Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Snow Mountain

Southerly views from the summit

16 miles round trip, 4300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, stream crossing involved
Access: Narrow paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Snow Mountain is the first peak of California's Coast Range north of San Francisco to exceed 7000 feet in elevation and thus is a particularly prominent mountain in the range; its name derives from the fact that the peak is usually snow-covered through the winter and spring and it is the northern namesake landmark of Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument, which was established in 2017. These factoids about Snow Mountain may make it an appealing destination; the summit itself, however, is hardly worth the effort necessary to reach it. The approach from the Deafy Glade trailhead is long, grueling, and frequently very hot and passes through ghastly areas that were incinerated by the Ranch Fire in 2018. Summit views are nice, but Snow Mountain is ultimately far from being a scenic highlight in a state that is home to the Trinity Alps, the Cascades, the Santa Lucia Range, and the High Sierra. Hikers who love tagging notable high points may still find this hike rewarding, but most hikers will find better value hiking elsewhere in the state.

The trail from Deafy Glade requires crossing Stony Creek; the level of the creek can be quite high in spring and may make the hike less safe or even impassable. I hiked in July and found the creek level to be fine; in most years, the creek crossing should be manageable in May or later, although you should check the latest conditions before hiking.

The hike consists of four major portions: an initial mile of relatively flat hiking from the Deafy Glade Trailhead to Stony Creek, three miles of morale-busting ascent after the creek crossing that form the bulk of hike's uphill, a little over 2 miles of continued ascent along the Summit Springs Trail through the 2018 Ranch Fire burn area, and a final mile and a half through a subalpine landscape to the summit.

The trailhead for Snow Mountain is a surprisingly long drive from the Bay Area: it's about a 3.5 hour drive from San Francisco. To reach the Deafy Glade Trailhead from I-5, I left the freeway at Exit 586 and followed the Maxwell Colusa Road west through the town of Maxwell, at which point it turned into the Maxwell Sites Road. I followed the road into the mountains and then through the town of Sites, at which point it turned into Sites Lodoga Road. Sites Lodoga Road traveled through the mountains for 14 miles to reach Lodoga, where I turned right onto Lodoga Stonyford Road. Another 8 miles along this road through a broad valley brought me to Stonyford, where Lodoga Stonyford Road ended at its junction with Market Street next to the Stonyford General Store. Turning left onto Market Street, I headed north just two blocks before turning left again onto Fouts Spring Road. The final 13 miles of driving were along Fouts Spring Road, which entered the Coast Range and became extremely windy, taking about 40 minutes to travel. The road remained paved the entire time and I arrived at the trailhead, a small pull-off on the right side of the road, just under a mile after passing the Dixie Glade Campground. The trailhead is not well marked, there is limited parking, and there are no restrooms, as this is an off the beaten path hike. 

The Deafy Glade Trail followed a road trace west from the Deafy Glade parking area, staying level and contouring along the side of the mountain through the forest as the Fouts Spring Road continued ascending just uphill from the trail. Although road traces are generally easy to follow, the trail here was extremely brushy throughout and overgrown in parts, making it both a challenge to move through the vegetation and at times a little hard to follow. I recommend long pants to avoid picking up ticks here. The first mile of the trail was a very gradual descent as the Deafy Glade Trail traveled towards its crossing of Stony Creek. As I approached Stony Creek, I began to catch glimpses of Deafy Rock, a massive outcrop, across the creek, although there were no clear views of the rock due to the tree cover. The gradual descent steepened on the final approach to Stony Creek and at one mile into the hike I came to the creek.

Stony Creek
The environs around Stony Creek were lush and green, a stark difference from the terrain that would come ahead. The creek is bit too wide and deep to be rock-hopped, so I switched out for some sandals to cross the creek, where the water came up halfway up my calf in July.

After crossing the creek, the Deafy Glade Trail immediately embarked upon the hike's primary climb. After curving into a small ravine, the trail used a direct and brutal angle of ascent to gain the crest of a minor ridge. The trail then followed the backbone of this ridge directly uphill and quickly lifted me above the creek. At one point early along this ascent, a social trail branched off to the right that led to a rare view of massive Deafy Rock rising above the forested valley of Stony Creek.

Deafy Rock
A third of a mile and 300 feet of ascent after crossing Stony Creek, the trail came to an open meadow surrounded by trees. The trail skirted the eastern side of the meadow all while ascending and I spotted a handful of wildflowers that had bloomed into July; it was clear that the area would've been greener and sported more flowers earlier during the year. After the northeastern corner of the meadow, the trail turned sharply uphill and began the soul-sucking ascent up Morale Buster Hill. 

Meadow near Deafy Glade
Over the next 1.2 miles, the trail ascended nearly directly up the slopes of Snow Mountain. The trail through the forest here was often brushy and I almost lost it on one or two occasions, but its general route along the top of a minor ridge made it a bit easier to relocate when I lost the path. It's best to do this hike as early in the morning as possible during the summer, because this ascent can become quite hot later in the day. This was one of the more brutal ascents that I've dealt with in California and a big part of the reason I classified this hike as being strenuous.

At 2.6 miles from the trailhead and more than 1500 feet of uphill, I got some slight relief from the intensity of the ascent as the trail began to switchback with a slightly more moderate grade. The uphill didn't stop, though, continuing through a set of switchbacks until the trail gained the South Ridge of Snow Mountain at 4.2 miles and came to its junction with the Summit Springs Trail.

