Finding solitude on a weekend like Labor Day can be a challenge. Forget trying to find a site at a campground, or even a parking space at a popular backpacking trailhead. We had pretty good luck in the Sonora Pass area last year though, so I began my research with a couple of my favorite tools, Goolge Earth and Summit Post. Find something interesting to climb on the map, and then read about how to get there. Sonora Peak looked like the perfect destination for a day’s outing without big crowds.
On the morning of September 2nd, we left Carson City at 8:30am, arriving at the St. Mary’s Pass trailhead about 10:30 am. We passed the Leavitt Meadows trailhead on the way up Sonora Pass, and the backpacker’s parking lot was packed. Although we had backpacked at Leavitt Meadows last Labor Day, I was glad we decided not to try it again this year after seeing the crowd
Just about a quarter mile to the east of the Pacific Crest Trail at the top of Sonora Pass is the St. Mary’s Pass trailhead. There is plenty of room for parking near the trail kiosk on the north side of the road, but if you have a low clearance vehicle, you may want to park in the pullout on the south side of the road instead.
The Saint Mary’s Pass trail leads you north beneath Sonora Peak on the west, and provides the easiest access to the peak. From the top of the pass, there is a lesser traveled trail to the top of the mountain. While the distance to the top is 2.5 – 3 miles, the trail climbs steadily from the trailhead, with only a bit of relief at the plateau before the final ascent.
The trail to the pass climbs steadily, passing through pine trees and low growing sagebrush. There were still a few springs flowing, but only one creek had any substantial water in it. It made a good spot to water the dogs. The rest of the “creeks” were really just muddy spots crossing the trail.
The trees thin as you near the pass, and the final climb to the top is pretty washed out. Knowing there were great views to the north just ahead, we hiked along with enthusiasm. Spectacular scenery opened up behind us too, the desolate and craggy volcanic peaks to the south.
The view from the top of St. Mary’s Pass did not disappoint. There were mountains as far as we could see. The flat topped Stanislaus Peak was just to the north, and I immediately decided I wanted to climb that mountain at a later date. There is a 4-way intersection at the top of the pass. The trail over the pass continues north towards Stanislaus Peak, a trail follows the ridge to the west, and the Sonora Peak trail climbs up and out of sight to the east. We had some water and a snack before starting the next leg of the hike.
The Sonora Peak trail climbs up and over a little hill, and then fizzles out at the beginning of a big plateau at the base of the peak. There is a dwarfed stand of trees here, the last of the trees we’d see as we climbed above timberline. My GPS map doesn’t include the peak trail. This section of the route was a perfect example of why it’s not good to rely on a GPS alone. A GPS is fantastic for showing you where you are, but a map is much easier to use for route finding. Using my topo map and compass, it was easy to determine which saddle we needed to climb, and the direction across the plateau we needed to go to get there.
We made our way to the northeast across the plateau. This is the easiest section of the hike, a pleasant walk up a gentle incline. The volcanic landscape reminded me of footage from the current Mars mission. After a while, we started to see rock cairns, and they were leading us in the direction we were already going. Up ahead, we could see the beginning of a very steep trail that climbed to the northeast saddle below Sonora Peak.
We reached the path that would take us up the final ascent of the mountain. Kristy stopped and looked up where we were headed and said, “I don’t think I can do this.” “Nah..”, I said, knowing that she could. “You’ll do just fine.” The trail got serious really quick. No switchbacks, just straight up the mountain. Not only was it really steep, but the loose dirt and rock were like walking on marbles. Our trekking poles came in really handy in this section.
Before topping out at the ridge line, the trail turns towards the peak. It’s still steep, but it’s easier climbing. There were a few micro-switchbacks, but they were kind of funny at this point since we’d hiked all this way without them. Our two little dogs were troopers, staying close and climbing right along with us.
