Day trip to Hong Kong’s Cheung Chau Island

On the second day of my recent visit to Hong Kong, my local family and I took a delightful and memorable day trip to Cheung Chau, one of the many islands – there are over 260 with areas larger than 500 square meters – that are part of Hong Kong.  It is easy to see why Cheung Chau is a popular day trip destination: it is a relatively short ferry ride from Central, it is pretty, it is less crowded than the urban areas of Hong Kong, there are many interesting food stalls and restaurants, and there is a great beach for play and/or relaxation.  We were only there for about 4 hours but our visit included many interesting experiences.

For geographic orientation, this overview map should be helpful.  Many ferries depart from piers in the city area known as Central, which is located on Hong Kong Island’s north shore, just above the “H” on the map.  Ferries go to several destinations, from the Star Ferry to Kowloon to high-speed hover ferries to Macau (to the west across the Zhujiang River Estuary).  In my somewhat limited experience with the ferries, different speeds seem to be used to ensure that most journeys are no longer than an hour and a half – I think that is the hover ferry time to Macau.  Of course, the Star Ferry takes just a few minutes to cross Victoria Harbor.  There are two types of ferry that go to Cheung Chau, whose location is shown by the red pin on the map: the regular ferry takes about 1 hour and the fast ferry takes about 40 minutes.  There are numerous ferry departures throughout the day, with typically two departures each hour, one fast ferry and one regular ferry.  Cheung Chau Island is southwest of Hong Kong Island and southeast of Lantau Island.

image of overview map of Hong Kong, showing the location of Cheung Chau Island

Overview map of Hong Kong, showing the location of Cheung Chau Island

The day of our excursion was a Saturday, and the family daughters had a few regular activities in the morning.  So we converged at the pier in busy-Hong-Kong-family style – coming from different locations/directions.  There is an elevated pedestrian walkway from the Central MTR station to the piers.  From the walkway there is a great view of the Hong Kong Observation Wheel, which is a 60-meter ferris wheel with spectacular views of Victoria Harbor and the city areas on either side; it opened in late 2014.  There are also numerous signs advising pedestrians that stopping is prohibited – but I stopped anyway, briefly, for a picture, making sure not to impede the busy pedestrian traffic.

image of Hong Kong Observation Wheel

Hong Kong Observation Wheel

My Hong Kong daughter and I, first to arrive at the pier, bought lunches for everyone; this involved stops at three fast food outlets for five total meals.  Lunches in hand, we all gathered at the pier just in time for a fast ferry departure.  After the rush to gather and board the ferry, it was good to have time to catch our breath, eat lunch, and anticipate the afternoon’s adventures while enjoying the 15-mile ride.  The day was partly-to-mostly cloudy, and spray created some droplets on the windows through which I took pictures.  This view shows the north shoreline of Hong Kong Island, with a container ship in the foreground and Victoria Peak in the background.

image of Victoria Harbor, with Victoria Peak in the background

Victoria Harbor, with Victoria Peak in the background

On Cheung Chau Island the harbor is on the west side, as shown in this map.  The island is about 2 miles long and 1.5 miles wide.  The narrow central area is the population center, with about 22,000 residents.  The shape of the island gives rise to the nickname “dumbbell island.”  This map shows my incomplete GPS track; I apparently turned the unit off during a stop and then forgot to turn it back on.  We probably walked – or rather strolled – perhaps 2 1/2 miles, with almost no elevation gain.

image of map of Cheung Chau Island

Map of Cheung Chau Island

The streets are very narrow; here is an example, a couple of blocks from the waterfront, which we reached after some initial explorations.  The primary transportation modes on Cheung Chau are walking and bicycles; the latter can be rented.  There are no cars.  Emergency vehicles, such as police, fire, and ambulance, are all specially designed mini-vehicles.

image of typical Cheung Chau street

Typical Cheung Chau street

From the pier we turned left and walked roughly north along a waterfront promenade, where there were numerous cafes on the inland side and various food stalls and stands seemingly everywhere.  Almost immediately I noticed a boy enjoying what looked like a frozen slice of watermelon on a stick.  These icy treats seemed quite popular and were apparently refreshing even on a day that was cool enough that many people were wearing hoodies.  Note that the boy has, around his neck, what appears to be an ID pouch.   The daughters in my local family carried similar ID pouches, containing the electronic key card to enter their apartment complex and their octopus card, a stored-value card used on virtually all public transportation in Hong Kong.

image of icy watermelon snack – refreshing even in hoodie weather!

Icy watermelon snack – refreshing even in hoodie weather!

The many food stalls carried a variety of fresh items to take home and prepare.  There were numerous fish stalls, like the one shown here on the left.  Other stalls had attractively arranged displays of fresh vegetables and fruits.  The fruit pictured on the right is dragon fruit, or pitahaya (Hylocereus sp), which is in the cactus family.

image of food stalls with fresh items from fish to fruits

Food stalls had fresh items from fish to fruits

One stall had baskets of a special type of sun-dried tangerine peel; I think it is called chenpi.  It is used as a seasoning in Chinese cooking as well as in traditional medicine.  The color of the rinds ranged from orange to green, and I thought the shapes were visually interesting.

image of sun-dried tangerine peels

Sun-dried tangerine peels

The Cheung Chau harbor was full of small, colorful boats.  The hills in the background of this picture are in South Lantau Country Park, less than 2 miles away at the southeastern tip of Lantau Island.

image of boats in Cheung Chau’s harbor

Boats in Cheung Chau’s harbor

After walking about 0.2 mile we turned right on a side street that led directly to a playground area with a temple behind it, on a small rise.  It is Yuk Hui Temple, or Pak Tai Temple, which is a taoist temple.  Pak Tai is a Taoist sea god.  The temple is host to an annual event called the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, which begins on the eighth day of the fourth month in the lunar calendar, generally in May, and lasts seven days.  This is apparently a huge event, with as many visitors as the ferry schedule and on-island b&b’s can accommodate.  There are several lion statues and other artifacts of interest, including a pair of colorfully painted life-sized statues, I presume wooden.  One depicts To Dei Kung, Earth God, and the other depicts Moon Goon, Door Official.

image of painted statue at Pak Tai Temple

Painted statue at Pak Tai Temple

In a small adjacent outdoor courtyard there was an ornamental tree with distinctive leaves and beautiful yellow blossoms.  I think it is called sunshine tree (Cassia surattensis, or Senna surattensis).  The dangling seed pods announce that this tree is in the Fabaceae, or legume, family.  It is most likely native to the Surat region of India, and it is an imported ornamental species in Hong Kong.

image of sunshine tree at Pak Tai Temple

Sunshine tree at Pak Tai Temple

Sidebar: Associated with the playground was a public toilet facility.  During my weeklong visit to Hong Kong I noticed that there were quite a few public toilets, for example at barbeque (picnic) areas in the country parks.  This facility had 4 or 5 stalls in the women’s section: two traditional style (you need to squat to use them) and the rest western style.  It was my first exposure to traditional Chinese toilets, though I would later find more at country parks – without the western alternative!

After enjoying the temple we walked south one block inland from the promenade, stopping at a couple of shops to browse local crafts and other items and make a few souvenir purchases.  Just past the pier area we turned east and walked along a relatively main street; I did not notice street-naming signs but I think it was Tung Wan Rd.  We passed a small garden surrounded by a chain-link fence that was festooned with love locks, apparently an attraction associated with a b&b.  I went inside to look around and found a small display where visitors could purchase – and then decorate – heart shapes or locks.  The remaining “walls” were pretty much covered with hearts and locks, and other visitors posed for pictures.

image of love locks and a rainbow heart

Love locks and a rainbow heart

Continuing up the main street, which led to the main beach, it seemed that there were non-stop food stalls with tempting snacks, both savory and sweet.  We shared several sticks of fish balls and other sticks of garlic tofu, and learned that a particular special bun shop was either closed or was out of buns for the day.  The girls shared – and showed off for me – Thai ice cream rolls and an elaborate spiral potato chip.  One of the interesting aspects of these small food stalls was watching the owner prepare the snack.

image of snacks: Thai ice cream rolls and a spiral potato chip

Snacks: Thai ice cream rolls and a spiral potato chip

Next we arrived at Tung Wan (East Bay) Beach, named because it is on the east side of Cheung Chau and in a bay (see the map, above).  The beach is along the narrowest part of the island.  The day was too chilly to go into the water, but the girls had been looking forward to some play time on the pretty, sandy beach.  In this picture the area between the booms is a designated swimming area, though there was no seasonal lifeguard on duty.  A building next to the swimming area houses changing areas, showers, and public toilets.  On a warmer and sunnier day this beach would be both beautiful and crowded.

image of Tung Wan Beach

Tung Wan Beach

At the north end of the beach I noticed a few people windsurfing and a couple of others kiteboarding.  My impression was that everyone who was in the water was wearing a wet suit, indicating chilly water.  The windsurf sails and the kites were pretty and colorful.

image of windsurfing at Tung Wan Beach

Windsurfing at Tung Wan Beach

After sitting at the promenade edge of the beach and people-watching, I decided to take a walk in the sand and go over to the water’s edge, where I wanted to pose with my hand in the waters of the South China Sea.  I felt like I was connecting the dots with two earlier occasions of dipping my hand in the water: on the first occasion I was at the (south)western edge of San Francisco Bay at the beginning of a multi-day trek across the Peninsula with a group of friends; and on the second occasion I was finishing the trek at the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean.  This time I was essentially at the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, some 7000 miles away.

image of dipping my hand in the water of the South China Sea at Tung Wan Beach

Dipping my hand in the water of the South China Sea at Tung Wan Beach

After relaxing and watching the girls make sand walls and see them wash away in waves, we decided to see if we could find an ancient rock carving that had been noted on a directional sign.  We walked a short distance past the south end of the beach and eventually found the short flight of steps that leads to the exhibit, a declared monument designated by the Antiquities Authority.  As can be seen in the picture, there is a small open roof over the rock face where the carvings are located.  We noted at least three rocks with carvings.  The age of the carvings is not known, though it is speculated that they could be 3000 years old.  They were discovered by a geologist in 1970.

image of ancient rock carving on Cheung Chau

Ancient rock carving on Cheung Chau

As we walked back to Tung Wan Beach I noticed a small shorebird a short distance away.  I believe it is a long-billed plover (Charadrius placidus).  The long-billed plover is native to East Asia, breeding in the north and wintering farther south, including in Hong Kong.  The picture is a bit grainy, as I needed to zoom in significantly.

