Lay of the Land
Around Boulder Peak
Hiking South from the Southern Sharkfin (peak 9501) on the Southern side of Golden Canyon we push East for a very short distance to get a fine overlook of the East Carson River before turning 180 degrees to the West to begin circling around the South and Southwestern flanks of Boulder Peak.
We making a brief visit to the Western flank of the Sierra around Boulder Peak before we return to hiking along the Eastern edge overlooking the fantastic granite canyon of the East fork of the Carson River.
swinging into and climbing out of Western flank of the Sierra around Boulder Peak for the first time on the West flank since our brief descent from Tyron Peak to Wolf Creek, but this time for an even shorter visit. But, crossing Boulder Creek running down the West flank of Boulder Peak provides great shade, great tasty cold fresh water, and a couple of really nice campsites.
Up and Down the Sierra Crestline
Hiking South from Wolf Creek we have been following along the Eastern side of the massive volcanic ridgeline of the Sierra crestline topped by Arnot and Disaster Peaks. South of Disaster Peak there's a break in the series of massive volcanic mountaintops atop huge volcanic massifs running South.
This break in the crestline is composed of the relatively small bulk of Boulder Peak and two low granite ridges running West off the this short length of "diminished" Sierra Crestline before Stanislaus and Sonora Peaks, running North and South sitting atop a huge shared massif resume the pattern of us hiking along a Sierra Crestline composed of a series of volcanic massifs.
This pattern has held true since passing South of Carson Pass. We first crossed The Nipple Massif, then the Raymond and Reynolds Massif, down to the Tyron Peak Massif, and on down to our current position between massifs.
We will cross the last of this series of massive volcanic massifs stretching South from Carson Pass when we cross the Leavitt Massif South of Sonora Pass.
The 9393 foot granite mound of Boulder Peak is incongruous
both because of its small size and girth (compared to the volcanic massifs North and South of it) as well as its granite composition when compared to the massive 11,000 foot+ crests of Stanislaus and Sonora Peaks, and their massive girth to our North, as well as the size and bulk of Boulder Peak to its South.
Boulder Peak is puny in comparison.
This low granite gap in the volcanic crestline between Disaster and Stanislaus Peaks is a nice change, as was our taking a loop, however short it was, down along the Western Sierra flank around Boulder Peak.
Though we are again on the East flank of the Sierra hiking South of Boulder Peak and the Boulder Lake junction, and are hiking under the shadows of the massive volcanic forms of Stanislaus and Sonora Peaks to our West-Southwest, fantastic golden red hued granite walls are rising out of our East and Southeast making up the sheer walls of the East Carson River Canyon.
These granite formations appear dynamic,
seeming to be in the middle of actively breaking out of, and free from their imprisonment under ancient volcanic flows. Though nothing appears to be moving to the naked eye, everything is moving.
This is one big piece of "emergent" granite, rising as the forces of erosion scour away its soft volcanic encasement one raindrop at a time.
Two Rivers, Two Trails
After circling around the West flank of Boulder Peak we find ourselves perched on a narrow sliver of forested granite ridge crest dividing and overlooking both the Eastern and Western drainages off of the Sierra Crest.
This narrow neck divides two great rivers draining the opposite flanks of this section of the Sierra Crest, the East Carson River to the East and the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus to the West. Therefore this ridge also divides the two great trails that follow these rivers, the PCT from the TYT.
A very short distance South down this strip of crestline from Boulder Peak we arrive at the Boulder Lake trail junction leading West down to the Clarks Fork.
The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail is 2.74 miles below us to the Southwest via the Boulder Lake trail. This Boulder lake trail junction is the shortest connector trail of the four trails linking the PCT and TYT across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness.
At Highway 108 the PCT and TYT are a bit closer. The Pacific Crest Trail's North and Southbound Trailheads at Sonora Pass are about a mile East of the Northbound Tahoe to Yosemite Trail Trailhead at Saint Marys Pass.
