East Fork of the Carson River and the Pacific Crest Trail
The ducks at the trail junction of the East Fork of the Carson River and the Pacific Crest Trail.
I put these ducks up in very early 2009. Someone had knocked down and reset the duck on the left, but they failed to restore it to the "pedestal & cap rock" form (hey, I'm an artist)as the duck on the Right is setup.
My 2010 backpacking trip up the East Carson River was turned back by dangerous fords, and my 2011 trip was cancelled due to Frostbite I picked up during Jan of 2011... Damn!
I'm hoping to be healed sufficiently for snow travel by the Spring of 2012...
East Carson River to Sonora Pass Trail Index
On this section of the Pacific Crest Trail, from North to South
The East Carson River Trail Junction is 20.7 miles South of Ebbetts Pass
The East Carson River Trail Junction is 4.65 miles North of the East Carson River Gap, where we will exit the E Carson River headwaters bowl, and finally exit the huge watershed of the East Fork of the Carson River to pass into and quickly across the tiny Wolf Creek drainage. We have been hiking South through the East Carson drainage since crossing Wolf Creek!
The East Carson River Trail Junction is 8.74 miles North of Sonora Pass.
Sunbeams promise to light the way to great trails, great views, and the great hiking that lays ahead of us to the High Points of this section of our backpacking trip. All of this hard work has a silver lining.
The sky contributes as much as the water and rock to the beauty and character of the East Carson River.
When you arrive at the East Carson Trail Junction you have dropped down into the lowest point of the Pacific Crest Trail in the East Carson River Valley at 8160 feet. This is where the trail and river almost meet. The East Carson trail from this junction is easily follow-able to the NE down to the East Fork of the Carson River. After fording the East Carson you are now committed to the un maintained trail route along the East Carson River down to Carson Falls.
The East Carson River and a big campsite sits about 150 yards to the East of the Pacific Crest Trail down this trail.
If you are backpacking South you have the 4.65 mile long steepening grind up the headwaters bowl of the East Carson River to the gap dividing the East Carson from Wolf Creek drainages. If you are hiking North, you have the grueling switchbacks to climb so you can pass around the backside of the impressive and impassable massive granite "plug" that blocks the Western shore of the East Carson River. The trail must climb around this obstacle, and climb it does, bringing the Pacific Crest Trail up steep switchbacks to trace its way North along the top of the Western Edge of the East Carson River's mighty granite gorge for a few incredibly scenic miles.
The Southbound backpacker's goal is to exit the headwaters bowl of the East Carson River by climbing over the steep ridge-arm extending off the NE shoulder of Sonora Peak that composes the bulk of the E Carson headwaters bowl. A short flat then brings us Southwest to a vantage point overlooking Wolf Creek Lake as we begin our final climb up to the Sonora Gap.
The terrain from the East Carson Gap up to where we begin to traverse Sonora Peak's barren rocky volcanic flank is an island of granite surrounded by the high peaks of an ancient volcanic eruption. To our East and to the West of the tiny granite zone in the East Carson Gap sits rusty red volcanic peaks. Speckled Granite outcroppings peeking out from under the layers of volcanic debris on the Northeast corner of Sonora Peak mark where the volcanic flow stopped before completely covering the all the granite here.
All the terrain up here, be it volcanic or granite, is slashed with heavy swaths of Spring brush, and millions of flowers. Hiking around the West side of Wolf Creek Lake brings you up through the last bits of granite terrain you are going to see for awhile after we climb onto the volcanic flanks of Sonora Peak to finish this section of Pacific Crest Trail between Ebbetts and Sonora Pass.
The next granite terrain we will encounter along the Pacific Crest Trail is along the West Walker River on the South side of Leavitt Peak at the base of Kennedy Canyon, about 16 miles South of Wolf Creek Lake.
At the top of our traverse across the Eastern Flank of Sonora Peak above Wolf Creek Lake we will be standing in the Sonora Gap, the gap in the southeastern shoulder of Sonora Peak that separates Sonora Peak's Eastern and Southern flanks. The grand views in almost every direction (except NW, as Sonora Peak blocks our view) make this a nice place to take a break, depending on the wind and clouds.
The Sonora Gap is the channel through the ridge-arm where the Pacific Crest Trail passes from the Wolf Creek/East Carson drainages over to the watersheds of the West Walker and Stanislaus Rivers which drain East and West from Sonora Pass, respectively.
We have taken a look at four different drainages during the last few miles of this hike, and we will have crossed all of them by the time we reach the Northern boundary of Yosemite National Park. (East Carson, Wolf Creek, Stanislaus via Deadman Ck, and West Walker)
The 10,500 foot Sonora Gap is also the highpoint on our trail since we departed Lake Tahoe. If you are heading North this is the last place you will be above 10,000 feet. If you are heading South things get steadily higher and higher as we eventually approach Mount Whitney.
From our high perch at the Sonora Gap we are faced with a brief 2.88 mile run South down to the 9643 foot elevation Sonora Pass on Highway 108, where we can hitch down to Kennedy Meadows to pick up our resupply and feed up before continuing South on the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.
At the East Carson River Trail junction with the Pacific Crest Trail there is an uneven campsite on the West side of the trail. The big rock just a few feet South of the junction makes a nice backrest and seat for a relaxing short break before you begin climbing South or North from this low point along the Pacific Crest Trail.
The four-season creek sitting a few feet North of the trail junction provides convenient water. This junction is well shaded.
Over the decades hikers entering and exiting the un maintained East Carson River Trail at this location have setup a custom big campsite about 100 yards down the East Carson River Trail on a flat spot sitting on the bank above the East Fork of the Carson River.
