A guest post from one of our old friends...

posted Aug 17, 2017, 3:56 PM by Paul Wagner
Walter sent us this...and we enjoyed it so much we asked him if we could share it with you.  We've illustrated it with a few photos of our own from this area...



Last year I reported on a trip I took in late September from Sonora Pass north on the PCT and down to the bottom of Golden Canyon to where the trail crosses the East Carson River. On the second day it rained all day, and the temperature seemed like it never got above forty. I spent an unhappy night and could not bring myself to cross the river the next morning. I was already frozen, so I headed back. That day was even colder, and in the late afternoon it snowed a couple of inches. What fun! Came back out at Sonora Pass the next day but have held a grudge against this area ever since. I thought I might have another go at it this year in late July, but this time from the Clark's Fork trailhead.

Day One was uneventful. I left the car at two o'clock and headed up the Clark's Fork trail, which rises gradually for two miles. At that point the trail splits, and I took the one that heads up Boulder Creek to Boulder Lake. Kind of a crappy trail for the next two miles -- very steep and rocky, nothing like the well-built trail that goes up Disaster Creek, and not the kind of thing you want to do very much of if you've just come up from sea level; but for two miles on fresh legs, I could manage. The plan was to spend the night at Boulder Lake, and that's what I did. There is a large camp area on the north side of the lake that appears to get plenty of use. Not very attractive, and the lake itself is small and nondescript; but there was no one else there. I had seen half a dozen day hikers on the trail but no backpackers. It was peaceful.
The Iceberg and wildflowers. Lots of flowers on this trip ©backpackthesierra.com


Day Two. I hiked one more mile up to the junction with the PCT and headed north. I ran into ten or twelve through-hikers in the first half hour, all but one headed south. I assume they all camped in the same place the previous night. I also saw an older, somewhat chubby guy lying by the side of the trail. I asked him if he was OK. He said everything was fine. He was just taking a nap. At ten o'clock? I figured that he was not a through-hiker. After lunch I headed down Golden Canyon once again. Maybe this is the right time to say that it was a very wet winter. This was a good thing for many reasons, including the fact that it was a bonanza for vegetation. Not so good for unmaintained trails that were already overgrown. Finding the trail, which I had been down the previous year, was a continuing chore. There were a lot of down trees, which never fall neatly and simply. There was a big mudslide that wiped out about a hundred feet of trail. But mostly there was high grass and willows into which the trail would just disappear, again and again. And apparently no one ever comes this way, so there are no use trails through the high grass. As you point out in your 2014 trip report, the trail is sketchy, but you are headed down a canyon. So what could go wrong? Well, you can venture out into a meadow and still get righteously lost. There is a path of beaten grass that looks promising until the bear poop suggests that this path was not trod by humans. So I sang the bear song as loud as I could for a while. Bears don't like surprises. All I learned from my long foray into the meadow was that seemingly impenetrable willow thickets are in fact impenetrable, and you can waste a lot of time that way. Eventually I rediscovered the trail.

I will say this. There is a lovely waterfall in Golden Canyon, particularly lovely because Golden Creek is very full. You have to cross the creek three times. The first time is nothing. The second time I found a place to jump across. It is probably pretty entertaining to watch a seventy-year old man with a 35-pound pack doing a running broad jump across a creek; but there was no one there to watch. So if a tree falls in the forest . . . The third crossing was boots-off. Amazing when you consider that this Creek was just a trickle last September.

At the bottom of Golden Canyon the trail turns left and heads down the East Carson. I was reaching exhaustion. I lost the trail again. I decided to just head down to the river, and by chance I came to a place where there was a fat log going across. It was clearly not a log that anyone had used before. Lots of dead branches sticking up all the way across. But with exhaustion comes stupidity. It took me a long time, but I weaved my way across and swung down on some willows on the other side. You dare not grab any of the dead branches because they just snap off. What larks! So I got across the river that had stopped me last year. I found a trail on the other side, figured out where I was, and made camp, feeling pretty good about myself.

