Monday, September 14, 2015

Sandy Meadow Trail in the Sierra Nevada

Fluted volcanic cliff east of Wheeler Lake, Sierra Nevada
Fluted volcanic cliff structures south of Sandy Meadow Trail

The Sandy Meadow Trail is located north of Highway 4 between Ebbetts Pass and the Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Sierra Nevada, California. Despite its name, this single-path hiking and horseback riding trail winds through coniferous forest; only short sections traverse meadows. The trail connects the corrals on Highway 4 with Wheeler Lake further west.

Forest-framed sandy meadow
From its trailhead at Highway 4, Sandy Meadow Trail ascends northbound and soon enters the Mokelumne Wilderness. At the Stanislaus National Forest sign the trail bends west and stays fairly level for about 1.5 miles. Without challenges you should reach the first sandy meadow. The trail crosses Sandy Meadow Creek and then enters forest again. Some rock outcrops next to the trail offer nice views of the Sierra including the mountains surrounding the Blue Lakes area further north.

The trail continues westwards, up and down through forest; boulder-strewn in places. My favorite rock along the trail is a granite pyramid pointing skyward in an opening of the at intervals dense pine and fir forest. 

A natural pyramid, I assume
Frequently, you will encounter fallen trees. The trail is cleared of some trees and occasionally a path has been cut through a trunk. Other trunks you have to climb over or find your way around. At several locations, the trail crosses a creek or a meadow. It can be difficult to recognize the path in areas, where the trail leads over the sandy soil of a meadow or traverses wet and boggy patches. You want to memorize the location of the trail point at the forest opening to avoid track searching on your return trip. Sandy Meadow Trail is marked with little discs showing a silver-white backpacker with a hiking stick on blue ground (see picture above). These markers are fixed to trees. They guide hikers in both directions of the trail, but are too small to be seen across larger forest openings.

Hiking towards the upper end of Jackson Canyon, you are going to traverse meadows with stunning views to the south. My topographic hiking map—the National Geographic “Carson-Iceberg, Emigrant and Mokelumne Wilderness Areas” trail map—shows the location names Cliff Meadow and Avalanche Meadow. From east to west, the south is “blocked” by a steep, continuous cliff wall: a slightly curved cirque of fluted volcanic cliffs, a fraction of which is shown above. Darkening clouds moving over the cliffs from the southwest may easily cause a haunted feel in a psychically sensitive visitor. The cliffs show overhangs and caves. I am sure bird watchers will get their thrill exploring the avian life of these cliffs. Up to now, I didn't succeed in resourcing any ornithological information concerning this amazing cliff structure. It looks like a paradise for eagles and vultures. North-facing however, the livelihood of this vertical otherworld may be limited by enduring snow and ice curtains after a long, precipitation-rich winter season.

Chances are you or your party will be on their own in this cliff backyard, since Sandy Meadow Trail is not as frequently traveled as many other trails in the Sierra.

Getting to the Sandy Meadow Trailhead

From Minden, Nevada, take Highway 88 south to Woodfords. Turn left on Highway 89 to Markleeville. Continue alongside the East Fork Carson River and manage all the switchbacks uphill and over the Pacific Crest. From Ebbetts Pass, continue westbound past the Hermit Valley Historical Landmark. Find the Sandy Meadow Trailhead sign on the left side of the narrow road, just a short distance west from the Mosquito Lakes.  

From Arnold, California, go eastbound on Highway 4 past Calaveras Big Trees State Park and Lake Alpine. Find the Sandy Meadow Trailhead sign on the right side of the narrow road, about three miles east from the Wood Chuck Basin Trailhead.  

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