image of long-billed plover at Tung Wan Beach

Long-billed plover at Tung Wan Beach

There was also a pair of Eurasian tree sparrows (Passer montanus) at the edge of the sand.  The current range of the Eurasian tree sparrow includes most of temperate Eurasia and Southeast Asia.  The American tree sparrow looks somewhat similar but is not closely related.  The key characteristics, such as the rufous crown, white cheeks, and black throat and ear patches, are clear in the picture, though once again I had to zoom in significantly.

image of Eurasian tree sparrow

Eurasian tree sparrow

When we reached Tung Wan Rd we retraced our steps back toward the pier area, again passing the many food stalls.  At a small plaza area there was a gathering of about a dozen dog owners with their pets.  I’m not a dog expert, but they all looked to me to be golden retrievers.  It seemed to be a social event, with lots of posing for pictures.

image of dog (golden retriever?) gathering on Cheung Chau

Dog (golden retriever?) gathering on Cheung Chau

Once we reached the pier we simply boarded the next ferry bound for Central; this time it was a regular ferry.  Once we were in the main traffic lane, a hover ferry passed us, presumably on its way to Macau.  The edge of Lantau Island is in the background.

image of hover ferry, possibly bound for Macau

Hover ferry, possibly bound for Macau

As it turned out, the timing for the return trip was perfect for enjoying the sunset.  I spent much of the trip at the stern of the ferry on the deck outside the main passenger compartment, enjoying the views and snapping pictures.

image of sunset viewed from the Cheung Chau ferry

Sunset viewed from the Cheung Chau ferry

By the time the ferry approached the pier at Central, sunset was complete and the city lights had come on.  This view across busy Victoria Harbor shows the south edge of Kowloon.  The tall building is the International Commerce Centre, which is 1588 feet tall and is the tallest building in Hong Kong; it was completed in 2010.

image of Kowloon across Victoria Harbor after sunset

Kowloon across Victoria Harbor after sunset

From the ferry pier at Central we walked back along the elevated pedestrian walkway, with a night-time view of the Hong Kong Observation Wheel, to the MTR station.  From there it took us most of an hour to arrive at the apartment: a typical travel time to get across the city.

It had been a lovely and interesting day visiting Cheung Chau Island.  The next day I was planning a modest hike with part of my Hong Kong family on a popular hiking trail.

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Hong Kong’s MacLehose Trail – section 6

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The hike I had tentatively identified for my first hiking day in Hong Kong was section 6 of the MacLehose Trail.  This is the shortest of the 10 sections on the 100 km long trail: just 4.6 km, or 2.9 mi.  In addition, the book I used as a planning resource, as well as the web site noted above, rated this section as an easy walk.  Since I was recovering from several injuries to my left foot and was rather limited in my hiking capabilities, this seemed like an ideal section to begin my adventure.

In addition to the basic hike I would be taking the MTR and a local green mini-bus at each end of the hike, and I was expecting a 0.75-mile walk at the end of the hike to reach the nearest mini-bus stop.  As it turned out I had some navigational issues finding my way to the bus stop that added about 1.5 miles to my overall hike.  I also think I missed a turnoff midway through the section and consequently hiked a section of trail that I was not trying to hike, while skipping part of section 6.  These unplanned events only added to my sense of adventure, however, and the hike was an excellent introduction to the MacLehose Trail and hiking in general in Hong Kong.

I was treated to interesting views of the New Territories countryside, including peaks and two reservoirs, as well as macaques and a few new wildflowers.  Also, the relatively close juxtaposition of country parks and population centers filled with apartment towers was striking.

Section 6 of the MacLehose Trail passes through Kam Shan Country Park.  The English name for Kam Shan is Golden Hill.  The area also has an informal name of Monkey Hill, since there is a notable community of rhesus macaques; they famously hang out near the trailhead looking for handouts.  The trailhead is on Tai Po Road, just across from Lion Rock Country Park, where section 5 ends.  I spent a few minutes walking around the trailhead area, since I wanted to make sure I knew – for a future hike – where section 5 came in and section 6 left the immediate area.  Signage pointed to the Eagle’s Nest Nature Trail in Lion Rock Country Park – one of numerous other trails in the country parks.

Once I familiarized myself with the trailhead area I walked north along Tai Po Rd for a very short distance, turning left to follow Golden Hill Rd: yes, the trail follows a paved park road, as it does in other places as well.  As soon as I turned on Golden Hill Rd and passed what looked like some maintenance equipment I found myself almost suddenly enjoying a view that confirmed I was in one of Hong Kong’s many country parks.  Looking directly ahead it was amazing to realize that I had just left a busy road not far from a city area.

picture of Kam Shan Country Park

Kam Shan Country Park

An overview of my route is shown in the GPS track.  Since my GPS software only has US maps, I have displayed the route in Google Earth.  The beginning of the track is at the south end, and the end of the track is partly hidden under the “active log” label.  This view vividly shows how close the trail is to densely populated areas.

GPS track

GPS track

The total length of my hike was 5.7 miles, including over 2 miles from the section 6 end point to the nearest bus stop.  The total elevation gain was just under 1200 feet, with nearly 1300 feet of loss.  The average grade was about 8%, which is reasonable.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

It is also notable that both ends of this section are nearly coincident with highway tunnels that pass through the hills.  On the GPS track look for the wide yellow numbered routes, which are major highways.  Near the bottom of the track a highway disappears underground and reappears to the northeast in a small section labeled 8, then disappears again and reappears farther to the northeast.  Near the top of the track route 9 goes underground, reappears only briefly, and then reappears farther east.  When I finally reached the bus stop at the end of my hike, I think the bus traveled on route 9 to get to a populated area that had an MTR station.

After a short distance the MacLehose Trail, continuing to follow Golden Hill Rd, which is a country park road, passes between two areas that barely show as dark blue on the map.  They are reservoirs.  The one on the right is Kowloon Reservoir, as shown here with more hills in the background.  I think the main hill is Golden Hill, which has a communications station at its summit.

picture of Kowloon Reservoir

Kowloon Reservoir

Along the side of the road I saw my first common roadside flower, an unidentified yellow composite.  In the US my wildflower colleagues grumble about UYC’s, unidentified yellow composites, and I had already found my first one within a half mile of the start of my hike!

picture of yellow composite roadside flower

Yellow composite roadside flower

Golden Hill Road follows very close to the edge of the reservoir, crossing what appears to be a dam, with a waist-high cement wall or railing on either side of the pavement.  The road is barely wide enough for one vehicle to pass – it’s a two-way road! – and there is no sidewalk.  Sure enough, when I got out in the middle of the dam with no place to go to get out of the way, a small truck came from the other side.  Given the circumstances of my foot injury (a small truck had driven across my feet), I was suddenly nervous about how this truck would safely pass me.  I was standing on the small curb next to the railing, and as the truck very slowly approached I squeezed up against the railing and got as skinny as I could.  I think the mirror missed me by about an inch, and it was clear that the driver, who was within arm’s reach, was being as careful as possible not to brush against me.  I literally didn’t know where else to go, and there was sufficiently frequent traffic that if I’d tried to retreat to the beginning of the dam to wait, I would have been there quite a while.  I think I held my breath as the rest of the truck’s body passed me without incident.

picture of narrow road across a dam at Kowloon Reservoir

Narrow road across a dam at Kowloon Reservoir

Just as the trail makes a small jog to the northeast, I had a nice view to the east of what I think is Beacon Hill, with Lion Rock peeking out at the left from behind.  Beacon Hill and Lion Rock are only a few miles away.

picture of view of Beacon Hill and Lion Rock

View of Beacon Hill and Lion Rock

Just past the end of the dam the Kam Shan Tree Walk leads off to the left, and a bit farther the Kam Shan Family Walk leads off to the right.  I would see other tree walks and family walks in other country parks during my hikes.  Nearly a mile past the dam I passed a few more rhesus macacques (Macaca mulatta) along the side of the road.  This one appears to be a youngster.

picture of young rhesus macaque in the Monkey Hill area (Kam Shan Country Park)

Young rhesus macaque in the Monkey Hill area (Kam Shan Country Park)

A little farther I passed a small landslide, which I presumed to be a remnant of Typhoon Mangkhut, which had passed through Hong Kong in mid-September.  I was pleasantly surprised at how little typhoon damage I encountered, since Mangkhut was equivalent to a category 5 hurricane when it made landfall.

Near the landslide I noticed a plant with distinctive spikes each containing a single ring of blossoms.  It reminded me of a few types of vervain I have seen in California and/or Wisconsin.  Following a bit of research I have tentatively identified it as Jamaica vervain (Stachytarpheta jamaicensus), which is also called long spike shrub.  It is native throughout the Caribbean, so I presume it has been introduced in Hong Kong.

picture of Jamaica vervain

Jamaica vervain

Shortly after I reached the top of the first hill, just 1.7 miles into my hike and barely midway through section 6, navigation became confusing.  I now believe I inadvertently left the MacLehose Trail.  First I passed a MacLehose Trail sign, M120; note that the numbered signs are about 500 meters, or 0.3 mile, apart.  Perhaps 200 meters later I passed a Wilson Trail sign, W066.  The turn-by-turn hiking directions I was following indicated that I should follow the Wilson Trail for almost a mile.  Just before the Wilson trail marker I passed some colorful banners that indicated a checkpoint for the Oxfam trailwalker event, which I later learned was to take place one week after my hike.  This endurance event follows the MacLehose Trail for the full 100 km distance and requires all members of 4-person teams to enter each checkpoint together.

picture of Oxfam trailwalker checkpoint

Oxfam trailwalker checkpoint

The checkpoint was at a junction with a road leading to the Golden Hill communications station, which I’d observed earlier across Kowloon Reservoir.  At this junction Golden Hill Rd curves to the left and the Wilson Trail continues essentially straight up a hillside on some steps.  Since I thought I was supposed to follow the Wilson Trail, I continued up the steps.  But I now think that the MacLehose Trail continues to follow Golden Hill Rd.  In any case, by following the Wilson Trail I did eventually re-encounter the MacLehose Trail near the end of section 6, as described below, so everything worked out ok.

