trail Junctionin the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness
Murray Canyon Trail Junction along the Pacific Crest Trail.
The trail down through Murray Canyon heads Northeast and down to Falls Meadow on the lower East Carson River. Falls Meadow sits below Carson Falls. Carson Falls divides the steep terrain above it from the flatter terrain below.
Our Southbound route along the Pacific Crest Trail from this Murray Canyon junction will bring us South along the Western rim of the East Carson River's canyon, overlooking the river now and again, until we drop down to river-level and the unmarked trail junction with the unmaintained trail following the East Carson River down through Carson Falls to Falls Meadow.
We could access that trail from the Murray Canyon trail junction pictured above, and turn North to rejoin the PCT after finding the route up the East Carson River to the East Carson Trail junction.
that connects Falls Meadow at the end of the Murray Canyon trail pictured above with the PCT at the
As the following video describes, Murray Canyon and its trail drain down into Falls Meadow along the East Fork of the Carson River. I misspoke in the video. Hey, I'm pretty thrashed on the trail... Dumonts Meadow sits between the historic Soda Springs Ranger Station and the East Carson River. Falls Meadow is situated a couple of miles South of Dumonts Meadow, up the East Carson, where the Murray Canyon Trail from the PCT intersects with the East Fork of the Carson River.
note: For hikers familiar with accessing the East Carson River from the East, the tree ford that offered easy crossing of the East Carson at Dumonts Meadow is no longer usable. The river has finally separated the root ball from the Eastern shore. Fording Information, 2010. I could jump it during 2007 and 2008, but by '09 it was a jump too far... )
Nevertheless, Murray Canyon remains a hanging canyon sitting above Falls Meadow along the East Fork of the Carson River. The East side of Murray Canyon terminates abruptly, leaving the backpacker with a steep set of switchbacks cut into the East Carson River canyon-side from the East edge of Murray Canyon down to the East Carson River far below.
Murray Canyon Horse Story
Sharing the trail with our four-legged friends
I once watched two horse ladies ride up the very steepest section of the difficult trail up to the PCT via Murray Canyon from Falls Meadow alongside the East Carson River. They were like athletes on their horses. Their horses were straining, bellies close to the ground, their upper front legs stretched out parallel with the terrain, faces straining, ears pointing forward and down at the ground. Their lower legs digging in at a steep angle to their upper legs, virtually clawing and pulling themselves up the steep terrain. Man, horses are amazing climbers. The muscles on the horses legs were bulging out. They were churning up the mountainside like four-legged tractors.
The girls were moving on those horses like gymnasts on monkey bars, first hanging off one side, then the other, leaning far forward then far back, working in physical unison with their fine mounts as they clawed their way up the steep trail and around the obstacles. And they were big girls, moving so nimbly I can only call them horse ballerinas. It was a fine piece of riding. I was surprised as hell to see them up there.
I had seen them camping in Falls Meadow the evening before, when I hiked in. We mutually waved, and did the polite hand signals across the width of the meadow. They were in the big site overlooking the East Carson just North of where Murray Creek joins the East Carson River. From this site we can watch the beavers working the East Carson River. I could tell they did not want visitors or neighbors, so I headed up to the sites under Murray Falls, which gave us all privacy.
I departed up Murray Canyon long before they woke, and was at the top of the steepest part of the trail when I heard the straining, snorting, and cracking leather of their mounts climbing up the steep trail below me. I was amazed they were taking this route. Bad-assed. Not only was the trail very steep, but it was really suffering from the Spring Thaw, both from the saturation level of the soil, as well as the heavy degradation the thaw had done to the trail itself. Many sections were washed-out, more like covered by great flows of soft soil. Mud. I was climbing over and around boulders strewn along the narrow trail section that were not completely washed out. The snow had moved the rock, the thaw moved the soil. It is really amazing. I was constantly having to climb around these washed out sections, which was hard for me. But my ears do not lie, and I knew that mounted riders would soon be upon me, so I had to act immediately.
First, I never want to scare a mount, so I've got to properly position myself before the horse sees me. That's the key to all trail encounters: Observe the situation before it happens. Old-school trail horses are as stable as tractors and rarely freak out, but young mounts are incredibly skittish, and I'm determined not to spook a young mount, especially on dangerous trail. I once watched a Mexican Cowboy ride a young mount that executed a 360 degree panic spin, the horse ass-up and bucking, its front legs locking down and popping out with each buck, describing a very tight circle from buck to buck under the heavy reign of the cowboy, in the high Emigrant Basin.
But the crazy bastard was not just bucking, but was also spinning sideways hard and fast with each buck. It was incredible.
A 40 mph howling wind and the trail's winding route between and around the huge granite boulders and formations rising out of the lush green meadow grasses just to the East of Emigrant Lake in the High Emigrant Basin made it impossible for me or the horseman to see or hear each other before me and the young horse were about eye-to-eye. That horse freaked out and took the cowboy for a spin. Literally.
The cowboy instantly hand-upped, raising one arm high above his head to balance himself in the spin as he stood straight up in the stirrups, heels locked in, reigns in the other hand, and rode that bucking horse all the way around, reigning it's terror first into a tight circle, and then into submission. He laughed and said "howdy, sorry about my horse, she's young," while the horse danced and snorted below him. It was a great piece of riding, and good thing it happened on the flat high-elevation meadow in the Emigrant Basin. I hated to have triggered that horse's panic, though as a result I was privileged to see that fine piece of horsemanship.
I pride myself on not freaking out man or beast, if at all possible. If I freaked out the ladies' horses on this steep trail, things could go way wrong way fast. A wreck here would be disastrous.
Hearing the girls climbing up below, I climbed about ten feet up the steep terrain above the trail, hid my pack so it would not bug the horses, took a low profile position, and started a bit of gentle clicking to reveal my position to both horse and rider just before they could see me. This way both the horse and rider were looking for me, rather than either being surprised to see me. Don't surprise horses on the trail.
The ears of the horses and the eyes of the horsewomen snapped towards me as they came into view up the mountain. The horses lost a little focus as they took me in, but my soft clicking and the reassurances of the riders kept them from losing their pace. I enjoyed watching a great piece of High Sierra riding as these women navigated their mounts up the harsh terrain. Wow.
