lower Mokelumne River Canyon

mokelumne river
Mokelumne River

Two years ago I hiked the upper Mokelumne River canyon, from Highway 4 to Camp Irene, one of the more rugged and certainly the most brushy hike I’ve done (photos, but no blog post). This summer I walked the remainder of the canyon from Camp Irene to Salt Springs Reservoir.

I spent two days with my friend Steffani who lives near Pollock Pines, and after a day hike to Granite Lake near Silver Lake off Highway 88, she dropped me there and I walked back into Granite Lake. From there I walked into the wilderness at Horsethief Springs and on to Munson Meadow, where I camped up on a ridge overlooking the canyon, in part to avoid the thick mosquitos in the meadow area.

The next day up Mokelumne Peak (9334′), which I had not been to in years. I went up the northeast ridge, and down the west side to join the trail that comes in from Tanglefoot TH. The route down was a nice variation, but miles longer than the route up. I picked up my backpack and headed down into the canyon to Camp Irene. The trail passes through a very brushy section. About 200 yards of the trail at the top has been brushed, but the rest is untouched, and is almost impassable. I’m glad I was going downhill rather than uphill, as this would have been very unpleasant in the heat of the afternoon on a south facing slope.

I swam a bit at Camp Irene, and then headed down river towards Cedar Camp. I’m not sure what Cedar Camp is supposed to look like, or if there is any evidence left at all, but I stopped for the evening and slept on a sandbar beside the river. The cool air and slight breeze reduced the mosquitos. The trail to this point is not hard to follow, continuing the pattern of the upper canyon in climbing a bedrock bench to bypass a rough section of river, then dropping back to a riverside flat. There are some huge trees on these riverside flats, with one Sugar Pine measuring more than seven feet in diameter.


From this point the old trail becomes even less used and harder to follow, and sometimes I was just clambering over boulders at the river’s edge, unsure if I’d missed the trail or if this was it. This day I saw four rattlesnakes, two along the river’s edge and two up on the benches. My yearly quota in only one day!

After a number of ups and downs over benches and through riverside flats, the river goes over two beautiful waterfalls and through two beautiful pools. I’ve never heard a name for these, but they are among the most inviting I’ve seen on any river.

The trail down the lower canyon is less rough and less brushy than the upper canyon, but probably no more used. In the middle section between Cedar Camp and the waterfalls, I saw no footprints from this year. To the west, a fair number of footprints, as I think people come here to camp, and to the east, some footprints. In the middle, none.

At Salt Springs Reservoir the trail goes along the north hillside just above the lake, and the distance seems interminable. It is not a pretty reservoir. I camped a couple of miles below the dam, beside the river. This was the Fourth of July weekend, so there were people camped everywhere, and celebrating the freedom to play loud, very loud music. But they were friendly.

The next day I followed a section of the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail up Moore Creek and to the top of Calaveras Dome. This is a fairly new trail, which was partly done the last time I was here and now has official signing, too much signing in fact. The trail ends there (or at least it seems to, the MCCT website indicates it continue but I saw no evidence) and I headed east following logging roads, intending on walking to Bear Valley. But the first water source I was going to use, upper Moore Creek, was completely dry, and I realized it was not the year to be trying cross-country trips in an area I didn’t know, likely to end in long stretches without water. So I walked back down and camped beside the river again.

The next day I hiked up the road that leads out of the canyon, going to Cole Creek Campground and then onto Squaw Ridge which is the old emigrant trail route, and then to Horsethief Spring. 5000 feet in 24 miles, about 13 hours. Whew!

From Horsethief I walked out to Plasse’s on Highway 88 and hitched to South Lake Tahoe, then home on the Amtrak bus.

Photos on Flickr, within Mokelumne Wilderness collection

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