Now following the Wilson Trail, I climbed about 200 feet, mostly on constructed stone steps.  This steep section is clear on the elevation profile.  The grade was over 26%, but the steps actually made it fairly straightforward.  Along the way I saw the first of what would be many green shrubs with distinctive, pretty, white flowers with large bundles of yellow anthers.  It is called Hong Kong gordonia (Polyspora axillaris), and it is common throughout Hong Kong and all of south China including Hainan and Taiwan.  The Chinese name means big-head tea, and another English name is fried egg plant.  Apparently it is well-suited to growing on hillsides, where it remains well-rooted through rain and wind storms.  Another characteristic is that the blossoms fall off intact, before they wither.  In fact, I noticed numerous intact blossoms on the trail throughout my hikes – of course, once off the shrub they do wither.

picture of Hong Kong gordonia

Hong Kong gordonia

During the climb I felt like I was hiking through a tunnel of vegetation, much of it Hong Kong gordonia.  To my left (west) I could see that the tunnel “wall” was barely one or two plants wide, due mainly to the steep slope.  I could see through the branches that, not far away, there was a city area with a forest of apartment towers.  An after-the-fact check in Google Maps shows that the nearest apartment towers, in the districts of Shek Yam and Shek Yei, were only about 0.5 mile from the trail!

After topping out at about 1100 feet elevation, the Wilson Trail begins an almost 500-foot descent, much of which is accomplished by steps.  Near the top, at about 1000 feet elevation, I stopped for a short break to have something to eat and to enjoy the wonderful views to the north.  This is part of a panorama view, with Tai Mo Shan near the left and a distinctive pointy peak at the right.  I’m not sure if the pointy peak is Sharp Peak – it looks similar, but Sharp Peak is nearly 15 miles away and I’m not sure that the visibility was really good enough to see that far.  While this kind of view may be typical of country parks in Hong Kong, it is very different from the usual city views.

picture of panorama view north from near the high point of the hike

Panorama view north from near the high point of the hike

This is a closer view of Tai Mo Shan (English translation: big hat mountain), the highest point in all of Hong Kong.  I had learned that section 8 of the MacLehose Trail crosses Tai Mo Shan nearly at the summit, and had added that hike to my itinerary for the week, hoping for a day as clear as this one.  The structures on top are part of a Hong Kong Observatory weather radar station.

picture of Tai Mo Shan, highest peak in Hong Kong

Tai Mo Shan, highest peak in Hong Kong

I continued hiking downhill; about a mile after the highest point the trail approaches the edge of Jubilee Reservoir and levels out.  In this area I found some pretty flowers that I have not yet identified.  The blossoms are reminiscent of penstemon, though this genus is not native to Hong Kong; perhaps the flower is in the figwort family.

picture of unidentified flower similar to penstemon

Unidentified flower similar to penstemon

In the same area I was aware of hearing vehicle traffic, and suddenly there was a brief view to my right through the vegetation of a busy, multi-lane highway emerging from a tunnel to cross a narrow valley and then re-entering a second tunnel.  This is the route 9 tunnel shown in the GPS track image.

picture of highway tunnel with a short above-ground section between two hills

Highway tunnel with a short above-ground section between two hills

I soon approached the dam for the Jubilee Reservoir, and there was a lovely view across the reservoir with Tai Mo Shan again in the background.  The name Jubilee apparently refers to the 1935 silver jubilee celebration for King George V of the United Kingdom.  The Chinese name, Shing Mun, means fortified gate.

picture of Shing Mun, or Jubilee, Reservoir with Tai Mo Shan in the background

Shing Mun, or Jubilee, Reservoir with Tai Mo Shan in the background

From the same location I looked to the east and had a nice profile view of Lion Rock.

picture of Lion Rock viewed from Jubilee Reservoir

Lion Rock viewed from Jubilee Reservoir

At the dam the navigation was again a bit confusing, as there was signage for both the Wilson Trail, which I had been following for nearly a mile and a half, and the MacLehose Trail.  The MacLehose Trail signage indicated section 7, which I was not supposed to be hiking at that moment; it turned out that I was going toward the section 6/7 trailhead.  Not surprisingly, the trail configuration and my navigation issues became much clearer when I studied them in detail – after I returned to the US!

The dam has some interesting structures associated with it, as shown here.  Since section 7 of the MacLehose Trail goes across the dam, I hope to revisit this area in a future trip to Hong Kong.

picture of Jubilee dam structures

Jubilee dam structures

Once I was able to follow MacLehose Trail signage I easily found the barbecue area where the end of section 6 is located.  This barbecue area is associated with Shing Mun Country Park, through which section 7 passes.  Here is wooden arch sign announcing MacLehose Trail section 6.  The cement steps are typical of many sections of steps along the trail.

picture of MacLehose Trail section 6 end

MacLehose Trail section 6 end

I was glad that I’d found the end of section 6, though it was obvious that I’d approached it from the “wrong” direction; on the other hand, when you are off-trail and don’t quite realize it, any path that gets you to your destination is a good direction!  I didn’t know yet that another adventure was about to start: finding my way to the bus stop and then to the MTR.  Because I was aware that my navigation was a bit mixed up, though, I asked a couple of different people how to get to the MTR.  A small car park and a road served the barbecue area, though not public transportation.

For some reason I thought I was supposed to be following a trail at this point (I was mistaken), so I ignored the directions to follow the road and instead headed down a trail.  From the barbecue area itself I could see apartment towers not very far away and figured that, if I could just get to the city area, I could find transportation to an MTR station.  As it turns out, this “logic” cost me about 1.5 extra miles of hiking and at least an hour.

While hiking down the trail I first had to negotiate a down tree that had not been fully cleared from the path, presumably after the typhoon.  Then I found myself going past several small, run-down houses and garden plots, as well as some signage referring to squatters in the area.  I encountered an older couple, who I asked about directions to the MTR; I was amazed, actually, that the man was able to reply briefly in English by waving down the path and saying “go up, not down” – not that I could find any alternatives to the path I was on.  I passed a small temple, and periodically verified on my GPS unit (which didn’t have any maps) that I was going south rather than west.  About 30 minutes after leaving the barbecue area I reached the outskirts of the apartment towers, after descending about 400 feet.

picture of apartment towers during my trek to the bus stop

Apartment towers during my trek to the bus stop

I was still in a park area, but unfortunately there was a fence between the park and the apartment towers, and I couldn’t find a way through.  The only other path besides the one I’d come down was another that – of course – climbed, so up I went, this time roughly northwest.  Fortunately, less than 15 minutes later I suddenly encountered a cluster of small houses, each with a car parked in front, and a paved road leading downhill.  Once I’d found a paved road I was sure I could make my way to busier streets and, if needed, a taxi.  So I followed the road.  I passed a two-man crew of maintenance workers and asked them about the MTR; one of them was able to tell me to go left just down the road, so I did.  Before long I found myself at a busy street with apartment towers and a small commercial area on the other side of the street.  I crossed the street, found a street sign with its name, and consulted my prepared instructions.  Miraculously, I’d found the place where I was supposed to catch a green mini-bus to the MTR!

A few minutes later a green mini-bus with a slightly different number pulled up to the stop and I inquired of the driver whether he went to the MTR.  All I had to do was ask “MTR?” and he understood what I wanted, and nodded.  It turned out that the bus went to a different station than the one in my directions, but that really didn’t matter; once I got to any MTR station I could find my way home easily.  It’s hard to describe how relieved I was to be on my way to the MTR.  I even managed to turn my GPS back on and record most of the bus ride, since I was curious what the route would be.  I’m pretty sure the mini-bus traveled on route 9 including the two tunnels I described above.  The driver indicated to me when he was at the stop nearest the MTR station, so I followed other departing bus passengers.  But I had to ask someone again where the actual MTR station was, since it turned out to be at the back end of a shopping mall – a very typical configuration, as I was to learn after I got home and described my adventure to my local family.

My first Hong Kong hike had included more adventures than I was expecting, perhaps, but I considered it a significant success to have found my way to, along, and from the MacLehose Trail.  It was certainly a good learning experience.  The next day, which was Saturday, I was looking forward to an excursion with my local family.

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Hiking trip to Hong Kong – overview

The inspiration for a hiking trip to Hong Kong began around December, 2015, when I read an article that listed the MacLehose Trail as one of 20 trails cited by globally experienced hikers as dream hikes.  I had visited Hong Kong several times previously, both for work and for pleasure, so I felt some general familiarity with the area, though I’d never done any serious hiking.  I was immediately captivated by the idea of trying to hike this 100 km (62 mile) long trail.  In addition, a special family that I refer to as my Hong Kong family had been living there for a number of years, and a hiking trip would provide the perfect opportunity for a nice long visit with them.

For various reasons the trip was postponed twice, and I resolved to do it in early November of 2018, during a relatively dry and cool time of the year.  After the arrangements had been made I had a freak accident that forced me to severely curtail my hiking plans — but I was determined to go.  I ended up staying 1 week instead of 2 and hiking about 6 miles a day instead of more like twice that much.  It was a wonderful trip!  This post is an overview of visiting and hiking in Hong Kong.  Subsequent posts will describe each day’s adventures.

Although I’d been able to get around the city areas on my own in previous trips – without reading or speaking a word of Cantonese – I was expecting to spend time in more rural areas in the New Territories, where fewer people would speak English.  And I wasn’t sure how clear the way-finding signage would be.  So I decided to prepare fairly extensively for my hikes, including organizing detailed maps as well as public transportation directions to and from various trail heads.

Early in my planning process I learned that there are four long-distance trails in Hong Kong, each subdivided into sections:

  • MacLehose Trail: 100 km, crossing the New Territories from Sai Kung in the east to Tuen Mun in the west (10 sections)
  • Hong Kong Trail: 50 km, crossing Hong Kong Island from Victoria Peak in the west to Big Wave Bay in the east (8 sections)
  • Wilson Trail: 78 km, beginning in Stanley at the south end of Hong Kong Island and ending in Nam Chung, virtually within sight of the Chinese border in Shenzhen (10 sections)
  • Lantau Trail: 70 km, forming a loop that winds across Lantau Island (12 sections)

All of the trails pass through numerous country parks, which are Hong Kong versions of the various parks and open spaces I’m familiar with in the United States and other countries.

