Climbing Mount Jefferson – Part 1

Inspired by last year’s backpacking trip in Nevada’s Arc Dome Wilderness, I wanted to get the family out to central Nevada for another adventure. We ended up choosing another trip from the book, Backpacking Nevada, a great guide for discovering the hidden magnificence that Nevada has to offer. In the middle of June, we packed up our old SUV and headed for Mount Jefferson in the Alta Toquima Wilderness.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Potts Ranch

Getting to the trailhead is about a 4 to 5 hour drive from Carson City. Not wanting to hike the first day, we decided to see some of the sights along the way, and packed a little extra for comfort in the Pine Creek Campground, our destination for the night. We made a familiar drive from Carson City to Austin, gassed up the vehicle, then started the real adventure.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Monitor Valley

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Old Barn at the Potts Ranch

We exited Highway 50 at State Route 376 south into Big Smokey Valley, then almost immediately took the long dirt road to the southeast towards Toquima Cave. On the map, this route appeared to be the shortest way to Monitor Valley over a low pass through the Toquima mountain range. It turned out to be an excellent route. The dirt road was well graded the whole way, but I was glad to have my old SUV with all the dust and gravel.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Barn Resident

Once across the mountains and into Monitor Valley, we headed south at the Monitor Ranch along the main route through the valley. For the most part, all intersections were well signed, and along with our Nevada atlas, made navigation pretty easy. Our first stop was at the Potts Ranch, just a couple miles off the main route.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Investigating the hot springs

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Diana’s Punch Bowl

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Walking the edge of the bowl

This ranch land is still actively used for grazing, but the old ranch house and barn are now abandoned. After a noisy couple weeks back in the city, it was such a treat to sit on the front steps of the house and enjoy the views. The solitude of this place was immediately calming, and it made it hard to leave. Before leaving the ranch, we located the hot springs nearby. We didn’t have time for a soak this evening, but planned to come back after the hike when we would really need it.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Looking into the Punch Bowl

After leaving the Potts Ranch, we headed south to Diana’s Punch Bowl, an immense travertine hill with a pit in the middle, just off the main road. As you approach it, it almost looks like a giant pimple in the middle of the flat desert valley. The bowl at the top of the hill is about 50 feet across, and 30 feet deep, with hot spring water in the bottom. But unless you like your punch near 200 degrees Fahrenheit, you may want to stay out.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Hiking back down the punchbowl hill

In addition to scalding water, vertical walls surround the pool of water at the bottom.  The only way down is to fall into it. If you survived the boiling water, climbing out would be extremely difficult.  Be careful when admiring this desert curiosity!

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Entrance to the Pine Creek Campground

With the sun on its way down, we decided we had better find the Pine Creek Campground. While heading south through Monitor Valley, we saw the dust cloud of a vehicle approaching us, the first car on the road we’d seen since leaving the highway. We both slowed down as we approached each other, then stopped to say hello. The man was headed back up to the hot springs, and invited us to join him. We talked for a bit, and learned that he was from the ghost town of Belmont, a few more miles to the south of us. We declined his offer, explaining to him that we needed to make camp, and headed on our way. It’s a strange thing meeting people in the middle of nowhere. It can be both comforting and unnerving at the same time.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Making Camp at the Pine Creek Campground

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Time for a campfire!

We continued on to Pine Creek Campground. The guidebook, map, and other descriptions made it sound hard to find, but again, the signs lead us directly to it. As the name implies, the campground is right along Pine Creek, shaded by big junipers, pinyon pines, and aspen trees. There are sites on both sides of the creek, and a loop road provides access. Tip: Don’t drive the loop if you have a low clearance vehicle, as you need to drive through the creek to complete the loop.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Overgrown Site #7

Depending on which source you read, there are 10 to 20 campsites at Pine Creek. The real number is probably somewhere in between the two. This is a free forest service campground, and it’s easy to see how budget cuts have affected the upkeep. We found the campground clean, but some sites have gone back to nature and are unusable. Other sites were slightly overgrown, and needed a little work. It’s not up to the standards of what you might find in a state park, but it looked wonderful to us after a day of travel, and the price was certainly right. There were other campers when we arrived, but we had no problems picking out a good site.

Climbing Mount Jefferson, NV
Crafting wooden tools

Campfires were made, dinner was cooked, sticks were whittled, marshmallows were roasted, and stars were gazed upon.  After a good night’s sleep we were ready to prepare for the backpacking leg of the trip. Kristy was the first one out of the tent, and caught a glimpse of some deer making their way through the camp. We ate a hearty breakfast, got the packs ready, then drove to the Pine Creek / Mount Jefferson trailhead parking area adjacent to the campground to begin our climb.

Continued here in Part 2.

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