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: 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 my post about the next day’s hike onward from Carter Meadows Trail.

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Pacific Crest Trail from (near) Sonora Pass to Boulder Lake Trail

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For the fourth and final day of a car camping and hiking trip I hiked again with friends on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), this time north from Sonora Pass to the Boulder Lake Trail junction where we’d joined the PCT on the previous day.  Although we made a significant navigational error before even leaving the trailhead, we did recover without needing to return to our starting point, and we completed the rest of the hike without further navigational excitement – and with exceptional views.

The section of PCT we hiked began, technically, about 2 1/2 miles north of Sonora Pass and continued nearly 10 miles to the junction with the Boulder Lake Trail, from PCT mile 1020.9 to mile 1030.7, according to the mileages in the PCT data book.  This section of trail is mainly in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness, which straddles parts of Stanislaus National Forest and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.  Most of the hike was in Alpine County, with the initial southern portion in Mono County very near the northeast corner of Tuolumne County.

After leaving the PCT we hiked down the Boulder Lake Trail and the Clark Fork Trail, which we’d hiked up on the previous day, to a trailhead just a few miles from our car camping base in the Clark Fork Campground off CA-108.

The highlights of this hike were the numerous fantastic views of the High Sierras, with towering granite peaks and ridges and amazing valley and canyon views.  This picture was taken as the PCT crosses the Sierra crest at an elevation of about 10,500 feet; this is the northernmost point of the PCT that is higher than 10,000 feet elevation.  This crest crossing is nearly 3 miles north of Sonora Pass.

picture of view from the Sierra crest, nearly 3 miles north of Sonora Pass

View from the Sierra crest, nearly 3 miles north of Sonora Pass

This was a point-to-point hike, facilitated by a car shuttle.  We’d stashed one car the previous afternoon at the ending trailhead not far from the Clark Fork Campground, and in the morning we drove our other car up to the Sonora Pass trailhead.  At the end of the hike we retrieved the car at Sonora Pass on our way home.

The GPS track shows an overview of the route, with the orange dot denoting the Sonora Pass PCT trailhead.  The portion of the track south of the red carat was actually not on the PCT, as will be described shortly.  We left the PCT at the sharp angle at the northernmost point of the track.

GPS track

GPS track

The initial portion of the hike was a 1000-foot climb to the Sierra crest.  There was another nearly 1000-foot climb after a 2300-foot descent, and most of the last 7 miles was downhill – 6 miles after leaving the PCT.  Except for our navigation error off the PCT, the grade was quite reasonable and pleasant.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

As hinted, the hike began with a navigation error.  At the Sonora Pass trailhead parking area, as we drove counterclockwise around the loop deciding where to park, we noticed what looked like a trailhead, with a trail leading to the north.  Basically we assumed it was the PCT, although our instincts soon suggested that it wasn’t.  In fact, after about 3/4 mile the trail became very steep, with treacherous footing: not at all a good or safe trail for someone carrying a loaded backpack.  We pressed on anyway, managing to negotiate a half-mile section with 20% grade and lots of loose gravel that made it difficult not to slip downhill on every step.  We passed some strange but beautiful rock formations, like this one.

picture of rock formation along an (incorrect) county-line trail

Rock formation along an (incorrect) county-line trail

One of the reasons we pressed on was that we (correctly) believed we were almost to “the top” – where we in fact found the PCT.  Upon consulting maps on one of our phones, we realized that we had climbed up a use trail that follows the county line separating Alpine and Mono Counties.  In the process, in about 1.2 trail miles we had bypassed 2.4 miles of the PCT!

Between actually reaching the PCT and reaching the Sierra crest there were more views of the unusual and beautiful local rock formations.

picture of rock formations along the PCT shortly before reaching the Sierra crest

Rock formations along the PCT shortly before reaching the Sierra crest

The PCT crests at about 10,500 feet elevation with beautiful views of the last rows of the Eastern Sierra ridges before the steep descent into the Great Basin region.  In the next half-mile stretch of trail we found numerous wildflowers still in bloom in mid-September.  These included Anderson’s thistle (Cirsium andersonii), lupine, several types of arnica, common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and perhaps some penstemon.  There was a nice example of low-growing mountain dandelion (Agoseris sp.).

picgture of mountain dandelion

Mountain dandelion

There were several large patches of rock fringe (Epilobium obcordatum),

picture of rock fringe along the PCT near the Sierra crest

Rock fringe along the PCT near the Sierra crest

as well as a large patch of musk monkeyflower (Mimulus moschatus), both with many of the blossoms showing the lateness in the blooming season.

picture of musk monkeyflower

Musk monkeyflower

In several places there was some low-growing lupine with white areas on the blossoms; I think it is Brewer’s lupine (Lupinus breweri).

picture of Brewer’s lupine

Brewer’s lupine

Near an especially colorful cluster of wildflowers we encountered our first through-hiker of the day.  He was headed southbound, on his way from Canada to Mexico.  He stopped for a few moments to chat with us and appreciate the views and wildflowers.

picture of southbound PCT through-hiker

Southbound PCT through-hiker

The PCT passes within view of Wolf Creek Lake, whose greenish hue rather surprised me.  Other than the water color, it looked like a lovely place for backpackers to camp.  I believe that the distinctive peak in the background is an unnamed peak about 1 mile southeast of White Mountain; both are about 11,300 feet elevation.

picture of Wolf Creek Lake

Wolf Creek Lake

After passing Wolf Creek Lake the PCT begins a 2000-plus foot descent.  There were a few short sections that were steeper than typical PCT, and they were “paved” with flat rocks, presumably to prevent soil erosion and improve hiker traction.  It is relatively unusual to find such visible “engineered” features along the PCT; although the trail has been carefully planned and built, the underlying engineering is usually less visible.

