Place and Options Place
The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail turns to the Southbound hiker's Right here, through Jenkins Canyon over to Arnot Creek, and on down to the Clarks Fork Road.
Hiking Straight through this junction follows Highland Creek up to its source out of the Western Highland Lake, with the Pacific Crest Trail route 3.27 miles beyond. The two maps below lay out these backpacking options from the Jenkins Canyon junction.
The Jenkins Canyon junction is at least opening up our next segment of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail across the South-Central Carson Iceberg Wilderness. It also opens up a series of interesting backpacking options for long distance backpacking as well as local loops.
Alternative Long Distance Route
Jenkins Canyon can represent our next move putting together an alternative route to the classic Tahoe to Yosemite Trail across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. We can hike up Highland Creek to the PCT, and proceed South from there, with more hiking options opening up as we down towards Highway 108 on the PCT.
This Jenkins Canyon junction can represent a critical turning point constructing grand backpacking loops around this fantastic wilderness. How we hike South here influences how we will loop back.
Or, Jenkins Canyon is our next waypoint on our grand hike down the classic Tahoe to Yosemite Trail. It's up to you!
Hiking South on the TYT through Jenkins Canyon
marks our departure from the Highland Creek drainage, which is subordinate within the broader watershed of the North Stanislaus River.
We will hike over the top of Jenkins Canyon into Arnot Creek's canyon, which moves us into the watershed of the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus. We'll be in the Clarks Fork drainage for the vast majority of the remainder of our TYT hike to Highway 108, except for the last bit South from Saint Marys Pass to its trailhead on Highway 108.
TYT to the Sierra Crest
After hiking through Jenkins Canyon we'll drop down to Arnot Creek for the short hike down to the Clarks Fork River. We'll follow it up to and around the base of the West and then the Southern flanks of Stanislaus Peak climbing towards the headwaters within this mighty, this truly impressive Western Sierra river canyon as we hike for the Sierra Crest.
On the next guide page we'll climb out of the Clarks Fork over into the watershed of the Middle fork of the Stanislaus. We'll cross Saint Marys Pass out of the Clarks Fork headwaters to make our final short descent to the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead on Highway 108.
Interestingly enough, we will still be on the Western flank of the Sierra crossing over Saint Marys Pass. Saint Marys Pass is a low gap between Western watersheds, not a division between the Eastern and Western flanks of the Sierra Crest.
The Middle and Clarks Forks of the Stanislaus are like a thumb and forefinger reaching up into different sections of the Western flank of the Sierra from the same hand.
Saint Marys Pass is the gap between the thumb and forefinger.
The runoff from both sides of Saint Marys Pass flows down to the same endpoint, which is where the Clarks Fork merges into the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus at the intersection of Clarks Fork Road and Highway 108.
Arriving at the Jenkins Canyon trail junction we've hiked 11.58 miles South on the TYT from the Silver Valley Trailhead located on the East Shore of Lake Alpine.
We're 22.99 miles North of Saint Marys Pass Trailhead along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.
Let's get some context on our position with the maps and mileages. North-Central
Carson Iceberg Wilderness Backpacking Maps
Southbound Tahoe to Yosemite Trail
This page covers our next 14.3 miles hiking Southbound on the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail from the Jenkins Canyon trail junction to the Boulder Lake trail junction along Boulder Creek.
We're 8.13 miles from stepping onto the paved Clarks Fork Road, where we begin a 3.61 mile hike up to the end of the road past a couple of big car campgrounds and church retreats before passing through the Clarks Fork Traihead at the end of the road, where we reenter wilderness.
This guide page ends 2.56 miles past the Clarks Fork Trailhead at the nice campsite near the Boulder Lake trail junction. The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail deteriorates significantly South of Boulder Creek.
The Way Forward and the Way Around
The next guide page South covers the 8.69 rough miles South from Boulder Creek to the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead on Highway 108. The trail goes into unmaintained status South of the Eureka Valley trail junction up to Clarks Fork Meadow. South of the Clarks Fork Meadow we're faced with route finding to Saint Marys Pass. This section of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail from Lake Alpine to the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead ends through a very challenging segment of trail.
The Boulder Creek junction up to the PCT offers us a way around the rough route over Saint Marys Pass along the TYT. Instead of hiking the rough TYT route it brings us down the finely maintained PCT through the Sonora Pass Trailhead onto Highway 108.
Local Color and Character Ahead
One of the retreats along Clarks Fork Road in Sand Flat is populated by an interesting-looking bunch of Amish-like fundamentalists. Another by a rather unusual Mormon treatment center for youth. The visual range these folks presents spans from "Little House on the Prairie" (the Amish), to Fundamentalist Boot Camp (being the Mormons).
Then we encounter the massive car campground along Clarks Fork Road. These car campgrounds are a bit like transplanting a "country suburbia" deep in the Sierra backcountry. Though the car-campers are not quite as cult-like as the nearby Amish and Mormons, they adhere to their particular set of dominant values just as tightly as the Amish and Mormon minorities theirs.
I'd say each of these divergent populations could all "unpucker" by a few degrees, to find the common roots drawing us all to this beauty.
What draws them all to this place is so much deeper than the power and ability of any of their sectarian definitions and narrow explanations to explain or account for. Not the religious zealots, not the suburban car campers, nor even the scientists.
This is therefore the mutual basis of an ethical equality, for each group to see the other as unique perspectives, each being aspects and reflections of the multi-faceted face of reality, rather than as competing perspectives, with each vying to monopolize the definition of reality and impose it on the others.
We are not "it" from one particular perspective, but can only get a glimpse of "its" grandeur through the combination of all of our perspectives. That's just the way it is.
Our ability to understand the reach of our perspective measures either our understanding or our ignorance. The scale goes both ways.
The zealots, be they Consumers or Christians or both, could all use some long distance backpacking to cure what ails them. I'd send them all on a forty day Tahoe to Whitney backpacking trip to bring them all into better balance with themselves and each other.
Ironically, this weird bit of "civilization" we encounter along our otherwise remote Tahoe to Yosemite Trail along Clarks Fork Road precedes us hiking into the very remote section of unmaintained trail over Saint Marys Pass.
We can loop around this segment of road and civilization by hiking up to the Pacific Crest Trail by turning up to the PCT via Highland Lakes through this Jenkins Canyon trail junction at the top of this guide page, or through the Boulder Lake trail at the bottom.
By turning onto the PCT here up Highland Creek we can finish this section through Sonora Pass, or we can hike back down to the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail through Boulder Lake for the challenging hike across the unmaintained segment of the TYT over Saint Marys Pass.
The configuration of trails across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness has something for every backpacker. We discuss these hiking options below.
Jenkins Canyon to the Boulder Creek Trail Junction on the
Tahoe to Yosemite Trail
All backpackers can post text comments about this segment of trail from Jenkins Canyon to Boulder Lake trail junction through the comments links all over this guide page.
These links are for your comments, questions, updates and hiking reports, for you to add your perspective and experiences on these trails. We're all different and experience things differently. Share your experiences. It informs others who think like you as well as those who don't.
Registered Members can post up stand alone posts about this section of the trail with images, maps and videos in the Trails Forum for this Lake Alpine to Saint Marys Pass section of the Trail Guide.
Add information through the comments links and read this supplemental information through the forum links.
Both Long and Short distance backpackers have lots of options
Long Distance Tahoe to Yosemite Trail Hikers
Long distance backpackers Southbound on the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail turn Right to continue South through Jenkins Canyon.
If you are not interested in the following discussion about hiking loops around the Carson Iceberg Wilderness or the alternative long-distance route options up to the Pacific Crest Trail from the Jenkins Canyon trail junction, skip to the trail guide's continuing description of the Southbound Tahoe to Yosemite Trail up Jenkins Canyon, below.
Medium and Long distance Backpacking
Loops in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness
Local backpackers hiking local loops or trail segments out of the Silver Valley Trailhead at Lake Alpine can continue straight through the Jenkins Canyon trail junction up Highland Creek to Highland Lakes. The well-maintained dirt Highland Lakes Road accesses the Highland Lakes from Highway 4 near Ebbetts Pass.
Highland Lakes can be the end-point of point to point backpacking trips from the Silver Valley Trail head. Or it can open up a series of backpacking loops for local backpackers and alternative routes South for long distance backpackers.
Our exceptional opportunities to craft backpacking loops around the Carson Iceberg Wilderness are dependent on the four trails that connect the PCT and TYT across its length. These are the Highland, Arnot, Disaster, and Boulder Creek Trails.
These trails allow long distance backpackers on the TYT and PCT to craft numerous alternative routes across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness, while these interconnections open up many local and long distance loops for local backpackers starting out of Silver Valley or Highland Lakes.
The backpacking loops described below are expanded by using the furthest connector trails at the North and South ends of the Carson Iceberg, and contracted by using the nearest connector trails to our selected trailhead, independent of where we begin, independent of which trailhead we use to jump onto this grand hamster wheel for backpackers.
The two maps below lay out all four of the trails linking the TYT to the PCT across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness.
