Carson-Iceberg Wilderness | Land of high peaks & deep canyons

Heading down into Wolf Creek Canyon from the top of Murray Canyon.

Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, which lies less than an hour south of Lake Tahoe, is a land of high peaks, deep canyons and sparkling mountain streams. But with few lakes and challenging trails, much of it is off most folks’ radar screen as a hiking destination. In fact, I’ve hiked more than 1,000 miles throughout the Sierra, but my recent trip into Carson-Iceberg gave me the greatest feeling of wilderness I have felt in the region. This was both a good and a bad thing.

Advanced with advanced navigation skills
25 miles roundtrip

I spent three days hiking more than 25 remote miles of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness with Joyce Chambers. We saw two deer, a coyote, a ton of hawks, and the same number of bears as people: Five. Four of those people were seen in the last few miles, the other was a lonely Forest Service employee who was doing trail maintenance. I’m thinking if he works at it 365 days a year for the next four or five lifetimes he might catch up on the backlog.

We walked on trails that were often hard to follow and sometimes disappeared altogether or that were so overgrown with scratchy brush that we both returned with legs that looked like we’d had a wrestling match with all five of the bears we encountered. These are not trails for first-time hikers out for a relaxed stroll.

An ancient juniper in Wolf Creek Canyon.

After returning from this trip, I had a bit of reticence about writing a story about it. It isn’t that I wanted to keep other folks from exploring the wilderness. In fact, many of the trails could really use more people walking on them so that those who follow them can find the trails. And it wasn’t because the place wasn’t beautiful, it truly was. While it doesn’t have the dramatic granitic beauty of Desolation Wilderness or Yosemite, there are peaceful mountain rivers meandering through grassy meadows, breathtaking views of high peaks and some extremely impressive ancient trees.

My reticence concerns the condition of the trails. It turns out that the loop we hiked hasn’t been maintained in a number of years, partly because Forest Service crews have been busy fighting fires and partly because a flood and landslide a few years ago washed out the road to the High Trail and Wolf Creek trailheads and only recently was it reopened.

In other words, if you are looking this fall to escape civilization, this could be the place. But don’t go without good hiking and mountain sense, especially on how to read a map and compass and follow the lay of the land because you might lose the trail. I was happy there was two of us, as we were frequently scratching our chins and saying, “Huh, where did it go? Maybe that way?”

The Wolf Creek Road trails are accessed via State Route 4 about 10 miles south of Markleeville.  After leaving SR 4, you have a mixture of pavement and steep rutted roads that bring you to the trailhead. Just before reaching the High Trailhead, we were greeted by our first bear. It’s a bit unnerving to be the only car at a trailhead for three days after seeing a bear 100 yards away. Makes you ponder whether you accidentally left a piece of food in there.

High above Bigly Canyon from the High Trail

The hike on the High Trail began climbing immediately. The recent heavy winds had blown a fresh deep coat of pine needles on the trail, making the faint outline even more tough to follow. After a long ascent through a forest of pines, the trail traverses across a steep slope with stunning vistas of Silver Canyon and Bigley Canyon, before beginning a long descent to the East Fork of the Carson River. There, a chilly calf-deep ford of the river about 9 miles from the trailhead brought us to what looked like a good campsite, until we looked up and saw three bears frolicking in the meadow 50 yards away. Seeing us they quickly scampered away. It’s quite refreshing to see wild bears that run away as opposed to Tahoe bears that slowly stroll by to find another house to break into.

The next morning after waiting for the ice to melt off our bear canister, we woke up our feet with another knee-deep ford of the East Fork of the Carson River then played cat and mouse with the brushy trail for the next 2 miles before reaching the Murray Canyon Trail. This trail begins with a dozen, steep switchbacks through the granite, but then says the hell with it and just goes straight up the slope for the next 3 miles, climbing more than 2,000 feet.

At the top, we were treated to the best view of the trip: Highland Peak and a wide panorama of other high peaks. Wolf Creek Canyon, our planned camping spot, lay 1,500 feet and 1.5 miles below. The descent was grueling: either narrow and sketchy or rocky and steep. It also went through a few washed-out gullies that at first glance we were not sure how we could get through. Eventually we bottomed out at Wolf Creek and were greeted by the sound of bells and a herd of cows chomping up the meadows. Between cow paths and dozens of downed trees, we got lost and Joyce’s attempted leap over one of those downed trees turned into a dirt dive. Eventually we found the trail again and stumbled into a campsite in a grove of aspens next to Wolf Creek.

The last day was a relief, mostly downhill following the creek and the trail was visible. We saw our fifth bear at close range and a few folks on horseback before successfully completing the loop.

While some trails allow you to mindlessly enjoy the wilderness, on this one, you needed to have your brain turned on at all times. It was a chance to test not only our route finding skills, but also our communication skills in dealing with emotional and mental challenges. We succeeded. | sierrawild.gov