Tahoe Donner snowshoe hike to Hawk’s Peak

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This was not the first time I’ve snowshoed up to Hawk’s Peak, at the Tahoe Donner Cross-Country Ski Area (see here for another post).  However, it was the first time I went all the way up, and part way down, using the new network of snowshoe-only trails.  I thought I would write a short post to highlight this new trail network.

Hawk’s Peak is, at 7729 feet elevation, the highest point within Tahoe Donner.  For those who enjoy a view, it’s a nice reward at the end of a nearly 1100-foot climb.  Here is a sample of the view from high above the Alder Creek Adventure Center at the base of the ski area.

photo of view of the Carson Range

View of the Carson Range

The GPS track shows my route, beginning at the orange dot which denotes the Adventure Center.  I had decided in advance that I would go as directly as possible up to Hawk’s Peak and then come down by a more circuitous route, depending on which of the other snowshoe trails I could find.  (My previous snowshoe hikes have been along the groomed trail system; this was my first time trying a trek on snowshoe-only trails.)

GPS track

GPS track

For the uphill trek I started out from the Adventure Center on Tim’s Trek, which begins next to the parking area and traverses to intersection 3, Moondance Hut.  From Moondance, Snowshow basically goes straight uphill toward Hawk’s Peak, crossing some 7 groomed cross-country ski trails along the way.  Below 7000 feet elevation (the 4th trail crossing on Snowshow) the grade is noticeable but reasonable, at 7%.  Above this elevation Snowshow gets much steeper and averages over 23% grade the rest of the way up to the top.  At elevation, that’s a pretty good workout!

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Regarding wayfinding, I found that it was easy to find and follow both Tim’s Trek and Snowshow.  Although not nearly as well-defined – or wide – as the ski trails, the snowshoe trails seem to have been marked by some kind of small groomer.  In areas where the trails wind among trees, there are discreet signs that mark the way.

photo of signage along a snowshoe-only trail

Signage along a snowshoe-only trail

The signage along the gloomed ski trails is a bit different.  On the previous day I had cross-country skied and noticed that many of the signposts were buried in snow almost up to the signs themselves.  This was on the closing weekend of what had been a well above average snow season.

photo of sign, nearly buried in snow, marking a groomed cross-country ski trail

Sign, nearly buried in snow, marking a groomed cross-country ski trail

Snowshow is mostly on open slopes and, as noted, was easy to follow.   Although a little hard to see in the picture, on the left are swooping tracks left by a skier descending off-piste between two of the many groomed trail crossings.

photo of Snowshow heading up to Hawk’s Peak

Snowshow heading up to Hawk’s Peak

I have noted previously that sometimes the shortest hiking distance between two points is not a straight line, but rather the trail.  In the case of Snowshow, these two paths were actually the same.  Of course, relatively few hiking trails are built with a 23% grade, because there are usually gentler options.  This hike demonstrated that, when the snow is in good condition, showshoeing up such a steep grade is not as difficult as I thought it would be!

Snowshow tees at a relatively new groomed ski trail that goes right up to the rocks that mark the top of Hawk’s Peak.  So the last hundred yards or so was easier going.

The views from Hawk’s Peak are always impressive.  Perhaps my favorite is what I consider to be one of the iconic views of the Pacific Crest, featuring Tinker Knob at the center of the picture.

photo of Pacific Crest view from Hawk’s Peak

Pacific Crest view from Hawk’s Peak

On this occasion I did not linger at Hawk’s Peak, though I usually stop for a snack while enjoying the marvelous views.  It was quite windy up top, and I was kind of flirting with a wind advisory, so I felt it was prudent to begin descending fairly promptly to lower elevations.

Instead of following Snowshow straight back down the hill I had decided to follow Crazy Horse and Dogs in Space, both groomed ski trails, to another viewpoint.  In order to get there I followed the new groomed trail, I think Drifter, past the top of Snowshow and across Andromeda to intersection 11.  From the intersection I followed the lower part of Crazy Horse to Dogs in Space.  Along the way I noticed some pretty pine boughs, like this one, here and there along the edge of the groomed ski trail, each bough in its own small depression in the snow.

photo of pine bough in the snow

Pine bough in the snow

The viewpoint on Dogs in Space is quite nice.  There was much less wind than at the top of Hawk’s Peak, so I spent some time enjoying the view of the Carson Range to the east.  The “banner picture” for this post is a panorama stitched together from 4 separate photos taken here.

I should also note that there is now a network of the lower-elevation cross-country ski trails where dogs are allowed.  This viewpoint is the highest point of the dog trails, though on this visit I had the views to myself.  There is even a picnic table under the trees.

A bit farther along I noticed several young pine trees with an unusual characteristic: in addition to the usual needles (long ones, in groups of three) along and at the tips of branches there was an array of needles around the trunk, almost like a tutu.  I don’t remember ever seeing that before.  I presume that the tree is either a Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) or a ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) , more likely a Jeffrey pine due to the elevation.  In addition, I was on my way to a place where I hoped to find the Jeffrey Pine snowshoe trail.  I wonder if the “tutu” phenomenon only occurs on young trees.

photo of young pine tree with a tutu of needles

Young pine tree with a tutu of needles

After leaving the viewpoint on Dogs in Space I continued downhill to intersection 6, where I found Jeffrey Pine, another snowshoe trail.  It had quite a bit of the helpful yellow signage as it wound among the trees on the lower part of the hill that eventually goes up to Hawk’s Peak.

The trails in the Cross-Country Ski Area cross several creeks, some named and some not.  As the snow melts there will be ample water flowing in these streams throughout the spring.  I actually took this picture the previous day while cross-country skiing in the Euer Valley; I believe it’s Coyote Creek, since it’s near a location called Coyote Crossing and the Coyote Hut.  In any case, it seems to be a subsidiary of Independence Creek, which winds its picturesque way along the valley floor.  This was the prettiest of the creek crossings I encountered in my two days at the Tahoe Donner Cross-Country Ski Area.

photo of Coyote Creek, in Euer Valley

Coyote Creek, in Euer Valley

After following Jeffrey Pine for most of its length I left the snowshoe trail and finished my trek on the Rough Rider, Practice Hill, and Night Hawk ski trails.  Most of the route for this hike was on trails I had not been on previously, and I was glad to have had the opportunity to explore several of the relatively new snowshoe-only trails.

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Wildflower interpretive walk at Sutter Buttes

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Most first-time visitors to the northern part of California’s Central Valley take special note of the Sutter Buttes and wonder what they are.  They look like – and are – a mountain range that simply rises from the valley floor in northern Sutter County near Yuba City.  More specifically, the Buttes are a circular formation of volcanic lava domes about 10 miles in diameter, sometimes called the world’s smallest mountain range.  Although there is a small parcel of land that belongs to California State Parks, this park parcel is not open to the public.  The remainder of the Buttes is private property and is accessible to the public only through Middle Mountain Interpretive Hikes, which leads hikes and interpretive walks.  My visit, with a group of fellow wildflower enthusiasts, was made possible via a docent-led wildflower interpretive walk.

The wildflowers are especially plentiful and beautiful in the spring, after winter rains and before summer heat sets in.  The Central Valley is notoriously warm in summer, and the heat is magnified in the Buttes.  After the plentiful rains of the 2016-17 winter season the hilly areas of the Buttes have become a lush green wonderland.  Much of the land is grazed by cattle or sheep, and the grassy hills are dotted with oaks, many blue oaks (Quercus douglasii).

picture of lush green landscape of the Sutter Buttes in spring

Lush green landscape of the Sutter Buttes in spring

The walk was basically a loop with an extension, totaling just over 4 miles.  The orange dot on the GPS track shows the starting point.  There are no formal trails in the Buttes, though there are a few ranch roads and informal trails.

