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July 2015 TYT Unmaintained Trail Update: Clarks Fork Trailhead to Saint Marys Pass Trailhead
From the North Edge of Clarks Fork Meadow along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.
Clarks Fork Trailhead
Saint Marys Pass Trailhead
11.25 miles along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail
Above: The Iceberg sitting across Iceberg Meadow from the Clarks Fork Trailhead at the end of Clarks Fork Road.
July 2015 TYT Status Report
This last segment of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail across the Southern end of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness (map) may well be the hardest little 11 mile bit of trail along our hike from Tahoe to Yosemite, if not all the way down to the Whitney Portal. That is, if we are smart or lucky enough to be able to continue hiking South from Tuolumne Meadows at the end of our Tahoe to Yosemite Trail hike.
The 9+ miles of unmaintained trail through Summit City Canyon down to Camp Irene on the TYT through Mokelumne Wilderness is a longer length of unmaintained trail.
"Only" 6.24 of our 11.25 miles along the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail from Clarks Fork Trailhead to Saint Marys Pass Trailhead are in unmaintained status, or just missing.
As a point of reference, I rate these 6.24 miles of unmaintained trail through the Clarks Fork as being much harder than the 9+ miles of unmaintained trail through Summit City Canyon. This segment of trail offers significant physical and route finding challenges.
The 42.51 miles crossing the heart of the "Five Canyons of the North Yosemite Backcountry" are more physically demanding than our short hike through the Clarks Fork, but on top-quality trails that do not test our route-finding skills.
Though this little 6.24 mile unmaintained segment of our Tahoe to Yosemite Trail (and route) up to and through the Headwaters Bowl of the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River is much shorter, it is at least equally difficult, and its lack of clear trails adds an extra dimension of difficulty that is difficult to predict.
The upper Clarks Fork is a pretty little puzzle indeed. It mixes a high degree of terrain complexity with demanding physical difficulities that produce unpredictable outcomes.
Our potential workload through here is a dependent variable. Our work increases the more we wander off the proper route and decreases the longer we stay on it. The potential for even greater strains and pains grows if we cannot stay on the optimal route. This little length of trail can get quite long if we lose the best route through the terrain.
This high degree of physical and route-finding difficulty, and potentially greater difficulty, are due to the combination of the route-finding challenges multiplied by the high basic degree of physical fitness and route-finding skills required to stay on the optimal route through the upper segments and Headwaters Bowl of the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus.
TYT Route Challenge
It is a seriously fun challenge to find and follow the faint bits of Use Trail, unmarked route, and random Wild Ducks leading us up to and through the unlikely slot in the South wall of the sheer cliffs surrounding the headwaters bowl of the Clarks Fork.
That's only if we stay on the classic route of the TYT as described in the TW trail guide, and can stay on-route up to and through this slot in the surrounding cliffs.
I must reinteriate that we have the potential to spend a tremendous amount of extra time and energy hiking this segment of the TYT if we lose the "use trail" and the line of "Wild Ducks" connecting the visible elements of our route together.
I call this "exploring unknown terrain," not being lost. We are adding to our body of knowledge.
That not-unlikely scenario (of getting off-route) can make this a very difficult segment of trail indeed, especially when we lose the line of the optimal route through the terrain.
I am aware of two other potential routes out of the upper segment of the headwaters bowl, but neither of them seem to enjoy much "Use Trail" or many "Wild Ducks" marking their potential routes through the terrain.
One follows the Clarks Fork past the upper ford, remaining on the North bank to follow the upper reaches of the river out the center of its headwaters bowl.
The other bends North above the upper ford, to find the easiest route up along the seam between the volcanic and granite terrain along the North wall of the headwaters bowl.
Both of these two other potential routes are unmarked routes. I have spent the majority of my time hiking through the upper elements of the Clarks Fork Headwaters Bowl exploring the route of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail.
There are elements of use trail and wild ducks strung along the whole length of the route of the TYT through the Clarks Fork. Backpackers should be able to maintain sight on regular bits of wild ducks and use trail on a fairly regular basis through the unmaintained and even untrailed portions of this route.
Though we have considerable lengths with no indications of our route, we should regularly come upon signs, such as wild ducks and short bits of use trail that tell us we are "on-route."
The Bottom Line
Nonetheless, we will spend considerably less energy if we can find and stay on the optimal route through here, which is the route of the TYT. Excellent observation and analysis skills are required to stay on route.
Alternative Outcomes-Alternative Routes!
