Sun, Jul 4, 2021
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Another day digging around for unnamed summits in Alpine County. This collection of three summits overlook the Highland Creek drainage in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. Chris Kerth had done a more ambitious outing that additionally took in Iceberg Peak and Airola Peak in 2015, repeated by Brad Dozier in 2018. This is really the more aesthetic (and athletic) outing, but I had done the two named summits back in 2012. I considered adding them on this outing, but the temps were too warm to make it fun, so I completed just the unnamed ones. I had stayed cool during the night by camping near Ebbetts Pass, driving down to Highland Lakes in the morning while eating breakfast. The campgrounds along the road were nearly packed on a holiday weekend, but mine was the only vehicle at the Highland Lakes TH when I arrived shortly before 6a, at dawn. I would stay nicely in the shade for the first hour, enjoying the chilly temperatures I knew would not last long.
I gotta say right off the bat, the Highland Lakes TH is not one of the better ones. It's found at the end of a five mile drive on well-maintained Highland Lakes Rd where the namesake lakes are found sitting on the divide between the Mokelumne and Stanislaus River drainages. The trail immediately goes downhill from the parking lot into the Highland Creek drainage, continuing for seven miles to Spicer Meadow Reservoir. There are no lakes and few meadows to break up the descent in the canyon, and the area is filled with the tinkling sounds of cowbells worn by the cattle that have free reign to the drainage. I had forgotten how badly the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness is trampled by these ungulates, probably the worst such-affected Wilderness in the state. Upon my return in the afternoon, a woman asked me about the trail, how long it was, and whether it was worthwhile. I told her it had no waterfalls, lakes, nor real end, and it was all uphill on the way back - better to find another trail in the area. She looked a little disappointed, but I think I saved her some anguish later.
Of course it isn't all bad, and since I'd never been on this trail before, it had novelty going for it. Starting at 5:50a, I spent the first hour descending the trail, having it all to myself, happy with the cool temps in the early morning hour hovering around 50F. My first stop would be Peak 8,050ft, a shy summit lying between Highland Creek to the east and Weiser Creek to the west. The summit can be seen occasionally from the trail, but you have to know when/where to look or it's easily missed. When I was within about 0.6mi of the summit to the northeast, I found some pink flagging that followed a cattle run that goes over the low saddle north of the peak. Presumeably, this allows the cattle to be driven into the Weiser Creek drainage - no good meadow should be left untrammeled. I followed this only a short distance before striking off cross-country more directly towards my summit. Off-trail travel is pretty easy on most of the terrain I encountered today. It took about 30min to reach the summit from the trail, finding open views around the two drainages the summit overlooks. Because it isn't very high, it's surrounded by higher summits and ridgelines on almost all sides. I found no register on this or the other summits, so left the first of three I would place today.
I descended the SE side of the peak, dropping back down to the trail again in about 15min. I followed the trail south for another mile, crossing Highland Creek to the east side and around the base of Peak 9,366ft's west side. I left the trail in the vicinity of Hiram Canyon, before the trail crosses back to the west side and reaches Hiram Meadow. I hiked up forested slopes on Peak 8,616ft's north side, bypassing the lower north summit on its east side. It was 9a when I pulled up to the wide, open summit with no easily discernable highpoint. Peak 8,616ft has a good view looking south to the Dardanelles where I had been only a few weeks earlier. Bull Run Peak, Henry Peak and Peep Sight Peak were visible on the horizon looking north. To the northeast and my next destination, rose Peak 9,366ft, some 750ft higher. Though I had only seen one head of cattle earlier, I had heard the cowbells through forest for much of the morning. Even now, sitting atop Peak 8,616ft, I could hear them down below at the head of Hiram Canyon, between these last two summits. As I headed southeast and east off Peak 8,616ft, the bells grew louder as I approached the saddle between the two summits. I guessed the small herd was somewhere just below the saddle, perhaps a few hundred feet through the forest. The sounds faded as I started up the SE Ridge of Peak 9,366ft. I had to be more selective of my route here as there was brush on the lower slopes to avoid, but higher up as I reached treeline, the groundcover was only shin-high and no real impediment. The final few hundred feet were up vegetation-challenged talus slopes, topping out just after 10a. This was the highest of the three summits, so it was no surprise that it had the best views, overlooking The Dardanelles and Spicer Meadow Reservoir to the southwest, and southeast into the Arnot Creek and Clark Fork drainages.
Sitting at the top for a break, I left my last register and pondered whether to continue northeast along the ridgeline. It looked like a lot of elevation gain for the next two summits that I'd already done, Iceberg and Airola. I guessed the elevation gain would be similar to that if I simply descended and then climbed back up the canyon to the trailhead, and in hindsight I probably should have just done it since it wouldn't have taken that much more effort, but the deciding factor was that skipping them would make most of the return all on trail. So I packed up and headed off the NW Ridge, dropping to the right into Champion Canyon as soon as I had descended past some initial cliffs. This was a mostly pleasant descent, steep boot-skiing in the upper reaches, open forest understory in the middle section. Around the 8,000-foot level, my nice forest gave way to the brushy creek banks that had me pause. I took a few minutes to find a suitably unbrushy place to cross the creek, then continued descending to the northwest on the north side of the creek. After completing more than 2,000ft of descent, I was back on the trail shortly after 11a, with another hour and a half of work needed to ply the four miles back up to the TH. I ran across several backpacking parties heading downstream, and one day hiker going my way. It was growing warmer, and with the sun overhead there was little shade to be had from the surrounding trees. I returned to the parking lot at 12:40p, where I met the woman I referred to earlier.
I tossed my gear in the Jeep and went looking for a place to shower. The last time I was at Highland Lakes I had it to myself, and showered in the small lot at the east end of the lakes. Today, the campgrounds were nearly full and people were busy in and around the lakes. I found a short spur road about a mile back down the main road where I showered, changed into some fresh clothes and got a snack and cold drink from the cooler. Back on SR4, I headed west, finding the going slow due to the many folks vacationing. Alpine Lake near Bear Valley was especially busy, with lots full and cars spilling out along the roadway, some of them partially in the road where the shoulder was thin. Temperatures ranged from 78F at Alpine Lake to nearly 100F in the Central Valley. I would get home around 5p, with enough daylight to enjoy the cooler temps nearer the coast at home...
This page last updated: Tue Jul 13 08:40:45 2021
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