Trip Report: Carson-Iceberg Wilderness
Arnot Creek to Highland Lakes Loop
Day One: We got a late start on this one, and didn’t hit the trail until after ten a.m. From there it was an easy hour of hiking to get up to the junction with Woods Gulch, and that’s where our adventure began. We were now past the burn zone of the Donnell Fire, and it was a steep climb, but well worth it, with views across the canyons to waterfalls and towering volcanic peaks. This is one part of the Sierra where the granite is mainly layered over with a solid thousand feet of lava.
Of course, the only place we saw any mosquitoes all morning was where we stopped for lunch…in the high meadows above Woods Gulch.
But after that we climbed up through the notch to pass from Woods Gulch north into Jenkins Canyon. And here the steep trail became…still steep, but much less a trail. I can’t imagine that this trail has seen any maintenance in the last ten years. The tread was still intact in most places, but it was overgrown by whitethorn in many places, the meadows were a blank slate, and we lost count of the number of downed trees across the trail—in some places older downed trees were now underneath trees that had fallen more recently. And finding the trail through this maze really took some concentration at times.
The good news is that we made it down to Highland Creek and waded across in time to meet the only other backpackers we met on the entire trip. Mosquitoes were bad again at this crossing, so we decided to hike up Highland Creek a half-mile or so, where we found a campsite.
What we weren’t expected was the spectacular sculpture garden created by this creek flowing for millennia over bedrock granite. Swirls, loops, curves, and forms that would be the envy of an aspiring Henry Moore were everywhere. What a treat.
Day Two; We were determined to get an earlier start today, and were on the trail by 7:40. That was a good thing, because most of this day involved a climb up Highland Creek to Highland Lakes. It was five-plus miles of some of the worst maintained trail we have ever seen marked on a map. The good news is that we only got seriously lost/off trail once, when M decided to follow the more obvious tracks of cattle over the more delicate boot prints of her husband. But after maybe a quarter of a mile, she realized her mistake, and he realized she was nowhere to be seen. We reconnected with each other, and she with the trail, and we were off again.
Did we mention cattle? This is one area in the Sierra where cattle ranges are grandfathered in, so we did see cows, although they tended to run away frantically when they saw us. On the other hand, every cow wore a bell, so we were often serenaded like Tour de France riders as we hiked along. We also saw a charming cabin here.
We made it to Highland Lakes in time for lunch, but were surprised to learn that the campground had just opened a few days before…and the water system wasn’t working yet. Oh well. We knew how to get water. After passing both lakes and a few happy campers and not very happy fishermen, we then took the Wolf Creek trail to Gardner Meadow and beyond.
There are so many use trails and short cuts in this area that even though we know how to read a map and follow a trail, we could not find the junction that would send us down towards our trailhead at Arnot Creek, rather than up to the PCT and Wolf Creek. There seemed to be an endless stream of alternative trails. After innumerable consultations with the map, at least a mile of wandering down one trail to no avail, we finally just decided that the trail we wanted needed to be across that meadow over at the foot of Hiram Peak.
Which is where we found it. But we worry about less experienced hikers in this same predicament. We did finally start hiking down towards Arnot Creek, and wandered through both of the Gardner Meadows, which were stunning. This is High Sierra hiking at its best—once we knew where we were going.
We camped high in a gorge above Arnot Creek, and spent a quiet evening recovering from what for us was a long day—about 10 miles of hiking, some of it aimlessly, and a few thousand feet of climbing. Given that we had both been nursing various injuries and ailments, and this sometimes resembled cross-country hiking more than trail hiking, it felt like a victory.
The last day started again at a bit after 7:30, and we were down Arnot Canyon and back to the car by about 11. A really nice hike through this part of the trail.
Once we were at our car, though, there was a small snag, as the guys who were logging this fire damaged section of the Clark Fork had dropped a couple of trees across the road, trapping us.
While they sent someone to find the guy with the heavy loader to move the trees, I took a quick look around, drove through the forest for 75 feet, and emerged back on the road. I did wave to the guy in the heavy loader as I drove past.
All in all, a memorable trip. The lousy condition of the trail meant that it was a lot more work than it needed to be, but also that we met almost nobody on the trail. The damage from the Donnell Fire of a couple of years ago was massive. But once we headed up Woods Gulch, we were out of it. Coming down Arnot Canyon, we hit spots of fire damage for a mile or two above Woods Gulch. But there were also really lovely sections of the stream.
The photo log of the trip is here: