Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Thomas Canyon

Fall colors in lower Thomas Canyon
4.5 miles round trip, 1250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Thomas Canyon is an outrageously scenic offshoot of Lamoille Canyon in Nevada's Ruby Mountains where, depending on the season, hikers can find a paradise of either waterfalls and wildflowers or vibrant fall colors surrounded by high alpine peaks. If you thought Nevada was nothing but desert, visiting the Ruby Mountains- and Thomas Canyon in particular- will prove that notion wrong. This half-day hike packs in beautiful scenery as it ascends along the cascading Thomas Creek into a high alpine bowl at the foot of craggy peaks. While lacking the alpine lakes of the more popular hike to Lamoille and Liberty Lakes, it delivers similar alpine scenery with far fewer crowds.

Fall foliage here peaks around the last week of September on most years, though you'll still be able to catch some nice color if you come in the first week of October. Come earlier in the summer (July or so) to catch wildflowers in bloom in the meadows of the upper canyon and see snowmelt-fed waterfalls tumble off the surrounding high cliffs into the canyon. The Ruby Mountains still aren't really widely renowned; while it's known in hiking circles, casual visitors usually don't make the trip out to these mountains that are hours away from any major metropolitan area. That said, the Rubies are still perhaps the best known of Nevada's mountain ranges after the Snake Range of Great Basin National Park and you won't find the same quiet here as you might find in the Toiyabe or Schell Creek Ranges. On a Saturday afternoon at peak foliage, I ran into about 15 other hikers on the trail over the course of about three hours; so while you won't find solitude here, the canyon is still unlikely to be overrun with visitors.

I hiked Thomas Canyon on an early October day during an autumn road trip through Nevada. While Lamoille Canyon is a long drive from any major metropolitan area- it's a 4.5 hour drive from Reno and 4 hours from Salt Lake City- it is still one of the most popular mountain destinations in the state of Nevada and is just over a half hour drive from Elko, the largest town in the state outside of the Las Vegas and Reno-Sparks-Carson City metropolitan areas. To reach the Thomas Canyon Trailhead from Elko, I followed Highway 227 (5th St) east from downtown, crossing the Humboldt River and then the Elko Hills. I took Highway 227 east for 19 miles from downtown Elko, passing the suburbs of Spring Creek and then turning right at the sign for the Lamoille Canyon Recreation Area. I followed Lamoille Canyon Road south for about 8 miles as it entered the Ruby Mountains until I reached Thomas Canyon Campground, where I turned right to enter the campground. There is a signed day-use parking area on the far left corner at the four-way intersection upon entering the campground; do not park in the campsites in the rest of the campground if you're just here for a day hike.

From the day use parking area, it's necessary to walk through the south loop of the campground to reach the actual trailhead. After parking, take the road that continues straight from the road entering the campground; this road immediately splits apart into a campground loop. You'll reach the trailhead faster by taking a left here and going around the loop clockwise. The campground loop crossed Lamoille Creek; after a short walk, I spotted the Thomas Canyon Trail, which was unmarked but obvious as it split off from the campground loop and headed uphill into Thomas Canyon.

Crossing Lamoille Creek in the Thomas Canyon Campground
Leaving from the trailhead, the dirt trail immediately began a steady ascent. Although initially slightly removed from Thomas Creek, the trail soon followed the creek closely, running just above the gorge that Thomas Creek carved out. There were plenty of aspens in this area, which were all displaying bright yellow foliage during my visit. Thomas Creek dropped through many small but beautiful waterfalls as it made its way down its hanging upper valley to the floor of Lamoille Canyon. In places, there were lovely pools at the bases of the waterfalls that would surely make nice swimming holes on hot days.

Small waterfall amidst the fall aspens
Waterfall and pool on Thomas Creek
The trail climbed steadily through the first 2/5 of a mile, ascending about 300 feet. Towards the top of this inital ascent, the trail passed through an extraordinary beautiful stretch: Thomas Creek flowed through a series of pools in a small gorge below the trail while the impressive pyramid of Mount Fitzgerald, its slopes still snowy, rose in the distance and a grove of extraordinarily colorful aspens exploding with yellows, oranges, and reds covered the nearby canyon slopes.