GPS track

GPS track

Although the initial climb up to a small ridge was steep enough to get everyone’s circulation going, the elevation gains were relatively modest (less than 800 feet total gain) and moderate.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The walk began with an introduction to the native Maidu people and their culture (see, for example, this article).  As visitors to a relatively undisturbed part of their land, including the mountains with special significance, we were encouraged to treat the area and its natural resources with appropriate respect.  Some of the numerous rocks were probably acorn grinding rocks.  Also, rock walls may have defined land parcels later owned by European immigrants who began the ranching activities that continue to the present.  Near one of the rock walls was a sign noting “snake xing,” a reminder that in warm weather rattlesnakes are active in the area.

picture of rock wall in the Sierra Buttes

Rock wall in the Sierra Buttes

In other areas of California (for example, Anza-Borrego State Park and Carrizo Plains National Monument) the spring 2017 wildflower blooms are being characterized as super-blooms, with acres and miles of colorful carpets of flowers.  The Sutter Buttes wildflowers are perhaps more typical of spring wildflower blooms, with more subtle colors and a preponderance of smaller-sized blooms.  We saw a nice variety of wildflowers: some familiar to me and some new ones.  It’s always a good wildflower day when I find and identify – sometimes with assistance – a few new species!

Some of the familiar species included filaree (Erodium sp.), seep monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus), popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys sp.), miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata or C. parviflora), and blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), as well as a few early Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa) and ookow (Dichelostemma congestum).  An interesting note: the several filaree species are all non-natives, and most have long, pointed “bills” to which the seeds are attached.  I have seen these many times, and the bills are typically about 1 inch long; the ones we saw here were more like 3 to 4 inches long!

The initial hillside we walked up was a treasure trove of flowers, though many were small and so you needed to pay attention to what was nearby.  We took our time: in fact, we spent an hour and 20 minutes just walking about a half mile to the top of the ridge!  One of my favorites was wild carnation (Petrorhagia dubia), also called hairypink or pink grass.  Although it is a non-native, the detail in the petals is exquisite.  The pink color is even more intense than it appears in the picture.

picrure of wild carnation with exquisite detail in the petals

Wild carnation has exquisite detail in the petals

Scattered here and there was fiddleneck, probably common fiddleneck (Amsinckia intermedia) based on the coloration of the blossoms.  I am beginning to appreciate that the differing colors of fields of fiddleneck are due to the differences in the coloration of the individual blossoms.  These blossoms were mostly yellow, with subtle orange highlights.

picture of common fiddleneck, I think

Common fiddleneck, I think

One of the “new” species was valley tassel (Castilleja attenuata), also called narrow-leaved owl’s clover.  The blossoms on this plant were only beginning to develop the small spots that give rise to the owl-like appearance, which can only be appreciated up close.  Note the filaree “bill” in the background.

picture of valley tassel

Valley tassel

Another “new” species was Sierra mock stonecrop (Sedella pumila), also called dwarf cliff sedum.  The blossoms are less than 1/2 inch in diameter.

picture of Sierra mock stonecrop

Sierra mock stonecrop

We saw others on the hillside that I did not successfully photograph, including pretty face (Triteleia ixioides), rose clover (Trifolium hirtum), cowbag clover (Trifolium depauperatum), and baby star (Leptosiphon bicolor).  The last two were first-timers, and I was a bit disappointed that I did not get any good pictures – but they were also hard to photograph!

We did take occasional breaks from the wildflowers to appreciate the scenery around us.  The weather forecast for the day had been unsettled.  We were fortunate that there was no rain, but some low clouds created a misty feel around some of the rocky formations.

picture of mist around a nearby rock formation

Mist around a nearby rock formation

As we continued up the hill, we noted some phacelia.  Because of the location it is tempting to identify it as rock phacelia (Phacelia egena) but there are other possibilities that are difficult for me to distinguish, especially since I was not careful to note the leaf shape.

picture of phacelia growing next to a lichen-covered rock

Phacelia growing next to a lichen-covered rock

Another favorite is Douglas’ violet (Viola douglasii).  The back side of the petals is a dark maroon/purple color, as is the pretty and delicate pattern on the front of the petals.

picture of Douglas’ violet

Douglas’ violet

We also found some fringepod (Thysanocarpus curvipes, I think) or hairy lacepod.  I think the picture shows seed pods rather than blossoms, but they illustrate the origin of the common name lacepod.  They were hard to photograph, and I was lucky to get this picture!

picture of fringepod, with delicate holes

Fringepod, with delicate holes

Finally we reached the top of the hillside, after finding what seemed like an amazing variety of wildflowers, and descended as we continued on our loop route.  Soon we found our first cluster of baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii).  This blossom held a couple of drops of dew or rain, and the petals looked as though they had been a small snack for a critter.

picture of baby blue eyes

Baby blue eyes

During the course of the walk we encountered several gray mule ears (Wyethia helenioides).  I thought the size of the central cluster of disc flowers, compared to the ray flowers, was impressive.

picture of gray mule ears

Gray mule ears

A bit farther down the hill we found two interesting types of clover.  First was tomcat clover (Trifolium wildenovii), which I’ve seen a few times previously.

picture of tomcat clover

Tomcat clover

A few minutes later we found some white-tipped clover (Trifolium variegatum), which happened to be a new species for me.  Note that the colors are similar, but the patterns different, for these two species of clover.

picture of white-tipped clover

White-tipped clover

In a few places we found lupine: relatively small plants, perhaps 8-10 inches tall.  The blossoms had white areas with small purple spots.  There are many species of lupine, and these characteristics – along with the location and month – most likely narrowed the possibilities to sky lupine (Lupinus nanus) or bicolor lupine (Lupinus bicolor).

picture of sky lupine or bicolor lupine

Sky lupine or bicolor lupine

A special find was California plantain (Plantago erecta).  In some geographic areas, this plant is a critical food source for certain endangered butterfly species.  I am not aware that there is a similar situation in the Sutter Buttes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some local butterflies favor it.  The plant is quite small, perhaps 3 inches tall with the flower head about 1/2 inch tall, and is usually very difficult to photograph since it often grows among other grasses and plants.  Someone had pulled one of the plants to pass around for us to view using magnifying glasses, and this facilitated my picture.

picture of California plantain

California plantain

We also found some woodland star.  I have seen this flower many times before, but as a result of this walk I learned that there are several different species that can be difficult to distinguish – at least, for me.  I think this is either common woodland star (Lithophragma affine) or Bolander’s woodland star (Lithophragma bolanderi).

picture of woodland star

Woodland star

We passed a nice example of an acorn granary: a dead oak tree in which acorn woodpeckers had stored hundreds, if not thousands, of acorns by making rows of holes and storing an acorn in each hole.

Where the GPS track shows a right turn we again began to climb.  Throughout the walk we came to fences separating either property parcels or grazing areas.  As we approached one such fence we had a nice view of a formation known as Twin Peaks, less than 2 miles away.

picture of Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

On the out-and-back portion of the walk we were in search of a few specific things.  One was a small cluster of Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla), with beautiful purple and white petals.

picture of Chinese houses

Chinese houses

Another was some canyon larkspur (Delphinium nudicaule), which were even more of an orange color than the picture shows.

picture of canyon larkspur

Canyon larkspur

After reaching a fence where the informal path we were following became quite overgrown, we turned around, retraced our path downhill, and completed the loop to our starting point.  For most of us it was a first-time visit to the Sutter Buttes, and we were pleased that we had seen so much variety in the wildflowers – and that we had not been rained upon.  Several of us were already making plans to return some other time, either for another wildflower walk or for one of the guided hikes.