This map shows the overall configuration of Hong Kong.  The purple areas on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon are the primary city areas and are where most visitors concentrate.  I’m pretty sure that the green areas are country parks; all of the trails except the Wilson Trail pass almost exclusively through country parks.  Lantau Island is the largest of some 260 islands over 500 square meters in size.

photo of map of Hong Kong

Map of Hong Kong

An important reference for my planning was a book entitled The Serious Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong, by Pete Spurrier.  In addition I used Google Maps to generate paper maps of all of the sections of the MacLehose Trail, as well as detailed directions to and from the trail heads, which are generally at the end points of sections.  Another important resource was downloadable maps that I could access offline on my iPhone through an app called Gaia GPS.  Before I left home I downloaded maps that covered Hong Kong Island and the New Territories, and I entered waypoints corresponding to all of the section end points and other access points I thought I might need, for both the MacLehose Trail and the Hong Kong Trail.  After my accident I knew I wouldn’t be able to hike most of the MacLehose Trail, but I (correctly) thought I could manage parts of the Hong Kong Trail.

I began my trip with great excitement.  A few days prior, I’d browsed for travel items that might be useful.  The most important find was an inflatable foot rest, which allowed me to rest my feet on a convenient surface rather than dangling off the seat and cutting off circulation to my feet; I also have learned to wear compression stockings for long plane trips to minimize foot swelling.  The flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong was about 15 hours, arriving in the evening, so I planned to take a nap between the meal services.  Here I’m modeling the sleep mask I also found while doing my pre-trip shopping.  It says “will wake for food” – and I really did mean it!

photo of a useful – and fun – sleep mask

A useful – and fun – sleep mask

After arriving I made my way from the airport to my Hong Kong family’s flat, which is located in one of the many apartment towers in the relatively new city of Tseung Kwan O, in the southeast part of the New Territories.  I think the overall design of the apartment tower communities is interesting.  Such a community typically consists of several towers, each perhaps 50 floors with something like 8 flats per floor. Many have fancy-sounding English names, e.g. with Park or Estate in the name.  To reach the towers you first enter from ground level or through an extensive shopping mall and go up a few levels from ground level.  An electronic key card provides access to the so-called podium level.  The podium is a pretty area with pools, landscaping, and shared facilities such as a community room and classrooms.  The towers are built upon the podium level.  When you reach the appropriate tower there is another entrance and key card entry to access the elevators to the apartment levels.

photo of podium area for a multi-tower apartment complex

Podium area for a multi-tower apartment complex

Apartments in Hong Kong are famously tiny by US standards.  My family’s flat has a living area, kitchen, three bedrooms, and two bathrooms; having a second bathroom is kind of a luxury.  The family includes two adults, two children, and a full-time helper.  There is an entire subculture related to the helpers, many of whom are from other countries such as Indonesia or the Philippines and are helping to support their own families by living and working in Hong Kong.

I was privileged to share one of the bedrooms with the older daughter; the younger daughter temporarily slept on a mattress in her parents’ room.  The bedroom was not more than 8 feet by 8 feet, including a wall of enclosed cabinets just to the right of this view.  I got to sleep in the lower bunk and was overjoyed to have a couple of extra pillows available so that I could elevate my feet at night.  I even had plenty of room to stow my luggage, between a small floor area under the desk at the left and the window seat.  It was really quite a nice arrangement.

photo of bedroom in a Hong Kong apartment

Bedroom in a Hong Kong apartment

This is a view from one of the windows, either in the bedroom or the living area (I forget which).  Between the nearby building towers was a partial view of Victoria Harbor.  I’m not sure what commercial activity is taking place in the foreground, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets developed into more towers within a few years, since the Tseung Kwan O area is developing rapidly.

photo of view from my Hong Kong home base

View from my Hong Kong home base

On the evening of my first full day the daughters had a supervised athletic activity at a nearby neighborhood sports complex.  I found it to be quite interesting to observe a fairly high level of activity at roughly 8:00 pm.  There were numerous people using the track, though only a few are in the picture.  The area inside the track is typically used for track-related activities such as javelin.    The daughters’ group was supervised by one or more adults, and the children were all supposed to wear a certain outfit, which facilitated the supervision.  On this occasion a group of perhaps a few dozen wheelchair users gathered for a combination athletic and social event.  Numerous apartment towers are nearby, presumably representing the neighborhood served by the facility.  The picture is blurry, as I was completely unprepared for what I would see and had to hand-hold my camera using about 1/8 second exposure.

photo of neighborhood sports facility

Neighborhood sports facility

As a last vignette of daily life in Hong Kong, this is a semi-posed picture of my family on the MTR (subway) at the end of an all-day excursion.  I found Hong Kong residents to be very adept at doing something on their smart phones while keeping track of the stops so that they would change trains or exit at the correct station.

photo of Hong Kong MTR passengers typically busy on their phones

Hong Kong MTR passengers typically busy on their phones

The MTR was my primary mode of transportation.  Nearly a dozen lines criss-cross Hong Kong Island and the mainland, connecting city areas and other communities.  The lines are color-coded, and in general I found it easiest to remember the colors rather than the Chinese names.  Directions to many locations begin with “take the MTR to [such-and-such] station,” and it was very straightforward to figure that out on my own.  Each car has at least two maps like this one; in this case the train was for the purple line, with a small green arrow showing the current leg and direction and red dots for the remaining stations.  At this moment the train was approaching a transfer station for the green line, and the newly accessible stations were indicated by simultaneously blinking white dots.  Note that each station name is shown in both Chinese and English.  Advisory signs are bilingual, and I think announcements were made in Cantonese and Mandarin as well as English.

photo of route map in an MTR car

Route map in an MTR car

My Hong Kong daughters helpfully pointed out that each MTR station has a specific color associated with it, unrelated to the color of the MTR line.  So even if you weren’t paying attention to the announcements or the lighted route map, you could use the color of the station to help you know where to get off the train, or perhaps to remind you when your station was the next one.  My home station was Tseung Kwan O, which was a red station.  I was pleasantly surprised to note that, in many cases, the door would open directly facing a post with the station name in both Chinese and English.  In addition, the nearby wall included the Chinese station name written in a stylized script.  I was very glad that I didn’t need to rely on the script names to identify a station, however!

photo of MTR station signs: each station is a specific color unrelated to the color of the MTR line

MTR station signs: each station is a specific color unrelated to the color of the MTR line

At each station platform there was a sign announcing the next few trains.  This was at the split in the purple line and was at my home station.  I was amazed to see that trains to one of the destinations were apparently on a 3-minute interval, while trains to the other destination were on a (slightly) longer interval.  During busy times of the day, even with a 3-minute interval each train would be very busy.  I do not know of any public transit system in the US with such a frequent schedule!

photo of example MTR schedule

Example MTR schedule

During my week-long visit I used several modes of public transportation, with the MTR being the first and primary mode.  On several occasions I used buses, which are often double-decker vehicles with a capacity of up to about 90 people including standing passengers.  On the Sunday of my visit, two family members and I decided to hike a very popular trail, and we found an impressive queue when we arrived at the terminus of the bus line.  I think we were able to get on the 5th bus, all of them double-deckers that loaded up fully before leaving the bus stop.  At least half of the passengers got off at the trail head for the same trail that we hiked.

photo of bus queue for a popular hiking trail, on Sunday morning

Bus queue for a popular hiking trail, on Sunday morning

On several occasions the trail head I was going to/from was served by smaller buses, often called green mini-buses, which are run by a centralized transit agency.  There are also red mini-buses, which are privately run.  One of the differences between the green and red mini-buses is related to the Octopus card, an easy-to-use electronic stored value card.  The Octopus card can now be used on the Airport Express, MTR, regular buses, green mini-buses, the Star Ferry, other local ferries, the Victoria Peak Tram, and increasingly at some restaurants and stores.  However, it is not accepted on the red mini-buses or for taxis.

Besides the Airport Express, MTR, and buses I used a ferry, a couple of green mini-buses, a couple of taxis, and the Victoria Peak Tram.  I took the latter downhill, since the queue was very long for the uphill trip; I rode a bus uphill instead.  Both trips were a bit like Mr Toad’s Wild Ride.  The uphill and downhill trams pass each other in the middle of the journey, shown here, the only place where there is a double track.

photo of Victoria Peak Tram

Victoria Peak Tram

I was pleasantly surprised at how good the signage is along the long-distance trails where I hiked.  At some of the trail heads there are very prominent signs, like this one at the end of Section 6 of the MacLehose Trail; the other side of the sign indicates the beginning of Section 7.  This picture also shows another characteristic of the trails: where the terrain is steep the trail usually goes straight up or down via cement or stone steps.  In the US and some other places trails tend to have switchbacks, so that the grade can be kept below about 10%.  With steps the grade can be steeper.

photo of MacLehose Trail sign and steps climbing the hill

MacLehose Trail sign and steps climbing the hill

I found that the long-distance trails are well-marked at trail junctions, so it’s fairly straightforward to follow the intended path (if you’re trying to follow, say, the MacLehose Trail).  In addition, along most of the length of the long-distance trails there are mileage marker signs roughly every 500 meters (about 0.3 mile).  So the Hong Kong Trail has markers up to #100, the MacLehose Trail has markers up to #200, etc. I hiked portions of the Hong Kong, MacLehose, and Wilson Trails and found markers on all three trails.  The KK labels are grid references; if you need to call for emergency assistance, the marker number and grid reference would determine your location.  Note that the human figures at the top of the signs are unique for each of the major trails.  Also, in some places there are wooden 4×4 posts with painted logos that correspond to the same human figures.

photo of trail distance posts for the Hong Kong, MacLehose, and Wilson Trails

Trail distance posts for the Hong Kong, MacLehose, and Wilson Trails

A characteristic of the trails that I’ve not encountered anywhere else is the close juxtaposition of the country trails and the city: it’s simply a characteristic of Hong Kong.  Here is an example: the trail passes through kind of a tunnel of vegetation, and on one side the “wall” of the tunnel is only a few meters thick.  Occasionally there is a break in the vegetation that’s big enough to show just how close an area of apartment towers is.  It’s also clear from this picture that many of the hillsides are pretty steep.  From the higher elevation vantage point of the country park there are often views of more distant hills, in a different country park.

photo of close juxtaposition of country trail and a densely populated city area

Close juxtaposition of country trail and a densely populated city area

There’s one other feature I’d like to mention; I imagine it to be related to the very high population density in Hong Kong, as well as the ratio of people to open space.  In at least two instances I found signed dog latrines along the side of the trail.  This one, which was not far from a trailhead in a busy city area, had a designated area where dogs were supposed to do their business.  (I wondered how dog owners were supposed to ensure compliance!)

photo of dog latrine along one of the trails

Dog latrine along one of the trails

About 5 weeks before my trip a super-typhoon named Mangkhut passed very close to Hong Kong.  It was the equivalent of a category 5 hurricane in the United States.  By the time the eye passed by, a T10 (highest level of typhoon warning) had been issued.  In the immediate aftermath, the public was advised to stay away from all of the country park trails, though there was a crowd-sourcing effort to document trail conditions.  Impressively, most of the sections of the major trails had been re-opened within a few weeks of the storm.  However, I encountered a few places where there was recent damage, presumably from Mangkhut.  Here is one example of damage at the beach at Big Wave Bay on Hong Kong Island.  In other places I noticed down trees next to the trail.  Overall, though, I was impressed at how little damage was evident, in light of the 150 mph winds and significant storm surge as the storm made landfall.

photo of typhoon damage at Big Wave Beach on Hong Kong Island

Typhoon damage at Big Wave Beach on Hong Kong Island

As I was preparing to return home, my Hong Kong family got me a souvenir mug with a short list of interesting places to hike.  I was pleased to note that in just a week I had experienced 3 of the 8: Dragon’s Back, MacLehose Trail, and Hong Kong Trail.

photo of mug showcasing interesting places to hike in Hong Kong

Mug showcasing interesting places to hike in Hong Kong

I only hiked portions of the MacLehose and Hong Kong Trails, so there are many adventures that I can look forward to experiencing in a future visit.  I will try to make it back sooner than another nearly three-year planning process!

