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Walker to Sonora Pass: A Great East Sierra Backpacking Trip. Marines, Leavitt Peak, Snow Trips Too


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By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 09 October 2009

 

 Walker to Sonora Pass and Beyond...

 

Index

General Information

Why I love it there

How to get there

  Food & Resources  

  Road and Topo Hiking Maps

Why Walker: Short and Long Hiking Trips   

The hard parts of this trail

Unmaintained Trail

Video: Spring Tour-River Fords

 

Trail Information

Hike: Trailhead to Silver King

Hike: Silver King  to East Carson River

Hike: Carson Falls & Area

Snow Hiking: Winter Travel

Hike: Pacific Crest Trail to Sonora Pass

Snow Hiking: Bailout Point: Wolf Creek Lake

 

Interesting Things in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness

The Frk'n Marines

Bear at The Silver King Creek

Little Antelope Pack Station

Bear at Poison Flat

Rough Distances

The Frk'n Marines II: Multiple Encounters during a Spring Snow Trip to Leavitt Peak

 

In Conclusion...

Overall... 

Additional Notes and Updates

Video and Google Map

 

Walker to Sonora Pass

The Walker to Sonora Pass route is so striking that I try to get out there and run this trip at least once a year for a Winter or Spring snow shoe excursion. If I can't make a Spring or late Winter trip, I will try to put together a Summer trip through this stunning terrain. All the above will happen if I'm having a good year.

A great Winter trip starts with a snow trip out of the Tahoe Basin to Round Top and back, is followed by a Walker to Sonora Pass attempt, and is well-finished by a trip up Johnson Canyon to Panimint Pass in Death Valley.

There are multiple things that draw me to the Eastern escarpment, and specifically Rodriquez Flat.

First, this place is quiet. The remoteness of the trailhead warns of the isolation beyond. The lack of people out there is not just a function of the isolation of the trailhead. All of Antelope Valley and the towns within it likely amount to considerably less than a thousand people. It is about 80 miles South of Carson City. Gardnerville and Minden are growing, but are still small towns.

Rodriquez Flat is fairly isolated long before you hit the trailhead. Then there is the terrain itself.

 The transition from the tumbleweeds of the High Desert along Highway 395 nestled in the deep shadow of the towering Eastern flank of the Sierra is daunting, especially if you are walking in, as I do.

But difficulty of getting out there, and the big climb to get to up the trailhead itself is well worth it. On our way up to the trailhead from Highway 395 we hike across an amazing variety of terrains. Beautiful medows, burbeling creeks, sheer mountains of both lava and granite, and grand views East over Antelope Valley.
 

The Iceing on the Cake, or Just Too Much?

Access to Sonora Pass at the end of our Walker to Sonora Pass hike during Winter or Spring snow conditions always temps one to climb across the Leavitt Massif to cap Leavitt peak in snow conditions. If you can get there.

The Leavitt Massif is the massive grouping of peaks that the Pacific Crest Trail crosses South of Sonora Pass. Leavitt Peak itself is a rounded peak rising out of the Southwest side of the Leavitt Massif. Leavitt Peak has a nice ramp up to its summit, once you get there, meaning climbing Leavitt Peak itself is easy. The hard part is getting to Leavitt Peak.

The first problem is getting down the Southern Flank of snow-covered Sonora Pead. Many Winter trips are turned around from this point and forced Eastward out of the Sierra through Wolf Creek. Once you arrive at the Sonora Gap you may find it impossible to descend South to Sonora Pass. If you can get down to Sonora Pass you have a whole new series of Wintertime challenges.

The Winter route up to the Leavitt massif's 11,000 elevation from Sonora Pass's 9640 feet. requires you access and climb the Northwest shoulder from Sonora Pass to the top of the massif.

The next problem is getting across the sometimes harrowing three mile traverse along the crestline of the Leavitt Massive to the base of Leavitt itself. These three miles require the ability to effectively use crampons and an ice axe when it is frozen solid. When the snow up there is soft, you've got to have the fitness be able to chug through deep steep snow at high elevation.

Rather than heading up through Walker to Leavitt Peak via Sonora Pass you also have the much easier option of snowshoeing up to Sonora Pass via the snow-covered route of Highway 108. Much more on that below. Or you can wait until Highway 108 opens up for the season. Leavitt Peak is the end of the trip. Let's check out the beginning, starting with how to get to the trailhead.

Walker to Sonora Pass: How to Get There

I call this trip the "Walker" to Sonora Pass trip because Walker is the nearest town on Highway 395 to   Mill Canyon Road, the dirt road leading up to the Corral Valley trailhead at Rodriquez Flat. Mill Canyon Road is about a mile and a half North of Walker along Highway 395.

Heading West for a short distance on Mill Canyon Road quickly brings us to where the Golden Gate Mine Road splits to the Right from Mill Canyon Road. Mill Canyon Road is well worth exploring, but today we're following Golden Gate Mine Road. Golden Gate Road is a 6.75 mile steep, well -maintained National Forest dirt road up to the 8200 foot elevation Corral Valley Trailhead located at Rodriquez Flat. An excellent driver can herd a piece of junk car up this road if the car can make the climb.

