For the fourth and final day of a car camping and hiking trip I hiked again with friends on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), this time north from Sonora Pass to the Boulder Lake Trail junction where we’d joined the PCT on the previous day. Although we made a significant navigational error before even leaving the trailhead, we did recover without needing to return to our starting point, and we completed the rest of the hike without further navigational excitement – and with exceptional views.
The section of PCT we hiked began, technically, about 2 1/2 miles north of Sonora Pass and continued nearly 10 miles to the junction with the Boulder Lake Trail, from PCT mile 1020.9 to mile 1030.7, according to the mileages in the PCT data book. This section of trail is mainly in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness, which straddles parts of Stanislaus National Forest and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Most of the hike was in Alpine County, with the initial southern portion in Mono County very near the northeast corner of Tuolumne County.
After leaving the PCT we hiked down the Boulder Lake Trail and the Clark Fork Trail, which we’d hiked up on the previous day, to a trailhead just a few miles from our car camping base in the Clark Fork Campground off CA-108.
The highlights of this hike were the numerous fantastic views of the High Sierras, with towering granite peaks and ridges and amazing valley and canyon views. This picture was taken as the PCT crosses the Sierra crest at an elevation of about 10,500 feet; this is the northernmost point of the PCT that is higher than 10,000 feet elevation. This crest crossing is nearly 3 miles north of Sonora Pass.
This was a point-to-point hike, facilitated by a car shuttle. We’d stashed one car the previous afternoon at the ending trailhead not far from the Clark Fork Campground, and in the morning we drove our other car up to the Sonora Pass trailhead. At the end of the hike we retrieved the car at Sonora Pass on our way home.
The GPS track shows an overview of the route, with the orange dot denoting the Sonora Pass PCT trailhead. The portion of the track south of the red carat was actually not on the PCT, as will be described shortly. We left the PCT at the sharp angle at the northernmost point of the track.
The initial portion of the hike was a 1000-foot climb to the Sierra crest. There was another nearly 1000-foot climb after a 2300-foot descent, and most of the last 7 miles was downhill – 6 miles after leaving the PCT. Except for our navigation error off the PCT, the grade was quite reasonable and pleasant.
As hinted, the hike began with a navigation error. At the Sonora Pass trailhead parking area, as we drove counterclockwise around the loop deciding where to park, we noticed what looked like a trailhead, with a trail leading to the north. Basically we assumed it was the PCT, although our instincts soon suggested that it wasn’t. In fact, after about 3/4 mile the trail became very steep, with treacherous footing: not at all a good or safe trail for someone carrying a loaded backpack. We pressed on anyway, managing to negotiate a half-mile section with 20% grade and lots of loose gravel that made it difficult not to slip downhill on every step. We passed some strange but beautiful rock formations, like this one.
One of the reasons we pressed on was that we (correctly) believed we were almost to “the top” – where we in fact found the PCT. Upon consulting maps on one of our phones, we realized that we had climbed up a use trail that follows the county line separating Alpine and Mono Counties. In the process, in about 1.2 trail miles we had bypassed 2.4 miles of the PCT!
Between actually reaching the PCT and reaching the Sierra crest there were more views of the unusual and beautiful local rock formations.
The PCT crests at about 10,500 feet elevation with beautiful views of the last rows of the Eastern Sierra ridges before the steep descent into the Great Basin region. In the next half-mile stretch of trail we found numerous wildflowers still in bloom in mid-September. These included Anderson’s thistle (Cirsium andersonii), lupine, several types of arnica, common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and perhaps some penstemon. There was a nice example of low-growing mountain dandelion (Agoseris sp.).
There were several large patches of rock fringe (Epilobium obcordatum),
as well as a large patch of musk monkeyflower (Mimulus moschatus), both with many of the blossoms showing the lateness in the blooming season.
In several places there was some low-growing lupine with white areas on the blossoms; I think it is Brewer’s lupine (Lupinus breweri).
Near an especially colorful cluster of wildflowers we encountered our first through-hiker of the day. He was headed southbound, on his way from Canada to Mexico. He stopped for a few moments to chat with us and appreciate the views and wildflowers.
