Had another wonderful five day backpack in the Granite Chief last week. A lot of the trip was just re-visiting places I’d been before, some of them not in several years though.
As a new trip I went to Little Needle Lake which I’d heard other people mention but not been to. It is a shallow, alder and willow bordered lake in the volcanic rock below Little Needle Peak. It is a pretty setting, with soggy wet meadows surrounding the lake and a spectacular cliff above. The route is is a vague trail, and there are some seldom used campsites at the lake. To avoid the thick mosquitos at the lake, I camped to the north on a granite bench, where there were some really cool trees and a great view of the end of the day down the Middle Fork American River canyon. The next day I headed up onto the ridge and south, following the divide between Picayune Valley and Five Lake Creek, eventually reconnecting to the Picayune Valley trail a little east of where it climbs out of Picayune Valley. The ridge does not have a trail, but the going was pretty easy, with great views and a different perspective than I’ve gotten elsewhere.
I then went across to Shanks Cove and down to and west along the Hell Hole Trail. The part beyond Buckeye Creek gets worse every year, with more trees down and more vegetation growing into the trail. But it is still possible to follow it if you pay very close attention. People have started to put up little ducks along the trail between Buckeye and where it crosses the gully west of Steamboat Mountain. I really don’t like this practice – please see my comment on cairns and ducks.
After camping at Grayhorse Creek, I walked out the road that comes in to this point, just to see what it is like. It is truly a jeep trail, requiring not only 4WD, but modified jeeps. There is no indication that the road leads to a trail, but there is a dedication plaque that says it is maintained by a Sacramento area jeep club. It starts near an abandoned Forest Service guard station along the road down to Hell Hole dam. I don’t know why anyone would come in this way, but I can say I now know what it is like. The trail along the north side of the reservoir starts just where the road makes its last steep descent to Grayhorse Creek. It wanders through the forest, crosses Grayhorse Creek, continues across the road that leads to the “Tungsten Mine” (not much to see except highly mineralized rock), and eventually to where it meets the descending Hell Hole Trail at an obscure junction. Beyond here the trail becomes even harder to follow, probably never formally constructed at all, but heads into the lowest part of Five Lakes Creek.
I then followed some routes (there are many, all poorly marked) over to the Rubicon River and headed up the river. Once past the bedrock area where the McKinstry Trail heads south out of the canyon, the river bottom becomes quite wide again, with many active and abandoned river channels. Sometimes the intervening area is forest, sometimes floodplains of boulders. It is all hard to navigate, but beautiful. Just before where Barker Creek comes down from the north, the canyon narrows again, with bouldery stretches and some pools that go from wall to wall. It is necessary to either get wet or climb way up and down again on deer trails. I did some of both, but having a backpack makes me reluctant to tackle the deeper parts. I had thought that I might be able to go all the way up the canyon bottom to the Rubicon Jeep Trail crossing, but the canyon becomes much more rugged where it has a sharp S-curve to the south, and I gave up. I think that the only way the canyon can be negotiated is down-canyon, by swimming many parts, and by climbing around the several major waterfalls that are found higher up in the canyon. You can see two of these large waterfalls in the S-curve, looking down from the canyon walls to the north.
After camping the night at an amazing geological feature, a radially shaped fan of columns from cooling in a dike (no, I can’t explain it, but I have started to ask geologists if they can explain), I climbed up out of the canyon to the north and dropped into Barker Creek. Barker Creek has an incredible variety. Some parts are like the Rubicon River canyon on a smaller scale, wide with floodplain, some parts have cascades over reddish metamorphic rock, some parts higher up are chocked full of granite boulders. In the upper section (of the canyon – I’m not talking about the upper part in the volcanics, which is again completely different), there is one fall of 30 feet, and at the head, a cascade goes down over the granite at a spectacular view of the entire canyon. There is no trail in the canyon, but obviously some other people have ventured here. From the head of the canyon, it is a short walk over the granite benches and past ponds to the sadly abused ORV network around the Rubicon Jeep Trail.
After cringing at the jeeps, quads and motorcycles tearing up the terrain, I decided I needed more wilderness, so I headed back in the Powderhorn Trail, camped near Whiskey Creek Camp, headed up Five Lakes Creek, went over Squaw Saddle, and went down Squaw Valley along the Western States Trail. This trail is completely sliced and diced in the upper part by the ski runs, roads, and bulldozer tracks of Squaw Valley, but is a bit better in the lower part from Squaw Saddle down canyon. Part are even quite nice, going through patches of undisturbed forest and flower fields. I still lost the trail eventually in a network of bike trails, but made it out to the mouth of Squaw Valley where I caught the TART bus back to Truckee and the train.
My mileage for the five days was about 47, with about 8 of that being off-trail.