How to get there

Mill Canyon road (Map at bottom of page) heads West from Hwy 395 about 1.5 miles North of the town of Walker, and 3 miles South of the town of Coleville in the Antelope Valley. Antelope Valley sits in the shadow of the sheer Eastern escarpment of the Sierras.

Walker, located at the South end of Antelope Valley is about 14 miles North of the junction between Highways 395 and 108.

Our road is marked by a sign on Highway 395 that reads, "Mill Canyon Road." 

This dirt road climbs 3000 feet and 6.75 miles to the 8200 foot elevation Corral Valley trail head adjacent to the Little Antelope Pack Station. The dirt road is in  very fine condition as of August 2010. The junction between Golden Gate Road and Highway 395 is located about 10 miles South of Lake Topaz (the California-Nevada border) and 1.5 miles North of Walker California on Highway 395.


 From Lake Tahoe

Out of Lake Tahoe head East to Highway 395. You can do this on the Kingsbury Grade or Highway 88. Turn South on Highway 395. At Topaz Lake you cross the border into California, and will encounter Mill Canyon Road on your right a couple of miles South of the town of little town of Coleville.
  

From the South on Highway 395

If you are coming North up Highway 395, the town of Walker is 14 miles North of the junction between Highway 108, the Sonora Pass Road, and Highway 395. Mill Canyon Road is located 1.5 miles North of Walker.

 

Dirt Road to 8000 Foot Trailhead

Shortly after turning up Mill Canyon Road, the road forks, and you veer right onto Golden Gate Road for the 6.75 mile walk up the seriously steep Golden Gate Road from Highway 395 to the Little Antelope Pack Station, which shares Rodriguez Flat with our trail head.

Well, I generally hitchhike out there, so I often end up walking the 6.75 miles up to the trail head, if I can't find or convince any of my local friends to run me up there.

The 8200 feet elevation Corral Valley trail head has good campsites and a great view, but there is no water available there if there is no snow to melt and you don't bring your own.  

Corral Valley Trailhead at Rodriquez Flat.

Above: Looking West from Rodriquez Flat at the sign dividing the road between the two trailheads and the Little Antelope pack station. We are going for the Corral Valley Trailhead. Our trail climbs over the ridge to the back-left of the sign to access the Silver King Creek. The trail to the Right also acceses the Silver King Creek, but far downstream.
 

 

Good Food near the Trailhead

The Meadow Cliff Cafe, located just South of Coleville, is an excellent place to eat, my favorite in the area. At the Meadow Cliff you can maybe meet a few of Antelope Valley's fine folk who hang out in the restaurant drinking coffee and giving each other shit during breakfast hours.

To the North, on the Nevada side of the Stateline at Lake Topaz is the Lake Topaz Lodge and Casino. It has weekday dinner specials that are a good deal. The have deals such as "Spagetti Tuesdays," where they serve huge portions, along with salad and bread for an excellent price. You will see all the locals there if it's a good deal.

In Walker the old "Country Bear Cafe" had the best food in the whole region. Owned by Bob, with Donnie Payne cooking in back, this place produced top quality food.

After Bob tragically and unexpectedly passed the Country Bear has changed names and owners and is no longer the same level of quality as during the Country Bear era. It's good, but it's not Bob and Donnie...

Donnie's quite a piece of work, but that boy can cook. He's currently at the Cowboy Cafe in Minden, near Gardinerville. If you are coming down Highway 395 through Minden, stop at the Cowboy Cafe and give Donnie my regards.
 

Also located in Walker is the River View BBQ and a Classic to go Burger Joint with nice outside dining in a garden setting.

The BBQ and Burgers are expensive, but top quality. Both operate seasonally, so they have to make their money during the Summer's tourist, hunting and fishing seasons.

 I have no problem supporting the local business in Walker and Coleville. The problem is the lack of dollars in my pocket, which makes it hard for me to support local business.

Our so-called corporate "leaders" should have thought about that when they destroyed our middle class, people like me, by replacing honorable American Labor with imported and offshored cheap foreigner labor. How's that working out now?

The best deal for the money is the breakfast at Meadow Cliff.

 

Locate Mill Canyon Road: Google Road Map and Topo Hiking Maps

Google Road Map: bottom of page

Topo Trail Map: Carson Iceberg section of the trail guide. This map shows the East Fork of the Carson River in relation to the PCT. Our trail from Rodriquez Flat comes to the East Cason River through Poison Flat, shown in the upper Right corner of the topo map. Poison Flat is a flat seam in the virtual wall of the Eastern Sierra, offering access to the interior of the Sierras from the East. 

I have to complete the Tahoe to Whitney routes before I add side trails. I will eventually add trail guide pages and specific maps for this fine Eastern access point to the long trails.

 Walker

As I generally hitch-hke out to the Eastern Sierra I end up starting my backpacking trips  from Walker, walking the dirt road up to the trailhead. Thus I call this access point through the Eastern Sierra "Walker," after the neat little town that's nearest to trailhead access.