Always observe the demeanor of the approaching horse, even when you've stashed yourself off trail as they approach. If the horse is skittish, don't even move. Make gentle noises and clicks, but don't move. If you are not sure, talk to the rider. If the horse and rider are chill, the horse may end up laying its head against your shoulder as you chat up the cowboy. I've met some pretty fine horses on the trail, and some tolerable cowboys too... he he. I've eaten filet mignon and drank cold beer and old scotch up and down the Sierra Crest, thanks to the fine cowboys I've met on the trail over the years.
The "rules" of trail culture demand that the hiker give way to the horseman, and take a lower position on the trail as horses pass, as a lower position is less threatening to a horse than a high position. I modify this rule slightly. I always give way to horsemen, but I take the safest off-trail position to stash myself when I let them pass by, which may or may not be the low position. You will rarely find me near the hooves of a horse, and never find me between a cliff and a horse. I generally go high to let horses pass by.
The incredibly difficult terrain that an experienced trail horse with an experienced trail rider can negotiate never ceases to amaze me. These animals and the people that ride them can be quite amazing.
Down to the East Carson from the PCT via Murray Canyon
From the Pacific Crest Trail the Murray Canyon Trail works its way into the North side of Murray Canyon, then follows Murray Creek until the creek plunges off the edge of its hanging canyon into a steep channel composing a series of falls, which finally crashes into a corner of Falls Meadow through the aptly named Murray Falls. Murray Falls drops into the West side of Falls Meadow just about a mile downstream from the Carson Falls.
Murry Creek emerges from its falls in a narrow and potentially deep channel flowing into the East Carson.
Where the trail finally bottoms out in Falls Meadow you will find that you have to cross Murray Creek, a few steps to your left, to the North, to reach either the campsites in Falls Meadow overlooking East Fork of the Carson River (beavers, bears, birds,...) or the campsites nestled in next to Murray Falls. Both sites are on the North side of Murray Creek.
Here in Falls Meadow the East Carson River has ended its steeper cascade down-mountain. The steep parts of the river are above Carson Falls. The river flattens out after passing through the labyrinth of Carson Falls.
To the Left of our Murray Canyon junction with Falls Meadow sits Murray Creek. Cross it to the North, then follow the sound of Murray Falls upstream to a set of nice campsites nestled under the mountain alongside Murray Falls and Creek. But by far the best place to camp and explore around here is at Carson Falls, just about a mile South of where the Murray Canyon trail enters Falls Meadow. Turn Right at the trail junction at the bottom of Murray Canyon to hike South up to Carson Falls. It is Totally worth the hike!
But first cruise up to the Murry Falls Campsite, to check out the Falls. And, wander around Carson Meadow for a while. Hike over to the bank of the East Carson River and check it out. There's a bunch of beavers working up and down the river. All sorts of stuff around.
I've seen mother bears with cubs in the meadow twice, and seen "skruffy," bears, bears that are out of mother's care, but not yet established as adult bears, all around there many times.
Never seen the big girl there. Always ran into her up Silver King Creek. But that's just a matter of timing. I think she's been killed by hunters, but her big golden descendents are about. Possibly she lives.
Carson Falls is composed of a massive granite plug stuffed into the transition point between the steeper drop of the East Carson River above the Falls from the (fairly) gentle meadow-side river course below. Well, the East Carson is gentle during mid-Summer and mid-Winter. During Spring and Fall the East Carson River is charged up above and below Carson Falls.
Over the ages the East Fork of the Carson River has cut a serpentine course deeply into the massive block of granite that makes up the Carson Falls, creating a long series of "pocket falls." What I call pocket waterfalls are inset into deeply eroded terrain. We look down at them, as the East Carson flys off the edge, falling deeper into and through this incredible serpentine route winding its way through a labrinth of deeply cut channels through the rock.
The East Carson has cut a gorge where, over thousands of years, the East Carson River has cut a deeply submerged serpentine river-course through this massive rock formation on its way down to Falls Meadow.
It's pretty and amazing at the same time. Pretty Amazing.
I'll bet that just a few short thousands of years ago the East Carson River emptied out into Falls Meadow over this great granite plug, before the water was able to cut its route deep through the rock. I'll bet that the waterfall flowing off of the edge of this great granite block into Falls Meadow was in the form of a giant curtain of waterfalls over a quarter of a mile wide, during the Spring Thaw.
It must have been a real sight. But now the East Carson River has cut a very deep and very beautiful twisted route thorough this massive granite plug that is worthy of taking a day or two to explore before you hike up the darn rough unmaintained East Carson River Trail to join up with the PCT high up the river's course.
You can plan a number of point to point or circle trips through this very special area using Ebbetts Pass from the North, Sonora Pass from the South, Corral Valley from the East, and Disaster Creek from the West. Yeah, that should cover it.
I especially enjoy accessing the East Carson River and the Pacific Crest Trail from the East through the Corral Valley Trailhead. That's the most remote entry. I've entered through there during all four seasons. I've only made it through during Spring and Fall.
Carson Falls Trail to the PCT
Above Carson Falls a log ford (Tip of the tree is on Southeast, the far side of the ford. This means the tree begins bending downward as you cross Southbound, and is a bit of a chore to drop off of the thin end. In the Northbound direction we have to to climb up onto the thin end of the tree from the Southeast side crossing to the North, which is also a bit of a chore. Especially if you pack heavy...) brings us over to the East shore, and shortly South of this ford we encounter the deep horse ford and campsite marking the Golden Canyon trail junction heading up to the Pacific Crest Trail on the other bank, off the West shore of the river.
South of this Golden Canyon Ford our route up this unmaintained East Carson River Trail route to the Pacific Crest Trail remains do-able for experienced backpackers, but it has not been maintained for very many years.
It's a pretty rough go. We really have to keep our eyes open through there. Especially when it's covered with snow. This has been one of my traditional Winter-Spring routes since the late 1990s, after I had evolved good Winter travel practices.
During Winter the goal was the Corral Valley Trailhead to the Marine Base on Highway 108. During Spring the goal is Sonora Pass, at the top of Highway 108. I can always get to the Sonora Gap, above Sonora Pass, during all seasons. But being able to get from the Sonora Gap down to Sonora Pass marked the opening of the trail in Spring.
