[almost no] Snow Mountain Wilderness: Mendocino National Forest

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Snow!

How is it that we select the adventures we undertake? A month and a half ago I didn’t even know the Snow Mountain Wilderness existed. I had been aware of Mendocino National Forest, but plenty of other trips were battling it out in my head. I had to choose the right trip for the 3 day Memorial Day weekend and atop the list were Marble Mountain Wilderness and the Trinity Alps. Both places we had visited in the past, but our trips there did not do their marvels justice. Yet somehow, with these and more vying to come to life, Snow Mountain won out.

Maybe at moments when my mind was susceptible to inspiration small ideas jostled themselves in my mind like grains of sands to become pearls inside of oysters. Maybe it was the hours spent following /r/CampingandHiking, summitpost.org, viewing pictures, and staring at maps stirred up a storm which left a final trip plan in its wake. I’d like to think it’s the adventures that chose us. Like John Muir said, “mountains speak” and it was Snow Mountain which used a louder voice, or provided the more compelling argument.

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So many colors!

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Wanted: Your campfire DEAD OUT! 🙂

The Deafy Glade Trail started off as an old road, but quickly turned into an obscure footpath. I had to check and re-check the map at multiple points. Junctions which, according to the map, shouldn’t have been there required some guesswork, but my guesses ended up being right. Hint: when you come to the creek, cross it and take the trail which climbs out of the valley on the other side.

Soon after turning onto the Summit Trail we came to another uncertain junction; yet another trail which shouldn’t exist. Luckily it was lunch time so we sat down to fill our stomach and study the maps. The food was much needed as up to this point the trail climbed over 3100 of feet in elevation through often very steep grades. The register at the trailhead warned against doing this section of trail and urged hikers to consider the Summit Springs trailhead down the road, but a plan was a plan.

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Sarah, Lucy, and I

We were soon surprised to see a dog approach us, followed by her owner, which as we later found out was the owner of the car at the trailhead. Sarah, and her dog Lucy, took the wrong option at the creek crossing (see hint two paragraphs back) and after bushwhacking back to the road, drove up to the Summit Springs trailhead and caught up to us.

We decided to join forces the rest of the way to the summit.

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Sharon on the “fake” summit

The three of us made short work of the remaining couple of miles to the 7,056 foot summit. Though the weather this day was perfect, as we ascended the summit ridge a chilling wind picked up. Looking at the fire rings around the summit plateau, we remarked about the poor campsite selection made by previous visitors. The area only a few hundred feet below offered a much superior and certainly more sheltered option.

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Inside a stick…

After the summit, we turned North, and headed down the North Ridge trail down to Milk Ranch. Plenty of great camping here, but our goal was a bit further down the trail. From my initial route planning with Google Earth and topo maps the day called for 12.5 miles. 15 miles later, mainly due to some long switchbacks, we arrived at Stony Creek, our camp for the night.

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Energy-star certified fridge

An impacted site awaited, complete with some stumps which served as perfect little tables.

After a restful night, we climbed out of the creek’s valley and headed to West Crocket camp and trailhead. The bathroom here was locked, the site likely no longer maintained, and after a short rest we met up with forest route M3 and headed East. A white sign beckoned the start of Bear Wallow trail. I scrambled up the roadside embankment only to realize the trail wasn’t meant for hikers, but for vehicles. The actual trail headed off to the South about a hundred yards further down the road.

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The Trail

We followed Bear Wallow with Saint John Mountain looming in the background. Here the trail was very faint and we had to rely on the spares cairns and intuition, but mainly the latter, to find the way. At the base of the mountain the trail was often washed out by the perennial creeks, requiring sure footing to prevent sliding down the steep slopes.

Eventually we once again exited the wilderness area and found ourselves on forest route 18N06. Here we ran into a group of dirt bikers (the forest is heavily used by OHVs so watch out). The road was rather exposed and tiredness and the heat of the day were starting to take their toll. Again I underestimated the distance. We planned on 14 miles but by the time we reached the North Fork campground we had tacked on an additional 2. To make matters worse, there was no water at the North Fork of Stony Creek Campground but the creek is just below.

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Tucked in by the creek

Walking past a series of large campgrounds, with only a disproportionately small number of “campers” in RVs, we turned off onto the Bath House Trail.

The Bath House Trail was reminiscent of Bay Area hiking with its golden grassy slopes and California chaparral vegetation. With the constant up and down contours of the trail we could have sworn we were hiking in Henry Coe State Park. That is until the Manzanitas started giving way to the pines. A brief section even had the Manzanitas to the right of the trail and pines to the left, as if awaiting orders from their generals to play out an ancient battle.

The increase in conifers meant that we were getting closer to the end and soon enough we turned back onto the Deafy Glade trail for the final stretch. Right on queue the rain began to pour down harder as we threw down our packs by the car.

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Cool pond covered with leaves at the bottom

The hiking was rather strenuous. Besides on the roads outside the wilderness and near the summit, we didn’t see anyone else on trail; a major goal of many of our trails (this is Destination Isolation). The scenery and changing vegetation were enough to satisfy my aesthetic cravings. So what are you waiting for? Get working on your next trip!

For more national forest adventures, visit our U.S. Forest Service Agency Guide.

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  • You were smart to do it in 3 days – I just did it in 2 and my legs just might fall off.