BearVault Review

Losing your food to a bear when miles away from the trailhead would certainly ruin your backpacking trip, but it could also put you or your group in danger if you lacked proper nutrition to continue your hike safely. Additionally, it’s vitally important to keep the bears wild. A bear that gets conditioned to human food becomes a nuisance, and they often have to be put down if relocation fails. When you’re out visiting the wilderness, it’s your responsibility not to lose your food. It’s such an important issue, that many wilderness areas now require backpackers to have a bear proof canister, and will not issue you an overnight permit if you don’t have one.

20 Lakes Basin
BearVaults make it easy when camping above timberline

Why use a BearVault?

There are a few bear proof canisters on the market, but I’ve been using BearVaults for five seasons now. The larger BV500 comes along with us most often, since it easily holds the whole family’s food for an entire weekend. The BV500 has a seven day capacity for a single person. With its four day capacity, I also use the smaller BV450 for solo trips, or when we need additional storage on longer outings or with larger groups. There are no special keys or tools needed to open the BearVaults, and being see-thru, it’s easy to find what you’re looking for without unloading the whole thing. The BearVaults have held up well to continued use, and are easy to clean at home with soap and water.

  • Protect the bears: Bears that get conditioned to human food often have to be put down
  • Losing your food to a bear would ruin your backpacking trip or could put you in danger
  • Required in many wilderness areas
  • Easier to use than hanging a bear bag
  • Don’t have to worry about hanging a bag when above timberline
  • Contents easy to locate thanks to see-thru plastic
  • Easy to use in the dark
  • Rainproof
  • Can be used as a chair with the lid fully closed
  • Excess capacity can be used for other kitchen supplies

BearVault vs Hanging a bear bag

It’s not always easy to hang a bear bag from a tree (especially at night), and many people end up doing it wrong anyhow. Many times when I’ve walked my BearVault out away from camp to set it on the ground, I’ll look up and see 50 feet of utility cord hanging out of reach from a nearby tree. Sometimes one end will have a stick or even a carabiner tied to it, remnants of  failed bear bag hanging attempts. Bears are smart and are excellent climbers. Even if these throws had been successful, the simple line over a tree limb may have been easily accessible to a bear. If you look up the proper way to hang a bear bag, it is actually quite involved, and may be out of most people’s skill level if not practiced. There are also situations when you’re above timberline with nothing tall enough to hang a bear bag from. With the bear proof canister, you simply walk the container a safe distance from camp and set it down. Anyone can do it, and it’s fairly fool proof. When placing your BearVault, keep in mind what would happen to it if a bear gets a hold of it. Don’t leave it right next to a cliff, steep hill, or body of water, or not even you may be able to get to it.

Easy open tip!

The BearVaults generally aren’t too difficult to open, but sometimes they are stubborn on cold mountain mornings when the strong polycarbonate plastic isn’t as pliable. Here’s a tip my friend showed me recently that makes opening a BearVault a snap!

First…line up the tabs, leaving a small gap.

Backpacking to Dardanelles Lake
Line up the tabs, leaving a small gap

Insert an old credit card or similar piece of plastic between the tabs and turn the lid. The tab on the lid is forced behind the stopper tab on the vault. Repeat with the second tab. No digging your thumbs and fingers into the hard plastic trying to get at your morning coffee!

Backpacking to Dardanelles LakeInsert the credit card between the tabs and turn the lid

Backpacking to Dardanelles Lake
And it’s unlocked!

More Information:

  • Weights: BV450 2 lbs 1 oz. BV500 2 lbs 9 oz.
  • More info on the manufacturer’s website: www.bearvault.com
  • Ready to purchase a BearVault now? Buy the BV500 or the BV450 online from REI and help support this website!

Climbing Mount Tallac

Sitting prominently on the southwest side of Lake Tahoe is Mount Tallac. According to a Tahoe Daily Tribune article, the mountain was once known as Crystal Peak. It was later changed to the present name during the 1877 Wheeler Survey, taking its name from the Washoe term “dala’ak” (sometimes spelled “tahlah-act”) or “great mountain”. For many years I’ve sat on the beaches below and gazed up at the mountain, always thinking that someday I really needed to climb it.

Climbing Mount Tallac
Mount Tallac Trailhead

Looking for an adventure closer to home, I decided to brave the summer crowds of Lake Tahoe and give Mount Tallac a go with my dad and my son. With all the backpacking we’ve done recently, the 3,307′ climb over five miles no longer seemed like such a daunting task. Especially with a lightweight day pack.

Climbing Mount Tallac
Getting started – Don’t forget your permit!

The trailhead is located approximately 3-1/2 miles north of South Lake Tahoe on Highway 89. Look for the Mount Tallac Trailhead sign directly across from the entrance to Baldwin Beach. Follow the signs, and park as near as you can to the trailhead. With our late start on a nice summer weekend day, we had to park nearly a half-mile from the trailhead! Before you start hiking, you must fill out a permit to enter Desolation Wilderness, and display it on one of your group member’s packs. Note that these self-serve permits are only good for day passes. Overnight permits are issued by the Forest Service. Most wilderness areas do not require a permit for day hiking, but as you’ll see soon into the hike, most trails are not nearly this busy.

Climbing Mount Tallac
Mount Tallac – The climb ahead of you

Tallac GE2
A look at the trail

The trail immediately begins a gradual climb up onto the moraine above the northwest side of Fallen Leaf Lake. In less than a mile, you’re up on top of the moraine with views of Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe. Hiking along the moraine is easy walking, and it gives you a firsthand look at how the glaciers carved this valley out and deposited the earth along the sides as they moved. At about the 1.3 mile mark, the trail leaves the edge of the moraine and climbs up steeper now to Floating Island Lake and into the Desolation Wilderness.

Climbing Mount Tallac
On the moraine

Climbing Mount Tallac
Entering the Wilderness

Floating Island Lake is interesting, and worth a stop to look. The lake is named for the large tufts of grass that break off the shoreline and float around the lake. We saw an island floating next to the shoreline, and decided to have a quick break while we checked it out. I’ve read that this place can be bad for mosquitoes, but we didn’t see any this whole trip. It looks like we’re officially past the mosquito season this year.

Climbing Mount Tallac
Floating Island Lake

Climbing Mount Tallac

About 2.5 miles in, the trail climbs up to Cathedral Lake. This little lake sits up at 7,638 feet in an amphitheater-like setting. It’s not extraordinary, but makes a good rest spot at about the halfway point of the climb. It also appears to be a destination for many hikers, as the lake was packed. Still fresh from our break at Floating Island Lake, we kept moving.

Climbing Mount Tallac
Cathedral Lake

Leaving Cathedral Lake, the trail becomes steeper. Many stairs and switchbacks take you up above the lake and then out into a big open bowl. With all the people hiking the trail, it’s easy to see the route ahead of you. The trail climbs the steep bowl to some relatively flat tableland above at 8,600 feet. Along the way there are fantastic views of the lakes below as you gain elevation quickly.

Climbing Mount Tallac
Leaving Cathedral Lake

Climbing Mount Tallac
Switchbacks above Cathedral Lake

Climbing Mount Tallac
Climbing up the bowl

Climbing Mount Tallac
Gaining elevation quickly with fantastic views

Climbing Mount Tallac
Arriving at the table

The trail reaches the table above the bowl near the 3.5 mile mark. Not only are there great views of Lake Tahoe behind you, but now you can see down into the Desolation Wilderness. Pyramid Peak is clearly visible, and you can see the edge of Lake Aloha.