After I left Yuba City and was on my return to the Bay Area, I noted numerous sunflower-like plants growing next to the road’s shoulder and stopped to take pictures.  It turns out that they are common sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), most likely escapees from the local farming areas, which typically rotate crops (sunflower is one of the crops).  The profusion of ray flowers is the key characteristic for identifying this sunflower species; all candidate sunflowers typically bloom later in the year, so this was a bit of a surprise.

picture of common sunflower along the road

Common sunflower along the road

Somehow, a surprise wildflower sighting seemed a fitting end to a day full of wildflower finds.

Posted in Central Valley, Sutter County, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Sunol Regional Wilderness: Maguire Peaks Loop

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This was a pleasant exploratory hike on a trail I’d not previously hiked – the Maguire Peaks Loop Trail – in a park where I have hiked before – Sunol Regional Wilderness, part of the extensive network of parks in the East Bay Regional Park District.  I did the hike on the day after Thanksgiving, more or less regardless of the weather, as my way of participating in REI’s #OptOutside promotion.  I happen to think that spending a day outside hiking in a park is a great way to spend a day, and I often make a point to observe this type of broadly publicized day by going on a hike.

The hike featured a 3.1-mile loop around Maguire Peaks, which are located in a kind of northern extension of Sunol Regional Wilderness that is nearly surrounded by San Francisco Water District land.  The Wilderness is located in Alameda County.

From the loop trail itself it’s mostly difficult to see the peaks, but there was an especially nice view of the east peak, framed by tree branches, from a spur trail that follows the South Fork Apperson Creek to the northern boundary of the park.

picture of Maguire Peak

Maguire Peak

The access point to the Maguire Peaks Loop Trail is on a narrow, little-used road, Welch Creek Rd, that traverses the northern part of the Wilderness.  There are relatively few places to safely park a car along the road, and so it is necessary either to get a parking permit at the main park headquarters or to have – and display on the car dashboard – a Regional Parks Foundation membership card.  Due to other trail closures and the necessity of finding a safe place to park, I ended up parking at the end of Upper Maguire Peaks Trail, where the trail post labeled SO5 is located.  This point is denoted by the orange dot on the GPS track image.

GPS track

GPS track

From the trailhead it is about 1.4 miles to the junction with the Maguire Peaks Loop Trail.  There is a short (approximately 0.2 mile) spur trail to the west peak, where there are impressive views.  In addition, I decided to explore the longer (approximately 0.7 mile long) spur trail leading to the north boundary of the park.  After exploring the spur trail I completed the loop and then returned to the trailhead.  The total length of the hike was 7.7 miles with just over 1700 feet of elevation gain and loss.  About 1/3 of the vertical gain was on the two spur trails.  The steepest part of the hike was the 1/4 mile approaching the spur trail to the peak and the spur trail itself; the grade in this section was about 23%.  As long as the trail isn’t slippery due to muddy conditions, this is not an especially technical section, though I should mention that I always carry hiking poles – and I use them when conditions warrant, such as this steeper section.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

There is a write-up of the Maguire Peaks Loop hike, not including the spur trail to the northern park boundary, in a book of East Bay hikes.  The description in the book follows the loop in a counterclockwise direction, while I hiked in the clockwise direction.  Obviously, there is the same amount of elevation gain and loss either way!

From the post marked SO5 the Upper Maguire Peaks Trail immediately crosses Welch Creek and begins to climb.  The first 0.6 mile or so is a single-track trail that traverses a moderately steep, grass- and tree-covered hillside and descends slightly before arriving at a T junction at marker SO7 with a ranch road that is Maguire Peak Trail.  Along the way, as the trail climbs there are views of hills ahead.  If I remember correctly the direction I took the photo, these are the two Maguire Peaks.

picture of view of Maguire Peaks from the Upper Maguire Peaks Trail

View of Maguire Peaks from the Upper Maguire Peaks Trail

After a right turn at the T junction the Maguire Peak Trail goes over a small rise and descends about 200 feet before arriving at marker SO8 on the Maguire Peaks Loop Trail, 1.4 miles from the trailhead.  I turned left to go around the loop clockwise.  The first mile and a half of the loop trail rolls gently up and down with very pleasant walking.  Given the season (late November) I was quite surprised to find any wildflowers blooming.  However, I did see some yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis), an introduced species that some consider to be invasive.

picture of star thistle along the Maguire Peaks Loop Trail

Star thistle along the Maguire Peaks Loop Trail

I also found quite a bit of a wild mustard that I believe to be Mediterranean hoary mustard (Hirschfeldia incana).  I’ve probably seen it many times before, but this time I decided to see if I could make an identification, since it was so unusual to see wildflowers in bloom in November!

picture of Mediterranean hoary mustard

Mediterranean hoary mustard

About 1 mile after turning onto the loop trail I came across several cows grazing peacefully, seemingly oblivious to the beautiful hills all around.  On the GPS track map this is where the trail almost reaches the western park boundary, so the cows were likely on San Francisco Water District land.  Far to the northwest I could barely see the top of Mt Tamalpais in Marin County, some 45 miles away.

picture of cows grazing in the hills

Cows grazing in the hills

A bit farther along I was startled to find a single California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) in bloom.  In fact, the blossom was surprisingly open given the overcast weather of the day.  Usually these blossoms stay tightly closed up unless there is nearly full sun.  Also, although the California poppy has quite a long blooming season, November is one of the few months when it normally does not bloom.  I wondered if the recent rains and relatively warm weather had fooled at least this one plant into thinking it was spring!

picture of California poppy

California poppy

After about 1 1/2 miles on the loop trail the grade begins to get steeper and is a steady climb.  After about 1/4 mile there is a bench on the right.  This bench marks the beginning of the 0.2-mile spur trail to the top of Maguire Peak.  From the bench there are terrific views to the north, including this one of Mt Diablo peeking over the top of a dark-topped ridge line that might be the Black Hills.

picture of Mt Diablo

Mt Diablo

I climbed up the narrower use trail to Maguire Peak, passing some silvery-leaved bush lupine and, higher up, a solitary white mushroom about 3 inches in diameter.  From the peak there are splendid nearly 360-degree views.  Here is an example, showing several ponds that are probably associated with Alameda or Sinbad Creek.

picture of splendid view from Maguire Peak

Splendid view from Maguire Peak

In other directions I could see San Antonio Reservoir, nearby Apperson Ridge, Mt Diablo, San Francisco Bay, and Mt Tamalpais.  It was impossible not to stop for a pleasant lunch break with such beautiful views.  Occasionally airplanes flew overhead, mostly on their way to Oakland International Airport, an audible and visible reminder that, even in this remote corner of a locally designated wilderness, a large population center was not far away.

There were also a few hawks soaring in the area, I believe red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) as they are the most common.  This one’s tail feathers were very spread out, and the large feathers at the wing tips resembled spread-out fingers.

picture of red-tailed hawk

Red-tailed hawk

Another discovery on Maguire Peak was what appears to be a sunflower (Eriophyllum sp.).  The species identification was complicated by the observation on the CalFlora web site that there aren’t supposed to be any sunflowers in bloom in November!

picture of sunflower on Maguire Peak

Sunflower on Maguire Peak

After enjoying the views and a break I descended back to the bench and continued around the Maguire Peaks Loop Trail.  On the north side of the peaks the ground seemed moister, and I passed a section of hillside where there were some pretty, lush ferns.  This picture shows a small cluster of them, and they seemed to be a type I had not previously seen.

picture of ferns on a moist hillside

Ferns on a moist hillside

About 0.7 mile past the Maguire Peak spur trail the loop trail makes a turn toward the south, and there is a short flat section.  Around here there was a nice view to the southeast across a small canyon containing the South Fork Apperson Creek, with Apperson Ridge on the other side of the canyon.  Colorful trees seemed to be cascading down small gullies on the side of the ridge.

