Over the 4th of July weekend, my Dad and I backpacked from Leavitt Meadows near Sonora Pass to the mouth of Buckeye Canyon near Bridgeport. We did the 27 mile hike over 3 days, stopping to camp in beautiful locations. This trip had a lot of allure to me. I was looking forward to revisiting some of the country along the Walker River from our second family backpacking trip back in 2011, and also seeing what lay beyond: Piute Meadows, Tower Peak, The Roughs. All just far off points on the map up until this hike. I have also wanted to see what Buckeye Canyon looks like, and add another Eastern Sierra Canyon to my list of hiked. I didn’t find a lot in the way of trip reports for this hike, so there would be a lot to explore and discover for myself.
As we were doing this hike as a point to point, we first drove to Bridgeport and dropped a vehicle off at the Buckeye Canyon Trailhead. There is a trailhead parking area just before the gate at the end of the road. All the area campgrounds were at capacity this busy weekend, and there was activity all around. I was glad we were hiking into the wilderness and away from the craziness.
After dropping off the first vehicle, we drove to the Leavitt Meadows backpackers trailhead, just past the campground on CA SR 108 (Sonora Pass road). There is a self-registration box here for Hoover Wilderness overnight permits (not needed for day hikes), a restroom, running water, and parking. The trail heads back to the campground where you must follow the campground road down to the bridge crossing the West Walker River. There are currently two bridges. We took the first one, and it looks like the newer bridge is the one further north. I suppose they will remove the older one soon, but both bridges go to the same spot, so take your pick.
The trail heads south and follows along the West Walker River above Leavitt Meadows for some fairly easy hiking. At the south end of the meadows, the trail climbs up into the Hoover Wilderness towards Roosevelt and Lane Lakes. We passed through this area fairly quickly, and it made me think back to our family trip here five years ago. It had seemed so much harder back then! As we hiked by Roosevelt and Lane Lakes, the scale seemed smaller than I remember it. There weren’t too many people by the lakes, mostly just day hikers passing through.
South of Lane Lake, we soon passed the furthest point we had explored before. Everything I would see would be brand new. With all the extra driving, setting up a point to point hike can seem like a pain. But with that work behind me now, I was excited that we were hiking to a destination still two days away. With the final destination just being another trailhead, it was all about the journey.
Although old and sometimes hard to read, there are trail signs at the intersections along the West Walker River trail. Occasionally the trail will split, routing hikers and stock along different paths. The hikers stay to the east of the Walker River, while the stock trail sometimes crosses the river. Hikers only need to cross small streams unless headed off to the lakes on the west side of the West Walker. If this is the case, hikers will need to ford the river.
The trail sometimes follows closely along the river. There are a few really dramatic spots where the river is forced through steep narrow slots of granite. These were my favorite sections to hike, and the miles went by quicker. Other times the trail goes through the woods where the thickest of the mosquitoes lurked. And occasionally the hiker trail climbs up and around the areas where they couldn’t put a trail next to the river.
Other than one couple headed up to Tower Lake, we didn’t see any other hikers that afternoon after Lane Lake. We did see a horse pack train, though, on its way back to Leavitt Meadows Pack Station after dropping off campers at Fremont Lake.
In the early evening we arrived at Lower Piute Meadows. We veered off the trail just to look at the slow moving river in this area, but then realized it would make a pretty nice place to camp for the night. There was a frequently used campsite here, and it was easy to setup camp without further disturbance of the landscape. A fire ring made a good spot to cook dinner away from the tents. The mosquitoes seemed to subside as the sun went down, but it wasn’t long before we were in the tents anyway, wanting to get a good night’s sleep for the big hike the next day.
The next morning, the coyotes decided it was time for me to getup at 06:00. My dad had already been up for a while, and had already made the coffee. It made crawling out of the tent a lot easier. I could’ve slept a little longer, but with the longer mileage planned for the day, I knew it was time to get going. The best thing about getting up early is that the mosquitoes weren’t awake yet. We got at least an hour of relaxation before they arrived with the sunshine.
The day’s hiking started off with a lot of mosquitoes. I was covered up and had a good dose of repellent on. I didn’t get bit (that much), but that doesn’t mean they weren’t swarming at times. I once even had to spit one out that got in my mouth while I was trying to get one out of my eye. Near Upper Piute Meadows we met a couple coming down from Tower Lake, the only other people we’d see on the trail all day. They had a report of a lot of mosquitoes up at the lake. It’s that time of year…
We hadn’t been hiking too long when we arrived at Upper Piute Meadows. The trail to Tower Lake takes off here and fords the West Walker River. Piute Cabin is also in this area, but is on the west side of the river. We weren’t able to see it from where we were. We continued down to a nice bend in the river to get hydrated before the big climb coming up. We probably stayed longer than we should’ve, but it was too scenic to pass up.
After the turnoff to Tower Lake, our trail to Kirkwood Creek became more vague. It’s obvious not as many people come this way. Sometimes we had to watch for rock cairns leading across a meadow. Other times the trail would disappear altogether. The terrain features kept us hiking in the right direction, though, and it wasn’t long before we’d pick up the trail again.
Tree Pollen was thick in the air as we hiked around the meadows through the trees. It reminded me of the mist and fog you see at the ocean. Soon my boots had turned yellow from all the pollen caught in the grass. I have never seen so much! Our final hike across the upper meadows brought us close to Tower Peak. It had looked so far away when we started our hike the day before.
Eventually the trail leaves the meadows and begins its climb along Kirkwood Creek. The climb never really seems to letup as it makes its way to the 9,940 foot pass above. We stopped along the cool waters of the creek to rest at times. I hadn’t been using my GPS up until this point, but we decided to take peek and see how much further it was to the top. I was afraid to look and see that we still had a long ways to go, but we weren’t too far from the top. That gave us the incentive we needed.