Several switchbacks lead down to what appears to be headwaters of the East Fork Carson River.  Just past one of the switchbacks, around some sizeable boulders, there were several low-growing plants with beautiful red leaves.

picture of red-leaved plant near headwaters of East Fork Carson River

Red-leaved plant near headwaters of East Fork Carson River

Over the next several miles we would hike past numerous small streams that plunged down steep hillsides on their way to join the East Fork Carson River.  On the other side of the canyon a long ridge of immense granite walls rose steeply.  This view is near the south end of a series of ridges.

picture of steep rock wall across the canyon

Steep rock wall across the canyon

After about 6 miles, during a relatively flat section of trail that follows just above the East Fork Carson River, we stopped for a lunch break near one of the stream crossings.  The overnight low-30-degree temperatures had warmed up nicely to nearly 60 degrees in the sun.

About 8 miles from the beginning of the hike the trail briefly bottomed out at about 8000 feet elevation before beginning to climb once again, heading a bit to the west and away from the East Fork Carson River.  Near the beginning of this climb the PCT crosses a small stream that created a beautiful ribbon of water rushing down the sheer rock face.

picture of stream tumbling down a rock face

Stream tumbling down a rock face

A large switchback in this area guaranteed that we would cross the same stream three times before continuing north away from it.  In this area there were some spectacular trees among the boulders that defined the canyon wall.  When most of the vegetation is low scrub, less than a few feet tall, these trees really stood out.

picture of tree among boulders

Tree among boulders

At the south end of the switchback there was a final spectacular view to the southeast along the canyon of the East Fork Carson River.

picture of view along the canyon of the East Fork Carson River

View along the canyon of the East Fork Carson River

There were also views south, through the trees, toward Stanislaus Peak a couple of miles away.  As we climbed the forest became denser, with tall trees towering over the boulders.

picture of forest view

Forest view

About half a mile before the junction with Boulder Lake Trail we enjoyed another view of a rock wall on the other side of the canyon.

picture of another steep rock wall across the canyon

Another steep rock wall across the canyon

It may be pertinent to note that this view, toward the southeast, shows some clouds; our earlier views to the north were nearly cloud-free.  Some four hours later, when we reached the car we had left at Sonora Pass, we found that there had been rain at some point during the day.

We encountered a second and a third southbound through-hiker before leaving the PCT behind.  I first noticed that the second hiker had something on the front left strap of his pack.  Before I had quite gotten a good look at it, my hiking companion asked him his trail name, and it was Raccoon.  Sure enough, he was carrying a stuffed raccoon on his epic journey from Canada to Mexico!

picture of Raccoon, through-hiking from Canada to Mexico

Raccoon, through-hiking from Canada to Mexico

When we reached the Boulder Lake Trail junction we stopped for a second lunch break.  For longer hikes, over 15 miles or so, it can be a useful practice to stop for two sit-down breaks.  I’m finding that I enjoy reaching the ending trailhead with some energy remaining, rather than fully tired.  This is especially true for multiple consecutive hikes of this distance.

The Boulder Lake Trail basically comes down a long, steep hillside with many tree-decorated boulder fields.

picture of impressive boulders along the Boulder Lake Trail

Impressive boulders along the Boulder Lake Trail

After leaving the PCT the Boulder Lake and Clark Creek Trails descend 2000 feet to the trailhead near our campground.  The trail passes Boulder Lake, a small but pretty lake, as well as many more boulders.  There is a 1-mile section that is fairly steep; in this section the way-finding was a bit easier hiking downhill than it had been the previous morning hiking uphill.  Along Clark Creek there were beautiful lush ferns, as well as picturesque pine cones and pine fronds on the trail.  About 1/4 mile before reaching the trailhead we passed signage indicating that we were exiting the Carson Iceberg Wilderness.

Near the trailhead there was a beautiful view of The Iceberg across Iceberg Meadow.

picture of The Iceberg across Iceberg Meadow

The Iceberg across Iceberg Meadow

As soon as we arrived back at our campsite we finished breaking camp and loading up the car.  Before we left the campground we recruited one of our camping neighbors to take a picture of us as a nice memory of the two days we’d hiked together.  I must admit that our neighbors were impressed that we’d hiked 34 miles in two days and were both relaxed and energized by the experience!

picture of enjoying the feeling after two days and 34 miles of PCT hikes

Enjoying the feeling after two days and 34 miles of PCT hikes

After loading the car we drove back to Sonora Pass to retrieve the car we’d left in the morning.  Then we drove home: one car east to US-395 and then north to Truckee via Reno, and one car west to the Bay Area.  It had certainly been a memorable hiking trip, and we were already beginning to think about further adventures for the next year’s high-country hiking season.

