Located just south of Ebbetts Pass on the northern border of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness is Hiram Peak and Highland Lakes. The summit of Hiram Peak lies only a about one mile away and a thousand feet above Highland Lakes. Although only 9,795 ft tall, the mountain has spectacular views of the surrounding area. On September 15th, my son and I set out for a camping trip to explore the area and give climbing Hiram Peak a shot.
Getting to Highland Lakes is fairly easy. From the Nevada side, take State Route 4 out of Markleeville towards Ebbetts Pass. This road becomes one lane near the top, so be cautious. It feels like you’re driving on a bike path at times. There isn’t much traffic, but it is a popular road for cyclists and motorcycles. Hopefully you won’t meet any RVs along the way. On the west side of the Ebbetts Pass Summit is Highland Lakes Road. A little ways off SR 4, the pavement ends. Follow this well graded dirt road (fine for passenger cars) about five miles to Highland Lakes. Along the way you’ll pass another Forest Service campground that might have spots available should the Highland Lakes campground be full.
When my son and I pulled into the campground, it was fuller than I had expected. There were a lot of guys in camo, and I started to see antlers poking out of the back of trucks. When I finally saw a downed deer in someone’s camp I realized it was deer season, and this was apparently a popular location to hunt. We were fresh out of blaze orange clothes, so we’d make sure to stick to the peak trail and not wander around the woods!
The Highland Lakes campground is divided into two sections, a lower, more open section on the north side of the upper lake, and a more secluded section up in the trees to the northeast of the upper lake. We picked a spot in the lower section next to the road with great views of Hiram Peak.
After getting camp setup, we set out for the peak. The trail begins at the Highland Lakes Trailhead at the very end of Highland Lakes Road, just a short walk from the campground. From the trailhead, one trail heads south towards Spicer Meadow Reservoir, and the other trail climbs towards Hiram Peak. There really isn’t an official trail to the top of the mountain, as it fizzles out here and there; however, we kept picking up the trail again just by following the path of least resistance to the most logical spot on the ridge above. We actually found multiple trails, some of which we only found coming the other direction.
Soon we were up to the ridge below the peak. We took a break on the talus slope, and looked up to where we were going. The top looked so high and far away, even though my GPS told me different. We weren’t on a trail at this point, and while the talus looked to be no problem for me and my son, it looked like it was going to be difficult for our little dogs. We had water and a snack, and then started our climb up the northwest side of the mountain.
It was steep going up the side of the mountain, but the footing was pretty stable on the rocks. One dog seemed to be managing the climb, but the Chihuahua eventually got stuck and just stopped. I went back to get her and started to carry her.
We made our way over to the bowl below the peak. We could now see the little body of water I had seen on the map, a very pretty blue green lake at the mountain’s base. Soon we spotted another trail going up the ridge. It was steep and slippery, but since the rocks were cleared away, the dogs now had an easier time walking.
As we gained altitude, we got a good view of Raymond Peak to the northwest, a peak we had climbed a few weeks ago. My son spotted a couple hunters on a rock in the distance, two little orange dots on a big rock overlooking a pond. To the north we could see Highland and Silver Peaks, two big mountains you can see from Carson City. From down towards Highland Lakes we could hear the “donk donk donk” of a faraway cowbell. My son spotted the cows first, his eyesight obviously better than mine.
We were nearing the top of the northeast ridge. I could see nothing but sky as the trail neared the edge. Up ahead was a jagged rock outcropping. I knew we must be near the difficult section of the trail I had read about. The descriptions of this section mentioned that it may be difficult for those with a fear of heights. I really had no idea what to expect.
We took a break at the base of the jagged outcropping. I gave my son the dogs, dropped my poles and pack, and went on ahead to see how difficult it was going to be. Right as I crested the ridge, I got one of those WOW moments. The south side of the mountain feels much higher up since the land below slopes down and away. I could see Spicer Meadow Reservoir shining in the afternoon sun to the south.
The way around the rocky outcropping is just a narrow trail set in the cliff above the west side of the mountain. It’s not a sheer drop, but you’d definitely get hurt if you slipped. There are rocks to hold onto as you scoot across, and it does feel reasonably safe. I made it around and climbed up to the final summit ridge. The ridge line is narrow, and the slopes fall away steeply on both sides. It didn’t look too hard, but I was feeling a bit woozy from a touch of acrophobia. The afternoon wind wasn’t helping either. Still, it was something I could have dealt with.
I took a few photos, but decided I should get back before my son and the dogs decided to see where I had gone. As I made my way back, I realized that it would be difficult, and probably unsafe to take our dogs through this section. How would I carry both dogs and still hang on? Would they spook and try to wiggle away? Was it worth it to try? The peak was so close now.
My son was disappointed that I wanted to turn around, but he understood. Going home missing a dog or two was not an option. Before heading back down, my son climbed up to the top of the rocky outcropping for his turn at the views to the south. He was as impressed as I was.
We headed back down the mountain, trying to follow the little trail we had come up on. Without noticing, we had picked up a different trail that took us on a more direct route to the top of the ridge below.
We left the main route at the ridge, and decided to travel cross country in a more direct path towards camp. It looked easy from far away, but ended up being too steep with more foliage to scramble through. Even though it’s not fantastic and hard to follow, the main route is a better way.
Once back at camp, we started our camp chores including dinner and building a campfire. By 8:00, the first stars started to appear in the sky. With all the camping we’ve done this year, there hasn’t been too many nights where we had clear skies or were up long enough to enjoy star gazing. This was not the case tonight. We saw way more stars than you would in the city, and we made up scary stories around the fire until we got tired.
With all the hunters in the campground, I was certain that we’d hear generators rattling until quiet time. This was not the case though. We didn’t hear one. In fact, it was one of the quietest campgrounds we had been in all year. About the only real noise from people we heard was from the lady next to us. She decided she needed some firewood after it got dark, and started going to town on a rotting log with a hammer and screwdriver. She cussed at the guy she was with as she banged and chiseled away. Later in the night she would dance around the fire in her bikini. My son, who is currently learning about drugs in his health class, attempted to determine what they were on. I believe his assessment was correct! Soon the campground was quiet, and only the “donk donk donk” of the cowbells could be heard in the distance. Every time I woke up, I could hear them in a different place, but they continued to donk throughout the night and into the morning.
We ended up packing up the next morning and headed out after breakfast. Hiram Peak was really the only thing we explored, but there was still much to do in this area. Trails go off in a couple directions, and one even connects to the PCT. There are other nearby mountains to climb as well. We’ll definitely be back.
As the days pass, I keep thinking back to the decision to turn around right before the top. Was I playing it too safe? Was I letting the heights get to me? Or did I make the right call? I definitely want another shot at the mountain now, but next time we’ll leave the dogs behind.
Hiram Peak on Summit Post: http://www.summitpost.org/hiram-peak/150618
Highland Lakes: 8,600 ft
Hiram Peak: 9,795 ft
Highland Lakes Campground Fee: $8.00 at the time we were there
Topo Map: Dardanelles Cone, CA
More Photos from this trip on Flickr HERE.