Wild Places We Go

Empire Creek Trail – Rattlesnake Peak Failure…

At The Velvet Rocket we feel compelled to review our failures and not just to trumpet our, ahem, frequent successes…

It was with a high level of optimism that Molly, Honey and I set off for some exploring of the High Sierra above Downieville, CA. Our destination? Chimney Rock.

It was a lovely day in Downieville and we enjoyed an excellent lunch:


Before heading up this road toward Chimney Rock:


So far, so good… And the road was fun to drive on. All was going well until we got to the top of the ridge and were confronted by a massive snow drift across the road – many miles from the trailhead… It would have taken a tank to get through the snow and so we had to regroup for:


Attempt # 2… Being flexible and adaptable, I soon figured out an alternate road we could take to reach our destination. This road was much closer to the Sierra Buttes (pictured below) and after some initial success, we were again turned back by high snow levels at the ridge – this time even farther away from our destination:


Accepting that Chimney Rock was not going to happen on that particular day, I reviewed my maps again and came up with Rattlesnake Peak – reached via the Empire Creek Trail…

The start point for the Empire Creek Trail is reached by splitting off from Highway 49 in Downieville and then travelling on Upper Main Street for approximately half a mile past the town post office. Cross the Downie River bridge and continue 4.2 miles to a well-defined road fork. Take the left fork (marked Dead End), passing under the tall gates marked “Empire Ranch.” Continue 2 miles to a sharp 180 degree turn in the road. At this point there is a sign reading “Red Oak Road” and “Empire Creek Trail” pointing to the narrow road on the right. Take this narrow road 1.6 miles to to Red Oak Creek.

One can drive to the trailhead, but I stopped at the stream pictured below because there was a large amount of snow in front of it and I didn’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere. Also, it was only a mile or so up this road to reach the trailhead:


There’s a log slightly upstream, you can cross on to avoid becoming saturated in the freezing water… I think this was the first incident of Molly hating me on this day:


Obviously, some people spend the night near the creek which would be nice in warmer weather:


Again, so far, so good as we headed up the road toward the trailhead… I was pumped that we were making the first ascent of the season which was made apparent by the absence of any other tracks in the snow:


The sign pictured below marks the Empire Creek trailhead:


Empire Creek Trail Specifics:

Beginning Elevation: 4,820 Feet (1502.5 Meters)
Ending Elevation: 6,760 Feet (2107.2 Meters)
Length, One-way: 2.5 Miles (4.17 Kilometers)
USGS Map: Mt Fillmore 7.5′ & Downieville 7.5′
Elevation Gain: 1,940 Feet (604.7 Meters)

This is how the trail was described to me:

“Empire Creek Trail is a difficult 2.5 mile trail at an elevation of 4,820 feet. This trail follows the contours of Empire Creek Canyon through a setting of magnificent old growth timber and is a beautiful area to explore. Wildflowers, wildlife, and birdlife abound. After a moderated and steadily climbing hike of approximately 2 miles, the valley opens and provides a panoramic view of the surrounding area. After another 0.5 miles the maintained trail ends at a saddle. This saddle is an ideal area for picnicking and simply enjoying the tranquility of nature.

Hikers looking for a challenge will see Rattlesnake Peak just 0.4 miles away. The additional 460 foot climb should be made from the northeast. The view from the top is spectacular, with Mount Lasses, Mount Shasta, Mount Rose and the Sierra Buttes as the dominant peaks.”

Easy, right?

I thought the colors and texture of this tree along the trail looked cool:


I’m not sure how these old growth trees managed to avoid being logged, but I’m glad they weren’t:


You see, we’re a whole family of tree-huggers:


OK, the snow is starting to get a little heavier now, but we’re on foot and don’t need to worry about getting stuck. Sure, it’s a little tougher to get through without the proper gear, but whatever… That’s never stopped me before. I thought the mushrooms on the log in the snow looked cool:


Snowdrifts getting bigger as we proceed up the trail:


Good views along the way:



Kind of hard to tell, but the snow is starting to get really deep here:


This is the point where I stopped. I had been pushing Molly ahead with platitudes such as “It can’t be that much farther” or “Let’s just go a little more” or “I think I can see the top ahead”, but the trail was becoming very difficult to follow, it was starting to get dark and I was responsible for the lives of two others. As goal-oriented as I am, if I had been by myself, I would have pushed on regardless of whether I had to spend the night out there or not. However, my safety standards go way up when I’m looking after others:


Honey forged on without hesitation for the entirety of the climb, but started having problems on the way back. I had to carry her for long stretches and I can assure you that it is not easy to carry 60 pounds of soaking wet and unbalanced dog:


Molly scaling a snowbank blocking the trail on the way back down… She definitely hated me again at this point:



I may have lost this round with Rattlesnake Peak, but I’ll be back:



5 thoughts on “Empire Creek Trail – Rattlesnake Peak Failure…

  1. Pingback: Chimney Rock « The Velvet Rocket

  2. The only reason why Honey didn’t complain is because she’s a polite dog. J, the pic of you, at the end of the entry, is intimidating… it seems like saying “Don’t mess with me… and if you do, I’ll beat you up!” :p

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