Desolation is a place of stunning beauty with countless crystal-clear mountain lakes tucked tight against granite faces. Granite Chief is a more rounded, subtle place of winding streams, expansive ridgelines, ancient trees and giant fields of mule’s ears. It’s a quieter, less assuming wilderness. Desolation is the star attraction packed with summer visitors, while Granite Chief sees just a fraction of the visitors seen by its neighbor to the south.
If people think of Granite Chief Wilderness at all, they think of Five Lakes Trail, which sits just inside the wilderness boundaries, 2.5 miles from Alpine Meadows Road. It is certainly a great day hike with several charming bodies of water ready to explore, but it’s a busy place. If you want to get away from the crowds, you have to go right past Five Lakes and into the heart of the wilderness.
Once you pass Five Lakes and head downhill toward Whiskey Creek, you quickly reach the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Here a left turn brings you, after a rather grueling series of switchbacks, up onto the crest itself and then along the ridge behind Alpine Meadows ski area to Twin Peaks and eventually on the combined PCT and Tahoe Rim Trail to Barker Pass. This hike is a worthwhile adventure for those looking for amazing views of the wilderness. But if you want to experience the wilderness by being in it, instead of looking at it, you need to head to Whiskey Creek and keep on going.
At the Five Lakes/PCT junction go straight and start heading on the PCT toward Canada. Don’t worry, we are not going that far. You follow a bustling stream and over lots of little seeps chockfull of lupine, paintbrush and rein orchids to a junction with the Whiskey Creek Trail, where you leave the PCT and descend farther to Whiskey Creek. Just after crossing the creek you reach two cabins and an oven in an idyllic setting in the grass.
The Whiskey Creek Camp was originally settled in 1909 by Basque sheepherders, with the present structures built in 1954 by the Ibarra brothers. There is a small bunkhouse, a storage building and a Basque oven. The land became part of the newly designated Granite Chief Wilderness in 1984, but the cabins were allowed to stay because of their historical connection and importance to the Basque sheepherder culture of California and Nevada. Restoration work has been done to the cabins by Basques and the camp now has special significance to those former sheepherders who still live in the region. No camping is allowed within 250 feet of the structures to allow the grassy flat surrounding the camp to remain healthy, but other campsites farther away can be found.
Once you walk past Whiskey Creek, things get wilder. The trail gets fainter and you quickly feel a new level of remoteness. You might only be 5 miles from civilization, but it feels like a lot more than that. If you take the Whiskey Creek Trail toward Picayune Valley and then back via the Shanks Cove Trail, you can make it a 16-mile journey from the Alpine Meadows Trailhead. You might have the trail to yourself; in fact, you get the feeling no one else has made the trek in a while.
The trail passes by enormous fir trees onto ridges with expansive views and down past shady streams before returning to the Whiskey Creek Camp. While you might not see any humans, there are plenty of other mammals including deer and bear. This is no easy stroll though, it’s a challenging hike recommended only for skilled hikers.
Another trail in Granite Chief Wilderness that is lightly used but worth a look is the Powderhorn Trail. It begins on Barker Pass Road, a few miles west of where the road crosses the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail begins with a climb and then, over a 3.5-mile journey, descends to Diamond Crossing. Look for fascinating volcanic rock formations, including a section of columnar lava blocks reminiscent of those found at Devil’s Postpile National Monument.
You will also find a bustling creek, remote meadows and an old-growth forest. At Diamond Crossing, you can turn around or take the Five Lakes Creek Trail, which in 5 miles of creekside walking brings you back to the Whiskey Creek Camp.
Considering Tahoe is just a short jaunt away, this 13-mile trail, requiring a shuttle from Powderhorn to Alpine Meadows Road, truly provides an escape from the crowds. This hike is moderately difficult, but does include a number of creek crossings that may require boulder hopping or climbing across on downed trees.
Once you go further than the Whiskey Creek Camp, it’s a good idea to have a keen sense of trail direction and bring a map and compass, because in this wilderness the little-used trails can be a challenge to follow. If you feel, however, that giving up mountain lakes for a pastoral stroll through a deep forest without the crowds is a worthwhile tradeoff, then perhaps you want to go north to Granite Chief Wilderness. | fs.usda.gov