It's a big site, sufficient for mounted or hiking parties. I'm talking to you, Scoutmaster! This is a great site for Backpacking Scouts.
East Carson River South from the East Carson Trail Junction to "Hunters Camp" on the Pacific Crest Trail
The Lay of the Land
Heading South you have a 4.65 mile steady and steepening climb up through the upper reaches of the East Carson River to reach the East Carson Gap. The trail route tries to stay high above the Western shore of the river for most of the hike up to the East Carson Gap, where we exit the East Carson River Watershed at 10,240 feet of elevation.
Continuing on South to the Sonora Gap puts the overall distance from the East Carson River Trail junction to the Sonora Gap at 5.65 miles. Over this 5.65 miles we have a steady hard climb from 8160 to 10,536 feet of elevation. That's a 2376 foot climb.
Though we parallel the East Carson, the trail attempts to stay above the line of Spring wetness, and therefore keeps the river at a distance. As we head up we will notice a series of terrain features of interest and beauty, along with a series of nice places to camp.
At 1.01 miles South of the East Carson River trail junction we enter an open space in the forest that allows long views South to see the fine granite along the Eastern side of the river valley. A third of a mile later the trail moves closer to the East Carson, where we first hear, then see a beautiful "pocket" waterfall inset within its narrow granite channel. There are nice campsites on a flat above the falls.
A short way up past the waterfall the terrain again opens up, this time to the West, revealing the stark massive block of pointed rock that I call the prominence at the head of a little side valley between Stanislaus and Sonora Peaks. A short ways South of the Prominence we come to the no fishing signs placed near a couple of fine campsites sitting on a deeply forested flat above the river.
Between the East Carson River trail junction and Hunters Camp there are a couple of real nice campsites on shaded flats where the trail runs close to the river. Other than these locations we stay above and away from the river. This presents no problems to obtaining water. Numerous creeks feeding the East Carson River cut across the trail on a regular basis, even late in the Summer during a dry year.
South of the Prominence we have a hard 1.16 mile hike up to the well-hidden Hunter's Camp, where the trees start thinning out and grand views down the length of the East Carson River's mighty valley open up. At Hunters Camp we can camp with our nice view, easy water, and an excellent food storage/shade tree, or just take a break, get water, and have a snack before we continue South, and out of the East Carson Drainage.
I almost always stay at Hunters Camp when hiking through the East Carson. It is the best high campsite along the whole extent of the PCT along the East Carson River.
The terrain funnels the snow steeply into this section above the falls, making it hard to pass by during the Winter and early Spring. You can see I'm on a steep section trying to pass by this bottleneck.
This shot shows my development as a photographer. Previous to 2004 I would not pull out the camera during hairy moments. After 2004 I take pictures during many dangerous situations.
Spring Friend on the Prowl: Inside-Out Bear Tracks
Old bear tracks turned "inside-out."
The weight of a traveler across snow, in this case a bear, compresses the snow as it passes, leaving tracks inset into the snow.
As the snow mass melts, the compressed snow of the tracks melt much slower than the surrounding snow. As the snow around the tracks melts out, the compressed snow of the tracks becomes elevated as the un-compressed snow melts and recedes.
Many times the compressed snow of the tracks ices-up, leaving a detailed rock-solid record of tracks frozen in ice and displayed for your inspection above the receding snow.
If you know the local temp history you can begin to figure out how old the tracks are.
Ah damn! I did not bring my bear canister, and the bears are already active and prowling about. Now I gotta hang my food. Damn. I thought the bears were still crashed out.
Not only are the bears awake, they are probing the snow covered mountains. This guy was likely heading over to Wolf Creek Lake from the East Carson River. He is headed up-mountain, which means he's likely in the process of exiting the East Carson drainage to enter the Wolf Creek watershed. Why does the bear go up a snow-covered mountain? To get to the tasty treats on the other side.
The Spring Thaw at Wolf Creek Lake creates a wet quagmire around the apron of the lake that is just full of masses of insects and the ground critters feeding on them, all of whom Mr. Bear finds quite tasty.
Fine-Jointed Granite Walls around the Upper Reaches of the East Carson River
To the North of Peak 1073 on the East side of the River sits a sheer wall set back from the river along the Southeast side of the formation I call "the castle."
Up and down the upper reaches of the East Fork of the Carson River we have seen very tightly jointed granite. This formation is one of the finest examples of the both the nice golden color of the rock, and its tight jointing.
This rock, my climbing friends, looks like it has never felt the hand of man. Good luck backpacking to the trail position under it. Good luck crossing the East Carson River to get over to it, and you will need a huge amount of fortitude, stamina, and luck to get up to the base of this magnificent wall so you can begin your climb... Good Luck!
Detail of the Rock Face.
Every feature here reveals more details and information as you look closer. I figure that the best way to approach this feature may be from the East... the Western approach is difficult.
Narrow Valley opening into Headwaters Bowl
Since descending South into the Canyon along the East Carson River we have been under dense forest cover squeezed between high granite walls on one side, and the massive volcanic Sierra crest line hosting Stanislaus and Sonora Peaks on the other side.
We finally emerge out from the dark forest in this narrow valley into the almost treeless headwaters bowl of the East Fork of the Carson River. Now we can see the forest for the trees, and get some long views of the terrain.
As we climb higher we can not only look down into the valley of the East Carson River to trace our route up to our current position, but we can see as far North as Highland and Silver Peaks sitting just to the East of Ebbetts Pass.
The majestic beauty of the rock lining the East Fork of the Carson River never ceases to amaze me.
View North down the Valley during early Summer.
I find new beauty and new aspects and details on every feature every time I hike through this fine section of High Sierra Trail.
