Friday, August 26, 2016

Backpacking 2016: Connell's Cow Camp, Upper Fish Valley, Carson-Iceberg Wilderness

It is vital, from time to time, to step away from the computer screen, and to enter the real world. So we rounded up the usual suspects, packed up the necessary gear, and off we went.

The eastern Sierra are a lesser-known wonder.

If you simply drive along route 395, you'll see magnificent vistas, and wide open spaces, and there are lots of things to see, but you won't really have seen the eastern Sierra.

To do so, you have to get out of your car and walk.

So we drove up across Sonora Pass, and out to the remote town of Walker, California, and early the next morning we drove up Mill Canyon Road, then Golden Gate Road.

Just north of Walker, we took the turn for Mill Canyon Road, then almost immediately the turn for Golden Gate Road.

Golden Gate Road is a wide and well-graded dirt road for about 2 miles, at which point it turns abruptly up a narrow mountain canyon and becomes quite steep and exciting, ascending 2,500 feet of elevation in barely 4 miles. About half a mile up there is an interesting bit of gold rush history which we stopped to observe: Golden Gate Mine.

Up, up, up we went, until, at the top of the road, we found ourselves in a broad plateau, enlivened both by creeks and by mountains, varying in elevation roughly from 7,500 feet to 10,000 feet, which contains the headwaters of the East Fork of the Carson River.

Here, at the Corral Valley Trailhead, we readied our gear and set out on our adventure.

In a rather unusual occurrence for my group, this trip was to be a "circle route", in which we would be able to enter and exit at the same trailhead, but would (almost) not have to hike any section of the overall trail more than once.

Leaving the Corral Valley Trailhead, our entrance route on our first day took us consecutively through three small valleys:

  1. We ascended a short ridge, then dropped into the Corral Valley.
  2. Then we ascended a much steeper ridge out of Corral Valley and dropped into Coyote Valley.
  3. Then we ascended a third ridge and finally dropped into the Silver King Creek Valley, which actually in that area is better known as the Upper Fish Valley.

If you're a FitBit-kind of person, this was your basic 18,000 step, 125 stair hike, and at the end of it we were plenty tired and ready to make camp.

Happily, Upper Fish Valley is one of the truly beautiful locations in the world, and we found a superb campsite just slightly upstream from Llewellyn Falls.

Somewhat unusually for the Sierra, this region is mostly comprised of gentle streams and peaceful meadows, but very few of the classic glacially-carved bowls that you find elsewhere in the Sierra.

So, the next morning, we set out to explore the upper, which is to say the southern, reaches of Silver King Creek.

It turned out that this was rather a challenge.

For one thing, if you look at the official Forest Service map of the Carson Iceberg Wilderness, you will see a clearly-marked trail heading south out of Upper Fish Valley up the Silver King Creek drainage.

Well, that trail does not exist.

Moreover, as described by that trail map, the trail (if it were to exist), would need to make a crossing of Silver King Creek itself.

Crossing Silver King Creek is an ADVENTURE.

Even in late August, this creek flows fast and cold and at least 12 inches high, so this is not a creek crossing that you just casually take.

The trail markings throughout our hike were rather a challenge, but, all things considered, I'd rather have complete solitude, and poorly-marked trails, than the opposite.

By the way, my buddy Rich had an alternate map. I thought it was a Tom Harrison map, but it may have been this Trails Illustrated map instead. Either way, it showed a different collection of incorrect trail markings. I think that is the bargain you make when you go to a place where Nobody Else Goes, Ever.

So. Well. Back to the story.

After lots of wandering around Upper Fish Valley, we eventually found a relatively safe place to cross Silver King Creek, and we rewarded ourselves with a tasty lunch.

We found a fairly interesting place to have lunch, seated atop a rock outcropping in the middle of Upper Fish Valley, with a grand view. Interestingly, there were some pools of bubbling (cold) springs in this area. We at first thought we were seeing some sort of geo-thermal feature, like you might find at Bumpass Hell in Lassen National Park, but in fact these were some different sort of springs:

  1. For one thing, they were cold, not hot
  2. For another thing, there were little worm-y creatures living in the water
Given that, according to the unreliable trail maps, there was a place marked as "Soda Springs" down the canyon a ways, I guess that this was some sort of mineral springs, but not volcanic, and DEFINITELY it was not a hot springs.

Heh heh.

Anyway, we wandered around the canyon for a while, taking pictures of this and that, but there was a pretty threatening weather front at this point, so we made our way back to camp, where we sheltered from the rain, and talked, and eventually I fixed dinner, and that was that.

The cold front passed through, and the next day dawned Clear and Cold, and somehow we all awoke with lots of energy.

This time, we set off to the north, downstream, where we searched, again in vain, for the "clearly" marked trail to Tamarack Lake.

Well, we aren't the only ones who found this trail hard to find:

look up to the right and you'll see massive jagged granite rocks jutting out of the top of the mountain. This, unfortunately, is the only landmark available that will give you direction to the end goal of your journey, being Lake Tamarack. There is no trail. There are no signs. You just have to pick your lines and try and make your way up the steep, grueling mountain side using your best intuition.

Uhm, yeah.