These two trips up the East Carson River during Winter and Spring would establish the trajectory of every season for me. After those I could venture pretty good predictions about the decrease of the rivers and increase of the mosquitoes. The dates the upper reaches of the rivers would slide down the mountains, when the meadows would dry and the masses of mosquitoes die. Every year's seasons have different timing. This is a great place to take readings of each year's character.
I've been taking some shots recently, starting in 2006, leading up to losing the tip of my Right big toe to frostbite, in early Jan of 2011. That is the fundamental issue that's nixed recent snow adventures, but I've taken a bunch of physical and metabolic injuries as well. I frigging broke my lower leg bad, 2-2014. When does this stream of injury end?!
I'd reestablished up to 12 miles a day moderately loaded (50 lbs) over difficult high altitude conditions, being 3 thirty to 50 mile trips in 2013, including Carson Pass to Lake Alpine, after losing the toe and heart failure!
Now I focus on writing trail guide as I heal. Jeeze. I am afraid to move until my frigging luck changes! And, I heal enough to start frigging walking again. Sorry about the Fing words, but I've taken a lot of shots that only intense emotion can truly describe.
South of Golden Canyon the visible trail route climbs up the mountainside. We follow it to find the trail disappear into, #1, either a steep gorge jammed with massive boulders, or #2, a seemingly impenetrable wall of brush. Those are your first route choices on the unmaintained trail...
I rate the East Carson River Route between Carson Falls and the Pacific Crest Trail as a Great Three-Season route. But it is not for the faint of heart, the unfit, or inexperienced backpackers at any time, and especially when covered with Spring and Fall snows. The "trail" between Carson Falls South to the Pacific Crest Trail along the East Carson River is a route-finding challenge even during the peak of Summertime.
Neither your maps nor your GPS will help you much in this section. Only good old route-finding skills and trail sense will assist your navigation through this rough section. There are three or four points of decision that are below the resolution of the maps that require some interpretation and pondering.
It is at these points of decision where the resolution of human technology still far exceeds that of our tools, especially as tools have no interpretive capacity. Maps and GPS are only as beneficial as their application allows you to make correct decisions. The tools do not make decisions.
The best Mapping and GPS tools are always limited to the effectiveness of the user.
All Right, back to the Southbound Pacific Crest Trail at the Murray Canyon Trail junction.
The Trail Route Options hiking West from the Golden Canyon trail junction on the PCT
Big loops using the PCT and TYT through the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness
The Murray Canyon trail heads 2.95 miles East to the East Carson River from the junction, offering no Western trail route over to Disaster Creek. The Golden Canyon trail junction offers trails both East to the East Carson River and West to Disaster Creek.
At Golden Canyon we can hike 3.16 miles West over the Sierra Crest line down through Paradise Valley on the Western flank to connect with Disaster Creek.
From Disaster Creek we can head North towards road access at Highland Lakes through the Gardner Meadow Trailhead, or hike South to the Disaster Creek Trailhead to the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail along the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River.
Disaster Creek is one of the four trail options for crafting grand loops of various lengths through the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. Heading South down disaster Creek brings us to the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail along the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River.
We have four trails along creeks that connect the PCT and TYT routes between Highways 4 and 108. Highland, Arnot, Disaster, and Boulder Creeks all offer connections between the Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest Trails down the length of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.
The Southern Disaster Creek trail head lays at the end of the old paved pioneer wagon road off of Highway 108 that follows the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River up to the Arnot, Disaster, and Clarks Fork trailheads.
Using one of these trails to hike up to the Pacific Crest Trail, and another to hike back to the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail allows us to craft a variety of backpacking loops that are an excellent way to introduce yourself to the remote trails through the stunning terrain of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.
This big topo hiking map of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness I gussied-up marks these route options. Click the RED DOTS marking trailhead and trail junctions to see that location on the trail guide. Click the black-dotted trail routes for the underlying 15 minute detailed backpacking maps.
Alas, I suspect most readers here are more interested in heading up and down the Pacific Crest Trail past the Murray Canyon trail junction than veering off into the lower reaches of the East Carson River or crafting a grand loop around the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness using Disaster Creek as a leg of the trip.
But you can. Backpacking oops around the Carson Iceberg Wilderness are amazing.
If you are looking for a beautifully remote and fairly easy backpacking experience in a remote areas of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, then approaching Carson Falls from the East, from Highway 395, is a trip for you.
If you are looking for a challenging place to try out your expert route-finding skills, the section above Carson Falls up the East Carson River to its junction with the Pacific Crest Trail is the section to weave into your next trip through the Eastern side of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.
Getting to Carson Falls from the East is fairly easy. Getting past it is a different story.
See WalkertoSonora Pass A Great Three Season Backpacking Trip. Marines, Leavitt Peak, and Snow Trips Too!
Back to the Pacific Crest Trail at the Murray Canyon trail junction...
Continuing our hike South along the Pacific Crest Trail for 9.83 miles from this Murray Canyon trail junction will bring us to where the South end of the East Carson River trail's unmarked route joins with the Pacific Crest Trail route at an obvious, but unmarked junction.
I'm the one who's been ducking this junction every Spring. It's plainly visible to anyone who keeps their eyes open, but I'm generally in and out (and have reducked this junction) long before any Pacific Crest or local hikers get into this section of the Carson-Iceberg. Well, I was the one who ducked this junction during the past 20 years...
An injury in early 2011 (jan, frostbite.) make my annual Spring Trip up the East Carson impossible during 2011 and 2012. Heart issues killed 2013, and a broken leg in early 2014 has not improved hiking prospects...
Well, I've more time to write the guide, rather than compile information and experience.
The video below is a reprise of this discussion about the Murray Canyon Trail Junction in proximity to the East Carson River, and also notes the campsites about a mile and a half to the South of the junction.
Murray Canyon is
10.87 miles South of Ebbetts Pass.
Murray Canyon is
18.57 miles North of Sonora Pass.