Heading South, up behind us, the trail climbs up onto the Western Wall of the Headwaters Bowl to avoid the wetness of Spring down near the East Fork of the Carson River.
I should not tease the climbers with virgin rock. But I've never seen any climbing parties testing these magnificent walls. I mean, just look at those cracks! I'm not much of a climber, but these walls look real good even to me.
The lack of climbers is likely due to the remoteness of the location, the difficulty of the approach, and the lack of knowledge in the climbing world about the walls that encase the Upper sections of the East Carson River.
To our West sits The Prominence, exposed at the head of an open channel cutting up into the Stanislaus Peak Massif
Hiking by the Prominence June 1998.
You can see the open channel in the mountains heading West, up to the base of the Prominence. This section of our trip up to the headwaters through here is comparatively flat.
The prominence is a noble feature.
Its shape, color, size, and texture all please the eye, clear the mind, and refresh the spirit.
A bit South of the Prominence we find a flat above the East Carson River.
When you see the Fishing Prohibition sign look to your East for nice campsites on a rise in a custom location above the East Fork of the Carson River.
Lahontan Trout Preserve
Hiking into the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness from the East of here brings you through a restricted fishing zone to protect the Paiute Trout.
Each of the Creeks and Rivers in these complex mountains once had their own species of Trout.
Most of these rare species have been lost or are threatened.
Serene Terrain of Forest and Rock works your body hard
The granite thickens and the forest thins as we hike higher up the East Fork of the Carson River.
We are constantly rising over an endless series of ridge arms descending from the Stanislaus Peak Massif to our West.
Up, Up, and more Up.
Fine glacial cut granite flats along Pacific Crest Trail.
Low glacial cut granite rings the meadows and soothes forest.
The rock and forest impart a delightful feeling, they create a good mood to passing backpackers.
The Canyon Opens into the Headwaters Bowl
Turning around to look North, down the East Carson River we have just hiked up.
I am snow-shoeing off of the location of the trail route. The trail route is to the West, to the left of this position. I will not follow the trail route as the flattest way up to the East Carson Gap is across the snow-covered meadows along the river route up.
In another month the flat meadows around the East Carson River here will be a saturated green meadow quagmire full of thick underbrush and mosquitoes. At that point in time you will be really happy the trail route stays high on the flank of Sonora Peak around the headwaters bowl of the East Carson River.
Turning around to view the Carson Gap and Sonora Peak to our South
Approaching the East Carson Gap during early Spring. We are hiking East of the Pacific Crest Trail route. The PCT route travels along the lower flank of Sonora Peak, the mountain on the Right. The East Fork of the Carson River is surging under the receding snow.
The Pacific Crest Trail route sits under snow on the far right of the image, running up to the Carson Gap between the line of trees and Sonora Peak.
Once snow has covered the terrain, and consolidated, the easiest way up the mountain is following the river course, rather than the trail route.
The trail route is established so the trail can best survive under the snows of Winter, emerging intact to survive the floods of Spring in good enough condition to stand up to the backpacker, horsemen, and hiker traffic of Summer.
Therefore the trail route is established high up on the mountain to avoid early-season wet spots and subsequently becoming part of the Spring Thaw's drainage system at the height of the Spring Thaw.
A poorly routed trail does not last long in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
During Winter and Spring time snow we can take the most direct route through the terrain, as I was doing here in 2004.
This old campsite sits high up the drainage of the East Carson River, along the messy tree line where you can first get long views down the East Carson River Valley through the thinning treetops, and you still have tree cover. I call this site "Hunters Camp."
When I first encountered it in the early '90s it had the look and feel of a campsite that was set up for hunters in the 1890s, if not a location frequented by the original hunters that lived here in the 1790s.
This camp has the best vantage point, great water, and excellent sleeping and sitting spots. It must have been in 2004 or 2005 when the Forest Service completely deconstructed this ancient established site.
The Forest Service removed the bench seats, took apart the fire ring, and spread the damn charcoal from the fire ring all over the area. The charcoal shards are all gone now, as of 2007. But they could not despoil the site itself, and its timeless utility.
Though this camp sits right next to the Pacific Crest Trail it is very hard to see from the trail, unless you keep your eyes open.
Ending the day at Hunters Camp rewards the long distance hiker.
2009 Tahoe to Whitney hiking trip.
Angry red faces appeared in the flaming clouds of sunset.
Layers of Crimson moisture and light.
The crisp morning air reveals much.
Highland and Silver Peaks dominate the background. Bull Canyon sits facing us below the Southwest flank of Highland Peak. The granite faced gorge of the East Carson River's Western bank far below is taking its first light of the new day.
Hunters Camp Garden
The Hunters Camp site has big boulders both above and below that offer excellent seats with a view.
The View North is down the rock-lined gorge of the Upper East Fork of the Carson River. Your view to the East is of a broken meadow with sparse tree cover running down to the East Carson River, and up the other side of the high bowl beyond.
To the South we can make out the headwaters bowl rounding up towards the East Carson Gap. We sit under the shadow of the Sonora Peak Massif looming over us to the Southwest.
During Spring and early Summer the terrain around Hunters Camp blossoms with life. It's like a great garden if you take the time to walk around and investigate the area.
Above: Taking a walk around Hunters Camp. Great views, great granite boulders and meadows with flowers. Animals: bobcat and bear, squirrels and birds. We can almost see across the whole length of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness from here.
I've created the Flowers Forum to help you identify some of the flowers you encounter, and post up your High Sierra Flower images.
Hunters Camp is located at roughly our elevation among the trees on the descending ridge arm on the Left side of the image.
Our position here is between the East Carson Gap and the tree line, plowing through the dense underbrush growing up and over the trail.
