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We had originally planned to do a traverse from Rubicon to Phipps in the Desolation Wilderness, but Matthew wasn't feeling up to it this morning. So we elected for a very easy outing to Signal Peak off Interstate 80 near Cisco Grove that was on our way home from Reno where we'd spent the last two nights.
Finding the trailhead was easy enough, but finding a place to park was not. When you get off I-80 and cross the creek, there is a sign where one turns left indicating a Sno-Park. Now, we had a California Sno-Park pass with us, but this was not what the sign was referring to. Instead, they were advertising a private campground & snow play area where a parking fee is charged whether you use their facilities or not. The trailhead is found just outside the campground, and for a quarter mile along the road on both sides there are No Parking signs warning of dire consequences should one actually try to park there. We ended up back near I-80 and a community park called Gould Park where we were able to leave the car without fee or fear of law enforcement nastiness.
The route we followed is the shortest, along a Forest Service road and up the south side of the long SW Ridge whose highpoint is Signal Peak. The road was icy, making it somewhat dangerous and annoying at the same time. We had some small trouble finding the turnoff where our route leaves the main road in the canyon and starts up the steep hillside through forest. There seems to be at least a few logging access roads cut into the hillside, and partial snow coverage made it hard to find the primary route indicated on the 7.5' map. We found something marked by an orange ribbon that seemed to fit the bill.
About halfway up the snow changed from hardpack to post-holing due to a combination of higher elevation (less freeze-thaw cycles on the snow) and more exposure to the sun as the forest began to thin some. There was more snow on the road than on either side, making me question our choice to follow the road. As we'd left the snowshoes in the car, I grew frustrated with the postholing (it was only up to the calf, but it bugged me) and decided to head cross-country in a more direct manner uphill. Matthew followed me in this endeavor for a short while, but we soon ran into more bushwhacking than suited his taste. I figured a hard bushwhack was better than post-holing, so we ended up going separate ways. We never split up for long, nor did either of us prove to have the better idea. The road was faster as it turned out, but it zigzagged its way up the hill in such a fashion that I would meet up with Matthew again at every other turn in the road. Reaching the ridgecrest together we found the heaviest brush behind us, but now we had nearly continuous snow coverage. Fortunately the snow here was more wind-packed, so though we still had some postholing issues to contend with, they weren't nearly as bad as earlier.
It took about an hour and forty-five minutes to reach the abandoned stone lookout on the ridge. I understand it was used to look for avalanches on the railroad tracks before it went into misuse in the 1930's, probably around the time they built all the wooden avalanche sheds over the tracks. The lookout is a very small two room structure, with a wooden cot still in the back room. That must have been a lonely place to be posted in winter.
The summit was another 15 minutes away and by 10:45a we were standing there amongst the radio towers. The wind was blowing enough to have us cold and uncomfortable, but we found a sunny platform out of the wind to stop for a rest and snack. It was rather nice there in the sun and we lingered longer than usual. On our return we decided to follow the SW Ridge all the way down to its base. It was a slower way to get down, but offered better views and avoided most of the softer snow in the forest. Instead of snow, the lower half was mostly talus and boulders, the snow having long melted on this exposed line. The roundtrip time was just under 4hrs, which has to be one of the shortest days we'd had in a very long time.
An anonymous post I received on 9/28/2008 says the stone lookout was used to watch out for fires, as opposed to avalanches.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Signal Peak
This page last updated: Fri Oct 3 09:11:17 2008
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