Forget about John Denver and his “Rocky Mountain High.”

The Sierra Nevada offers thrills every bit as sublime, particularly along the Pacific Crest Trail, which is California’s most famous footpath.

Yet as is true of any intoxicating joy, walking on the Sierra crest can be dangerous.

Get high on the Pacific Crest Trail

In the Mokeumne Wilderness, darker rock replaces the granite that dominates the rest of the Sierra Nevada. This peak is visible just off the Pacific Crest Trail not far south from Ebbetts Pass.

Ruth and I learned that about 15 years ago when we set out to hike the 30 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Sonora Pass on Highway 108 to the Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4. We left our car at Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4 and had Ruth’s son drop us off at Sonora Pass on Highway 108.

This arrangement meant that once we started walking, there wasn’t any practical way to turn back. Our transportation home was waiting a three-day walk to the north.

The Sonora Pass is at 9,620 feet elevation and the Pacific Trail as it heads south quickly climbs higher still over open, rocky slopes. We soon felt euphoric, even giddy, to be walking on top of the world on a sunny day. The air at 10,000 feet has less oxygen than it does down in Stockton where we lived at the time. And that was enough to make us just a little clumsy.

Get high on the Pacific Crest Trail

Ruth Nichols smiles upon reaching the Mokelumne Wilderness boundary on the Pacific Crest Trail south of Ebbetts Pass.

It was in that first hour that a small misstep did injury to Ruth’s left knee. She hardly felt it at first, until we got up to a high saddle just southeast of Sonora Peak, then contoured another mile or so past Wolf Creek Lake to another saddle where we began the long descent down the East Fork of the Carson River.

Then, on the gradual downslope, Ruth’s knee began to stiffen. She could move, but awkwardly. We soon realized it would be extremely dangerous to follow the Pacific Crest Trail, which at times is a very narrow path along steep slopes and precipices as it threads its way between peaks to Ebbetts Pass.

Get high on the Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail winds its way through the dark rock of the Mokelumne Wilderness between Highway 4 and Highway 88.

So we changed plans. Over the next three days we diverged off the Pacific Crest Trail and continued down an unmaintained trail that follows the East Fork Carson River. Mossy indentations in the ground helped us to trace the path through thickets where it had been blocked by fallen trees. That day, we did not see another soul. Solitude is one of the advantages of leaving the Pacific Crest Trail.

We had a campsite next to the Carson River all to ourselves. That was the day I learned how to play the old spiritual “I’ve Got Peace Like a River” on a plastic recorder.

Get high on the Pacific Crest Trail

The easy trail from Carson Pass to Winnemucca Lake is both family friendly and often surrounded by spectacular wildflower displays.

A couple of days later, at Murray Canyon, we did turn back to the west, hoping to come up the slope and rejoin the Pacific Crest Trail at Asa Lake. But the knee was still not ready. We decided surviving the hike was more important than walking to our car. So we ended up strolling out to Highway 4 along a gentler trail next to Wolf Creek.

At Highway 4 we had the pleasure of seeing how motorists reacted to 40-something hitchhikers in REI gear. The folks with fancy cars did not help. It was a Reno-area casino employee in a battered pickup who got us back up to Ebbetts Pass.

Get high on the Pacific Crest Trail

Since then, Ruth and I have purchased aluminum hiking poles to keep our balance and project our aging knees. Armed with those poles, we have returned many times to hike various portions of the Pacific Crest Trail. Here are some of our favorite hikes, organized by Passes:

Sonora Pass

We haven’t hiked north from the pass on Highway 108 again since the knee incident. If you plan to head north from the pass on a day hike, you will want to get an early start. The open, south-facing slopes take the full brunt of the sun and can be hot on summer days. Carry plenty of water and expect thrilling views.

Get high on the Pacific Crest Trail

South is my favorite direction from Sonora Pass. Lots of other people feel the same way. Hikers here find themselves almost immediately among the peaks. The terrain just gets more glorious the farther south one proceeds toward Yosemite National Park. The peaks are so high, over 11,000 feet, that they receive more snow than lesser peaks. Streams here still flow in midsummer even in drought years. You will have 100-mile views.

Backpackers with a taste for trout fishing can also use this part of the Pacific Crest Trail as an alternate route to the many lakes of the Emigrant Wilderness. The advantages are both the glorious views and avoiding the dust and crowds involved in using the Kennedy Meadows approach to the Emigrant Wilderness lakes.

Ebbetts Pass

This is the most lightly visited pass in the region. Some hikers never reach this trailhead, perhaps, because they are discouraged by the one-lane section of Highway 4 that begins at Lake Alpine. But the rewards are rich for those who make it so far. Head south from the pass and you’ll wind through pleasantly shaded slopes and then down to Noble Creek. Continue south and you will be climbing again while enjoying the glories of an alpine canyon. Vigorous day hikers may be able to make it all the way up to Noble Lake for lunch before turning back.

Get high on the Pacific Crest Trail

Winnemucca Lake is only about a mile off of the Pacific Crest Trail. It offers both tranquility and brook trout for those clever enough to catch them.

It is also possible to access the Pacific Crest Trail from a trailhead in the Highland Lakes area. Coming from the west on Highway 4, you’ll turn south onto Highland Lakes Road before you get to Ebbetts Pass. This is a very bumpy dirt road. After 7 miles, you’ll arrive at Highland Lakes. Park at the trailhead at the east end of the lakes and take the trail to Wolf Creek Pass. That will put you in the part of the Pacific Crest Trail that Ruth and I missed all those years ago due to the knee incident. Explore in either direction to your heart’s content. Those who turn north will soon come to Asa Lake, a lovely spot to enjoy lunch and, on hot summer afternoons, a dip in the lake.

Head north from Ebbetts Pass and you’ll quickly find yourself among lakes and the darker rock of the Mokelumne Wilderness. Kinney Lake is only about a mile and a half from the trailhead. In late season it makes a fine picnic spot. Early in the year the mosquitoes spoil the fun.

This section of trail soon offers spectacular views toward Nevada and the peaks in the Lake Tahoe area. 

Carson Pass

Have I already “glorious”? Yep. Sorry. It applies again

But this time I should also say “popular.”

Thanks to the relatively gentle curves of Highway 88, it is a whole lot easier to get to the Carson Pass than it is to get to Ebbetts Pass. So there are a whole lot more people here. Motorists must pay for parking at the trailhead. There’s even an overflow lot a little way back down the highway.

Get high on the Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail may be 2,650 miles long, but in many places it is only a foot or two wide.

Still, the payoffs are huge. The 2-mile walk south from Carson Pass to Winnemucca Lake begins on the Pacific Crest Trail. It offers a very family-friendly way to experience a remote alpine lake in a rocky bowl. Hearty hikers may continue farther and higher to Round Top Lake and Fourth of July Lake.

Hikers who chose to head north will soon find themselves in a wide open landscape with views of Lake Tahoe in the distance. The wildflowers are spectacular here in peak season.


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