After I lay in the guide pages for the main PCT and TYT routes through the Carson-Iceberg I will add guide pages for the Highland Creek, Boulder Creek, and East Carson River trails that connect up with the main routes.
Exiting the very top of Murray Canyon, Southbound.
This is the snowberm during July of 2009. Note the heavy snow berm during October in the video from 2011. The picture above is within "normal" (whatever that is...) seasonal ranges, while the massive snowberm of October 2011 is indicative of the heavy snow pack that kept the high trails covered until mid August of 2011.
Hiking Northbound out of Golden Canyon into Murray Canyon. Tuesday October 25th, 2011. Clouds thickened and mini-snow flurries swept across the terrain before the clouds dissapated and clear cold skies brought the temps way down.
I generally hike alone, but am always glad to hike with my pal Ari. This was my first hike after losing the tip of my toe during the first days of January of 2011. Well, it took months for the tip of the toe to rot off after the initial frostbite injury.
Ari was good to have along on my first trip out.
This is the correct identification:
View South of Stanislaus Peak in central foreground and Sonora Peak in the Left background, looking South approaching the divide between Murray and Golden Canyons.
The peak between Stanislaus and Sonora Peaks sits above what I call "The Prominence."
Disaster Peak is to our Right, out of sight at the head of Golden Canyon.
The Southern Sharkfin, Peak 9501, rises in the Left foreground, marking the South edge of Golden Canyon and the location of the Swampy Lake.
Stanislaus Peak in distant foreground, Sonora Peak in distant Left background.
The Tahoe to Yosemite route follows the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus up towards Saint Marys Pass on the West (Right) side of this massif, between our position and the distant-Right ridge line.
Our Pacific Crest Trail route passes under their Eastern (Left) flank on our way down to the East Carson River trail junction and up to the Carson Gap.
The Southern Sharkfin, Peak 9501, is seen marking the South end of Golden Canyon in the Left foreground of the image. 2009.
View South of East Carson Gap, The Southern Sharkfin, Sonora Peak, Stanislaus Peak, and the Clarks Fork, from Left to Right
The Pacific Crest Trail route passes North and South through the East Carson Gap, which we can see split by shadow and light in the distant background on the far Left of the image. That's where our PCT route runs North-South, in our case South exiting the headwaters bowl of the East Fork of the Carson River over to Wolf Creek Lake.
To the Right of the East Carson Gap we see Sonora Peak's great triangular bulk rising up to compose the most distant of the great peaks filling the center of the image.
Passing South through the East Carson Gap the PCT continues South, gradually climbing the East flank of Sonora Peak before turning West, to the Right, to traverse the South flank of Sonora Peak before finally turning South to drop down to Sonora Pass. We will wrap around two of Sonora Pass's flanks.
Stanislaus Peak dominates the center of the image. Stanislaus Peak divides the East Fork of the Carson River running along its Left, its East flank from the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus flowing past at the base of its Western flank. The Pacific Crest Trail runs up the East Carson towards Sonora Pass while the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail's route along the Clarks Fork and over Saint Marys Pass brings it to Highway 108 a mile West of the PCT at Sonora Pass.
The light brown rounded mass rising in the Left foreground is the Southern Sharkfin, Peak 9501. Looked at from most perspectives, the mass of the Southern Sharkfin resembles a sharkfin. The Southern Sharkfin marks our Southbound exit from the Golden Canyon, as the Northern Sharkfin marked our Southbound entrance into Murray Canyon. Both are valuable landmarks.
Hiking South past the Southern Sharkfin we will turn West for a short detour around Boulder Peak onto the Western Flank of the Sierra and the Western drainage of Boulder Creek for a very short distance until we return to hike along the edge of the top of the Western Wall overlooking the East Carson River's fantastic canyon.
A short distance South past Boulder Peak we will come to the Boulder Lake trail junction. A faded trail leads West down to Boulder Lake, where a good trail descends to the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail along the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River.
A Different Perspective on Stanislaus Peak
Stanislaus Peak in Fall snow from the East.
This view of Stanislaus Peak is from the unmaintained trail on the East side of the East Fork of the Carson River, upstream from Carson Falls, heading up to the Pacific Crest Trail the hard way, having started walking from the Eastern Base of High Sierra Escarpment in Antelope Valley along Highway 395. October 2009.
This perspective is looking West from the East side of the East Fork of the Carson River through a gap in forest and mountain.
I went in after a Fall storm laid a nice coat of snow onto the terrain.
This USGS topo map shows the unmaintained route up the East Fork of the Carson River. Look for Carson Falls on the far Right or East side of the topo map. The unmaintained route stretches from Carson Falls South to its junction with the Pacific Crest Trail.
My access point was from the East, off of Highway 395 between Walker and Coleville.
East Carson Gap
Our goal to the South across this section of trail is marked by the East Carson Gap. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses this 10,240 foot low point in the dead center of the East Carson headwaters bowl seen below.
The East Carson Gap sits between the 11,459 feet of Sonora Peak rising to the West, right in the image below and White Peak's 11,324 feet rising to the East.
The gap is just visible from our position between Murray and Golden Canyons in this long telephoto image.
The PCT climbs up to the low point in the gap from the right...
Beyond the East Carson Gap pretty little Wolf Creek Lake sits on its little shelf nestled-in under the Eastern Flank of Sonora Peak.
As soon as we cross the flat on the gap we will see it.
The North side of Golden Canyon to the Southern Sharkfin
The Lay of the Land, Options...
We encounter a metamorphic "sharkfin" formation approaching Murray and Golden Canyons from either the North or the South. The video clips in the following film show the sharkfins located on the Northern side of Murray Canyon and the one that marks the Southern side of Golden Canyon.
The Sharkfin on the Northern side of Murray Canyon is noted as Peak 9362 while the one on the Southern end of Golden Canyon is Peak 9501. Murray and Golden Canyons are located between these landmarks.
These sharkfin formations are identifiable as metamorphic rock similar to the structure at Devils Post Pile. The difference is that these rock piles did not cool at the proper time and temp to produce the perfect octagonal hexagonal columns as the rock at the Postpile did, before being up thrust to the Earth's surface. They are unique.
These sharkfins are composed of uneven columns of rock that are falling apart, falling into the rough outline of sharkfins to the imaginative eye of the distant solo hiker.