You will likely end up trying to push through on one of these other two potential routes out of the headwaters bowl, if you cannot stay on the line of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail route.
That would likely add/demand extra time, physical effort, and intense observation to pull off. And, it would most likely happen because you lose the line of the TYT.
Thus the nature of a backpacker's experience hiking the upper elements of the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River can vary considerably, depending on the particular combination of skills, experience, luck, and fitness that each backpacker testing this challenging route brings with them onto this segment of "trail."
"Route" is a more accurate description of the conditions we find above the Eureka Valley trail junction up to Saint Marys Pass, especially after even remnants of old unmaintained trail dissappear into the meadow and forest hiking South of the North edge of Clarks Fork Meadow.
The bottom-line variable that controls our experience along this segment of trail, besides finding the location of the route itself, is that we will work harder the more we vary from the optimal route, and less the more we stay on it.
This route rewards clear observations and punishes inattentive hikers.
Fitness can make up for poor observation skills to some extent, but the combo of poor route-finding and fitness will be quite punishing through here. A fine balance of good fitness and route-finding will be quite pleasing.
I describe a specific route through here that replicates the route described in Thomas Winnett's classic work, The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail. This is a 2015 description to update the status of the TYT through the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus.
Find full descriptions of these segments of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail on these Tahoe to Whitney trail guide pages:
These pages above are all in "draft edition" form as of July 2015, but are being rapidly brought up to near-finish quality.
They will only be finished when you clarify and update them with notes on your experiences through here.
The map below covers the unmaintained and untrailed segments of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail from the Eureka Valley trail junction South through Saint Marys Pass to the resumption of maintained trail leading us down to the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead on Highway 108:
Around Lower Clarks Fork Meadow
Backpackers have described one other possible/potential route South from the North edge of Clarks Meadow up to the upper ford. and out the Headwaters Bowl.
That would be hiking along the South shore of the River hiking South from the North edge of Clarks Meadow up to the middle ford. Not recommended.
The route all the way up to the upper ford from the middle ford is on the North bank.
Out the Headwaters Bowl
Standard TYT Route
The others are a couple of alternative routes I have heard described for the final climb out of the upper end of the Headwaters Bowl of the Clarks Fork. The route of the TYT turns South (by the compass) a short distance above the upper ford to follow its Southern route up the slot in the cliffs to the top of the cliffs surrounding the headwaters bowl.
These two alternative routes climb out the North and East ends of the upper headwaters bowl, respectively. Those routes sound intriguing. They look and sound very difficult and challenging.
Post up or email me with info if you've hiked these alternative routes. There is also another route into the lower end of Clarks Fork Meadow.
Down from Stanislaus Peak
Marty and Matt at Kennedy Meadows Pack station speak of the old trail down from Stanislaus Peak to the North end of Clarks Meadow. It looks like it has degraded into an unmaintained route.
We can make out the line of this route when we look to our North from the Northern edge of the Clarks Fork Meadow. We can see the seam in the granite terrain the route follows down around the East side of the granite cliffs under Stanislaus Peak.
The fact is that there are at least three versions of trail configurations in the Clarks Fork Headwaters depicted on the federal maps.
National Forest Map
The National Forest map shows a trail running straight up the North bank, past the upper ford my TYT route crosses, following the course of the Clarks Fork all the way out of the headwaters bowl, out through the center of its horseshoe shape. I have seen no indications of this route on the ground above the upper ford.
The trail listed on the National Forest map does not exist on the ground.
My Choice: The TYT
I have explored the North and South ends of this route, checking the terrain around the top of the headwaters bowl, and exploring the terrain along the North shore of the Clarks Fork above the upper ford.
Each time I check out this potential alternative route I ultimately decide to follow the TYT route.
USGS 7.5 Map
The current USGS 7.5 min maps show no trail continuing South beyond the North edge of Clarks Meadow.
USGS 30 Map
The current USGS 30 min maps show no trail continuing South beyond the North edge of Clarks Meadow.
TWT Guide and Maps
My trail guide follows what I consider the "classic" route described in the old "The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail" trail guide. This route has elements of "use trail" and "wild ducks" from the North edge of Clarks Meadow South to the bottom of the "slot," where our route follows a seasonal creek up a channel in the cliffs on the South end of the headwaters bowl.
