The planning for an end of summer bikepacking trip began back in August. We had all the planning and logistics worked out for an easy pedaling adventure along the Rails to Trails Bizz Johnson Trail in Northern California. About the only thing we hadn’t planned for was the Willard Fire burning west of Susanville closing down our route just a few days before our departure! We quickly scrambled for ideas and came up with a route near Sonora Junction south of Carson City. Although only a third of our originally planned mileage, this mountain loop would have a lot more climbing, and there would be no pizza and breweries along the way. We’d have to carry everything we needed for the three day weekend and rough it.
We began our ride at the Kirman Lake trailhead just west of Sonora Junction, about an hour and a half drive south of Carson City. Rather than try to lift our heavily loaded bikes over the two barbed wire fences here, we followed SR 108 west past the U.S. Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center to the northwest corner of Pickel Meadow. There are a few low spots on West Walker River here, making it easy for fording.
I was the first to attempt the crossing. It looked simple enough to ride across, but I found my front wheel deflecting off river rocks in the first couple of pedal strokes. With the extra weight strapped to my handlebars, I couldn’t keep forward momentum and had to put a foot down and then the other. Both boots now soaked, I walked to the other bank to watch the next rider. Only one rider made it across the first section with dry shoes. Now on an island in the middle of the river, we still had to cross a deeper section. Nobody even bothered trying to ride this section, and we all exited the river with soggy shoes. We had all brought along sandals for this very purpose, but I guess it was just too early in the ride to be messing with a wardrobe change.
Now across the river, we followed the dirt road along the western edge of Pickel Meadow. This mellow section of trail allowed the guys that had just purchased their bikepacking gear a chance to deal with any loading issues. Straps were adjusted and gear was moved to alternate locations. I realized now that it was good we had picked something with an easy first day, as it allowed the extra time needed to experiment with the packing.
Soon we were at the end of the meadow, and the easy cruising was over. It was time to start the climb to Poore Lake, a 400 foot climb up to the water at the edge of the Hoover Wilderness. Immediately preceding the climb is a crossing of Poore Creek. I re-soaked my boots getting through, making me glad I didn’t change into my dry socks after the last crossing.
With all the gear, it was a granny gear climb most of the way up to Poore Lake. There are a few steep sections that require maximum power to get up, but the beautiful scenery is a welcome distraction from the effort. The road travels by interesting rock features, through a meadow, and across the creek again. All the golden colors were a reminder that summer is almost over.
When we arrived at the dam below Poore Lake, we decided to get off the bikes and climb over the dam to assess the water level. Walking down to the beach for a better view of the length of the lake, we could see that the lake was fairly well drained and looking somewhat stagnant. The outlet creek was flowing good, but there isn’t any noteworthy source of water flowing into the lake. Needing fresh water for the night, camping near Poore Creek was the easy choice.
After setting up camp, we decided to explore Poore Lake on the bikes. Now mostly unloaded, the bikes were feeling more sporty. We rode along the gravelly beach until it became muddy, then followed the overgrown roadbed. We passed a couple small creeks coming out of the mountains, but at least one of them disappeared before reaching the lake. The road wraps around the south end of the lake, then turns into a small trail. We passed a couple nice campsites along the way, but they weren’t close to clean water.
The small trail leaves the lake and drops down into a rocky wash before rejoining the road we came in on. We had lost some elevation and now had to climb back to camp. By the time we got back to camp we were all totally ready for dinner. Our anglers hit the creek for the catch of the day, but they were unable to trick any of the fish we saw hiding along the banks.
To our surprise, we saw another bikepacker passing by our camp as we were finishing dinner. He stopped to talk with us for a bit, and we learned that he had started his ride in Bridgeport. He had traveled much further than us, and was carrying a lot less gear. Still wanting to get some more miles in before sundown, he rode off.
All of us had brought our favorite cocktail to share with each other, a collection of bourbon, rye whiskey, Tennessee whiskey, vodka, and tequila. More than enough to last the weekend we thought. Conversation and laughter progressed late into the night under the full moon until there wasn’t a drop left of our weekend rations. Everyone slept great that night.
The next morning we received a wake up call courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps. A Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion, the largest and heaviest helicopter in the United States military, made several passes over our camp conducting training flights, its seven giant rotor blades chopping the air. Reluctantly, but also to verify we weren’t under attack, we climbed out of the tents to start coffee and wait for the sun. Boots still wet from the day before were covered in frost.
The plan for the day was to ride back down to Pickel Meadow, then take the cutoff to Kirman Lake. From there, we’d make our way around the base of the mountains and up to Molybdenite Canyon. Where we’d end up for the night was still unclear. We enjoyed a really fun downhill back down to Pickel Meadow, especially since it’d be our only real downhill of any length for the day. We had a lot of climbing to do.