Silver Valley Trailhead to Highland Lakes and Wolf Creek Pass
It is 17.84 miles from the Silver Valley Trail head to the Highland Lakes Trailhead. From Highland Lakes we can easily hike another 3.72 miles Northeast over to the Pacific Crest Trail at Wolf Creek Pass through the Gardner Meadow Trailhead. We'll encounter the Arnot and Disaster Creek trail junction along the short trail from Gardner Meadow Trailhead to Wolf Creek Pass
These two trails are ideal for local loops. They allow us to bend nice backpacking loops out of Silver Valley Trailhead through Highland Lakes, and back to Silver Valley through either Arnot or Disaster Creeks, depending on how big of a loop we want to hike. Let's examine our basic backpacking loop options hiking South out of the Silver Valley Trailhead at Lake Alpine.
Arnot Creek backto Silver Valley Trailhead
Hiking to Lower Gardner Meadow via Highland Lakes from Silver Valley, then turning down Arnot Creek to find the Northbound TYT at the Woods Gulch trail junction, where we turn North for the return leg of our loop to Silver Valley Trailhead. This Arnot Loop would be a 45.12 mile backpacking loop.
Disaster Creek backto Silver Valley Trailhead
Hiking the same trip as above, but we turn South down the Disaster Creek Trail rather than Arnot Creek.
Hiking down Disaster Creek brings us to the TYT at the end of the Clarks Fork Road, where we turn North on the TYT back to the Silver Valley Trailhead to close our loop. The Disaster Creek route expands the diameter of our loop a bit further than the Arnot Loop, and its mileage a bit beyond the size of the Arnot loop. This Disaster Loop would be a 50.62 mile backpacking loop.
Arnot and Disaster Creeks offer us two trail examples of expanding backpacking loops out of the Silver Valley Trailhead. We can expand these loops by a couple of more degrees.
Boulder Lake backto Silver Valley Trailhead
It is 21.11 miles from the Silver Valley Trailhead along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail at Lake Alpine to the Wolf Creek Pass trail junction on the Pacific Crest Trail. From Wolf Creek Pass our options expand further.
Hiking 10.69 miles South on the PCT from Wolf Creek Pass we encounter the 2.74 mile trail down to the TYT through Boulder Lake. From Boulder Lake trail junction on the TYT we have 25.88 miles North returning to our starting trailhead at Silver Valley. This Boulder Loop would be a 60.42 mile backpacking loop.
The Full Loop
The longest backpacking loop option we have for a hike out of the Silver Valley Trailhead is to hike up to the PCT at Wolf Creek Pass and continue South all the way down to Sonora Pass. From Sonora Pass we hike a mile West down Highway 108 to the the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead to begin our Northbound hike across the full length of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness on the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.
This "longest" Carson Iceberg loop would encompass hiking almost the whole length of the wilderness South on the PCT and its whole length returning North on the TYT. The "full" Loop would be a 76.1 mile backpacking loop.
We can put together the backpacking loop that suits our needs, abilities, or conforms to our constraints around the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. We can put together short backpacking loops for those of us who are time or mileage constrained, and big loops encompassing most of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness for those who have time and energy.
This guide contains the information necessary for us to plan and execute these backpacking loops, section hike the PCT or TYT across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness, hike the length of the Sierra Nevada between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney, or just plan and execute a simple in-and-out hike to a sweet lake.
I urge you to do it all, one sweet step at a time.
We can craft these grand backpacking loops around the Carson Iceberg starting from any of the circle of trailheads around the wilderness adjacent to the PCT and TYT. I use Silver Valley Trailhead as an example because it is the trailhead we entered the Carson Iceberg Wilderness along our Southbound TYT route. We can begin our big Carson Iceberg backpacking loops anywhere around the perimeter of the wilderness.
We can start out of the Highway 4 trailheads or those trailheads along the Clarks Fork Road and Highway 108 to put together basically the same medium and long distance backpacking loops out of, and back to their respective trailheads as described above. We just need to modify our route a bit to suite the particular starting trailhead we've chosen.
We have fundamentally the same options for linking up the Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest Trails across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness independent of where we began.
The Carson Iceberg is covered by a web of trails.
Once we get onto this web of trails we can move all around it, across it, and to its peripheral anchor points.
Check out the links to the maps and miles pages to find a suitable loop of the best distance, the proper level of difficulty, and most convenient starting trailhead for you.
Hiking the Carson Iceberg Wilderness
Big Hiking Loops Hikers starting from any of the trailheads ringing the Carson Iceberg Wilderness on the PCT and TYT can use these four connector trails to craft fantastic hiking loops.
Use either the PCT or the TYT to hike out from your selected trailhead, then use the other to return. Deciding which connector trails you use to tie the in-and-out trails together determines the length of your backpacking loop around the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.
How Many Loops?
When I get the chance I'm going to find a mathematician to figure out the number of loops we can craft out of the 8 trailheads, two main trails, and four connector trails that characterize the Tahoe to Yosemite and Pacific Crest Trail routes across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. I live next to UC Berkeley, and have had a few math whiz kids as pals over the decades I've been here. The next gets to work this one out.
If you can set up and work out this equation, shoot me an email.
Many fine loops from all compass points
Independent of where we start our backpacking trip, from either the Highway 4 or 108 corridors (or even out of 395), we have a lot of excellent hiking loop options in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.
Check out this Trip Report of a fifty-mile Carson Iceberg Loop. Another way into this maze of trails that I have not mentioned is from the East, through the remote Corral Valley Trailhead situated on historic Rodriguez Flat at 8000 feet wedged into the East Sierra flank at the end of a dirt road twisting off of Highway 395. Access is just North of the town of Walker, about 17 miles North of the junction between Highways 108 and 395.
There are backpacking loops around the Carson Iceberg Wilderness to suit a wide range of fitness and experience levels, or one person's evolution through time and space. Start yourself off with little trips, grow into big backpacking loops, and begin to explore the art of cross country travel remaining within the Carson Iceberg Wilderness.
The longest loop is made by starting at either end of the Wilderness, Highway 4 or 108, and hiking a loop using the PCT to hike one way and the TYT to hike back. This loop is just short of 80 miles. We can extend it if we incorporate the unmaintained trail along the East Carson River into our loop, which will push our great circle to over 90 miles in circumference, and add another significant segment of route-finding.
The shortest loop would be the Arnot-Disaster "loop," out of either Gardner Meadow or Clarks Fork Road, at around 18.3 miles.
The highest loop we can do with the shortest mileage is the Sonora Pass Trailhead-to-Boulder Lake-to-Saint Marys Pass Trailhead loop, which measures out at 23 miles. This short loop includes the very difficult segment of unmaintained trail, and even a section without trail at all, from Clarks Meadow over Saint Marys Pass. This is a high and hard loop, if short.
The Arnot-Disaster Creek loop's 18.3 miles includes 4.17 miles of hiking along the paved Clarks Fork Road between the Arnot and Disaster Creek Trailheads, so we could reduce this loop down to 14.13 miles by leaving cars at both our Clarks Fork Trailheads, if possible.
TYT South to Saint Marys Pass
The trail guide page below depicts the SouthboundTahoe to Yosemite Trail from the Jenkins Canyon trail junction alongside Highland Creek over the top of Jenkins Canyon into the Arnot Creek valley and out the Arnot Creek Trailhead down a short length of dirt road onto the paved Clarks Fork Road.
Clarks Fork Road is the old pioneer road over the Sierra, now a subordinate paved road branching off of Highway 108 about 7 miles West of the Kennedy Meadows Pack Station turnoff.
The Clarks Fork Road follows the river up past a number of campsites and retreat facilities to where the narrowing canyon precludes stable roads.
The Clarks Fork Road's turnoff on Highway 108 is located where the Clarks Fork merges into the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River.
Our interaction with the Clarks Ford Road is limited to our 4.17 miles hike upstream on the TYT along the Clarks Fork Road from trailhead to trailhead. Though it's 4.17 miles from our emergence out of the Arnot Creek Trailhead to the Clarks Fork Trailhead at end of the road, only 3.61 miles of this are up the paved road. The remaining .56 mile is our hike down the dirt road from the trailhead to Clarks Fork Road.
We re-enter wilderness through the Clarks Fork Trailhead at the end of the Clarks Fork Road for the short 2.56 mile hike South to the Southernmost of the 4 trails connecting the TYT with the PCT across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness, the Boulder Lake trail junction.
Backpacking Route Options
From the Boulder Lake trail junction the next page of this trail guide continues South along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail to Saint Marys Pass, but yet another guide page turns up to Boulder Lake and the Pacific Crest Trail to cover this Southernmost connecting trail up to the PCT. Where we go from the PCT is up to us.
We've got range and imagination... a dangerous combination.
Nonetheless, the Boulder Lake trail up to the Pacific Crest Trail is our last chance to divert around the upcoming very rough unmaintained segment of Tahoe to Yosemite Trail. The next segment of trail South on the TYT begins to degrade in earnest above the unmarked Eureka Valley trail junction, and deteriorates further as we progress South towards Saint Marys Pass.
This guide shows us both how to go over and around the rough route over Saint Marys Pass, to suit our plans.
Wide Spectrum Access
This page of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail guide below passes by the Southern trailheads of two of the four trails connecting the Tahoe to Yosemite to the Pacific Crest Trail across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. These are the Arnot and Disaster Creek Trailheads.