Meanwhile, the next post will describe my first hike of this trip: Section 6 of the MacLehose Trail.

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Pacific Crest Trail from Lost Lakes to The Nipple (Section J)

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In multiple ways this was a short-and-sweet hike.  The total out-and-back distance was less than 4 miles and, even though almost half of the hike was kind of a throw-away (more about that later), the views were quite spectacular.

The intent of the hike was to fill in a short – barely 1 mile long – gap in my hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the Blue Lakes area several miles south of Carson Pass, in Alpine County and the El Dorado National Forest.  Although the Mokelumne Wilderness is nearby, this short section of the PCT is not within the designated wilderness area.

The gap was between a ridge on a shoulder of The Nipple, a prominent and obvious peak, and a spur road near the Lost Lakes.  The gap was created by the circumstances of previous hikes on either side.  Two years ago I hiked northbound, intending to turn around at the Lost Lakes spur road, but I was forced to turn around at the ridge on The Nipple by winds so strong that I could not reliably maintain my footing.  The day before this hike I hiked a 15-mile loop that included a southbound section on the PCT to the Lost Lakes spur road, and I was simply too tired to continue up to The Nipple, and back, to close the gap.  In the end I was glad I waited until the next day to do this hike, because the weather was perfect – i.e., there was essentially no wind on the ridge – and I was fresh and able to enjoy the hike and the views.

The GPS track shows an overview of the hike.  As for the previous day’s loop hike, I started and ended at the Evergreen Trailhead, denoted by the orange dot on the map, near the Upper Blue Lake Campground.  It was an out-and-back solo hike, with 0.8 mile on an access road and 1.1 mile on the PCT.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation profile shows that the grade for the entire hike was pretty consistent; if anything, the road was a little steeper than the PCT.  The overall gain and loss were 860 feet, so the average grade was 8.5%.  This is fine for the PCT but is pretty steep for an unpaved road.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The first and last 0.8 mile was along a steep, rocky road that was unnavigable by the vehicle I was using, so I had to hike up and then down the road.  This is what I mean by the term throw-away.  The road went through forest and there was really nothing interesting to see – but it was the access route to the PCT, at a spur road that goes from the “main” rocky road to the Lost Lakes.

The main, PCT, portion of the hike was 1.1 mile from the Lost Lakes spur road to the ridge on The Nipple where I’d turned around 2 years ago; I had my GPS data from that hike and I’d entered a way point in my GPS so that I would know exactly where I’d turned around.  I knew I would know when I reached the ridge!  Using the PCT data book as an official mileage reference, the PCT mileage was between mile 1071.8 and mile 1070.8, the latter estimated previously.

Once I reached the Lost Lakes spur road I made two quick right turns to hike on the PCT.  On the GPS track this is at the northernmost point and looks almost like a switchback.  The PCT passes close to the westernmost shoreline of Lost Lake West. I was being a bit single-minded about my hike, so I didn’t take even a short detour over to the lake shore to see the lake; instead I just paused at a view through the trees.

image of Lost Lake West

Lost Lake West

A short distance later, near where the PCT turns left, the trail emerges from the forest, and the rest of this hike was across open, treeless terrain.  This view is looking back just after the transition.  The elevation was only about 8750 feet, which seems low for tree line.

image of trail transition between forest and open slopes

Trail transition between forest and open slopes

In any case, about 0.2 mile later I had a nice view of Upper Blue Lake and a second lake.  I had presumed that the smaller lake was Lower Blue Lake, and when I examined the GPS coordinates of my photo location, the map, and the photos from my earlier hike from the south, I concluded that the small lake is indeed Lower Blue Lake.

image of Upper Blue Lake (right) and Lower Blue Lake (left)

Upper Blue Lake (right) and Lower Blue Lake (left)

As I continued to climb I periodically looked up ahead of me to note my progress.  This was one of my views of the top of The Nipple as the PCT ascends just southwest of, and downhill from, a minor ridge line.

image of a look up at The Nipple

A look up at The Nipple

From the same location I noticed a beautiful view of another ridge behind the north end of Upper Blue Lake.  I identified it as the ridge containing Deadwood Peak, less than 3 miles away.  I’d viewed Deadwood Peak on the previous day’s hike also, from much closer.

image of ridge including Deadwood Peak

Ridge including Deadwood Peak

Soon there was another great view of Upper Blue Lake.  I was interested to note several streams entering the lake along the far (west) side.  My friends who had walked around the lake two afternoons prior had remarked that there were several distinct gullies with wet crossings that they’d needed to negotiate in order to circumnavigate the lake.

image of Upper Blue Lake

Upper Blue Lake

When I’d almost reached the main ridge on the west side of The Nipple I had another nice view of the top, just after an airplane had emerged from behind the peak.  The relatively short length of the contrail suggests that the wind was strong at the elevation where the airplane was flying.

image of top of The Nipple with an airplane contrail

Top of The Nipple with an airplane contrail

When I got close to my previous turnaround point the area actually did look familiar.  In particular, there was a rock outcrop several feet tall with the PCT passing on the lee side of the outcrop, and I remember sitting down there, out of the wind, for several minutes while I made up my mind that I should turn back.  This time the wind was much more moderate, and I proceeded a short distance past the previous turnaround point to enjoy several views.

The first view was directly down at Upper Blue Lake, with Lower Blue Lake to the left and the Deadwood Peak ridge to the right.  I find that views like this one, where I feel like I’m on top of the world – even if the top of the hill is behind me – are quite inspiring.

image of view from The Nipple: Lower and Upper Blue Lakes and Deadwood Peak’s ridge (left to right)

View from The Nipple: Lower and Upper Blue Lakes and Deadwood Peak’s ridge (left to right)

Turning to my right and looking generally north, there was a similarly inspiring view of the Freel Peak cluster: Freel Peak, Job’s Sister, and Job’s Peak, all of which I summited in a single day several years ago.  I always am inspired when I can see these peaks, which are near the left side of the picture.  Hawkins Peak is at the right side of the picture.

image of Freel Peak, Job’s Sister, and Job’s Peak (left to right, at the left) along with Hawkins Peak (at the right)

Freel Peak, Job’s Sister, and Job’s Peak (left to right, at the left) along with Hawkins Peak (at the right)

Looking down-slope from the same location I could see more of the broad valley containing the West Fork Carson River and some damp, possibly marshy areas that I’d viewed from farther north the previous day.  The Freel Peak cluster is in the background.

image of view down-slope toward the West Fork Carson River

View down-slope toward the West Fork Carson River

Finally, turning farther to the right, along a sight line near the north slope of The Nipple, I could see a distinctive peak that I later identified as Markleeville Peak, about 3 miles away.

image of Markleeville Peak viewed from The Nipple

Markleeville Peak viewed from The Nipple

As I turned to begin my return hike, the view in front of me was striking, though difficult to depict in a single photograph.  The PCT descends, following just below the top of the minor ridge, with Upper Blue Lake on the left, the Deadwood Peak ridge directly ahead, some more peaks on the distant skyline, and Lost Lake East peeking out from behind the ridge on the right.

About 0.1 mile further down the trail is the best view of Lost Lake East.  It is pretty well hidden between higher peaks, and on the right (east) side there appears to be only a slight lip preventing the lake from overflowing into the canyon containing the West Fork Carson River.

image of Lost Lake East

Lost Lake East

About a half mile later I noticed an impressive high ridge directly in front of me as I negotiated some small wiggles in the PCT.  After studying a map in detail, I think it must be the mile-long ridge that includes The Sisters and Round Top.  The ridge is only about 3 miles away, and no other features in the area are high enough to be this ridge.  Note that, in the foreground, the PCT sweeps to the right and then to the left, descending the ridge on which I was hiking.

image of high ridge, probably with The Sisters and Round Top

High ridge, probably with The Sisters and Round Top

The rest of the return trip was uneventful, but I felt that I’d enjoyed quite a few marvelous views for such a short hike.  And I was grateful that the wind was relatively light up on The Nipple’s ridge.

After I reached my car I prepared for the 4-hour drive back to the Bay Area.  The first part of the drive, after passing all of the campgrounds along Upper and Lower Blue Lakes, was a 12-mile drive north on Blue Lakes Rd to CA-88 east of Carson Pass.  On the way there is an excellent view of The Nipple, rising about 1000 feet above the elevation of the road.

image of The Nipple viewed from Blue Lakes Rd

The Nipple viewed from Blue Lakes Rd

For some reason I enjoyed the fact that this would be my final view of The Nipple – until the next time I have the opportunity to hike in this beautiful area.

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Mokelumne Wilderness Loop (Pacific Crest Trail from Winnemucca Lake Trail to Lost Lakes)

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This was a truly beautiful hike, and in a way it did double duty.  First, it was a 15-mile group hike, a loop mostly in the Mokelumne Wilderness area of El Dorado National Forest near Carson Pass.  Second, about 1/3 of the hike was on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), so completing the hike facilitated filling in a gap in my PCT hikes.

