30 August 2015

Hell For Sure: Thompson Lake and Maxson Dome

Sierra National Forest

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5

(Day 5 of 5) There was some smoke in the night, but not much. There still is not much in the air as the morning comes. My procrastination about getting up is interrupted by a double bladed helicopter heading south from Florence Lake somewhere. Twice as loud as the average helicopter. I figure it is something to do with the firefighting effort, but it is actually picking up some of the last Search and Rescue teams after finding their missing hiker battered and hungry, but otherwise in good shape.

I thought I would just make my own way last night, but now I want to find the junction. Before starting, there are a couple points it seems prudent to put into the GPS to help navigate. One is for a big bend in the trail and one for the lake itself. Heading downward, there is a blaze and another and behind me another one. Blazes were rare yesterday. I saw about three and one was a newer single rectangle by someone with a hatchet and not a lot of experience with blazes. Today they are all over. I must have camped within 50 feet of the Hot Springs Pass Trail, the one I had meant to come up along. I follow it down until something looks vaguely like a trail in my direction. It wanders and eventually I just work my way downward toward the stream below finding a nice campsite and flowing water. Up on the far bank is something that looks a lot more like a trail including a few more blazes.

stream of water in the grass
The little stream coming into Boulder Creek. Rest assured, there is an obvious trail up on the other side of it.

This would have been a very fine place to camp last night after all. I nearly fall in crossing on a log that is unexpectedly slick. Too many logs that get a lot of feet can lead to bad judgements when crossing something that few or none have crossed. Heading down toward the junction just to see yields nothing. The trail passes below the confluence rather than above as shown on my map. Boulder Creek has great flow here. I can spot no indication of the Hot Springs Pass Trail heading down or up although I know it is there going up. The Thompson Lake Trail is easy enough to follow at this point. It mostly satisfies my curiosity, but is not getting me where I want to go, so I turn back toward the lake.

log and encroaching young trees
There are plenty of bad spots like this very old downed log across the trail and the encroaching pines, but the Thompson Lake Trail can be followed.

Boulder Creek
Boulder Creek below its confluence with the stream, but most of the water was already in it.

The trail really is easy to follow as I climb and the frequent blazes to confirm are nice to have. The land has changed from below. The trees are thinner and there are fewer slabs of rock, both good for preserving the trail.

track in the forest
Back on easy street.

yellow and spongy
Frequently occurring mushroom along the route with a very orange cap. My high school biology teacher said these with a spongy underside are morels and all edible, but I am not willing to try it based on that.

The points in the GPS turn out to be needless. The trail climbs easily and clearly even through meadows up to the lake. I come to a big tree lying across it with a cut still bright yellow from some sawyer crew that must have come down from the road in the last five years. Someone out there has not forgotten this trail. The trees are clear all the way up to a split in the trail with small trees cut in both directions. The road, a jeep trail edged by wilderness, is just above the lake and it seems reasonable that there is a trail to it even if it is not shown on the map. I turn to check out the lake, first finding some well established campsites.

Thompson Lake
Checking out Thompson Lake in the smoke.

bear prints in the mud
Someone else has been up on this rock looking over the lake recently.

A spot like this really should be getting day hikers and backpacking groups of youths and all sorts of others up from Florence Lake sufficient to keep the trail open. I relax for a bit before continuing on over the pass. The trail splits again on the east side of the lake and it is unclear which is correct by the tread. Looking right, I can see three blazes. Looking left, I see none. I go with the blazes. Blazes and cairns mark my way up, often in some disagreement. Usually the blazes are best. The cairns mark multiple routes. I must have chosen correctly because I get to the top of the pass marked with wilderness boundary signs marking the edge of a wilderness that has long since expanded.

very find sponge underside on a brown capped mushroom
Also found a very few of these brown mushrooms with extremely fine holes in the bottom.

old wilderness boundary
Incorrect signage since at least 1990, but was correct in 1982.