Look left heading North down the mountain when you enter the tress. Hunters Camp is located to your left when you loop around a brush sheltered small open space. Just past Hunters Camp you will make a 90 degree turn Left to pass in front of a set of massive granite boulders. To your right a great view will open up to your North. Just past here you turn right to head down a steep section of trail down a rock grade.
When you reach the steep section of trail down the mountain Hunters Camp is behind you.
Hiking Southbound you cross a creek then bend right climbing up yet another steep section of trail which bends to the left, East, onto a nice flat at the top of the steep upgrade. As you walk past impressive boulders on your right hand an expansive view opens on your left.
Past the boulders you turn 90 degrees Right, and make a loop bending Southwestward. Look to your right and you will see the Hunters Camp.
Great Trail Crew work just below the East Carson Gap
Rock Solid Trail Work lines parts of the last steps South up to the East Carson Gap..
Parts of this trail work feels very old, as if was built early last century.
East Fork of the Carson River Headwaters Bowl
During Springtime the whole upper section of the headwaters bowl of the East Carson River is flowing with water.
Water is forming up into endless creek-lets running down the bowl, but water is flowing down all surfaces. In many locations on our way up here during various Spring Thaws I have heard the sound of the saturated soil sucking air as the heavy water surges through. Here, up on the headwaters bowl you can hear water running under and around the underlying rock during the height of the Spring Thaw.
The whole headwaters bowl is tinkling with flowing water sounds dancing on the breeze during early Spring.
The terrain in the headwaters bowl is a mixture of low broken granite filled in with the volcanic erosion from Sonora Peak, and bursting with intense underbrush growth during Spring. The large granite boulders the dot the way up to the gap are submerged in dense brush.
This headwaters bowl was the thinnest point of the glacier that cut the valley. The glacier crushed the rock in the headwaters bowl flat before the big thaw revealed the amazing valley to the North the ice had cut.
The saturated nature of the Spring Thaw up here quickly degrades the trail, and over the decades the trail crews have built "rock solid" section of solid granite trail through this ever-shifting terrain.
Cold Views North from the East Carson River Gap
The East Carson Trail route up to Sonora Pass is one of my regular Winter and Spring trips.
I find myself taking breaks and images at the same places, though the specifics of each trip vary.
I seek out the view that each location provides. It could be the long view. Or it could be a view of interesting trail construction or conditions, a random bug or rambling bears, the endless flowers and trees, or the ever changing aspects of water and sky.
Against the bottomless detail contained in every experience on the trail are the very practical considerations of long distance backpacking travel. Miles Per Day, baby.
Every time I pass through the East Carson Gap that separates the East Carson River from the Wolf Creek drainage, I take a picture when the climb reveals the surrounding terrain.
Getting old and getting cold. Just keep hiking...
Springtime in the Upper Headwaters Bowl of the East Fork of the Carson River
View North, "Up" the Pacific Crest Trail
The"fine mess" of late Spring conditions: Wet snow offering uneven footing and no support, trails running like creeks, and saturated soils drawing your boots deep within their mucky embrace. Notice Stanislaus Peak the the upper left, and the plug sitting below it.
June 2010: Conditions that delayed and knocked many Pacific Crest Trail hikers off schedule...
View South "down" the Pacific Crest Trail
Approaching The Gap above East Carson River Headwaters. Thin whitebark pines line our route.
Last bits of Pacific Crest Trail route South to the East Carson Gap.
Note the granite outcropping on the West (Right) side of the gap. This is the Northeast flank of Sonora Peak, which, along with part of its lower East Flank above Wolf Creek Lake wears a mantle of granite surrounded by the massive burnt red hulk of Sonora Peak's loose volcanic terrain.
Just a corner of Sonora Peak, the Northeast corner, is composed of granite.
Passing Southbound through the Carson Gap we are grateful to enter a short length of flat trail twisting its way around and through a field of granite boulders, many of which have split apart along interesting arc lines. Exfoliation does not just form massive domes, it splits granite blocks into granite balls.
Above: Square block exfoliating in arcs creating a rounded granite rock. Cool.
As we turn Southwest Wolf Creek Lake comes into view, and as we begin our climb up towards the Sonora Gap we get better and better views of the little lake sitting on a shelf on the mountainside.
The Southbound Pacific Crest Trail bends West from the flat in the East Carson Gap around to the West of Wolf Creek Lake. The trail then turns Southwest to climb up the edge of a thin granite channel between the massive pile of volcanic terrain on Sonora Peak's Eastern Flank and Wolf Creek Lake.
At the top of this chute you will find two campsites overlooking Wolf Creek Lake, and the end of the granite. The remainder of our trail up across the East flank of Sonora Peak to the Sonora Gap, and down Sonora Peak's South flank to Sonora Pass will be across exposed unconsolidated volcanic rock.
When saturated this volcanic soil offers little support for either hiker or hiking trail. Spring Thaw runoff along the Pacific Crest Trail wrapping around Sonora Peak is hard on the trail and the hiker.
Heading up to the Sonora Gap to take a look at things on the other side.
After looking through the gap and sitting there for awhile, I'll retreat, coming down past Wolf Creek Lake to exit the snow near the dirt road down to and through the Marine Base.
I've gotten offered lots of rides down the dirt road from the Marines, but they are not supposed to pick up backpackers, and I'm pretty serious about walking everywhere. But I really appreciate the offers. Thanks boys.
Sonora Gap in Summer
The Last bit of the Pacific Crest Trail up to the North side of the Sonora Gap.