The steep climb never let up, but eventually we made it. It was great to get to the top, because it was also the high point of our hike and it’d all be downhill from here. We took a break and enjoyed the views. I climbed to the top of the nearby rocks to catch a view of the nearby unnamed pond. There were still large patches of snow on the north side of the pass. I walked around a bit to see where the trail might go, and got a little nervous that we may have some difficulty getting down the other side. After consulting the map, I was able to pick up the trail again just past the snow bank.
We made our way down the steep mountainside, doing our best to be careful on the snow. The sun cups made nice steps at times. I only post-holed once, and luckily it was a few feet away from the creek. I was relieved not to feel the sudden rush of cold water in my boot. The trail was also the path of the draining water, so it wasn’t too hard to follow. It wasn’t too long that we dropped enough elevation, and the snow ended. From the lack of tracks in the snow and mud, I believe we were the first to cross the pass this year.
The trail was still steep coming down the other side, but now gravity was in our favor. We made good time as we quickly lost elevation along the north fork of Buckeye Creek. Creek crossings were tricky, but we still managed not to get our boots wet. Near Buckeye Forks we encountered the stone foundation of an old building. It was our first break in mosquitoes in a while, so it made a nice stop. Just a little further down the trail was Buckeye Forks (where the two forks of the creek come together) and a little cabin. Heading south at the forks takes the hiker up into Yosemite. We continued east into Buckeye Canyon into an area named “The Roughs”.
The Roughs are a rocky and narrow section leading down into Buckeye Canyon. We found a beautiful campsite along the creek early on, but it was too soon to make camp. Only 6:00 PM, we still had plenty of daylight left to get some more miles in. Soon after the camp, the trail got rugged as the canyon narrowed further and the water raged. At one point, there is a short climb as the trail makes its way up and over an impassable creek section.
We reached a clearing with an open view down the canyon. It looked like easy hiking, and just maybe there would be some camping down below soon. Just around the corner, though, was a creek crossing with no way to get across without getting wet. We had to stop our good pace and take our boots off. It did take some time, but it was actually pretty refreshing after sweating all day long. Evening was setting in now, with the last light on the mountain tops. I was ready to camp.
There would be no camping anytime soon. The brush was tall and thick and we could barely see the trail. We hiked more by feel, following the the path of least resistance. I made some noise to alert any nearby bears, and checked my pants for ticks often. I saw and old Hoover Wilderness boundary sign, long knocked over and laying in the bushes. It’s obvious this is one of the lesser traveled canyons in the Eastern Sierra.
Eventually the brush gave way to tall grass, but there was still no place to camp. We examined a few possible places, but just kept moving. Any pine trees that may have created a clearing were on the other side of the creek. Finally, as darkness was setting in, we found a patch of grass by the river short enough to put a tent. We setup the tents under headlamps. Too tired to cook, dinner for me consisted of a handful of salami and crackers. After stowing the remaining food in the bear vault, I was off to bed, pretty much done after 12 hours on the trail!
I was a little grumpy going to bed the night before, but knew that I would wake up and appreciate the extra miles we hiked. We now had a short day of hiking ahead of us. It also happened that we camped in quite a beautiful spot. The canyon and mountains were beautiful! As we made breakfast, we could hear the cattle down the canyon. Knowing this may be our last chance for unpolluted water, we loaded up our bottles from the creek.
We picked up the trail just above our camp, but it quickly fizzled out. The direction to go was obvious, though, down. Just a short ways into our hike, we crossed the fence that keeps the cattle in the lower part of the canyon, and soon we saw the source of all the mooing. I’m glad we stopped and camped where we did the previous night, because we found exactly what you’d expect to find in well used pasture land. Lots of fresh poop and mud.
We followed a lightly used access road for a while, but then followed what we thought may have been the trail. It lead us into one of the herds, and soon a few other trails. It soon became apparent these were just cattle trails, and then we found ourselves caught between the main creek and a smaller slow moving creek on the north side of us. We had to hack our way through tall grass and willows, until we finally lucked out and found a beaver dam that allowed a shallow water crossing.
After getting out of the water predicament, we hiked across a meadow in a direction that would get us back on the access road. Once we got to some shade, I checked our GPS coordinates and found our position on the map. Apparently we had passed a creek fording quite a ways back, but I don’t recall seeing any indication we should’ve gone that way. The easiest thing to do now that we were back on the access road was to just keep following it and see where it took us out. We were down to just a couple miles now.
It was easy hiking from here on out. We eventually encountered some more unlocked gates that we had to pass through, and then finally came to what we had hoped for, a bridge leading back to the trailhead. We saw some signs at the bottom that somewhat discouraged the route we had come down, but nothing so harsh that had made me felt like we had trespassed. Back at the trailhead, it was clear that they want you to hike up the canyon on the south side of the creek, but there wasn’t any guidance coming down the way we did. My guess is there aren’t enough visitors to the canyon to make a big enough impact for better trail signage higher up.
This ended up being a great hike. It was challenging and we saw some beautiful country. Other than doing a better job at navigating Buckeye Canyon, I wouldn’t change a thing. Having said that, I probably won’t do this route again. With lack of good camping spots and all the cattle, I think Buckeye Canyon is best passed through, and preferably downhill. The lack of marked trails and thick brush higher up seemed to work better in this direction. Although both trailheads are similar elevation, I believe hiking it north to south as we did is the easier choice. I will definitely go back to Leavitt Meadows, though, and further explore all the lakes on the west side of the river that we didn’t get to see. It will probably be pretty nice later in the year when the mosquitoes die out and the creeks and rivers are easier to cross.