Tag Archives: Hell Hole Trail

Hell Hole Trail

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.

Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia) at Steamboat Creek

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.

First trip, down Five Lakes Creek

For my first trip of the season, July 4-10, much later than recent years, I headed in at the Five Lakes trailhead and went down Five Lakes Creek. There were only snow patches on the trails, and they would be gone by now. There are a few trees down as far as Whiskey Creek Camp, and a moderate amount of winter debris, the branches that come down over the winter and can be throw off if one has the time. From Whiskey Creek Camp southward, there are more trees and more debris, with the biggest issue being young firs bent over the trail. More snow than usual at these middle elevations bent these trees.

From Diamond Crossing south to Steamboat Creek, there are a lot of trees down, and a lot of winter debris. In fact, this trail segment has become quite difficult to follow. When you leave the trail to go above or below a fallen tree, it is very challenging to see the trail and get back on it, being so covered with debris that it looks just like the rest of the forest floor. If this trail doesn’t receive some maintenance within a couple of years, it is done for. Bears provide a lot of the trail maintenance on these lesser-used trails, and there is evidence that the bears are starting to prefer other, easier routes over the old trail, and if so, that is the beginning of the end. 

All of the named creek crossings were wet ones. Some are probably rock jumps now, but some may still be wet. The snow melt has created tread erosion in a number of places. No surprise. When you combine an almost complete lack of water control structures on the trails with a wetter winter, erosion is the result. 

I spent two days doing maintenance on the lower third of the Powderhorn Trail. The doghair fir is pushing into the trail, so the hiker has to push through it. I cut those back, so the trail is in good condition, with a bypass around one down tree. However, another down tree that can be bypassed by hikers may well be a barrier for equestrians since it is on a steep side slope in a dense forest. The real issues on the Powderhorn are in the middle third section, where doghair fir and whitethorn brush have essentially closed the trail. Though the alder section below the postpile formation has been an issue in the past, I’m guessing that it is still passable. I did not have time to work on the middle third, so good luck if you go there. 

I met a Forest Service wilderness ranger, Nathaniel, on the Five Lakes trail. This is the first time in many years that the Granite Chief has had dedicated staff, so I’m looking forward to more attention being paid. 

The flower show is just developing, with pentstemons, mules ears,and a few others. 

I did not go north or south on the PCT, nor any of the other trails in the wilderness, so have nothing to report on them. As always, I welcome comments from others on trail conditions, creek crossings, and water sources. 

Photos on Flickr

Rubicon & Desolation 2014-08

Big Meadow

Big Meadow

I missed posting about a trip last summer, so here it is. I did not notice until I was catching up on posting photos to my Flickr site that I had an entire trip not yet labeled and uploaded. I must have been waiting until the photos were up before I wrote a post, and then forgot about both.

I went in at Alpine Meadows trailhead, walking up from the TART bus on the highway. There had been thunderstorms during the day, but nothing by the time I got in. There were footprints and a few people between the trailhead and Whiskey Creek Camp, but nothing and no one past there. I camped the first night at Big Meadow, always a favorite campsite.

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Through the watersheds

Drummond’s Anemone, near Little Needle Peak

I had a great six day trip through the Granite Chief Wilderness, plus some additional country to the north. I went in at Alpine Meadows Trailhead, and out at Squaw Valley Trailhead, with at least 67 miles in between.

Since some people read this blog for trail conditions: Five Lakes Creek cannot be crossed anywhere downstream of the PCT trail crossing, except on logs. The Middle Fork of the American River cannot be crossed at the Picayune Valley trail crossing, but can on a log downstream. The Five Lakes Creek Trail is mostly clear of snow. Upper Grayhorse Trail, upper Picayune Valley Trail, and upper Granite Chief Trail are largely under snow, but the trails can be followed with attention.

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Down in the Rubicon

ridge south of Little Needle Peak

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.

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Off-trail explorations 2009-07-16

Washington Lily

On a four day backpack from Barker Pass, I did quite a bit of exploring off trail and on old trails. The snow has really disappeared since I was last in the wilderness in June, with just patches on or close to the trail now. And of course there are a lot more flowers now, except on the ridgelines where the flowers were already great.

I explored Grouse Creek from the PCT down to the Five Lakes Trail. In the upper part I stayed as close to the creek as possible, but in the lower canyon it becomes too difficult to do so, and the bear trail led me out onto the ridge to the northwest, with great views back up Grouse Creek and up and down Five Lakes Creek. Washington lilies were poking up through the manzanita thickets on the ridge, and down along the ridge a number of dry rocky plants were blooming.

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Hell Hole & Bear Pen 2008-08-08

Rubicon watershed

Rubicon watershed

I had an interesting trip through the Granite Chief and surrounding areas last week, starting at Barker Pass and coming back to it after some wild times through the Rubicon River drainage, Hell Hole Trail, and Bear Pen.

I started at Barker Pass, walked south along the PCT/TRT to Miller Creek, and then headed west on the Rubicon “trail” which is an OHV trail. I’d heard about this trail for years, but had avoided it, and certainly never driven it since I have only a passenger car. I actually enjoyed the people I talked to along the way. Hiking up out of the Rubicon River, the OHV trail gets worse and worse, but the traffic seems to stay low and the people friendly and responsible. From Buck Island Lake north, closer to “civilization,” however, the people get worse and worse. More trash, more blaring music, more frowns, more toilet paper everywhere, more transmission fluid on the ground, fewer Jeeps and more breakdowns. I was glad to leave the OHV trail and head north along a logging road. Of course on that road there where whining crotch rockets, zooming up and down, for entertainment value. It is interesting to see when things cross over from people who use their vehicles, of whatever sort, to access nature, and when they use them simply for entertainment and could care less about nature.

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