By the time I reached the junction with the Summit Springs Trail, I had traveled just over half of the distance from the Deafy Glade Trailhead to Snow Mountain's summit but had completed nearly 2500 feet of elevation gain. From the manzanita-covered ridge, there were the first significant views of the hike, encompassing the peaks of the Coast Range to the south and to the west as well as the Central Valley to the east and High Rock above. I took the right fork at the junction to follow the Summit Springs Trail north towards Snow Mountain; the left fork led downhill to an alternate trailhead that is much makes for a much shorter hike to Snow Mountain but requires much more driving and a 4WD vehicle to access.

Summit Springs Trail
I followed the Summit Springs Trail north along a ridge with wide open views, continuing to ascend steadily. The openness of the Summit Springs Trail here made the terrain much hotter: in fact, upon leaving the forest of the Deafy Glade Trail, there would be no more extended areas of shade along the hike at all.

After a short stretch of hiking atop the ridge, the Summit Springs Trail peeled off to the west side of the ridge. While the entirety of the terrain of this hike burned in the 2018 Ranch Fire, part of the larger Mendocino Complex Fire, the damage was limited and often non-obvious along the Deafy Glade Trail: however, the upper reaches of Snow Mountain burned intensely and the effects of the fire became obvious along the Summit Springs Trail. At 4.5 miles, the trail turned into a small ravine that was once forested but was now just a graveyard of charred trunks. While brushy vegetation had sprouted in the four years since the fire, it seemed clear that recovery of the full forest would take a while.

Hiking through the burn area of the Ranch Fire
The Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018 was the largest wildfire in California's history when it happened, although it would be dwarfed by the megafires of 2020 and 2021 soon afterwards. Over 450000 acres burned between the Clear Lake area through Snow Mountain; combined with the August Complex Fire in 2020 and the Monument Fire in 2021, nearly every acre of the Coast Range between Clear Lake and the Trinity Alps were torched, a slow-motion conflagration of astounding proportions that illustrates how the climate of these mountains has changed.

Deer amidst Ranch Fire devastation
Numerous switchbacks through the burn area brought me out to the spine of the ridge again. Here, I had a grand view of High Rock, an outcrop that marked the southern end of the higher elevation cluster of hills and peaks around Snow Mountain. Beyond High Rock, I could see back out to Central Valley and the Sutter Buttes, a tiny, circular collection of hills in the heart of the valley between Yuba City and Oroville. On a clear day, it would be possible to see the Sierra Nevada and spot peaks like the Sierra Buttes, but the day of my hike was a standard summer day, meaning that a layer of haze covered the Central Valley and restricted longer-range views to the east.

High Rock and Central Valley views
The trail flattened out for a brief stretch as it reentered another charred ghost forest. At 5.8 miles, the trail descended slightly and came to a large meadow. A few trees surrounding this meadow had survived the fire, making for a tiny oasis of green in an otherwise barren and charred landscape. During the spring snowmelt, this meadow contains the small Cedar Pond, but the pond had disappeared for the summer by the time of my hike.

Cedar "Pond" amidst the devastation of the 2018 Ranch Fire
The trail skirted the eastern end of the meadow and delved back into the charred forest. I ascended steadily through one small ravine; at the top of that ravine, I came into another burnt ravine and followed it up to a saddle at 6.5 miles.

The extended ascent that started from the crossing of Stony Creek ended here. Reaching the saddle, I could finally see the summit of Snow Mountain for the first time, about a mile north from where I stood. From here onward, the burnt forest thinned out and was replaced by chaparral and subalpine meadows. The trail descended briefly after leaving the saddle and then stayed level for a while as it crossed through a number of clearings with sweeping views east into Central Valley. At 7.2 miles, the trail reached a basin at the base of Snow Mountain's east peak and began ascending again along a small stream.

This was the most scenic part of the hike, with scenery that more closely resembled that of the state's famed alpine regions than the standard Coast Range scenery. There were still many wildflowers blooming in the meadows here and the sparser trees here appeared to have largely escaped the fiery fate of the forest near Cedar Pond. 

Meadow and the Snow Mountain East summit
The Summit Springs Trail led uphill to a saddle between Snow Mountain's East and West summits at just over 7.5 miles. The East Peak was the mountain's true high point, so I turned right and followed the open, rocky ridgeline towards the summit. The trail was not always obvious here but my objective was obvious enough that I knew to make a beeline for the summit along the ridge.

Ridge leading to the summit of Snow Mountain
A few switchbacks assisted the final push to the summit. While the rocky summit looked barren from a distance, I found it brimming with wildflowers when I got closer, which added some much needed color to a landscape that showed too much wildfire devastation.

Wildflowers near the summit
After 8 miles of hard hiking, I arrived at the broad plateau that made up the summit of Snow Mountain East Peak. Walking to the various corners of the plateau, I pieced together a far-ranging panorama of the Coast Range and the Central Valley. The Sutter Buttes, nearby Saint John Mountain, and Mount St. Helena were notable landmarks in the view. On a clearer day, hikers at this summit would likely be able to see the Sierra Buttes, Lassen Peak, and Mount Shasta. The view was lovely, but much of the landscape that I could see was brown from either the summer sun or the Ranch Fire, so it ultimately compared unfavorably to summit views that one can find in the Trinity Alps or the Sierra Nevada. I had the summit completely to myself (in fact, I did not see another human on the trail all day) and had a nice time, but did wonder whether it was worth the intensity of the hike and the summer heat to reach it.

View into the Central Valley and Sutter Buttes from the top of Snow Mountain

View north along the crest of the Coast Range

Looking south towards Mount St. Helena

View towards Saint John Mountain and the Central Valley

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