Climbing Mount Tallac
View of Pyramid Peak

The trail now climbs up the backside of Mount Tallac. You can’t see the top while you’re hiking until near the end. There are a few false summits that make you think you’re almost there, only to see a further peak up the trail as you round the next bend. As you gain elevation, you can start to see more of the lakes in the Desolation Wilderness.

Climbing Mount Tallac
On the way to the Summit

Climbing Mount Tallac
Almost there

Finally the top is visible, and you’re certain it’s the top. Especially when you start to see all the people perched around the peak. We hadn’t seen the Lake Tahoe side for a while now, and I was enjoying the tranquility of the woods. Without warning, Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake were suddenly visible over the cliff side of Mount Tallac, the trail taking us right to the edge. I felt woozy for a second as my brain tried to adjust to what I was seeing. I kept my eyes on the trail for the time being, and didn’t look over again until I had climbed up further from the edge.

Climbing Mount Tallac
First view from the top

Climbing Mount Tallac
A section of trail with some exposure

Still climbing, we could now clearly see Gilmore Lake, Susie Lake, and Lake Aloha. And then we were at the top at 9,735 feet elevation after about 5 miles of hiking! As were dozens of other people. The very tip-top was covered with people, so we made our way to a nearby roost with views of Emerald Bay and Cascade Lake. The other side of Lake Tahoe was not visible in the smoky sky. In fact, we couldn’t see much further than Emerald Bay. It still didn’t change the fact that this was one awesome view.

Climbing Mount Tallac
View of Gilmore Lake, Susie Lake, and Lake Aloha

Climbing Mount Tallac
The Top! Looking down on Emerald Bay, Cascade Lake, and Baldwin Beach

Around 3:00 PM now, we decided to have a late lunch. Our eyes focused closer now, we started to realize that we were not alone. Several golden-mantled ground squirrels were scurrying around all the people seated for lunch, darting in and out for a free handout. With all the daily visitors to the peak, these guys must eat like kings. We had to shoo them away when they got too close.

Climbing Mount TallacGolden-mantled ground squirrel

Climbing Mount Tallac
That’s close enough!

Climbing Mount TallacAzure Lake and Middle Velma Lake

After taking in the scenery and feeling refreshed, we headed back down the mountain, retracing our steps the whole way. Looking down into the Desolation Wilderness, I saw all sorts of places I wanted to go see in the future. Typically, I don’t like to fool with too much red tape when going hiking, but it looks like I’m going to have to become familiar with the online permit reservation system through recreation.gov. There’s just too much to explore up here, even if you have to share it with a lot of people.

Climbing Mount Tallac
Headed back down

Climbing Mount TallacAcross the tableland

Climbing Mount Tallac
Trail through the talus

Climbing Mount TallacAlmost back to the rim of the bowl

Climbing Mount Tallac
Back at Cathedral Lake

Climbing Mount Tallac

Climbing Mount Tallac
The island had floated out further since the morning

Climbing Mount Tallac

By the time we got back to the trailhead, many of the cars from the morning were gone. We walked and walked down the road trying to find our vehicle. Just when I started to get concerned that it may have been stolen, we found it around the next bend. We actually got in an extra mile of hiking because of where we had to park. Next time we will get there earlier.

Climbing Mount Tallac
Almost back

I highly recommend this hike. It’s not the highest peak in the Tahoe Basin, but I thought the hike was interesting the whole way. At around 10 miles out and back, it’s not overly difficult. The other good thing about this hike is that there are several points along the way that could be considered a destination if you don’t have enough time or energy to climb all the way to the top. The lakes might be good for young kids, and the tableland above the bowl still offers fantastic views in all directions. Just be prepared for the crowds, and you won’t be disappointed.

More photos of this hike can be found on Flickr.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes

After a difficult three day hike in the Hoover Wilderness, we decided we needed an easier paced outing with more time for relaxing. We chose to do an overnighter in the John Muir Wilderness to Hilton Lakes. There are a string of about ten lakes along the Hilton Creek drainage, starting with Hilton Lake #1 (aka Davis Lake), and are progressively numbered as you go up the glacially carved canyon. We chose Hilton Lake #3 as our destination, a hike of under five miles from the trailhead.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Rock Creek Lakes Resort

Along our three hour drive from Carson City to the trailhead, we stopped at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center to pick up our wilderness permit. We got the last 4 walk-in spots for the day, a reminder that it’s always a good idea to have a backup hike in mind. Just south of Crowley Lake is a turnoff to Tom’s Place Resort and Rock Creek Road. At the time of this writing, there is major construction happening on Rock Creek Road. We were eager to start hiking, but had to wait for the follow-me-car to lead us up to the top. Eventually it was our turn, and we made the 9 mile drive up the canyon to the trailhead.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Hilton Lakes Trailhead

Located just before the trailhead parking is Rock Creek Lakes Resort, home to the Pie in the Sky Cafe. Not certain what time we’d be hiking out, we decided to get our fill of pie before the hike. We ate $30 in pie between the four of us, but it proved to be good energy food for the hike.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Leaving the trailhead and Rock Creek Lake

Just past the resort is the Hilton Lakes Trailhead and parking area. There is ample parking and a restroom at the trailhead. Make sure not to leave any food items in your vehicle, as this is apparently a high bear activity area due to all the people at the resort. With the nearby pack station, this is also a popular trail for horseback riders. The trail is wide and sandy most of the way for the horses, and their destination is typically the lower Hilton Lakes, #1 and #2. We saw signs of horses along the trail, but did not encounter any in two days.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Sandy trail

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Into the John Muir Wilderness

Although there is only a difference of about 465 feet between the trailhead and Hilton Lake #3, there is around 1,000 feet of climbing to get there along the trail. The trailhead is at 9,863 feet, climbs up to 10,037 in the first half mile, then begins to descend to 9,841 feet at mile 1.6. From there, the trail climbs steadily up to 10,380 ft at the 3.4 mile mark above Hilton Lakes. Then it’s back down to 10,105 feet at the trail junction at mile 4.0. The hike is finished with a steep climb of 223 feet up to 10,328 feet at Hilton Lake #3 at mile 4.3.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Trail is well signed and easy to follow

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Near the top before descending down to Hilton Lakes

Although this area is surrounded by tall jagged peaks, most of this hike is in the shady woods. It occasionally opens up for some big views, but you’ll be enjoying the forest for much of this hike. We appreciated the extra shade on this hot summer day.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Trail intersection

Right around the 4 mile mark is an intersection. To the right and downhill is Hilton Lake #1 (Davis Lake) and Hilton Lake #2. The other hikers we talked to on the way in were headed this direction. This seems to be the way the equestrians go as well, as the lakes are bigger and the trail maintains some width. To the left and uphill is the trail to the upper lakes. The lake only showed about 0.1 mile away on my GPS, but it was actually about .3 miles up the steep trail with all the switchbacks. Unfortunately we were no longer on pie-power, and had to put it in low gear to get up the final climb to Lake #3.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Final climb to lake #3

Just before reaching Lake #3, there is a good view of the lower two lakes as you approach the outlet stream. Just a few steps further you get your first sighting of Lake #3 and the towering granite peaks above it. After hiking in the woods most of the way, the view is quite striking, and the reason for making the long journey to this location is affirmed.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
View of Lakes #1 and #2

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
At the Hilton Lake #3 outlet

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Arriving at the lake

If you’re planning to stay the night at Lake #3, near the outlet is the best place. It has the best views of the lake, and has easy access to drinking water from the outlet stream. When we arrived, there were already a few tents in this area, so we continued to the northwest side of the lake. We found a nice campsite, but it was pretty high above the lake, and access to water from Hilton Creek to the west was somewhat difficult with the steep slope. In hindsight, we may have been better off looking for a campsite on the smaller east shore, but this is really nitpicking in such a beautiful place.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
View of the lake near camp

