Enjoying fall hiking in Alpine County
The days are noticeably shorter, in fact the time of official sunrise is about 90 minutes later and sunset is some 90 minutes earlier than at the summer solstice. This, along with cooler temperatures, has begun changes that will lead us slowly into winter.
Blackbirds, in response to age old genetic instructions and who, just a few short months ago, were defending territory from each other, are forming flocks. Group behavior enhances survival rate by providing security from predators, increases the likelihood of finding food and ensures that migration patterns that have worked for millennia are followed.
Other species are engaged in their own fall patterns. Teach the young, stock up on food now and get ready. Humans are no different; kids are back in school, we are enjoying and preserving garden harvests and warmer clothes are being readied.
For outdoor enthusiasts fall brings some of the best times of the year. Flycasters present their offerings to large trout in now cooler pools. Hunters assemble their gear. Hikers go out with more energy and a season’s worth of conditioning.
All go out with the lessening sun angle and thinner light that October brings hoping to enjoy those last perfect days of cool crystal clarity that metaphorically and physically lead us to new focus. Peak bagging requires a concentration beyond the humdrum of daily thought.
Alpine County provides the place. All you have to do is show up, with preparation of course.
Stevens Peak (elevation 10,061), overlooking the fall colors of Hope Valley, is a good choice. Like most peaks, there are several ways to the top, but I’ll describe a route that I like.
Turn right on the dirt Crater Lake Road off Highway 88 exactly one mile west of Blue Lakes Rd. You’ll need a high clearance 4wd that you like to punish to make Crater Lake, so I just recommend parking at the wide level area about a mile in where the road forks.
At this point you’ll walk about 2.5 to 3 miles to the top depending on your meanders and switchbacks and the total elevation gain will be just under 2,000 feet. It’s a class 2, moderate to strenuous, off-trail hike.
Stay on the left fork and follow the road as it switchbacks westerly some 500 vertical feet up to Crater Lake. Note the large red firs and hemlocks in the shady glades and up near the lake there are some nice western white pine.
At the Crater Lake go north along the shoreline, cross the dam and start climbing the slope immediately in front of you. This section is steep and out of the forest, so pick the path of least resistance and switchback as necessary. The gradient lessens as you gain an easterly shoulder of this ridge after 400 feet of elevation gain.
Arc west-northwest keeping the ridge you just climbed on your left and set up a long climbing traverse toward the obvious low saddle at the top of a poorly defined cirque. Your destination is now in full view across the small valley and you’ll follow a long J-shaped route to the top.
This avoids the very steep slopes on the south side of Stevens Peak.
A steep scramble up to the saddle leads to a final push north up to an east-west summit ridge where a leisurely stroll eastbound brings you to the high point. Sign the register and relax. The views from this volcanic peak are among the best in Alpine County. Hope Valley, in fall splendor, fills the view some 3,000 feet below, the peaks of the Carson Range spread northeast, north lies a panorama of Lake Tahoe, and the Sierra crest fills the view in the west and south.
Retrace your steps to the vehicle or with good route finding skills and a topo (a must anyway), go off the north ridge, arc east after passing the cliffs and drop-offs, to Scott’s Lake and descend on the road to a second vehicle.
You’ll absolutely need the 10 essentials and study the weather forecasts thoroughly beforehand. Thunder, snow or ice should cancel this trip. This peak is a wonderful climb on a nice day but it’s not an easy peak to get off of in a hurry should the weather deteriorate.
Many people start from Carson Pass and bag Red Lake peak on the way to Stevens and then descend either to Crater or Scott’s Lake.
Study the topo – this route essentially follows the ridgelines and there is, now, a use trail much of the way. You may want to follow this strenuous route if it’s hunting season.