For a couple of years I have been thinking about hiking up the Granite Chief Trail to the Pacific Crest Trail or to Granite Chief itself. I have hesitated, since the elevation gain up to the peak is 3000 feet: what I refer to as an “eat your Wheaties” hike. I had also developed an impression that it’s difficult to find the beginning (lower end) of the Granite Chief Trail. I decided that I would try hiking the Granite Chief Trail, mainly to see if I could successfully trail-find, and beyond that simply enjoy the experience, however far I managed to hike. As it turns out, I found the trail without too much difficulty, successfully climbed the 2000-foot stairmaster to reach the Pacific Crest Trail, and almost reached the spur trail to the top of Granite Chief before I decided that I needed to turn around to make sure I got back to my car before dark, which seems to come so early in November. The day was comfortably warm for Fall, with the temperature around 60 degrees.
My mileage apparently differed from some published mileages, which claim that it is 9 miles out-and-back to the top of Granite Chief. My round-trip mileage, without detours, was 9.3 miles and I think it would have been at least another mile round trip to the peak. Also, my turnaround point elevation was only 8300 feet, and the top of Granite Chief is just over 9000 feet, so there would have been a lot more work in order to summit.
The trailhead for the Granite Chief Trail is at the back end of the Squaw Valley base area, near the Olympic Valley Inn. In fact, since the nearby signage was for the Shirley Canyon Trail, I went inside the Inn to inquire how to find the Granite Chief Trail. Basically you go up the canyon, staying to the right, and after about 0.3 and 0.4 mile there are two signs that indicate the Granite Chief Trail. After getting past the many use trails at the bottom, following the trail is generally straightforward; a bit more about trail-finding below. On the GPS track the orange dot shows the beginning and end of my hike; I took a different use trail on the return, once I had passed the signs.
The Granite Chief Trail leads to the Pacific Crest Trail at 3.5 miles from the trailhead. The elevation profile shows the steady climb – what I call the 2000-foot stairmaster climb – interrupted only briefly just under 2 miles into the hike. The entire hike was in the Tahoe National Forest.
Initially the Granite Chief Trail follows Squaw Creek, to the right of the creek. The second sign, at about 0.4 miles, indicates where the trail leaves the vicinity of the creek and travels more steeply uphill. The first mile and a half travels mostly through a forested area. I was a little surprised to encounter a late-season robin in the forest. After the trail emerges from the trees at about 1.6 miles there is a nice view up toward the ski area skyline from Squaw Peak at the left to Granite Chief at the right.
To the right the canyon wall is fairly steep and rises over 1000 feet to Silver Peak.
To the left and down the hill there is a great view of some of the ski runs and maintenance roads zig-zagging downhill.
At about 7250 feet elevation, after 1.9 miles and 1000 feet of climbing, there is a flatter area where the trail goes around the end of a mini-canyon and crosses a stream. Even after the dry summer the stream, a tributary of Squaw Creek, was flowing down the mini-canyon, creating a mini-waterfall over a small rock.
The upper portion of the Granite Chief Trail, above the Squaw Creek crossing, had some more technical sections and seemed steeper. At the same time the views got better with the higher elevation. Looking behind, downhill, there are views of the Carson Range skyline on the southeast shore of Lake Tahoe. Here is a nice view looking up the hill at Granite Chief, at about 2 miles and 7300 feet elevation on the trail.
There is what seems like a fairly long stretch across bare granite, with a minimum of trail markings. I found my way ok, but on the return trip noticed that there were several strategically selected rocks with yellow blaze marks painted on them for way-finding. Once I noticed them, they were quite useful!
Out of the forest, there were just scattered isolated trees, appearing to grow somehow directly from the rocks. Here is a pretty example. Obviously there must be sufficient soil, nutrients, and water for the tree to attain its current size.
The last mile or so goes up a small hanging valley, and eventually becomes forested again. Just before the PCT junction there are Ski Area Boundary and No Biking signs. The PCT junction, at 3.5 miles, is a T, so you can go left (south) toward Granite Chief and Five Lakes or right (north) toward Tinker Knob. Right next to the trail there was a small patch of snow with distinct animal prints. I’m not particularly skilled at identifying prints, but I presume they were bear prints. I hoped that any nearby bears were shy or already beginning their hibernation, and made sure that the bell I usually wear was able to make noise and hopefully announce my presence. In any case, I did not directly see any wildlife.
I turned left and proceeded south, toward Granite Chief. This is a wonderful section of the PCT, with several notable views along the way and with a moderate grade. There is a fairly level, sandy section not far from the junction that had a bit of snow cover. Fortunately, other hikers had preceded me since the snowfall a couple of weeks prior, and the trail path was obvious. I noted that there were two way-finding posts, with yellow painted blaze marks on their tops, so the trail may actually be less obvious when it is clear of snow.
About 0.3 mile past the junction there was a wonderful view across the upper Squaw Valley ski area toward the Freel Peak – Job’s Peak – Job’s Sister area to the right of the Heavenly Valley ski runs on Monument Peak. These peaks are about 30 miles away.
Another 0.3 miles further a nice view of Lake Tahoe opened up, again across the upper Squaw Valley ski area. I am not sure, but the pointy-top peak near the center of the skyline might be Genoa Peak.
Granite Chief itself kept getting closer – actually, I kept getting closer to it!
About 1.15 miles from the Granite Chief Trail junction there was a small meadow off to the right, with another peak behind it. In the foreground there is a small area of standing water partly covered with ice.
Almost immediately I noticed that there was a post with a PCT sign, and I decided to make the post my turn-around point. I had not seen a spur or use trail to Granite Chief, or signage to denote entry into the Granite Chief Wilderness, but I would not be surprised if both were nearby.
I retraced my path on the PCT back to the Granite Chief Trail and down the canyon. When I’ve enjoyed a hike, as I had this one, revisiting views on the return trip simply adds to the enjoyment. Sometimes there are new discoveries, for example the yellow blazes to mark the trail across the large bare granite area, that were for whatever reason not noticed on the outbound hike. In addition, as the afternoon progressed there were interesting clouds that formed. Here is one example, looking down the lower canyon with the ski area and a glimpse of the Carson Range in the background.
I arrived back at my car about 4:20, after the sun had dropped behind the Sierra Crest but comfortably before it was too dark to hike safely.
I plan to hike up the Granite Chief Trail at least once more, to the turnaround point perhaps a mile south of Tinker Knob for a previous hike. And hopefully I will be able to make it all the way to this hike’s turnaround point from the Five Lakes Trail, to help connect this stretch of the PCT.