Lofty Alpine County, California
California’s highest county offers visitors panoramic views of rocky mountains, lush valleys, and tranquil lakes, as well as a plethora of trails that draw adventurers to follow.
The counties that span California’s southern Sierra Nevada mountains may have the highest peaks, but no county in the state has an average elevation higher than appropriately named Alpine County. Although four of its mountain passes are traversed by roads (two of which are closed in winter), Alpine is still made up mostly of forests, meadows, and rocky peaks. In fact, it’s a lot like when Kit Carson crossed the mountain pass that now bears her name on her way to California.
By taking California Highways 88 and 4, you can travel a loop through Alpine County that begins and ends in Stockton. Close to the county line, you will pass the popular Kirkwood ski area and reach the 8,500-foot Carson Pass. This pass is steeped in history. Kit Carson accompanied Captain John C. Fremont and his expedition through this pass to Sacramento as the group completed the first winter crossing of the Sierras in February 1844. Today, a monument to Fremont and Carson stands on the pass. , just like a replica. of a tree section on which Kit Carson engraved her name and the date.
Another monument here honors Norway-born John “Snowshoe” Thompson, who should be the patron saint of postal workers. Thompson was a tough postman who would ski (in those days skis were called snowshoes) over the Sierras, including Carson Pass, to pass mail. It never failed, even during snow storms, and although its load sometimes amounted to 100 pounds. He delivered mail from 1856 to 1876, twenty years of his life, for which the promised salary was never paid.
Carson Pass is heavily used by hikers and cross-country skiers in winter and for good reason. Two heavy-duty scenic trails, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail, pass through here. As they head south, both trails zigzag through granite outcrops and mountain hemlock for 1/2 mile before reaching Frog Lake. Be on the lookout for the broad, cheery flower heads of mule ears (a member of the sunflower family) around this lake early in the season. The trail continues through a mix of meadows and clumps of conifers, where Clark’s gray, black, and white nutcrackers dart from tree to tree. From a trail junction near Elephant’s Back, the Tahoe-Yosemite trail heads straight for Lake Winnemucca and then into the 150,000-acre Mokelumne Wilderness. The wild trail heads steeply into Summit City Canyon, passing a little gem called Fourth of July Lake on its way to the bottom. You will need a Forest Service permit to hike this trail.
The Pacific ridge heads to the left, skirting the base of the brownish volcanic deposits on the elephant’s back and down the eastern slope of the ridge. Much of the Sierran Ridge in Alpine County is granite covered by more recent volcanic deposits. Glaciers covered most of the landscape in the geological past, so lakes are generally found in granite basins. Many of the peaks are volcanic.
From the pass, Highway 88 drops steeply down the eastern slope overlooking Red Lake. The second turnoff on the right, Blue Lakes Road, leads to Hope Valley Campground and then Blue Lakes. The pavement soon turns to washboard dirt, and the road becomes narrow and winding in places. Somehow, good-sized coaches make it back here in area campsites and scattered undeveloped sites, despite road conditions. The lakes are in a mosaic of pine, poplar, and granite amid looming peaks of predominant volcanic deposits.
While following the narrow West Carson River Canyon, turn right onto Markleeville in the historic town of Woodfords. On your way there on the 89 and 4 Freeways, turn left onto Airport Road and drive one mile to the Curtz Lake Environmental Study Area. Three short, self-guided trails to moderately dense coniferous forest; open grasslands; and the lakeside provide an education on the geology and ecology of this area, as well as an enjoyable introduction to the natural history of Alpine County. Among other things, the trails introduce hikers to the vanilla-scented bark of the Jeffrey pine and the single-leaf stone pine, which is still sought after by local Washoe Indians for its large and tasty pine nuts.
From Markleeville, travelers can drive three miles to Grover Hot Springs State Park. This park not only offers pine-shaded campgrounds and hiking trails, but also a pool area where hikers and weary travelers can indulge in luxury in 102 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 40 degrees Celsius), mineral-rich water. , alternating with the invigorating plunge. in an unheated pool. Although their hours vary according to the season, the pool area is open all year. The heated pool is especially attractive after a winter day of cross-country skiing.
Less than a block before meeting the freeway on your way back to Markleeville, you can turn left onto Museum Street and go up a hill to a historic complex that overlooks the city. Operated by the Alpine County Historical Society, the complex consists of the city’s Old Webster School, which was in use from 1883 to 1929; Silver Mountain City’s 100-year old jail containing iron cells; and a museum full of artifacts. Among the museum’s exhibits are a pair of skis and a certificate of citizenship belonging to Snowshoe Thompson himself, as well as an enlargement of an old newspaper article about him.
