Blauert on Outdoors: Buckeye Creek Trail offers a challenging, scenic hike

05/20/2014 9:46 PM

05/20/2014 10:51 PM

Our western slope of the Sierra rises gradually to the sky. The eastern slope plunges – or soars – depending on your point of view. Eastern slope trails generally climb endless steep grades of 2,000 to 3,000 feet before leveling out in an alpine meadow or rocky basin.

One of the few exceptions to this rule is the Buckeye Creek Trail. In the course of its 9.7-mile journey from the trailhead near Twin Lakes up to the creek’s headwaters at Buckeye Forks, it only climbs 1,200 feet. Most of the climbing takes place toward the end of the trail, meaning the first part is unbelievably easy.

The trail starts as a former dirt road through a forest of widely-spaced Jeffrey pines. It’s unexceptional at first and strays far from the creek, but the width makes it possible for a family or group of friends to walk side-by-side and have a good conversation.

Around the time you’re getting used to the trees, the trail enters the first of a series of meadows – each one more beautiful than the last. The meadows are separated by small climbs, forested areas and many aspen groves. Some years the trail isn’t passable at this point in the season; however, this year’s drought has made the path and meadows surprisingly dry, though still quite beautiful.

Seven miles beyond the trailhead, the path enters the Hoover Wilderness and begins a climb through the steep, rocky and extremely scenic section of the canyon known as “Buckeye Roughs.” Although the challenge of trying to backpack the entire 9.7-mile canyon in a single weekend almost kept us from seeing this section, we day-hiked the final stretch on our second day and then picked up our overnight packs at the campsite for the return journey to the trailhead. We arrived home late, but the additional challenge and tiredness was well worth it.

Buckeye Roughs turned out to be one of the most impressive parts of the trip – a steep canyon of roaring water and jagged snow-capped peaks.

You don’t have to do the whole hike for an enjoyable journey, but I would definitely recommend hiking at least 3 to 4 miles up the creek before you turn around so you won’t miss the beautiful meadows. If you can make it all the way through the Roughs to Buckeye Forks, you’ll find yourself well-rewarded for the effort. If you camp outside the wilderness (as we did), you won’t need a wilderness permit from Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. A state campfire permit – available from the National Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and online at www.preventwildfireca.org/Permits – is all you need to operate a stove or build a campfire.

The trail can be hot and exposed in summer. Now is the ideal time to go, though late summer/early fall can also be good. The outstanding groves of aspens along much of the route mean this is a great place for a day hike (or cold backpacking trip) in the fall. A creek crossing is required about 4 miles beyond the trailhead. If you turn around at this point, you will have seen some beautiful country. Beyond the crossing, the trail is little-used and hard to follow in places. It’s hard to get lost in a canyon, but it can be pretty rough going if you lose the trail.

The Buckeye Creek Trailhead can be reached by traveling east over Sonora Pass (Highway 108) or Tioga Pass (Highway 120). From U.S. 395 in Bridgeport, take Twin Lakes Road to Buckeye Road. This unpaved but well-maintained road passes through the Buckeye Campground to a dead end at the trailhead. Bridgeport is the closest source of supplies, gas, warm meals and lodging. Buckeye Hot Springs can be found about a mile east of the campground/trailhead along Buckeye Road – beware that some soakers may be wearing only their birthday suits. Trout are regularly planted in the creek near the campground but are scarce farther up.

For more information about the Buckeye Creek Trail, wilderness permits, or the Buckeye Campground at the trailhead, go to www.fs.usda.gov/htnf or call the Bridgeport Ranger District at (760) 932-7070.

If you’re looking for a great hike closer to home, this is a great time of year to explore the trails along the South Rim of Yosemite Valley around Glacier Point. My favorites are:

•  Sentinel Dome, Taft Point and the Fissures: A round trip of just over 2 miles takes you to two of the best places to view Yosemite Valley and its waterfalls from above. At the Fissures, you can gaze through huge cracks in the granite down to the Merced River – 3,000 feet below!
•  Panorama Trail: Starting at Glacier Point, you can follow this trail for 8.5 miles along the rim of the Valley past Illilouette Fall and down the unforgettable Mist Trail along the edges of Vernal and Nevada Falls. The easy way to do this hike is to take the park concessionaire’s bus to Glacier Point (online at bit.ly/1m21OTI) and then follow the trail back down to your car.
•  Illilouette Fall: If you aren’t up for the whole Panorama Trail, or if you don’t want to pay for the bus, you can also hike to little-known Illilouette Fall and then return to Glacier Point – a trek of only 4 miles round trip.

For more information about Glacier Point-area hikes, go online to 1.usa.gov/1pbalV7.

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