The Southbound Tahoe to Yosemite Trailhead is nowhere near Sonora or Saint Marys Pass. The Southbound TYT continues South from a point nine miles West down Highway 108 at the Kennedy Meadows Pack Station road, then a mile down that road to the gate on the South end of the Kennedy Meadows Pack Station. The trailhead into the Emigrant Wilderness is about a mile hiking South of the Kennedy Meadows Pack Station's South gate.
Boulder Lake is the closest point between the PCT and TYT along the trails themselves from the Lake Tahoe Basin, where these routes divided, to where their routes rejoin below Bond Pass in Jack Main Canyon.
East and West Flanks
The drainage from the East sides of Arnot, Disaster and Boulder Peaks feed the East Carson River. The Western-sides of this line of peaks feed Disaster Creek and Boulder Creek, both of which contribute to the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus.
This particular little piece of crestline is special because it is one of the rare places where we can actually stand between these Eastern and Western drainages hiking across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. Tyron Peak and Wolf Creek Pass are the other two I can think of along the length of the trail between Ebbetts and Sonora Passes.
Hiking the PCT route across the North Sierra can be characterized as hiking the East flank of the Sierra. The Pacific Crest Trail route North from Dorothy Lake Pass to Carson Pass can be characterized by its Eastern flank route, despite the exceptions named above, especially if we compare it to the 100% Western flank route of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.
Here at Boulder Peak to the Boulder Lake trail junction the PCT peeks into both the East and West drainages.
Hiking the PCT North or South of this short section from Boulder Peak to the Boulder Lake trail junction we will again be decidedly on the Eastern Flank of the Sierra.
South of the Boulder Lake trail junction we will be deep within the drainage of the East Carson River. Southbound hikers will remain on the Eastern flank of the Sierra, with a few notable exceptions, until we enter Yosemite National Park through Dorothy Lake Pass to enter the massive Western watershed of the Tuolumne River stretching across the whole North Yosemite Backcountry.
We'll be in the watershed of the Tuolumne River from where we enter Yosemite through Dorothy Lake Pass to where we exit its Southern limit through Donohue Pass.
Northbound hikers along the PCT from the Boulder Lake trail junction will also be hiking along the Eastern flank of the Sierra for 99% of our hike up to the Lake Tahoe Basin, again with a couple of notable exceptions (Tyron Peak, The Nipple above Blue Lakes, and the top of the Silver Fork of the American River drainage at Carson Pass), until we enter the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Continuing South from the Boulder Lake trail junction the Pacific Crest Trail brings us around the back side of "The Plug," a massive granite feature on the Western wall of the East Carson Canyon, then switch-backs us down to the East Carson River.
Dropping down to the East Carson river the Sierra crestline dividing us from the Clarks Fork now sits above us to our West, capped by Stanislaus and Sonora Peaks running North to South. To our East is the distinctive great wall of granite making up this section of the Eastern Wall of the East Carson River's Canyon.
Sonora Peak fills a central role in the local terrain. Sonora Peak sits at the top of two mighty drainages.
Sonora Peak's Northeastern flank composes the Southwestern sweep of the East Carson River's headwaters bowl, while Sonora Peak's Western flank makes up the Eastern perimeter of the East Carson River's headwaters bowl.
Climbing out of the East Carson River's headwaters bowl we have to get around Sonora Peak to get to Sonora Pass. We'll traverse up Sonora Peak's Eastern flank to traverse across its Southern flank to finally gain access down to Sonora Pass.
This little neck of narrow ridge separating the great East Carson and Clarks Fork South of Boulder Peak down to the Boulder Lake trail junction is special because it gives us the trail allowing us to link our Pacific Crest Trail route to the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail which opens up great backpacking loops through the magnificent upper reaches of both the East Carson and Clarks Fork rivers.
