Fiery fall display at Snowshoe Thompson’s Cave

Snowshoe Thompson sought refuge from winter weather in the cave. | Lisa Michelle

You’re probably familiar with John “Snowshoe” Thompson and his legendary ability to brave the harshest winter conditions while crossing the Sierra delivering the mail, but have you ever wondered how he did it during a blizzard? Thompson would often seek shelter in overhanging rocks and caves. One of his well-documented shelters is easily accessible. The shelter is more perfectly placed slabs and boulders than cave and sits only steps off Highway 88 in Hope Valley. About a quarter mile from the trailhead up Carson Canyon you can crawl in and relax under the massive granite overhang.

Soot darkened the walls of the sanctuary; it was easy to imagine Thompson warming his hands by the fire, chewing a piece of jerked beef and looking out at the raw beauty of a winter storm.

The path begins opposite Horsethief Canyon Trail. There is plenty of parking and I recommend taking time to read the California National Historic Trail signs that explain the historic value of the Carson Route and Snowshoe Thompson. It set the mood as I began my jaunt. Crisp leaves underfoot and scents of autumn worked their magic on me and turned this brief side trip into an adventure.

Read Mark McLaughlin’s history of Snowshoe Thompson.

I could have rushed up the trail in 10 minutes but found myself spellbound by the spirit of Snowshoe Thompson and what he would have endured with a 100-pound rucksack on his back. Halfway up the trail a tiny spring bubbled and gurgled in the tawny grass. It was the perfect place to test my new water filter straw and ponder the hardy souls who may have slurped these waters. Two women approached as I knelt alongside the spring and sucked on my straw.

Snowshoe Thompson.

“I have extra water,” one offered.

“Pumpkin spiced latte?” The other lifted her cup as if she’d share.

“I’m good, thanks.” I stood — considered explaining but asked what they thought of the cave.

“We’re from Oklahoma and can’t even imagine crossing these mountains — especially in winter,” one said. I could smell the pumpkin spice on her breath and wished them well.

Along the trail to Snowshoe Thompson Cave. | Lisa Michelle

Farther up the trail, trees thinned and granite grew. Suddenly, the unmistakable ancient refuge built like a shoddy Stonehenge came into view. I climbed the boulder gates and went inside. Soot darkened the walls of the sanctuary; it was easy to imagine Thompson warming his hands by the fire, chewing a piece of jerked beef and looking out at the raw beauty of a winter storm. The benefits of solitude reminded me of a place not far from here where a few years ago I thought I spotted a wolf. Certain I was mistaken; I asked a few locals. Some confessed they had seen a lone wolf wandering Hope Valley. California Fish and Wildlife convinced me I was wrong, but the event is still vivid — especially at dusk.

“I was never frightened but once during all my travels in the mountains. That was in the winter of 1857. I was crossing Hope Valley, when I came to a place where six great wolves — big timber wolves — were at work in the snow, digging out the carcass of some animal. They were great, gaunt, shaggy fellows,” said Thompson, adding that he approached the wolves.

They left the carcass and in single file came to within 25 yards from him. They all crouched with “every eye and every sharp nose” toward him. But what frightened him most was the confidence they displayed. Thompson dared not show fear. He held his breath and skied past them. The dominant wolf let forth a loud, eerie howl and the others joined in, but Thompson did not panic, and the wolves did not pursue.

The view from inside Snowshoe Thompson Cave. | Lisa Michelle

Unless you prefer to brave the elements as Thompson did it’s best to visit the cave in fall. The area is famous for its fiery red and gold shimmering aspens. The canyons here are alive with color this time of year as foliage exhales a last breath and prepares for winter.

From Lake Tahoe take Highway 89 toward Hope Valley then head east (left) on Highway 88. Just past the Hope Valley Café look for the Horsethief Canyon Parking on the north side (left) of Highway 88. Drive time from South Lake Tahoe is about 30 to 40 minutes. | alltrails.com