Updated: Aug 13, 2022
For this weekend's hike, we'd planned on it being a 6-mile loop, summiting both Castle Peak and Basin Peak. But...things did not exactly go according to plan.
While doing our brief pre-hike research, we learned about the forest road that we could (potentially) drive that would take us closer to the trailhead, shaving off at least 4 miles of the overall hike.
Due to the rough, rocky terrain of some areas of this road, most people seem to park just off I-80 and hike the entire forest road to get to the trailhead. Since we were bringing the Jeep, we figured we would drive up as far as we could on the forest road and start hiking from there. And that's just what we did. (And we were glad we did.)
Slowly making our way up the bumpy forest road, which was somewhere around 2 miles, we arrived at the "real" trailhead, put on our gear, grabbed a couple of beef sticks, and started the immediate climb.
This photo is looking down at the initial section of the trail we were in the process of climbing.
And looking ahead of us. More climbing.
After we reached the main intersection, we headed to the right and started climbing some more. This part was exceptionally steep and it wound around the side of the mountain all the way until you reach Castle Peak. The terrain was mostly dirt, but it also had sections with very loose rock on a very steep grade. Let's just say I was glad I recently replaced my hiking shoes and had brand-new tread for this one.
Practically straight up. This trail is no joke.
The rock formations along the way were pretty neat, as were the expansive views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
We thought this one resembled the profile of a person yelling something. Or maybe singing?
The first mile or so of this hike was intense. As we were breathing hard during the ascent, we saw numerous hikers literally slipping and sliding their way down these steep, ball-bearing sections of the trail. I thought to myself, boy, am I glad we are taking this as a loop and won't be hiking back down this section.
In an attempt to demonstrate scale, if you look closely at the photo below, you can see my husband in the lower half of the photo, making his way up. And farther up the trail, next to the last pine tree to the left of the trail, you might be able to spot another hiker who's wearing a red backpack.
And in these next two photos, you can spot me making the steep climb.
Here's looking back down the trail after I passed the hiker with the red backpack. So steep!
And, we're still climbing...
Once we reached the ridgeline of trees near the crest, the trail transitioned to some switchbacks that took us the rest of the way to the peak, but not before climbing up this rocky section of trail.
As is to be expected, the higher you get, the more incredible the views.
The tiny trail is behind me and to the left.
Following the steep switchbacks, we were treated to some more beautiful views and wildflowers on the final stretch to Castle Peak.
This was also the point where I heard a helicopter approaching the area and quickly realized it was heading to one of the wildfires. You can see the "bucket" dangling below.
A bright bunch of wildflowers growing in the rocks near the top.
Does this rock make me look taller?
This spire is the actual "Castle Peak" and you can see a tiny sliver of Donner Lake near the center of the photo, just above the tree line on the ridge.
Views from the top.
Oh, and another precocious ground squirrel no doubt eyeing up my pack for a snack.
At the top, we also met a trail runner who was training for a 100k race in the Alps. It was his second time up there that day. 😳
We continued down the steep section towards Basin Peak, which we could already see in the distance. It was our next destination.
I took a glance back at Castle Peak from the trail to Basin Peak. Still some snow!
A cool view of the valley below through two giant rock formations along the trail to Basin Peak.
As we made our way closer to Basin Peak, I could have sworn I heard thunder. Or was it an airplane?
A few minutes later, we definitely heard thunder and could see rain falling from the massive cloud above the area we were heading into. Yikes.
Where there's thunder and rain, there can also be lightning. And here we are walking along this fully exposed ridge.
So, we ducked down to a slightly lower spot below the trail, opposite the little storm, hoping that we could wait it out and continue on. My husband checked the weather on his phone and confirmed there was a lightning warning in effect. Continuing on and risking dangerous weather just didn't seem worth it to us. We were too exposed on this trail. (Hello, lightning rod!) As disappointing as it is to have to turn around and not technically "complete" a hike, we knew it was probably the best choice this time.
Reluctantly, we started to backtrack and headed down a cut-off trail that would get us down faster than our original path. And I spotted this pretty butterfly! (I believe it is a Mormon Fritillary.)
However, heading back down the way we came up meant we'd have to contend with the steep, ball-bearing terrain we climbed up to begin with – something I was not overly thrilled about after having watched other hikers struggle to stay upright on their descent.
Joke's on me! In the end, due to the stormy weather, we had to hike back down it anyway! Granted, many of the other hikers were not wearing suitable shoes for this terrain, which added to their struggle to descend, but even with brand-new trail runners with excellent grip, I had to carefully watch every step I took. And we chose not to hike with our poles on this one, which we both agreed would have been borderline annoying on the ascent, but very useful on the way down.
We gasped when one of the hikers, who was by herself and wearing what I would describe as fashionable street sneakers, lost her footing, slipped, spun, and fell down. I was so glad that didn't end up worse for her.
On the way down, we surprisingly crossed paths with several other hikers just making their way up. I wondered why they wanted to risk the potentially dangerous weather approaching. Just doesn't seem worth it to me. I hope they all made it back without incident.
We successfully made it back to the trailhead, just in time to see a few random raindrops landing on the Jeep.