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Nice camping spots on the north side

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Hilton Creek

Hilton Creek flows to the west of the lake, but it bypasses Lake #3 on its way down the mountain. Lake #3 does not have an inlet stream, so it must be fed through water seeping through the ground above. I prefer stream water over lake water for drinking, so I found a safe approach down to Hilton Creek to the southwest of the lake. It wasn’t super easy to get to, but was closer than hiking back to the outlet stream from where we were camped.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
View of 12,394 ft Mount Huntington

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes

The next morning we debated about what to do before hiking out. Lakes #4 and #5 are close by, but the extra hiking didn’t sound appealing when we still had to hike out in the afternoon. We really hadn’t even had a chance to enjoy the lake we were at, so we decided to spend a leisurely morning at Lake #3. We found granite slabs to enjoy the sun on as we watched the trout swim by. For a long time, we tried to muster the courage to join them in the water. Finally, after several countdowns from my hiking companions, I took the plunge into the icy waters. There was no snow visible around the lake, but still the water was freezing and my swim lasted shorter than 30 seconds. The boys only got in a couple times, so I know it wasn’t just me.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Morning on the lake

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
COLD water!

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes

After a relaxing morning, we packed up and headed out. We stopped to filter water at the outlet for the hike back to the trailhead, and enjoyed the view a while longer before resuming the hike.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Filtering water at the outlet

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Davis Lake

We descended the steep switchbacks down to the intersection, and then climbed the other side up several steps. Once over the top, we descended again until we reached the edge of the moraine. Then it was a long gradual climb to get to the final descent back to the trailhead. While it’s not overly difficult, this isn’t a hike where you can enjoy an all downhill day on the hike out.

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes
Climbing out

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes

Backpacking to Hilton Lakes

We really enjoyed this trip, but to do it properly, an extra layover day to explore the upper lakes would’ve been better. With all the driving from Carson City, we felt a bit rushed for an overnighter. Still, to be able to spend the night in the John Muir Wilderness in the middle of a work week isn’t bad at all!

Hilton Lakes
The route

Hilton Lakes
The route

MORE INFORMATION

 

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon

Over the 4th of July weekend we had an invite to join some friends on a three day backpacking trip up to Thousand Island Lake. Having done the trip last year, I declined the offer and decided on what I thought would be a much easier paced trek in the Hoover Wilderness. I was familiar with the lower portions of both Molybdenite and Burt Canyons from previous outings, and they are easy enough. All that was left to chance were the upper canyons and the climbs over Hanging Valley Ridge. How hard could it be? When it was all said and done, accepting the invite to the other hike may have been the easier choice! But where’s the adventure if everything goes smoothly and as planned?

DAY 1

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Following a little used trail toward Rickey Cabin

Our route would take us up Molybdenite Canyon the first day, over Hanging Valley Ridge near the top of the canyon to Burt Canyon the second day, and then back to the vehicle the third day. Knowing we’d be happy to be done hiking by the end of the trip, we parked our vehicle at the Burt Canyon trailhead where we’d come out on the last day. Just past this trailhead is a little used trail to Rickey Cabin across the bottom of Hanging Valley Ridge to the east. The plan was to stay on this trail all the way eastward until we reached the Molybdenite Canyon trail, a distance of about a mile over easy terrain said the map.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Near Rickey Cabin

When we got to the top of the ridge, the trail fizzled out, and we found ourselves southwest of the cabin. No problem, we’d just continue east cross country. And that’s what we should have done, but there was a trail of sorts that was heading off to the southeast that looked like it might take us in the right direction. Had I looked at my big map instead of basing my decision on my GPS, I would have not followed this trail. Paper maps are much better for route planning. We continued on.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Me: “Look at the size of those claw marks!”  Kristy:”We need to get out of here.”

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Let’s see where this goes…

The trail we were following felt like it was going the right way, but my compass was telling me different. I even tried to veer to the east, but terrain kept forcing us south. As we approached the mountains of Hanging Valley Ridge, I realized we weren’t nearly as far east as I thought, and were still right above Burt Canyon. The only way to break our current direction of travel was to crash through the wall of aspens to the east and head uphill. It was hard to walk a straight line in the thick woods, so we checked our compass heading regularly and tried to keep from climbing higher than we needed to.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Navigating the thick aspens

We eventually broke through the aspens and into a more open spaced pine tree forest. The walking was much easier now, but we ended up having to head back to the northeast to keep from gaining too much elevation. A thunderstorm was headed in from the east when we finally got out into the open. We were all a bit nervous now, exposed as we hiked quickly through the brush to get over the ridge and down into Molybdenite Canyon. We felt relief getting to a small grove of trees near the ridge line. When we finally crested and were looking down into the canyon, the rumbling to the east had started to subside. Looking at our position, we weren’t too far from where I had planned to camp for the night. Even with the errant route, we had still made decent progress to the southeast. New energy filled us when we saw a nice trail on the valley floor, just a short bushwhack below us. We took a nice break when we reached the trail, then began our hike up the canyon in search of a good place to camp.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Not out of the woods yet

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Nearly over the top of Hanging Valley Ridge

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Finally on the Molybdenite Canyon Trail

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Making our way up Molybdenite Canyon

Less than a mile up the trail, we crossed the creek and came to a clearing near some pine trees. It looks like an area that has been used as a herding camp. We found a little spot in the trees the perfect size for our tent, and went about setting up camp and cooking dinner. I filtered water from the nearby Molybdenite Creek. It was cool, but not cold. The water was swift where I was at, but there are frequent beaver dams along the creek. For good measure, I hit it with the UV light (SteriPEN) just to be on the safe side. We joked about the challenging route we took that day, and I wondered how the hiking would’ve been had I stuck to my original plan. We hoped the next day would be easier, but we were headed into unexplored territory and didn’t know what to expect.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Camp #1

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
View down Molybdenite Canyon from Camp #1. We had Wi-Fi!

DAY 2

The next morning we awoke to the sound of some backpackers hiking out from McMillan Lake up the canyon, the first sign of people out on the trail since we started the day before. We were looking forward to hiking on an actual trail, and had hopes for an easy traverse of Hanging Valley Ridge at the top. The forecast for the day showed early thunderstorms, and it was already overcast. I was eager to get moving.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Continuing up Molybdenite Canyon

The first part of the hike was easy enough, a gentle grade up a well defined trail. Wildflowers were exploding everywhere. We passed the site of McMillan Cabin on the map, but it was too far up the hill to be part of today’s hike. Soon we were past where we had turned around on last year’s hike of Molybdenite Canyon and into new territory. This is also about the time the trail started to become more vague. We came to the intersection where the short trail to McMillan Lake begins, but the sign post was missing its sign.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Lots of wildflowers along the trail

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Not certain if these posts are trail markers or part of an old fence

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
The turnoff to McMillan Lake, minus the sign

We could now see the top of the canyon. It didn’t look too far off, but the trail was starting to go away, and the brush, bushes, and flowers were getting thick with all the water coming off the sides of the canyon. We had to carry the dogs through the worst of it to get through the mud and overgrown foliage. Sometimes we’d get some dry trail, but it was taking longer than expected to make our way up the canyon.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Top of the canyon in view

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Corn Lilies

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Finding our way through the willows

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
On “the trail”

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
A brief section of dry trail!