Both of these trailheads start Northbound routes from their trailheads along Clarks Fork Road, but no trailhead on their Northern ends. These trails converge on the North end of Lightening Mountain, and their merged path terminates into the short trail linking the Gardner Meadow Trailhead to the PCT at Wolf Creek Pass.
The Arnot and Disaster Creek trails' connection on their North end makes short backpacking loops down one trail from the Gardner Meadow Trailhead off Highland Lakes Road to Clarks Fork Road, and back up the other trail a mirror-image loops we can begin out of the Clarks Fork Road.
This is basically the same trip starting out of either Gardner Meadow off Highway 4 or the Clarks Fork Road off Highway 108. This may seem irrelevant, but where you live will determine which trailhead is easier to get to. A backpacker in Reno has much easier access to Highland Lakes, while a backpacker out of LA will start out of the Clarks Fork Road.
Access to the heart of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness from the North via Highway 4 trailheads, from the South through Clarks Fork and Highway 108 trailheads, and from the East out of Highway 395 make the Carson Iceberg Wilderness accessible to backpackers of all skills coming from all directions.
I've spent some fruitful time here, and I suggest you do too.
Passing Connector Trails and Trailhead Hiking South on the TYT
Our first trail connecting the TYT to the PCT hiking South into the Carson Iceberg Wilderness along the TYT, the Highland Creek Trail, has trailheads on both of its ends.
The Highland Creek Trail begins on Highway 4 accompanying the Southbound TYT as it passes through the Highland Creek Trail's start point at the Silver Valley Trailhead. The Highland Creek Trail breaks off from the TYT to continue Northeast up Highland Creek to Highland Lakes where the TYT turns up Jenkins Canyon.
The Highland Creek Trail emerges onto the Highland Lakes Road through the Highland Lakes Trailhead, while the Southbound TYT emerges onto road access on the Clarks Fork Road hiking over Jenkins and down Arnot Canyon.
Southbound Tahoe to Yosemite Trail hikers walk out of Arnot Creek's canyon through the Arnot Creek Trailhead onto Clarks Road, then past a menagerie of car campgrounds and various retreat-type facilities on our way to hike a few feet past the Disaster Creek Trailhead at the end of Clarks Fork Road through Clarks Fork Trailhead and back onto trail.
Our last trail connecting the TYT to the PCT across the South end of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness, the Boulder Lake Trail, has no trailheads at all.
This short length of trail links the the TYT and PCT across the Sierra Crest in a well-placed location between trailheads that makes many hiking loops and alternative routes off the classic hiking trails possible. It is a key length of trail for many local backpacking loops.
Above: Southbound Backpacker's View of the Jenkins Canyon trail junction.
TYT North and South
Lake Alpine is 11.58 miles behind us on the TYT to the Northwest.
From Jenkins Canyon we continue our Southbound route along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail to our Right.
This Jenkins Canyon trail junction is 5.92 miles North of the Arnot Creek Trailhead off of Clarks Fork Road, and another .56 of a mile above the road.
To the PCT
Highland Lakes is 6.48 miles to our Northeast if we continue straight through the Jenkins Canyon trail junction up Highland Creek.
At the Western Highland Lake we are 3.27 miles from the Pacific Crest Trail route at Wolf Creek Pass, and a bit less to the Northern end of the Arnot and Disaster Creek Trails.
The Northern ends of the the Arnot and Disaster Creek Trails up from their Clarks Fork Road Trailheads intersect with our trail from Highland Lakes to Wolf Creek Pass.
This next 7.57 mile segment South on the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail from the Jenkins Canyon trail junction to the Arnot Creek Trailhead brings us out of the Northern Carson Iceberg Wilderness to its Southern half.
Administratively, we are hiking from the Calavaras Ranger District into the Summit Ranger District when we hike across the gap in the mountains between Jenkins Canyon and Woods Gulch. In terms of road access we are moving from Northern access into the Carson Iceberg Wilderness from Highway 4 to Southern access from Highway 108.
Hikers starting from the Highway 4 corridor obtain permits from the Calavaras Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest, while trips starting from Highway 108, including the Clarks Fork Road, obtain their permits from the Stanislaus National Forest's Summit Ranger District.
Turning up Jenkins Canyon on the Southbound TYT presents up with a 2.27 mile climb up 1262 feet from the trail junction to the narrow gap through forest at the top of the canyon leading to the top of Wood Gulch descending the other side of this mountain ridge.
The lower half of the trail up Jenkins Canyon is steeper than the upper. The upper section of the trail flattens a bit climbing up a high meadow, before we encounter the steepest last section up to the gap over to Woods Gulch.
Sweet Views of some Sweet Terrain
Climbing South into Jenkins Canyon we get some great views of the line of Peaks running to our Northeast up the East side of Highland Canyon. The line of mountains running down the East flank of Highland Canyon divides Highland Creek and its canyon to the West from from the Arnot and Disaster Creek drainages on their East side.
On the East side of this ridge Arnot and Disaster Creeks roughly mirror each other on wrapping around the opposite flanks of Lightening Mountain, with Disaster Creek running along the Western flank of the Sierra Crest.
Looking Northeast up Highland Creek we can see Hiram Peak at the top of the line of peaks, followed by Airola and Iceberg Peaks from Left to Right on the ridgline descending down towards our position entering Jenkins Canyon.
The Highland Lakes sit at the base of Hiram Peak's far upper flank, the PCT a few miles beyond across fairly flat terrain.
To our East-Southeast we can get a couple of glimpses of the main line of the Sierra Crest beyond, capped by Stanislaus Peak, before hiking deeper into Jenkins Canyon eliminates long views of the surrounding terrain.
Other Side of the Mountain
The Pacific Crest Trail is running South towards Sonora Pass on the other side of the main line of the Sierra Crest, under the Eastern flank of Stanislaus Peak. The upcoming section of our Tahoe to Yosemite Trail route is moving up towards the West flank of the Sierra Crestline capped by Stanislaus Peak, to run us up to the Sierra Crest under its Western flank.
These two great trails, the TYT and PCT are moving towards a near convergence at Sonora Pass.
The Southbound route of our Tahoe to Yosemite Trail emerges onto Highway 108 through the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead about a mile West of Sonora Pass, where the PCT crosses Highway 108. The Pacific Crest Trail passes under the East flank of Stanislaus Peak before wrapping around the East and South flanks of Sonora Peak to arrive at Sonora Pass.
The TYT wraps around the West and South flanks of Stanislaus Peak before it climbs over the ridgeline descending off the Southwestern shoulder of Sonora Pass, which makes up a substantial amount of the headwaters bowl of the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River. We have to climb out of the headwaters bowl through Saint Marys Pass to reach the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead on Highway 108.
We're observing this surrounding terrain on the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail climbing South up into Jenkins Canyon.
Our "windows of observation," being the points from which we can get these long views are very narrow, so let's keep our eyes open or we will just walk through them without knowing what we've missed, and this will reduce our understanding of our ever changing position and harder to maintain context in the regional terrain.
That's why I want to walk these trails multiple times. We're going to see new things and gain new perspectives each time.
Old comforts, new delights, maybe some mountain insights!
Viewing the Sierra Crestline Looking East across the Southeastern Carson Iceberg Wilderness.
Stanislaus Peak on the Sierra Crestline
That's the Sierra Crest in the Glowing Twilight, capped by Stanislaus Peak.
Hiking up into Jenkins Canyon we get brief points of view to the Northeast and the East at the Sierra Crestline featuring Stanislaus Peak. Sonora Peak, marking the location of Sonora and Saint Marys Passes for the purpose of orienting ourselves, is out of the frame of this image just a bit further South on that same section of the Sierra Crest.
The Pacific Crest Trail is running along the Eastern flank of the Sierra Crestline, which is on the other side of the ridgeline we see making up the Eastern horizon.
The Southernmost connector trail linking the Pacific Crest to Tahoe to Yosemite Trail via Boulder Lake climbs to the crestline on the far Left side of the visible crestline in the image above, where we can see the crest dropping down a bit.
In the image above we're hiking up into Jenkins Canyon, which is located to our Right, and we've bent our head 90 degrees to our Left for the view.
Sierra Crestline to our East-Southeast topped by Stanislaus Peak.
Detail of Southeastern Carson Iceberg Wilderness from 7200 feet of elevation in Jenkins Canyon.
Looking East-Southeast at the Sierra Crestline rising between the East fork of the Carson River on its far Eastern flank from our position on TYT route moving toward the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River's twisting canyon for the hike up to the Western flank of Stanislaus Peak, and Saint Marys Pass.
The peak on the far Right is tracing out the distinctive outline of Stanislaus Peak, visible from all directions.
To put this area into a broader context check out various views of Stanislaus Peak from surrounding terrain. We can see Stanislaus Peak looking South from the top of the PCT crossing Tyron PeakSouth of Ebbetts Pass (it's Left of Ari's Head), from the North side of Murray Canyon on the PCT, from the East out of the unmaintained trail along the East Carson River, and from Saint Marys Pass.
From that high point on Tyron Peak along the Pacific Crest Trail we also overlook the the terrain where Disaster, Arnot, and Highland Creeks cut down-mountain to their intersection points with the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.