Added to the sharktooths formed along the Sierra crestline by erosion of the hard volcanic crestline to our North, I note this section of trail from Wolf Creek Pass to the South end of Golden Canyon "sharkfin and sharktooth territory." These unique features are great landmarks.
These metamorphic features also add a third type of terrain to the volcanic and granite interface along the East Carson River.
Check out the following video for a look at this section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
The deeply-cut PCT dropping into the North side of Golden Canyon. Such deeply cut sections of the trail are rare in the North Sierra. This particular example is as much a product of its location and role in the Spring Thaw as it is of backpacker traffic.
A couple of block-rocks properly set will stop the Spring Thaw from continuing to cut a seasonal creek through this section of trail.
This points out a different problem. Park Funding. We are hiking across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness in the Toiyabe National Forest. The Toiyabe is one of the biggest, and financially thinnest stretched, of all the Forests that administer the Tahoe to Whitney Trails.
That's the real reason why the trail along Raymond Peak, the trail below, and the trail across the South flank of Sonora Peak are often in sketchy condition.
We don't spend enough on our National Forest, our National Park, or our CCC trail crews. Don't blame the trail crew.
They only expertly execute their instructions.
We can see Boulder Creek's Western drainage behind Golden Canyon's Southern limit.
The PCT bends around to the Right, following the perimeter of Golden Canyon up high enough to keep it above the wetness of the Spring Thaw.
During Summertime you will rightly question this long route around the canyon, while during Spring you will be happy it takes the high route around the floor of the canyon.
Western Upper Golden Canyon topped by Disaster Peak.
The Pacific Crest Trail heads South tracing the long way around the upper rim of Golden Canyon, around to the Right.
At the head of the canyon sits Disaster Peak.
During Summertime it sometimes seems as if the trail takes the "long way" around rather than across features such as Golden Canyon. True That.
One look at the quagmire conditions that come with the Spring Thaw will show you why the trail route stays high on the mountain around the center of both Murray and Golden Canyons. But the route that makes sense during Spring makes no sense during Summer. Until we wrap our mind around the seasonal cycle here. Then the trail makes perfect sense.
Brush and dense undergrowth make the trail vital during Summer, but once the snows of Winter cover the terrain the best routes open up too.
The trails are intentionally designed to loop around areas of early-season wetness.
Trail routings that make no sense at all during Summertime are the height of Trail Route Logic during the Spring Thaw.
Valley Heat and Moisture Surging up the
Western Sierra Flank DANGER COMING
July, Noon: Summer heat carried in clouds of moisiture exploding into action blowing up from the Valley over the Western flank of the Sierra.
We are just below the Sierra Crest on the Eastern Flank of the Sierra looking West at the leading edge of a shock wave of heat and moisture concentrating into the potential for violent electrical storms and heavy downpours.
Watch these Bad Boys Carefully!
IT IS ON.
"A freight train is a-coming, packing big heat, sometimes we got to get off the trail, if our maker we don't want to meet."
Heading South on the Pacific Crest Trail from Golden Canyon we will eventually hike to a long exposed crossing up, around, and down Sonora Peak to Sonora Pass. When we climb South out of the East Carson Headwaters we will be climbing out of the last fringes of protective forest onto an exposed traverse over 5 miles of high elevation across the barren flanks of Sonora Peak to reach Sonora Pass.
Very dangerous under strengthening thunderstorms spitting lightening.
Northbound long distance hikers face the exposed crossing of Tyron Peak, if lightening storms are developing.
Other than those two sections we do have exposed crossings, but they are lower down in the terrain, short, and fairly safely passable with common sense. The key is to stay safe under the weather. When lightening fires up I follow the forest line around exposed meadows and other dangerous locations the route of the trail might cross when the lightening is striking. I follow the safest route when possible, and when a safe passage is not possible I hunker down and set up camp in a safe location until I can cross the exposed terrain in safety.
Hiking over Sonora and Tyron Peaks durting active storms is stupid; it leave our asses hanging out for lightening to strike.
Crossing these exposed sections is highly unadvisable if these thunder clouds continue to mass up, deepen, and build strength as we approach our high exposed crossings.
Timing is going to be our key to passage across exposed high elevation positions if active weather is brewing.
My observations indicate these dangerous lightening conditions build passively until around 2 pm in the afternoon (different times on different days with differing conditions), when the massing clouds explode into violent thunderstorms packing heavy lightening and downpours, even light snow and hail.
These storm conditions can, and generally do continue until sunset, though they may break up earlier, but once the heat storm pattern has started these daily afternoon storms will run from 2 pm until sunset for as many days as the optimal storm generation conditions continue in The Valley.
Hot temps (100+) in the Valley pushed up the Western flank of the Sierra by an onshore breeze can knock things off the hook. Especially since recent weather changes have moved much more humid masses of air further North.
These conditions require that we continually calculate the time we expect to cross exposed terrain against our observation of the evolution of atmospheric conditions. If afternoon heat condensation storms are brewing up, we must recognize them early, and be able to time our exposed crossings to avoid them.
If these clouds consolidate into a thunder and lightening storm we will make camp in a safe position rather than attempting an exposed crossing through these extremely dangerous lightening conditions.
Anticipate, Observe, Analyze, Act, React.
At the very least, Don't be a Dumbass. Watch the Environment Carefully
Drawing on our experience is one thing, putting it into a historical context is another. The top two historical causes of death for backcountry travelers are crossing rivers and lightening.
Don't become a statistic. Keep your eyes on the skies and be river-wise.
This means that stopping or turning around are alway options.
View to the Southeast from the North side of Golden Canyon
East Carson River Canyon
View Southeast: We are now getting grand views of the upper reaches of the East Carson River Valley.
Golden Canyon drops away to our Left in the foreground, the Southern Sharkin sits middle-left marking the Southern extent of Golden Canyon and the location of the swampy lake, and the great gorge of the East Carson shows us our way South towards its headwaters bowl sitting under the Southwestern flank of White Mountain in the distant Right of the image above.
Detail of great granite formations eroding out of their ancient volcanic jacketing. This "jacket" was applied by the ancient volcanic debris flooding of a massive lahar.
