Upper Thomas Creek Trail

stats boxThis was a Fall hike in the Eastern Sierras outside Reno, on the lower part of the Rim to Reno Regional Trail System. I had previously hiked the Jones Whites Creek Loop Trail and the Lower Whites Creek Trail, both in the same area. The lower part of the Rim to Reno Trail, on the Thomas Creek Trail, is noted for pretty Fall color, and that prospect strongly influenced my hike selection on this day. I also wanted to do kind of an exploration of the lower portion of the Rim to Reno Trail: I’d like to hike the entire trail, and I knew I was going to need to do some scouting to help me with planning, since I day-hike rather than backpack and the entire trail is over 20 miles long.

With that in mind, I headed to the trailhead at the end of Timberline Dr, which is off NV-431 (Mount Rose Highway) about 4 miles west of US-395/I-580. To get to the trailhead you go past the end of the pavement and across Thomas Creek to a parking area.

The first part of the Thomas Creek Trail is part of the Jones/Whites/Thomas Creeks Regional Trail System as well as the Rim to Reno Regional Trail System. The Jones/Whites/Thomas Creeks system is a collaboration between Washoe County and the National Forest Service, while the Rim to Reno system involves additional agencies. This hike is primarily in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and the Mount Rose Wilderness. It was an out-and-back hike, since I did not make it all the way up to where the loop begins in the Rim to Reno Trail.

GPS track

GPS track

Except for a relatively minor dip around 7400 feet elevation, the trail climbs steadily from the trailhead at just under 6000 feet elevation to my turnaround point at about 8500 feet elevation. My total elevation gain was 2700 feet, and I covered 6.7 miles of trail (13.4 miles round trip).

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The first part of the trail follows the Thomas Creek, which seemed to have plenty of water flowing despite being at the end of the long dry season. For the first 4 miles the trail grade is a pretty steady 6.7%, which is quite reasonable for a trail but makes for lively water flow in the creek! There were several of these mini-waterfalls along the way, where the creek rushes over a tree, a row of rocks, or some other small feature.

photo of Thomas Creek

Thomas Creek

The trail passes through a pleasant forested area with aspens, Jeffrey pines, and white fir. I particularly noticed one tree that had fallen over but not to the ground. As it happens, the tree fell over exactly into a very narrow gap between two tree trunks. I call that a good catch! I commented about it to a hiker who happened to be passing by and he said that it was a relatively recent fall, within the last month or two.

image of a good catch!

Good catch!

About 1.6 miles from the trailhead is a junction with Dry Pond Trail, which facilitates a lower-elevation loop hike perhaps 5 miles long via Dry Pond and Upper Whites Creek Trails. I continued on the Thomas Creek Trail. About 2.1 miles from the trailhead the trail crosses the creek on a bridge. Just after the bridge there is a trail access point from a dirt road, NF-049, which parallels the trail for about 3 miles.

Shortly after the access point I passed an interesting-looking cliff, or perhaps an outcropping, on the left of the trail. Aspens provided a pretty splash of color in the foreground.

picture of cliff near Thomas Creek Trail

Cliff near Thomas Creek Trail

On the outbound hike I was completely captivated by the cliff, but on the return hike I was startled to notice an overturned car wreck in the bushes perhaps 20 yards off the trail. It’s hard to imagine how the car got there.

At one point the trail passes through a tunnel of aspens.

photo of Thomas Creek Trail

Thomas Creek Trail

I particularly noticed that some of the aspens were almost orange rather than the more typical yellow color. Occasionally I found isolated leaves on the ground or caught in a crack in a rock.

image of aspen leaf

Aspen leaf

About 2.7 miles from the trailhead signage directs hikers along the forest road for 150 yards or so, which includes a ford of the creek. Most of the water flow is through a culvert under the road, but I gather that there is usually standing water on the road itself. It wasn’t deep, but there wasn’t a good way to walk through or around with dry boots.

The next mile or so passes through an area that has experienced selective logging. There were neat piles of branches that I presume were from trees that had been cut down, and I presumed were waiting to be hauled away. In addition to noting other trees that appeared to be marked for cutting, I found some interesting-looking fungi on a neatly-cut stump.

picture of fungus on a tree stump next to the trail

Fungus on a tree stump next to the trail

About 3.1 miles from the trailhead I was surprised to see that there was another trailhead, apparently where the forest road becomes a private road. There is clear signage directing hikers to the trail, which takes a small diversion to loop around a parcel of private property. About 1 mile later there was an impressive view, ahead and roughly northwest, toward a ridge, where I presumed the trail was headed. I tried to imagine how the trail was routed to get to the other side of the ridge.

photo of ridgeline northwest of the trail

Ridgeline northwest of the trail

More to the southeast, I may have been able to see Snowflower Peak. I’m not confident of the identification, but at this point it is only about 2 miles away.

