The third hiking day of my car camping and hiking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) was only about 20 PCT miles away from the first day’s hike. It seemed farther away, but perhaps that was because I’d driven most of the way back to the Bay Area the previous day, nearly bailing out on two terrific hikes due to some unexpected overnight snow. This post describes the first of the two hikes in the southern portion of the stretch between Ebbetts Pass and Sonora Pass, in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness of Stanislaus National Forest in Alpine County.
The loop hike was fairly ambitious, covering about 17.35 miles with nearly 3900 feet of ascent and descent. The first 6-mile section was a 2300-foot climb up Clark Fork and Boulder Lake Trails just to reach the PCT. This was followed by 5.1 miles on the PCT between Boulder Lake Trail and Paradise Valley Trail. The final 6-mile section included a short climb followed by a 3100-foot descent on Paradise Valley and Disaster Creek Trails. The official PCT mileages from the PCT data book are 1035.8 (Boulder Lake Trail) and 1030.7 (Paradise Valley Trail).
The hike passed through a variety of habitats with wonderful views. Indeed, the views began right at the trailhead, where there was a great view of The Iceberg, a prominent and distinctive peak. The Iceberg seems impressively high: its peak is at 8350 feet elevation, compared to the trailhead elevation of about 6300 feet. However, we would hike past that peak elevation before reaching the PCT!
The trailhead is really a dual trailhead, located at Iceberg Meadows, about 10 miles off CA-108 at the end of the road that goes to the Clark Fork Campground, home base for two hikes. I was hiking with three friends from a Tahoe area hiking club. The trailhead services both the Clark Fork Trail and the Disaster Valley Trail, the outbound and return trails. The GPS track shows the loop, with the trailhead denoted by the orange dot.
The elevation profile shows the climbing and descent for the hike.
The first 2.7 miles was a gentle climb through forest, including a stream crossing on insubstantial-looking logs. The primary remnants of the previous afternoon’s rain were water droplets on some of the leaves on the ground.
At a trail junction at 2.7 miles we continued on the Boulder Lake Trail. Although the morning had begun with cool temperatures – a dish towel I’d left out overnight to dry had frozen stiff – once we started climbing in earnest we shed our outer layers. Most of the climb from the junction to Boulder Lake was a 15% grade. There were some impressive boulders next to the trail; in addition we could see that the nearby hillside was rather densely covered with boulders.
There was one area of the 15% climb where it was a little tricky to way-find hiking uphill. I’ve found that, in these situations, it’s helpful to look carefully to the sides, since the intended trail may have a switchback. We hiked down this trail the following day, and the way-finding was straightforward. In another place the trail passes over some open bare granite, and there was a huge (at least 2 feet tall) cairn to mark the way.
The trail has a small crest at pretty Boulder Lake, which had nice reflections of the surrounding forest and (more) boulders.
Above Boulder Lake there was an additional 1.4-mile climb at a gentler grade to reach the PCT. It is noteworthy that the PCT map does not show that Boulder Lake Trail goes through to the PCT, even though the trail remains well-defined and easy to follow above Boulder Lake. In addition, there is a sign post at the PCT junction to mark Boulder Lake Trail.
Along the way we passed some scarlet gilia and some Bloomer’s goldenbush (Ericameria bloomeri) with bright yellow blossoms at the tips of the stems/branches.
At the PCT we turned left to hike northbound. Very near the Boulder Lake Trail junction there was a nice view of a nearby ridge. On the GPS track image it’s basically less than 1 mile due east from the easternmost point on our route.
We paused several times to enjoy views both behind us and ahead of us. Close to the Boulder Lake Trail junction, as well as farther north along the PCT, we had dramatic views of a distinctive pointy-top peak to the south. The peak is Stanislaus Peak, with a peak elevation of 11,240 feet, just about 4 miles away in this picture.
From the initial section of the PCT we had nice views toward the southeast of the canyon in which the East Fork Carson Creek flows; southeast is upstream. The next day we would be hiking practically along the creek bank toward the Boulder Lake Trail junction.