At the Forest Service visitor center in town, travelers can learn about rafting opportunities on the East Fork of the Carson River. A take out point is located a short distance south of the city. If you don’t have a raft of your own, you can float with several private rafting companies. Sorensen’s Resort in Hope Valley can book rafting trips for you. Several companies offer raft trips on the Carson River; the easiest way to connect with one is to search for rafting on the East Fork Carson River in your web browser.
After Highway 89 heads toward Monitor Pass, you will pass the gates that keep the higher elevations on Highway 4 closed during the winter. The trail continues past the gates along the East Fork Carson River until it reaches the Centerville Historic Site. Near here, you can turn left onto Wolf Creek Road. After driving 3-1 / 2 miles, you will come to a fork. Take the road to the left of the fork and drive to the north end of Wolf Creek Meadows. Then after 2/3 of a mile you will come to a straight road that goes up to the head of the High Trail and East Carson River Trail, which is also called the Low Trail.
Shortly after reaching this point, this relatively uncrowded road takes on its highland character. In the words of a friend of mine, “It used to be a deer trail until they narrowed it down.” As such, large coach drivers will likely want to turn around at this point. However, the road can accommodate mini-RVs and Class A vehicles up to 25 feet long, assuming its drivers are up to the challenge.
The High Trail and East Carson River Trail lead to one of California’s designated wilderness areas, the 160,000-acre Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, and to the East Carson River Canyon, which is one of the longest and deepest canyons east of the ridge of They saw. The canyon has been carved out by glaciers up to 30 kilometers long.
As you continue on Highway 4 alongside Silver Creek, the road becomes very narrow. Small coaches going up the Silver Creek Valley will cross the bridge over Raymond Creek, and passengers will gasp at seeing Raymond Creek Falls upriver. Just after a hairpin bend ahead, two Toiyabe National Forest campgrounds stretch out on both sides of the road.
As the road winds its way up from the campgrounds past the poplars, it passes several primitive campsites. These are little more than dirt roads leading to rings of rock fire. In fact, much of this high country offers primitive sites for catching. Some favorite campgrounds are in this area of Silver Creek. Next to a small stream with poplars and willows around, the traveler can enjoy a wide view of the valley from the top of a bare hill. The sound of running water makes you sleepy at night. The frozen stream has carved smooth contours into the granite.
After passing the Kinney Reservoir and probably several fishermen, you will once again reach the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead, just before the 8,730-foot Ebbetts Pass. If you take the first trailhead you’ll head south, climb a ridge, and curve along a slope towards Nobel Lake, which you will reach after about 4 miles. Nobel Creek is well stocked with California’s state fish, golden trout. If you choose the second trailhead, you can go up to a lookout that includes the highway and Kinney Reservoir, then continue north past Ebbetts Peak and some small ponds and lakes towards Upper Kinney Lake. This stretch is less than two miles long.
Continuing west, you’ll cross the Pacific Grade Summit at 8,050 feet and negotiate more hairpin turns on your way to the main recreational attraction along the Stanislaus National Forest portion of Highway 4. At 7,320 feet, covered Alpine Lake Pine is 50 miles from the town of Angels Camp. Power boating is popular here and the Department of Fish and Game has stocked the lake with rainbow trout. Around the lake, the trails lead to two volcanic ridges: Osborne Point on the western side and Inspiration Point on the southeast. Four developed campgrounds offer camper sites. These facilities and picnic areas are typically open only from June 15 to October 15, because Highway 4 will not be plowed during the winter months from this point to the east.
The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail runs along the eastern end of the lake. To head south on this 186-mile hiking trail, you’d start at the eastern end of Silver Valley Campground. After you’ve hiked about a mile up and down the low ridge, you’ll come to a meadow at Duck Lake on the edge of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. Rock Lake, a shallow, swampy body of water that provides a warm bath, is farther if you are up to the 4-1 / 2-mile hike from Lake Alpine. The Mokelumne Wilderness is about four miles north of Alpine Lake on the trail.
Even though the Ebbetts Pass area is closed in the winter, another of California’s most popular ski resorts, Mount Reba Ski Area, gets under way at full throttle. Alpine County is truly a year-round, unspoiled recreation land. Even a mostly dry-read plan for county transportation got poetic about this place saying, “life here is a dedicated commitment to nature.” For those who are interested, it is also a dedicated participation with the story.
Alpine County Official Website: http://www.alpinecounty.com
Toiyabe National Forest website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/htnf/ then head to the Carson Ranger District, which covers the eastern and southern area of Lake Tahoe.