South Warner Wilderness

May 29, 2022.

6.8 mi. | 2000′ ele. gain | 3:30 hr.

south warner wilderness

I had one final peak in me on our grand, Grand Canyon road trip. Plan A involved driving from Arc Dome Wilderness north through Austin and Winemucca into southeast Oregon and poking around some desert canyons and mountains to finish our tour. But, the forecasted thunderstorms made us shift our course west towards Reno and then up into southeast California instead. There, a little-known place called the South Warner Wilderness (which had long been on my “someday list”), called my name.

The night before my hike, we found a quiet, free, campground in the woods to stay nearby. We assembled some dinner with the remaining supplies in our food box and read stories from our Grand Canyon deaths book.

Again, Aaron agreed to drop me off at a trailhead so I could burn some energy while he stayed behind to do some work. I waved goodbye at the Pepperdine trailhead. Snow dusted the ground, even in late May.I could already tell I was walking into an adventure.

The closest highpoint, the poorly named Squaw Peak, was my chosen destination for the day. I didn’t want to leave Aaron there for too long. This off-trail destination is encircled by two trails: summit trail and Squaw Peak trail. Ironically, neither of those goes to the summit of Squaw Peak. Seriously, who was in charge of naming things there?! In my mind, I envisioned a loop in which I’d take one trail to get up the peak and the other to come back down. Here’s how it went.

south warner wilderness

After a short ascent through the forest, the trail leads across a beautiful, windswept, rocky landscape. The trail became challenging to follow under the light snow cover since there was no clear path through the trees. Everything looked like a path. Somewhat luckily for me, someone had just set off on this trail right before me so I could see his footprints. However, I’ve learned not to trust other people’s footprints in the snow. I proceeded with caution.

I got especially confused at one tricky switchback near a runoff ravine and some thicker trees that had me literally going around in circles for a bit. With the help of some shifting visibility and my GPS app, I eventually got back on track. I veered off the summit trail and followed a steepening ridgeline up to the top of the peak at 8646′. The last stretch of the ascent involved icy snow in the trees and then a mix of icy and powdery snow over boulders and stubby shrubs. It was tricky, slow going, but I topped out just after 1 pm. I found a summit register made from PVC pipe and caps, but the darn thing was frozen shut! I tried with all my might to open it up but I failed.

Wearing all of my layers, I hunkered down away from the wind and munched on some Cheetos as I contemplated my route out. I could make the easy choice and go back the way I came, but where’s the fun in that? From the top I could see steep, snowy cliffs below me. And to my right there was a bouldery pile leading to a snow slope that seemed within my abilities to navigate with the gear I had. Somewhere, beneath that snow slope, was the other trail that would loop me back.

I chose the latter.

It was fun to descend the slopes once there were no boulders sticking out! I practically ran down with the aid of my microspikes and poles. That is, until I got to a surprise marshy stretch that was hidden beneath the snow cover. Carefully, I poked my way along the edge of the marsh, trying to keep my feet dry. I could hear the water running below. There’s nothing worse than being cold and wet, so I tried to keep myself in the cold and dry. Eventually, I found the actual trail, veering off of it slightly whenever it made a weird stream crossing. I preferred to cross the streams where they were melted out and in full view; the sound of water beneath snow is not one of my favorite sounds.

After making it back to familiar territory, I picked up the pace. Much of the snow dusting I began walking through had melted during the sun breaks, so it was almost like hiking an entirely new route! Up ahead, I saw a couple of hikers stopped and looking closely at the ground. I thought maybe they had found a cool flower or rock or something. As I approached them, they pointed at me and said “hey, it’s you!” Apparently they’d seen an unusual track in the snow and were trying to figure out its origins. The track? My hiking pole snow baskets. We all laughed. I was glad to have given them an interesting forest mystery to solve while they were out and about.

Overall, this was a fun adventure that only served to get me more curious about this area. I’ll have to come back another time, with more time, and see what other wonders await me.

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