The PCT follows a curved path between Boulder Peak (9390 feet elevation) and a smaller peak, unnamed on the GPS track map (9100 feet elevation). The climb, almost continuous from the trailhead at Iceberg Meadow, tops out at about 8900 feet, then descends 300 feet before climbing again, to 9250 elevation. Near this high point we had more great views southward toward Stanislaus Peak, including some other peaks farther to the south, and to the east, with snow. I presume this snow had fallen during the mini-storm that had come through less than 48 hours prior.
For couple of miles the PCT undulates gently above 9000 feet elevation. It passes very close to a bare talus-covered hill, which makes a striking contrast to the more prevalent forested areas and boulders.
All three of my maps show a small lake in the area around 9.3 miles from the trailhead, or 3 1/4 miles along the PCT, and in fact that was our original lunch stop destination. We decided, instead, to take fuel breaks at the beginning and end of the PCT portion of the hike. When we got to the indicated lake, we found it to more resemble a meadow. The GPS track map shows Coyote Meadow, but the area in this picture is closer to the PCT. Even though there wasn’t any water in the lake, it was pretty.
This is one of the areas where there were quite a few impressive boulders next to the trail.
In the high section of the PCT around 9200 feet elevation we encountered a fence with a simple gate for hikers to use. Later we would encounter some cattle, and it is my understanding that there are grazing leaseholds in some areas of the national forest. Fences like this one are used to separate grazing areas and to keep cattle from straying out of the designated grazing area.
In this general area there is a spring and an intermittent stream. This moisture supports some wildflowers, and we passed late-season Anderson’s thistles, asters, and a few lupine.
About 11.2 miles from the trailhead, or 5.1 miles along the PCT, we reached the four-way junction with Paradise Valley Trail, to the left, and Golden Canyon Trail, to the right. Here we departed from the PCT, taking the Paradise Valley Trail. Some of our group had hiked to this same junction from the north two years ago and hiked down the Paradise Valley Trail on the way to completing a different loop hike in the area.
The Paradise Valley Trail is about 3 miles long. Initially it climbs about 200 feet, to the 9450-foot high-elevation point of this hike. After this point the trail descends steadily for the remaining 6 miles of the hike. The trail passes mostly through forest, but also through a meadow; we passed a few mountain dandelions and broadleaf lupine, the latter well past the blooming phase but easily identified by the unusually large leaves.
About midway along Paradise Valley Trail we passed a nice view of a nearby isolated ridge, mostly bare volcanic rock or talus with just a few scattered trees.
As the trail continues downhill, perhaps at the top of Paradise Valley itself, it passes more open meadows. We finally saw a couple of the grazing cattle we had only heard before, via the locally worn cowbells. Soon the trail intercepts the path of an intermittent stream, which tumbles down the steep hillside and down a small, pretty waterfall.
Particularly along the stream there were bushes as well as scattered trees. The most spectacular trees were western (Juniperus occidentalis) or Sierra (Juniperus grandis) junipers. This specimen had clearly survived fire or some other natural phenomenon.
We would see other junipers in this area, many heavily laden with dark blue berries. This observation prompted one of my companions to comment that we were hiking past a bumper crop of gin!
After about 3 miles on the Paradise Valley Trail and descending almost 1400 feet, we reached a T junction with the Disaster Creek Trail. Two years ago we had turned right, uphill, at this junction to return to the Highland Lakes area via Gardner Meadow. This time we turned left, downhill, to return to Iceberg Meadows after a final 3 miles and over 1400 feet of descent.
The Disaster Creek Trail passes alternately through forest and open areas. This was the view across one of the open areas.
Although the trail follows quite close to Disaster Creek for a couple of miles, we did not get a clear view of the creek through the trees lining the creek bed. There were a few wildflowers, though, suggesting that this area would be especially pretty in the spring. About a half mile before the end of the hike we had a great view of a nearby forest-covered peak.
About 1/4 mile before the trailhead the trail exits the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.
Although this was a fairly ambitious hike, it was a beautiful one. And the weather was just about perfect for almost-fall hiking: sunny, cool in the morning, and comfortable in the afternoon. The following day we would begin hiking at Sonora Pass and hike to the Boulder Lake Trail, another PCT adventure!