The trail finally traverses the ridge, and you can now see down both the east and west sides of the peak at once. You feel like you are really high up, like you could just fly off the mountain at any given moment. It’s steep on both sides, but there is no real exposure. Still, it was a thrilling feeling. The top was just now right ahead of us.
Just over a little false summit is the top. There are a few rock shelters built up there to help get out of the wind. Kristy aimed for the one at the very tip top, and climbed inside. We had made it! 11,459 feet above sea level.
It was only a little breezy on the peak, and we were perfectly comfortable in our long sleeve shirts. At one point though, as I stood up to get something out of my pack, a blast of wind out of nowhere hit us that almost knocked me backwards off my feet! We quickly got our jackets out, but it was a struggle to get them on in the thrashing wind. Even though there was nothing but rock all around us, there was a strange whipping noise as if there was a loose tarp flapping about. The wind swirled into the C-shaped rock shelter below us, trapping an intense dust devil, making us really glad we chose to hang out at the shelter on the very top! And then as suddenly as the wind arrived, it was gone.
Views were amazing in all directions. To the north were the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness and the headwaters of the east fork of the Carson River. Even the Carson range in the far off distance could be seen. To the south were the big jagged peaks of the Hoover Wilderness. To the east, the barren Sweetwater Mountains. To the west, the Sierra foothills on the horizon.
Most prominent mountain peaks have a registry to sign-in on. I knew Sonora Peak had one from the route descriptions I had read, but we couldn’t find it where I thought it would be. I continued to look in other spots around the peak, but had no luck. Not giving up, we tried the main shelter again at the very top. Underneath a couple big rocks we finally found a little mason jar, stuffed to maximum capacity with random pages from previous climbers. You’d have major difficulty trying to get the mass back in the jar if you took it out. We pulled a more recent piece of notebook paper from the side of the jar, and a little 2 inch long pencil from the center that required sharpening with my pocket knife. After signing in, we put the items back in the jar, and were barely able to mash the lid back on. So if you’re reading this, and plan to hike the peak soon, take a new registry container, notebook, and pencil with you if you can spare the extra weight!
As I was taking photos around the peak, the sun suddenly went behind a little cloud. It only looked like it’d be a minute before the sun came back out, and there were no other clouds around for hundreds of miles. It wasn’t long though before the sun was hidden again, and now there were many more clouds. Where were they coming from? It seemed impossible that they could’ve blown into our area at this rate. It wasn’t until we were about to leave that I realized the clouds were actually forming right above us! Next time I’ll be sure to pay more attention, and allocate some time for watching cloud formation.
Just when I thought we could sit there forever, another group of hikers showed up. They had a dog with them, and our dogs went nuts. We decided to leave and give the newcomers some solitude. They were planning to hike down the west side of the mountain, pick up the PCT, then hike back to Sonora Pass. It certainly looked doable. The south side of the peak sloped and curved down to the valley below, and looked like decent hiking.
We climbed back down the way we came up. The slippery peak trail was really slow going coming down though, and probably harder to walk down than up. Even with our trekking poles, our feet came out from under us at times for some comical kicks and body movements. Once back down on the plateau, we cruised right along at the best pace of the day so far, even while carrying the tired dogs part way. While descending St. Mary’s Pass, it really began to sink in just how high we had climbed as the trail kept descending all the way back to the trailhead.
Sonora Peak is a great peak to climb for introducing people to peak bagging. While it’s not necessarily an easy hike, the approach to the peak is short, and you begin to climb right away. Some peaks have you hiking for miles before you even get to climb. I don’t thoroughly trust my GPS readings for the day’s hike, so I’m estimating the hike to be between 5-6 miles out and back (this accounts for exploring the peak and other areas along the way). There aren’t really any switchbacks to speak of, so what you see on the map is pretty accurate.
Saint Mary’s Pass: 10,400
Sonora Peak: 11,459
Topo Map: Sonora Pass
A handy map from Summit Post.
More photos of this hike can be found on Flickr HERE.