We had to push up some of the steeper climbs. It wasn’t much easier than pedaling, but it used different muscle groups and allowed the others some relief. We had left the forested area of Poore Lake, and were now riding through beautiful high desert.
The climbing eased up a bit as we neared Kirman Lake. Our anglers wanted to stop and fish when we arrived at the lake while the rest of us just enjoyed the scenery. After arriving at the lake, though, it was determined that there wasn’t much action on the lake. A couple of anglers in float tubes weren’t doing much, and fish weren’t rising to the surface. It turned out to be a pretty short visit before we headed down the hill to Junction Reservoir.
Arriving at Junction Reservoir, we searched for the secondary road that we needed to follow. We also debated whether or not a beer run would be feasible from our present location close to the trailhead. Unable to come up with logistics that made a lick of sense, we voted to continue on. We found the overgrown doubletrack on the north side of the reservoir, and as we climbed, we could see that there wasn’t much water left in the basin.
We continued climbing until we found some shade where the road passed through some aspens. We had a good lunch and reviewed the maps. Knowing that I’d probably regret saying it, I suggested that the worst of the climbing was behind us.
Just around the corner we reached the Cowcamp Creek Ranch and had views of Mount Emma and our destination for the day. What the map and satellite imagery I had reviewed earlier didn’t show, was that there was not public passage across the ranch property. The road ended at a locked gate. It was only a 1/4 mile across, but we’d have to find a way around.
We backtracked to a cattle grazing area and found a cow path that appeared to follow the fence line. At the time we had no idea how big the property was, so we just kept following it downhill hoping for the best. After crossing Cowcamp Creek, the trail finally turned south around the property.
Now at the southeast corner of the fence line, we thought we may be able to take a diagonal route up the mountain and rejoin the road. This plan fell apart quickly as the brush was too thick to push through after only a few feet in. The only good option was to backtrack to the west along the fence line to pick up our road again. We followed some bear tracks as we made our way back up the hill through the tight bushes.
Passing through the tight bushes was Hell on our shins. By the time we made it back to the road, we all looked like we had spent the night with a wolverine in our tents. Our detour added an additional 2 slow miles to our trip. On the bright side, the sandy uphill road before us now looked more inviting.
At the bottom of one short downhill, we screeched to a halt as the road crossed a fast flowing mountain stream. We were all thirsty, and it looked like the best water we’d seen all trip. We all drank about a liter of the cold refreshing water as I studied the map to see how far we had left. It wasn’t until we were about ready to leave that I noticed we were at “Poison Creek”. The water sure tasted good and nobody had dropped dead yet, so I tried not to make a big deal of it. I continued to monitor myself and other members of the group for slurred speech, but it was hard to determine if the whining about the continued climbing was due to poison or just fatigue.
It was a good thing we stopped for a long drink, though, because the next climb never seemed to end. Tired legs, and always another hill around the next corner. Finally we reached the top of the climb for a nice long downhill to the Obsidian Campground. We had originally planned to climb higher into Molybdenite Canyon, but this was as far as we wanted to go the day. In fact, we took Site #1 near the entrance to avoid any further climbing through the campground!
Dinner and the BioLite CampStove
For $12 we got a picnic table and a clean bathroom. The nearby Molybdenite Creek provided our water source. We had just enough daylight left to get camp setup, cook dinner, and get a campfire started. In lieu of cocktails, I made a pot of tea that only a couple took me up on. Conversation was light, and one by one, tired riders headed off to bed early.
We were up bright and early the next morning and well rested. I was eager to stretch my achy legs and get the hot coffee going on the chilly morning. We had two options before us: Continue climbing up the canyon and loop back to HWY 395, or point the bikes downhill and coast all the way back to Sonora Junction. Nobody voiced an opinion that they wanted to climb, but most strongly hinted that they sure wouldn’t mind some downhill if they had a say in it. Downhill it was! We enjoyed a leisurely 5 mile pedal down Little Walker River Road and then HWY 395, with only a slight effort to get back to the vehicles on SR 108. We timed it just about perfect. After we got the bikes and gear loaded and drove up the road a ways, we’d be just in time for an early lunch in Walker. Bacon double cheeseburgers were sounding mighty fine!
This ride turned out to be a great alternative to what we had originally planned. I was glad we got to get up into the mountains again before it gets too cold to camp at high elevations. The terrain and scenery made for some great bikepacking, and not being familiar with all the trails provided a little adventure. The lower daily mileage also gave our new bikepackers a chance to figure out their gear. And who knows? Maybe there will still be enough time left in the year to bikepack the Bizz Johnson Trail before the snow flies!