The hard granite terrain making up the East Fork of the Carson River was first deeply and steeply cut into a narrow North-South valley by glacial ice.
The toughness of the rock and its tight jointing resisted the power of the ice, only allowing a narrow channel to be cut through the rock. The rock did not allow this channel to be cut Eastward, downward with the flow of gravity out of the Sierra, but forced the ice to flow North.
The gorge and its surrounding terrain was subsequently flooded-drowned really-10,000 years ago by ancient flows of volcanic debris from a series of massive eruptions. These flows were thousands of feet deep. Super-Lahars, I would say.
I think about the timing of the last massive volcanic eruptions that rocked the Sierra as I observe the remnants of the ancient ferocity of their Lahar flows. The remnants of these flows stretch down the Sierra Crestline from Lake Tahoe to South of Reds Meadow creating a convoluted interface between granite, volcanic, and metamorphic rock with small bits of Super-Ancient pre-Sierra uplift rock thrown in for good measure.
I imagine massive volcanic eruptions from Lake Tahoe down to Mammoth Mountain exploding out from under and around deep granite valleys already buried under thousands of feet of glacial ice. What a mess that made.
Judging by the scope of these ancient lahar flows, which were big enough to literally bury tall mountains and drown deep valleys under thousands of feet of flowing liquid volcanic debris, many of these granite valleys quickly transformed their massive loads of ice into massive lahar flows.
For thousands of years since then some of the granite peaks of these submerged mountains stuck out through their surrounding ocean of volcanic debris. Runoff water cut rivers into the volcanic debris filling granite valleys buried below. For thousands of years granite islands were the only sign of the existence of the grand granite terrain buried far below.
Today the ancient granites of the East Carson River are emerging from their volcanic grave. The terrain is losing its volcanic jacket.
Thousands of years of water, ice, wind, tectonic uplift, and chemical breakdown have scoured some of the soft but persistent volcanic remnants off of the underlying granites along the East Fork of the Carson River, revealing the grandeur of the ancient granites below.
The Pacific Crest Trail winds around and through many of these granite islands floating in this slowly diminishing high tide of volcanic debris as we hike through the East Carson River drainage.
Whitecliff Peak, peeking out over the top of the great rock formation in the foreground, which divides two great hanging valleys on the East side of the East Carson River gorge.
Each of these hanging canyons has a major creek running out of it. I've long looked at both of these remote canyons as potential places to explore. I'll bet that both these valleys are full of bear, deer, and trout.
Silver King Creek sits on the backside, the East side of Whitecliff Peak and its hanging canyons. It is incredibly quiet back there along the Silver King Creek.
From the Disaster Creek Trailhead on the Clarks Fork Road to its Northern tee into the trail from Gardner Meadow to Wolf Creek Pass, the length of the Disaster Creek Trail is 7.02 miles.
Hiking West from Golden Canyon around the North side of Disaster Peak through Paradise Valley down to Disaster Creek locates us 4.11 miles South of the trail T between Gardner Meadow and Wolf Creek Pass, and 2.91 miles North of the Disaster Creek Trailhead on Clarks Fork Road.
This connector trail is one of four that makes great loops out of Highland Lakes or the Clark Fork Road between the PCT and TYT possible.
Note that there is a trail junction at the lowest left corner of the map. This unmarked and unmaintained trail runs down to Disaster Creek. I've never hiked down it, but tracks I've observed here indicate that this trail is used heavily by horses in Fall.
I've always entertained an unspoken assumption that the cowboys who come up here for Fall Roundup have a campsite down there. That's what the tracks indicated during a couple of Fall trips through here, and it accounts for my observations. This area has long been under grazing leases.
The cowboys are all over the mountains during late September and early October.
This rough cross-country trail twists its way Northeast down to a junction on the Disaster Creek Trail 2.83 miles North of the Disaster Creek Trailhead at the top of the Clarks Ford Road. If you head North up Disaster Creek you will have a 4.19 mile up to the junction with the trail between Gardner Meadow and Wolf Creek Pass.
I have a picture of this faint trail off of the Pacific Crest Trail, but I can't find it...
Note how the toe prints share footprints... the arc of the toes give it away. The upper bear print overlaps the lower, with the toes centering both.
The last wet soil conditions here sufficient for these prints was 10 days prior.
This is Bear Country. Lots of bears have been prospering in these mountains for centuries. There is a big rectangle of terrain on the Southeast side of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness filled with remote untrailed mountains and valleys that has provided excellent almost-undisturbed bear habitat for a very long time.
These are not the human acclimated fat bears you see in Yosemite Valley, though there have been some disturbing behavior changes during the last decade. These bears still sleep at night, still fear people, and generally only tap humans for food in quick twilight "hit and runs," when they try to snatch up goodies as they bolt across your camp when you step out of camp.
A fat, fully Human-acclimated Yosemite Bear sneers at such haste and discretion. Acclimated bears just walk right into camp with me standing right there, peruse my food defenses at their leisure, while I beat a retreat and commence bouncing rocks off bear's head. The bear says, "Ho-Hum, rocks are below my notice," and continues to nonchalantly scout out my resources.
Partially acclimated bears are very nervous approaching humans. "Nervous" around humans is the status of the most aggressive bears along this section of the trail, by my observations. They're very nervous, and scare off easily.
But, bears are also very hungry, and if they have been previously successful at obtaining food from humans their hunger will control their fear, and bear will try again. It is your job to reward the bear by making it regret ever approaching humans.
Don't ever hurt the bear, but thankfully instilling fear does not require pain. Hurt the bear's feelings. The slow but sure trend of increasing bear contact through here is likely to decline. Bear hunting has started up earnestly in these mountains again, out of the Little Antelope Pack Station.
This will certainly reverse the recent slow trend of bears becoming more aggressive in this area. Once they figure out that people are shooting them they will stay as far away from us humans as they can.
Old bear turds by the old bear tracks.
I looked at these a long time before deciding, no, not coyote turds, These are hungry bear turds. Too big for coyote, though you may not pick up the scale from the image.
Recent bear track, just a bit further South down the trail from the Swampy Lake.
I put the prints at 3 days +, though the nearby turds appeared older.