CLARKS FORK TRAILHEAD
SAINT MARYS PASS TRAILHEAD
Below we find an excellent general description of the conditions along this part of that trail in July of 2015:
At the Clarks Fork Trailhead
2.56 miles of fine maintained intermediate-difficulty trail South up to Boulder Creek and the trail leading East up to Boulder Lake and the PCT beyond. We are continuing South straight through this trail junction to continue South up the Clarks Fork on the TYT.
Turning up to Boulder Lake and hiking up to the PCT to hike South to Sonora Pass is a potential detour around this difficult section of the TYT to Saint Marys Pass.
Video: At the Clarks Fork Trailhead.
South of Boulder Creek
Above: Looking across the excellent backpacker's ford about 20 yards downstream of the Horse/Main Boulder Creek fording point, after I finished clearing some of the Aspen that had overgrown it during the past few years...
It looks like a bear had been using this ford, judging by the way the brush and aspens had been broken. I just cleaned it up a bit...
South on the TYT from Boulder Creek
1.31 miles of "improving" maintained trail greet us hiking South on the TYT from Boulder Creek up to the umarked Eureka Valley trail junction. I say improving because of significant work done on this segment of trail over the last few years.
The difficulty increases South of Boulder Creek from the intermediate level of difficulty to the Hard, and marches up degrees of the Hard difficulty level as we hike further South up the canyon.
Boulder Creek Ford Note:
Backpacker ford about 20 yards downstream from the horse ford on the North shore side of Boulder Creek. See second image above.
Fish fishing in Boulder Creek.
Boulder Creek Campsites Note:
The "main" campsite area is the old trail crew campsite area off the South shore of Boulder Creek, shown below.
One can still see the remnants of the old "keyway" fire slot that still remain in the old trail crew site. Those are the line of three rocks in the bottom of the image below.
We can see how the old keyway fire slot looked before half of it was dug out;
There's a better, more private site a bit further down the slope towards the Clarks Fork:
Above: The campsite below the main group site near the ford & trail.
From the main site area on the South shore one walks towards Boulder Creek, then turns Left to walk down stream alongside the creek.
One sees a downed tree about 30 yards downstream from the horse ford on the South shore,
off to the Left of Boulder Creek as we walk downstream. Passing the fallen snag above and looking Left reveals the fine campsite pictured above, much nicer and much more private than the other sites around the old trails site near the horse ford & trail on the South shore.
Eureka Valley Trail Junction
Above: Looking to our Right at the unmarked Eureka Valley trail junction breaking off to our South. Note cut in bank on Left, leading down to the fording point.
It is 2.81 miles climbing difficult unmaintained trail South along the TYT from the Eureka Valley trail junction pictured above up to the lowest ford of the Clarks Fork pictured below.
Trail Difficulty Increases
This unmarked trail junction above is important because it marks the point beyond which the trail and its bed, markings, and ducks become increasingly less frequent and dependable.
We are increasingly dependent on our own observations, analysis, and decisions South of this point.
There are quite a few points along this segment of trail that will require careful observations and good decisions to keep us on the correct route.
Lowest Ford of the Clarks Fork to the North edge of Clarks Meadow
Crossing the lowest ford (above) leaves us with climbing .66 of a tough mile aheah of us, first bringing us through a trailess thicket to the end of the fairly consistent difficult angle of climb we've maintained since crossing Boulder Creek. Now we really climb!
Though there are a few locations presenting us with ambigious route decisions, we will now follow a fairly distinct "use trail" switch-backing up the steep flank to the point where we cross a ridgearm to the Southeast, to begin the final short traverse over to the very Northern edge of Clarks Meadow. It is a tough .66 of a mile up from the lower ford pictured above, up to the North edge of Clarks Meadow! Short and brutally steep.
Below: View North off the North edge of Clarks Meadow at the Sierra Crestline. We are looking at Arnot Peak in furthest distance with Disaster Peak closer to us on the Right, both making up their parts of that distant section of the Sierra Crestline.
The PCT runs North and South along their opposite flanks, their Northeastern Flanks. Below the long view we can see the twisting course of the Clarks Fork Canyon we just hiked up.
Looking North on the TYT off the North Edge of Clarks Meadow
Images below: In the first and fourth images below we are taking grand overviews looking East (Southbound on the TYT) from a Vantage Point above the North Edge of Clarks Meadow.
We are looking East (by the compass) across Clarks Meadow where it bends East to the Upper Ford. We can see Saint Marys Pass, and Sonora Peak beyond. Also check out the fourth image below.
(East by the Compass)
Clarks Fork Meadow and the Clarks Fork Headwaters Bowl.