The PCT passes within view of Wolf Creek Lake, whose greenish hue rather surprised me. Other than the water color, it looked like a lovely place for backpackers to camp. I believe that the distinctive peak in the background is an unnamed peak about 1 mile southeast of White Mountain; both are about 11,300 feet elevation.
After passing Wolf Creek Lake the PCT begins a 2000-plus foot descent. There were a few short sections that were steeper than typical PCT, and they were “paved” with flat rocks, presumably to prevent soil erosion and improve hiker traction. It is relatively unusual to find such visible “engineered” features along the PCT; although the trail has been carefully planned and built, the underlying engineering is usually less visible.
Several switchbacks lead down to what appears to be headwaters of the East Fork Carson River. Just past one of the switchbacks, around some sizeable boulders, there were several low-growing plants with beautiful red leaves.
Over the next several miles we would hike past numerous small streams that plunged down steep hillsides on their way to join the East Fork Carson River. On the other side of the canyon a long ridge of immense granite walls rose steeply. This view is near the south end of a series of ridges.
After about 6 miles, during a relatively flat section of trail that follows just above the East Fork Carson River, we stopped for a lunch break near one of the stream crossings. The overnight low-30-degree temperatures had warmed up nicely to nearly 60 degrees in the sun.
About 8 miles from the beginning of the hike the trail briefly bottomed out at about 8000 feet elevation before beginning to climb once again, heading a bit to the west and away from the East Fork Carson River. Near the beginning of this climb the PCT crosses a small stream that created a beautiful ribbon of water rushing down the sheer rock face.
A large switchback in this area guaranteed that we would cross the same stream three times before continuing north away from it. In this area there were some spectacular trees among the boulders that defined the canyon wall. When most of the vegetation is low scrub, less than a few feet tall, these trees really stood out.
At the south end of the switchback there was a final spectacular view to the southeast along the canyon of the East Fork Carson River.
There were also views south, through the trees, toward Stanislaus Peak a couple of miles away. As we climbed the forest became denser, with tall trees towering over the boulders.
About half a mile before the junction with Boulder Lake Trail we enjoyed another view of a rock wall on the other side of the canyon.
It may be pertinent to note that this view, toward the southeast, shows some clouds; our earlier views to the north were nearly cloud-free. Some four hours later, when we reached the car we had left at Sonora Pass, we found that there had been rain at some point during the day.
We encountered a second and a third southbound through-hiker before leaving the PCT behind. I first noticed that the second hiker had something on the front left strap of his pack. Before I had quite gotten a good look at it, my hiking companion asked him his trail name, and it was Raccoon. Sure enough, he was carrying a stuffed raccoon on his epic journey from Canada to Mexico!
When we reached the Boulder Lake Trail junction we stopped for a second lunch break. For longer hikes, over 15 miles or so, it can be a useful practice to stop for two sit-down breaks. I’m finding that I enjoy reaching the ending trailhead with some energy remaining, rather than fully tired. This is especially true for multiple consecutive hikes of this distance.
The Boulder Lake Trail basically comes down a long, steep hillside with many tree-decorated boulder fields.
After leaving the PCT the Boulder Lake and Clark Creek Trails descend 2000 feet to the trailhead near our campground. The trail passes Boulder Lake, a small but pretty lake, as well as many more boulders. There is a 1-mile section that is fairly steep; in this section the way-finding was a bit easier hiking downhill than it had been the previous morning hiking uphill. Along Clark Creek there were beautiful lush ferns, as well as picturesque pine cones and pine fronds on the trail. About 1/4 mile before reaching the trailhead we passed signage indicating that we were exiting the Carson Iceberg Wilderness.
Near the trailhead there was a beautiful view of The Iceberg across Iceberg Meadow.
As soon as we arrived back at our campsite we finished breaking camp and loading up the car. Before we left the campground we recruited one of our camping neighbors to take a picture of us as a nice memory of the two days we’d hiked together. I must admit that our neighbors were impressed that we’d hiked 34 miles in two days and were both relaxed and energized by the experience!
After loading the car we drove back to Sonora Pass to retrieve the car we’d left in the morning. Then we drove home: one car east to US-395 and then north to Truckee via Reno, and one car west to the Bay Area. It had certainly been a memorable hiking trip, and we were already beginning to think about further adventures for the next year’s high-country hiking season.