The hike took place on the second day of a three-day series of hikes.  On the previous day I had hiked a short section of the PCT just north of Sonora Pass and had then driven the approximately 100 miles to the Carson Pass area.  The trailhead for the loop hike was near Upper Blue Lake Campground, which is south of CA-88 and can be reached via Blue Lakes Rd.  I met friends at the campground, where we car camped the night before the hike.  We had an excellent camp site, located only about 100 yards from the north shore of Upper Blue Lake (elevation 8135 feet).  After setting up camp we carried our camp chairs to the beach, where the late afternoon sun shone warmly.  I was a little slower getting organized, and by the time I walked over to the beach my friends had gone for a walk around the lake.  Our camp chairs, a couple of remnant tree stumps, the brilliant blue lake, distant mountains, and a nearly full moon combined to create an idyllic image.

picture of beach view at the north end of Upper Blue Lake

Beach view at the north end of Upper Blue Lake

Out of view to the left of the picture there is a fairly steep slope upward to a ridge that includes The Nipple, a distinctive peak we would see during the hike and where I would hike the following day.

In the morning we were joined by two other hikers and were ready to begin hiking by 9:00 am.  Although we had hoped to be able to drive about 2 1/2 miles from the campground to Forestdale Divide, we found that the road was not navigable by any of our vehicles.  So we used an alternative trailhead, Evergreen Trailhead, as the start and end points of the loop.  The entire loop is shown on the GPS track, with the orange dot denoting the Evergreen Trailhead.  We traversed the loop clockwise, passing several notable lakes: Fourth of July Lake, Round Top Lake, Winnemucca Lake, and finally Lost Lake West.  The loop is in Alpine County.

GPS track

GPS track

According to the PCT data book the PCT mileage covered was between mile 1077.5 at Winnemucca Lake Trail and mile 1071.8 at the Lost Lakes spur road, for a total of 5.7 miles.  My GPS mileage was slightly less.

The elevation profile shows two ways in which the hike was strenuous.  First, with two significant climbs the total elevation gain and loss were over 3200 feet.  Second, the average elevation was about 8600 feet – which is fine if you’re acclimated and a challenge if you’re not.  The average grade was a reasonable 8%, though the nearly 2000-foot climb to Round Top Lake was unrelenting.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The initial section of the hike was on the Evergreen Trail, which climbs nearly 350 feet, entering the Mokelumne Wilderness along the way, before dropping 1100 feet while passing along the Summit City Creek.  Along most of this section the trail passes through forest, at times rather open and at other times dense.  Here the trail enters the Mokelumne Wilderness.

picture of Evergreen Trail entering the Mokelumne Wilderness

Evergreen Trail entering the Mokelumne Wilderness

One of the openings in the forest revealed a pretty view of 9800-foot Deadwood Peak, about 2 miles away to the southwest across the canyon containing Devil’s Corral Creek.

picture of Deadwood Peak

Deadwood Peak

After the descent, the Evergreen Trail intersects the Summit City Creek Trail, which has descended from Forestdale Divide.  Shortly after that the Fourth of July Lake Trail goes off to the right and begins the major climb of the hike: 1800 feet over 3 miles, with an 11.5% grade.  At the beginning of the climb the trail heads directly toward an impressive ridge, which includes Round Top and The Sisters.

picture of ridge with Round Top and The Sisters

Ridge with Round Top and The Sisters

Even though I knew we would be hiking most of the way up the ridge and then around to the other side of it, the path was not initially obvious.  Before long, however, we could see a faint line denoting the trail, traversing the entire length of the ridge.  In this picture I was a couple of minutes behind two of my companions, who illustrate the scale of the ridge.

picture of trail traversing an impressive ridge

Trail traversing an impressive ridge

Sometimes on long ascents I kind of put my head down and just hike.  In this case I found myself stopping periodically, either to let my heart rate temporarily recover or to admire something interesting I passed or could see.  For example, I passed some California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), which is a late-blooming wildflower and which was virtually the only wildflower I saw during the entire hike.

picture of California fuchsia

California fuchsia

There were also some nice views along the Summit City Creek canyon.

picture of Summit City Creek canyon

Summit City Creek canyon

Just over 8000 feet elevation the trail enters the Carson Pass Management Area, which is essentially a specially designated high-traffic area with restrictions related to the heavy hiker traffic.  Wilderness permits are required for overnight use, camp sites are limited, visitors are limited, and camp fires are typically not allowed over 8000 feet elevation.

By the time we reached the eastern end of the ridge, we had done less than half of the climb but we reached Fourth of July Lake, where we’d planned our first rest stop.  The lake itself was exquisite, with a perfect reflection of Fourth of July Peak in the calm water.

picture of Fourth of July Lake and Peak

Fourth of July Lake and Peak

After a fairly brief break we returned to the climb, which now switch-backed to gain more elevation and circle the west end of the Round Top – Sisters ridge.  During the climb there were nice views both downhill, toward Fourth of July Lake, and uphill, toward Round Top and The Sisters.  About 6.1 miles from the trailhead the grade of the trail almost abruptly lessens.  It’s not quite the top yet, but the hiking becomes easier.  And there is a beautiful view of Caples Lake, which is only about 2 1/2 miles away but nearly 1500 feet lower in elevation.  Behind the lake several peaks rise up to form the skyline.  They are located between US-50 and Fallen Leaf Lake (and Lake Tahoe) about 15 miles away in the Desolation Wilderness.

picture of Caples Lake

Caples Lake

Over the next half mile the trail gains a bit more elevation, traversing the north side of the ridge past The Sisters and finally reaching Round Top Lake, where we took another break to celebrate (nearly) completing the climb.  Round Top Lake is relatively shallow and features reflections of Round Top and/or The Sisters, depending on exactly where you stand to look across the lake.  Note that there is still a little bit of residual snow from the last snow season, even though the date of the hike was late September.  The lake elevation is 9300 feet.

picture of Round Top Lake

Round Top Lake

After leaving Round Top Lake there was still a very small climb, only about 50 feet, before we reached the highest elevation of the hike and began the beautiful descent toward Winnemucca Lake.  This is a view of Winnemucca Lake from just after the high point, and I consider it to be an iconic view of the lake.  I hiked in this area once before and took a picture from the exact same location; it’s a photo opp that demands you to stop and notice.

picture of Winnemucca Lake

Winnemucca Lake

From the same location there is a beautiful view of distinctive Elephant’s Back, just 1 1/2 miles away.  Winnemucca Lake is just out of view at the right side of the picture, and Hawkins Peak is in the distance to the left of Elephant’s Back.

picture of Elephant’s Back

Elephant’s Back

On the way down to Winnemucca Lake, in season there are numerous wildflowers.  There also is a first view of Freel Peak and its neighbors, to the north; there would be more views a bit later.

After passing Winnemucca Lake, over the next mile the trail climbs slightly, just to exit the basin containing the lake, and then descends 150 feet.  About 8.9 miles from the trailhead a post marks the junction with the PCT.  Recently I had hiked from this junction north to Carson Pass, in preparation for this hike in which I would hike southbound from the junction.

Shortly before the PCT junction there is a second, and last, view of Caples Lake.

The PCT climbs 150 feet and crosses a minor ridge where it exits the Carson Pass Management Area.  There is notably less hiker traffic on the PCT south of the junction with the Winnemucca Lake Trail.  This minor ridge crossing is the beginning of a significant descent: about 750 feet.  The PCT winds around the north end of Elephant’s Back, where there is a beautiful view of both nearby and more distant peaks across a broad, open canyon.

picture of view from north of Elephant’s Back

View from north of Elephant’s Back

A short distance later, The Nipple dominates the view toward the southeast.  From this vantage point it is only about 4 miles away, though the trail distance is more like 6 miles.

picture of The Nipple

The Nipple

About a half mile past the view of The Nipple the PCT makes a couple of small scallops northward; see the GPS track.  From here there is what I consider to be the most dramatic of several views of the cluster of peaks near Freel Peak: from left to right Freel Peak, Job’s Sister, and Job’s Peak, almost 15 miles away and several miles southeast of Lake Tahoe.

picture of Freel Peak (left), Job’s Sister (center), and Job’s Peak (right)

Freel Peak (left), Job’s Sister (center), and Job’s Peak (right)

The PCT descends about 200 feet while making a long crossing of a talus field.  I used to strongly dislike hiking across talus, but I’ve now had enough experience that I just keep going and get through it without angst.

After the 750-foot descent the trail immediately climbs a little over 500 feet.  Near the low point the PCT overlooks the Forestdale Creek as it passes through moist, shallowly sloped meadows on the north side of Forestdale Divide.

During the climb I noted a nice view back toward Elephant’s Back and, a little later, a final view of the Freel Peak cluster.  About 12.7 miles from the trailhead the PCT reaches Forestdale Divide, where there is a dirt road and a couple of trails, including the one we had hoped to take from this trailhead to Fourth of July Lake.  Interestingly, and perhaps annoyingly, after crossing the dirt road the PCT climbs a little bit in order to get some separation from the road; then both the road and the PCT descend toward Lost Lakes.  There is a final view down the Summit City Creek canyon, backlit by the late afternoon sun.

picture of Summit City Creek canyon viewed from the PCT

Summit City Creek canyon viewed from the PCT

After the last small rise the PCT enters forest, and the remainder of the hike is through forest.  Near Lost Lakes, simultaneously 14.4 and 0.9 miles from the trailhead, the PCT crosses a short spur road that leads from the “main” dirt road closer to the lakes.  Here we left the PCT and hiked down the main dirt road back to the Evergreen Trailhead, completing the loop.

Although this hike is rather strenuous, it features wonderful lake and mountain views that make it a beautiful hike.

Posted in Alpine County, Eldorado National Forest, Pacific Crest Trail | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Pacific Crest Trail just north of Sonora Pass

stats box

Almost exactly two years ago to the day, I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) north from Sonora Pass with two friends as part of a loop hike.  As it turned out, we left the Sonora Pass trailhead parking area on an incorrect trail – yes, there actually is another trail – and began hiking up to the nearby ridge on a very steep trail that basically follows the county line between Alpine and Mono Counties.  The purpose of the present hike was to fill in the “gap” and hike the actual PCT from the parking area to the junction with the county line trail.