Posted in Alpine County, car camping, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Mono County, Pacific Crest Trail, Stanislaus National Forest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pacific Crest Trail from Boulder Lake Trail to Paradise Valley Trail

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The third hiking day of my car camping and hiking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) was only about 20 PCT miles away from the first day’s hike.  It seemed farther away, but perhaps that was because I’d driven most of the way back to the Bay Area the previous day, nearly bailing out on two terrific hikes due to some unexpected overnight snow.  This post describes the first of the two hikes in the southern portion of the stretch between Ebbetts Pass and Sonora Pass, in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness of Stanislaus National Forest in Alpine County.

The loop hike was fairly ambitious, covering about 17.35 miles with nearly 3900 feet of ascent and descent.  The first 6-mile section was a 2300-foot climb up Clark Fork and Boulder Lake Trails just to reach the PCT.  This was followed by 5.1 miles on the PCT between Boulder Lake Trail and Paradise Valley Trail.  The final 6-mile section included a short climb followed by a 3100-foot descent on Paradise Valley and Disaster Creek Trails.  The official PCT mileages from the PCT data book are 1035.8 (Boulder Lake Trail) and 1030.7 (Paradise Valley Trail).

The hike passed through a variety of habitats with wonderful views.  Indeed, the views began right at the trailhead, where there was a great view of The Iceberg, a prominent and distinctive peak.  The Iceberg seems impressively high: its peak is at 8350 feet elevation, compared to the trailhead elevation of about 6300 feet.  However, we would hike past that peak elevation before reaching the PCT!

photo of The Iceberg

The Iceberg

The trailhead is really a dual trailhead, located at Iceberg Meadows, about 10 miles off CA-108 at the end of the road that goes to the Clark Fork Campground, home base for two hikes.  I was hiking with three friends from a Tahoe area hiking club.  The trailhead services both the Clark Fork Trail and the Disaster Valley Trail, the outbound and return trails.  The GPS track shows the loop, with the trailhead denoted by the orange dot.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation profile shows the climbing and descent for the hike.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The first 2.7 miles was a gentle climb through forest, including a stream crossing on insubstantial-looking logs.  The primary remnants of the previous afternoon’s rain were water droplets on some of the leaves on the ground.

photo of droplets of the previous afternoon’s rain

Droplets of the previous afternoon’s rain

At a trail junction at 2.7 miles we continued on the Boulder Lake Trail.  Although the morning had begun with cool temperatures – a dish towel I’d left out overnight to dry had frozen stiff – once we started climbing in earnest we shed our outer layers.  Most of the climb from the junction to Boulder Lake was a 15% grade.  There were some impressive boulders next to the trail; in addition we could see that the nearby hillside was rather densely covered with boulders.

photo of boulders next to Boulder Lake Trail

Boulders next to Boulder Lake Trail

There was one area of the 15% climb where it was a little tricky to way-find hiking uphill.  I’ve found that, in these situations, it’s helpful to look carefully to the sides, since the intended trail may have a switchback.  We hiked down this trail the following day, and the way-finding was straightforward.  In another place the trail passes over some open bare granite, and there was a huge (at least 2 feet tall) cairn to mark the way.

The trail has a small crest at pretty Boulder Lake, which had nice reflections of the surrounding forest and (more) boulders.

photo of Boulder Lake

Boulder Lake

Above Boulder Lake there was an additional 1.4-mile climb at a gentler grade to reach the PCT.  It is noteworthy that the PCT map does not show that Boulder Lake Trail goes through to the PCT, even though the trail remains well-defined and easy to follow above Boulder Lake.  In addition, there is a sign post at the PCT junction to mark Boulder Lake Trail.

Along the way we passed some scarlet gilia and some Bloomer’s goldenbush (Ericameria bloomeri) with bright yellow blossoms at the tips of the stems/branches.

photo of Bloomer’s goldenbush

Bloomer’s goldenbush

At the PCT we turned left to hike northbound.  Very near the Boulder Lake Trail junction there was a nice view of a nearby ridge.  On the GPS track image it’s basically less than 1 mile due east from the easternmost point on our route.

photo of ridge near the PCT not far from the Boulder Lake Trail junction

Ridge near the PCT not far from the Boulder Lake Trail junction

We paused several times to enjoy views both behind us and ahead of us.  Close to the Boulder Lake Trail junction, as well as farther north along the PCT, we had dramatic views of a distinctive pointy-top peak to the south.  The peak is Stanislaus Peak, with a peak elevation of 11,240 feet, just about 4 miles away in this picture.

photo of Stanislaus Peak

Stanislaus Peak

From the initial section of the PCT we had nice views toward the southeast of the canyon in which the East Fork Carson Creek flows; southeast is upstream.  The next day we would be hiking practically along the creek bank toward the Boulder Lake Trail junction.

photo of canyon of the East Fork Carson River

Canyon of the East Fork Carson River

The PCT follows a curved path between Boulder Peak (9390 feet elevation) and a smaller peak, unnamed on the GPS track map (9100 feet elevation).  The climb, almost continuous from the trailhead at Iceberg Meadow, tops out at about 8900 feet, then descends 300 feet before climbing again, to 9250 elevation.  Near this high point we had more great views southward toward Stanislaus Peak, including some other peaks farther to the south, and to the east, with snow.  I presume this snow had fallen during the mini-storm that had come through less than 48 hours prior.

photo of new snow on peaks south and east of Stanislaus Peak

New snow on peaks south and east of Stanislaus Peak

For couple of miles the PCT undulates gently above 9000 feet elevation.  It passes very close to a bare talus-covered hill, which makes a striking contrast to the more prevalent forested areas and boulders.

photo of volcanic, talus-covered hill next to the PCT

Volcanic, talus-covered hill next to the PCT

All three of my maps show a small lake in the area around 9.3 miles from the trailhead, or 3 1/4 miles along the PCT, and in fact that was our original lunch stop destination.  We decided, instead, to take fuel breaks at the beginning and end of the PCT portion of the hike.  When we got to the indicated lake, we found it to more resemble a meadow.  The GPS track map shows Coyote Meadow, but the area in this picture is closer to the PCT.  Even though there wasn’t any water in the lake, it was pretty.

photo of meadow instead of a lake?