From our position in the image above we're looking East across the routes of Arnot and Disaster Creeks (and their trails) flowing between the intervening ridgeline from Left to Right down to the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus.
The TYT approaches the Sierra Crest hiking alongside the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus flowing down from its headwaters bowl under the South Flank of Stanislaus Peak.
We are currently climbing South out of Highland Creek's valley on our way over to the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River. We'll drop into the lower section of Arnot Creek and follow it a short ways down to where it enters the Clarks Fork.
From there we'll follow the Clarks Fork upriver, first on paved road, then back to wilderness trail, and eventually unmaintained trail as the Clarks Fork turns under the base of Stanislaus Peak's West Flank to bend around under its Southern flank into its untrailed headwaters bowl.
The last segment of our route has no trail
for the hike through Clarks Meadow and the climb out of the Clarks Fork headwaters over Saint Marys Pass.
The Carson Iceberg Wilderness map lays out how the shape of this section of the Sierra Crest determines the route of our Tahoe to Yosemite Trail. The unique terrain here is the key to how the route of the TYT is divided from, and linked to, the Pacific Crest Trail across the length of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness.
It is exploring the divisions and connections between these two trails that gives so much backpacking potential to this section of the Sierra Crest for curious backpackers of almost every fitness and skill level.
Looking North of East at Hiram Peak, Airola Peak, and Iceberg Peak, from Left to Right along the ridgeline dividing Highland Creek on this side of the ridgeline above Highland Creek in its canyon running up to Highland Lakes, from Arnot Creek running along its far flank Eastern flank.
We're looking back over our Left shoulder climbing South up Jenkins Canyon.
The peak on the far Left, Hiram Peak, sits above the Highland Lakes.
Highland Lakes are 6.46 miles up Highland Creek from the Jenkins Canyon trail junction below us, down to the Left, out of sight beyond the lower Left corner of the image above.
We can see how Highland Creek's Canyon bends to the Northeast climbing to Highland Lakes, and our Northernmost access to the PCT, had we chosen to hike up Highland Creek.
After the steeper section of trail up from the trail junction in Highland Canyon the terrain moderates into a steady incline, until we come to another steeper section of trail.
At the top of this second steep section the incline again moderates, this time into gentle enough of a plane to support a series of meadows running up to where the terrain again steepens for a third time for the final climb through the gap in atop of Jenkins Canyon over into the top of Woods Gulch.
There are three steeper climbing segments of trail along the average rate of climb up Jenkins Canyon.
Above is the view waking up in the morning at the head of this small section of meadow, next to my little fire ring, with a babbling creek a few steps to our East, to our Right from this perspective.
Racing the Clock, Racing the Terrain
Climbing up Jenkins Canyon late during the short length of days during late October of 2011 saw Ari and I unsuccessfully racing sunset.
As Darkness fell we continued up, and then off, the trail up Jenkins Canyon. No problem. I follow the lay of the land and the logic of trail location. The trail will come back to me, if not I to it.
I began looking for flat areas, for an ideal forest-covered flat with a campsite along the edge of the meadow as I continued to lead us up the mountain following the creek.
The location of the creek told me the trail was off to our right, but I waited to cut right until I spied the upper section of the meadow above.
We hiked over to what looked like the most likely spot to camp at the top of the meadow in almost total darkness, and found a nice little campsite there waiting for us. The edges of the meadows along the creek are littered with little camping possibilities.
This section of our Tahoe to Yosemite Trail from Jenkins Canyon over this great ridge descending off The Dardanelles over into Arnot Creek's Canyon is marked as "infrequently maintained" trail on the 2009 National Forest Carson Iceberg Wilderness Map.
It is not too hard to stay on-trail in daylight, but parts of the trail quickly fade into the surrounding terrain as twilight deepens into night. Faint trails are alright with a bit of light but disappear from sight as twilight slips into night.
I suspect that the current route of the trail has been altered from the route depicted on the USGS topo map at the top of Jenkins Canyon. I will study this next time through. If you have noticed any difference between the USGS map and the trail on the ground post up your thoughts on the Jenkins Canyon to Boulder Lake page through the comments link.
I want to kick myself. As we were climbing the last bit of the trail South up to the top of Jenkins Canyon I passed by a fresh bear track in soft mud that was beautifully framed by a delicate outline of frost.
I was tired, chugging up the last steep segment of trail approaching an even steeper length of trail.
Don't let fatigue-or-fear deter us from enjoying and even recording special circumstances.
I was tired, and though I paused to enjoy its delicate beauty, I kept straining up the grade to our crossing into Woods Gulch without taking its picture.
Meadow muddy flowing wetness squeezed into clear ice by low overnight temps.
Clear Ice emerges from meadow muck over a cold October night.
Though this image was taken in late October, it represents the regular below-freezing temps that we experience during High Sierra evenings all Summer long.
Looking North at the Forested Gap emerging from
Southbound Ari emerges from the forest into the gap filled with a soft sandy flat separating Jenkins Canyon from Woods Gulch.
An easy 3.65 mile hike (downhill in soft terrain) 1742 feet South down to the Arnot Creek trail junction starts here.
Note the granite boulders strewn about in the picture above, and especially how the red rock of the Dardanelles lays beyond the granite boulders in the second image above. The granite terrain wraps around the Dardanelles.
The Dardanelles appear to be much older than the typical volcanic areas we've crossed or skirted along, which can be measured in thousands of years. The Dardanelles can be measured in millions of years, if my perceptions are true.
View Left (North-Northeast)
To our Northeast (Left) sits an interface of granite and volcanic terrain between us and the massive ridgeline running Northeast up to Highland Lakes. We're now coming down the Eastern flank of this ridge down to Arnot Creek side of this ridge.
At the Eastern base of this ridge below us (to the Right out of the frame of the image above), Arnot Creek and its trail run South along the base of this ridge from Half Moon Lake to the Clarks Fork. Behind us, over on the other side of this ridge, Highland Creek runs down from Highland Lakes.
Looking South of our position here (behind us) while dropping down to the East through Woods Gulch we can see that we are still in the shadow of The Dardanelles, still skirting around the Northeastern flank of this massive volcanic hulk. Looking Northeast, as in the image above, we can see that the mountaintops along the ridge running Northeast to Highland Lakes are all capped by volcanic peaks.
We've been hiking down Woods Gulch through granite terrain, and we can see volcanic to our North and South.
Woods Gulch is a granite anomaly in this sea of volcanic terrain. Woods Gulch is a low spot between the volcanic ridgeline tracking Southwest and The Dardanelles. It is quite obvious that the ridge and The Dardanelles are the products of very different volcanic events, are not at all the same material, and not the same age. The Dardanelles feature is quite different from the surrounding volcanic terrain.
And we are hiking down an interesting granite cut between these two very different volcanic terrains.
The Dardanelles is a landmark who's position we have noted since it first came into view crossing South over Mount Reba. We are hiking South around The Dardanelles Northeast shoulder through Jenkins Canyon over into Woods Gulch.
To our East-Northeast in the faint distance we can see the Sierra Crest line bending itself across our visible horizon. That's where we're going.
The compass of our Southbound Tahoe to Yosemite Trail route is pointed Southeast from Woods Gulch towards Saint Marys Pass, though the trail itself will swing around the compass a bit before we get there.
Approaching the bottom of Woods Gulch looking Northeast up Arnot Creek.
We're about to drop over the edge into a steep short-switchbacked descent to Arnot Creek. Arnot Creek lays runs down bottom of the forested valley below.
I mean short length switchbacks.
The hulking rounded mass rising out of the far-distant center-Right is Lightening Mountain.
The ridgeline we see descending along the horizon out of the upper Left edge of the image is the sheer ridgeline dividing Wolf Creek at the base the side facing us from Bull Canyon on its far side. That's the Sierra Crestline behind Highland Lakes.
That ridge is running to the Northwest out of the Left frame of the image to the gap where the PCT crosses over from Noble Lake, and Tyron Peak rises up to be the high point along that ridgeline just West of the gap where the PCT crosses over to the West flank of the Sierra for a short distance.
The map below Left shows the PCT coming over the gap on the Tyron Peak ridgeline from Noble Lake onto the Western flank of the Sierra. The peak at the end of the ridgeline on the upper-Left side of the image above is Peak 9578 down the ridgeline from the Tyron Peak Gap on the map below Left.
We could turn Left, upstream on the Arnot Creek Trail which Tees-out into the trail from the Gardner Meadow Trailhead (Highland Lakes Road access) to the PCT at Wolf Creek Pass.
I've got the distance from our upcoming junction with Arnot Creek upstream to the PCT at Wolf Creek Pass at 7.34 miles. It's 1.65 miles downstream to the Arnot Creek Trailhead and another .56 of a mile further down a dirt road to the paved Clark Fork Road.
Forest on steep ridge side looking North, to our Left, as we drop down Woods Gulch. Arnot Creek runs North and South along the base of this mountain ridge.
This is the Eastern Flank of the massif hosting the series of Peaks dividing the Highland Creek drainage running down from Highland Lake along its opposite flank from Arnot Creek on this side. We're looking North up the West side of the valley holding Arnot Creek.
In any case, this is really beautiful terrain.
