Hunter Lake Trail

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The Hunter Lake Trail – distinct from the Hunter Creek Trail, which is not far away – is in the Eastern Sierra just west of Reno, NV. It is in a strip of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest between two sections of Mount Rose Wilderness in Washoe County. The trail is basically a forest road that climbs up into the National Forest; like many other forest roads, there are subsidiary roads here and there, some better signed than others.

Because I was leading a group hike without having hiked the trail before, I did a checkout hike about 3 weeks in advance of the official hike. This post is kind of a combination of the two hikes. In both cases, I took a somewhat different route on the outbound and return trips, on the lower part of the trail where there are quite a few alternate trails. For the official hike we went about 7 miles on the outbound hike and ended up returning by a shorter route following the main road/trail. The orange dot on the GPS track shows the trailhead, which is at the edge of a residential area with a modest amount of street parking.

GPS track

GPS track

As soon as you go up what amounts to a berm, there is a flat grassy area to the left where, on the checkout hike, I immediately noticed some white flowers and went over to investigate. It turned out that they were prickly poppies (Argemone munita). The flowers are reminiscent of matilija poppies that I see in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the prickly poppy plants are much shorter, perhaps 2 feet tall.

picture of prickly poppy

Prickly poppy

Near the prickly poppies I noticed more white flowers and was startled to discover that they were mariposa lilies. From my close-up photos I was able to identify them as Bruneau mariposa lilies (Calochortus bruneaunis). They actually look quite similar to the Leichtlin mariposa lily, but the purple anthers and subtle green stripe on the outside of the petals confirm the Bruneau mariposa lily identification.

image of Bruneau mariposa lily

Bruneau mariposa lily

At a Y intersection not far from the trailhead I went left, and this branch of the trail is relatively flat for 1.5-2 miles before beginning a steady climb for the remainder of the outbound trip. The elevation difference between the trailhead and the turnaround point for the hike was nearly 3000 feet. I should mention that we never found Hunter Lake. Someone we met near the trailhead told us there really isn’t a lake, so we didn’t look very hard for it. Instead, since the temperature was getting into the 90’s, we turned around when we felt we had accomplished sufficient climbing for the day!

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

On the day of my checkout hike I found more wildflowers than on the day of the official hike just 3 weeks later. In fact, the day of my checkout hike I encountered someone jogging up the trail and commented on the number of flowers I was seeing. He responded that, at that time, it was about as green as Reno gets. So I wasn’t really surprised that there were fewer flowers a few weeks later as the ground was getting drier and spring was transitioning into summer.

One of the unusual finds of the checkout hike was this unidentified white flower with interesting and intricate structures on the many flowers in the flower head.

photo of unidentified white flower

Unidentified white flower

There were several different types of yellow flower along the trail, and I’ve been having difficulty getting them identified. On the checkout hike, in the lower flat section, I first heard, then briefly saw, a couple of quail.

I have seen several different types of lupine in the Tahoe area. This one, perhaps longspur lupine (Lupinus arbustus), had relatively tall flower stalks, with whiter blossoms at the base than at the top of the stalks. Note that an insect seems to be about to land on one of the blossoms.

picture of lupine with an approaching insect

Lupine with an approaching insect

Also on the checkout hike, I noticed an unusual thistle that was not yet quite ready to produce blossoms, though it was getting ready. I believe it is an elk thistle (Cirsium scariosum var. scariosum), and I thought the rosette-like structure was striking.

image of elk thistle getting ready to produce blossoms

Elk thistle getting ready to produce blossoms

There was plenty of mule’s ear, some balsamroot (similar to mule’s ear but with different-shaped leaves), and phacelia, as well as checkermallow in some areas. I happened to notice a particular rock that had apparently been painted red, and a small lizard was sunning itself on top of the rock.

photo of lizard warming in the sun

Lizard warming in the sun

I also noticed a patch of pincushion plant with several small blossoms radiating out from the ball. I think it is called needleleaf pincushion plant or Great Basin navarretia (Navarretia intertexta ssp. propinqua).

picture of navarretia, or pincushion plant

Navarretia, or pincushion plant

A little over 6100 feet elevation there is an area where there was a fire within the last few years. There is an entire hillside where more than half the trees burned.

image of hillside with trees indicating the location of a recent fire

Hillside with trees indicating the location of a recent fire

There were some areas covered with a low-growing plant, like ground cover. I believe it is mahala mat (Ceanothus prostratus), actually a very low-growing shrub.

photo of mahala mat

Mahala mat

Below 6500 feet or so, the trail passes primarily through grassland and chaparral, with modest tree cover. Above 6500 feet there are sections with more variety: pine, chaparral, even some aspens. In addition to the quail I heard meadowlarks and wrens, and saw a few California sister butterflies. On the checkout hike I turned around just under 6800 feet elevation, where the trail curves around the side of the hill and enters a forested area. A little below that I passed some thistle plants that were a silvery color. On the official hike they were blooming with brilliant red flowers. I think they are snowy thistles (Cirsium occidentale var. candidissimum).

picture of snowy thistle

Snowy thistle

There were also some shrubs with oval-shaped clusters of tiny white flowers. One of the clusters was being visited by a bee. I haven’t yet identified this shrub.

image of shrub with white flower clusters

Shrub with white flower clusters

At about 7300 feet elevation there was a T intersection where we turned right to continue uphill. In this area there was quite a bit of phlox as well as some onion (Allium), though I don’t know the exact type.

picture of onion wildflower

Onion wildflower

Another flower that we saw in numerous places along the trail is penstemon.

photo of penstemon along Hunter Lake Trail

Penstemon along Hunter Lake Trail

As the group hike approached 7500 feet elevation we noted that the trail was apparently going up the side of a hill in front of us, and we could see a jeep descending the trail. A few minutes later we met up with the jeep just as we were about to make our way around a large puddle that had filled a slight depression in the trail. We asked the couple in the jeep if they’d found Hunter Lake; they said No, and we all agreed that the puddle might be as close as we were going to get to a lake that day!

photo of Hunter Lake – not exactly!

Hunter Lake – not exactly!

With increasing elevation the views of the surrounding area got more and more spectacular. Here is a view across the Washoe Valley south of Reno with the Virginia Range in the background.

image of view of the Washoe Valley and Virginia Range

View of the Washoe Valley and Virginia Range

Above 7500 feet there were several secondary roads with signage indicating that we were on road 41392. We passed 41392A, B, and C. When we came to D we stayed on what we thought was the main road, but my GPS track told me afterward that we had turned off the road that goes to whatever exists of Hunter Lake. In any case, when we got to 8300 feet elevation we decided to take a break on a small hilltop, enjoying some welcome breeze and views of the surrounding hills before making our way back toward the trailhead.

On the way down we bypassed the more circuitous route we’d taken uphill and followed the main trail to the trailhead. Around 5800 feet elevation there is a big intersection where we turned left to go around a hill. From this section of trail there was a great view of Peavine Peak about 9 miles away almost due north.

picture of Peavine Peak

Peavine Peak

There was also a nice view of the downtown Reno skyline.

image of Reno skyline

Reno skyline

From this point it was less than a mile back to the trailhead.

Considering that we had found the trail to be relatively rocky and with steeply banked sides in many areas, the hike was more difficult than the average 10% grade suggests. However, the views were excellent and, in season, the wildflowers are numerous and colorful.

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