There's lots of bears in the East Carson River Valley and its associated remote Eastern drainages including the Silver King Creek and Fish Valley.
The bears here have long been scared of humans, but during the last ten years they have been getting acclimated to people, and getting more "aggressive." Prior to this trend they were opportunistic.
Little Antelope Pack Station has begun active operations again, which includes bear hunting. This appears to have put the fear of humans back into the bears of the East Carson River and its associated drainages.
We get our first full look at the grandeur of the East Carson Granite as the trail works its way South out of Golden Canyon. A grand view up the East Carson River opens up as we swing East to a fine overlook after passing South between the Sharkfin and the Swampy Lake.
Continuing South the trail executes a ninety-degree turn West to begin dropping down to cross the highest reach of Boulder Creek on the West side of Boulder Peak. After crossing tiny Boulder Creek the trail bends Southward to almost parallel the creek South. Fifty feet South of Boulder Creek there are fine camps on both sides of the trail.
After climbing South past the creek and the campsites the trail turns directly East to climb up through a beautiful granite and forest channel up to the very edge of the East Carson River's gorge on the South side of Boulder Peak. Here we again get an excellent view of our upcoming terrain South, or back at the terrain we just crossed if we are hiking North. Always turn around!
Sometimes the best views are behind you.
We continue the moderate climb South that began when we crossed Boulder Creek, but now the trail South is tracing the arcing top edge of a steep tributary chute plunging down to the East Carson River far below. We work our way up and over a ridge arm descending off the Sierra crest down the Western Sierra flank. This ridge arm divides two of the Westward draining canyons that feed Boulder Lake and Creek.
Everything to our East of where we are standing drains into the East Carson River, and flows East into the desert. Everything West of where we are standing eventually drains into the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River, and ends up in the Pacific Ocean.
Or a faucet in L.A...
After topping this nicely forested Sierra ridgecrest we have a short walk down to the Boulder Lake Trail Junction.
The Boulder Lake Trail junction is 17.71 miles South of Ebbetts Pass.
The Boulder Lake Trail junction is 11.73 miles North of Sonora Pass.
The trail turns East from the Southern Sharkfin and Swampy Lake to overlook the great gorge of the East Fork of the Carson River.
We can see the mountains on the East side of the East Carson River Canyon behind Ari to the Right. We're hiking South to overlook the upper section of the canyon.
Hiking East to Overlook the East Carson River
Hiking East to East Carson River overlook.
The Upper reaches of the East Fork of the Carson River
The final Southern extent of the East Carson River is visible from the Southside of Peak 9501.
Between Peak 9501 and the switchbacks down to (near) the East Carson River the PCT is constantly moving East and West and Up and Down following its convoluted route right along the actual crest line dividing the Eastern and Western drainages off of the Sierra Crest, while enjoying the amazing views in all directions this convoluted route provides through holes in the forest cover and high spots.
This section does not look like much on the map, but it will work you hard for the views.
You should be ready for this difficult terrain by now.
Pacific Crest Trail Hiker Note
IF you are coming North through here on the Pacific Crest Trail you have just ended the very difficult 75 mile long "Five Canyons" section between Tuolumne Meadows and Sonora Pass. This current section of trail between Sonora and Ebbetts Pass will be a cakewalk compared to the previous section of the trail, but it is likely that you will underestimate the challenge that the Sonora to Ebbetts Pass section presents. You will pick up speed on this section, but not as much as you thought.
I watch you guys every year. I watch the Spring Thaw carefully to inform you of its particulars, and I almost always plan a long trip South down the PCT at just the right time of Summer so I can get a good sample of the character of each year's crop of Pacific Crest Trail hikers. (2010 PCT & Hiker Sample-this guide contains all prior PCT hikers encountered and photographed...) And I report what I see. I've seen PCT hikers expect that crossing this section between Sonora and Ebbetts Passes would be easier than it is.
Southbound Tahoe to Whitney Hikers
Reaching Sonora Pass will put the Southbound hiker coming out of Meeks Bay at around a hundred miles of hiking, give or take a few odd miles. The PCT route South from Lake Tahoe gets gradually harder as you head further South through each section of the trail, and this section between Ebbetts and Sonora Passes is the most difficult yet. The next section between Sonora Pass and Tuolumne Meadows is harder, higher, and twice the distance.
As with the Northbound PCT hiker, you too have gradually become hardened by your previous sections and should be ready for the toughest section yet. Or not. The section between Ebbetts and Sonora Pass is your first section of sustained high elevation travel.
You have to judge your physical condition and make good decisions as you proceed down the trail. If you need a day off or two to rest and feed up before crossing the Carson-Iceberg Southbound, then hitch down to Lake Alpine, set up a nice pirate campsite in the National Forest lands, head over to the Lake Alpine Lodge or Bear Valley, and kick back to eat and rest for a full day.
The same opportunity exists at Kennedy Meadows on the South side of the Carson-Iceberg.
Northbound hikers have just resupplied, rested, and fed up at Kennedy Meadows Pack Station and should be well fueled and rested for this, their last section of difficult high elevation trail. Trail difficulty moderates on each of the next two trail sections heading North into the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Detail of rock formations above Eastern side of the East Carson. Peak 10440 with Whitecliff Peak rising in the background.
This section is full of fine terrain that I strongly suggest you take the time to observe... Too many PCT hikers run through here with their eyes glued to the trail, seeing nothing of the environment they are passing through.
I see new things every time I hike the same trail.
The quiet sound of tinkling water, the refreshing moist air in the little concentration of forest within the fold of the mountain here, and the relaxing forms of the granite made me look for the nice campsite I knew would be nearby.
A few feet South of crossing Boulder Creek on the West side of Boulder Peak we find nice campsites on both sides of the trail.
An early stop along the trail, fine weather, and easy access to water makes this laundry day.
The Dry Cycle.
At the bottom of our Westward turn down Boulder Creek we turn East, bending up to our Left back up to the Sierra Crestline.
Looking Northeast up towards the crest of Boulder Peak while working our way around its Southwest flank.
Southwest flank of Boulder Peak.