Aspens displaying fall foliage in Thomas Canyon
The trail flattened out after 0.4 miles as it passed through an initial hanging valley; there were a few ponds in this flat part of this canyon across the creek. The trail closely paralleled Thomas Creek through this stretch of the canyon, where there were few trees but a mix of sagebrush with bushy vegetation more common to alpine meadows. Mount Fitzgerald rose ahead of the trail, providing beautiful mountain scenery; this flat stretch of trail continued for about 500 meters. I took time while hiking here to note the remarkable U-shape of the valley, with a flat bottom to the valley and steep cliffs on the surrounding mountains. This is a classic sign of ancient glaciation: indeed, past glaciation is responsible for the dramatic scenery in the Ruby Mountains, including the steep walls of both Lamoille and Thomas Canyons. In fact, the Ruby Mountains may have been the most extensively glaciated mountain range in Nevada during previous ice ages; with the exception of the South Snake Range in Great Basin National Park, no other range in Nevada exhibits so many cirques that must have once cradled glaciers. Lamoille Canyon itself was gouged out by massive alpine glaciers that may resemble the great valley glaciers that can still be found today in the Alps, Himalayas, and polar regions.

At the end of this lower hanging valley, the trail embarked on a second ascent. This much more extended climb involved nearly 800 feet of elevation gain as the trail climbed up from the lower hanging valley to the alpine upper canyon. The trail largely stayed nearly Thomas Creek through this ascent; the trail was steep in parts although the terrain was generally gentle enough that even switchbacks were not needed. Mount Fitzgerald kept me entertained through the ascent along with more tumbing cascades along Thomas Creek as it made its steep descent from the higher reaches of the Ruby Mountains. Beautiful fall colors decorated the valley floor: many bushes had turned their leaves yellow, providing for nice color alongside the golden aspen that clung to the slopes of the canyon. At times, I turned around and found incredible views of aspens painting the canyon below with color, with the impressive cliffs of unnamed peaks of the Lamoille Creek-Talbot Creek divide rising imposingly to the north.

Mount Fitzgerald and a small waterfall on Thomas Creek
Aspens on the floor of glacial-carved Thomas Canyon
At 1.7 miles from the trailhead, the second ascent of this hike finally ended as the trail entered the broad, flat, glacial-scoured upper Thomas Canyon. Here, the terrain opened up into a beautiful alpine bowl surrounded by the high peaks of the Ruby Mountains. Thomas and Onthank Peaks rose to the east and west of the valley here, presenting as imposing rock walls, but the most impressive part of the view lay ahead: meadows and aspen groves stretched down the remaining length of the canyon to the foot of the sharp, rocky, alpine forms of Snow Lake Peak and Mount Fitzgerald. This view was most impressive from the very entrance of the upper canyon, as the view here encompassed the two peaks rising at the head of the canyon more fully.

Snow Lake Peak and Mount Fitzgerald rise over the head of Thomas Canyon
The final half mile of the hike followed the flat bottom of the upper canyon through meadows that alternated between grass, sagebrush, and subalpine-looking bushes. While Thomas Creek had ceased to flow in the upper canyon by this point in the season, there were still a few ponds left in the canyon, including one formed by a beaver dam with a beaver lodge in the heart of the resulting pond. A few snow patches still dotted the slopes of Mount Fitzgerald, the last remnants of the mighty glaciers that once carved in the canyon in the last ice age. As I approached the head of the alpine bowl, views of Mount Fitzgerald and Snow Lake Peak disappeared behind the upper ledges of the bowl. The trail ended shortly after coming to the boundary of the Ruby Mountains Wilderness, dead ending at the cul-de-sac of the canyon itself. In summer, I'm told that the meadows throughout the upper canyon bloom with wildflowers and even during my October visit, I spotted abundant lupine in the meadows that had since gone to bean. The cliffs rising above the alpine bowl had clear water stains in spots, suggesting that in early summer, there are probably high waterfalls that would tumble into the basin below. The scenery was idyllic and I had the upper canyon to myself at the late 5 PM hour.

Beaver pond and lodge in upper Thomas Canyon
I really enjoyed my hike up Thomas Canyon- I found the fall colors here to be the most spectacular that I saw during my weeklong trip through the Great Basin. If you're looking for a half-day hike out of Lamoille Canyon to enjoy the alpine, glacial-sculpted landscapes of the Ruby Mountains, the hike up Thomas Canyon is a highly recommended experience.

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