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Looking for the path of least resistance

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Kristy finding her way through the brush

Eventually we gave up on the trail, and just started trying to find routes around the mud and bushes to find the path of least resistance. The sky was also dark, so I was keeping an eye out for a safe place to retreat to if a thunderstorm broke out. We finally came to a spot that I thought was high enough up the canyon, and we started planning our crossing of Hanging Valley Ridge. There were two options: Go all the way up the canyon and cross over at a lower spot, or climb up to the ridge directly above us to save some distance. Eager to get out of the muck, we decided to start climbing from where we were at and get it over with. From what I could see on the map, and the actual landscape we could see from where we stood, it didn’t look too bad. Just steep.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Top of our canyon climb

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Looking up at the top of Molybdenite Canyon

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Starting the climb over Hanging Valley Ridge

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Climbing through the brush

The way forward was drier now, but the brush still took some navigating to get through. Kristy found a rocky drainage that proved to be the easiest way up. It also turned into a small creek that made a nice place to rest and refill our bottles. We still couldn’t see over the immediate rise, but we hoped to see our pass over the ridge soon.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Following the rocky drainage

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Break time at a cool water source

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Ugh, we still need to climb over that!

Climbing again, we finally crested over the hill and into a big bowl. Instead of an easy pass, there was still a big steep ridge ahead of us. My first thought is that it looked like a big tidal wave bearing down on us. As the trip and route planner, it’s always stressful when I see something unplanned like this. How will the rest of the group react? Other than a sarcastic, “Is this the flat spot you were talking about?”, everyone kept moving forward. At this point, though, what else can you do? We didn’t want to go back by any means.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Is this the flat spot you were talking about?

After getting across the bowl, we picked a spot to climb over the ridge. I looked up with much worry, hoping that this was indeed the top. Otherwise there may be a mutiny. The thunder began to rumble to the east. We were tired from the climb, but now we had a sense of urgency to get over the top and down to safety. Everyone was giving it all they had to get up the mountain.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Looking down from the top…almost there

I went up ahead to scout the route ahead (please be the top!) and make sure there was a safe route down the other side. Just past a snow bank, I reached the top at 10,935 feet. I was overwhelmingly relieved to see Burt Canyon on the other side. My son was nearing the top, but Kristy and the dogs were still a ways down. It started to rain and the thunder rumbled in the distance, so I took off my pack and went down to help her get to the top as quickly as possible. The sense of urgency now felt like an emergency.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Ponchos on! Let’s get off this mountain! 

Almost the very second we were all on top of the ridge it hit. CAAARRRAAACK! The thunder boomed directly above our heads. The wind picked up violently and it started hailing along with the rain. I struggled to get ponchos on the family, the wind fighting to rip them off and blow them off into space. I had to tuck them into straps to keep everyone dry. Scared dogs were carried under the ponchos. I didn’t even have time to mess with my rain gear at first, figuring being a little wet was much better than electrocution. As quickly as we could, we made our way down the other side to the safety of the trees. Kristy was taking photos and video of the scene, and I humorously wondered if she was recording evidence for the divorce lawyer. It was definitely not the position I had wanted to put my entire family in!

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Descending to Burt Canyon

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Flatiron Butte in the clouds

Once off the ridge, the rumbling stopped, but we still had a challenge before us. The valley floor was still 1,500 feet below, and it was steep and slippery all the way down. All of us fell on our butts a few times to the point of it being a laughing matter…in a hysterical sort of way. We all agreed we’d find the first flat spot and make it our camp if we ever got off this mountain.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Camp #2

Finally at the bottom, we scouted for a camp. Kristy found the perfect spot right next to the Little Walker River, an existing camping area with level ground, a fire ring, and a nice log to sit on. We immediately went to work cooking, setting up the tent, and getting into dry warm clothes. The sun came out as we ate dinner, and it was so peaceful that it was hard to really believe what we had just been through. I looked back up the mountain and it didn’t seem possible that we had just come over it. We made nine miles this day, and the terrain made the first day seem so easy. We went to bed early that night, and slept very well.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Little Walker River near camp

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
So peaceful compared to just a couple hours ago!

DAY 3

We took our time getting up on the third day. I don’t think my son even rolled out of bed until after 10:00. It was a sunny day, and this time we were fairly certain we’d have an easy day of hiking. It was all downhill, open meadows, and lots of trail. Once hiking, we first had to find a way across the Little Walker River. It’s small, but just big enough so that it’s a challenge to keep your boots dry. After that, we set out across the low brush in search of a fading trail.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Morning view of Flatiron Butte

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Even the dogs were taking their time waking up

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
All packed up

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Setting out across the low brush

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Looking back at the top of Burt Canyon

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Very large boulder in the middle of the meadow

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Beautiful meadows

Soon we were hiking across the meadows with outstanding views in front of and behind us. There’s a huge boulder right in the middle of the upper meadows, most likely deposited by a glacier long ago. It was times like this that made us forget the hard parts. After enjoying the scenery and a bit of exploring, we picked up the trail. It fades in and out this high in the canyon, but it’s pretty easy to find. We found what I think was the turn off to Anna Lake, but the sign that was there last year appears to be gone.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Back on the trail

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Mudslide/flooding

Partway down the canyon, we saw what looked to be the remains of a mudslide coming out of a side canyon off Hanging Valley Ridge. The river course had obviously been altered since we were up there a year ago. Beaver dams were washed out, and many ponds along with it. We stopped for water along the Little Walker for lunch, and got hydrated for the walk out. We wanted to sit at the water the rest of the day, but we could already see the storm clouds brewing. We headed on our way. Soon we were in the woods where we made camp last year near Piute Canyon, and we ran into a family headed up for some fishing. We were almost shocked to see other people.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Nearing Piute Canyon

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
In the woods near Piute Canyon

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Busted beaver dam and dry pond

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Lots of Indian Paintbrush

We were making a good pace down the canyon, already talking about where we’d eat that night. All-you-can-eat sushi was topping the list. Our legs were starting to get tired from the previous day’s efforts, and we were all feeling like we wanted to be done hiking. Through a narrow section of trail in the brush, Kristy caught her boot on something, and it sent her tumbling into the bushes. My son said, “Whoa! Mom just did a flip!”. Kristy tore her pant leg and banged her knee up pretty good in the process. I was thankful now for my bulky first aid kit, and went to work practicing my Wilderness First Aid training. We got her all bandaged up and back on the trail, but understandably, our pace was now slower.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
She’s OK!

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Crossing the Little Walker for the last time

Just a little past the scene of the tumble, we came to our last crossing of the Little Walker River. There was no way we’d cross without getting our boots wet, so we stopped to change into our sandals. Once on the other side, we took a snack break to get energy for the final push out. As we were sitting there, my son said, “I think I see a tick on mom’s pack.”. I told him not to touch it, because I wanted to verify the sighting. I made my way over there to see the tick, but when I got there, I couldn’t see anything. My son informed me that it had crawled up into the pack while he was waiting for me. There was some miscommunication here. I wanted to make sure he didn’t flick the bug off where I wouldn’t be able to identify it. He took it to mean not to interfere the natural course of things, so now we had a missing bug. I opened the pack up and made a thorough search, but could not find the bug. Nor was it on the ground in the immediate vicinity. Apparently what may have been a tick was gone. Or so we thought…

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Trail wash out

Kristy’s leg improved as we hiked, and the pace picked up. We came to a section of trail that had been totally obliterated by the flooding. Rock cairns marked the way through the mud, and we picked up the trail again on the other side. Soon we were down to the bottom of Burt Canyon, and the hiking was flat and easy. All of us were glad that we had parked where we did and didn’t have to hike any additional mileage to get to the trailhead. We were done.