Though the terrain looks fairly barren, folds in the Eastern Flank of Sonora Peak hold a huge amount of wildflowers deep into the Summer season. Though the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada is typically dry and much more barren than the Western flank, this location features huge amounts of water flowing East through the soil, as well as the two all season creeks that run through here.
Looking East we are lucky to see delicate Morning Mists coating the terrain East of Sonora Peak.
Note that Highway 108 is visible coming through the valley East of Pickle Meadow.
We have just climbed through the mist line.
We can see across the top of the mist as well as down into it from this position. An over and under view. Nice.
Wolf Creek drainage East
Looking down the Wolf Creek Drainage to our East. You can see the South end of Wolf Creek Lake where Wolf Creek begins at the bottom-Left of this image. The creek turns east and runs down the center of this valley.
In other words you can drive up to the base of this valley on a good-quality dirt road. There are campsites at the end of the dirt road, and an old jeep road / trail from there comes up the left (North) side of this valley to Wolf Creek Lake.
This route up the valley is also the way back to the PCT for Northbound hikers who are detouring around Leavitt or Sonora Peaks, or both, when they are covered with Spring snows.
Though the East-facing flank of Sonora Peak looks barren and bleak, it is not. Upon closer inspection you will find that it is full of wildflowers from the earliest moment in Spring when the snows first retreat until deep into Summer.
I have taken so many images of the flowers up here that I needed to make a separate page just for one Spring trip's images:
The Things on the Other (South) Side of Sonora Peak
Sonora Gap to Sonora Pass
The Lay of the Land
An exposed trail of highly variable condition along the whole width of the South flank of Sonora Peak turns South and descends on a serpentine course towards Sonora Pass from the Southwest corner of Sonora Peak.
You cross rolling terrain down to Sonora Pass from the Southwest corner of Sonora Peak.
The Red Rock Trail along the South flank of Sonora Peak
Looking at the Southbound Pacific Crest Trail route heading West along the Southern flank of Sonora Peak. The terrain here is composed of broken-down eroded volcanic material of a rich burnt red color.
The shortcut route sits just past the red rock volcanic structure where the line of the trail bends around the mountain.
A shortcut route down mountain appears just past the red rock formation visible along the ridge line on the other side of where the trail bends around the bulging mountain. You will look over the edge and down at the least steep part of the shortcut down to Sonora Pass. Lower down the shortcut it gets even steeper...
The shortcut is very steep and slippery. There is very little traction and much moving sand and rocky debris flowing down an already moving terrain. Just add your weight and everything will try to start sliding down the mountain. I have gone down the shortcut two or three times in the last 10 years. It is do-able heading down for a fully loaded backpacker, but I don't suggest it.
I fall down, generally in a fairly controlled manner, almost every time I take this shortcut. Kind of like "sliding into home plate." This is one of those places you could find yourself tumbling down a steep section of mountain if you don't watch out. "Stirred, not shaken?" No, in this case it is "slide, not tumbled"
Heading up this shortcut route from Sonora Pass is challenging for a day hiker, difficult for a lightweight backpacker, and dangerous for a fully loaded heavyweight backpacker.
Trail Conditions on the Red Rock Trail
The trail was well dug out in late 2010. This status will last a few years. This terrain is in motion. Every Spring great sections of this mountain side flow down mountain. Two or three years after being well dug out by trail crew sections of the trail are already quite deteriorated. After four or five years this whole section is very hairy. The trail becomes very thin and its surface angle is very close to the angle of repose, along with the rest of the mountainside. So much water flows through the soils here every Spring that the mountain itself seems to be moving downward, including the trail bed.
I've hiked through here a few times when the trail is so thin, and angled off-mountain so steeply that it tightens my butt.
Pacific Crest Trail Hiker Note
This section is an early season bottle neck. When covered with snow this flank is impassable. I've only seen one PCTer do it when it was covered with 15 feet of late season snow. It was in the late 1990s or early 21st century.
He was a tiny little bad-assed French dude who was trying to set a few long distance hiking trail records in one year (PCT+App Trail). He did not speak much English, and I speak no French. He was very lightly though very well geared, and he had two ice axes and crampons. He climbed up the near-vertical Southern face of Sonora Peak near the shortcut route, which is next to the big volcanic formation you can see just beyond where the trail rounds the mountain in the distance.
The Frenchman then traversed the remaining South Flank of Sonora Peak over to the Sonora Gap, from where my pictures of Leavitt Peak were taken. I was surprised as hell to see him up there, and even more surprised that he had hiked all the way up to here through the thick snow conditions packing the Sierra from Mount Whitney all the way up to our position just North of Sonora Pass, that Spring.
If anyone has any information about the crazy French dude who crossed the whole length of the Sierra Nevada under deep snow as part of a long-trails record effort, post up what you know in the East Carson River to Sonora Pass Forum. Oh, and I found and packed out the trash he had left on the East Flank of Sonora Peak. Sigh... How do you say "If you brought it in you bring it out" in French?
If this section along the South flank of Sonora Peak is impassable because of snow (unless you are a seriously skilled, strong and fit ice-climber) during the occasional years that very heavy Spring snows persist into Summer, there is an excellent alternative route.
Two Alternative Routes
You have two options, depending on trail conditions, your skill level, and your preferences. Coming North from Dorothy Lake Pass when you reach the trail junction at the West West Walker Bridge near the base of Kennedy Canyon. If you want to avoid the hike over the Leavitt Peak Massif turn Right at this junction to the East for the short hike to the trail junction turning down the Chain of Lakes Northeast towards the West Walker River rather than following the Pacific Crest Trail Northwest up Kennedy Canyon to the base of the South side of the Leavitt Massif.
