Johnnys Hill P500
Guide Peak P750
Big Hill P750

Aug 29, 2018
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 GPXs: 1 2 3 4 Profiles: 1 2


I had camped in a lonely clearing in the north end of the Eldorado National Forest west of Lake Tahoe, miles from the nearest vehicle or person. I was up early to tackle (what I thought was) an easy peak to be followed by a few others that were more involved. I didn't quite make it to all the peaks I'd planned, but that wasn't all that important - I was just having fun driving the Jeep around on a bunch of forest roads and tagging what peaks I could manage. Though I had a full day, I only tagged three summits today and one of those was a paved drive-up.

Johnnys Hill

My camp was only half a mile from the summit, so I started from there when I got going sometime around 6:30a. With about 700ft of elevation gain, I found the initial going through forest fairly easy but soon bogged down when the trees began to disappear and were replaced with heavy brush. I don't know if there are easier ways up, but I can't really recommend either of the routes I went up and down on the west side. Had the distance to the summit been more like a mile I would surely have given up, but this seemed like I was "so close" that I persevered through some tough thickets, eventually emerging in easier terrain about 100ft below the summit. It took about 45min to reach the top, found on the west end of the large summit area. I found a simple duck sitting atop a modest-sized summit rock, no register, views looking out over a sea of forest on three sides and the more interesting view to the east washed out by the early morning sun. After returning to the Jeep, I drove south on a rough forest road, eventually reaching the pavement of Wentworth Springs Rd. I then drove to Loon Lake and found my way to the end of Ice House Rd on the north side of the lake. I was here to climb Guide Peak about three miles from the lake, but most folks come here for another reason. This is one of the starting points of the Rubicon Trail, a tough 4WD route between Loon Lake and Lake Tahoe that is not suitable for most stock vehicles. The easier start comes in further north from the end of paved Wentworth Springs Rd, but the Loon Lake start is more of a rock-crawler's delight. The first mile and a half from Loon Lake are only manageable by the stoutest of modified vehicles, piloted by skilled drivers and spotters. There were a couple of guys hanging out at their trucks below the dam when I drove by, giving me the odd stare as they watched me driving solo with my stock Wrangler past them to the start of the trail. I headed up some granite slabs marked as the route, then parked where I found some other vehicles parked near a helipad at the start of the Rubicon. They were ferrying loads of equipment in from the east (one load was a collection of four portable toilets) for the upcoming Labor Day event, "Cantina for the 'Con", an annual fundraiser for a non-profit that supports maintenance of the Rubicon Trail.

I parked the Jeep out of the way and headed out on foot just after 8:30a. The first part of the trail goes through a granite wonderland of polished slabs, boulders and such. Reflectors have been glued to the slabs to mark the route (helpful if one were to try negotiating it at night), though one could follow the darker streaks where oil has soaked into the granite. The size of the boulders encountered suggest 37" tires as a minimum and even that would have me nervous as hell. There was more than one spot where it was obvious someone had cracked an oil pan or differential case - this is the sort of testosterone-fueled, vehicle-destroying madness that some grown men find considerably rewarding and great fun. Though I have no interest in doing so myself, I have to admit it would have been entertaining to watch someone else negotiate these ramparts to hell itself. Sadly, the only other person I saw was pushing an electric bike on the return - no one was driving this part of the Rubicon today.

After that first mile and half, a junction is reached with a more reasonable (but still difficult) road coming in from the west at Wentworth Springs. This was the same road I had started on the previous evening but turned back. Maybe I could have driven this far, but without further research it would probably have been unwise. I hiked the road east to a bridge going over Ellis Creek where a restroom is found at a second junction. Here I left the Rubicon Trail to head north on a gated road that heads off towards Guide Peak. There are actually two gates within a few hundred yards of each other with signs of traffic past the second gate. It looks like I could have made things easier by driving in from the north around the south side of McKinstry Peak, saving me probably five miles of hiking. I'll leave it to some future peakbagger to explore that possibility. I followed the road until I was almost due west of the summit, maybe a third of a mile away, before starting up. Things looked brushy and I had put off leaving the road as long as I thought I might find something better around the next bend. Not finding the brush-free route I'd hoped for, I headed up, easier at first but soon devolving to a brush-fest. Portions of the steep slope were strewn with large boulders and I found myself gravitating towards these, difficult as they were to surmount, as a way to get out of the denser brush. Upon reaching the summit ridge, the going was all rock and little brush, a welcome break. It would take me about 45min from the road to the summit, slow but not unreasonable progress. I found nice views eastward to the Sierra Crest and south to Loon Lake. Devils Peak lies about a mile to the southeast and a bit lower, a bonus peak I'd hoped to do in conjunction with Guide Peak. Alas, the brush looked too much and the distance too far to keep my interest. I did find the descent off the southeast side to a saddle to be better than the ascent route. Still brushy, but not as bad. Once at the saddle, I was able to thread my way through mostly forest back down to the road with only a modest amount of additional brush. After reaching the road, it was a cinch to reverse my route back to the start, the whole outing taking just shy of 3.5 hours.

Big Hill

With almost 800ft of prominence and a paved road going to the summit, Big Hill is an easy bonus peak off Ice House Rd. There is a manned lookout on top, picnic benches and some telecom installations, decent views overlooking Union Reservoir, the Sierra Crest and the national forest.

Peak 9,420ft

After returning from Big Hill, I drove out to Wright Lake for an attempt on unnamed Peak 9,420ft, a high summit in the Crystal Range with 890ft of prominence. Trouble was, it was 1:30p before I got to the end of the pavement at Dark lake and the start of the Barrett Lake OHV Trail. I had hoped to be able to drive some of this road but it was evident from the start that this was another tough road not suitable for stock vehicles. I was 6.5mi from the summit and wondered if I should bother with such a late start. I did some quick mental math and figured it was doable, so headed off on the super-dusty road. The stuff would kick up with every step, soaking into my boots, my socks and coating my feet black before I would return. Nasty, nasty stuff. My heart wasn't really into the outing from the start and I kept second-guessing myself and the decision I'd made. Finally, after an hour of not really enjoying things at all, I turned around and decided what I really wanted to do was reach Mildred Ridge (a P1K I was denied the previous day due to closed roads). I knew there was an alternate way to reach Mildred from Interstate 80, so figured I could drive around through Lake Tahoe, get dinner there, and then tackle Mildred Ridge in the morning. Peak 9,420ft could wait for some future date, or maybe never. My attitude improved almost as soon as I had turned around. Even though I had more than three miles to return to the car, it seemed easier on the way out than it had been heading out. I would get back before 4p, shower, and enjoy the drive out to US50 and Lake Tahoe. Far better than returning to the trailhead by headlamp completely exhausted...

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