Meadow instead of a lake?

This is one of the areas where there were quite a few impressive boulders next to the trail.

photo of boulders along the PCT

Boulders along the PCT

In the high section of the PCT around 9200 feet elevation we encountered a fence with a simple gate for hikers to use.  Later we would encounter some cattle, and it is my understanding that there are grazing leaseholds in some areas of the national forest.  Fences like this one are used to separate grazing areas and to keep cattle from straying out of the designated grazing area.

photo of fence separating cattle grazing areas in the national forest

Fence separating cattle grazing areas in the national forest

In this general area there is a spring and an intermittent stream.  This moisture supports some wildflowers, and we passed late-season Anderson’s thistles, asters, and a few lupine.

About 11.2 miles from the trailhead, or 5.1 miles along the PCT, we reached the four-way junction with Paradise Valley Trail, to the left, and Golden Canyon Trail, to the right.  Here we departed from the PCT, taking the Paradise Valley Trail.  Some of our group had hiked to this same junction from the north two years ago and hiked down the Paradise Valley Trail on the way to completing a different loop hike in the area.

The Paradise Valley Trail is about 3 miles long.  Initially it climbs about 200 feet, to the 9450-foot high-elevation point of this hike.  After this point the trail descends steadily for the remaining 6 miles of the hike.  The trail passes mostly through forest, but also through a meadow; we passed a few mountain dandelions and broadleaf lupine, the latter well past the blooming phase but easily identified by the unusually large leaves.

About midway along Paradise Valley Trail we passed a nice view of a nearby isolated ridge, mostly bare volcanic rock or talus with just a few scattered trees.

photo of view of a ridge near Paradise Valley Trail

View of a ridge near Paradise Valley Trail

As the trail continues downhill, perhaps at the top of Paradise Valley itself, it passes more open meadows.  We finally saw a couple of the grazing cattle we had only heard before, via the locally worn cowbells.  Soon the trail intercepts the path of an intermittent stream, which tumbles down the steep hillside and down a small, pretty waterfall.

photo of waterfall in Paradise Valley

Waterfall in Paradise Valley

Particularly along the stream there were bushes as well as scattered trees.  The most spectacular trees were western (Juniperus occidentalis) or Sierra (Juniperus grandis) junipers.  This specimen had clearly survived fire or some other natural phenomenon.

photo of western or Sierra juniper

Western or Sierra juniper

We would see other junipers in this area, many heavily laden with dark blue berries.  This observation prompted one of my companions to comment that we were hiking past a bumper crop of gin!

After about 3 miles on the Paradise Valley Trail and descending almost 1400 feet, we reached a T junction with the Disaster Creek Trail.  Two years ago we had turned right, uphill, at this junction to return to the Highland Lakes area via Gardner Meadow.  This time we turned left, downhill, to return to Iceberg Meadows after a final 3 miles and over 1400 feet of descent.

The Disaster Creek Trail passes alternately through forest and open areas.  This was the view across one of the open areas.

photo of view from Disaster Creek Trail

View from Disaster Creek Trail

Although the trail follows quite close to Disaster Creek for a couple of miles, we did not get a clear view of the creek through the trees lining the creek bed.  There were a few wildflowers, though, suggesting that this area would be especially pretty in the spring.  About a half mile before the end of the hike we had a great view of a nearby forest-covered peak.

photo of forest-covered peak

Forest-covered peak

About 1/4 mile before the trailhead the trail exits the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.

Although this was a fairly ambitious hike, it was a beautiful one.  And the weather was just about perfect for almost-fall hiking: sunny, cool in the morning, and comfortable in the afternoon.  The following day we would begin hiking at Sonora Pass and hike to the Boulder Lake Trail, another PCT adventure!

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Pacific Crest Trail from a road crossing north of Wet Meadows to the Nipple

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For the second day of hiking on my car camping trip I was planning to hike the section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) north from the Tamarack trailhead just off Blue Lakes Road, hopefully turning around about halfway to Carson Pass on CA-88. As it turned out, I made changes in my plan in real-time in response to weather conditions – and by the next morning I was grateful I’d made those modifications.

The first part of the hike involved a climb up to nearly 9200 feet elevation with spectacular views, such as this one of Lower Blue Lake viewed from almost 1000 feet higher in elevation than the lake.

image of Lower Blue Lake

Lower Blue Lake

In the original plan for the hike I would hike about 6 miles northwest from the Tamarack trailhead, past a distinctive peak called The Nipple and to a junction with Summit City Canyon Trail, where there is supposed to be a trailhead accessible from CA-88 via a dirt road, Forestdale Divide Rd.  However, I encountered so much wind on the ridge immediately northwest of The Nipple that I decided to turn around almost 3 miles short of my goal.  As kind of a replacement, after returning to the PCT junction near the Tamarack trailhead, I continued southeast for nearly 3 miles to the start/end of the previous day’s hike and then back to the Tamarack trailhead.  The route is shown on the GPS track image, where the orange dot near the middle of the track indicates the trailhead location.

