For the second day of hiking on my car camping trip I was planning to hike the section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) north from the Tamarack trailhead just off Blue Lakes Road, hopefully turning around about halfway to Carson Pass on CA-88. As it turned out, I made changes in my plan in real-time in response to weather conditions – and by the next morning I was grateful I’d made those modifications.
The first part of the hike involved a climb up to nearly 9200 feet elevation with spectacular views, such as this one of Lower Blue Lake viewed from almost 1000 feet higher in elevation than the lake.
In the original plan for the hike I would hike about 6 miles northwest from the Tamarack trailhead, past a distinctive peak called The Nipple and to a junction with Summit City Canyon Trail, where there is supposed to be a trailhead accessible from CA-88 via a dirt road, Forestdale Divide Rd. However, I encountered so much wind on the ridge immediately northwest of The Nipple that I decided to turn around almost 3 miles short of my goal. As kind of a replacement, after returning to the PCT junction near the Tamarack trailhead, I continued southeast for nearly 3 miles to the start/end of the previous day’s hike and then back to the Tamarack trailhead. The route is shown on the GPS track image, where the orange dot near the middle of the track indicates the trailhead location.
The entire hike was in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and in Alpine County, covering 13.1 miles with 2060 feet of elevation gain and loss. I encountered a lot of wind and wind gusts above 8500 feet elevation, and this seemed to confuse my GPS about the elevation gain and loss. If you look closely at the elevation profile there is a lot of “hash” in the higher elevations – in fact, at the end of the hike the unit claimed that my actual elevation gain was 3700 feet, in contradiction to my later analysis that came up with 2060 feet. I surmise that the constant wind gusts fooled the unit into thinking that I was making large, very rapid climbs and descents, as a response to the changes in apparent atmospheric pressure associated with the wind – I don’t have a better explanation.
The 13.1 mile distance corresponded to a PCT trail distance of 6.45 miles, plus a short spur trail access at the Tamarack junction. With respect to official PCT mileages as reported in the PCT data book, the hike covered mile 1064.3 (the road crossing from the previous day’s hike) to mile 1070.75 (my turnaround point on the ridge near The Nipple).
From the trailhead parking area to the PCT junction it is just a short 1/8 mile long spur trail. The PCT passes through a forested area for about 1/3 mile before crossing Blue Lakes Rd and continuing west-northwest. There is more forest for the next mile and a half, up to about 8500 feet elevation. Then the trail emerges from forest and begins to traverse nearly bare hillsides. The grade gets steeper, though it is still less than 8%. More importantly, on the day of the hike the wind definitely started to increase. Shortly after emerging from the forested area I had a nice view of my immediate goal: the trail would pass just a couple hundred vertical feet below the top of The Nipple, shown here.
As I crossed this open area I found several wildflowers, including some broad scaled owl’s clover (Orthocarpus cuspidatus). Although it had obviously finished blooming for the season, the plants were still recognizable as this species, growing among woolly mule’s ears (Wyethia mollis) that were also well past their blooming period.
There was also a bit of lupine (Lupinus sp.), possibly sulphur flower (Eriogonum umbellatum), mountain monardella (Monardella odoratissima) and some scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata).
I also found a few mountain dandelions (Agoseris sp.); I think this is agoseris, though the leaf shape does not quite correspond to any of the species that are supposed to grow in this area.
About 1 mile after entering the open area and reaching nearly 9000 feet elevation I had the view of Lower Blue Lake pictured at the beginning of the post. The wind kept getting stronger as I gained elevation. Initially I just pressed on, since I knew that the trail would crest near The Nipple and then descend several hundred feet to the Lost Lakes area. Perhaps 1/4 mile past the view of Lower Blue Lake there was a wonderful view of Upper Blue Lake. I think my campground and camp site are in the forested area at the lower left part of the lake shore, nearly 1000 feet lower in elevation and less than half a mile away.
As the wind continued to get stronger I kept telling myself to go just a little farther and the trail would crest. However, when I did manage to reach the crest, the wind was actually so strong that I could barely stay on my feet. And the slope on the other side of the ridge was just as steep as the slope down to Upper Blue Lake. Fortunately the trail passed a small rock formation on the lee side, and I sat down to look around me and figure out what to do.
There was a wonderful view to the north, basically along the West Fork of the Carson River as it passes through Charity Valley and Hope Valley, with the Carson Pass area in the background.
I could also see most of Lost Lake East, less than 1/2 mile away. I think the spur trail from the PCT is visible just up the hillside from the lake.
In any case, given the strength of the wind – I’m no expert, but I estimated that it must have been 40 mph with stronger gusts – I decided to turn back. Perhaps it is nearly always windy on this ridge, or perhaps it was windier than usual due to a weather front coming through. Either way, I did not want to hike down to Lost Lake and then need to come back across the ridge again.
During the initial part of the descent I simply focused on keeping my footing, but I did stop briefly to take in this expansive view to the southeast. At the very left of the picture the dark rock formation is Jeff Davis Peak, just over 2 miles away; it had been a landmark of the previous day’s hike. The jagged ridge top in the center of the picture is the volcanic rock Y-shaped ridge that the PCT passes (and I’d hiked) around, with Raymond Peak the highest point and about 6 miles away. In the background there is another ridge that is probably near CA-4 and the Ebbetts Pass area.
I also noted a few more wildflowers: Bloomer’s goldenbush (Ericameria bloomeri), Anderson’s thistle (Cirsium andersonii), and even some mountain pride (Penstemon newberryi) that was well past its blooming peak.
After leaving the open, windswept area and re-entering the forested area, I passed by rock formations. There were several isolated magnificent junipers, either western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) or Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis), somehow managing to grow from the side of the rock.
I continued back to the Tamarack trailhead and took a break. When I’d turned around on The Nipple I had tentatively decided to try to hike past the Tamarack trailhead spur trail to the road crossing that had been my start/end trailhead the previous day. Not far from the Tamarack trailhead spur trail I noticed that I was passing a few quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides), some of which had already turned yellow – a sure sign of an imminent autumn season.
The trail passes mainly through a forested area, with rocky areas and individual boulders with differently colored regions and veins. Someday perhaps I will learn enough about local geology to be able to identify more of what I see!
About 2 1/4 miles from the Tamarack trailhead spur trail the PCT passes very close to Lily Pad Lake. In fact, the trail also passes close to Tamarack Lake and another, smaller and unnamed, lake, both of which are not visible from the trail. The approach to Lily Lake was so close that I went over to the actual lake shore. The picture shows most of the lake, but there is a cluster of lily pads just out of view to the left of the image.
Less than half a mile further I was able to catch a glimpse through the trees of the volcanic rock ridge formation around which I’d hiked the previous day.
About 3 miles past the Tamarack trailhead spur trail I arrived at the road crossing that had served as my trailhead the previous day and, after a quick break, I started back to the Tamarack trailhead. Along the way I noticed some interesting clouds and wondered if the pattern had been generated by higher-level winds.
Farther along I had a good view of Jeff Davis Peak, pointing skyward behind the shoulder of an intermediate (unnamed) peak.
About a half mile before the Tamarack trailhead spur trail the PCT passes by an impressive rock wall. On the return trip, as I stopped to take a couple of pictures, I noticed that there was a person on the top of the wall. A moment later I encountered his climbing companion, who had just descended.
I returned to my car without further adventure. Although I’d decided to make a real-time change in plans because of the wind on The Nipple, the second part of the hike was essentially the hike I had originally planned for the following day. I figured I would simply make a new plan for the following day. I did not know yet that I would wake up to a snowy white fairy land and need to abandon any plan at all for a hike!