The trail down the West Walker River will bring you down to Leavitt Meadows and through the no-services Leavitt Meadows pack station to Highway 108. It's about 3.3 miles East on Highway 108 to the Marine Base. Enter the Marine Base and cross it to the North to pick up the dirt road West that will bring you to the mouth of the valley leading up to Wolf Creek Lake. At the North side of Wolf Creek Lake you will rejoin the Pacific Crest Trail North of both Leavitt Peak and the red rock trail on the South Flank of Sonora Peak.
The second plan is much like the first, except that you hike the Pacific Crest Trail over Leavitt Peak to Sonora Pass on Highway 108, only to see that the trail along the Southern Flank is buried under 10 feet of nearly vertical snow and is impassable. Then your hitch East on Highway 108 down to the Marine Base, where you will pick up the dirt road up to Wolf Creek Lake.
You will have to bypass the red rock trail along the Southern flank of Sonora Peak if it is covered with snow when you arrive.
In any case you were likely hitch-hiking West from Sonora Pass to resupply at Kennedy Meadows anyway. After re supplying you may decide to continue North on the PCT via the dirt road to the Wolf Creek through the Marine Base as described above.
Volcanic Formations along the South side of Sonora Peak
Finely carved volcanic formations ornament our trail along the Southern flank of Sonora Peak. Far below we can see the forested meadows leading up to Sonora Pass from the West.
This thicket of White barks is likely where the Sonora Gap squirrels live.
Looking Southfrom Low and high points atLeavitt Peak
Leavitt Peak and Massif
The Trail South
Looking South from our position in the Sonora Gap on the Southeast side of Sonora Peak the first thing we notice is our next mountain and our next wilderness to the South. The Leavitt Peak Massif dominates the terrain to our South and is our gateway into the High Emigrant Wilderness. Er, Well, not really.
Though the Pacific Crest Trail route is technically in the Emigrant Wilderness South of Sonora Pass, as the trailhead sign at Sonora Pass assures us, the actual extent of the PCT through Emigrant Wilderness is negligible. The Pacific Crest Trail skirts the edge of the Emigrant Wilderness boundary-line with the Toiyabe National Forest for a few miles while hiking over Leavitt Peak. That's it.
The boundary line between the Toiyabe National Forest and Emigrant Wilderness follows the Sierra Crestline over Leavitt Peak and so does the Pacific Crest Trail.
And, more of the PCT over Leavitt Peak is actually within the Toiyabe National Forest than the Emigrant Wilderness. It's close. The trail bounces back and forth across the boundary line hiking between the peaks. After descending off the South side of Leavitt Peak the PCT turns East down Kennedy Canyon into the Toiyabe National Forest and far out of sight of the Emigrant Wilderness.
PCT hikers are seeing very little of the Emigrant Wilderness. We can fix that.
To enter the heart of the Emigrant Wilderness Pacific Crest Trail hikers must continue South off of the PCT from the Kennedy Canyon trail junction. The PCT turns East here and goes around it. The Superhighway of Trails goes around this gem, thank god. If you go South over Big Sam you will cross the heart of the Emigrant Wilderness, and get a look down a few of its magnificent Western gorges.
You also have the option of continuing your Southbound trek out of Kennedy Meadows Pack Station on the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail to Tuolumne Meadows after picking up your resupply and eating a bunch of great food. Here's the trail guide page South out of Kennedy Meadows Trailhead and here's the topo hiking map of the first section of trail South.
Northbound on the PCT
Northbound PCT hikers can execute the same route variation by turning Northwest onto the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail via Bond Pass from the top of Jack Main Canyon. The trail across Emigrant Meadow through Brown Bear Pass allows Northbound PCT hikers to walk into Kennedy Meadows Pack Station to pick up your resupply while exploring a big chunk of the Emigrant Wilderness on your way down to Kennedy Meadows. After resupplying you hitch back up to Sonora Pass to continue your trek North on the PCT.
A Section of the TYT South from Highway 108?
The Tahoe to Yosemite route South out of Kennedy Meadows Pack Station enters the Emigrant Wilderness low, advantageous to climb up through its multi-fact ed layers into the splendors of High Emigrant Meadow. The TYT crosses the Emigrant Basin to join up with our Southbound PCT route through Bond Pass near the top of Jack Main Canyon to run almost all the way to South to Tuolumne Meadows together from there. Almost. The point of all this is that you have significant route options that can significantly alter the character of your trip.
The Emigrant Wilderness is one of my favorite places in the High Sierra between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney on its own or as part of a long trip. Emigrant Wilderness is always an excellent place to put together endless combinations of backpacking trips on and off the trails.
As with the Carson Iceberg Wilderness that we are departing, we can craft great backpacking loops tying together sections of the Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest Trails around or through the Emigrant Wilderness.
In my opinion the best route Southbound through the Emigrant Wilderness for long distance backpackers is a combination of the Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest Trails. We'll explore our options through the Emigrant Wilderness as we continue hiking South on the Pacific Crest Trail from here as we encounter the upcoming trail junctions.
To be even more specific about route selection, the best route across the upcoming Emigrant Wilderness is the one you have not yet hiked. Once we've hiked these trails a couple of times and get some familiarity with the terrain we will be ready to do some exploring off the trails.
I could spend a lifetime in both of these wilderness areas, the Carson Iceberg and the Emigrant, and barely scratch the surface of either's complexity and detail.
So Let's try to peel a layer off the upcoming trail South...
First, Leavitt Peak is not visible in the images above or below, nor is Leavitt Peak visible from Highway 108 at Sonora Pass. The Leavitt Massif sports many fine peaks, but its highest and namesake peak is somewhat anti-climatic, being a low rounded mass located on the far Southwest side of the Massif, far from the gaze of casual viewers. Leavitt Peak makes that old phrase, "getting there is half the fun" more than half true.
