Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Pacific Crest Trail: Loves Falls to Wild Plum Road (Blog Hike #586)

Trails: Pacific Crest and Wild Plum Loop Trails
Hike Location: Tahoe National Forest
Geographic Location: east of Sierra City, CA
Length: 5.8 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: June 2016
Overview: An out-and-back with short loop on the famous Pacific Crest Trail featuring Loves Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Sierra City, take SR 49 east 1.5 miles to the signed Pacific Crest Trail parking area on the left.  Park in the small gravel lot, taking care not to block the gravel road that exits the rear of the lot.

The hike: Stretching some 2650 miles from the Mexican to Canadian borders, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) traces some of the highest terrain in the western United States.  Many people from the east think of the PCT as the west coast’s version of the world-famous Appalachian Trail (AT).  While some differences would tend to invalidate that analogy (one of which I will emphasize later in this blog entry), the analogy holds in terms of the trails’ overall size and scope.  The Pacific Crest Trail Association maintains a nice website devoted to the PCT.
            The PCT is divided into sections, and the section in east-central California between I-80 and SR 49 is known as California Section #26.  Many hikers start this PCT section at the I-80 trailhead near Donner Pass, but for more seclusion this hike starts at the section’s northern end on SR 49.  Thus, the northernmost 2.7 miles of PCT California Section #26 are described here.
The SR 49 trailhead is most famous within PCT circles as a starting point for a dayhike north on the PCT to Sierra Buttes, but such a hike involves 16.1 miles round-trip with several thousand feet of elevation gain.  For an equally rewarding but more manageable dayhike, this hike heads south from SR 49.  This dayhike features Loves Falls, a major waterfall in the North Yuba River.  Also, several nice vistas of the North Yuba River valley below and Sierra Buttes above present themselves en route to Wild Plum Road, which presents other hiking opportunities.  Note that you could also start this hike at Tahoe National Forest’s Wild Plum Campground, but the SR 49 trailhead is easier to find.
PCT trailhead, south side of SR 49
Start heading southbound on the PCT by walking across SR 49 and picking up the dirt trail at a post bearing the PCT emblem and a mileage sign.  The trail immediately curves left to begin paralleling the road.  At 0.1 miles, you pass a water infrastructure area complete with metal tanks and concrete cisterns.  Angle left to stay on the PCT.  If you look downhill past the water infrastructure, you will see the pipe that feeds water from the North Yuba River to the water tanks.
After a gradual ascent and descent, you reach the North Yuba River in the middle of Loves Falls at 0.4 miles.  Loves Falls impresses with power rather than delicacy, as the river provides plenty of water to fall.  The falls consists of several short drops, and the jagged rock-lined river channel makes for a stark setting.  Of course, if you just want to visit the waterfall you can turn around here, but more hiking pleasure lies ahead.
Upper part of Loves Falls
The PCT crosses the North Yuba River on a wide, sturdy wooden footbridge over the middle of the falls before climbing the south side of the river’s ravine using about 8 switchbacks.  The hillside is steep, but the switchbacks keep the grade manageable.  By now most hikers will have probably noticed that they have not seen any trail blazes.  Unlike the AT and its famous ever-present white blazes, the PCT is designed as a wilderness trail, and therefore it is unblazed.  Only mileage signs and official-looking emblems at trail intersections mark the way.  Along this section of the PCT, the treadway is obvious and clear, so following the trail is not a problem.
After topping the last switchback, the trail keeps climbing moderately and soon passes through a narrow side ravine with lots of mosses and ferns.  A small cascade-type waterfall appears just below the trail, so take care as you rock-hop the small stream.  At 0.8 miles, you cross a steep ATV trail.  Continue straight to stay on the PCT.
Loose rock on PCT
As the trail curves left to follow the contour of the hillside, views down the North Yuba River valley open up to the right.  Some loose rocks will need to be negotiated, so take care where you step: a fall down the steep hillside could be very injurious.  The ground on the hillside was stable on my visit, so the footing is not too bad.  Views of Sierra Buttes open up behind you, and the buttes will be in full view on your return hike in the opposite direction.
View down North Yuba River valley

Sierra Buttes
The trail descends slightly before ascending briefly via more short switchbacks.  Just shy of 2 miles, the Wild Plum Loop Trail exits right at a signed intersection in a flat area on the hillside.  The Wild Plum Loop Trail descends to its namesake campground, and you could use this trail to form a longer loop if desired.  Be warned that the Wild Plum Loop Trail is not as well-worn as the PCT, so be sure to bring a map and good route-finding skills if you choose this option.  This hike angles left to stay on the PCT.
Very quickly the PCT rock-hops a somewhat larger stream near the highest elevation of this hike.  After passing a final view down the North Yuba River valley, the descent toward Wild Plum Road begins in earnest.  At 2.4 miles, the lightly used Haypress Creek Trail exits left at another signed intersection.  Continue straight to keep descending on the PCT.
A couple of final switchbacks bring you down to Haypress Creek, which is crossed via an old but high, wide, and sturdy wood/iron bridge.  Boulders in cascading Haypress Creek make it look like a small version of the North Yuba River you crossed earlier.  Some rocky outcrops along the trail here make a great place to stop, have a trail snack, and enjoy the sounds of the creek.
Haypress Creek
A trail intersection sits at the far (south) side of the Haypress Creek bridge.  The other arm of the Wild Plum Loop Trail exits right at this trail intersection, while the PCT continues straight on a rougher treadway.  To form a short loop that will involve a short walk on gravel but gated Wild Plum Road, continue straight on the PCT and use the Wild Plum Loop Trail to the right as a return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  If you do not want to hike on a gravel road, then you could turn around here or keep going on the PCT as far as desired.
The PCT climbs slightly to intersect gravel Wild Plum Road at 2.8 miles.  Turn right on the gravel road and descend rather steeply to reach the Wild Plum Loop Trail’s intersection with this road.  Only a small sign on the right marks this intersection.  If you reach the wooden road bridge crossing small, rocky Milton Creek and a vehicle gate, you have missed this turn and need to backtrack about 150 feet.  The Wild Plum Loop Trail ascends via a single switchback to parallel Haypress Creek before closing the loop.  Turn left on the PCT and retrace your steps 2.7 miles to the SR 49 trailhead to complete the hike.

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