The series of peaks capping this ridgeline running Northeastward towards Gardner Meadow are Iceberg, Airola, and Hiram Peaks.
I'll Kiss the Stanislaus National Forest Trail Crew.
You Kids are GREAT!
Short Length Switchbacks down to Arnot Creek.
Fine soft trail is easy on the feet.
What a Nifty Trail Placement.
Note how this fine soft section of trail is wedged between the slope and the line of trees. My compliments to the Stanislaus Trail Crews for working so deftly with the terrain.
I'd normally fear the incline will creep into the trailbed, but the surface of the incline is remarkably stable looking, with lots of embedded boulders.
This piece of trail running up into Woods Gulch from Arnot Creek will be here for a long time.
The trail coming up from Disaster Creek links up with the Arnot Creek Trail just South of where their unified paths T-out into the trail linking the Gardner Meadow Trailhead to the PCT at Wolf Creek Pass.
The Gardner Meadow Trailhead is located off of the dirt road out to Highland Lakes from Highway 4.
We would approach the PCT at Wolf Creek Pass through the Gardner Meadow Trailhead if we had hiked up Highland Creek from the Jenkins Canyon junction, instead of hiking over to Arnot Creek.
We'll hike South-Southeast down a gentle meadow and forest trail through what is obviously a flood/washout zone alongside Arnot Creek down through its trailhead to the Clarks Fork Road.
We'll follow the Clarks Fork a bit North of East through the end of the road where trail resumes and we finally turn South to run under Stanislaus Peak's West, then its Southern flanks approaching Saint Marys Pass.
The Arnot Creek Trailhead is located at the end of a short well-maintained and well-marked dirt road off the Clarks Fork Road.
The Arnot Creek trail runs North out of this trailhead up Arnot Creek to Half Moon Lake. From our position here on the TYT the Arnot Creek trail can link us to Highland Lakes and the PCT to our North.
Arnot Creek Trailhead has the potential to be Southern starting point for loops around the central Carson Iceberg Wilderness. The North end of the Arnot Creek trail gives us access to the top of Highland Creek.
We can drop down Highland Creek to spend a night at Spicer Meadow Reservoir before following the same TYT route that we just followed through Jenkins Canyon to this Arnot Creek Trailhead. That would be a nice loop.
The North end of the Arnot Creek Trail also links up with the top of the Disaster Creek Trail, which opens up loops back to the Clarks Fork Road through the Disaster Creek Trailhead located to our North at the end of Clarks Fork Road.
The map below shows the relationship between the Arnot and Disaster Creek trails and how they merge between Highland Lakes and Wolf Creek Pass.
For the next 4.17 miles South along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail we will be hiking along the gentle upgrade of the Clarks Fork Road between the Arnot Creek Trail head and the Clarks Fork Trail head at the end of the road.
We will rise 240 feet as we follow the road along this long gently rising section of the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River.
Arnot Creek Trail head up to the Clarks Fork Trail head along the
Clarks Fork Road
The old Paved Section along the old Clarks Fork Road
accessing the Northern and Southern Carson Iceberg Wilderness
Road Map for auto access to the Southern Carson-Iceberg Wilderness through Highway 108 trailheads and the Clarks Fork Road. The Northern access points to the railheads along Highway 4 at Lake Alpine, Highland Lakes, and Ebbetts Pass are also marked.
Road Map on the South Side of the
Carson Iceberg Wilderness Lost and Sword Lakes, Arnot Creek, Disaster Creek, and the Clarks Fork Railheads. Saint Marys and Sonora Passes.
Road Map North Side Lake Alpine, Highland Lakes, and Ebbetts Pass.
The North side of this map locates important trailheads on Highway 4. The South side of this map pinpoints trailheads along Highway 108 and the Clarks Fork Road.
Driving East up Highway 108 we could get the impression that Highway 108 is an almost endless road.
Just getting to 108 can be daunting. After struggling to get out of the traffic congesting the main population centers along the West coast of California, crossing The Valley, and meandering up long twisting foothill roads into deep and steep forests, and finally, finally pushing our straining car climbing up the steep roads into the fine melody of granite and volcanic formations of the High Sierra sub-Alpine Zone, to finally make it to the Sierra Crest at Sonora Pass.
Whew! Highway 108 is a great scenic and historic drive, and driving it is an adventure in itself.
Independent of the specific route we take approaching Highway 108, which we can plan out on the road map above, we will pass through a series of zones on our way up to Sonora Pass. These zones are much the same independent of which of the five trans-Sierra highways is our goal, if it is not Sonora Pass topping Highway 108.
Trans Sierra Highway
There are five trans-Sierra mountain roads of concern to this trail guide. From North to South they are Highways 50, 88, 4, 108, and 120. From North to South each of these roads is longer, goes higher, and is more remote, with the exception of most Southernmost of these trans-Sierra roads, Highway 120, the Tioga Road. Because Highway 120 is the very busy Northern and main entrance to Yosemite it's hard to call Highway 120 "remote."
Highway 108's 9624 feet of elevation across Sonora Pass is the second highest mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada to Tioga Pass's 9943 feet. Continuing North the elevation of the passes declines. Ebbetts Pass's 8732 feet of elevation drops to 8600 feet over Carson Pass, and Highway 50's entrance into the Tahoe Basin across Echo Summit's 7377 feet is the lowest elevation Trans Sierra Highway we cross between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney.
Though I approach the Sierras as a single Tahoe to Whitney backpacking trip, these Sierra roads divide the long trails along the length of the Sierra into smaller sections. Fine wilderness areas sit North and South of each Trans-Sierra Highway's mountain pass, and all the Trans Sierra Highways offer rest and resupply resources, except Carson Pass on Highway 88.
Each of these these Trans Sierra Highways from Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney offer access to a range of exceptional short to long distance backpacking trips.
Trans-High Sierra Roads: Getting There
For most of us the first problem is getting out of our massive population zones themselves. They are difficult to exit, let alone live within. Cross-town traffic leads onto snarled highways. Try getting out if you don't drive. Hitch hiking out of the cities is not a good option. Too many city freaks nowadays. Use public transportation to get as far out of the urban area as possible, but that's kind of like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
After getting out of the city we are faced with crossing The Valley. The San Joaquin Valley is not just wide, hot, and flat, it is also a very difficult place to catch a ride.
Crossing The Valley entails many-many miles of hot flatness before we finally begin to feel the low rises in the terrain signaling the first beginnings of the foothills. From the smallest seeds grow the mightiest trees... Once we begin to encounter low rises on the Eastern side of The Valley, these rises grow rapidly into deep rolling undulations, telling us that Highway 49 is not located too far to our East, and we will soon be exiting the relentless plain of The Valley.
Other than driving or hitching to the trans-Sierra mountain roads we have few other options. Amtrack runs a combination train/bus service into South Lake Tahoe, and another into Yosemite via Highway 120. Craig's List has a ride share section that can be helpful.
The North-South line of Highway 49 marks the "official" beginning of the Western Sierra Nevada Foothills. East of Highway 49 is generally considered The Sierra Nevada Foothills, and West of 49 is The Valley. As with any other boundary, there are long transition zones that defy easy definition.
Highway 49 begins, for our purposes, at the point where it turns South along the Western Sierra Foothills after its East & West crossing over the low-altitude Sierra North of Highway 80 (Donner Pass). Highway 49 begins on the Eastern flank of the Sierra near the town of Portola.
Highway 49 crosses the Sierra Westbound beginning to bend South down the Western flank of the Sierra Nevada near New Bullards Bar Reservoir.
New Bullards Bar Reservoir Highway 49 runs South to constitute the highest elevation and only road running North and South along the Western Sierra Foothills from North of Highway 80 to just a tad South of Mariposa at Oakhurst. I measure the length of Highway 49 from Highway 80 to its end at Oakhurst along the Western Sierra Foothills at 196 miles. A very twisty and slow 196 miles it is, to be precise.
Utility of Highway 49
Using Highway 49 to travel long distances North and South along the Western Sierra Foothills is not advised. It takes too long. Use the main North-South highways in The Valley, Highways 5 or 99, to line yourself up with your chosen trans-Sierra highway. Turn East onto that highway from 5 or 99. Unless you want to check out the historic Gold Rush District from California's past that is concentrated along Highway 49.
Highway 49 is perfect tourist country. The relics and remnants of the Gold Rush are preserved, celebrated, and are the current cultural and economic foundations for many of the towns up and down Highway 49. There's also lots of interesting folks up and down Highway 49.
The Southern End of Highway 49
Two Yosemite Entrances
At the Southern end of Highway 49 there are two towns, Mariposa and Oakhurst, where the central and Southern entrances to Yosemite are located.
Mariposa is the town where Highway 140, the troublesomecentral entrance to Yosemite, begins. Avalanches and undercutting of Highway 140 have kept it closed more than open during the latter half of this new century's first decade. Oakhurst, where Highway 49 ends, is where Highway 41, the Southern access road into the Yosemite Valley, begins.
The Western Sierra's Highway 49 has an Eastern cousin, Highway 395. Highway 395 brackets the Eastern flank of the Sierra from North to South as Highway 49 brackets the Western Flank. These parallel North-South roads bracketing the opposite flanks of the Sierra are roads of very different characters. They are very different roads across the very different terrains of the Eastern and Western Sierra.