Another reason may be that I spent many childhood Summers in Walker. My uncle owned what is now the Gas Station-Store-Laundrymat in Walker. This was a burger joint-pool hall-pinball arcade during the sixties and seventies, when my great uncle owned it. Now that it's a store-laundrymat the Antelope Valley kids gotta head down to Bridgeport for pool and pinball. Er, pinball is dead, and video games are no longer played in poolhalls. 

From Walker I've walked to Lake Tahoe by turning North on the Pacific Crest Trail after hiking up Murray Canyon. I've also continued South down to Tuolumne Meadows after passing through Sonora Pass from Walker. 

Independent of where you end your hike, starting any backpacking trip through the remote terrain of the Eastern Sierra via Rodriquez Flat is worth checking out.

You don't have to hike the whole medium-distance backpacking trip down to Sonora Pass, or long trips North and South from Walker. Falls Meadow and Carson Falls are excellent destinations for short trips through the Corral Valley Trailhead. Especially Carson Falls.

Carson Falls is awesome.


 

High Point of Walker to Sonora Pass Hike: Unmaintained Trail Section

In Summertime, the last 7 miles of this route, the section between the Carson Falls to the Pacific Crest Trail, follows an old non-maintained trail route. This is a challenging route, and a heck of a lot of fun.

During Winter and Spring, snow coverage extends the non-trailed section of this route far below our Rodriquez Flat trail head on Golden Gate Road on the way in to far below the Sonora Pass on the way out.

Though challenging in Summertime, this route is very difficult during Winter. During Spring and Fall it offers a wide variety of challenges and experiences. This place is a deep well of multi-faceted backpacker experiences. The question is how and when you fit into this fine puzzle.

Our Walker to Sonora Pass route joins with the Tahoe to Whitney Route described in the trail guide where the East Fork of the Carson River intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail about 5 miles North of Wolf Creek Lake. This is just to the North of where we climb into the headwaters of the East Carson River. The junction of the East Carson River route and the Pacific Crest Trail is where we trade in our unmaintained trail route for exactly the opposite: The Pacific Crest Trail is The Superhighway of Trails.

 Detail: Unmaintained Section

The unmaintained section of the trail begins at the map point designated as Carson Falls on the map, and ends where the Pacific Crest Trail and East Carson River intersect. Except during Spring or Winter. During Spring and Winter the snow covers the trail, and you are left to your own devices to navigate your way up this beautiful river valley from below Carson Falls up to the Sonora Pass, if it is accessable from the North. If not, we will bail out down Wolf Creek from Wolf Creek Lake to catch the dirt roads East to exit through the Marine Base at Pickel Meadow.

 

River Fording, and Video

Video

The video at the bottom of this page was taken between June 1 and 3, 2010, between the Little Antelope Pack Station (The pack station shares Rodriquez Flat with the trailheads) and Falls Meadow (just to the North of Carson Falls), where the rambuncious Murray Creek's high level and intense flow turned us around. Such are the vageries of the Spring Thaw. And I respect the power of the Spring Thaw. During Spring trails run like creeks, creeks run like rivers, and the rivers can kill you for sure.

River Fording

There are four fording points between our Corral Valley Trailhead on Rodriquez Flat and the trail junction where we join the Pacific Crest Trail along the East Fork of the Carson River.

The sound of the force of water rolling boulders along the river bottoms during the surges of the Spring Thaw is a damn sure sign you should not ford, if the depth of  the water did not previously offer a visual clue, and tactile testing of the water temp did not inform you of the dangers of fording . Look carefully. Listen intently. Feel the water. Literally. Your sense of touch will tell you how cold the water is. Taste,as in scenting, is also in play. Cold affects smell. Things smell differently when they are cold. I don't know, but I do know that all of your senses should always be fully employed to evaluate all trail situations, and especially fording. Cold water has a smell.

A couple of weeks later in the season, and I could jump across Murray Creek! But the raging phase of Murray Creek will not be passable during the early Spring surges until a couple of tottering snags that are currently sitting on the South side of the creek finally fall and bridge Murray Creek.

These dead trees are ready to go and will fall across the creek within the next couple of runoffs. (Spring 2010 observation.)

Though we did not get through to the Sonora Pass on this trip, it was nonetheless a fine little backpacking trip.

 

Sonora Pass Spring Tour

Video of the Sonora Pass under 9 feet of snow, on May 31, 2010. Scouting the end before hitting the trail head.

 

Walker, California to the Sonora Pass

I orginally posted this bear picture from the Silver King Creek to test the website when I first put it up. But I figured that the special place I took this picture deserved more than just a few words. Thus began this page, one of the first of the whole trail guide project.

The route from Walker to Sonora Pass is a fine two-to-four day backpacking trip during Summer, Spring, Winter, and Fall. As you can see from the images below, this place is frkn full of bears. Seriously.

I ran into this bear on the first day of a four night backpacking trip from Walker Ca, to the Sonora Pass, in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, at the Silver King Creek ford.

This is one of my favorite High Sierra backpacking trips. This route has a lot going for it, due to the remoteness of its location, the amazing variety of terrains it contains, and the beauties of four-season travel this isolated Wilderness offers backpackers.