Above: Looking East across Clarks Meadow reaching up into the headwaters Bowl of the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River.
The Southbound TYT's route basically cuts from the lower Left edge of the image above, hiking through the edge of the forests wrapping around the lower-Left edge of the meadow in the image above.
At the top end of the visible meadow our route climbs a rocky boulder field off to the left (N) of the course of the Clarks Fork River.
We can see that rocky terrain a bit above the upper-Left edge of the meadow. We again move through forest around a small upper meadow as our route finally funnels us up to the upper ford.
Here's how I see the route:
Following the Clarks Fork upriver past the upper ford we find a faint Use Trail following the Clarks Fork upriver for a short ways before turning South up the tributairy creek leading us through a slot in the cliffs, up to the top of the cliffs, on the middle-Right of the image above.
We end up atop the cliffs on the South, or Right side of the headwaters bowl above. Below we take a couple of closer looks at the cliffs on the South side of the headwaters bowl where the classic route of the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail climbs through a steep slot in the surrounding cliffs.
It's quite remarkable terrain.
Below: Detail of the Southern Cliffs wrapping around the headwaters of the Clarks Fork:
Below: An even closer detail of the cliffs just East of the exact position at the base of the cliffs where our TYT route begins climbing into the slot to get off the floor of the headwaters bowl of the Clarks Fork:
The North edge of Clarks Meadow is just out view off the bottom lower Left of both of the "grand overview" images above (the third image above) and in the image immediately below.
This is because the terrain around the bottom of the meadow makes a hard Right turn as it runs down to the far Northern end of the meadow. The layout of the terrain turns the river and meadow with it, effectively isolating the Northern nose of the lower meadow from it's expansive "middle" meadow above. It is that middle meadow we see featured in the overview images above and below.
Saint Marys Pass is situated roughly in the center of the top of the ridgeline wrapping around the Headwaters Bowl of the Clarks Fork in both of the overview views above and below.
Sonora Peak rises in the distant Left of both images. The third photo above, the grand high elevation overview of Clarks Meadow and the Headwaters of the Clarks Fork was shot by Johnny S on his 2015 Tahoe to Yosemite backpacking trip.
Above: The same view looking East across the middle of Clarks Fork Meadow at the terrain making up the headwaters bowl of the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus. This is substantially the same image as the fourth image above taken by Johnny, but from a lower position.
Let's look at this same scene as it is laid out and represented on a USGS 7.5 minute Topo map:
Around the Middle Meadow
The majority of this .42 of a mile between the middle and upper fords has no trail whatsoever connecting them. The trail pretty much dissappears once we cross the middle ford over to the North shore of the Clarks Fork when we enter the furthest Northern edge of Clarks Meadow.
Yet our route continues South, pushing up to the Northern edge of the forest fringe above the North side of Clarks Meadow (Our Southbound Left), crossing three streams running from our Left to Right, to the South, down through Clarks Meadow to drain into the Clarks Fork of the Stanslaus River. I call this the "middle meadow."
At the end of this untrailed and unmarked forest fringe around the middle meadow and above the middle ford we come to a climbing boulder field, where we should be able to locate pieces of "use trail" connected by a series of "wild ducks" up to the next bit of forest fringe wrapping around the tiny uppermost and last little segment of Clarks Meadow.
Around the Upper Meadow
After making this brief climb through the rising boulder field we will still stay to the North, our Left, along the upper edge of the forest as close to the canyon wall as possible, staying as far away from the water and the tiny upper meadow up here, as we did going around the previous lower segment of forest fringe around the last section of meadow, which I call the "middle" meadow.
We are now passing around the North edge of the "upper" meadow in its forest fringe.
To the Upper Ford
We begin moving closer to the river after we pass the red fallen tree and the great rock block, drawing closer to the tiny upper bit of upper meadow to our Right (South), as the narrowing canyon walls push the forest, and us into the narrowing meadow as the pinching canyon pushes forest into meadow and creek.
Point of Error
This is where lots of folks go wrong, and push Left through an arm of subordinate meadow running up a little tributairy creek running somewhat parallel to the Clarks Fork, but to the Northeast.
Moving Left at the top of the upper meadow into this little branch of Northern meadow is a mistake. One should move Right, towards the creek and the upper ford as we move through the last bit of forest fringe approaching the top of the uppermost meadow. Moving towards the Clarks Fork here will bring us to its well-marked ford.
