With all the snow still lingering in the mountains, we got a late start backpacking this year. For our first destination, we picked the Soda Cone in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. I selected this trip for a few reasons. It’s long been a point on the map that sounded interesting, but is a place I knew very little about. Being a bit lower elevation and on the eastern side of the mountains, we’d be less likely to encounter snow, mud, and biting insects. Also, it’s just a short drive from Carson City, and wilderness permits are available right at the trailhead. It had all the ingredients for a hassle-free overnight close to home!
Come hike with us! Video of our hike to the Soda Cone:
When we arrived at the Corral Valley trailhead (driving directions in this previous post), there was what appeared to be a mixed herd of mules and horses. There are no fences here, so at first we feared that someone had left a gate open at the nearby Little Antelope Pack Station. Just as we were getting out of the vehicle at the trail kiosk, though, they all bolted back to the west. It was not as if we had scared them, but more like someone had rang a dinner bell! It was a neat way to start out our hike.
The Corral Valley Trailhead has self-serve wilderness permits. I read through the permits in the box to get a feel for who was out on the trail. There were three separate parties out, and two of them returned while we were getting our packs ready. We chatted with both groups a bit, and got some trail intel. The last party we’d encounter later in the day at Poison Flat on their return hike. So basically, we had the whole place to ourselves.
The signs of a big winter were still present. Along the initial climb, we crossed a seasonal creek, and further up we had a big snowbank to cross. It was still several feet deep, with exception of the crossing. It looked like someone had dragged a giant ice cream scooper across it! I think the dirt from hikers and livestock caused this section to melt a lot quicker due to the darker color. It made for an easy crossing.
Not far past the top of the pass, we stopped at the “stoneboy” or “arri mutillak”. These traditional stone monuments were erected by Basque sheepherders as a way to mark the landscape for navigation, to leave a personal mark, and even just to pass the time. This stoneboy is just off the trail, and makes a great rest spot and overlook before descending the pass in either direction.
As we continued our descent down to Silver King Creek, we could see Poison Flat off in the distance. We’d be going through there later, so it was good to see what lay ahead. From the view, it was obvious that we’d done most of our climbing for the day.
Silver King Creek was much fuller than last time we were here when it was just ankle deep. It was cold, deep, and swift, and took some planning to get across. We changed into our sandals, un-clipped the buckles on our packs (you want to be able to get out of your pack easily if you fall in…), and entered the water. We didn’t make progress fast enough, and the extreme cold made us retreat back to the shore! We did much better the second time, and made it all the way across. The water had crested just below the bottom of our shorts, making it barely tolerable to cross.
After crossing Silver King Creek, the landscape transitioned from high desert to forest. There were a lot of opportunities for shade now, thankfully. Thick brush began to give way to tall grass, and this made the trail harder to follow at times. Sometimes the trail would disappear, but we’d pick it up again just a short time later. There is definitely less traffic through this area. This is where we encountered the last couple hiking out with their dogs, and we were both surprised to see each other. We talked about the trail and destinations, the difficulties of crossing the creek with their dog, and then they gave us some tips to find the Soda Cone. Looking back, I should’ve paid closer attention to the instructions.
The trail descends toward the Soda Cone, then comes along side a creek. Monitoring our approach on my GPS, I waited until we were adjacent to the Soda Cone before trying to cross the creek. The creek is steeper and faster here, and we had to hop across some slippery boulders to get across. It was not the safest crossing, and I think this is what the previous hikers were trying to explain. We should’ve crossed upstream where the creek was flatter and flowing slow. Immediately after crossing the creek, we had to climb a steep hill in tall grass. It was a little unnerving, because it looked like we could easily slip back down to the rushing creek. Further up, I stuck my foot into a quicksand spring, mistaking it for a patch of firm mud (you can see this spring in the video above…). My foot disappeared up to my shin before I realized my mistake! I had one totally muddy shoe now.
Arriving at the Soda Cone was spectacular, and it exceeded my expectations. Cool blue-green mineral water bubbles up from a crater on top of the cone, the floating algae slowly swirling around the pool in the current. The ground drops off steeply to the west of the cone, with spectacular views of the Carson River Canyon below. We setup camp nearby on a sandy spot under the trees.
The Soda Cone material is similar to that of tufa at Mono Lake. One source says, “it is largely a deposit of calcium carbonate, formed when underground water was heated by a nearby magma body and then rose to the surface bearing dissolved calcium. When the water reached the surface as a spring, the calcium in the water reacted with the carbonates to form calcium carbonate.” It’s definitely a unique feature when compared to the surrounding area. As the water level is below the rim, there’s no outlet at the top of the cone. The water seeps out the sides of the cone in the springs we encountered on the climb up.
On the east or uphill side of the Soda Cone is a trail that leads back up into the woods. I followed this trail back to the creek, and realized where I should’ve crossed on the way in. The creek is slow here, and fairly easy to ford or hop across. It was also where we refilled our water. Calcium carbonate deposits have formed near the creek where the water from the soda cone seeps from the ground. We took our drinking water upstream of these to be on the safe side.
The mosquitoes got thick when evening set in and the breeze died down. It made a good excuse for an early bedtime. We relaxed in our sleeping bags while we watched the mosquitoes crawl over the bug net looking for a way in. The bugs were still waiting for us when we woke up, but quickly dissipated when the morning breeze started picking up. Overall, the mosquitoes were mild on this trip; however, I should also mention that there were biting flies as well. Wrists, hands, backs of knees, ankles, beware! These bites hurt, but thankfully there weren’t too many of these flies.
Although we hiked back the same way we came in, there are several options for more exploration in this area. Be sure to bring a good map with you (see the map recommendation at the bottom of this write-up). Hiking back up through Poison Flat was easy, and we were better prepared this time for crossing Silver King Creek. Getting back up to the Stoneboy seemed like a long climb in the heat, though. My son said that it looked as if we weren’t making any progress. Because of the curvature of the hill we were climbing, the scenery never seemed to change, the top of the climb elusive. We were happy to find the big juniper near the top, and had a nice break. It’s one of the only places along the climb that provides shade and is also clear of brush.
Before the final descent to the trailhead, we stopped off at the snowbank for some play time. My son gave my foam sitting pad a run, but found better speed using an empty plastic leaf bag we brought along for emergency waterproofing.
This trip turned out to be a great overnight hike, with total mileage around 11-12 miles. While this area may lack some of the dramatic peaks and lakes further south, it’s big on expansive views and solitude. The Soda Cone is a very interesting landmark in itself, but its location perched up on the mountain overlooking the canyon makes it a special place that you’ll want to linger. Because of it’s low visitation and lightly used trails, hikers should be comfortable navigating in the wilderness, and be ok with not seeing other people.
- Map: Trails Illustrated Carson-Iceberg, Emigrant & Mokelumne Wilderness Areas Topographic Map
- More photos of this trip here on Flickr.