The Boulder Lake trail linking these Eastern and Western drainages gives us easy access to the stunning high country up to and around the headwaters of both the Clarks Fork and the East Carson Rivers without having to hike too many miles.
Headwaters Loop Hard
A fantastic backpacking loop consists of hiking North from Sonora Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail to turn West at the Boulder Lake trail junction. We hike West past Boulder Lake down to the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail along the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus. We hike up the Clarks ForkSouth over Saint Marys Pass to the Clarks Fork Trailhead on Highway 108.
This Pass to Pass hike
is 23.52 miles.
That would be a difficult 23 mile backpacking loop because of the typical challenges of altitude and High Sierra terrain, but even more difficult because the segment up the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus on the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail is unmaintained, and a segment of it is untrailed.
Headwaters Loop Longer and Harder
We can hike variations of this loop out of the Clarks Fork Road trailheads that pump up the miles by enlarging the loop, and increasing the difficulty by throwing in an additional segment of unmaintained trail.
Imagine hiking North from Sonora Pass on the PCT down to the East Carson River Trail, just as in the first loop described above. But instead of hiking all the way down to the Boulder Lake junction we turn Right at the East Carson River unmaintained trail to find the route down to Carson Falls.
At Carson Falls we pick up maintained trail down to Murray Falls, from where we hike up to the PCT via the Murray Canyon trail.
From Murray Canyon we hike South on the PCT to the Boulder Lake trail junction, then West off the PCT to hike down to the TYT via Boulder Lake, and finish through the unmaintained section of the Clarks Fork over Saint Marys Pass to finish on Highway 108 at the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead as we did on the trip described above.
The first loop trip described above is a tough trip, but the second loop includes two of the toughest segments of unmaintained/untrailed backpacking trails in the North Sierra. The East Carson River Trail and the upper section of the TYT over Saint Marys Pass. These difficult unmaintained trails are not a joke.
These are two serious routes that require excellent fittness, observation, analysis, and route finding skills.
The Carson Iceberg topo hiking map traces out these routes, and is decorated with lots of other intriguing loops, if you use your imagination to see them.
From our position here at the Boulder Lake trail junction we can imagine loops who's Northern hemisphere circles the most challenging trails in the Southern Carson Iceberg Wilderness, while the Southern scope of this backpacking circle can be designed to sweep across the most beautiful high altitude terrain of the Emigrant Wilderness.
The map below leaves little to the imagination in the Southern Carson Iceberg and Northern High Emigrant Wilderness:
Sonora Pass Region Backpacking Map
30 minute large-scale topo hiking map
The map above depicts a lot of terrain and accesses a lot of backpacking information. Most of the black-dotted trail routes on all the 30 minute hiking maps are linked to the detailed 15 minute backpacking maps of the locatin clicked. The red dots are linked to the trail guide report for the location marked.
Hike South on the Pacific Crest Trail
We have one more ridge line and one more drainage to cross South of the Boulder Lake trail junction before we pass around the West side, the backside of "the plug," the massive granite formation making up a section of the Western wall of the canyon big enough to pinch the course of East Carson River around its massive base twelve hundred feet below its crest.
Passing around its backside through a channel of forest to the South end of "the plug" we have a short hike South across exposed terrain before we begin switch-backing down to the East Carson River.
The USGS 7.5 topo map quadrangle appears to be inaccurate here. The switchbacks down to the river from the crest line appear to be situated further South of The Plug, AKA Peak 9065, than indicated on the map.
Unlike the map,
the upper switchbacks down to the East Fork of the Carson River are centered on the creek, with the trail switchbacking across the creek multiple times before it runs out down to river level, rather than being composed of a couple of big traverses to the North of the creek as depicted on the USGS Disaster Peak quad.
Currently (2013) the switchbacks are centered on the steep four-season creek tumbling down the canyon-side.
Either the trail or the creek has moved since the maps were drawn. I'd say it was the trail that was repositioned...