And the last bit of trail up to the top of the crest. ©http://backpackthesierra.com
 

Day Three. Oy! The only thing I was concerned about was the second crossing of the East Carson. It is a river, not a creek, and it was very full, and I'm a great believer in your advice about high water. If I could cross, no problem. If not, I would have to find that log again and go back. The trail was clear until it wasn't. It disappeared into thick foliage. I pressed on. Nothing. Then there was a well-worn track leading straight down to the river. I took it. The crossing at that point was boots off and pants off. It should have been underwear off as well. The river was somewhere between crotch-high and waist-high and swift, but I never felt at risk. Slow and steady, using my poles, felt completely safe. I crawled out on the opposite bank with the help of some willows.

There were cliffs. All I had to do was get up the cliffs and I would find the trail. I scouted a couple of routes without the pack. One involved a series of precarious ledges that I could do without the pack but seemed risky. I am not a rock climber. I have no skills, and I hate it. The other route was straight up through a series of clefts. Crap! I did that one. It took all of my elderly strength to haul myself and my pack up that cliff, but I did it. Not vertical. I wasn't going to die if I slipped, but I would rather not have been doing it. Then there was no trail. It took me a long time to figure it out, but there was a sheer cliff blocking my way down the river. I had crossed too soon. So I hiked upriver until I found an easy place to recross. Waist high but not dangerous. Clambered up the canyon side, found the trail again, and tried again. Trail disappeared, and I went cross-country. Eventually the trail appeared again, and eventually it headed down into the river. I crossed it for the third time today. I was an old hand at it now, but it was a tedious, time-wasting process. Proceeded down the trail to Carson Falls, which, I must say, was a disappointment. It's really hard to see from the only vantage point offered. I ate an execrable lunch. The canyon was hot.

No problem now. Just follow the trail down to Murray Creek and head up Murray Canyon. But it disappeared again in a jumble of boulders. Am I just really bad at this? No cairns anywhere. No trace of a trail. So my plan was to go down to the river and just follow it down to Murray Creek. Bad plan. Riverbanks are thick with willows. Seemingly impenetrable willow thickets are in fact impenetrable. See above. But you can waste a lot of time and energy trying to find your way through. Plan B was to walk my way up a shallow creek to higher ground. Also no good. Willows. Finally I just bushwhacked my away from the river through logs, willows, boulders, and assorted other crap. I got lucky and found the trail again and followed it down to the junction with the Murray Canyon trail. It was three o'clock. I had progressed about one mile down the river since I broke camp at 8:30 in the morning. I was tired, but I was sure having fun.

The Murray Canyon trail rises very steeply up a series of well-built switchbacks. I was grateful for such a good trail. At four the trail leveled out somewhat and I came to the first crossing of Murray Creek, which was going to be pants on but boots off. I demurred and made camp. Enough for one day. I had a visitor or two in my camp that night at about one. Deer? Not a bear. I was too tired to be curious. Hardest two miles I've ever hiked.

Day Four. The trail up Murray Canyon is a long, steep grind, but I only lost the trail a few times before I got to the top. Lots of down trees. Lots of pine cones and other forest trash on the trail, plus the occasional grassy meadow. Not only is the trail "unmaintained" but it looks like no one has used it for years. I have seen no one. I have seen no footprints. I have seen no sign of a campsite. At the headwaters of Murray Creek there is a big, soggy meadow and no trail. Wander around. Check the map. Check your landmarks. I went cross country and eventually found a junction. One way goes to the PCT (the way you went). The other goes over a ridge and down into Wolf Creek Canyon. I took the latter. Huge panoramic vista from the ridge. Just breathtaking.

The trail down to Wolf Creek was steep and rocky and exposed. The geology is volcanic. But it was easy to follow. My plan was to cross the creek and head downstream to the junction with Bull Canyon. Should be easy. Wolf Creek was large and fast but only thigh high. No problem, but I had lost one of my water shoes while bushwacking through willows the previous day; so I used one water shoe and one sock. Not great, but better than bare feet. I had also by this time lost both the knobs from my poles. The trail down Wolf Creek was easy and well maintained. A pleasant mile. Then steeply down to Bull Creek, which was a raging torrent. It wasn't the volume but the velocity that got my attention. More like a waterfall than a creek. Probably only knee deep, but I considered what would happen if I slipped, namely death on the rocks below, maybe preceded by lengthy suffering, maybe not. I did a 180 and headed back the way I had come.