picture of Apperson Ridge

Apperson Ridge

When I looked back in the direction of Maguire Peak I could see the east peak behind a steep hillside dotted with valley oaks.  If you look closely at the picture there are two small specks on Maguire Peak: two hikers who were arriving at the peak just as I started down the spur trail.  Evidently they were enjoying their exploration of the peaks.

picture of Maguire Peak: east peak

Maguire Peak: east peak

In this area the Maguire Peaks Loop Trail, which is basically a ranch road rather than a single-track trail, looks like a lush grassy track cutting across the hillside.

picgture of Maguire Peaks Loop Trail cutting across a hillside

Maguire Peaks Loop Trail cutting across a hillside

When I came to the spur trail at marker SO9, about 1.1 miles past the Maguire Peak spur trail, I decided to explore it.  The unnamed spur trail descends to the South Fork Apperson Creek and follows the creek to a gate at the northern boundary of the park, the lowest elevation of the hike.  Sections of the trail bordered on being muddy: there were areas that had been well-trodden by cows, and in some places separate, distinct hoof prints were visible.  Near the gate there was an especially impressive tree with great limbs growing across the ground; perhaps the tree had fallen without dying.  From the leaf shape I think it is a California sycamore (Platanus racemosa).

picture of California sycamore, I think

California sycamore, I think

From the gate I climbed back up to the loop trail and in another 0.3 miles completed the loop.  Then I retraced my outbound path back to the trailhead.  Although the day of my hike turned out to be mostly cloudy, it was a pretty hike and I would enjoy returning on a sunnier day, perhaps in the spring when there would be more wildflowers.

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Pacific Crest Trail: Carter Meadows trailhead access

Recently I hiked a few sections of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) as back-to-back day hikes.  A highlight of the trip was the opportunity to be dropped off each morning at our starting trailhead and then picked up at the end of the day, at a predesignated time, at our finishing trailhead.  One of the trailheads we used was the Carter Meadows trailhead, which is located in Lassen National Forest several miles from the nearest paved roads, which are CA-89/36 and CA-32 in Tehama County near the Plumas County line.  This area is about 14 miles west of Lake Almanor, west and south of Chester.

This brief post provides information about finding the trailhead.  The reason I’m writing it is because our volunteer/designated driver had a rather difficult time finding it for our afternoon pickup, in spite of having a car GPS unit and some written instructions.  It turns out that – I surmise – some of the logging-type roads in the area have been changed since the GPS maps were generated.  As a result, most of the drive displayed on the GPS unit as no road at all, leading to the description “driving in space.”  I suppose that most people do not experience this phenomenon, unless they like to drive on lower-grade roads in the back country.  Our driver didn’t.  I hope this post can help someone else avoid confusion and dismay associated with driving to this trailhead.

An unintended consequence of the difficulty in finding the trailhead is that we hikers had begun to prepare ourselves for the potential prospect of needing to hike out toward, or even to, the nearest main road.  This would have been a several-mile walk at the end of a 14-mile hike, resulting in a hike completion well after sunset.  We had had cell phone contact with our driver at a point when he believed he was lost.  Fortunately everything worked out ok – he arrived at the trailhead just a few minutes before we did – but avoiding such angst would have been preferred.

The trailhead itself is adequately marked, as shown here.

photo of Carter Meadows trailhead sign

Carter Meadows trailhead sign

During the drive out I realized that it might be useful to have a record of the route, and in any case I wanted to be able to compare it with the maps on my laptop that are associated with my hiking GPS unit.  So I turned my GPS back on after we had driven about 2 miles and recorded the remainder of the drive out to the paved road as well as along the paved road.  Then I inverted the track so that it displays as a drive in toward the trailhead.

GPS track

GPS track of most of the drive to Carter Meadows trailhead

Near the town of Chester CA-89 meets CA-36 and they are the same road proceeding west for 11 miles to a junction with CA-32.  This is where the track begins.  After driving southwest about 3.1 miles on CA-32 there is a dirt/gravel side road to the left, not far from Elam Campground; I think the campground is actually past the side road.  The interesting part of the track begins at the dirt/gravel road, beginning at 3.1 miles.  On the elevation profile this is the lowest elevation at just over 4400 feet.  The Carter Meadows trailhead is a light grey mini-track near the blue square marked Carter Creek Trail.  It is about 6300 feet elevation.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile of most of the drive to Carter Meadows trailhead

Barely 0.1 mile up the dirt/gravel road it makes a sharp turn to the right (south) where something that looks like an abandoned road is blocked off.  This is where the car GPS unit showed the car leaving the road and beginning to drive in space.  About 0.5 mile later there is a fork, where the correct road makes a sharp left turn to the northeast and uphill.  I believe the road is now Forest Rd 28N12, though signage is somewhat spotty.  The road goes northeast for about 0.3 mile, then south again for 0.9 mile and northeast for another 1.2 miles before curving to the right, mostly climbing but with a small dip (see the elevation profile at about 6 miles).

The road then follows Elam Creek for about 3.4 miles, though I don’t recall if the creek is visible from the road.  About 6.4 miles from CA-32 the road curves left (east) for about 0.4 mile and then to the left (northeast) again for about 1.5 miles and finally south for the final mile to the trailhead.  At the final turn to the south there is a junction with another dirt/gravel road, but there are signs indicating the way to the Carter Meadows trailhead – and I believe the car GPS finally recognized the existence of the road past this junction.

Although there are actually not many other options for the route, i.e., junctions, I think that nearly 90% of the roughly 10 miles on Forest Rd 28N12 showed on the car GPS as driving in space.  If you don’t know that it’s the correct route, it requires an extraordinary act of faith to drive that far.  We were really glad our driver made it!

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Pacific Crest Trail: Domingo Spring to Hwy 36

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The last multi-day-hike trip of the season was a three-day stint with two friends on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in northern Plumas County.  For the third/last day we hiked from Domingo Spring to a crossing of CA-36 about 7 miles west of the town of Chester, which is at the northwest end of Lake Almanor.  In some ways similar to the first day’s hike, the visual highlight was Lassen Peak, still snow-covered from a somewhat unusual mid-October snowfall several days prior.  This was our first view of the day of Lassen Peak, and it certainly seemed closer – and was closer! – than our views two days prior and some 30 trail miles south.  In fact, we were only about 6 1/2 miles from the boundary of Lassen Volcanic National Park when I took this picture.

photo of view of Lassen Peak

View of Lassen Peak

The remainder of the southbound hike took us farther away from the park, as we hiked toward CA-36, where we had ended the previous day’s hike.  The total hike distance was 10.5 miles, according to my GPS unit, all on the PCT; however, according to the PCT data book we only covered 9.9 miles, from official mile 1345.7 to 1335.8.  Sometimes there are small differences between my GPS mileage and the official mileage.  The GPS track shows the route, with the orange dot denoting the beginning (north) end of the hike, at a road crossing near Domingo Spring.

GPS track

GPS track

The route is mainly within Lassen National Forest, with a very brief “corner crossing” into private land owned by a logging company almost halfway through the hike and the last 2-plus miles again on private logging-company-owned land.  After crossing the North Fork Feather River about 1 mile into the hike, the trail climbs for the next 3 miles at a nice 8% grade to cross a saddle between Ice Cave Mountain and North Stover Mountain.  After this high point just above 6000 feet elevation, the trail remains above 5700 feet elevation until reaching Stover Spring about 7 miles from the trailhead.  The descent continues to about 5100 feet and then remains nearly level through the logging company land.  The total elevation gain for this section is about 1500 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Most of the hike was in Plumas County, with various maps differing on whether, or over what distance, the PCT crosses into neighboring Tehama County.