Below we are looking at a big part of the Leavitt Massif from 10,500 feet at the Sonora Gap, though Leavitt Peak itself is still not visible. The peak in the middle foreground is what most hikers identify as "Leavitt Peak." It is not. This is the 10,480 foot Northern face of the Leavitt Massif. The peak sitting in the distant Left is Peak 11,245 which is blocking our view of the actual Leavitt Peak.
Closer to the ground; Highway 108 and Sonora Pass are out of sight below the far side of the low rounded hill in the lower middle foreground between our position and the Leavitt Massif.
Let's Check out the upcoming trail
Above: To make the climb up Leavitt Peak the Pacific Crest Trail cuts diagonally from Left to Right across the whole width of the steep Northern flank of the Leavitt Massif facing us in the image above. As the Sonora Pass Trailhead is out of sight on the lower-right side of the image, this means that the PCT first crosses the middle elevation terrain from Right to Left to gain access to the main flank for the Left to Right traverse over to the Western shoulder. We will travel a long ways back and forth for very little Southbound distance.
The low point of the Pacific Crest Trail across the mountain's flank facing us is on the East, or Left side of the image above. The second and third images following below exactly locate the East side of the trail. The trail approaches the low point on the East flank by winding its way up from Sonora Pass through the lines of trees climbing up the steep green-tinted slope on the far-left side of the image.
The high point of the Pacific Crest Trail's traverse across the mountain's Northern flank is on the West, or Right side of the image above. The PCT route cuts through the snowpatch to the Left, East, of the almost perfect circle of snow sitting on the far right side of the mountain's flank.
From above the circle of snow the PCT cuts back to pass behind the foremost peak onto the mountain's Western flank. When we reach the far Western end of our traverse across the North Flank of the Leavitt Massif reaching the mountain's shoulder we encounter the faint trail heading down the mountain intersecting with our well worn Pacific Crest Trail's route coming directly up the Northwestern shoulder from Sonora Pass. This faint route down-mountain is the Local's Shortcut up to Leavitt Peak from Sonora Pass.
Local's Shortcut up Leavitt Peak
& the Leavitt Peak Winter Route
On the Right side of the image above you can see the mountain's shoulders stepping down along the right side, the Northwestern corner of the North facing flank descending from the summit of peak 10,480.
The local's shortcut route climbs straight up to reach the top of the lowest shoulder on the far Right side of the image from the Sonora Pass Trailhead. This shortcut completely eliminates the long loop up to, and the traverse across the Northern Flank of peak 10,480.
This shortcut route takes a mile off of your total mileage. In exchange for that mile the last 200 yards up to the top of the shoulder requires you crawl uphill. Not class 5, but it works you hard. In my case this section is always executed with a very heavy backpack. So be it. If I can't hike this shortcut section during Summer I have no business spending two days hiking up to this position during Winter to make this climb up to Leavitt's Northwestern shoulder.
Instead of hiking back and forth below and then across the whole width of the Northern flank I take the Local's Shortcut out of Sonora Pass. This requires that we climb straight up out of the Sonora Pass trail head to instantly begin climbing up to directly access the shoulder of the mountain rather than pussyfooting around.
The final bit of the local's shortcut to get up onto the mountain's shoulder is very steep. The far right side of the image below shows the final section up to the top of the lowest descending ridge arm.
The goal of the shortcut is to gain the Northwestern shoulder of the Leavitt Massif leading up to the unmarked but obvious junction with the Pacific Crest Trail by the most direct route possible. The PCT and the shortcut route join together above and just a bit to the Left of the almost perfect circle of snow on the right side of the North facing flank of peak 10,480.
Though this shortcut is much steeper and much harder than the long traverse across the Northern Flank of the Leavitt Massif, the shortcut route is a fun way to get up onto the Leavitt Peak Massif.
This local's shortcut route up Leavitt Peak is the Winter route to climb Leavitt Peak during snow conditions. I've done it four times during Winter and Spring, two of which were successful, and two of which were not.
The two successful attempts were grand loops. I followed Hwy 108 in from the East, climbed Leavitt from the North, then exited East through the Leavitt Lakes basin to catch the road about 4 miles above the Leavitt Meadows Pack Station. From Leavitt Meadows it is another three miles to the snow gate sitting a mile West of the Marine base.
From there the Marines or Brenda will run me back into "civilization."
Above: Detail of the low point of the Pacific Crest Trail route across the Left or East side of the Northern Flank of the Leavitt Massif, seen from Sonora Gap. We can see the faint line of the PCT etched in melting snow. Line up the rock and snow features of this smaller image with the larger image in the second picture above to locate the low point of PCT as it begins its traverse across the North face of the Leavitt Massif.
Later in Spring the trail along the North flank of the Leavitt Massif fully emerges.
Many thanks to Bob, also know as "Bobba-lou," out of Long Barn down the West side of the Sierra on Highway 108. Bob showed me the shortcut route during the Spring of 1997 or 1998. I was standing at the base of the Massif on Hwy 108 scratching my head, trying to figure out my best route over Leavitt in snow, when Bob saw me pondering the mountain.
Bob walked up and said, "You going up?" and I said "yup, and over." Bob said, "Want to know the best way up?" and I said, "Hell yes," and Bob pointed at the mountain and said, from there to there. Then up to there, and over to there. Once you get there you will see the way over to the other side."
And I said, "Thank you, Bobba-lou!" for that was exactly the best way to get up the shoulder of Leavitt when it's wearing deep snow, and composes the shortcut route during Summer.
Anyone know how to get ahold of Bobba-Lou? Last I heard his wife was working in the Long Barn gas station and store.
Below we look South at the Leavitt Peak Massif from the PCT on Sonora Peak
In the image below Leavitt Peak is visible, almost hidden behind the right side of second peak back. We can see its gentle rise up to its flattened crown. Despite its impressive 11569 feet of elevation Leavitt Peak does not stand out on its own massif as do its surrounding peaks. This causes constant ms-identification of Leavitt Peak.
Peak 10,480 makes up the Northern Flank of the Leavitt Massif and dominates the Northern side of the Leavitt massif. It is the nearest peak dead-center in the image below. Peak 11,245 is the second peak back, left of Peak 10,480. The pyramidal peak in the far left background is peak 11,260. To the left of Peak 11260 is where the PCT passes North and South through a narrow gap in the rocky crestline above Latopie Lake.
Leavitt Peak is visible as the rising flattened summit sitting behind and Right of Peak 11,245, the second peak back. If you look closely you will see Leavitt Peak trying to hide behind Peak 11,245.
Our Pacific Crest Trail route loops past, through, or around all of these peaks. Whoo-Hoo!
During the past few seasons (2009, 2010, 2011) Late season Winter storms and heavy Spring snow storms have filled the mountains with snow far past the beginning of Summer.
2012 is a damn weird Winter (no Winter at all), and I'm putting the odds at 3 to 1 that this Summer's backpacking season will have an early start.
Extended snowy Spring and snow into Summertime significantly delayed the vast majority of Pacific Crest Trail hiker's entry into the Sierra Nevada for the past three years. 2009 was not as late an opening of the Sierra as we have seen in 2010 and 2011. 2012 experienced no discernable Winter at all. Weird as hell.
These recent snowy Winters and Spring Storms were bucking the long-term trend of shorter Winters and earlier Spring openings of the High Sierra trails during the last 30 years. I expect the trend of shorter Winters, earlier Springs, and Fall-time expanding deep into Winter to strongly reassert itself in 2012 (it did!) and expand through subsequent decades.
If you want to see the Sierra within the remaining elements of its traditional weather and related natural systems you'd better see it now. (2012) It is rapidly changing.
To go or not to go, that is The Question
When deep snow conditions clog High Sierra trails through July some Pacific Crest Trail hikers choose to bypass the Sierra Nevada completely, hitching North to knock out a Northern section of Pacific Crest Trail not buried under snow. They return to hike the bypassed High Sierra sections later in the Summer when the Sierra finally emerges from snow.
Other PCT hikers give the snow covered Sierra a try. Not a good idea unless you have significant snow travel and navigation skills, are an expert at dangerous river crossings, are well geared to survive unexpected snow storms, below freezing temps, and in good enough physical condition to endure some pretty harsh hiking and camping conditions.
The snow covered Sierra Nevada is truly beautiful but dangerous.
If you are not a deeply experienced and very fit backpacker starting your backpacking career with snow travel in the Sierra Nevada is not the best idea you've ever had. Snow travel really-really beats the shit out of you. Snow travel multiplies the dangers and difficulties of Summer backpacking. There are much less painful and dangerous ways to work yourself up to snow travel than throwing yourself directly into potential trouble.
Trail Bypass for Early-Season Northbound Pacific Crest Trail backpackers
The third option is to bypass the snow clogged trail section altogether. Northbound hikers on the PCT would follow the West Walker down to Leavitt Meadow from the West West Walker River rather than hiking up Kennedy Canyon to the South side of Leavitt Peak. From Leavitt Meadow continue East on Highway 108 to pass through the Marine Base on your way up to Wolf Creek Lake. Talk to the Marines, they will point the way.
At the North side of Wolf Creek Lake you will pick up the Northbound PCT after having bypassed the steep snow-covered flanks of Leavitt and Sonora Peaks. It's a "down and around" rather than an "up and over" move.
Sonora Pass sign marks the entrance to the Trailhead Parking, Picnic, and Horse-Packing facilities from Highway 108
The Stanislaus National Forest administers Sonora Pass and its two Pacific Crest Trail trailheads: North into the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. and South into the Emigrant Wilderness.
Though the trailhead South into the Emigrant Wilderness begins in the Stanislaus National Forest the trail soon enters and stays in the Toiyabe National Forest until you enter Yosemite through Dorothy Lake Pass.
Caltrans, One of the many Posters of Signs at Sonora Pass.
Mono County on the East side of Sonora Pass, Tuolumne on the West.
Check out the Sonora Pass Page for more information about Sonora Pass.
Hitch-Hiking West down to Kennedy Meadows Pack Station to pick up my Resupply Bucket
Entrance to the picnic area, bathroom, stock facilities, and trailhead parking. No garbage cans, no water.
On a stick and a thumb. Pick me up. I want my Chile-Cheese Burger at Kennedy Meadows Pack Station ASAP.
Arriving at Sonora Pass hiking Southbound is a relief, a disappointment, and promise of continuing beauty. It is a relief to finish this difficult section, a disappointment to leave the beauties of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness behind, and the promise of Emigrant Wilderness beauties will be well-fulfilled.
For the Northbound Pacific Crest Trail hiker you have reached the thousand-mile mark at Sonora Pass, and have crossed three-quarters of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The typical Pacific Crest Trail hiker resupplies out of Sonora Pass. The smart or well-informed hikers resupply at Kennedy Meadows Pack Station, and the rest hitch far from the Sierra crest line down to Bridgeport.
I enjoy Bridgeport and its people, but the smart resupply move is to Kennedy Meadows. If you head to Bridgeport, stop by Rhino's for some good food, a bunch of beer, and a few games of pool with the locals.
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