The Eastern and Western Flanks of the Sierra Nevada are very different
Highway 49 along the Western Sierra Foothills is named for the "49er" gold rush, while the history of Highway 395 along the Eastern escarpment is characterized by the later Silver Boom. Highway 49 twists in and out, East and West into and out of the deep canyons running down-mountain along the extensive and deeply undulating western flank foothills of the Sierra. This is because the Western flank of the Sierra Nevada rises gradually over dozens of miles to its the Sierra Crest. The Eastern Sierra is very different. The Eastern Sierra is much different. The Eastern flank of the Sierra rises abruptly, vertically in many places.
Highway 395 and the East Sierra Escarpment
The sheer Eastern escarpment of the Eastern flank of the rises almost straight up out of the high desert valleys marking the Eastern end of the Sierra. Many sections of the Eastern Sierra flank rise thousands of sheer feet from this strip of high desert terrain running North and South along the base of the East Sierra flank.
These canyons and valleys strung out North and South along Highway 395's route along the foot of the Eastern Sierra
from Reno to Lone Pine generally average around 5000 feet in elevation, and separate the Eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada from the next mountain ranges to the East.
Great dry mountain ranges sit just East of the sheer escarpment of the Eastern Sierra Nevada, with Highway 395 running though the narrow strip of high desert separating them.
Mountain Ranges East of the Sierra Nevada
East of the Carson Range around Lake Tahoe sits the Pine Nut Range across the Carson Valley. A bit South of Lake Tahoe the Sweetwaters face the Eastern Sierra South of Antelope Valley, the White Mountains are located Southeast of Mammoth Lakes, and the Inyo Mountains rise East of Big Pine, dividing the heights of the Eastern Sierra from the depths of Death Valley.
Highway 395 runs North and South over mountain passes between these valleys dividing the Eastern Sierra from the very desolate dry mountain ranges to the East running parallel with the Sierra Nevada South from Reno to Lone Pine.
Life in the Valleys
Much of the length of Highway 395 through these East flank valleys is bounded by pasturage and ranches wedged in islands of lush meadowland between the stark mountains rising East and West. These are the descendents of the ranches started to feed the miners in the surrounding mountains during the Gold and on through the Silver rushes.
Though the miners long ago faded away, for the most part, the ranches have remained, nourishing a cowboy culture that has survived here for well over a century.
Highway 395 is very different than Highway 49. Rather than the Highway 49 experience of following foothill ridges' undulations further East and West for every mile we make North or South, long sections of Highway 395 run in straight lines North and South along the base of the sheer Eastern escarpment of the Sierra. The rolling foothills of the Western flank pull Highway 49 in and out of the ridges descending from the crest. Highway 395 runs along the base of a precipitous escarpment.
Highway 395 offers magnificent views West of stunning Sierra mountainscapes. From many places along Highway 395 we can see the full rise of the Eastern Sierra from its base to the crestline, along with fantastic views East of the dry ranges and deserts beyond.
And, as a bonus, Highway 395 also features fine hot springs up and down the length of the road along the Eastern Sierra escarpment...
I can't think of anywhere we can see the Sierra Crestline from Highway 49 South of Hwy 80.
A Range of Choices
Between our trailhead at Lake Tahoe South down to Mount Whitney there are five East-West trans-Sierra highways crossing the High Sierra Crest. Each of these highways crosses Highway 49 on the Western side of the Sierra and each intersects with Highway 395 on the Eastern side. Which one we will be driving is determined by the trailhead we are starting our backpacking trip from.
Ok, back to our trip up the Western flank of the Sierra on Highway 108 to the Clarks Forks Road...
To the Clarks Fork!
Continuing East from Highway 49 marks our entrance to the Sierra Nevada proper, independent of which of the five trans-Sierra mountain roads we are on, be it Highway 50, 88, 4, 108, or 120. They all cross Highway 49.
Our trip up Highway 108 to the Clarks Fork road is typical of driving East up any of the mountain roads across the Sierra Crest between Lake Tahoe and Highway 120. Each road is worth the drive not just to see the beauties of each of the trans-Sierra highways, which is worthwhile in itself, but the real payoff is gaining access to each road's local high altitude trailheads approaching, along the Sierra Crest line that give us access to the long distance routes of the Tahoe to Yosemite and the Pacific Crest Trails.
Out of the Valley-Into the Foothills
We drive East on Highway 120 from Manteca, or, if we are approaching from the South we will drive East on Highway 108 from Modesto.
Both of these cities are located along Highway 99 on the Eastern side of The Valley. When we point ourselves East from Highway 99 on either these roads we will be crossing the last bits of flatness of The Valley before entering the roller coaster of the low Sierra Foothills.
Approaching Oakdale and the Stanislaus River
Before we enter the foothills the Eastbound routes of Highway 108 and Highway 120 unify in the quaint Eastern Valley cowboy town of Oakdale.
Well, it used to be quaint... crazy shit is happening there now. Oakdale is suffering from the same effects of out of control disastrous growth creating vast poverty, crime, and social breakdown, as is the rest of California.
Independent of recent devolutions of Oakdale's culture, many fine cowboys and country folk still live there. While Highway 120 begins in Manteca, and Highway 108 tracks East from its start point in Modesto, both these routes come together and run East together out of Oakdale.
Arriving at Oakdale East on either route brings us to the Stanislaus River flowing West out of the Tulloch and New Melones Reservoirs. The New Melones Reservoir is where all the various forks of the Stanislaus River system are collected up.
New intersections, stop lights, and road signs in Oakdale as of 2009 (or around 2009...) make the junction between Highways 108 & 120 fairly painless.
Highway 108-120 Split
East of Oakdale, and just a few miles West of the Gold Rush town of Jamestown, Highway 120 splits off to the Southeast from Highway 108's route continuing East. Highway 120 takes a big chunk of the Summertime traffic on the combined 120-108 route with it to Yosemite.
I'm cool with that...the herd thins... I never drive into Yosemite. I almost always walk there.
Highway 120 is the Tioga Pass Road offering Northern access to Yosemite Valley. For our backpacking purposes Highway 120 is important because it crosses the Sierra crest through Tuolumne Meadows, which makes it an important resupply point along our Tahoe to Whitney backpacking trip. South of Kennedy Meadows Tuolumne Meadows is our next resupply spot, and our next contact with "civilization."
The Tioga Road is also the Southernmost of all of the trans-High Sierra Highways, until we get down to Lake Isabella at the far Southern end of the Sierra. Continuing our drive East up Highway 108 past the Highway 120 split we will pass through a series of quaint communities of diminishing size and services, starting with Jamestown, after which the road steepens and narrows.
The 108-120 split is where the hitch hiking gets good. West of this point it sucks.
Approaching the Stanislaus River
We climb up the lower Western foothills past Tulloch and New Melones Reservoir to Jamestown, which has a gold rush era downtown we can see from Highway 108. It's worth taking the easy turnoff and detouring through the historic gold rush downtown, if your curiosity is aroused. The short downtown Jamestown road parallels Highway 108 and quickly brings us back to it.
A bit to the East of Jamestown we come to Sonora, which a new bypass brings Highway 108 around, which must have just killed the businesses in downtown Sonora that were dependent on the Highway. The big new mall did not do local business any favors, either. East of Sonora Highway 108 begins climbing out of the foothills and onto the West flank of the Sierra.
We pass through a number of cute little mountain communities as we follow the corkscrew and ribbon route of Highway 108 out of the foothills onto the Western flank of the Sierra Nevada. Corkscrew for the twists and turns, ribbon for the great stretches of gently turning and climbing road. The percentage of corkscrewing road segments grows the higher we climb.
We navigate twisting roads through dense forest passing through the tiny mountain communities of Mi-Wok Village, Long Barn, and Cold Springs on our way to the Sierra Crest. Climbing to Long Barn we can begin to see we are driving up a great ridge descending off the Sierra that divides two great watersheds. Off to our Right, we have the Cherry Creek drainage system dropping down to the Tuolumne River and Lake Don Pedro, destined for drinking glasses in the Bay Area. To our Left we have the great canyon cut by and holding the Middle fork of the Stanislaus River, on its way down to New Melones.
East of Cold Springs we come to a great descent, near the bottom of which is the Pinecrest Lake turnoff and the massive Pinecrest Ranger Station. This is the bottom of the Emigrant Wilderness, from where we can begin hikes up into the Heart of the Emigrant Wilderness on our way to the Sierra Crest. We'll continue driving, and start our trips on, or much closer to the Sierra Crest...
We continue to drop down to the tiny community of Strawberry, where a great turn in the Sonora Pass Road marks the beginning of our long climb out of this low spot marking the center of this tiny one-horse town, the low point of the road where we cross the South Fork of the Stanislaus River. A few miles South of the community of Strawberry we pass through the first and lowest snowgate across Highway 108.
Continuing our climb out of Strawberry we pass by the Winter snow gates and we see the massive gorge of the Middle Stanislaus dropping off to our Left. We note that we are driving along the top of a massive ridge line reaching East up towards the Sierra Crest between two great drainages. The Middle Fork of the Stanislaus to our Left, and now the drainage feeding the South Fork is off to our Right.
