch of willows at the postpile area – the columnar basalt cliff and the meadow below it – was cleared two years ago and is still open.
I explored Little Powderhorn Creek, following the abandoned trail that branches off the Powderhorn Trail. This is shown on the old USGS map but not the current recreational maps such as TI-804. The junctions (an upper one close to the large meadow and another one well upslope) are obscure, as they should be, since the trail is obscure as well. I was able to follow it about 3/4 of the way to Little Powderhorn, clambering over downfall in places but strolling on others, but then lost it. When I reached the creek, I thought the right hand or more westerly fork was the main one, not having looked at the map closely enough, and so went up that creek into Laddies Cove. What a wonderful mistake! The cove is nearly surrounded by a steep cliff of columnar basalt, probably the best exposure of this geological phenomenon in the wilderness. Unfortunately I forgot my camera on this exploration, so don’t have a photo of Laddies Cove to share.
I even saw the trail crew, and was going to thank them, but they ran away. A mother and one cub, maybe two. Bears and other wildlife maintain most of the trails here, particularly the ones abandoned. If not for the bears, I probably could not have followed this trail at all. I don’t know whether the trail shown going up Little Powderhorn Creek and over the saddle down to West Meadow Creek can be followed, since I took the Laddies Cove fork, so I’ll check that one in the future. I’ll also try to find the trail past Little Powderhorn shown contouring around to the west and then into West Meadow Creek. It has been long enough since these trails were maintained that the cut logs have all rotted way, and many but not all of the blazes disappeared when the trees fell over. So bear maintenance is often the only way to follow. Of course the bears and other wildlife have their own agenda, and as wildlife trails diverge and rejoin it is often difficult to tell which trail is the “main” one, the one that was constructed and once maintained by people. I really enjoy the challenge of finding these abandoned trails.
In the afternoon I walked down Bear Pen Creek to Five Lakes Creek. Parts are easy to walk, jumping rocks or skirted little pools, but in places the riparian vegetation is so thick that I had to leave the creek. I then walked up to the waterfall area that is at the bottom of the Five Lake Creek gorge. I’d previously explored down the gorge to the big fall, so this was connecting the sections. Of course the fall and deep pools block passage, but it is possible to climb out of the gorge to the bench on either side and connect. The waterfall area has a number of cool iron seeps, some deep red and others lined with salts as well.
I ran into two horse packers at Diamond Crossing, who were in checking out their hunting opportunities for later in the fall. They commented that bear were a lot more common than deer here, which is consistent with my observation. The blamed the bears for pushing the deer out. I don’t know what is really going on, and I’d guess some complex interactions between historical grazing, hunting patterns, and exclusion of fire. A long while ago I worked in the Marble Mountain Wilderness which also had more bear than deer.
The next morning I hike out Powderhorn canyon but at the saddle turned west to explore logging roads and the mesa between Powderhorn and Little Powderhorn. The term mesa is not used around here, but walking along the rim rock and looking down into the canyons reminds me a lot of hiking in the southwest where the term is in common use. I walked all the way out to the point between the canyons, which has a pretty spectacular view and would make a create place to camp and watch the world go by, going either early enough that there are snow banks left or just carrying water. The mesa has been logged by Sierra Pacific Industries, selective in some area and clear-cut in others, but the end point and parts of the rim are undisturbed.
I walked out via the logging roads and back along the Barker Pass Road to my car at the trailhead.
I see an almost 20 degree Fahrenheit dip in temperatures coming Wednesday, with lows below freezing, so that may accelerate the aspen trees and heighten some of the other colors. Though temperature is only one factor affecting fall color, I think the lack of a freeze in the fall leads to mild colors.