This was far from my first bear encounter in these High Valleys. But those are different experiences, long before I began carrying a camera, and will be recounted in their proper place.

 

Outline of a Great Hiking Trip

Corral Valley Trailhead to the Silver King Creek

The Silver King Creek sits between our Corral Valley trail head on Rodriquez Flat and the East Carson River to our West . But first we have to climb the 8800 foot ridge behind the trailhead, before we drop down to the Silver King Creek.

Our first goal is to cross the Silver King Creek drainage heading West, which will bring us across another flat in the Sierra ridges descending East from the Sierra crestline, Poison Flat. Our Corral Valley Trailhead is located on the first flat, Rodriquez Flat.

A short but steep hike brings us to the top of the ridge, then a long descent down to the Silver King Creek follows. A nice Junniper tree about half-way down offers a shady break if it's a hot day. The trail down winds about a bit through drainages off the crumpled ridge arms as we descend past the Juniper. Soon we can spot the clearing and flat spot between converging ridges that marks the horse ford across the Silver King Creek.

Looking across the creek at the next ridge we can see how Poison Flat offer a gentle route across. The East Fork of the Carson flows on the other side of this next ridge, just beyond the West side of Poison Flat. 

 

I like the Silver King Creek, especially the campsite a little ways up the tributary feeder creek you see as you make the final switchbacks heading down to the Silver King Creek. The grand ridge arm on your left splits the healthy tributairy from the Silver King. The little tributairy flows around the Eastern base of the ridge, and the Silver King flows along the foot of the ridge's Western side.

Cut to your left off of the trail before dropping down to the flat apron around the Silver King Creek's horse ford to follow the tributary about a hundred and fifty yards upstream. You will see this creek feeds through a narrow section between ridges. On the other side of the tributairy there is a very nice campsite.

Other campsites sit on the ridge to the South of the Silver King Creek horse ford. Standing on the East side of the Silver King's ford, look to your Left, to the South. You will see a faint trail leading up the ridge. There are a few nice sites up there. These sites only have water during Spring to mid-Summer, or until the creeklets draining the ridge dry out.

The ford for the Silver King is a fallen tree just South of the horse ford, a bit upriver. But to get to the tree ford you have to first cross the tributairy. If it is Springtime this can be challenging. You may want to hike up the tributairy to where I describe the campsite. Up here it's narrower and easier to cross.

Once across the tributairy, make your way back downstream to the Silver King. You are now on the proper side of the tributairy to use the tree ford across the Silver King Creek.

On the West side of the Silver King you will find the new steel trail posts that the Forest Service is trying out. Follow the trail route gently climbing to the Northeast up to Poison Flat where we will turn West towards the East Carson River.

Poison Flat has two meadow sections. At the end of the first section the trail winds around to the Northeast and climbs over a little rise between these two long meadows.

 

On the far West side of Poison Flat you will see a faint unmaintained trail dropping almost straight down into the valley of the East Fork of the Carson River along the tribuitary draining the West side of Poison Flat.

The maintained trail heads Northeast down to the East Carson River about a mile and a half Northeast of the Soda Springs Ranger Station, while the shortcut unmaintained trail drops you a few hundred yards North of the Ranger Station.

This shortcut requires intermediate route finding skills. The trail route dissappears a few times on the way down to Dumonts Meadow along the East Fork of the Carson River.
 

 

Silver King Creek to East Fork of the Carson River
 

 

Carson Falls

We then follow the East Carson River upriver to Carson Falls, an exceptional rock formation deeply carved by the force of the East Carson River's flow. The massive energy generated by the East Carson's flow down from its high altitude birthplace in the Eastern Sierra is mitigated at the Carson Falls, which is essentially a huge granite plug that divides the steep section of the East Carson as it crashes down the Eastern Sierra, from its  more placid course below the Falls, where it meanders through the lush green expanses of low altitude meadows.

The Carson Falls is characterized by its many pocket waterfalls. By "pocket" waterfalls, I mean waterfalls that are cut into this massive block of granite. This means you are looking down at all of  the waterfalls, as they are all contained within the deep channel they have cut into and through the amazing rock plug called the Carson Falls. You actually look down at these waterfalls.

This is a really nice destination for short-distance backpackers. There are excellent campsites at the Silver King, Murray Falls, Falls Meadow, and Carson Falls.

Past  the Carson Falls you follow a long-unmaintained trail up the East Carson River to its junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, during the Summertime. From there you can follow the PCT South up to the East Carson River's Headwater Bowl, past the picturesque Wolf Creek Lake, to traverse the Eastern and Southern Flanks of Sonora Peak to reach Sonora Pass.

But during the Winter, early Spring, and late Fall both the unmaintained trail and the Pacific Crest Trail are buried under many feet of snow, and you will basically follow the easiest path you can find for yourself up the river valley.

I just posted this map which depicts the unmaintained trail between Carson Falls and the Pacific Crest Trail. Though this map depicts a trail there, later maps, and decades of experiences through that section define it as a completely unmaintained route. I am overwhelmed building this site, but I will eventually get around to charting all of these trail routes on the maps.