About 4.7 miles from the trailhead, at about 7500 feet elevation, the Thomas Creek Trail enters Mount Rose Wilderness. The forest gradually opens up a bit, and there are more areas brilliant with colorful aspens, here at about 8000 feet elevation.

image of colorful aspens in Mount Rose Wilderness

Colorful aspens in Mount Rose Wilderness

After this point the trail crosses a rather open hillside and begins a series of switchbacks with a somewhat steeper grade, about 10%. The switchbacks are too tight to be visible in the GPS track; however, there were 7 within the next mile (and 500 feet of elevation gain). I was pleasantly surprised to find a few checkermallow and Indian paintbrush plants still in bloom despite the lateness of the season for wildflowers.

picture of paintbrush still blooming in October!

Paintbrush still blooming in October!

There was also a dramatic outcropping visible across the small canyon down which the southern branch of the Thomas Creek flows.

photo of outcropping across the southern Thomas Creek branch’s canyon

Outcropping across the southern Thomas Creek branch’s canyon

I also noticed several specimens of a distinctive low-growing plant with a beautiful vein structure visible in each of its leaves. These plants were just off-trail in the otherwise dry-looking hillside.

image of plant with beautiful vein structure in its leaves

Plant with beautiful vein structure in its leaves

It was clear that, on this day, I wasn’t going to be able to go as far as the beginning of the 8-mile loop at the north part of the Rim to Reno Trail. So I decided to just pick a switchback at about 8500 feet elevation to use as my turnaround point. I estimate that I was about ¾ mile (and 350 vertical feet) short of the loop when I turned around, 6.7 miles from the Timberline Dr trailhead.

I frequently remind myself that the views can be different on the outbound and return portions of a hike. In this case the switchbacks were going back and forth, so the views could have been similar for the outbound and return legs. However, I often find myself paying more attention on the uphill hike to just getting up the hill, and feel that I have a just a bit more energy to devote to sightseeing when hiking downhill – if the grade and trail condition are reasonable! In any case, on the downhill hike I particularly noticed that there were pretty views at the east end of the switchbacks, looking down the canyon toward the Virginia Range on the east side of the Washoe Valley. Here is one of the views.

picture of view from a switchback in the Thomas Creek Trail

View from a switchback in the Thomas Creek Trail

I continued, retracing my path back to the trailhead. From the parking area there was another nice view of the Virginia Range across the Washoe Valley; I was about 2000 feet lower than the view from the switchback, and the valley floor is another 1500 feet below.

photo of Virginia Range across the Washoe Valley, from the trailhead

Virginia Range across the Washoe Valley, from the trailhead

This was a beautiful hike for the Fall season, and I look forward to return to the trails in this area. The Jones/Whites/Thomas Creeks Trail System is a beautiful and well-signed system of trails, and I also look forward to figuring out how to access the central portion of the Rim to Reno Trail.

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8 Responses to Upper Thomas Creek Trail

  1. readersguide says:

    This looks like a lovely hike. Do you think it would be a good place to snowshoe?

  2. Pingback: Lower Whites Creek Trail | trailhiker

  3. Pingback: Jones Whites Creek Loop | trailhiker

  4. Bill FRASER in Reno says:

    This is a great trail! I have been up to the area just beyond the road crossing. Did you ever find a shorter way to access the loop above without starting from one of the lower trail heads?

    • trailhiker says:

      I assume you mean the Rim to Reno Trail loop. You can drive up about 3 miles on a dirt road, if you have the clearance to ford a tiny bit of water running across the road. (I wouldn’t attempt it in my Prius, but an SUV would be fine.) It’s still a long hike from there up to and around the loop, but it’s beautiful.

  5. Corwin says:

    Thanks for the photos and description. My son and I are planning to do the hike from hunter lake and then come down Thomas Creek back into Reno. We’ve done most of it already but there is some cross country to get to the Rim to Reno Trail loop. So – it’s helpful to have some nice photos like this.

    • trailhiker says:

      I am always happy if my descriptions and/or photos are helpful to someone else who is considering a similar hike. I hiked and posted about the Hunter Lake Trail last year, though I didn’t make it all the way to the lake. I’ve also posted about one of the two one-way hikes I’ve done on Rim to Reno (one on the north part of the loop, the other on the south part). All nice hikes — I haven’t done any cross-country hiking up there, though. Good luck and have a safe, wonderful time!

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