Thunder Mountain. The name brought back memories of the rip-roaring rollercoaster at Disneyland. Like the ride, the hike up Thunder Mountain is wild and can cause feelings of being airborne without ever leaving the ground. John Muir said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks” and this magical alpine walk demonstrates that he was onto something.
The exposed Thunder Mountain ridge is part of a 4-mile-long wall separating Kirkwood from Silver Lake. Reaching the summit at more than 9,400 feet begins with a climb through timber then follows a quarter mile of snow-fence on top of the Carson Spur. This trail offers the most bang for your buck. In less than a mile the ridge opens to volcanic outcroppings with nothing but sky as a backdrop. There is one massive rock that will stop you in your tracks. Use the opportunity to catch your breath and consider the geological evolution of these mountains. Take a few steps to your left, toward the cliffs and carefully delight in some high-definition scenery. Kirkwood Lake. The Kirkwood Mountain Ski Resort. Highway 88 snakes through the pristine valley. Even part of Caples Lake is visible. Two eagles catch my eye and I sit and watch them drift a while.
This trail is rated moderate to easy, but some of the hikers I pass seem to be struggling with the climb and the heat. Thunder Mountain Peak is the tallest point in Amador County and was given its name by the U.S. Forest Service since thunderstorms often build up in this area. Most of the precipitation that falls here is in the form of snow, but there is no water available on this trail. Hikers should plan ahead and bring plenty of water for Fido. Soon after passing the junction to the Sentinels, I hit the half-way point. I’m in no hurry as the trail ascends with switchbacks that guide me up a saddle between Martin Point, which forms the north end of the ridge, and Thunder Mountain.
The north face of Thunder Mountain is visible once you crest the saddle. A wind swells a crop of Indian paintbrush into a wave of red and the zesty aroma lingers as the trail leads me through a black rock garden. Beams from a mid-morning sun glaze boulders and set orange and green lichen aglow. The next “Sound of Music” scene is staged with hillsides full of violet-colored lupine. It is believed that Native Americans used these plants to make a tea to treat nausea, problems with urination and hemorrhaging. According to several herbal medicine books, Native Americans fed it to horses to make them “spirited and full of fire.” I have my doubts since most wild varieties of lupine are poisonous.
The last leg up Thunder Mountain is just past an unmarked spur in the trail. Both paths lead to the top of Thunder Mountain, but the path to the left offers the best views, in my opinion. The climb is short but can be treacherous due to the tendrils of trail options that usually lead to a scramble up the volcanic peak. Step wisely. A stumble and fall could result in injury or death.
I approach the altar alone. Perch myself below the highest pinnacle and take in the panorama. Silver Lake is the star attraction. Her surface beaded in diamonds gives me an inexplicable reason to show my appreciation with a very loud and very long “woo-hoo!” Then, I notice it. A massive wall of smoke slowly rolls in from the west. Ominous, like a glowing tsunami. Smoke from the fire near Yosemite (now contained) is being forced toward the Tahoe Basin and thunderheads are forming. Time for me to hit the trail.
Almost half-way down I hear it – Ka-Boom! My heart and feet beat a little faster. Experiencing a thunderstorm from the top of Thunder Mountain may sound exciting but should be avoided. Most people believe the odds of being struck by lightning are extremely slim.
“Over the past decade, an average of 27 Americans are killed each year from lightning strikes,” says meteorologist John Jensenius.
I’m surprised when I pass three mountain bikers and a half-dozen hikers continuing up the mountain. The threat of lightning should be respected and taken seriously, even if you have to change your plans.
Thunder Mountain Trailhead parking is 2 miles west of Kirkwood Ski Resort, just past the Carson Spur on Hwy. 88. There are no bathroom facilities. For the best post-hike recovery, take a swim in nearby Silver Lake or Caples. The hike is 7 miles roundtrip. | fs.fed.us