Unmaintained Section: See Above

 

Winter Travel

During Spring, Winter, and  Fall you must note the snow line. The elevation of the snow line is going to determine much about your trip through this section, and beyond.

If the snow line is high on the mountains, more trail will be exposed, possibly speeding-up your trip. Maybe not, if during Springtime the lower trails are running like little creeks, full of freezing runoff, and the real little creeks will be running like rivers. Fording these can be very challenging, if not impossible during the height of the runoff. 

The key question is the snow line in relation to the unmaintained section. If the snowline is down to the unmarked trail section between Carson Falls and the PCT, it is very low, and the added difficulty of navigating the unmaintained trail section in snow conditions is going to add extra time, and therefore extra food, and yet more weight to your already heavy snow kit.

If the snow line is below the unmaintained trail section, as mentioned above, you must also exercise extreme caution due to avalanche danger. The unmaintained section is within a narrow canyon that can pack up with snow, presenting serious avalanche danger, especially during or shortly after a snow storm.

If the snowline is high, you can get through the unmarked sections with just normal difficulty, but the lateness of the season means that the snow, though higher, will be wet, soft, and deformed, posing quite a chore to cross.

Before exploring this area in snow conditions I strongly suggest that make yourself very familiar with this area in Summer.

 

Above the Pacific Crest Trail Junction

PCT Junction to Wolf Creek Lake 

Below: Coming up the final headwaters bowl of East fork of the Carson River, Spring snow conditions. Looking North back down the drainage. This stuff is challenging. Off the snow the exposed sections of soil are water-saturated, and you sink in up to your shins.

Spring Snow Conditions while Climbing up to the headwaters of the East Carson River

Below: In the Winter, early Spring, and late Fall you can follow the snow covered drainage (above) up to the headwaters bowl, then crossing South you will enter the mini headwaters bowl of Wolf Creek, which begins at Wolf Creek Lake, seen below fully frozen in Mid-Winter.

Wolf Creek Lake, Late Winter
 

Below: Wolf Creek Lake later in Spring, partially soft-frozen.

Wolf Creek Lake in Spring

Wolf Creek Lake sits in a narrow snow covered valley at just around 10,000 feet elevation. It is really more of a shelf in the mountains. When you climb out of the East Fork of the Carson's headwaters bowl, you will be rewarded with this view of Wolf Creek Lake, sitting in its own mini-headwaters bowl.  It is really quite beautiful, though I have only camped here in the cold months of the year. During the Spring and Summer the mosquitoes are quite thick here, and persist late into the Summer season.

Your route following the Pacific Crest Trail to Sonora Pass passes to the West of Wolf Creek Lake as you climb up the East Flank of Sonora Peak, which defines Wolf Creek Lake's Western shore.

Bail Out Point: Wolf Creek Lake

During Fall, Winter, and Spring the PCT is buried under Snow, so when you climb the flank of Sonora Peak to the Sonora Gap overlooking Sonora Pass,  you will find that the trail along the cliff wall under the Southern Flank of Sonora Peak  (The Banner Picture depicts this section) on the other side of the gap, the trail down to Sonora Pass, is impassable.

With the trail packed with vertical snow, you are staring at nothing more than a massive snow-covered cliff. The timing of when this section of trail along the Southern flank of Sonora Peak clears of snow is important to Pacific Crest Trailers, as getting around this bottleneck  is time-consuming. (I will provide alternate routes upon request)

Before it opens up I get nervous just standing there and LOOKING at it! Then I turn around, to exit East through the Wolf Creek drainage. In recent years the high Winter temps, low Winter snows, and early Spring thaws have opened this section of the trail up in late May and early June. Unprecedented, at least for the length of  my memory. That is not going to happen this year, 2010, for we have had heavy late season snows.
 

Below: The route South on the PCT to the Sonora Gap above Wolf Creek Lake. This gap divides the Sonora Pass from Wolf Creek and the Eastern Flank of Sonora Peak. There is no way that I will be able to descend the other side to Sonora Pass in the conditions pictured below, but I'm headed up to look at it anyway. There is a fine view of the Sonora Pass region and the Leavitt Massif that sit on the other side of the gap.

Climbing South towards the Sonora Gap from Wolf Creek Lake

When the Sonora Gap is blocked to the South, our exit is then Eastward, following the  Wolf Creek drainage down the mountain to a dirt road a couple of miles to the East.

Below: Sonora Peak from the East, after exiting the snow, unable to make it over to Sonora Pass. The Sonora Gap, leading to Sonora Pass sits to the left of Sonora Peak.

 

The Frk'n Marines (I say that with affection)

The snow recedes rapidly on the Eastern Flank of the Sierras, so you will be hitting deep muck below the snow line in Spring and Fall, unless the temps are still low, and the ground is still hard. This road will lead you to a road that leads down to the backside of the Marine Corps base, which you will cross to link up with Highway 108.

I used to sneak up on the sentries, when they were Marines. Now the Marine Sentries have been replaced by black shirt private contractors, for five times the cost. And the contractors em n Marinesare idiots. The Marines were really cool.