Once at the bottom of the switchbacks the Pacific Crest Trail becomes a a gentle descent for a short hike through dense swaths of spreading Aspens to the unmaintained East Carson Trail junction on the Southbound hiker's Left.
Don't Miss Carson Falls!
The unmaintained East Carson River Trail turns Northeast off our upstream hike along the PCT following the East fork of the Carson River downstream to Carson Falls. Just South of Carson Falls we will find the Golden Canyon Trail leading West up to the PCT and just a bit North of Carson Falls the Murray Canyon Trail also climbs to the West to join the PCT.
These two junctions bracketing the Carson Falls offer additional options for our hiking loops through here, but I would not miss visiting Carson Falls.
I am one of the people who yearly duck the PCT-East Carson junction when I can first get through the route as the snows recede, and we can find the junction, but I do not duck the E Carson Trail itself.
Injury has knocked me out of the Spring opening of this rough trail in 2011 and likely 2012. Nonetheless this well-worn trail junction is easy to spot.
Two Campsites near the Trail Junction
There is an uneven site along the PCT at the trail junction, and a nearby stream runs past, but there is a much superior campsite overlooking the East Carson River about a hundred yards down the unmarked East Carson River Trail.
East Carson River Trail Junction
At 8160 feet the Pacific Crest Trail junction with the East Carson trail is the lowest point of our hike through the East Carson River drainage. Hiking either North or South from this point offers significant climbs. North up the switchbacks to the Sierra Crest line, and South up the steady climb to and through the low gap in the headwaters bowl of the East Carson I call the "East Carson Gap," to the next high Gap located crossing the Southeast corner of Sonora Peak high above Sonora Pass, which I call the "Sonora Gap."
The climbs in either direction from the East Carson River trail junction, the excellent water and break spot at the junction, and the fine campsite just down the East Carson River Trail from the junction make this an excellent spot to break or camp.
Hiking South on the PCT from the trail junction we face a 5.86 mile ascent up 2376 feet of elevation to the Sonora Gap at 10,500 feet, our highpoint on this section of the trail.
Another 2.88 miles South from the Sonora Gap brings us down into Sonora Pass at 9624 feet and to road access on Highway 108 where we can hitch a ride down to our next resupply spot at Kennedy Meadows Pack Station we will pick up our resupply package for the next section of trail down to Tuolumne Meadows.
The East Carson River trail junction to Sonora Pass: 8.74 miles
Staging Up for Resupply and Days Off
Since we will be hiking out to Kennedy Meadows Pack Station tomorrow I'd like to camp as close to Sonora Pass as possible to get to Kennedy Meadows as early as possible.
This means that I'm going to try to push South for another 2.63 miles climbing 1080 feet to the hidden campsite situated on the top of the last climb before entering the headwaters bowl, an excellent campsite I call "Hunters Camp."
Hunters Camp is 6.11 miles North of Sonora Pass, a distance we will cross before the Sun is far above the Eastern horizon, and before the steady trickle of Summertime traffic begins to flow over Sonora Pass.
We'll be getting to the Kennedy Meadows Pack Station before they stop serving breakfast.
Rest and Resupply Plan
I am going to take two days off at Kennedy Meadows Pack Station. The first day is when I arrive, which will actually be a little more than a half-day off. But that's not enough. I want a full day without wearing a pack or doing any substantial walking. Shock and Strain free. I want to fully rest. I will spend a full second day doing absouletly nothing except sitting, eating, drinking, talking to cowboys, Joan and Mrs Bloom, Kennedy Meadows guests, various riders horse and iron horse, Sheryl and the ladies, and all the backpackers I see, of course.
Kennedy Meadows is a trail hub for all sorts of backpackers, hikers, hunters, horsemen, fisherfolk, families, and so on. I soak up the various aspects of trail culture on display at Kennedy Meadows, and share mine.
OK, you staged up?
I'm ready for a night at Hunters Camp and two at KM!