Trail down the other side of the pass is another game of following a vanishing track, blazes, and cairns that all disagree. Someone has been here in the last few weeks, but their footsteps are harder to follow than the trail. I lose the trail a couple times going after blazes that stop. Usually there is a blaze on both sides of a tree to give a hint as to where people going the other way are coming from, but these often have blazes four trees down the line on the other side. Meadows make it even harder to follow trail. I end up just trying to find it again on the far side until a particularly long meadow. Feeling like I am going down a separate arm of it, I cross over a line of trees only to find a clear trail down the middle of them.

iron plate in the ground
A hinged iron plate with nothing but grubs beneath beside a tree blazed with a W. Off trail, but bumping into old construction.

Burnt Corral Meadow
Somewhere in the massive Burnt Corral Meadow after turning a corner near a junction I never saw.

Route finding gets much easier once I have found the trail in Burnt Corral Meadow. The trail is generally obvious although it may have needed the sawyer crew more than the poor forgotten trail up to Thompson Lake. There are many downed trees, but none of them are hard to find a way around and the trail afterward. Well, the trail does not get lost for more than a hundred feet or so, anyway.

stacked logs over the work of sawyers
The trail may be a challenge to follow, but not a challenge to find.

grass and trees and a rock pile
A little meadow beside a rock pile. There is a spring fed creek flowing through this one.

at least three trout
Trout in the stream along Burnt Corral Trail.

The trail just gets easier and easier to follow as I go. Creeks lace their way through the meadow and trees making it easy to camp almost anywhere. People probably come out here as far as they are comfortable for weekends, fishing and relaxing, helping to keep the trail up for as far as they go. I am finally back to the expected easy trails by the time I hit the junction for Hobbler Lake and turn toward it.

Hobbler Lake
Taking in all of Hobbler Lake, which is a bit low. It is a small lake, but the panorama from an arm of land sticking into it certainly makes the illusion of quite a large lake.

eroded rocks in the lake
Looking past the side of the island in the lake. It is interesting the way the rocks have eroded into mushroom shapes.

I have decided to go up Maxson Dome and head off cross country toward it about a half mile past the lake. Perhaps just going from the lake would have been the better plan. I work my way up to the saddle north of the top, passing cairns someone set believing their own route to be worth preserving. From the saddle, it is a simple effort to continue upward to the top and the view.

panorama from the top of Maxson Dome
The 360° view from the top of Maxson Dome.

smokey basin
There is still plenty of smoke out there to the east.

creeks crossing barren land
Creeks cross the long flooded lands of Courtright Reservoir, trying to reclaim their old flow.

I head down the south side of the dome. It is steep sometimes, but not too hard to negotiate. Many people have been this way before. I eventually work my way down to the road.

many more domes to the south
Some of the other local domes as I make my way down.

Maxson Dome
Maxson Dome from the south ridge approach.

The road is something crazy. Even jeep trail seems a bit of a stretch to call it. It is marked with blue reflectors across the rocks and very little else. Someone has been up it recently with a few buddies. If I had come up to it from Thompson Lake, I might have been able to get a ride back. I am not sure I would take one if offered just because it would be so much safer to be away from any vehicle.

jeep trail
An easy part of the road with plenty of crisp tracks on it today.

jeep trail
A bit harder part of the road. This four foot step inspired a lot of looking around to find a more reasonable way up for the recent traffic.

I only take the road a short bit before dropping down to the campground. It is quite a big place with elaborate bear boxes for keeping everything, even giant coolers, in. The jeeps are still hanging around below the campground and they do look tougher than the average jeep. It is not too far from the campground back to parking and full escape from the smoke. The final count is 75 miles. Some very nice spots along the way, but next time without the smoke.

Map note: I had the Trails Illustrated Mammoth Lakes Mono Divide map along with me. This map seems to assume if they can find a trail and no information on it, it is a good trail. Had I the Tom Harrison Mono Divide High Country and Kings Canyon High Country maps instead, I would not have even seen the Hot Springs Pass and Thompson Lake Trails, which are at their best as good as the trail over Hell For Sure Pass is at its worse. It is not so far gone that it should be removed, though. I did not bring these since, for some reason, the Harrison maps do not go quite far enough west on the Kings Canyon map to get all the way to the trailhead. Had I the 7.5' USGS maps, I'd have seen the trail heading off from Thompson Lake is probably one going to Lost Lake. Also, the two trails combine and split rather than cross, so I probably did not go far enough back to see the route down Boulder Creek. Get enough maps together and things can get quite complicated.

©2015 Valerie Norton
Posted 29 Sep 2015

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