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Through the aspens

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
And through the brush

Backpacking Molybdenite Canyon to Burt Canyon
Finishing up

Burt Canyon
The route

EPILOGUE

I would have to say this was the most challenging family backpacking trip we’ve ever done. Over the course of 22-23 miles, cross-country navigation, overgrown trails, bugs, injuries, and thunderstorms all made this a difficult hike. At the same time, though, it was ruggedly beautiful and we enjoyed the solitude, only seeing a few people over the three days. I don’t think we’ve ever seen more wildflowers.

One of the first things I did after arriving home was check the GPS data to examine our route over the top of Hanging Valley Ridge, the hardest part of the hike. Looking at Google Earth, I had originally planned to cross just a little higher up at the next pass. This section is 300 feet lower, but required more hiking to get to. Also, the descent to Burt Canyon didn’t look any easier than the route we took. Either way we would’ve gone would have been difficult, and I don’t know where we’d have been when the thunderstorm hit had we gone the other way. I suppose the only way to know for sure would be to go back and see for myself, although I’m fairly certain I’d be on my own for this excursion.

And what of the missing bug? A day after we had been home, Kristy came to me with her fingers in her hair. She felt something on her scalp, and asked me nervously, “Is this a tick?”. I was fully prepared to ease her mind, but when I looked, there was indeed a tick there. I didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t begin a complete panic, but ended up just being honest and said, “Yes it is.”. We got her seated and calmed down, and I worked the tick out of her hair very slowly with some tweezers. The tick was still small, and looked like it had just bitten her. Over the next day, we learned a lot more than we ever wanted to know about ticks. We identified it as a female dog tick, and felt pretty confident there was very little risk of Lyme disease. No further complications came out of it. On the bright side, we discovered some new bug repellents from Sawyer that we’ll be testing out on our next outing that should keep away the mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks…all of which made an appearance on this trip.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Backpacking Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon in the Hoover Wilderness offers visitors spectacular scenery as well as solitude.  Located in the Eastern Sierras, this trail follows the Little Walker River through a variety of distinct ecosystems, including desert sagebrush, aspen groves, pine forests, grassy meadows, and tops out at a desolate alpine lake. We did this hike over three days to keep the daily mileage down and allow extra time for exploration.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Trailhead parking at the end of the road

DAY 1

To get to this trailhead, turn onto the Little Walker River dirt road less than a mile south of the 395 / 108 intersection (Sonora Pass cutoff). This well graded dirt road heads south up into the mountains above the Little Walker River, and eventually comes to an intersection where one can turn into the Obsidian Campground (also the start of the Molybdenite Canyon hike). Just past the campground turnoff and around the corner, a road climbs up and to the south. If you have a high clearance vehicle you can follow this road up about a mile to the end and park at the gate. There is room for just half a dozen cars. If you don’t think your vehicle will make it up the hill, there is parking available at the bottom on the other side of the road that will even accommodate horse trailers. Continuing past this parking area and across the bridge will eventually lead you to the trailhead for Emma Lake and Mount Emma, another recommended hike in the area.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
The hike begins

Once we were packed up and ready to hike, we walked around the gate and into the mouth of Burt Canyon. The dirt road passes a few private cabins as it gently makes its way up the canyon through the sagebrush. Seldom do you get such a nice warm-up on a hike into the Sierras! As the family hike planner, rarely do I get to say, “See! I told you it wasn’t going to be very hard!”.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Easy hiking

After some easy hiking, the road ends at a gate. Since this trail doesn’t see heavy traffic, it’s almost hard to see the singletrack leading off into the woods. From here the scenery alternates between pine forest, aspen grove, and stretches of sagebrush as the gentle climb continues with plenty opportunities to rest in the shade.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Singletrack begins – Keep Left

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
One of the many aspen groves

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Break Time

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Deeper into the canyon

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

As we gained altitude we started to encounter the wildflowers. One of the predominant flowers on our hike was the Indian Paintbrush, more than I have ever seen in one location. They were growing everywhere among the brush.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Gaining altitude – Indian Paintbrush

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
I’ve never seen so many Indian Paintbrush!

Up until this point, we had been on the east and south of the Little Walker River. The canyon is big, and the gradual change in direction is barely perceptible as it curves to the west around Mount Emma. Using a map, compass, and the direction of the canyon, it was pretty easy to track our progress. Eventually we came to where the trail crosses the Little Walker River. The river was still flowing pretty good in July, even after a light winter. It would’ve been easy enough to wade across, but we attempted to cross on the stepping stones instead to save some time. I ended up being the only one who slipped off and got a foot wet. I imagine this crossing can be more challenging in early spring and after a big winter!

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Preparing to cross the creek

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Not a super easy crossing if you’re trying to stay dry

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
East-west section of Burt Canyon – Piute Canyon off in the distance

Once across the river, we were heading almost west with the smaller Piute Canyon joining Burt Canyon up ahead in the distance. The trail is steeper through here when compared to the beginning of the hike, but still quite pleasant. We planned to find somewhere to camp up around the next bend.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Scouting for a campsite

After crossing the small creek flowing out of Piute Canyon, we began scouting for a campsite. Just past some wet meadows, we found a nice spot in the trees next the river. Even up this high, the river had a good flow and was a great supply of pristine water. It would’ve been a perfect camp spot if not for the bugs. The mosquitoes weren’t too bad on their own, but there were biting flies as well. It was a good opportunity to try out our new head nets! I think we must have timed our visit perfect for the bugs. A few weeks later, and I don’t think we would’ve had a problem.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Camp

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Enjoying our mountain home

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Little Walker River by camp

DAY 2

The plan for the second day was to do a day hike up to Anna Lake and back. After breakfast, we packed up a few items in our small packs, and headed south up the trail from camp. We soon came out of our wooded area into an open meadow along the Little Walker River. We could now see the end of the canyon with great views of Flatiron Butte, a big rock formation apparently named for it wedge-like appearance.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
A buggy breakfast

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Morning on the Little Walker

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Flatiron Butte at the end of the canyon

Along the way, we found what would’ve probably been a better campsite overlooking the river and canyon below. It still had shelter in the trees, but was a little more open, and probably would be less buggy. We’ll know better for next time!

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
We will camp here next time

Eventually we came to the turnoff for Anna Lake, marked by a weathered old sign that was laying on its side when we got to it. We did our best to prop it back up before pressing on. The trail this far had been obviously lightly used, but the trail up to Anna Lake even less so. Although easy to follow overall, there were times when we had to scout around to see where the trail went. It also gets pretty steep at times, and I was glad we weren’t carrying our heavy packs up the hill. To help take your mind off the steep climb, there are lots of wild flowers, cascading streams, and high elevation views.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
A weathered sign marks the turnoff to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Creek Crossing on the way to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Overgrown but pretty trail

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Good views of Flatiron Butte and Hanna Mountain

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Nearing Anna Lake

As we neared the top of the climb, dark clouds began to build. We were so close, and I could feel the disappointment welling inside of me at the thought of having to turn around. We kept going, though, and the weather held. The overcast conditions definitely cooled it off, so when we finally arrived at Anna Lake, nobody was ready to jump into the icy snow-fed water.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Arriving at Anna Lake

Anna Lake is small, but quite beautiful. The trees and bushes are stunted at 10,500 feet, and the peaks above the lake are rocky and barren. Snow was still melting into the crystal clear water. We picked a spot near the outlet for lunch and enjoyed the scenery. Later we explored the shoreline to the north, and even found a little campsite hidden in the trees. It was only big enough for a one or two person tent, but it would provide a camper some much needed cover.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Nobody wanted to swim

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Lots of good lunch spots

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Hidden campsite just big enough for 1 or 2 people

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
North end of the lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
The outlet

It was time to descend back the way we came. We made much better time with gravity on our side! I took the time to photograph a lot of flowers on the way down. Once back on the Burt Canyon trail, it was easy hiking back to camp, where upon arrival, the dinner festivities immediately commenced.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Flowers along the descent

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Mules Ear

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna LakeResting along the descent

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Descending steep terrain

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Mariposa Lily

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Not far from camp

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Home Sweet Home

Burt Canyon to Anna LakeHappy Camper

DAY 3

We awoke on the 3rd day ready to pack up and get hiking. Although it’s a little sad to leave the wilderness, it always seems like people keep a brisk pace when they know they are headed out. On this day it was probably the thought of getting away from the bugs. A hot shower. And definitely a cheeseburger and a milkshake at Walker Burger near the end of the trail.