GPS track

GPS track

The entire hike was in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and in Alpine County, covering 13.1 miles with 2060 feet of elevation gain and loss.  I encountered a lot of wind and wind gusts above 8500 feet elevation, and this seemed to confuse my GPS about the elevation gain and loss.  If you look closely at the elevation profile there is a lot of “hash” in the higher elevations – in fact, at the end of the hike the unit claimed that my actual elevation gain was 3700 feet, in contradiction to my later analysis that came up with 2060 feet.  I surmise that the constant wind gusts fooled the unit into thinking that I was making large, very rapid climbs and descents, as a response to the changes in apparent atmospheric pressure associated with the wind – I don’t have a better explanation.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The 13.1 mile distance corresponded to a PCT trail distance of 6.45 miles, plus a short spur trail access at the Tamarack junction.  With respect to official PCT mileages as reported in the PCT data book, the hike covered mile 1064.3 (the road crossing from the previous day’s hike) to mile 1070.75 (my turnaround point on the ridge near The Nipple).

From the trailhead parking area to the PCT junction it is just a short 1/8 mile long spur trail.  The PCT passes through a forested area for about 1/3 mile before crossing Blue Lakes Rd and continuing west-northwest.  There is more forest for the next mile and a half, up to about 8500 feet elevation.  Then the trail emerges from forest and begins to traverse nearly bare hillsides.  The grade gets steeper, though it is still less than 8%.  More importantly, on the day of the hike the wind definitely started to increase.  Shortly after emerging from the forested area I had a nice view of my immediate goal: the trail would pass just a couple hundred vertical feet below the top of The Nipple, shown here.

image of The Nipple

The Nipple

As I crossed this open area I found several wildflowers, including some broad scaled owl’s clover (Orthocarpus cuspidatus).  Although it had obviously finished blooming for the season, the plants were still recognizable as this species, growing among woolly mule’s ears (Wyethia mollis) that were also well past their blooming period.

image of broad scaled owl’s clover among woolly mule’s ear leaves

Broad scaled owl’s clover among woolly mule’s ear leaves

There was also a bit of lupine (Lupinus sp.), possibly sulphur flower (Eriogonum umbellatum), mountain monardella (Monardella odoratissima) and some scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata).

image of scarlet gilia

Scarlet gilia

I also found a few mountain dandelions (Agoseris sp.); I think this is agoseris, though the leaf shape does not quite correspond to any of the species that are supposed to grow in this area.

image of mountain dandelion

Mountain dandelion

About 1 mile after entering the open area and reaching nearly 9000 feet elevation I had the view of Lower Blue Lake pictured at the beginning of the post.  The wind kept getting stronger as I gained elevation.  Initially I just pressed on, since I knew that the trail would crest near The Nipple and then descend several hundred feet to the Lost Lakes area.  Perhaps 1/4 mile past the view of Lower Blue Lake there was a wonderful view of Upper Blue Lake.  I think my campground and camp site are in the forested area at the lower left part of the lake shore, nearly 1000 feet lower in elevation and less than half a mile away.

image of Upper Blue Lake

Upper Blue Lake

As the wind continued to get stronger I kept telling myself to go just a little farther and the trail would crest.  However, when I did manage to reach the crest, the wind was actually so strong that I could barely stay on my feet.  And the slope on the other side of the ridge was just as steep as the slope down to Upper Blue Lake.  Fortunately the trail passed a small rock formation on the lee side, and I sat down to look around me and figure out what to do.

There was a wonderful view to the north, basically along the West Fork of the Carson River as it passes through Charity Valley and Hope Valley, with the Carson Pass area in the background.

image of view north from The Nipple

View north from The Nipple

I could also see most of Lost Lake East, less than 1/2 mile away.  I think the spur trail from the PCT is visible just up the hillside from the lake.

image of Lost Lake East

Lost Lake East

In any case, given the strength of the wind – I’m no expert, but I estimated that it must have been 40 mph with stronger gusts – I decided to turn back.  Perhaps it is nearly always windy on this ridge, or perhaps it was windier than usual due to a weather front coming through.  Either way, I did not want to hike down to Lost Lake and then need to come back across the ridge again.

During the initial part of the descent I simply focused on keeping my footing, but I did stop briefly to take in this expansive view to the southeast. At the very left of the picture the dark rock formation is Jeff Davis Peak, just over 2 miles away; it had been a landmark of the previous day’s hike.  The jagged ridge top in the center of the picture is the volcanic rock Y-shaped ridge that the PCT passes (and I’d hiked) around, with Raymond Peak the highest point and about 6 miles away.  In the background there is another ridge that is probably near CA-4 and the Ebbetts Pass area.

image of view southeast from near The Nipple

View southeast from near The Nipple

I also noted a few more wildflowers: Bloomer’s goldenbush (Ericameria bloomeri), Anderson’s thistle (Cirsium andersonii), and even some mountain pride (Penstemon newberryi) that was well past its blooming peak.