View East Hiking East
As we finish our loop around the West flank of Boulder Peak we climb East up the channel on the South flank of Boulder Peak up until we get a glimpse over the treetops across the gorge of the East Carson River at the mountain rising from its Eastern Shore.
East Carson River from South flank of Boulder Peak.
Trail and View Turn South
Stanislaus Peak comes back into view.
View to the Southwest
The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail
Boulder Creek Draining into the Clarks Forkof theStanislaus
Crisp late-October Morning: Looking SW from the Southern rim of Golden Canyon we can see the Boulder Creek drainage down to the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail along Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus.
The Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River with the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail running alongside it is sitting at the base of the third mountain mass dominating the center-left of the image above.
The Boulder Lake Trail runs between the first and second ridges below us in the image above, connecting the Pacific Crest Trail with the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.
East Carson River Headwaters Bowl
Getting closer to the East Carson River Headwaters Bowl and the Gap over it.
Note the huge granite dome feature I call "the plug," rising out of the right bank of the East Carson River, middle-distant. The PCT circles around the backside of the plug before switch-backing down to the East fork of the Carson River.
The trail coming up the other side of the East Carson River, along the East shore far below us, has to get past the plug before fording the East Carson and joining up with the Pacific Crest Trail.
South of the plug the trail parallels the East Carson River up to the headwaters. North of the plug the Pacific Crest Trail climbs to follow the Sierra crest line along the West Rim of the East Carson.
I met Steve's three stock-seeking dogs before I met Steve. Funny Story.
The dogs thought I was a cow, and I thought the dogs were wild. When they came through the underbrush to "round me up" I was ready to do battle with dogs.
Listening to three animals approaching and flanking me was disquieting. Bears do not travel in packs, neither do coyotes, so I guessed wild dogs were on my trail. They were intentionally tracking and flanking me.
I charged the dog on the left as they broke through the underbrush in unison. I saw what I instantly thought were three crazy dogs who had somehow packed-up in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. The dogs instantly knew they had met a frkn crazy backpacker. As far as I was concerned it was on. The dogs would die and I would live.
The dogs, on their part of the deal, were quite surprised that I was not a cow, and were even more shocked that someone was charging them with threats of mayhem, death and a big stick.
The dogs made themselves scarce quick. I instantly noted their puzzled looks and the fear in their eyes sparked by my aggression. This instantly informed me that they were not lost or wild dogs. I said, "good dogs," and all three wagged their tails in unison from their safe observation spots, as I expected they were. They were a team of working dogs. Then I heard the mounted rider coming hard and fast up the mountain.
Steve rode hard up the mountain when he heard my battle-cry, knowing his dogs had not found the cow they were tracking. Steve rode up apologizing profusely. I assured him that all was well that ended well. The dogs returned and we had a formal introduction. They were not getting anywhere near me until Steve called them in.
Steve's dogs were tracking a stubborn stray up Boulder Creek's drainage. His dogs had the wind to their backs and picked me up with their ears, so their noses had not rejected me as a bovine target.
The dogs came in and nosed my hand, and let me give them a quick pat, but they were more concerned with finding the cow they were chasing than hanging out with me. They were good working dogs who liked their job as much as Steve.
Steve's family has had a stock lease up here for generations. They come out in late September and early October to start rounding up their grazing stock and comb the deep valleys for strays and stubborn cows.
Steve was as nice a guy as his picture indicates. We spoke for a while and went on with our different tasks through the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.
Down the trail his dad and brother rode by fast a couple of times trying to box-in the stubborn stray. The stray was doing everything in his power to avoid capture. The cowboys were chasing the cow through the mountainside ravines, then cutting up to the PCT to ride fast and hard to get in front of the stray's maneuvers, then cut off the trail back down the mountain to force the stray back down the drainage.
Just another day in the Sierra.
Late Sept 2009.
top of page
Two Views from the South Side of Boulder Peak
Boulder Creek Drainage South West to the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River
Looking down two of the drainages feeding Boulder Creek on its way down to the Clarks Fork via Boulder Lake.
On the Left of this image there is a low ridge of brighter green trees descending SW in front of the higher ridge behind. The larger second ridge is capped with a granite crown coming down from the far Left of the image.
Out of view to our left between these two ridges is where the trail route down from the Pacific Crest Trail to Boulder Lake heads West off the Sierra Crest. Directly in front of us is another drainage down to Boulder Lake, though un-trailed. A spider-web of trails run down across the central flat that holds Boulder Lake before joining Boulder Creek on its way down to the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River.
The Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus runs Westward in front of the mountain mass in the middle-distant center of the image, which is exactly where Boulder Creek joins the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River at the end of the drainage we are overlooking.
Crossing the low ridge on the left, to our South, will bring us to the Boulder Lake trail junction on the other side.
From the South Side of Boulder Peak we can view details of "The Plug," Peak 8990 to our South, while overlooking the steepening upper reaches of the East Fork of the Carson River.
We will pass around the backside, the West or Right side of The Plug to the switchbacks down to the East Carson River beyond.
Above: "The Plug," a feature on the East Shore of the East Carson River. Note Sonora Peak in far distant right under tree branch.
From our position here on the South side of Boulder Peak we have a brief climb before the PCT drops down to meet the Boulder Lake Trail. There is another set of two short climbs South of the Boulder Lake trail junction that bring us around the backside of "The Plug."
The next ridgecrest we climb is visible to our South above the exposed rock you can see poking through the trees between our position and The Plug.
Crossing over that ridge the Southbound trail then turns West to traverse down the ridge's far side to a black pond before climbing Southeast to pass behind "The Plug."
I can simplify this: From here you go up & down, then up & down again. Then up one more time to behind "The Plug." On the other side of The Plug you have a short walk to the switchbacks down to the East Carson River.
From the Boulder Lake junction on the South end of this trail down to the TYT the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail follows the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River upstream through some rough unmaintained trail and cross country hiking conditions to Saint Marys Pass.
Saint Marys Pass is about a mile West of Sonora Pass along Highway 108.
This connector trail can be used to craft great local loops around the Carson Iceberg Wilderness using both the PCT and TYT routes, as well as to bypass the difficult unmaintaine section of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.
Boulder Lake trail junction freshly slashed in 2009.