The Marines are stationed at Pickle Meadow for two years at a time, so they would start looking for me during the times of my annual snow trips, 'cause they knew I was going to be sneaking up on them. They frkn loved it. They would tell their replacements about the crazy old man who came sneaking up on them out of the mountains in the middle of the Winter.

I once brought a friend, Greg,  through here in late Spring, when the snow was still thick in the mountains. I made him stop aways from the sentry post, as I sneaked up. At five feet from the post the sentry caught the soft sound of my boots compressing snow as I moved. I could see his feet come down from their resting place up on the shelf. I could see a hand place a book next to where his feet had been. Then I watched the hand move steadily for the M-16 leaning against the shelf. Then I said, "At ease, marine. Put your feet back, pick up your book, and continue reading. There's nothing going on here"

The Marine picked up his rifle and came out laughing, saying, "What the hell are you doing, you crazy son of a bitch?"  The second sentry was a little bad-assed Marine chick, and we had met a couple of times before as I passed through her guard station. Before long we had a whole group of Marines discussing the mountains, as every marine that could stop, did, to talk with the two snow backpackers.

Then it's on to the chow hall for pancakes and orange juice with the Marines. Those days are over now, as expensive contractors have replaced the Marines at the gate. Those were the days. Most Marines are great guys and gals. I enjoyed hanging with them when I was in the Navy.

From there you will have to hitch home, or to wherever you stashed your car, or your next trail head. From the Marine Base it is only a couple of hours down to the long dirt road that is the Northern entrance to Death Valley, a favorite after-trip trip from any Sonora Pass cold weather backpacking trip. If it's Summertime, stay the hell away from Death Valley!

The Marines are pretty cool, and I have had many excellent rides hitch hiking in and out of this location during all season from every type of Marine, from grunts training there, to the badass mountain trainers who beat the hell out of the Grunts in the snow covered mountains, to old Colonels. Hell of nice guys, those Marines. I've got a few Marine Stories from my Winter Voyages through these mountains that will appear later.

 

The Bear at The Silver King Creek



 

Above: Rambling About.          Below: Bear in full retreat.

 I was approaching the Silver King Creek from the East, on my way to the East Carson River, when the angle of the sun on the water revealed something making big waves.

Bear Making Waves in the Silver King Creek

 I stopped, took off my pack, and sat down for a half an hour of watching this bear finish its bath, screw around, root, and ramble around just by where I planned to camp. Time is pressing on the trail, and I needed to get moving. So I got up, put the pack back on, and continued on down towards the Silver King Creek.

When the bear finally noticed me, she was not concerned with me at all. As I got closer, I raised my arms, and said, "Hey, I gotta get water and camp." The bear still did not really care, but it was getting late, and I was pretty thirsty, so I pushed it up a notch.

I gave that poor bear my best rebel whoop. That did it. The bear was out of there, and I set up a nice camp near the tranquil tributary that feeds the Silver King just above the ford.

Little Antelope Pack Station

Those days are over. The Little Antelope Pack Station has been bought from good old Vic Bergstrom, and the new owner is leading bear hunting parties up into the Silver King and East Carson drainages now.

So now the bears are keeping a low profile. I have not seen the massive female that used to dominate that whole area for awhile now, and I heard that they took a big female out of there last year. Check this year's video, above, for a good image of a bear we snuck up on in Poison Flat.

Little Antelope Pack Station, Carson Iceberg Wilderness

Above: Little Antelope Pack Station, early Spring.

The locals speak very highly of the new owner, who's name they tell me is Joe. 

 

Little Antelope Pack Station Services for Backpackers

If you are not a strong backpacker, or you still want to bring your family or friends to this remote location, but they are not quite up to carrying heavy packs out there, you can have Joe at the Little Antelope Pack Station drop your gear, food, and all the gear you need to set up a fine camp at the Carson Falls.

You can hike or ride Joe's horses out to the camp, and spend a few quality days in your own little piece of heaven. Joe and his wife and hands will come out to fetch you when your visit is over

 

Rough Distances

This backpacking trip is about 50 miles, if you walk in from Highway 395, and are forced out to the East through the Marine base in the Spring and Fall due to snow blocking access to the Sonora Pass. If you drive to the Little Antelope Pack Station, and exit at Sonora Pass during the Summer, it is about 32 miles.

If you don't want to backpack into the E. Fork of the Carson to see the beauties of Carson Falls, I'll bet you dollars to dimes that the guys at The Little Antelope Pack Station would ride you out there, set you up with a nice camp, and come get you a few days later. You could fish, hike, screw around and eat for a few days. It would be nice.

This year's Bear encounter: June 1, 2010.

This bear was observed Less than 5 miles from the Pack Station.

Bear encountered June 1, 2010, Poison Flat

I snuck up on this big boy, observing him before he observed me. The location was between the two legs of meadow that constitute Poison Flat, just West of the weather station. I held him stationary for more than 30 seconds, before I went to move the camera, and he broke out and took off at a full gallop.

 

The Frk'n Marines, II

A trip from the Highway 108 snowgate to, well this trip went to hell...

For the second day, I revealed my position to the trainers coming up mountain in their old sno-cat things. They brought me a thermos of hot coffee and a tin of skol on the second day, figuring I would expose my position to hang with them. Smart guys.

 The Captain was again insulted that I would not take a ride up mountain, as he had specifically cleared out a space for me AND my pack in the heated cab. He pulled a covered, but open, trailer that held his crew of mountain trainer sergeants, truly badasses all of them. He was getting on me, basically saying he had taken steps to hang with me, and I should hang out and take a ride.

Now those of you who know me, or have read this guide, know how damn stubborn I am. I came to walk up the frkn snow-covered mountain, and I was going to walk up that mountain. But I'm still kicking myself for not taking a ride in the Marine's sno-cat thingy. But given the same decision again, I'd still  have to walk up the mountain.They should have parked that snow-contraption thing that they were driving around, and walked up with me...

But his sergeants immediately started giving the cap shit for that: "He Wants to HUMP it, Cap, He Want to HUMP it," they yelled," Yeah! Hump it Dude! Hump it Dude!" The cap relented, and we all laughed at how crazy we were.

But, I pointed out, they were getting paid to beat the shit out of themselves, and I was doing it for FREE! Then they pointed out that they carried really heavy Arms and Ammo, and got shot at all the time. Except when hanging out with Al.

They all were backcountry boys in the real world, and enjoyed the Marines because of the field time. But they did carry heavy weapons and ammo, which really is a drag. Their packs can be heavier than mine! Damn!  And now, we've got the poor bastards doing six tours. Jesus! Sorry boys, we have fools for leaders.

It is a shame that we build the best HAMMER (the Marines) the world has ever seen, while letting the most  incompetent CARPENTERS (all of the corrupted politicians who constantly disgrace our country) wield that hammer. Sorry Again, boys.

After the first time I encountered this unit,  a cold, tight, and powerful LOCAL blizzard blew in. They had gone back to base, and I continued to work my way up the mountain, until an impending storm advised that I be hunkered down, and I did, with perfectly comfortable conditions, and warm.

But then my MSR white gas stove decided to crap out. It worked, but the feed line was clogged, and needed to be cleaned out by a soaking in carb cleaner. No problem, though the low pressure meant that it took twice as long to melt my water, which was a real drag as the sun was going down at 5:20 pm. Man, the days are SHORT during Wintertime. Time was important, and slow water sucked.

I was watching the little blizzard forming up, and recognized it as the product of a very cold local air mass that was pushing up my valley from the East. Eastern Air from the cold mid-Western plains, a continental cold air mass,  is a very dangerous during Winter when it pushes into the Sierras. They bring extremely cold temps with them from the great plains.

This was a small, local, push of cold air, and after it created a fierce little blizzard, really quite delightful, it blew out to expose magnificent starry skies. The kind of sky that you can only see when the air is frigid. I prepped up for the blizzard by cutting out a little trench in the snow to bury my tent in. I took the blocks I cut  from the trench, and built a windward wall with them. This was done with my MSR snow shoes, which also act as my snow shovel.

The Plan was to set the tent in the trench, then cover it with insulating snow, all behind my little windward wall. I can get 45 degrees in this set up when the temps drop to 50 below zero and the winds are howling. Snug as a frkn bug in a rug.

But I had correctly identified the blizzard as local and short, so I had not put up my tent during the mini-blizzard. I had dug the trench and made the wall, just in case I was wrong. That evening I slept in my trench, behind my wall, using my tent as pillow, while watching eternity wheel by in the night sky from the smallest eye and nose hole my mummy bag could form.

When the Marines looked for me the next day, and I let them find me, they were jealous as hell that I was out in the soup while they were looking at it through a window. Marines do not like to watch. Thus the Coffee and Skol, and the laughing nickname, "Nails," short for "Al, hard as Nails." Gotta love those guys!

The day before, when I also refused a ride, the cap told me that I should not be out there, and they they were the ones that were going to have to pry my dead frozen ass off of a tree. (IE, another dead tree-hugger!) I laughed and told him that I was better geared than a Winter Marine, that I knew how to use my gear, and I had done this many times before, and though I always froze my ass off, I had always kept the hot shit coming. Sorry, but I was dealing with MARINES!

Marines training during HIgh Sierra Winter near Sonora Pass.

above:Thumbs-up from the Captain!

I continued up towards Sonora Pass, arriving that afternoon. I took a partially sheltered spot, as the standing winds were all over the place, between 25 and 40 mph. Partially sheltered, because there is not much cover at Sonora Pass. I could hear the booming of massive gusts of wind, hitting 80+ mph, as they came thundering up through "The Big V," carrying massive amounts of drift with them.  I call the valley running up to the Sonora Pass from on the Western slope "The Big V," because that is exactly the shape ancient glaciers cut through the massive rock wall sitting West of the Pass.

The Big V. The gorge of the Stanislaus up to Sonora Pass. Viewed from the Western Flank of Levitt Peak

The Big V. The gorge of Deadman Creek up to Sonora Pass. Viewed from the Western Flank of Levitt Peak

The high wind gusts were carrying massive clouds of drift. They actually made a thunderous sound banging up the valley through "The Big V."

