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Late fall good time to hike in the lower elevations

by Jim Donald

It’s between seasons again, as so often happens at this time of year. Up high there’s not enough snow to ski, but too much to hike. As I write this a week before publication, it’s 60 degrees out with no significant storm systems in sight. With that in mind I’ll describe a relatively easy low elevation local hike that’s often open early and late in the season.

Turn onto Airport Road off Highway 89 about midway between Markleeville and Woodfords. Just past Curtz Lake, almost a meadow now, turn left into a small dirt parking area. Use caution ” the entrance is rough and it’s on a limited visibility curve where, what little traffic there is, goes surprisingly fast.

Begin by crossing Airport Road, find the trail marker and head east on an easy descent through a thin mixed conifer forest of white fir, Jeffrey pine and one lone incense cedar. The understory is fairly thick manzanita, bitterbrush, sagebrush and rabbitbrush. This trail descends 800 feet to the destination – in a little over two miles you’ll arrive at Fremont’s Crossing of the East Fork of the Carson River. Bring a fly rod. Some of the nicest water in California is at the bottom.

The trail, with expansive views, levels and descends several times while gently meandering east-southeast, enters an open area dense with manzanita, pinon pines appear, and then contours to a tight southeast to northerly switchback in a wooded ravine. On this shady slope of white fir and Jeffries you’ll step over several deadfalls and climb up and around three that are too big to step over.

The trail turns east again as the tree cover thins and drops down to intersect with a double track coming down from Alpine County Airport. Some users park at the airport because it shortens the distance and elevation loss/gain. But hey, we’re here to hike.

Pinons are now more numerous, especially on the sunny slopes to your left while Jeffrey pines and white firs populate the northfacing slope to your right. Consider that this is the transitional zone between the Sierra and the high deserts to the east and you’ll have a feeling for the plant and animal communities that exist here. Large animals include deer, bear, coyote, mountain lion, and bobcat while overhead you may see seasonally numerous species of hawks, eagles and vultures. Quail and many songbirds populate the forest and nighthawks are summer residents. Underfoot, during warmer weather, you may see garter snakes, Common King Snake, Great Basin Rattlesnake and several species of lizards.

Continue as the trail drops in and out of a wash in this seasonal drainage. The cobbled rocks make footing unsteady at times but the gradient is easy. Bitterbrush is more abundant down here, mixed with sagebrush and thin grasses. The canyon opens to wide alluvial deposits near the bottom. Pass a sign denoting the route of the Fremont/Carson party of 1843/44 and a register on a post (the register was missing the day I was here). The expression scratched in the wood proves that not everyone likes to hike in the woods.

The forest gives way to streamside brush as the river comes into view but it’s still several hundred feet to the water. The footing is cobbles and mud or dry silt, depending on the season. Explore this relatively flat area and find a good place for a break to relax and enjoy the soft flowing sounds of the water. When well rested retrace your steps to the trailhead.

There’s an option at the river. Head downstream (north), to the next westbound canyon where a steep trail switchbacks up to the east side of the airport. Initially weave through brush and small trees, scramble up some volcanic rocks, traverse northeast on a steep slope above the river where a fall can put you in the water (with no immediate options for exiting ” getting wet at this time of year can be life threatening), continue as the terrain levels to the aforementioned canyon. Pick up the trail, turn left, climb generally westbound to an old road that meanders to the runway, go around the south end of runway, head west, then descend south on the double track that intersects the original trail. At this intersection climb back to the starting point.