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Headed out

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Someone is tired

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna LakeBeaver Dam

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Back across the river

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake

Burt Canyon to Anna Lake
Back to Walker Burger and Civilization

Had it not been for the bugs, this backpacking trip may have been almost perfect. We really enjoyed the diversity of the ecosystems we passed through and all the wildflowers along the way. We encountered very few people on the trail, and felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. With exception of the climb to Anna Lake, the grade is fairly gentle and great for family hiking. For a future hike, I’d like to bypass Anna Lake and make a 3 day loop out of Burt Canyon and Molybdenite Canyon (connecting the two canyons by climbing over the ridge at the top).

More Resources:

  • Permits: Another thing that made this trip easy for us is that we got our wilderness permit right in Carson City at the U.S. Forestry building on South Carson Street, since this area is in the Toiyabe-Humboldt National Forest.  I was able to conveniently acquire the permit earlier in the week, saving us time to drive straight to the trailhead. There were no permits available at the trailhead at hike time (no self-serve station).
  • Recommended map: Hoover Wilderness from Tom Harrison
  • Recommended Guide Book: Exploring Eastern Sierra Canyons – Sonora Pass to Pine Creek
  • Approximate Mileage: 13.5 miles from the trailhead (gate) to Anna Lake and back.
  • Elevation: 7,800 feet at the trailhead, 10,500 at Anna Lake
  • The full photo set of this trip can be found on Flickr HERE.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake

Looking back on my outings of 2014, backpacking into the Ansel Adams Wilderness topped the list for the most amazing scenery of the year. The wilderness is named in honor of Ansel Adams, well-known environmentalist and nature photographer who is famous for his black and white landscape photographs of the Sierra Nevada. This wilderness includes the ruggedly beautiful Ritter Range with mountains reaching 13,157 feet high. It covers 231,533 acres, and is located in between Yosemite National Park and the John Muir Wilderness. Due to it’s beauty and developed access points, this area is highly visited. The area includes approximately 350 miles of trails, including portions of the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. For people looking to avoid the crowds, starting your hike at Silver Lake is a good option. Not only is the Silver Lake trailhead easy to reach compared to Yosemite or Mammoth, this loop allows access to Thousand Island Lake via lesser used trails. We did this 21 mile loop over 3 days, and the only trail we hiked twice was the first 2 mile segment from Silver Lake to Agnew Lake.

DAY 1

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Trailhead Map

Before arriving at the trailhead, we stopped at the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center just north of Lee Vining to pick up the wilderness permits that are required for an overnight stay in this area. It’s a fun place with a lot to look at, so you have to remind yourself to keep your visit short so you can get to hiking. There is usually a good supply of books and maps here.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Trailhead RV Park

To get the trailhead, we drove south out of Lee Vining to the June Lakes cutoff. We followed the June Lakes loop to Silver Lake and parked at the Rush Creek Trailhead, located at 7,250 feet elevation. Even though the parking area accommodates several cars, we got one of the last parking spots. Agnew Lake at 8,500 feet elevation is just two miles up the trail, and is a popular destination for fisherman and other day hikers leaving from the resort/recreation area near the trailhead. We got our packs on and hit the trail, heading south above the RV Park and road below. Soon we entered the Ansel Adams Wilderness, leaving civilization behind.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
The mileage

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Entering the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Before arriving at Agnew Lake, we came to the tramway near Rush Creek. At first glance, the old tracks look like a relic from the past. I’ve read numerous trip reports of this area, and a few have chosen to climb the tracks as a stairway shortcut to Agnew Lake. It certainly does look tempting, but don’t do it. We kept on the trail as the signs advised, and we had only made it to the next switchback when a small cable car full of personnel was being lowered down the tracks! Had we climbed the tracks, it may not have ended well. Watching the guys get lowered down that cliff did not make me envy their job at all.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Cable Tramway Crossing

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Cable Car. Yikes!

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Leaving the June Lakes Loop below

Two miles into the hike we arrived at Agnew Lake, where the tramway ends at the dam. There are a series of dams and lakes along Rush Creek: Agnew Lake, Gem Lake, and Waugh Lake. It’s all part of a system originally constructed between 1916 and 1925 to enlarge these natural lakes, and use the runoff to generate electricity at the power plant at Silver Lake below. Rush Creek is also noteworthy as the largest stream in the Mono Basin, carrying 41% of the total runoff along its 27 mile stretch. There was a construction project in progress at the dam when we arrived, the tramway being used to transport personnel, equipment, and tools to the work site.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Climbing along Agnew Lake, Gem Lake Dam visible above

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Sharing the trail

West of Agnew Lake, the Gem Lake dam is visible high above. Agnew Lake is fairly small, so the trail must climb steeply to get to the nearby Gem Lake. The Rush Creek trail climbs some very rugged terrain along its route into the backcountry. There’s always climbing and descending to do as you make your way around the rocky shorelines. There are very few sections where you can just stroll along easily. Keep this in mind when planning your mileage for the day.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
We’d have to come down this in 2 days

On our way up to Gem Lake, we were treated to great views of Agnew Lake below. We could also see the trail we’d be returning on across the lake to the south. The trail to Clark Lakes climbs up the steep talus mountainside of Carson Peak, then disappears from view where the drainage narrows. It looked a bit scary from our vantage point, and I wondered how it was going to go when we’d reach that side in a couple days.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Looking back down on Agnew Lake

Before reaching Gem Lake we met horses coming down the trail. We climbed to the downhill side to let the guide, a mule, and a family on horseback pass us. The family didn’t appear to be very experienced riders, and were relying on the guide and well behaved horses to keep everything in check. Up on that cliff, it didn’t look at all fun to me. I heard the slide of the metal horseshoes on the granite, and tried to imagine myself high up on the saddle on all those exposed switchbacks. The very thought made me woozy, and I was glad to have my own two feet on the ground.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Arriving at Gem Lake

I thought the scenery has been incredible so far, but when we reached the much larger Gem Lake at 9,058 feet elevation, the views were taken up to the next level. Not confined between steep mountains anymore, we could see deep into the wilderness and see the jagged peaks of the Ritter Range we’d reach the next day. We followed the trail around Gem Lake’s rugged north side, and headed to the far west side to look for possible places to camp. Along the way we met a family that was on their way out. They said the previous night was pretty rough, with thunder and wind-driven precipitation. They seemed pretty rattled and exhausted from lack of sleep, and were looking forward to getting out of the mountains. As luck would have it, the weather was clearing, and we were probably looking at a peaceful night.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Intersection at Rush Creek

Once on the west side of the lake, we found a great campsite near the inlet of Crest Creek (and turnoff to Alger Lakes). It was already occupied though, so we kept going towards Waugh Lake. The trail goes over a hill, and then descends back to Rush Creek. Here the trail is wide and flat, almost like it is in a community park. Along the creek we passed what looked to be a commercial camp area with dozens of the same blue tents. There didn’t seem to be anyone around though. We didn’t encounter a lot of people on the trail after Agnew Lake, but it seemed that every good camping spot along the trail had somebody in it. It was a big contrast to all our other hikes in 2014 where we had almost complete solitude.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
A very brief section of flat trail along Rush Creek

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Climbing again

The easy hiking was short lived, and then we were climbing again through a field of large granite boulders. The trail looks so natural that it’s easy to forget the trail building marvel that it is. Without the hard work of the trail builders, this route would a long, hard, and possibly dangerous scramble through the rocks and boulders.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Trail through granite boulders

After climbing up through rocks, the terrain levels out along Rush Creek. Again we could see tents in the good camping spots as we walked along. Once I explored an area a ways off the trail some, and found what looked to be a good spot. I was just about to report my findings to my Dad, when I looked up and saw another camp directly in view of the site I had selected. A little frustrated, we continued up the trail a bit more and found a large flat spot in the trees signed, “Designated Stock Camp”. It was empty, had access to Rush Creek, and had some good spots off the trail. Sold!