After leaving the Donnell Lake turnoff behind to our Left we lose sight of the massive canyon to our Right as the road drops onto the South Flank of the great gorge on our Left, the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. Observing carefully we begin to understand that Donnell lake Dams up the great drainage below that we are paralleling up here traversing up the mountainside on Highway 108. Above Donnell Lake all the surrounding terrain drains through the Middle Stanislaus.
We have passed through grasslands (yeah-sure) of The Valley, the grass and oak zone at the edges of The Valley stretching up low Foothills, and are now climbing higher into the cool depths of the rich pine and fir forests clinging to the steep flanks of the Sierra.
If we continue East past the Clarks Fork Road on Highway 108 we will finally drive our straining car into the Alpine zone as we draw near the 9640 foot crest of Highway 108 across Sonora Pass. At Sonora Pass trailheads to the North along the PCT and the TYT are located, as well as the Southbound PCT Trailhead. The TYT continues South out of Kennedy Meadows.
As we parallel the Middle Stanislaus River past Donnell Lake we can begin to see ahead that this steep and deep drainage valley to our Left continues up to and cuts deeply into the Sierra Crest Line towering in the East. We can see that this great valley actually cuts a great gash twisting Southeast and up into the mountains towards the Sierra Crest through the curtain of mountains ahead.
The valley we are looking at ahead is the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River cutting through the Western flank of the Sierra up to its headwaters just a bit Northwest of Sonora Pass. It looks like, and is a natural route up to the Sierra Crest.
The first time driving East across Highway 108 you will naturally believe that this valley holds the route of Highway 108 across the Sierra Crest. And it did, a long time ago.
The Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River is the highest, deepest, widest, and longest section of the vast network of rivers and creeks the feed the Middle Stanislaus River. And its ample valley runs almost directly up to the Sierra Crestline.
The valley holding the Clarks Fork was also an early route of the wagon roads across the Sierra. Today the Clarks Fork Road is a segment of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail through the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, and an old paved road supporting busy car campgrounds, religious retreats, and a set of trailheads.
Our hiking goal along the Clarks Fork Road and River is to start a backpacking trip through the Clarks Fork Trailhead at the end of the Clarks Fork Road. We're going to follow the Clarks Fork up to the climb out of the headwaters bowl and through Saint Marys Pass down to road access on Highway 108. But the Clarks Fork is not the present route of Highway 108.
As we drive East to the point where observations of the vast valley of the Clarks Fork convinces us that Highway 108 does indeed proceed East up the valley, we get to the point where can see another valley cutting in from the Southeast, from our Right, becoming visible as Highway 108 descends towards river level from its position high up the side of the valley.
Rather than continuing up the great Clarks Fork valley that we have been observing, Highway 108 drops downmountain and veers Right, Southeast, to enter this medium-sized canyon that holds what looks like a significant tributary to the great Middle Stanislaus River. This valley does not hold a tributary, but it is the Middle Stanislaus River itself which turns up this side canyon, while the larger Clarks Fork canyon continues East up mountain in its massive canyon.
Highway 108 drops down off its valley-side route and turns Southeast into the gentle flat along the bottom of the idyllic canyon holding this almost-flat upper section of the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River above where it merges with the Clarks Fork.
This stunningly beautiful flat along the flat section of the Middle Stanislaus between the Clarks Fork and Deadman Creek also holds a series of incredibly popular Stanislaus National Forest car campgrounds. The stunning beauty of this High Sierra flat is composed of alternating sections of meadow, forest, and riverine terrain within this narrow and sheer high altitude granite canyon. The beauty of this terrain assures that these car camping sites are packed full every Summer.
Highway 108 turns out of the Middle Stanislaus at the end of this fine flat to begin steeply climbing up a narrow track above the narrow gorge of Deadman Creek to Sonora Pass. Highway 108 follows this steep route rather than the gentle course of the Clarks Fork up to Saint Marys Pass. The Saint Marys Pass Trailhead sits just a mile West of Sonora Pass along Highway 108.
I believe Highway 108's current route up Deadman Creek was decided by the difference in avalanche and flooding danger during Spring and Fall, and the resulting higher road maintenance costs. The current route up Deadman is much more distant from the base of steep avalanche zones than the narrow route up the Clarks Fork, which is beneath steep slopes within a narrow valley, while the current route of Highway 108 is generally not in or along Spring-thaw flood zones, as is the whole route up the Clarks Fork.
Though the upper reaches of the Clarks Fork provide a much better graded approach to the Sierra Crest this route is contained within a narrow valley surrounded by very steep and very unstable mountains. If not for these Spring-Fall avalanche and flooding issues, the route up the Clarks Fork to Sonora Pass is a much gentler route than that up Deadman Creek.
Clarks Fork Road Turnoff
As Highway 108 turns Southeast to enter this beautiful high altitude forested flat sharing the bottom of this stunning canyon with the Middle Stanislaus River, road signs indicate our upcoming Left turn onto the Clarks Fork Road.
The Clarks Fork Road traces its way up the great valley cut by the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River. But first, if you have some time on your hands, continue East on Highway 108 across the length of this fine flat along the Middle Stanislaus. At the far end of the flat take the Right turn down the well-marked paved road to Kennedy Meadows Pack Station. Though paved, this road is in poor condition. Real bumpy and patched. I've inspected it closely with my feet many times.
Kennedy Meadow Pack Station
When you get to Kennedy Meadows, park, get out of your car, or take off your pack, hit the store and buy a beer. In the store you can give Cheryl and the ladies my greetings and well-wishes, if not your own. Go out and sit quietly on the patio observing the situation as you enjoy your beer. Maybe go sit on the back patio, if you can tolerate free people. Check out the office between the store and restaurant. Give Matt Bloom, Mrs. Bloom, and Joan, or whoever is in the office my regards. Matt's eldest girl was starting to work the office too. Show them the respect that backpackers have for cowboys.
Especially the cowboys that offer long-distance backpackers full services and full hospitality along the High Sierra Trails. It's the least we can do.
After the beer, have a Chile-Cheese burger if you are in-time for lunch, or the dinner special if you are running real late. Tell the waitresses hello, and be nice to the cowboys and tourists. If you need to spend a night indoors, ask about the bunk house, or a cabin if you have bucks and it's not mid-Summer. Good luck in mid-Summer. KM's cabins are booked mid-Summer for years in advance. If neither of these options suit you, there are likely nice places nearby to throw down you bag for an early start after breakfast.
Free Car Camping
There are a chain of free car camping sites in the National Forest lands along Highway 108 starting a couple of miles East of the Kennedy Meadows Road (after you finish the big climb) all the way to and over Sonora Pass, extending down the Eastern Flank, and then up the dirt road to Leavitt Lake. There is absolutely NO PIRATE CAMPING along the Middle and Clarks Fork Rivers.
Both of these very popular car camping areas areas strictly enforce their no camping except in designated spots in the designated National Forest Campgrounds policy. The Carson Iceberg Topo Map shows six car campgrounds in this small area. Both the Clarks Fork and Middle Stanislaus areas up here are very popular car camping areas.
Free long-established car camping spots in the National Forest along Highway 108 are concentrated on the West side of West of Sonora Pass along the perimeter of thin forest circling around the high altitude meadow to the West of Sonora Pass itself. Starting at about 4 miles West of Sonora Pass along the road East to the pass we see a series of nice dirt tracks leading off to well-established car campsites off the North edge of Highway 108.
The hunters have been coming up here and establishing car camps for generations. Just to the East of Sonora Pass at the base of the steep descent down from Sonora Pass itself there are also a few nice free car camping sites to our right along the highway. These free National Forest campsites are great places to spend a night acclimating to the altitude before hitting the trail.
All of the Trans-Sierra Roads bring us through many miles of beautiful terrain zones that are worth seeing, at least according to the Euros. Every year I meet German and French tourists up at Sonora Pass checking out the terrain, history, and current culture.
Who would think that the remoteness and history of Sonora Pass is know in Europe? If the Euros think it's worth seeing, it's worth taking a drive up to check it out for yourself.
The paved Clarks Fork Road
up to the
Clarks Fork Trailhead
Arnot Creek Trailhead to the Clarks Fork Trailhead
Between the Arnot Creek Trailhead and the Clarks Fork Trailhead we have a 4.17 mile hike of which 3.61 miles are along the old paved Clarks Fork wagon road to its end-point at the Clarks Fork Trailhead.
Road Sign Pointing the way from the Clarks Fork Road.
A short .56 of a mile well-maintained dirt road connects the Clarks Fork Road to the Arnot Creek Trail head.
The USGS 30 minute map correctly depicts the dirt road looping at the trailhead, but does not show the old road continuing up Arnot Creek past the current trailhead, almost to the Jenkins Canyon trail junction.
Reaching the old paved road after exiting the trail out of the Arnot Creek Trailhead we take a Left, hiking East and upstream along the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River to continue hiking South along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.
The Arnot Creek Bridge along Clarks Fork Road
Road to Arnot Creek Trailhead from Clarks Fork Road.
The 1960 Arnot Creek Bridge on the Clarks Fork Road heading East over Arnot Creek to Disaster Creek and the Clarks Fork Trailheads.
There is no alternative or shortcut to the dirt road as it takes us West, the wrong way, before meeting-up with the paved Clarks Fork Road.
On the North side of the Clarks Fork Road across from the Sand Flat Campground are private residences and group retreats for various organizations, such as "Church of the Brethren."
A family of these "Brethren" folks once stopped to check me out when I was hitch-hiking West, down from Saint Marys Pass to Kennedy Meadows. They were a family of 8 including parents, along with a grandparent, making 9 coming West over Sonora Pass in a large van to find Camp Peaceful Pines. Their six kids were all wearing 1850's farm dresses and old-style pants and shirts for the boys. They were dressed as the Amish.
They were not going to give me a ride and were almost too shy to ask for directions. They took off as suddenly as they appeared, before I could explain the way to the Clarks Fork Road. It was a rather strange meeting.
If you see folks up here who look like they came from the little house on the prairie, it's because the local cowboys and ranchers are having some kind of Western Celebration, or you're seeing the archaic ways of "The Brethren."
On another side note, the wreck of a cabin where they actually filmed some part of the little house on the prairie television series sits about a mile West of Kennedy Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness to our South.
Though my hiking plans never call for a night along the Clarks Fork Road I stop to use any empty picnic tables I encounter near a fresh water spigot while hiking past the South end of the Sand Flat campground to re-hydrate and have lunch or a major break.
My favorite sites hiking between the end of the Clarks Fork Road and Saint Marys Pass are at the North edge of Clarks Fork Meadow and the Boulder Creek trail junction, the campsite located at the bottom of this guide page.
Use the fancy bathrooms, sit and cook up lunch at a table, water-up from the clean-water faucets, get rid of all my garbage, and maybe talk to some car campers.
As we climb higher the road and the river come closer together as the canyon narrows.
Knowing how catastrophic Spring Thaws are a regular part of the seasonal cycle, and heavy thaws normal in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, one begins to wonder about the utility of the Clarks Fork as a route over the Sierra, despite its relatively gentle ascent to the Sierra Crest.
The narrowing of the canyon combined with the power of the Spring Thaw rushing through it each year would make this a hard route to maintain a road through.
Yet this was the route over the Sierra Crest here from 1855 to 1864, when the present route was opened.
The End of the Road
Disaster Creek and the Clarks Fork
The Disaster Creek Trailhead sits a few yards North of the Clarks Fork Trailhead, just before the end of the Clarks Fork Road.
The Northbound route of the Disaster Creek Trail links our position here off of Highway 108 with Highland Lakes off Highway 4, or can bring us up to the PCT at Wolf Creek Pass.
The Disaster Creek Trail heads North to link up with the Arnot Creek Trail before reaching Upper Gardner Meadow.
Their unified trail intersects with the trail linking Gardner Meadow to Wolf Creek Pass on the Pacific
Crest Trail. We can turn either way from there to bend a big backpacking loop back to the Disaster Creek Trailhead.
About half-way up the Disaster Creek Trail North towards Gardner Meadow a junction breaks off the trail to your right, East, to link the Disaster Creek trail to the Pacific Crest Trail at Golden Canyon through Paradise Valley.
Note that the 1st trail junction North of the Disaster Peak Trailhead leads up to an unmarked trail junction on the PCT South of Disaster Peak. This first route up is no longer listed on any maps, though it is still on the USGS maps I use.
I would assume this trail is an unmaintained faint route, and that the second trail up Paradise Valley is in marginally better condition than that.
I do know that the ranchers ride both these trails every Fall rounding up their grazing stock.
We notice the top of The Iceberg poking over the forest approaching the end of Clarks Fork Road.
A few steps South of the Disaster Creek Trailhead The Iceberg dominates the terrain through Clarks Fork Trailhead and across Iceberg Meadow until our trail climbs into the narrowing canyon, leaving The Iceberg behind.
Unconventional Segments of the TYT
We've ended the first of two "unconventional" segments of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail along extensive sections of pavement. Our next "asphalt gap" is from the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead on Highway 108 to where natural trail begins on the South end of Kennedy Meadows Pack Station and Resort.
I don't have a problem walking this one down the Clarks Fork Road, but I won't walk down Highway 108 from the crest to Kennedy Meadows. I don't want to play "dodge the car." Highway 108 is a twisting narrow track on a steep grade, and we are a lot better off hitch-hiking down to Kennedy Meadows.
South and North
hiking up the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River
Passing South through the Clarks Fork Trailhead we wrap around the South edge of Iceberg Meadow through dense forest for a short distance until we climb up onto an exposed low shelf to get above and around a sheer section of the North shore of the Clarks fork of the Stanislaus River.
This looks like a reroute, a difference from the USGS map.
After clearing the climb around a sheer section above the shoreline of the Clarks Fork we drop back down into the dense forest along the river. We determine where we are before we drop back under the forest cover.
In the distance ahead we can see where the Clarks Fork Canyon bends South, to the Right, at the point where the creek and trail down from Boulder Lake, off to the Left in the image above, intersect with the Clarks Fork.
That's where we're going, and where this page ends.
We are just that far from the Boulder Lake trail junction with the TYT, which is also where the quality of our Southbound Tahoe to Yosemite Trail begins degrading.
Getting back down to river level brings us to a series of campsites and potential campsites.
The first large site we encounter is marked off as a restoration zone.
Clarks Fork Tributaries
A couple of little streams lay between the Clarks Fork Trailhead and the upcoming Boulder Lake trail junction.
The time of year determines the flow rate of creeks and rivers. The intensity of Springtime flows are determined by temp and the status of the snowpack. Independent of the ferocity of Spring, or the lack of it, Summer brings diminished flows, tapering to a trickle during Fall.
Therefore "easy" fords are a matter of timing.
The character of the annual movement of water is determined by the specifics of each season. Summer hikers are well informed of the conditions they can expect to encounter by tracking the evolution of conditions throughout the year, especially the transition of Winter into Spring. This transition will determine when the trail open and when the creeks and rivers recede from raging torrents to placid flows.
The status of the Winter snow pack against the profile of rising Spring temps determines both the potential intensity of the Spring Thaw, as well as how long and how much water will be running during late Summer.
The interlocking natures of the Winter snows and the Spring Thaw determines the trajectory of each Summer's moisture conditions. These factors are all tied together by hemispheric weather patterns that we can track.
These grand global forces "set the table" for the local conditions we will experience on the ground during each season of every year. Tracking the hemispheric weather engines that annually determine the nature of each year's water cycle gives us the outlines of "the big picture."
The High Sierra Weather Page also provides resources for us to focus in on the specific conditions on the ground across the length and breadth of the Sierra Nevada through its links to a wide range of ground reporting stations.
These reporting stations allow us to get real-time glimpses of temp and snow conditions on the ground.
We find camping restrictions at a couple of prime location between the Clarks Fork Trailhead to the Boulder Creek trail junction.
This is due to the relatively heavy use that easy access through the paved Clarks Fork Road gives this nice little hike.
Even during Summer this place gets a fraction of the attention that Desolation Wilderness and Yosemite National Parks attract.
But that's enough to damage the terrain.
Clarks Fork thinning with Elevation
Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River high up.
Great boulders roll down the rivers during great Spring Thaws.
When a raging Spring Thaw is thundering down mountain one of the scariest sounds a river can make are the sounds of great boulders rolling, smashing, and grinding against each other as they surge down river hidden under the raging flow.
That sound always makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
All of those boulders above are on a journey we can't see. But we will hear them the next time they move.
Hiking South into the Boulder Lake trail junction along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.
The trail junction post can be seen just Right of the big tree. The trail up to Boulder Lake continues straight/veers Left through this junction along Boulder Creek. The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail turns Right fording Boulder Creek to continue following the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River up to Saint Marys Pass.
Boulder Creek campsite looking to the Southeast from the trail junction across Boulder Creek.
Old Keyway Fire Slot
On the South side of Boulder Creek there are a series of nice campsites. This is an old remnant of a National Forest Trail Crew "keyway" fire slot.
These fire slots mark the location of old and current Trail Crew camps. The keyway is cut facing the prevailing wind, and lined with suitable rocks. The keyway creates a venturi that feeds the fire. If trail crew sets up a camp here in the future they will dig it out for use.
Arriving at the Boulder Lake trail junction puts us 25.88 miles South of our Silver Valley starting point for this section of The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail, and 8.69 from its end through the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead onto Highway 108.
These next 8.69 miles are the most difficult of this section of trail, both physically and mentally. The trail is unmaintained above the unmarked Eureka Valley trail junction, and degrades into route finding above the lower ford. All trail ends when we reach the North edge of Clarks Fork Meadow, and we'll be route finding the rest of the way to Saint Marys Pass.
This last segment of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail from the Jenkins Canyon trail junction along Highland Creek brings us across an extensive length of "civilization," as well as the challenging unmaintained segment of trail.
Thankfully this segment of trail also offers us ample alternative routes around both the civilization and the unmaintained lengths of trail, depending on what we are trying to avoid. We can do it all or avoid it all.
These alternative routes for the long distance backpacker create endless medium and long distance backpacking loop opportunities remaining within the Carson Iceberg Wilderness for the local backpacker.