It had been a few years since I hiked up to Squaw Ridge so I was surprised to learn that it no longer existed. One of the best day hikes in the Sierra Nevada had officially been renamed Hungalelti Ridge. The name means “up there” in Washoe, but also signifies Southern Washoe. Up there is a good description of the ridge that follows the boundaries of the Mokelumne Wilderness. The ridge starts east of Bear River Reservoir, heads northeast past Silver Lake and ends in the West Pass area.
Read about the hike to Machado’s Postpile
It is my third attempt to hit Hungalelti Ridge (pronounced Hung-A-Lel-Ti) via Horse Canyon Trail. Topping out at 9,200 feet, snowpack from early to mid-June had caused me to turn back. July through October is the best time to enjoy this 12-mile, out-and-back journey. With an elevation gain of 2,200 feet, hiking Hungalelti Ridge is no walk in the park, but well worth the effort. My trek begins at the Horse Canyon trailhead parking 4 miles west of the Kirkwood Ski Resort on the south side of State Route 88. The first mile of this trail is easy to under appreciate. Here the forest is littered with decaying timber but serves as a hub for wildlife. A cinnamon-colored bear grubbing on a rotten log reminds me that dead trees are vital to many animals and their habitat.
At 1.5 miles glimpses of Thunder Mountain are barely visible. Towering above the treetops like a dark mosaic of deteriorating high rises. Next, the trail winds through a maze of basalt rock that tempts my inner explorer. I wander through back alleys and tunnels of this development, inspect the various shapes and sizes of these volcanic structures and consider that they were formed 6 to 15 million years ago. After touring the maze, I move on. Looming ahead is Thunder Mountain — fully exposed. Spires and caves atop the massive cliff have survived eons of storms. Like a colossal fortification, the wall seems to stretch for miles.
The narrow path opens up to seasonal streams where hundreds of bright orange and purple butterflies gather on a patch of wildflowers. This hike would not be rated difficult and strenuous if it weren’t for several rocky ascents. Mountain bikers should obtain some technical skills before heading up or down this trail.
“The trail is awesome, but sketchy in places. You should possess better-than-average skills,” says mountain biker Sophie Facchini, who admits to “bike hiking,” a few sections.
Facchini started her ride at Thunder Mountain trailhead and completes a loop by taking the junction down Horse Canyon Trail. Bikers are not the only riders on this trail. Horses are also allowed to enjoy the scenery. Hikers or riders heading up Horse Canyon can access Thunder Mountain via the junction at just more than 3.5 miles.
As I crest the first ridge, the trail turns from powdery chestnut to soft granite sand that crunches like snow beneath your boots. Bleached and twisted trees dot the hillside. A stout, but stunted juniper resides alone on the ridge. I crawl under its shade and rest against its trunk. The views are spectacular. Silver Lake is sprinkled with gold. Then, like a ruby set in miles of granite, I spot the hidden treasure that is Machado’s Postpile. This is a good place to take a break, savor the skyline and the fact that the hardest section of trail is behind you.
With the backside of Kirkwood to the north and a ridgeline of granite to the south, I stroll along a pleasingly level surface before spooking a covey of quail. Chicks and adults flap overhead and I duck. A perturbed hen zigzags my path while squawking: ru-rar-ow, ru-rar-ow. The shrill must have alerted an oversized colony of marmots. They scurry across polished granite in every direction. Most take cover in nooks and crannies, but several vigilantes stand their ground and appraise me as I walk by. I’ve never seen such a large amount of quail and marmots in one place.
The last half-mile push up to Hungalelti Ridge is from the junction to Scout Carson Lake. I recommend a side trip dip in this little lake. A massive downed tree blocks the trail and with branches still attached, I decide to work my way around it. I’m up and over boulders with little effort. The trail is severely damaged and deeply rutted from what appears to be motorcycles, which are prohibited according to the U.S. Forest Service.
The panorama atop Hungalelti Ridge is magical. Miles of spectacular mountain range and deep-blue sky. It’s hard to imagine that in 1850 more than 50,000 people traveled along this pass in search of gold. Wagon trains and immigrants have left their mark on the granite beneath my feet. After exploring the area for artifacts, I nap in the high alpine meadow. I wonder about the Washoe people that spent summers here. What did they encounter with the immigrants traveling west? How did the name Squaw Ridge originate? I awake to thunderheads and realize I am Hungalelti — up there — and glad that Squaw Ridge no longer exists.