Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Inspiration Point (Lake Alpine)

Union and Utica Reservoirs from Inspiration Point
2.5 miles round trip, 650 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The views justify the name at Inspiration Point, a low volcanic ridge rising above Lake Alpine off Highway 4 in California's Sierra Nevada. This short hike delivers sweeping 360-degree views from atop a hill of volcanic rock and is one of the more rewarding short trails in Stanislaus Forest; it's a good leg-stretcher for those traveling across the Sierra Nevada on Highway 4 or day trippers visiting Lake Alpine. The dramatic volcanic cliffs of Inspiration Point also make this a worthwhile destination.

The road to Lake Alpine is typically closed in winter about two miles back from the trailhead at the Lake Alpine Sno-Park; the road across Ebbetts Pass typically opens at some point in May but access to the Chickaree Day Use area from which this hike starts may be possible slightly earlier.

I hiked to Inspiration Point as part of an early May weekend trip to Calaveras Big Trees State Park. While the road to Ebbetts Pass had not opened for the summer yet, I was able to drive all the way to the trailhead at Lake Alpine. From the Central Valley, I followed Highway 4 past Angels Camp, Murphys, and Bear Valley to Lake Alpine, arriving at the lake 48 miles after leaving Angels Camp. I followed Highway 4 along the north shore of the lake until coming to the parking area for the Chickaree Day Use area on the right side of the road. I parked in this lot, where there was room for about two dozen cars.

Leaving the parking lot, I followed a paved trail that led to a bridge crossing over Silver Creek, one of the main inlet streams feeding Lake Alpine. During my May visit, there was still quite a bit of snow remaining from winter, so both the trail and bridge were covered in snow; I donned microspikes to avoid slipping.

Bridge over Silver Creek
After crossing the bridge, the trail headed to the right, following Silver Creek as its waters flowed into Lake Alpine. The Pine Marten Campground was off to the left of the trail, its picnic tables visible through the forest. The trail was separated from the lakeshore initially by some trees before temporarily separating from the lakeshore as it crossed a very slight ridge. Transitioning to a dirt tread by this point, the trail returned to its arm's length separation from the lakeshore at 0.3 miles. It was easy enough to descend to the lakeshore here to catch some views of the forested and sometimes rocky shore of this pretty reservoir.

Lake Alpine
At just under a half mile into the hike, after nearly completely flat hiking along the lakeshore, I came to a sign pointing towards Inspiration Point; here, the Inspiration Point Trail peeled off to the left from the main lakeshore path and headed uphill. The trail was extremely direct in its ascent, eschewing switchbacks as it ascended 350 feet over the next third of a mile to reach a saddle on the crest of Inspiration Point's major ridge. The ascent was initially through forest but opened up at 0.7 miles as the trail passed through a clearing with the first views over Lake Alpine and across the valley to Mount Reba. After the clearing, the trail reentered the forest before reemerging into the open at the saddle atop the ridge at 0.9 miles. Impressive cliffs of volcanic rock rose above the saddle and new views opened to the south of a landscape of snow, forest, and granite; Union and Utica Reservoirs were two watery jewels amidst the trees and gray rock.

Lahar cliffs of Inspiration Point
I turned left here and headed east along the ridge towards Inspiration Point's summit. The trail began a stiff uphill ascent through a bushy stretch before emerging on the ridge above the cliffs; from here on, the trail was a little less clear, with a path running just below the crest on the north side of the ridge and a separate path following the crest itself. I found the trail directly along the ridge easier to navigate and more scenic. In either case, the views improved dramatically here as I continued to ascend, heading towards Inspiration Point's summit plateau. Widening views here encompassed Lake Alpine, Mount Reba, Union and Utica Reservoirs, the Dardanelles, and the forested western tail of the Sierra Nevada, but I pressed on towards the summit to see this low peak's full panorama.

View west along the ridge of Inspiration Point
Up on the ridge, I no longer had to struggle with the snow that I had encountered earlier on the hike; here, spring had arrived and phlox was blooming in spots in the otherwise barren landscape of volcanic rock.

Early-blooming phlox
Inspiration Point's true summit was unfortunately not a prominent high point but instead a wide plateau dotted with a handful of pines. I reached the summit at 1.2 miles from the trailhead but found limited views due to the low angle of the slopes from the summit. Luckily, hiking along the edges of the plateau allowed me to enjoy the full views that this peak offered.

Inspiration Point summit plateau
To the north, I could see back to where I started: the forested shores of Lake Alpine beneath Mount Reba, with Mokelumne Peak rising in the distance. Frog Lake lay to the east, beneath the rounded granite form of Bull Run Peak. Interestingly, the most spectacular mountains here were those built not from famed Sierra granite but with igneous extrusive rocks: the great cliffs of the Dardanelles and the dramatic peaks of the Sonora Pass area, including massive Leavitt Peak, as well as Inspiration Point itself, are formed from igneous rocks erupted from the Little Walker Caldera, an extinct volcano responsible for much of the extrusive igneous geology in the Sonora Pass area.

Mokelumne Peak and Mount Reba rise above Lake Alpine
Dardanelles and Leavitt Peak
Duck Lake and Bull Run Peak
Sonora Pass peaks
I made a loop around the summit plateau to experience the view in all directions before descending down the ridge I took up and returning through the snow to the trailhead. On a lovely May weekend day, I had this trail entirely to myself during late afternoon, but I expect that with this hike's proximity to Lake Alpine, it will be far busier when the early stretches of the trail aren't covered in two feet of snow. A pretty hike for those in the area seeking an easy but quietier option to the busy trails of Yosemite or Tahoe.

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