This trail was roundly cursed, as, although we found it in the end, it climbs an unbelievable 1,500 feet in just 1 mile.

Still, once you get to Tamarack Lake, it is a beautiful place, and we were glad to have made it.

And pictures were taken.

Sadly, it was time to return to work, so the following morning we packed up camp, shouldered our (only slightly) lighter packs, and set out north along Silver King Creek.

There are many wonderful and remarkable things to do in this life.

But one of them must surely be to follow a gently-descending trail along a meandering creek bed as it flows from meadow to meadow down beautiful mountain canyons in the peaceful wilderness.

If there is a nicer trail than the Silver King Creek trail from Upper Fish Valley down to Lower Fish Valley and on through Long Valley, I don't know what it might be. In 40 years of backpacking in California, that was the most beautiful 3 miles of trail that I ever remember hiking. A pair of hawks wheeled and soared and called to each other above us; the creek burbled and flowed to our side, the leaves of the Aspen whispered in the mild breeze; a pair of deer tracks along the trail reminded us that this place does not belong to man, but to some deeper nature.

And then, after a bit of a slog back up a canyon hillside, we were back to the trail head, and it was time to head home.

A few other things worth noting:

  • This is the heartland of the Western Juniper. not everyone loves these trees, but boy, are they beautiful trees.
  • One of the reasons that we found ourselves so isolated is that we were in a very protected, safe place, as the government is trying to save the Paiute Cutthroat Trout: Paiute Cutthroat Trout: Restoration Project
    Paiute cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii seleniris) is one of the rarest forms of trout with a native range of a single stream, Silver King Creek. Paiute cutthroat trout are closely related to the Lahontan cutthroat trout, (Oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi), and are distinguished by their almost complete lack of body spotting and an iridescent purplish hue body coloration. It is the only western trout that consistently has no obvious spots on the body. Paiute cutthroat trout are protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and are among the first animals listed under the ESA.

    According to the government document referenced below, the first attempts to save the Paiute Cutthroat date back to the 1860s, when fish barriers were errected in Corral Valley!

    For what it's worth, I looked and looked and looked, but I never saw a trout. Then again, I almost never see fish in the creeks I visit.

  • This part of the Sierra has seen a variety of land use. Perhaps the simplest way to describe this is to note that the transition from multi-use land to California Wilderness Area, although it happened more than 30 years ago, was not trivial. The history of this transition can be read through various public documents:
    • Toiyabe National Forest (N.F.), Alpine Unit Land Management Plan (1977)
      The Fish Valley allotment is managed under a deferred grazing system. The portion north of Llewellyn Falls is grazed from 7/1 until 7/25 and rested from grazing the remainder of the season. The portion south of Llewellyn Falls is deferred until around 7/25, and grazed until 9/10, each year. The capacity of the forage is adequate for both livestock and deer. However, a significant portion of the capacity is in the meadows of Upper Fish, Lower Fish, and Long Valleys where the public recreation use occurs, and where cattle naturally congregate. Successful livestock management depends on the permittee's ability to keep cattle distributed over the allotment, limiting use of the valley bottom.
    • Toiyabe National Forest (N.F.), Land and Resource(s) Management Plan, Final Environmental Impact Statement, Volume 2 (1986)
      COMMENT: The respondent wants to limit stock numbers so wilderness values and ecological conditions are not degraded in Silver King Creek from Long Valley to Upper Fish Vally and to Coyote Valley and Corral Valley.
    • Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest (N.F.), Silver King Creek, Paiute Cutthroat Trout Restoration Project: Environmental Impact Statement (2010)
      Designation of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness Area in 1984 resulted in the prohibition of logging and other activities requiring vehicle access or motorized equipment. The grazing allotment has been at rest since 1994 and vegetation and habitat conditions have been improving. Stream width to depth ratios have continually decreased (channel narrowing) and mean stream depths have increased as a result of the lack of grazing.
  • Besides the logging, mining, cattle, and fishing uses, this area also saw significant sheep herding. One remnant of that activity is a fascinating Shepherd's Cairn just off the main trail. Here's a nice description of this "arrimutilak" and its purpose:
    Whispers from an ancient past show themselves again in the “stoneboys,” or “arrimutilak,” erected by Basque sheepherders. As if carrying on in the tradition of their ancestors, the Neolithic herders who left stone monuments in the Pyranees; the American-Basque sheepherder created rock piles for differing practical reasons. Often they served as direction makers to help the sheepherder navigate his way through his isolated environment. Erecting stoneboys also helped pass the time and allowed the creator to leave a humble, human monument to mark his own achievements and pay homage to the natural forces that first forged the rocks in this vast, pristine landscape.

Well, there you go. I'm back on my computer again, and the scent of the trail is quickly fading.

But may the memories last forever.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this post. I went here many years ago with my father on one of our many backpacking adventures and have thought of it ever since with such a sense of peace and isolation. I never quite knew where it was in the Carson Iceberg area, and now that my dad is gone couldn't ask him. Poring over the maps of Carson Iceberg, I recognized the names of Upper and Lower Fish Valleys. The wonderful photos you have on your blog tell me I was right. I'll be taking my daughter here in a few weeks. Thank you so much!