My hiking companions and I were lucky enough to have a ride to and from the trailheads each day of the three-day hiking adventure.  This was a great convenience that allowed us to cover more trail miles each day by hiking point-to-point rather than my usual out-and-back hikes.

Before beginning the hike my companions and I drove from our overnight accommodations in Chester to the trailhead near Domingo Spring.  Right on Main St we were amused to notice a thrift shop with a catchy name: Junk and Disorderly.  When we drove by at 8am they were closed, but we thought it would have been interesting to go inside and browse.

photo of Junk and Disorderly thrift shop in Chester, CA

Junk and Disorderly thrift shop in Chester, CA

After being dropped off at the Domingo Spring trailhead we began our hike.  In very short order we encountered what I call a treasure box attached to a tree right next to the trail.  It had evidently been placed there by a couple named Thompson and it contained a nice welcoming note and a few supplies for through-hikers’ safety and comfort.  What a nice idea!

poto of “treasure box” along the PCT near Domingo Spring

“Treasure box” along the PCT near Domingo Spring

Not far from the treasure box there was a sign indicating that the distance to Lassen Park was only 4.7 miles.  The beginning of the hike was our closest approach to the park for this trip.

The trail passes through forest, and after about 1 mile crosses the North Fork Feather River on a constructed footbridge.  In the forest there were patches of mahala mat and manzanita, both of which we would see intermittently throughout the hike.  The temperature was in the mid to high 30’s, and we noticed a little frost on fallen branches and pine cones.

After the North Fork Feather River crossing the trail begins to climb, gaining about 1000 feet in the next 3 miles.  This was the longest climb of the day, and the trail curves west and then south around the end of a slight ridge that extends southeast to North Stover Mountain.  In an area where the forest opened up a little bit there were some impressively tall trees.  This picture barely shows more than half the height of the tree!

photo of tall tree

Tall tree

At the north end of the uphill curve around the ridge there were a couple of spots where the sun, on our left, was illuminating some conifers downhill from us on the right.  We paused briefly to enjoy the unusual lighting and try to make shadow shapes with our bodies, arms, and hands on the trees below.  I took some pictures but found that it was difficult to properly capture the ambience.

Once the trail was on the west side of the North Stover Mountain ridge we began to have intermittent, mostly filtered, views of Lassen Peak.  Here is one example, where the view was filtered but dramatic.

photo of Lassen Peak viewed through the forest

Lassen Peak viewed through the forest

Suddenly my hiking companion and I noticed audible calls of sandhill cranes.  Of course we looked up in an effort to see the group of these magnificent birds, presumably on migration from summer to winter grounds.  I did not actually see the cranes, but I did notice the moon, perfectly framed by tree branches.

photo of the moon, framed by a tree

The moon, framed by a tree

As we continued to climb we had more views of Lassen.  In addition we noted some large pine cones on the ground, perhaps sugar pine.  I’m not an expert in pine cone identification but there are limited species with such long cones.  This one seemed to be shiny from overnight moisture.

photo of large pine cone

Large pine cone

The highest elevation of the hike was just over 6000 feet, a bit under 4 miles from the trailhead.  In this area the forest is more open, and the PCT passes through fields of manzanita (Actostaphylos sp.).  The conifers are more like Christmas trees than the tall beauties we’d seen earlier in the hike.

photo of field of manzanita near the highest elevation of the hike

Field of manzanita near the highest elevation of the hike

There were also some sizeable patches of mahala mat (Ceanothus prostatus), also known as squaw carpet.  Both of the common names as well as the Latin name of this plant indicate that it grows low to the ground.

photo of patch of mahala mat, or squaw carpet

Patch of mahala mat, or squaw carpet

In the central portion of the hike the PCT descends about 300 feet and climbs 100 feet before beginning a longer descent.  About 4.5 miles from the trailhead the trail briefly passes out of Lassen National Forest and cuts across the corner of a privately-owned parcel before re-entering the National Forest.  Each time the trail passes a parcel boundary where there is a change of ownership, there are signs on trees announcing the transition for trail users going in either direction.

Several dirt logging roads cross the trail in this section of the PCT.  Near one of the road crossings, about 6 miles from the trailhead, there is a mileage sign indicating that Stover Spring is 1 mile ahead and the town of Belden is 49 miles ahead.  I specifically took note of this sign since, at the end of this hike, I would have hiked that entire 49 miles, plus 19 more south of Belden, as an unbroken section with no gaps – of course, in several different days’ worth of hiking!

Shortly before we reached Stover Spring we encountered a through hiker going northbound.  As is often, but not always, the case, we stopped and chatted with him briefly.  He was willing to pose for a picture.  His through-hike story is interesting, and a bit unusual.  He started hiking at the Mexican border and hiked as far as Kennedy Meadows (around mile 700).  Then he left the PCT and traveled to the Canadian border, where he hiked south to Dunsmuir (around mile 1500) and again left the PCT.  He re-started hiking at Kennedy Meadows and was making his way to Dunsmuir, where he would complete his hike of the entire PCT.  So when we encountered him he was only about 160 miles from the conclusion of his hike.  I have great respect for through-hikers, and their determination and accomplishments continually amaze me.  Because I’ve only hiked in the Central California portion of the PCT this is the first time I’ve encountered a through-hiker who was so close to finishing his/her hike.  Inspiring!

photo of PCT through-hiker

PCT through-hiker

Stover Spring is a pretty place to stop for a break or, for section- or through-hikers, to camp overnight.  Water from the spring feeds through some piping to feed a pond in a small depression in the land.  We stopped for a break to enjoy the serene setting.

photo of Stover Spring

Stover Spring

As we were preparing to resume hiking I noticed a pair of helpful signs attached to nearby trees, indicating the direction to go for any hikers who might have gotten confused during their break.  As we’d been reminded only the previous day, if you don’t pay attention it is perfectly possible to hike the wrong direction after a stop or a side trip, and in many instances it might be annoying if you didn’t figure that out until you’d hiked several miles out of your way.

photo of PCT signs at Stover Spring

PCT signs at Stover Spring

As we continued to hike downhill we began to cross logging roads more frequently.  The description in the “PCT bible” mentions some 13 or 14 road crossings (indicated as major, minor, and/or logging roads) in this 10-mile hike, half north and half south of Stover Spring.  The first one south of Stover Spring was notably muddy, with deep tire tracks likely/presumably formed by logging trucks heavily laden with logs.  Although we were within national forest land, we were not far from privately owned parcels on which logging was potentially active.

photo of muddy logging road south of Stover Spring

Muddy logging road south of Stover Spring

For about 1/3 mile the trail follows another road, covered by a carpet of pine needle duff.  Here the PCT seems more like a ridge or levee trail, though of course there aren’t any levees in the area.

photo of duff-covered PCT

Duff-covered PCT

About 8.4 miles from the trailhead the PCT once again leaves Lassen National Forest, and the remaining 2 miles of the hike cross private logging company land.  Here there is clear evidence of logging and other forestry management operations: a stark contrast to the many miles of PCT through several national forests where, if logging is present, it is more remote from the PCT.  In this privately owned land area it seemed that the practice was to create scattered small areas that had been clear-cut, rather than simply logging every tenth (or whatever ratio) tree throughout the forest.  Although it’s clear that a pristine hiking experience is compromised in such an area, I do not have the appropriate forestry knowledge to say whether or not the practices we observed are sound.

photo of logging operations on private land adjacent to Lassen National Forest

Logging operations on private land adjacent to Lassen National Forest

There were several signs along the trail with advisory verbiage “Caution: Timber Falling Ahead”.  And we did hear the sound of chain saws, though we were not close enough to actually see the logging operations.

We continued to cross logging roads throughout the remainder of the hike.  Because so many roads were mentioned in the book, we had started counting at the beginning of the hike.  The last one was less than 0.1 mile from the Hwy 36 crossing trailhead.  My hiking companions collaborated to demonstrate that the final tally was 15!

photo of fifteenth – and last – road crossing of the hike

Fifteenth – and last – road crossing of the hike

Hiking through privately-owned logging operations was kind of an anti-highlight of this day’s hike on the PCT.  Most of the hike, however, was a very pleasant journey through Lassen National Forest, with a nice section of filtered views of Lassen Peak closer to the north end of the hike.  By the end of the day we were already beginning to make plans to continue hiking farther north next season, hopefully including a traverse of Lassen Volcanic National Park.  Stay tuned for that!

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Pacific Crest Trail: Carter Meadows Trail to Hwy 36

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A second consecutive day hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) started at the Carter Meadows trailhead and continued to a crossing of CA-36.  The previous day two friends and I had started at Humbug Summit and hiked 14.2 miles, including 13 PCT miles, to the Carter Meadows trailhead.  That hike ended with an adventure involving whether our ride would be able to find the trailhead to pick us up at the end of the afternoon; fortunately the adventure ended well.

This hike featured a few views of Lassen Peak and Lake Almanor.  The highlight was, rather than photogenic views, passing the official midpoint of the PCT’s 2650-mile route between the Mexican and Canadian borders.  Although I’d learned when researching the hike that we would be passing the midpoint, I did not know whether there would be anything there to mark it – after all, the actual midpoint moves around slightly as sections of the PCT are occasionally re-routed with accompanying changes in trail mileage.  So we were rather excited to find an official monument at the location.  Most PCT posts are wood, but this one is cement and looks like it is intended to survive years of weathering.

This image shows three pictures of the post.  The center image shows the entire post from the front, including a small geocache-type box sitting at the base that we found to be filled with notebooks and slips of paper – essentially a register – and several pens that did not seem to be functional.  The lettering at the top of the post is hard to read in the photo, but it says “PCT midpoint.”  The lettering on the left side, observed hiking northbound, indicates that it is 1325 miles to Canada; the lettering on the right side, observed hiking southbound, indicates that it is 1325 miles to Mexico.  I hope that through-hikers feel a sense of accomplishment in suitable proportion to ours upon reaching this milestone.  For us it was only the approximate midpoint of a 16-mile day hike – about 0.6% of the length of the PCT – but we were thrilled to be there!

photo of post denoting the official midpoint of the PCT

Post denoting the official midpoint of the PCT

The hike was in Lassen National Forest, primarily in Plumas County.  The Carter Meadows Trail is actually in Tehama County, as is the side trail to Butt Mountain, and the PCT generally follows the county line through this area.  We officially covered 14.2 miles of the PCT, from official mile 1321.6 to 1335.8, according to the PCT data book, although my GPS showed only 13.5 miles after subtracting the Carter Meadows access trail, a side trip toward Butt Mountain, and some unplanned backtracking when we returned to the PCT.

Note that the midpoint post is located approximately at official mile 1327, simply indicating that the overall PCT mileage, and therefore the exact midpoint location, evolves over time.

On the GPS track image the orange dot shows the location of the Carter Meadows trailhead; the PCT junction is close to the nearest red carat.

GPS track

GPS track

It is notable that we were fortunate to do these hikes with a designated driver.  This meant that we only needed to have one car, and we did not need to reposition cars each day.  We were driven to the beginning trailhead each morning and picked up at the ending trailhead at a pre-designated time.  This was a real treat that made it possible to do longer sequential hikes and cover more miles of the PCT.

The first part of the hike, to the side trail to Butt Mountain, was mainly a climb, and the remainder of the hike was mainly a descent.  The notch around mile 6 represents the unplanned backtracking along the PCT following our planned detour toward Butt Mountain.  The Carter Meadows Trail climbs gently, with a 4% grade, to the PCT.  The PCT then climbs toward the Butt Mountain junction with a more typical PCT grade of about 8.5%.  The long descent was in between, with a grade of about 6.7%.  Overall the elevation gain was about 2000 feet and the elevation loss was about 3300 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The PCT climbs through moderately open forest in which many of the tree trunks are covered with bright green moss.  I believe the height on the trunks where the moss begins is an indication of typical winter snow depth.  Occasionally there were large boulders of volcanic rock.

photo of moss-covered trees and an occasional volcanic rock boulder

Moss-covered trees and an occasional volcanic rock boulder

After climbing four switchbacks and reaching 7200 feet elevation the PCT arrives at the top of a long ridge, which it follows northeast for about a mile and a half.  From the switchbacks there were a few places with filtered views of Lassen Peak in nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park.  Along one of the legs between switchbacks I was monitoring the views of Lassen, hoping for a clear view.  I noticed a skinny tree branch arched across the trail and decided that would be the next spot where I would pause to check the view; due to the slope of the hillside it wasn’t quite safe for me to sightsee while actively hiking.  To my great amusement, the tree branch was pointing to a small opening between trees, in which there was a nice view of Lassen Peak!  I immediately named the tree branch the Junipero Serra tree, as kind of an inside joke about a statue of the famous founder of California, located in Hillsborough near I-280.

As we gained elevation there was a view ahead of what I think is Butt Mountain, which we were hoping to climb a bit later.

Shortly after reaching the ridge there was a lovely view to the southeast of several rows of hills, one behind the other.

photo of view of hills from a ridge on the PCT

View of hills from a ridge on the PCT

On the previous day’s hike we had encountered snow on the ground below 7000 feet elevation.  The first part of this hike had a mostly southern exposure and was snow-free.  Just past the 7500-foot elevation high point about 3.2 miles from the trailhead we were briefly on more of a northern exposure, and we began to see some snow near, then on, the trail.  And, as on the previous day, we saw a few bear tracks right on the trail.  Since the snow had been on the ground for only a few days, evidently not all of the local bears were hibernating yet.

photo of bear track on the PCT near 7500 feet elevation

Bear track on the PCT near 7500 feet elevation

Continuing along the ridge, we had a nice view generally to the west, including snow-capped peaks that might have been in the Trinity Alps, or perhaps the Yolla Bolly – Middle Eel Wilderness; both are about 90 miles away.  In other locations the western view included the flat floor of the Sacramento Valley.

About 4.8 miles from the trailhead, or 3.6 miles from the PCT junction, we reached a junction with a spur trail to Butt Mountain.  Since the top of Butt Mountain was only 250 feet higher than the elevation at the junction and the trail was no more than 1 mile each way, we decided to see if we could get to the summit, which promised 360 degree panoramic views.

The spur trail was easy to follow, though with a thin snow cover.  By the time we had covered perhaps 1/3 of the lateral distance to Butt Mountain the trail began to cross fields of large-size talus.  Although there were cairns to mark the way, it was slow going.  After less than 0.4 mile – and barely 50 feet of elevation gain – we decided to turn back in the interest of time, since it looked as though the rest of the trail to Butt Mountain would be across similar talus.  As we retreated, I theorized that Butt Mountain had been named that because it is necessary to use both feet, both hands, and your butt for the descent.  After the hike I did some more research and learned that Butt Valley, Reservoir, and Mountain are all named for Horace Butts, a successful early miner.