After leaving the open, windswept area and re-entering the forested area, I passed by rock formations.  There were several isolated magnificent junipers, either western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) or Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis), somehow managing to grow from the side of the rock.

image of western or Sierra juniper

Western or Sierra juniper

I continued back to the Tamarack trailhead and took a break.  When I’d turned around on The Nipple I had tentatively decided to try to hike past the Tamarack trailhead spur trail to the road crossing that had been my start/end trailhead the previous day.  Not far from the Tamarack trailhead spur trail I noticed that I was passing a few quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides), some of which had already turned yellow – a sure sign of an imminent autumn season.

image of quaking aspens, not far from the Tamarack trailhead

Quaking aspens, not far from the Tamarack trailhead

The trail passes mainly through a forested area, with rocky areas and individual boulders with differently colored regions and veins.  Someday perhaps I will learn enough about local geology to be able to identify more of what I see!

About 2 1/4 miles from the Tamarack trailhead spur trail the PCT passes very close to Lily Pad Lake.  In fact, the trail also passes close to Tamarack Lake and another, smaller and unnamed, lake, both of which are not visible from the trail.  The approach to Lily Lake was so close that I went over to the actual lake shore.  The picture shows most of the lake, but there is a cluster of lily pads just out of view to the left of the image.

image of Lily Pad Lake

Lily Pad Lake

Less than half a mile further I was able to catch a glimpse through the trees of the volcanic rock ridge formation around which I’d hiked the previous day.

image of view of the nearby volcanic rock ridge

View of the nearby volcanic rock ridge

About 3 miles past the Tamarack trailhead spur trail I arrived at the road crossing that had served as my trailhead the previous day and, after a quick break, I started back to the Tamarack trailhead.  Along the way I noticed some interesting clouds and wondered if the pattern had been generated by higher-level winds.

image of interesting clouds

Interesting clouds

Farther along I had a good view of Jeff Davis Peak, pointing skyward behind the shoulder of an intermediate (unnamed) peak.

image of Jeff Davis Peak

Jeff Davis Peak

About a half mile before the Tamarack trailhead spur trail the PCT passes by an impressive rock wall.  On the return trip, as I stopped to take a couple of pictures, I noticed that there was a person on the top of the wall.  A moment later I encountered his climbing companion, who had just descended.

image of impressive rock wall with a climber on top

Impressive rock wall with a climber on top

I returned to my car without further adventure.  Although I’d decided to make a real-time change in plans because of the wind on The Nipple, the second part of the hike was essentially the hike I had originally planned for the following day.  I figured I would simply make a new plan for the following day.  I did not know yet that I would wake up to a snowy white fairy land and need to abandon any plan at all for a hike!

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Pacific Crest Trail from Wet Meadows to Pennsylvania Creek

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This was the first of four day hikes within a five-day period on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT): hikes that were done as part of a car camping trip.  My home base for the first part of the trip was the Upper Blue Lake expansion campground, located south of Carson Pass and accessed via Blue Lakes Rd.

The title for this hike is slightly inaccurate, since neither of the endpoints was either Wet Meadows or Pennsylvania Creek.  The reason to use the description I did is solely due to space considerations!  I started at a road crossing about 1.3 miles north of the Wet Meadows Trail junction, and my turnaround point was about 1 mile south of Pennsylvania Creek, in the 29-mile PCT section between Carson and Ebbetts Passes in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and in Alpine County.

This section of trail features striking views of nearby peaks as well as a U-shaped journey around a Y-shaped ridge of bizarre and beautiful volcanic rocks and outcrops.  For someone more knowledgeable than I am, this hike is a wonderful geology lesson.  And I was pleasantly surprised to find several types of wildflower in bloom in spite of the calendar telling me that autumn was right around the corner.

The most distinctive feature of the first (northern) part of the hike is 9065-foot Jeff Davis Peak, shown here.  This peak is visible and highly recognizable from a several-mile long stretch of the PCT.  From the spot where I took the picture, it is less than 2 miles away almost directly due north.

picture of Jeff Davis Peak

Jeff Davis Peak

Usually I know the length of a hike before I start; it’s a critical part of the planning process, especially for an out-and-back hike where any mis-calculation gets doubled.  In this case there were uncertainties associated with both the start and turnaround points!  Although I had hoped to begin my hike at the Wet Meadows trail junction, marked on one of my maps as a trailhead, I was unable to figure out how to get there when I scouted trailheads the previous afternoon.  So I had to start at the next accessible location north on the PCT, and this added almost 1.4 miles to each direction.  In addition, my intended turnaround point was the turnaround point of a hike I did I 2014 (ping later) and, even with the information in the PCT data book, I wasn’t sure exactly how many trail miles it was from either Wet Meadows or Ebbetts Pass.  And my initial estimate turned out to be at least a half mile off, adding that distance (again, in each direction), to my eventual hike length.

The road crossing that served as the start/end point of my hike is located about 3 miles from Blue Lakes Rd on a side road that is signed for the Tamarack PCT trailhead.  (In fact, the Tamarack trailhead was the trailhead for the following day’s hike.)   After passing the Tamarack trailhead about 1/4 mile from Blue Lakes Rd you continue along the now-gravel road until reaching a T intersection, where you turn left and continue nearly 1/4 mile.  This is more properly a road crossing than a trailhead; the PCT is denoted by a modest 4×4 post on either side of the road, neither post signed.  There is room for 2-4 cars in nearby informal off-road parking.

The GPS track shows the route of the hike, with the orange dot denoting the road crossing.

GPS track

GPS track

Using mileages in the PCT data book this hike covered PCT mile 1064.3 to PCT mile 1055.9, or 8.4 miles; my GPS mileage was about 8.6 miles each direction.  For reference, the trail distance from the Wet Meadows junction to Pennsylvania Creek – my initial estimate for the hike length – is just under 6 miles.

The elevation profile shows that the elevation range (lowest to highest elevation) was only about 800 feet, but there was quite a bit of up-and-down.  The total elevation gain and loss for the 17.1-mile hike was a little over 3300 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The road crossing is in a moderately open forested area, and the trail climbs about 250 feet in the first 1.5 miles.  Near the end of this climb there is a marked junction with a spur trail to Wet Meadows, mentioned above.  Along the first part of the trail I encountered a few checkerblooms (Sidalcia sp.) as well as some Anderson’s thistles (Cirsium andersonii).  This one was a rather low-growing individual.

picture of Anderson’s thistle

Anderson’s thistle

There is a relatively short section that passes over smooth, bare rock; the way is marked here with three or four cairns.  In other areas there are a few isolated boulders, some with very smooth surfaces and colorful veining.  This was only a preview of the geology lesson that was to come later on!

Immediately after passing the Wet Meadows junction the PCT enters the Mokelumne Wilderness.  About 2 miles from the road crossing the trail crosses the Pleasant Valley Creek, then continues to descend a bit more before climbing again, to 8200 feet elevation.  At 8000 feet elevation a signed post reminds hikers that camp fires are not allowed in the wilderness above that elevation.  Shortly after I passed this signpost, at a switchback at the northernmost point of the hike, there was a pretty view toward what I presume to be Pleasant Valley, where several branches of the Pleasant Valley Creek join, along with the Raymond Canyon Creek and possibly others.  The town of Markleeville is less than 10 – maybe only 7 – miles away in this general direction.

picture of pretty view of Pleasant Valley

Pretty view of Pleasant Valley

Very close to this view I found a small cluster of lupine, possibly narrow-flowered lupine (Lupinus angustiflorus) or long-spurred lupine (Lupinus arbustus).  When researching this wildflower identification I was a bit surprised to find more than one type of white lupine that grows above 2000 meters (about 6600 feet) elevation in Alpine County and flowers in September.

picture of lupine, possibly narrow-flowered or long-spurred lupine

Lupine, possibly narrow-flowered or long-spurred lupine

Between about 3.2 and 3.7 miles from the start the trail is relatively flat and follows along a hillside that is rocky and steep.  I found myself focusing on staying on the trail rather than sightseeing-while-hiking.  Near the beginning of this section there is a nice view of Raymond Peak, with the trail in the foreground.

picture of Pacific Crest Trail with Raymond Peak in the background

Pacific Crest Trail with Raymond Peak in the background

The trail dips down about 100 feet to cross one of the branches of Pleasant Valley Creek.  On the way I found one of many clusters of Bloomer’s goldenbush (Ericameria bloomeri).  I have seen this pretty shrub many times; before I made this identification I mentally named it “yellow-tipped bush,” since the blossoms are at the tip of each branch.

picture of Bloomer’s goldenbush

Bloomer’s goldenbush

Near the creek crossing there were a few of what I believe to be hoary asters (Dieteria canescens var. canescens), with relatively wide ray flowers and bright yellow disc flowers.

picture of hoary aster near Pleasant Valley Creek

Hoary aster near Pleasant Valley Creek

There was also ranger’s button (Sphenosciadum capitellatum), a bit of late-season paintbrush (Castilleja sp.) and seep spring arnica (Arnica longifolia).

picture of seep spring arnica

Seep spring arnica

After the Pleasant Valley Creek crossing the trail climbs 600 feet in 1 mile via four switchbacks, the biggest climb of the hike.  It’s not really a big climb and, in any case, the grade is a reasonable 11%.  About half way up there is a nice view roughly northwest toward several peaks.  Jeff Davis Peak is on the right, The Nipple is on the left, and what may be Round Top, about 10 miles away, between them in the background.

picture of view of nearby peaks: Jeff Davis Peak (right), The Nipple (left), and possibly Round Top (center)

View of nearby peaks: Jeff Davis Peak (right), The Nipple (left), and possibly Round Top (center)

Just above 8600 feet elevation is a junction with a trail that goes to Raymond Lake, about 2/3 of a mile away.  Although I toyed with the idea of hiking up to the lake, as its setting appeared to be beautiful, I decided I would save it for the return trip – and later decided against making the side trip.  This was a good decision in light of the overall length of the hike – and my plan to hike a similar distance the following day.