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
A flat spot to camp

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Camp along Rush Creek

Since this trip was later in the season and the bugs weren’t a problem, I decided to bring only part of my 3 man tent. My tent has the option to set it up with just the rain fly, poles, and footprint, bringing the weight down to 3.4 lbs. This saved on room and a couple pounds of weight in my pack, which was much appreciated on this trip. Luckily there were no bugs to speak of, and this arrangement gave us the full protection feel of a tent, with the open space feeling of a tarp. Placing our backpacks at the head of the tent further helped block the wind for a good nights sleep.

DAY 2

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Morning on Rush Creek

We awoke to a sunny morning on Rush Creek. Far off to the west, though, some serious clouds were building above the jagged peaks. It caused me enough worry that I deferred taking down the tent until after breakfast. After some time, though, the clouds had not proceeded further east and were drifting north along the ridge line. My hope for a sunny day and good photos at Island Pass was restored.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Dam at Waugh Lake

After breaking camp and on the trail we almost immediately came to the dam at Waugh Lake at 9,442 feet elevation. I knew we were close, but didn’t realize it was just around the corner. The breeze hit us as soon as we were lakeside, and I was glad we had camped where we did in the shelter of the rocks and trees. Had we continued on the day before, there were a couple good campsites along the north shore, though. I was also pleased to see the lake nice and full. The Google satellite imagery that I looked at before the hike showed the lake almost completely drained for dam maintenance.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Hiking along Waugh Lake

The hike around Waugh Lake was a good way to start the day. It wasn’t as steep and rugged as the terrain the day before, and was a good way to warm up. Now that we were out in the open again, there was great scenery in all directions. Waugh Lake, granite domes, jagged peaks, and the occasional creek crossing.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Creek Crossing

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Jagged Peaks

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Rush Creek

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Crossing Rush Creek

We eventually came to an intersection where we joined the Pacific Crest Trail / John Muir Trail (PCT/JMT). We’d be hiking a section of this trail to the south over Island Pass and down to Thousand Island Lakes. We actually saw the people on the trail before the trail itself. This is a busy trail for being so far in the backcountry. We talked to quite a few hikers along the way, hikers from all around the world, and everyone wanted to know where we started and where we were headed. I always enjoy talking to people, but after a while I got concerned that we weren’t making good time with all the stopping and chatting. One lady told me she liked this area, because it wasn’t crowded like Yosemite. She seemed surprised when I told her I’d seen more people out on the trail today than I had seen on all my other hiking trips that year combined!

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Climbing to Island Pass

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Looking north to Donahue Pass

The scenery up to this point had just been fantastic, but when we reached Island Pass, I wasn’t fully prepared for what we saw. It was jaw dropping. We were already at 10,205 feet, but the massive 12,936 ft Banner Peak and chain of mountains behind it towered above us. And with the tiny alpine lakes in the foreground, you just couldn’t ask for a better scene. May Dad said he would stay the rest of the season right there if I airlifted supplies in for him.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Arriving at Island Pass – 12,936 ft Banner Peak

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Happy to be there

After spending some time at Island Pass taking in the view, we headed down the south side of the pass towards Thousand Island Lake. It wasn’t long before the lake was visible in the basin below Banner Peak. It’s quite large for an alpine lake, and amazing to see with all its islands. We had planned to camp at Thousand Island Lake this day, so I was eager to get down to the lake for some exploring. As we got closer to the lake, though, we could see a lot of tents dotting the shoreline. And once we were down to the lake we saw a lot of people coming in from Reds Meadow from the south, including day-hikers, backpackers, and photographer groups being dropped off by horses. It was so busy that you probably couldn’t have camped anywhere on the lake and not been able to see several other people due to the few trees at this elevation. Because of privacy issues and not wanting to pile on additional environmental strain to this already overused location, we made the decision to find somewhere else to camp off the JMT. As much as I had wanted to spend more time at this beautiful place, we’d have to cut the visit down to a lunch hour and press on.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Thousand Island Lake

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Lunch break out of the wind

We found a good break spot along the shore where the trail meets the lake at 9,883 ft elevation. It was pretty breezy, so we ducked in behind some bushes to eat lunch and plan our new destination. It was still early in the day, and we had a lot of energy left. Clark Lakes were on our route, and they are off the main trail of the PCT. We hoped we’d have more solitude and shelter from the wind when we got up there.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Leaving Thousand Island Lake

It was hard to leave Thousand Island Lake, but it was definitely the right choice. I also knew that I’d appreciate the extra miles and elevation I was about to hike when I woke up the next day to hike out. As we continued south on the PCT along the head waters of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, we continued to meet more hikers and horses on the trail. Many were planning to spend several days up at Thousand Island Lake. In the interest of time I tried to keep my greetings to a smile, but many people wanted to stop and talk. I was getting worried, because I knew my extra energy wasn’t going to last forever. Especially since the trail was now descending down into the canyon, and we had to eventually gain all that elevation back. Finally we reached the turnoff to Clark Lakes, and got off the main trail. It was a relief to get back to solitude again.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Pack train returning to Reds Meadow

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Looking towards Mammoth

As we climbed towards Clark Lakes, we got some great views towards Mammoth Mountain and the San Joaquin River canyon to the south. My legs were getting a bit tired, so I was thankful when we hiked over a rise to find the first of several Clark Lakes at around 9,800 ft elevation.  We passed the first lake by, and found a nice spot to camp near the second lake. The lake level was low, and it appeared there wasn’t much water flowing in or out of the lakes this time of year. Little macroscopic lifeforms swam about the lake, so I was happy to have a water filter with me, and not just merely purification tablets. After getting camp setup and dinner started, I realized just how tired I was. Instant hot apple cider and freeze-dried beef stroganoff were on the menu, and they were absolutely delicious. It might as well have been a five star restaurant sitting there in the dirt eating food out of a bag. After dinner I was ready to turn in for the night. Looking at the time, though, it wasn’t even 7:00 PM yet! I tried to read the book I had lugged along, but that just made me even more tired. And soon I was out…

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Arriving at Lower Clark Lakes

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Camp at Clark Lakes

DAY 3

The next morning we were awakened early by my Dad’s dog. He’d been quiet up until this time, but now he was growling at something off in the distance. My Dad told me to look off in the direction of our bear vaults. With still blurry eyes and no glasses I squinted across the meadow and saw an animal standing and watching us. Out of the three possibilities it could be, I was really hoping it wasn’t a wolf or mountain lion. After focusing on it with the zoomed-in camera and waking up a little, I was relieved to see it, and the other pack member that showed up, were just coyotes. They scared away easily, but I was definitely awake now. We dubbed my Dad’s dog, “Cowboy the Brave” for his heroics and protecting us in camp.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Early morning visitor