I had actually intended to do this hike two weeks earlier but, at that time, the PCT was closed between Sonora Pass and Ebbetts Pass due to the Donnell Fire.  Some additional, uninvited, excitement of that day was yet another wildfire, the Boot Fire, which started in the afternoon and resulted in the closure of US-395, as well as CA-108 between Sonora Junction and Sonora Pass the next day.  Fortunately I had already driven over Sonora Pass and back to the Bay Area prior to the CA-108 closure.  During the intervening two weeks the PCT, US-395, and CA-108 had all been re-opened.

There was, however, another bit of unanticipated excitement in store as I staged myself for this hike.  I was planning to car camp at Leavitt Meadows Campground, which is about 8 miles east of Sonora Pass and at about 7200 feet elevation.  It is immediately adjacent to a good-sized trailhead from which I had done a short hike on the West Walker River Trail as a substitute for this PCT hike.  When I arrived at the campground I was surprised and disappointed to see that a gate was closed across the entrance, signaling that the campground was closed for the season!  I think the campground was under mandatory evacuation for the Boot Fire, and perhaps it closed for the season at that time; it is usually open until late September.

As a result of the unavailability of the campground I decided to car camp in the adjacent trailhead parking area, which is served by a vault toilet but no running water.  Fortunately, I had sufficient water with me, had planned very simple meals not requiring any cooking, and had planned to sleep in the car rather than pitching a tent.  And I found that I could stow the other equipment I’d be using in my next two nights camping elsewhere in the car, even without the convenience of a bear box.

This is a view from the trailhead parking area, my camp site, looking south along the West Walker River and into the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.  I took the picture about 5:30 pm, after I’d finished my camp setup, as light quickly faded with the very early sunset over the much higher ground near Sonora Pass.

photo of evening view from my campsite in a trailhead parking area

Evening view from my campsite in a trailhead parking area

The next morning was chilly – 30 degrees when I turned on the car to warm up – and before long I was ready to drive back up to Sonora Pass to hike.  I was glad that the temperature rose as I climbed, reaching the mid-40’s by the time I reached the Sonora Pass trailhead.

My plan for the hike was, first, to follow the PCT to the junction with the county line trail; and, second, to continue about another half mile to a crest.  This crest is notable, since it is the highest point for the remainder of the northbound PCT all the way to Canada.

The Sonora Pass trailhead is at the convergence of Alpine, Mono, and Tuolumne Counties.  In this specific area the boundary between Stanislaus National Forest and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest follows the Alpine-Mono County line.  A sign at the trailhead advises entry into the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, though I believe that the actual wilderness boundary is about 1 mile past my turnaround point.

Using the PCT data book as an official reference, the “new” part of the PCT I hiked was from mile 1018.5 to mile 1020.9, or 2.4 miles.  My GPS unit recorded the distance at 2.25 miles.  With the extension to the Sierra crest crossing, my total hike distance was 5.7 miles round trip.  The route is shown in this GPS track image, with the orange dot denoting the location of my car in the trailhead parking area.  The junction with the county line trail is at the nearly 90-degree turn where the northbound PCT turns from southbound to eastbound.  At the crest crossing at my turnaround point the PCT makes another 90-degree turn to northbound.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation at the Sonora Pass trailhead is about 9620 feet and the trail climbs past the county line trail junction at 10,380 feet to the crest at nearly 10,500 feet.  The total elevation gain and loss are 1270 feet each, so the average grade is 8.5%.  This is fairly comfortable unless you are simply not acclimated to an elevation in the neighborhood of 10,000 feet.  On the elevation profile the small blip around 10,400 feet is the county line trail junction, where I joined the PCT in my previous hike.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The main highlights of the hike were beautiful, expansive views, a few late-season wildflowers, and several southbound through-hikers.

The first part of the trail essentially looks up at, and climbs toward, 11,460-foot Sonora Peak.  At the right of this picture you can see the county line trail, which goes pretty much right past a large rock formation.

photo of view north toward Sonora Peak

View north toward Sonora Peak

In addition to a bit of Brewer’s lupine (Lupinus breweri), I was a bit surprised to find what I believe to be some narrow-tubed ipomopsis (Ipomopsis tenuituba).  It is possible that it was scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata), though the latter blooms earlier and at somewhat lower elevations, is redder, and has more exserted reproductive parts.

photo of narrow-tube ipomopsis

Narrow-tube ipomopsis

By about 1.2 miles from the trailhead the PCT has done a small roll (ascent and descent) and then gained 200 feet in elevation.  A lovely view to the south has opened up, showing volcanic, 11,550-foot Leavitt Peak.  This view demonstrates that Sonora Pass is actually a large saddle: it is a high point for the road, CA-108, but a low point for the topography following the Sierra crest.  South of Sonora Pass, the PCT climbs again and passes just to the east of Leavitt Peak.

photo of view south toward Leavitt Peak

View south toward Leavitt Peak

About 1.3 miles from the trailhead the PCT crosses a small stream. I was somewhat surprised to find water flowing in the stream so late in the summer.  In fact, though, I would encounter flowing water at least 3 or 4 times during the ascent.  As I approached the stream some green willows signaled the presence, at least recently, of water.  I also found a few Anderson’s thistles (Cirsium andersonii), sometimes called rose thistle.  Note the beautiful rose-pink color of the disk flowers.

photo of Anderson’s thistle

Anderson’s thistle

The green plants near water sources provided stark contrast to the otherwise open and exposed sub-alpine slopes.  Most of the more prevalent wildflowers, such as mule ears (Wyethia mollis) and pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima), had long since completed their blooming phase and dried up.

The PCT has a gentle switchback and turns to the east, crossing the stream just mentioned a second time.  Near the associated damp area I found a small mass of larger mountain monkeyflower (Erythranthe tilingii, formerly Mimulus tilingii) immediately next to the trail.  Although these individuals looked quite similar to seep-spring monkeyflower, the late bloom time and the elevation strongly suggest larger mountain monkeyflower.

photo of larger mountain monkeyflower

Larger mountain monkeyflower

The trail passes several interesting-looking rock formations that seem to just pop out of the landscape.  Shortly before the county line trail junction the trail curves through a small stand of trees that look almost like they experience so much wind that they are unable to maintain a vertical growth pattern.

photo of PCT passing through a line of windswept trees

PCT passing through a line of windswept trees

I came to the junction with the county line trail 2.25 miles from my start.  The upper end of the county line trail crosses a rock formation and descends slightly toward the junction.  Just a minute or two after passing the junction I encountered a southbound through-hiker and stopped to chat briefly.  As I sometimes do, I asked his trail name, and was very surprised to learn that it’s Sue, as in the song A Boy Named Sue, made famous by Johnny Cash.  Much of my surprise was because my real name is Sue!  Even though there is generally an interesting story behind trail names, I rarely ask, and didn’t in this case.  But Sue graciously posed for a picture.

photo of Sue, a southbound PCT through-hiker

Sue, a southbound PCT through-hiker

Continuing toward the Sierra crest, I noted what I believe to be some Lemmon’s draba (Draba lemmonii), or granite draba.  There was only one blossom and, although it only had 3 petals instead of 4, all other aspects of the plant matched the descriptions in my wildflower books.

photo of Lemmon’s draba, or granite draba

Lemmon’s draba, or granite draba

When I reached the 90 degree turn at the 10,500-foot elevation crest I paused to enjoy the spectacular views I remembered from the 2016 hike.  At this location, if you face away from the slope of Sonora Peak, it is easy to imagine you are on top of the world, surrounded by open space and looking down on the landscape.  To the north-northeast White Mountain is just 2 1/2 miles away.

photo of White Mountain viewed from the Sierra crest

White Mountain viewed from the Sierra crest

To the east-northeast there is a wonderful view down a wide canyon containing Wolf Creek.  About 20 miles away are the Sweetwater Mountains, with a row of peaks between 10,300 and 11,600 feet high, including East Sister, Middle Sister, South Sister, Mt Patterson, and Wheeler Peak.

photo of Sweetwater Mountains viewed from the Sierra crest

Sweetwater Mountains viewed from the Sierra crest

Moving just a short distance toward the trailhead there were several dramatic rock formations in the foreground of a view down the slope from Sonora Peak toward Sonora Pass.

photo of rock formation near the Sierra crest

Rock formation near the Sierra crest

And farther beyond the rock formations Leavitt Peak, about 4 1/2 miles away, again dominated the southward view.

photo of view south toward Leavitt Peak

View south toward Leavitt Peak

Returning down the trail, after passing the county line trail there was a nice view of the PCT itself, descending gently while traversing the massive south slope of Sonora Peak.  Views like this make me appreciate the ability of trail designers and builders to create a physical path that passes through an area of such dramatic beauty.

photo of PCT descending the south slope of Sonora Peak

PCT descending the south slope of Sonora Peak

Between the second and first stream crossings I encountered a patch of western mountain asters (Symphyotrichum spathulatum var spathulatum).  Though they looked a bit past prime, I used the color and dimensions of the inflorescence, as well as the growth pattern of the phyllaries, to make the identification.

photo of western mountain aster

Western mountain aster

During my descent I was overtaken by three other southbound through-hikers who had spent some time with Sue; I think they camped together the previous night.  When I arrived at my car one of the trio approached me and asked if I was going to Bridgeport, where they were planning their Sonora Pass re-supply run.  Once I confirmed that there were only 3 hikers looking for a ride (initially I thought there were as many as 6), I quickly decided that I could re-arrange my gear so that I could accommodate them. However, I could only take them down to Sonora Junction, a little less than halfway to Bridgeport, since I would be turning the other direction once I reached US-395.  And I didn’t have time to make a 35-mile detour since I was meeting friends to camp in preparation for another hike the next day.

The hikers were very grateful to have a ride that far and planned to hitchhike once they reached US-395.  It turned out that they are brothers, and they grew up and live in Truckee.  We had interesting conversation as I drove the 15 miles down CA-108 from Sonora Pass to Sonora Junction.  When I asked their ages (18-21) and told them I was old enough to be their grandmother, I was amused that they were even more impressed that I was day-hiking any of the PCT on my own.  Just as they were getting out of my car and retrieving their packs and poles, another car pulled over, possibly from Bridgeport, and out hopped another through-hiker, whom the brothers recognized and greeted excitedly.  They were happy to pose for a quick group photo.

photo of PCT southbound through-hikers: 3 brothers and a trail friend

PCT southbound through-hikers: 3 brothers and a trail friend

Whenever I encounter through-hikers and have a chance to chat, I wish them a wonderful journey and experience.  These young men were about to enter the High Sierra and, with over 1600 miles hiked and just over 1000 miles to go, they were cheerfully optimistic that they would reach Campo, at the southern terminus of the PCT, before snow made higher places impassable.  Wishing them a safe journey seemed like a nice punctuation point to my short, but very enjoyable, day hike.