As we move closer to the upper end of the upper meadow we will sight a lone wild duck directing us through a last dark bit of forest that draws us near to, then follows alongside the North shore of the now stream-sized Clarks Fork River just a bit further upstream to where we find the final and uppermost well-ducked ford of the Clarks Fork.
Upper Ford to the top of the Headwaters BowlAbove: Looking past the last duck marking the Upper Ford of the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus at the river beyond.
1.14 miles from the upper ford to the top of the headwaters bowl. There is a subtle use trail marked by wild ducks, if you look closely, that brings us around the Left side of the great granite boulder above the ford.
Passing between some forest wedged into the Left side of this great block we find faint Use Trail and Wild Ducks bringing us parallel to the river up to a 'waterslide" waterfall the upper Clarks Fork takes off another great granite boulder.
Here too at the waterfall we find subtle ducks and faint use trail leading us up the right side of this granite block to the top of the great block that the Clarks Fork is flowing over, where we find that the loose set of Wild Ducks we've been following continues to lead us a bit further upstream, until we turn up a little tributary flowing out a slot in the cliff directly to our South. That's our way out of the headwaters bowl.
The Stripped Slot exiting the Headwaters Bowl
We follow this tributary up to the slot in the cliff it flows out of, which we then climb up.
We can identify the correct "slot" in the cliff by the black and white candy-stripe stained vast granite block that is slightly overhanging the bottom of the slot. This is a distinctive block. There are also bits of use trail and wild ducks directing us up to the base of this slot in the cliff wall protected by the black-stripped overhanging granite block.
Hands and Feet at the Bottom
The bottom part of this slot in the cliff is steep, some parts filled with brush and boulders, other parts just boulders, and the final steep segment is a tough scramble up a big sandy berm.
The remaining route up the slot to the top of the cliffs moderates once we get over the sand berm, and we soon find ourselves climbing onto the top of these cliffs. We find we are on the South side of the horseshoe-shaped set of cliffs surrounding the Headwaters Bowl of the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River.
To the Maintained Trail
Our climb brings us to the South side of the bowl, so our direction of travel is going to have to bend roughly Northeast through an amazing menagerie of the sculpted granite formations topping the headwater cliffs, as we make our way around the rim of the canyon over to where we can see and pick up the maintained trail running from the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead on Highway 108 to Stanislaus Peak.
This map lays out this most difficult and challenging segment of trail:
Click the red dots on the map above for the trail guide entries for each location.
Distances and Difficulty
Clarks Fork to Boulder Creek: 2.56 miles of Well Maintained Trail
Boulder Creek to Eureka Valley: 1.31 miles of Well Maintained Trail
Eureka Valley to Lowest Ford: 2.81 miles of Un-Maintained Trail
Lowest Ford to Clarks Fork Meadow: .66 mile of Un-Maintained Trail
Clarks Fork Meadow to Upper Ford : .42 mile of Route
Upper Ford to top of Headwaters Bowl Cliffs:
1.14 miles of Route
Top of Headwaters Bowl Cliffs to Saint Marys Pass TH:
2.35 miles of Route to Maintained Trail
11.25 miles total,
from the Clarks Fork Trailhead at the end of Clarks Fork Road to the Saint Marys Pass Trailhead on Highway 108.
This segment of trail is characterized by alternating sections of clarity and questing for our route. How much clarity and how much questing we do is the determining factor in just how much time and energy this challenging segment of trail will ultimately extract from us.
Much of the route has fairly apparent signs of its existance, but those sections of clarity are all separated by significant segments of terrain with no sign at all of the location of the route at all, except our understanding of why following the logic of the terrain will soon bring us again to recognizable indications we are where we want to be, tracing out the optimal route.
How'd you do through here?
My stove sprang a high pressure leak and sprayed itself, the surrounding terrain, me, and my tent with flaming white gas. That's a problem. I managed to prioritize the situation and put everything out in order of importance.
That worked out to be terrain, tent, stove, then me, twice. I caught on fire twice while putting everything else out. White gas is a bitch when it slips control.
I am amazed I stopped my tent from flaming out. I got it stopped just in the nick of time. After getting everything put out I quickly regained my chill, finished cooking dinner, and continued on with the trip.
Now I had both broken gear and a broken body to manage through this difficult segment of trail. Adjustments were made.
OK, that's my trail story and I'm sticking to it. Let me know what you've seen and experienced this weird, wild year.
See you guys on the trail, if not the interwebs,
Above: This is how you get old in style...
Don't hesitate to get, and keep in touch.