Eager to get on the trail, we broke camp and had breakfast. On the plus side of being woken up early, we got some great photos of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter reflecting on the water. We’d continue to see these big mountains with changing foregrounds throughout the morning as we continued our way up the trail. There were some really good campsites at the biggest of the Clark Lakes, but we also saw a few people around the lake as well. We definitely had more seclusion where we camped.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Morning reflections of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
One of the Clark Lakes

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
More views of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
The upper Clark Lake

After passing the last of the Clark Lakes, we went over the top of the pass and began our descent to Spooky Meadow. I’m not sure why it’s called that, as it looked pleasant enough. Perhaps it’s the steep trail leading down to Agnew Lake from the meadow. It was a bit spooky at times.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Descending to Spooky Meadow

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Spooky Meadow

After leaving Spooky Meadow, the trail heads down the steep chute leading to Agnew Lake. It was now time to see up close the trail we were looking at two days ago. I was glad to have my trekking poles on this steep descent, both for balance and to help take the load off my knees. There are short switchbacks when the terrain allows, and other times the trail just heads straight down. There a few spots with some exposure where it would not be good to fall. As someone who doesn’t care for drop-offs, I was still able to manage this trail. I was definitely on the edge of my comfort level, but it was quite thrilling as we descended with Agnew, Gem, Silver, and Mono Lakes far below us.  It’s hard to imagine someone building such a trail in today’s world.

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Descending steeply

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
The Gem Lake Dam

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Agnew, Silver, and Mono Lakes

It felt good to get back down to Agnew Lake and on flat ground. We rested up a bit for the final two mile hike back to the trailhead. The last section would feel pretty easy after what we’d just did. As soon as we left the breezy Agnew Lake basin, the temperature climbed rapidly as we descended towards the valley floor. I even heard a few hikers we passed complain about the heat. I assured them their discomfort would be short lived. With our early start, we were back to the trailhead around noon. Finally getting the pack off, I was glad we had done some extra hiking the day before!

Backpacking Silver Lake to Thousand Island Lake
Back to Agnew Lake

Even though this area was fairly crowded at times, I still highly recommend it for the scenery and fun terrain. I also think doing the loop in the counter-clockwise direction was the right choice, as I think an ascent up to Spooky Meadow would be less fun than coming down it (especially since the ascent would be in the 3rd mile after driving all day). Additionally, approaching Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake from the north seemed to be more dramatic. The trails are all well defined and there are signs at most of the intersections that make following your progress on the map a breeze. If you’re nervous about staying out in the wilderness by yourself, this is a good place, since you know other people are never too far away. I’ll definitely be back again to do the same loop, or with all the other side trails available, a variation of some sort.

Additional Information:

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon

“What’s the name of this canyon again? Molly-buh-dendite?” “It’s pronounced Molib-uh-nite. No…wait…Mo-lyb-denite. Yeah, that’s it. With a D in there. Molybdenite is a mineral of molybdenum disulfide, says Wikipedia.” Variations of this conversation repeated prior, during, and after the hike. As it turns out, pronouncing the name of this canyon is much harder than hiking it.

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
At the trailhead

Molybdenite Canyon is located on the northeastern side of the Hoover Wilderness, and is accessed at the top of the Obsidian Campground along the Little Walker River Road. Look for the Obsidian Campground sign just east of the Sonora Pass junction on HWY 395. Little Walker River Road is a well graded dirt road, and the campground road, even though a little bumpy, should be accessible by low clearance vehicles. There is ample parking at the trailhead at the end of the road, and horse trailers have good parking just outside the campground entrance.

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Getting Started

The trail begins next to the Wilderness Information sign frame, which at the time of this writing, does not contain a sign or any information. The Hoover Wilderness boundary, though, is about 2.5 miles up the trail. Wilderness permits are not required for day hiking.

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Hiking through the brush

We began our hike around noon on Columbus Day, a perfect Fall day with lots of sunshine and mild temperatures. The grade starts off easy for some pleasant hiking. The trail at this time of year was dry and dusty, made silty from the many horses that use this route. Our little dogs were covered in dust in no time.

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Golden Aspens

It looked like we may have been a little late for peak Fall color in the canyon, as many of the aspens had already lost their leaves. The trees along Molybdenite Creek, though, were still glowing gold in the bright sun. The trail transitions frequently between these aspen, open brush, and pine forest.

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Through the woods

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Flashes of color in the brush

Eventually the trail comes to a stand of old majestic junipers, many with massive trunks. They dominate the hillside of Hanging Valley Ridge as you pass into the Hoover Wilderness.

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
A stand of old junipers

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
The interesting remains of a juniper

The trail climbs up as you pass the junipers, but then flattens out again as the valley opens for great views deep into the canyon beyond. Easy hiking resumes as you pass by the creek and small pools probably caused by beaver dams. Lots of small trout would flee up and down the creek when we’d peek over the grassy banks.

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
The valley opens up for great views up the canyon

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Views of the Sweetwater Mountains behind

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
The creek pools up at times

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
A short break at the creek

I brought my water filter for this hike, but was glad we didn’t need it. Although it would’ve been fine in a pinch, the water was pretty shallow and looking a little green with algae in some spots. There weren’t too many swift moving sections between the beaver ponds either. I bet this creek is flowing pretty good in the Spring and into Summer, though.

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Looking for trout

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Crossing the creek

After crossing the creek, we headed into the woods again. About 4 miles in now, it looked to be a good sheltered area to setup a camp if one was backpacking. Soon we spotted a big quartz outcropping on the east canyon wall. We set this as our destination for the day. Kristy would relax by the creek with the dogs, while the boy and I climbed up to investigate the rocks.

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Into the woods again

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Headed for a quartz outcropping

Although not far up, the quartz outcropping took some bushwhacking through brush, thorn bushes, downed trees, and thick aspen. Kristy knew better than to follow us. When we finally got up there, though, it was a pretty interesting sight to see. It looked like many of the talus slopes we’ve hiked before, but it was all quartz. We hunted through the rock, looking for crystals or any sign of molybdenite (although we weren’t sure what it looked like). Finding nothing precious looking, we still marveled at all the sparkly rocks before heading back down to the creek.

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Quartz Talus

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Beautiful Quartz

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Rockhounding

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
The valley below

We regrouped with Kristy and the dogs, and prepped for the hike out. Shadows were starting to appear on the west canyon wall, so we made haste back down the trail. The easy downhill made for some of the fastest hiking we’ve done all year, and we covered the four miles back to the car in no time. Even the dogs were tearing it up.

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Headed back

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Through a small meadow

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
The last showing of Fall

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Near the end of the trail

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
Back to the trailhead

Hiking Molybdenite Canyon
The drive out Little Walker River Road

Once back at the car, we made for Walker Burger in Walker, CA. It’s our customary stop after adventuring in this area before heading back to Carson City. Apparently they close earlier this time of year, though, so our stomachs were very disappointed as we drove by the dark building. Trail-mix would have to do until we arrived home.

Molybdenite Canyon
Our Route

Molybdenite Canyon is a great hike. The easy grade allows for fast hiking and a lot of exploration. By the time we turned around, we were very close to McMillan Lake, and weren’t too far from the end of the canyon. We’d like to come back and explore these areas further. Having hiked most of Burt Canyon earlier this year (the next canyon over), we’d especially like to come back and combine the two canyons for a three day backpacking trip next summer!

MORE INFORMATION