When they engulfed me, these massive white clouds of wind-driven drift would find every opening in my protection, sending little rivers of Ice crystals anywhere any air could circulate. It was like rivers of frozen sand, like frozen sandpaper grains, were swirling around in little tempests under all of my layers. Little rivers of ice particles would travel up the length of my arms, swirl about my lower back, and in the small of my neck, all under 4 layers of quality insulation and a fine shell, fully buttoned down. Amazing.

But I could hear the monster gusts coming. When I did, I would fully zip-up, and lock down my shell, and fold myself over into a tight hug-myself fetal position, turned away from the wind to further reduce the penetration.

This was working well. Until the zipper on my upper shell jacket (Old School North Face Mountain Jacket) straight-up broke!

I could no longer zip my jacket in 22 degree temps with 80 mph gusts, and my stove was feeble and dying too. All of this happened just as I was just about to climb Levitte Peak in mid-Winter, which required a three mile traverse of the Sierra Crest line just to get to the Peak. 

The Gear Gods had spoken: I would retreat.

I returned two months later, and completed the trip. But the unusually high Winter temps had given way to early Spring"s even higher temps, making both the snow shoe up to Sonora Pass Extraordinarily difficult, and the traverse across a soft-frozen crest line to Leavitt Peak from the Sonora Pass pretty hairy.

Exiting Leavitt Peak through Leavitt Lake was a gas. I glissaded almost all the way down the mountain over the soft snow, rather than post-holing up to my jewels with each step down the mountain.

 

Overall...

Get your ass out here. You should consider this trip, (Walker to Sonora Pass) especially for the seven mile unmaintained trail section between Carson Falls (really a must-see location!) and the Pacific Crest Trail Junction. It is an amazing maze for the smart and fit intermediate to expert backpacker's enjoyment.

Finishing this trip by climbing Leavitt Peak is just the thing for the really ambitious backpacker. Or you can climb Leavitt Peak as a nice project for a Summer weekend. There's a window of time after Highway 108 opens in the Spring and before Leavitt Peak clears of snow when you can drive up to Sonora Pass and then climb Leavitt Spring snow conditions.

Do it. Do it now. (Well, wait until Late Spring) If you don't like unmaintained trails, the backpacking trip between Ebbetts Pass and Sonora Pass is an exceptional substitute. But you will most likely run into people, which I rarely do when entering through Little Antelope, and you will also miss the Carson Falls.

Additional Notes

Additional note: There are two medium to kind of hairy fords over the East fork of the Carson River, especially during Spring. The first is South of the Soda Springs Ranger Station. As of June 1, 2010, there is a new tree ford for that one. The previous ford behind the fenced pasture has been undercut by the flow of the river.

I placed the arrow below about a mile South of the Soda Springs Ranger Station. It roughly points to where a downed tree offers a ford across the East Fork of the Carson River. Follow the arrow to the river, then head downriver for a hundred yards, and you will see the downed tree ford.

Arrow pointing to East Carson fording point, a downed tree, South of Soda Springs

The second ford is located above the Carson Falls. It too is bridged by a fallen tree. The bark is now off, but this bastard is scary when the water is really flowing, and the temps put Ice on the frkn trunk. Another tree has fallen, a bit down stream towards the Carson Falls. and it still has bark. See, bark may freak you out during the Summer, but it is fine traction during the Winter! On the other hand, bark eventually separates from the trunk, so all old bark must be tread with care.

In any case, and during all seasons, use caution during any ford. If any particular ford is not passable, turn around, or look for a better alternative. I have been forced out of Carson Falls by a Winter Storm that put enough snow on the mountains to make it a real avalanche danger between the Carson Falls and its "junction" with the PCT, where the valley opens and avalanche danger receedes. I have waited two hours for the ice to melt off the fording tree above the Carson Falls before crossing.

In June of this year, 2010, I was forced to turn around at Murray Creek. The creek was flowing too heavily to wade, and too wide to jump. Several nearby trees are going to fall across it within the next year or so, so there's no hurry to cross it this particular Spring.

Carson Falls II

Below: One of many falls that cut a deep channel through the massive block of granite that constitutes Carson Falls. This massive block separates the East Carson's steep fall down the mountain from its headwaters bowl  to its relatively gentle flow through Falls Meadow.

The East Carson does not just cut through this block, but cuts a serpentine course through the block that is full of "pocket" falls, i.e., falls that are contained inside of the rock. You look down at waterfalls that sit within the pockets they cut through this massive block.

The rock block that makes up the Carson Falls has many fine nooks and crannies to explore.  It is an AMAZING place, and worth bringing an extra day's food so you have the time to throughly explore it. For beginner backpackers, this is a destination in itself, regardless of if you continue south towards the headwaters and Sonora Pass, or not.

East Carson River surging through one of Carson Falls many waterfalls.

As you can tell, I highly recommend the Southeastern section of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. I suggest you put it on your short list for Summer trips.

If you are a Winter Traveler, explore the region in Summer, become accustomed to the terrain and landmarks, then put on the snow shoes and explore!


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