Then it was necessary to cross Wolf Creek again. Pants off. I headed up the creek, looking for the trail up Elder Creek to the PCT. Right away the trail crossed Wolf Creek again, only the creek had split in two, so there were two crossings with boots off. Then there was another where the creek was kind of braided, which I attempted with boots on. Do you know what happens when the water is higher thank your boots? At this point I was a little weary and discouraged, and the trail disappeared. Not a surprise. It wasn't much of a trail anyway. Check your map. Check your landmarks. Head north past the giant volcanic butte. Aha, there's the creek again. This would be my sixth boots-off ford of the day. It looked like this was a well-used crossing, but there was no trail after all. Then what? Keep bushwhacking and hoping. Elder Creek had to be to my right, and by and by it did appear. I will not be defeated! I made camp somewhere up Elder Creek.

Did I mention the heat? It was in the mid eighties when I set out three days ago. It felt hot every day and unusually humid, which is not to say humid but more humid than usual. I drank huge amounts of water (there was plenty of that) and almost never peed. This took its toll on my old body. I cant explain why, but my gut turned to jelly. I was not doing well this night. Maybe I shouldn't have been doing this.

Day Five. Several easy boots-on crossings of Elder Creek, and some soggy meadows near the top in which the trail could not be found. But who cares any more? Just keep going. After a wet mile or so I reached the PCT, just at Wolf Creek Pass, where I saw three young through-hikers taking a break. These were the first people I had seen in three full days. They said they had already cranked six miles, and it was just nine o'clock. I mentioned that I had cranked one mile, and they graciously congratulated me. I will not be hiking the PCT, and this day I will merely be crossing it on my way to Disaster Creek. A series of big, gorgeous meadows followed.
More cascades ©http://backpackthesierra.com


I soon ran into a couple of middle-aged trail bozos who were day-hiking from Highlands Lakes, which is apparently accessible to vehicles. They looked very clean. Said they were going to climb a mountain. They told me I was lost. I told them they were lost. They pulled out their map to prove their point. I mentioned that I had just come down from Wolf Creek Pass and that if they kept going that was where they would end up. Nope! Couldn't be. We parted on somewhat prickly terms. A couple of hours later I saw them bushwhacking down the wrong side of Disaster Creek. I suggested that they cross over to my side and take the trail, which they did. One guy conceded that I had been right. The other guy didn't want to talk. I noted that they were pretty wet and muddy. I also noted that it would be noon on a hot day before they got around to climbing their mountain.

Not much more to tell. It was a long but downhill slog down the Disaster Creek trail to the trailhead. Above the junction to Paradise Valley it's a crappy trail that gets lost in meadows, creeks, and tangles; but it stays to the left of the creek all the way, so you can't go too far wrong. Below the junction it's a grand highway, steep at the end but well built and easy to follow. I got back to the car by about two.
Disaster peak? ©http://backpackthesierra.com

Lots of water up there and more wildflowers than I had ever seen. Just knocks your socks off. Lots of glorious meadows, but where there are meadows there are no trails, not trails that you can find anyway. Amazingly, there were few mosquitos. Flies here and there, but not mosquitos. That was great. I saw no bears but saw lots and lots of bear poop, including one gleaming pile that seemed like it just came out of the bear. For me it's been rare to see bear poop anywhere in California, so this was unusual. Also lots of water. All the creeks were high, needless to say. There were some big patches of snow on the PCT, but nowhere else. Lots of thunder every afternoon but little rain. And the other remarkable thing was the fact that I saw no one for three full days. Not a footprint or any sign of a camp. Not a bent blade of grass. In fact, on the entire trip I saw no backpackers at all except for the folks on the PCT, which seems overpopulated. So if you like to be alone, Carson Iceberg Is the place for you. But you know that. Overall it was a tiring trip, mostly because of the heat, but it was also mentally exhausting. I could think of nothing but the trail and where I had to go next and all the other practicalities. Not a single deep thought in five days. I'm proud of myself for getting through it, and it was an adventure and kind of fun, but I sure didn't intend it to be that hard.
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