Just after we exited the talus field on our way back to the PCT we decided to stop for the first of two lunch breaks.  We had a wonderful view of Lake Almanor less than 15 miles to the east.  The Almanor Peninsula, which juts into the lake from the north, is clearly visible.

photo of Lake Almanor viewed from the spur trail to Butt Mountain

Lake Almanor viewed from the spur trail to Butt Mountain

As we enjoyed the views a Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) made a brief appearance on a nearby treetop.  I only had time to get one picture before it flew off to a more distant tree.

photo of Clark’s nutcracker

Clark’s nutcracker

This is a view of the snow-covered spur trail, on the way back to the PCT.  This portion was somewhat rocky on the downhill slope, but another nearby section seemed rock-free and looked tempting for a downhill saucer slide.  Although we encountered a bit more snow along the PCT, this was the snowiest section of the day.  On the outbound leg on the spur trail we simply followed the obvious flat path that defined the trail; on the return we could follow our own boot prints.

photo of snow field on the spur trail to Butt Mountain

Snow field on the spur trail to Butt Mountain

When we got back to the PCT the junction was not immediately obvious, and we mistakenly curved to the right and did not notice that it was a T junction.  We were also looking in front of our feet due to some snow on the trail and did not look up high enough to see the nearly hidden (from the spur trail) signs.  As a result we actually backtracked on the PCT for several tenths of a mile before we were positive we were going the wrong way and turned back once more.

The ridgetop followed by the PCT curves eastward, and the trail crosses a minor saddle to follow the north side of the ridge for a short distance.  The trail crosses a talus field, and I was very impressed that the trail had actually been constructed across the talus by clearing a path down to dirt level.  More typically, trails tend to cross talus fields without any particular trail construction, sometimes using cairns to mark the way.  There was no need for cairns here.

photo of PCT crossing a talus field

PCT crossing a talus field

Almost immediately after we crossed this talus field we had a wonderful panoramic view of Lassen Peak and several other nearby peaks.  I believe the one at the left is Brokeoff Mountain.

photo of Lassen panorama

Lassen panorama

A few minutes later we had crossed back to the south side of the ridge and paused for a few minutes to enjoy a bit of brilliant yellow in some nearby shrubs, perhaps willows.

photo of a bit of fall color

A bit of fall color

In this area we could see a valley off to our right (to the south); I think this valley contains Shanghai Creek, some 2000 feet below.

About 1.7 miles past the spur trail to Butt Mountain we came to the PCT midpoint post, described above.  We really wanted to sign one of the registers in the box, but the initial search of the contents had turned up three pens, none of them working, and none of us had a pen in our day pack.  (Note to self: always carry a pen!)  I decided to try looking in the box once more, and managed to find five pens.  The first one I tried worked – so we signed one of the little notebooks, which said 2016 on the front cover.  Finding the PCT midpoint and being able to sign the register seemed like the biggest accomplishments of the day!  We spent between 5 and 10 minutes there, including finding a working pen, but also just enjoying the moment.

Right around the midpoint the PCT curves to the north and begins to descend in earnest, just after mile 8.2 on the elevation profile.  The trail zigs and zags a few times during the descent.  In a few places we noticed that there was more forest litter than we usually see, and we had to climb over a downed tree.

In places I particularly noticed that the hillside was quite steep.  Here the slope is nearly 30 degrees on the uphill side and perhaps even steeper on the downhill side.

photo of steep hillside

Steep hillside

The PCT crosses a small stream, Soldier Creek, at about 5500 feet elevation; see the small dip on the elevation profile.  Just after the descent resumes, signage advises that the PCT is passing out of Lassen National Forest into private land owned by a forest products company with logging interests.  Within the private land there was evidence of logging operations, including areas that had evidently been re-planted relatively recently, with trees under 10 feet tall.  In addition the PCT crosses a few logging roads: a total of 4 in the remaining 2.6 miles of the hike.  Near one of the logging roads there was a cluster of trees with brilliant red leaves that made a pretty contrast with the green of the pine trees.

photo of red-leaved trees about 2 miles from CA-36

Red-leaved trees about 2 miles from CA-36

Additional signage indicates parcel boundaries between different logging companies.  A bit surprisingly, we began to hear cows vocalizing.  Just after the third road crossing the trail suddenly emerged from forest into a series of large meadows: Soldier Meadows.  The trail was defined by two sets of long parallel logs which led to a low bridge across Soldier Meadows Creek. And the heard-but-not-yet-seen cows were suddenly visible.  Some grazed nonchalantly and others waited at attention for the intruders – us – to pass by.

photo of cows at attention as I hiked past

Cows at attention as I hiked past

Signage that I noticed later indicated that the grazing area is part of Baccala Ranch.  This ranch was homesteaded in the 1850’s by the Baccala family.  A dairy that produced butter and cheese was active for about 30 years around the turn of the 20th century.  The ranch is still owned by the Baccala family.  In fact, after crossing back into Lassen National Forest and then back into Baccala Ranch, the PCT makes a fourth road crossing and passes via a gate through a fence.  Near this gate we encountered a rancher in a pickup truck who – very nicely – asked us where we were going.  I told him that we were hiking on the PCT and appreciated having permission to hike across the ranch land; he seemed to accept the explanation and drove off.

At these lower elevations, now just below 5000 feet, I believe I noticed some poison oak with red leaves-of-three.  Also there were some areas covered with mahala mat (Ceanothus prostratus), sometimes called squaw carpet.

photo of mahala mat near Soldier Meadows

Mahala mat near Soldier Meadows

Among the rocks on the ground were numerous interesting-looking, porous volcanic rocks.

photo of porous volcanic rock

Porous volcanic rock

The final half mile of the hike was back on logging company land, and there was a sign indicating 0.5 mile to Hwy 36 and just 15.2 miles to Lassen Volcanic National Park.  We were really starting to get close to the National Park!

When we reached CA-36 our ride was waiting for us and we drove back to Chester to our overnight motel.  The following day we would hike the next 10 miles, north of CA-36. We had enjoyed our hike through the forest and were looking forward to getting even closer to Lassen the next day.

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Pacific Crest Trail: Humbug Summit to Carter Meadows Trail

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A few days after a somewhat unusual mid-October snowfall, I set out with two friends to day-hike for three days on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in northern Plumas County, between Humbug Summit and Domingo Springs.  This post describes the first day’s hike from Humbug Summit to the Carter Meadows Trailhead.  While we did encounter some snow on the trail, the highlight of the hike was seeing Lassen Peak, along with several nearby peaks in Lassen Volcanic National Park, mantled in gleaming white snow.  This is just one of several panoramic views we enjoyed during the hike.

image of Lassen panorama

Lassen panorama

The GPS track shows an overview of the 14-mile point-to-point hike, which we did in the northbound direction.  The orange dot shows the Humbug Summit trailhead at Cold Springs.

GPS track

GPS track

It is notable that we were fortunate to do these hikes with a designated driver.  This meant that we only needed to have one car, and we did not need to reposition cars each day.  We were driven to the beginning trailhead each morning and picked up at the ending trailhead at a pre-designated time.  This was a real treat that made it possible to do longer sequential hikes and cover more miles of the PCT.

For this hike, the PCT mileage was 13 miles, from official mile 1308.6 to 1321.6, according to the PCT data book.  At the end of the day we hiked 1.2 miles out the Carter Meadows Trail to a trailhead on a gravel road where our ride had just arrived to pick us up.  The entire hike was within Lassen National Forest and mostly within Plumas County, with short sections in Butte County and Tehama County.

As shown in the elevation profile, the PCT climbs about 1000 feet from the Humbug Summit area before descending to a slightly lower elevation.  Then it climbs about 500 feet before descending once again.  The total elevation gain was a bit over 2200 feet: quite reasonable for the hike distance.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The Humbug Summit / Cold Springs trailhead is right next to the spring and a couple of backpacker campsites, less than 100 yards from the PCT.  This is a horse-friendly trailhead, with the spring water flowing from a pipe into a horse trough and with hitching posts nearby.  To reach the PCT you simply follow the obvious trail and then, at the PCT junction, follow the arrow pointing to Canada on a sign.  Another sign on a nearby tree advises that it is 35.8 miles to Domingo Spring, which would be the northern terminus for our three days of hiking, and 40.4 miles to Lassen Volcanic National Park – the destination for a future hiking trip!

The PCT climbs at a pleasant 8% grade through pretty forest, and within a mile or so we started to see snow near the trail.  As we continued to climb the snow got a little deeper – it was never very deep, but if the snow cover is continuous it doesn’t take more than a few inches to hide a trail.

image of forest with snow cover

Forest with snow cover

After a bit we noticed that we were following boot prints in the trail’s snow cover and realized that two hikers had preceded us northbound in the few days since the snowfall.  At first we simply followed the boot prints into a small clearing or meadow – and then it became clear that the previous hikers had wandered around a bit, but the path did not continue!  Fortunately we had phones with a mapping application that included the PCT, and within a few minutes we were able to determine that we had, indeed, gone slightly off-trail and the trail was about 100 feet away.  So we quickly recovered from this navigation issue.  I have to note that, if I’d been hiking on my own (and without such a detailed “live” map) I would have needed to turn around and return to the trailhead, since snow now covered the trail ahead as far as we could see.

Shortly after we returned to the PCT path, still in the meadow area, I noticed several lupine plants, with the sun creating pretty shadows on the snow.

image of lupine in the snow

Lupine in the snow

After we left the meadow, for some distance the trail followed a wider path through the forest, and the previous hikers’ path was again obvious.  This view reminded me of hikes I’d done two years prior in Northern Ireland, with trails making their way through forested areas.

image of snowy PCT

Snowy PCT

In an area where the snow layer was thinner we noticed a few boot prints that appeared to have sunk an inch or two into mud, then re-frozen overnight.  The columnar ice crystals were quite interesting and unusual.

image of ice crystals lining a boot print

Ice crystals lining a boot print

About 2.7 miles from the trailhead we found a sign indicating that the Butte County high point was just 0.2 miles away.  In fact, it was less than 0.2 miles round trip to climb the remaining 25 feet or so to the top of a gentle hill, also the highest elevation of the hike.  And, as far as I can tell from my maps, the high point is barely across the county line from Plumas County.  As the PCT continues north, however, it stays in Butte County for the next 2 miles or so, generally descending.

image of Butte County high point

Butte County high point

Just past the Butte County high point we had our first views of Lassen Peak, filtered by trees along the trail.  During the subsequent descent there was a nice view of Lake Almanor, which is approximately 15 miles away to the northeast.

image of Lake Almanor

Lake Almanor

After we’d hiked about 5 miles we stopped for our first of two lunch breaks: a good practice for hikes of around 15 miles or more.  We found a sunny spot with some nice rocks to sit on; we didn’t happen to have a special view, but it was pleasant anyway.

Shortly after our break we briefly had a distant view generally to the west.  Behind several rows of hills and ridges there was a higher ridge with a bit of snow on top.  The only areas in that direction that are high enough to have had snow are the Trinity Alps and some peaks in the Yolla Bolly – Middle Eel Wilderness, both roughly 90 miles away.

image of view West toward a snow-topped ridge

View West toward a snow-topped ridge

Almost 5 1/2 miles from the trailhead the PCT curves to the west, not far from Eagle Rocks.  To the southwest we had wonderful views of a valley with forested hills rising on both sides and Scotts John Creek, which we couldn’t see, at the bottom of the valley.

image of valley between forest-covered hills

Valley between forest-covered hills

In this section of the trail we started to see volcanic rocks, indicating a transition region between the north end of the Sierra Nevada and the south end of the Cascades.  Some of the rocks had unusual, almost strange, formations.

image of volcanic rocks, marking a transition into the Cascades

Volcanic rocks, marking a transition into the Cascades

As the trail traversed to the west we had our first panoramic view of Lassen.  It was magnificent, especially with the snow adorning the peaks.

image of Lassen panorama: first of the day

Lassen panorama: first of the day

About 5.9 miles from the trailhead we came to a sign indicating that Humboldt Peak was 0.6 miles away on a use trail; we decided not to make the side trip.  While hiking along the north slope of the peak, however, we encountered a bit more snow, including a few very distinct – and distinctive – bear tracks.

image of bear track in snow near Humboldt Peak

Bear track in snow near Humboldt Peak

The slope of Humboldt Peak was fairly steep, and there were some large volcanic boulders in the forest  as well as trees with moss on their trunks.

Nearly 1 mile past the sign for Humboldt Peak we arrived at a road crossing and trailhead, where the PCT crosses Humboldt Rd.  This road is accessible to 4WD vehicles and is about a 15-mile drive from CA-89 near Lake Almanor.  There is a fairly good sized flat area near the road crossing, with room for several campsites.   We gathered that it is a fairly significant remote trailhead, since there were signs pointing the way on the PCT to Mexico and to Canada!

image of PCT signs at the Humboldt Road crossing

PCT signs at the Humboldt Road crossing

The PCT curves again to go roughly north for a couple of miles along a ridge.  Along this northward traverse we could easily see Eagle Rocks, now to the southeast and slightly behind us, where the PCT had turned to the west.  From this vantage point it was clear that the PCT had been routed around a valley, rather than down and up again to cross it.

image of Eagle Rocks

Eagle Rocks

Not surprisingly, there is a creek at the bottom of the valley: Butt Creek.  On the west side of the north-south ridge there is another creek: Cub Creek.  We passed another sign, this time indicating a vista point for the Butt-Cub Divide 1/4 mile away.  We decided not to take the time to check out the view from the vista point.

As we continued north there were a couple of places where we had relatively unobstructed views to the west, and this time we could clearly see the flat floor of the Central Valley, generally near Red Bluff.

By the time we’d covered 10 miles we were ready for a second lunch stop, and this time we found a location with sun, good rocks for sitting, and wonderful views to the north.  The terrain was looking more and more volcanic in nature.

image of view from our second lunch stop

View from our second lunch stop

Around 10.6 miles from the trailhead the trail bottoms out just below 6200 feet elevation and then begins to climb once again.  Especially in the lower areas we noticed a lot of fallen trees and other forest litter on the ground.  We wondered if there had been severe storms or whether it had simply been a long time since any cleanup had taken place.  The amount of flammable debris was unusual in our experience on other sections of the PCT.

About 12 miles from the trailhead the PCT begins to turn to the east and partial views of Lassen return.  Also, there are more varied volcanic rock formations.  This one looks like a giant inverted dinosaur foot, and there were a couple of round-topped towers nearby.

image of volcanic rocks

Volcanic rocks

Only a few minutes later we passed what would turn out to be the last panoramic view of Lassen for the day.  It certainly looked closer than it had looked when we saw the first panorama several miles previously.  It was confirmation that we were, indeed, getting closer to the National Park.

image of last Lassen panorama of the day

Last Lassen panorama of the day

At 13 miles from the trailhead we came to the well-marked junction with the Carter Meadows Trail, where we would exit the PCT and hike 1.2 miles out to a trailhead and our ride.  About halfway along the trail there is a short spur trail to a reliable water source useful to PCT through-hikers.  This water source is signed, as many others are if they are slightly off the PCT.  As this picture shows, besides a sign there is often a cairn, a stick, or other marking.  The markings at this water source were almost like a doorway welcoming hikers to fill up on the water necessary to continue hiking.

image of trail markings near a water source on the Carter Meadows Trail

Trail markings near a water source on the Carter Meadows Trail

This had been a really nice hike mostly through forest but with spectacular views of Lassen, volcanic rocks, valleys, and even a bit of October snow.  We were especially happy that our designated driver found the trailhead and was there to pick us up.  It had been challenging to find the trailhead and, following a somewhat panicked phone call from a trail location where we had phone signal, we’d started to wonder if we were going to need to hike out to the paved road; this would have added an unwelcome 7+ miles of walking.  Since we resumed hiking at this same trailhead the next morning, I’ll describe how to get there in a separate post related to the next day’s hike onward from Carter Meadows Trail.

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