Carson Iceberg Wilderness Backpacking Loops and Trips

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 22 August 2014

Medium and Long distance
Backpacking Loops
and trips
in the
Carson Iceberg Wilderness

This report on backpacking loops and trips around the Carson Iceberg Wilderness comes from the Tahoe to Yosemite section of the Tahoe to Whitney trail guide at the Jenkins Canyon trail junction alongside Highland Creek above Spicer Meadow Reservoir.

We have a lot of hiking options from here. It's the imagination we apply to reaching our destination that opens up our possibilities here, which we discuss below, and we will apply these principals of imagination to all the trailheads we can start from around the Carson Iceberg. 

Please apply your experience or questions through the comments link at the bottom of the page, or open up an article about your favoirite loops or backpacking trips around the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. What's your favorite loop or hike across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness?

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 to hike up Highland Creek to Highland Lakes. The well-maintaned dirt Highland Lakes Road accesses the Highland Lakes from Highway 4 near Ebbetts Pass.

 Highland Lakes can be the end-point of a point-to-point backpacking trip from the Silver Valley Trail head. Or it can open up a series of backpacking loops and alternative routes South for long distance backpackers hiking the PCT and TYT routes.

Our exceptional opportunities to craft backpacking loops around the Carson Iceberg Wilderness are dependent on the four trails connecting the PCT and TYT across its length. These are the Highland, Arnot, Disaster, and Boulder Creek Trails.
 These trails allow the long distance backpacker to craft numerous alternative routes to the classic PCT and TYT routes across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness, and they open up a large number of short and long distance loops for local backpackers.

The backpacking loops described below are expanded by using the furthest connector trails and contracted by using the nearest, independent of where we begin, independent of which trailhead we use to jump onto this grand hamster wheel.

The two maps below lay out all four of the trails linking the TYT to the PCT across the Carson Iceberg Wilderness.

Highland Creek to the Clarks Fork
15 minute hiking map

Clarks Fork to Highland Lakes
15 minute hiking map


The Basic Loops 
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 -  Disaster Creek trail junction along the short trail linking Gardner Meadow Trailhead to Wolf Creek Pass.

The Northern ends of the Arnot and Disaster Creek trails coming up from the Clarks Fork of the Stanislaus River (their Clarks Fork Road trailheads are depicted on the Jenkins Canyon guide page) link up before connecting with the trail running from the Gardner Meadow Trailhead to the Pacific Crest Trail at Wolf Creek Pass.

This allows 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 back to 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 will turn North for the return leg of our loop back to the Silver Valley Trailhead.
This Arnot Loop would be a 45.12 mile backpacking loop.

Disaster Creek back to 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 would 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, and its miles 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.

Carson Iceberg Wilderness
30 minute USGS topo map

Boulder Lake back to 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 constraints. We can put together short backpacking loops for those 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.  

Highway 108
Clarks Fork Trailheads

We can craft grand loops around the Carson Iceberg starting from any of a circle of trailheads around the wilderness that are adjacent to the PCT and TYT.
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, just modified a bit to suite the particular starting trailhead 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 you get on this web you can move all around the Carson Iceberg Wilderness, to and through all the key points on this web of trails. 

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.

Carson Iceberg Wilderness
30 minute USGS topo map

Getting Started
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.

Choose wisely!

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.

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, 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 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 nurture one person's evolution. 

Let's Review
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.
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.

Check out our route options on the
Carson-Iceberg Topo Hiking Map

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