Shortly past the Raymond Lake trail the PCT tops out at about 8700 feet elevation, the highest elevation of the hike.  From here there were nice distant views of the surrounding area, topped off by interesting clouds in the sky.

picture of view from the highest point of the hike

View from the highest point of the hike

The trail is now about halfway around the U mentioned earlier, and nearly at the top of the Y-shaped ridge formation.  The trail continues around the formation, descending 300 feet and regaining 200 feet in the next mile and a half.  Not far down from the high point there is another stream crossing, this time Raymond Canyon Creek.  Near this crossing I was startled, but delighted, to find clusters of explorer’s gentian (Gentiana calycosa).  Gentians are one of my favorite wildflowers, and explorer’s gentians are especially pretty with green stripes and dots on the inner surface of the petals and delicate fringes between the petals.

picture of explorer’s gentian near Raymond Canyon Creek

Explorer’s gentian near Raymond Canyon Creek

As I was passing the gentians I met my first hikers of the day, two women backpackers hiking northbound.  It turns out that they were just starting out on a multi-day hike and still getting used to the pack weight.  They were impressed that I was managing with such a small pack – until I told them I was only doing a day hike!  I was amused that they had apparently assumed I was backpacking, perhaps because of the location relative to trailheads.  I only met two other hikers/backpackers during the rest of my hike.

About 1/4 mile further I found a single linanthus plant.  I think it is either Sierra linanthus (Leptosiphon pachyphyllus) or Nuttall’s linanthus (Leptosiphon nuttalli); I was unable to distinguish these two species based on my initial research.

picture of either Sierra or Nuttall’s linanthus

Either Sierra or Nuttall’s linanthus

In this moist area I also found some broad-leaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus).  This is one of relatively few wildflowers that I can recognize outside of its blooming season, because the leaves are so distinctive – even for lupine.

At the crossing of Raymond Canyon Creek I found a couple of larger mountain monkeyflowers (Mimulus tilingii), about 6.1 miles from the start and at the bottom of the 200-foot descent from the highest point of the hike.

picture of larger mountain monkeyflower at Raymond Canyon Creek

Larger mountain monkeyflower at Raymond Canyon Creek

Near the second high point of the hike I found a few more Anderson’s thistles (Cirsium andersonii).  Some of the flower heads had completed the blooming cycle and had become the characteristic thistle puff balls typically found late in the season.  When viewed up close, I think this phase is also pretty!

picture of Anderson’s thistle puff ball

Anderson’s thistle puff ball

At the second high point the trail curves to the south and interesting rock formations begin to come into view.  These formations are black volcanic rock, and the surfaces are very jagged.

picture of volcanic rock formations

Volcanic rock formations

The trail now descends a little over 400 feet to cross Pennsylvania Creek.  On the downhill section I was startled to find some California fuchsia (Epilobium canum).  I see this wildflower frequently at sea level in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I was simply surprised to find the same species at over 8000 feet elevation.  In addition, I don’t think I have ever looked as closely at the blossom as my camera did in this close-up shot.  The petals are quite remarkable!

picture of California fuchsia

California fuchsia

Not far away I noted some unusual rocks, which I call cement rocks since I don’t know a more accurate term.  These “boulders” are 1-2 feet across.  There is clearly a cement-like material between the smaller rocks holding the entire mass together.

picture of “cement rocks” next to the Pacific Crest Trail

“Cement rocks” next to the Pacific Crest Trail

Still on this downhill section I came across a quite remarkable juniper tree, either Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis) or western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis), growing immediately next to a small rock formation next to the trail.  The juniper almost seems to be looking over the rock into the valley formed by the Pennsylvania Creek.

picture of juniper next to a small rock formation

Juniper next to a small rock formation

After the Pennsylvania Creek crossing the PCT climbs up again, this time 300 feet in a half mile, to a saddle, described in the PCT data book as a deep crest saddle.  At the saddle there is a sign pointing north to Pennsylvania Creek and south to Eagle Creek.  I continued another 0.4 mile past the saddle before I reached the turnaround point of my 2014 hike, where I celebrated with a 15-minute sit-down lunch break.  It is noteworthy that I had pre-loaded a waypoint into my GPS so I was able to monitor my approach to the previous turnaround point.  I had a great view of some of the nearby fantastic rock formations.

picture of unusual rock formations near the turnaround point of the hike

Unusual rock formations near the turnaround point of the hike

After my break I began to retrace my path back to my starting point.  After crossing the Raymond Canyon Creek, about 3 miles from the turnaround point, there was a nice view of the nearby hills and ridges beneath an interesting cloud formation.

picture of view of ridges and clouds

View of ridges and clouds

Near the beginning of the section that hugged the hillside, where I had to especially pay attention to where I was hiking, I noticed a juniper shrub growing around a colorful rock and loaded with berries.  I think it is most likely a common, or dwarf, juniper (Juniperus communis).

picture of common, or dwarf, juniper loaded with berries

Common, or dwarf, juniper loaded with berries

Not far away I noticed that some of the rocks on the uphill side of the trail were partially covered with lichen – not one, but two, kinds.  The yellow and orange colors were very bright, almost day-glow colors.

picture of rocks with colorful lichen

Rocks with colorful lichen

As is often the case, the return trip mirrored the outbound trip.  Sometimes I see views differently, because in one direction it’s in front of me and in the other direction it’s behind me.  It is a good idea to periodically stop, turn around, and look behind – especially when the trail passes through such a variety of terrain.

This was a great hike in excellent September weather.  I was glad I was able to make it to the turnaround point of my 2014 hike.  I was highly motivated to do that, and it felt good to have succeeded.  It wasn’t just about filling in the blanks, though; it was an excellent hike on its own merits.

For the following day, day 2 of my car camping trip, my hike was planned for the section of PCT north of the Tamarack trailhead.

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