Posted in Alpine County, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Pacific Crest Trail, Stanislaus National Forest | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Some Thoughts on California’s Wildfires

Sometimes it takes a series of related events to really get someone’s attention.  In this case the related events are California wildfires and the “someone” is me.  There is plenty of objective evidence indicating that 2018 has been, and continues to be, a bad year for wildfires both in California and more generally across the western United States.  The relationship that has finally gotten my attention is that several wildfires have had a closer effect on me than in previous years.

Although that may sound like a self-centered statement, it is actually, more simply, a description of the relationship between several of the many wildfires that seem to assault our wilderness areas and other national forests every year with increasing scope and intensity.  For example, I downloaded this US fire map about a month ago.  Each icon indicates a separate fire incident, and the colored clouds probably indicate smoke plumes being blown eastward by the jet stream.  The overwhelming impression from this map was that practically the entire western United States, save the southern part of California’s Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, was on fire.

image of United States fire map on 4 August 2018

United States fire map on 4 August 2018

Since then, some fires have been brought under control but others have broken out.  Traditionally, September and October – at the end of the long, dry summer season – are the peak months for wildfires.  So this map, as of a full month earlier, was very sobering.

I am fortunate, because the actual effects on me have been trivial compared to people whose homes have been destroyed, several firefighters and civilians who were killed, other people who have been evacuated for safety reasons, the wildlife living in the forests, and the forests themselves along with related flora.  In the case of the forests and destroyed homes the effects of wildfires can last for years.  The effects on me have been limited to abandoned or rearranged hikes – a minor inconvenience, really – or the realization that a place where I hiked recently has since been damaged by fire, or at least closed due to threat of fire.

So the purpose of this post is to describe several current and recent wildfires, how they’re related to my hiking activities, and how I’ve been impacted.  I must say that my strongest reaction is a profound sadness regarding the more severe effects on others.

A recent statewide fire map is shown here.  While not as busy as the US map above, it still shows something like 18 major fires in progress within California.  Only one of the fires shown is fully contained, but it will continue to burn internally for some time – probably until Fall rain and snow begin.

image of California fire map as of 5 September 2018

California fire map as of 5 September 2018

One of the most recent fires to break out is the Delta fire, which began on 5 September 2018 2 miles north of Lakehead, in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Shasta County.  In just three days it has grown – “exploded,” according to some news stories – to nearly 37,000 acres, which is about 58 square miles.  No containment is being reported, which generally means 0% containment.  (Containment refers to robust perimeter fire break lines that the fire can be “reasonably expected” not to jump across.)  Early on, the fire jumped across I-5, and this major north-south route is closed for about 50 miles.  Note that the fire isn’t this large, but the closures, especially for through traffic, are from either end of a suitable detour on non-affected roads.    About a dozen big rigs were abandoned on the I-5 roadway and several of them have burned (I believe their drivers were all safely evacuated).  Mandatory evacuations affect portions of Shasta and Trinity Counties and evacuation warnings affect portions of Siskiyou County.

Some of the current wildfires are being managed by Cal Fire and others are being managed by interagency incident management teams and reported on InciWeb, which is part of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.  This InciWeb map shows the areas of the Delta (left) and Hirz (right) fires.  Apparently the two fire areas are about to join.  The Hirz fire started on 9 August 2018 and grew to its current size of just over 46,000 acres, or 72 square miles.  It is reported to be 89% contained.

image of InciWeb map of the Delta (left) and Hirz (right) fires as of 8 September 2018

InciWeb map of the Delta (left) and Hirz (right) fires as of 8 September 2018

I believe that the Hirz fire area mainly involves remote areas, so any evacuations have involved campgrounds and local roads which are now (temporarily) closed.  The Hirz fire resulted in the closure of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for 31 miles between Ash Camp and I-5.  As it turns out, I hiked that section in two day hikes (see here and here) last Fall, and I hiked from Bartle Gap to Ash Camp, just east of the closure, in June of this year.

The Delta fire has extended the local area trail and park closures.  The PCT is now closed through Castle Crags State Park – the entire park is closed – for another 25 miles to Gumboot Trailhead.  I spent three days hiking in and near the park in June, including the new PCT closure area.  I should note that these areas are closed due to threat of fire, but the PCT itself and Castle Crags State Park itself have not been burned – thankfully.

The origins of the Delta and Hirz fires are believed to be human, though specific causes are still under investigation.

Another map, shown here, shows how close the Delta and Hirz fires are to the area burned by the Carr fire.  At over 229,000 acres, or 359 square miles, this fire was one of the largest and most destructive wildfires this season.  Nearly 1100 residences were destroyed and almost 200 others damaged, in addition to commercial structures and outbuildings.  There were 3 firefighter fatalities.  Hundreds of firefighters took about 6 weeks to fully contain the fire, which still smolders within its interior.  It appears from this map that the current perimeter of the Delta fire is only about 3 miles, at its closest approach, to the perimeter of the Carr fire.  That’s pretty close!

image of map of Delta (center), Hirz (right), and Carr (left) fires as of 8 September 2018

Map of Delta (center), Hirz (right), and Carr (left) fires as of 8 September 2018

Some 220 miles southwest there are two other fires that have impacted me a bit more directly.  The first and larger is the Donnell fire, which started on 1 August 2018 and has grown to 36,400 acres, or 57 square miles, in the Stanislaus National Forest and its Carson-Iceberg Wilderness just west of Sonora Pass, at the confluence of Alpine, Tuolumne, and Mono Counties.  As of 8 September 2018 it is reported to be 87% contained.  Some 54 structures and 81 minor structures have been destroyed.  For at least 2 weeks, if not longer, the PCT has been closed between Sonora Pass (at CA-108) and Ebbetts Pass (at CA-4), a 31-mile stretch.  I have hiked all of this section except for about 2.5 miles just north of Sonora Pass.  Two day hikes (see here and here) were staged from a campground on Clark Fork Rd which has been closed throughout the fire and, I fear, very likely damaged.

image of map of Donnell (left) and Boot (right) fires as of 8 September 2018

Map of Donnell (left) and Boot (right) fires as of 8 September 2018

I had been hoping to be able to hike the 2.5-mile gap earlier in the week, but the PCT was still closed and there were prominent “Do Not Enter” signs posted, as well as yellow tape across the trail entry points at the Sonora Pass trailhead parking area.  Although I did check out the trailhead, I abandoned the hike.  Instead, I drove part way down CA-108 east, toward US-395, to the Leavitt Meadows trailhead where I’d identified a “Plan B” hike.  After I completed the hike I continued down CA-108 to US-395.  Along the way I noticed what looked like a smoke plume, a bit orange around the edges, north of CA-108.  When I got to Sonora Junction I found that US-395 was closed just north of the intersection, and a wildfire was clearly visible.  I later learned that the fire had started only about two hours before I got there.  The CHP personnel on-site staffing the road closure seemed as interested as I was in taking pictures of the fire, which was clearly visible from the road closure point.

image of early stage of the Boot fire on 4 September 2018

Early stage of the Boot fire on 4 September 2018

I had been planning to meet up with a hiking buddy later in the evening and, the next day, to hike south from Sonora Pass on the PCT.  After several phone calls and conversations with the CHP personnel, though, we agreed to abandon that hike.  The fire situation was just too unpredictable.  Once we’d made our decision I drove back up CA-108 over Sonora Pass to return to the Bay Area.  As I gained elevation the sun approached sunset, and the sky got more and more orange due to the angle of the sun and to the smoke and haze in the air.

image of sunset near Sonora Pass the first day of the Boot fire

Sunset near Sonora Pass the first day of the Boot fire

Although the air was somewhat better at the 9500-foot elevation of Sonora Pass, I was more and more convinced we’d made the right decision to abandon the next day’s hike.  When I could get to the internet I learned that the new fire had been named the Boot fire.  Sometime during the day we would have been hiking, CA-108 was closed from US-395 to somewhere west of Sonora Pass.  If I’d done the planned out-and-back day hike, by the time I returned to my car it would have been within the closed section of highway.  This became an even better reason to be glad we’d cancelled the hike!

As shown on the map above, the Boot fire is much smaller in area than the Donnell fire.  As of 8 September the area is just under 7000 acres, or 11 square miles.  The area east of the Pacific Crest is in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.  A more detailed map is shown here, showing that the fire has jumped both US-395 and Burcham Flat Rd to its east.  In accordance with the usual prevailing wind direction it is spreading to the east.  It is just 3% contained.

image of map of Boot fire as of 8 September 2018

Map of Boot fire as of 8 September 2018

Earlier there were mandatory evacuations of two campgrounds and a US Marine Training Center along CA-108 – including the campground located at the trailhead of my 4 September hike.

With all of the destruction, and the loss of life and property and forest, is there good news?  I believe there is.  Of course, the lives lost cannot be recovered or replaced.  But at least some of the structures can be rebuilt or replaced.  The forest itself will recover over time, as it is amazingly resilient.  In the spring I visited a North Bay Area open space that had been heavily damaged in one of last Fall’s devastating wildfires.  I was pleasantly surprised to see how many wildflowers seemed to be thriving less than 6 months later.  Yes, some of those flowers do especially well in the aftermath of a wildfire.  But the larger flora, such as shrubs and trees – some of them, at least – will seed themselves and in that manner regrow the forest.  This is hopeful, as long as a new fire doesn’t come through too soon.

On a more mundane and personal note, as I’ve been writing this post and checking web sites for up-to-date information on the specific fires I’ve discussed, I’ve noted that US-395 and CA-108 are now open again in the area of the Boot fire.  And today the Donnell fire web page announced that the PCT is open again north of Sonora Pass.  Of course this could change again if warranted, but I believe that the US Forest Service closures are treated conservatively and the strong expectation is that the re-opened areas will be able to remain open.  This is an important public-facing step in the fire recovery.

Posted in Alpine County, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Mono County, Pacific Crest Trail, Shasta County, Siskiyou County, Trinity County, Tuolumne County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments