What: autumn trail hike across the Sierra Nevada.
Where: from Reno Nevada to Auburn California.
When: Oct 8-17, 2019 (just over 9 days).
Distance: about 150 miles.
Highlights: well-maintained trails, diverse scenery, autumn colors, easy transit and resupply logistics.
Why we went
In 2018, while hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), we passed a trail sign for the Rim-to-Reno Trail (R2R). We immediately thought it would be interesting to start a walk in Reno and connect to the TRT. Getting to Reno via public transit is easy, and starting there would give us an excuse to visit friends who lived there. After returning home, James did some research and learned that the TRT also has connections to various trails leading further west down-slope towards Auburn, a town on the western edge of the Sierra Nevada.
We were also aware of the Western States Endurance Run as two friends had completed this long distance race. The Western States route starts near Squaw Valley, crosses the crest of the Sierra Nevada, and descends to and finishes in Auburn. We believed that the race would likely follow a well maintained trail, so we could plan to use the route without worrying about overgrown or abandoned USFS trails.
Putting this all together, James designed an on-trail walk that crossed the entire Sierra Nevada Range from east to west. This opportunity was too intriguing to ignore so when we had some time in mid-October 2019, we took off to hike it.
My assessment of this trip is similar to our October 2018 thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail. The scenery was consistently good; the trail was in great condition; the walking was easy; the transit and resupply logistics were easy; the weather was great; and the route had a coherent purpose in transecting the Sierra range.
Like the TRT, this route does not have nearly the scenic grandeur of the southern Sierra Nevada. However it does have terrific botanical diversity due to the wide altitudinal range and spending time on the wet west side and the dry east side of the crest.
Unlike the TRT, this route has miles of trails that are open to motorbikes. But we saw only three motor vehicles while on the few miles of USFS roads on a weekend, and didn’t see any on the trail portions. Based on the lack of degradation of the trails it does not appear that they are much used by motorbikes.
I enthusiastically recommend the route to anybody who wants an interesting straight-forward October walk. It’s particularly great for Bay Area residents who don’t have or prefer not to use a car, or non-Californians who can travel by airplane or train to Reno and from Sacramento.
There can be something very satisfying about an end-to-end walk that crosses a distinct geographic region. Walking across the Sierra Nevada from the edge of the Basin and Range geographic province to the edge of the Central Valley is such a opportunity. We have taken over thirty long hikes in the Sierra, but never had done a complete crossing prior to this trip. So for me, this walk was highly rewarding as a geographic accomplishment as well as just a very fine trip in the mountains.
The trails were in surprisingly good condition, so the walking was never a struggle. There was a lot of geologic and botanical diversity given that the route ranged from 560 feet to over 10,300 feet in altitude. It was interesting to watch the plant communities change as we went up and down and the fall colors were excellent as well. Extremely easy logistics added to the enjoyment of the experience.
It was also nice to have the mountains nearly to ourselves: no mobs of other hikers to contend with, just peace and serenity. All in all, I can highly recommend this walk to people who would like to have a different type of Sierra hiking experience.
Notes for Potential Hikers
One significant advantage of the Trans-Sierra Reno to Auburn route (R2A) are the good public transit options at both ends, so it can be hiked without using cars or car shuttles. Reno has a sizeable airport with connections to many other US cities; it is also served by Amtrak and several long-distance bus lines. We used an inexpensive Flixbus to get from San Francisco to Reno.
Once in Reno, there is a public bus that can take you to within a mile of the trailhead. A taxi or service such as Lyft or Uber could easily get you there as well.
Auburn has several daily Amtrak connections to Sacramento, and there are also public buses that connect with the Sacramento light rail network. Sacramento is a transit hub with bus, train, and air connections to San Francisco and other cities.
There are numerous old USFS logging roads and trails that cross the route and most of these have unsigned junctions, so it is necessary to carry maps. We used Gaia GPS to store downloaded digital maps for the entire route and also carried, but rarely used, large-scale printed maps. Some of the old roads and trails that cross the R2A have been abandoned and are overgrown. Others have been deliberately obliterated by the USFS in an effort to restore degraded habitat and the current existing trail is a reroute but may not be updated on the maps. So occasionally the map and what is on the ground do not quite match, but it was always relatively simple to figure out where we needed to go to stay on the route.
When to Go
Autumn is a great time year for this walk. There can be significant snowpack in the spring, and depending on the year, winter snow can remain in the higher altitudes as late as early July, Temperatures in the lower altitude sections are often in the 90’s or over 100 during the summer. There is one unbridged crossing of the American River that could be risky if not impossible in the spring and early summer due to high snowmelt water flows. In September and October, cooler temperatures, the lack of snow, and lower river flows are usually perfect for this walk.
The first significant winter snowstorm often arrives around Halloween. If this first storm is substantial, the higher portions of the trail can become deeply snow-covered. By starting in Reno, the highest altitude portions of the route can be completed in the first several days; since the five or six day weather forecast for the Sierra is generally quite reliable, potential snow storms can be anticipated for these sections. If it does snow unexpectedly, there are many easy bail-out options along the higher altitude trail. Although the days are short, an early November start could be safely considered by people who are willing to cancel their trip if the weather becomes uncooperative.
Much of the route is open to hunting and during the hunting season we suggest that hikers wear a piece of very brightly colored clothing while hiking this route.
Aspens, Cottonwoods, Maples, Willows, and Redbuds are in beautiful fall foliage in October. Poison Oak is also colorful and is found along the lower altitude portions of the walk.
Direction of Travel
This hike can be easily done in either direction. The advantages of traveling westbound include:
- 3600 feet less of total altitude gain, as Auburn is lower than Reno;
- the high altitude portion is earlier in the trip so pre-trip weather forecasts are more reliable for the section with risk of snowstorms.
The advantages of walking eastbound include:
- the best high mountain scenery is at the end of the trip instead of the beginning;
- there are more transit and lodging options in Reno than in Auburn;
- the walk does not start with an immediate ~5000 foot climb.
We chose to walk westbound because logistics with our friends in Reno were advantageous.
Detailed Route Notes
The walk begins on the Thomas Creek Trail in suburban Reno. When we began our trip, there was a construction project underway and our intended trailhead was fenced off. We found access to the public path by ignoring a “no trespassing” sign at a gate to the construction zone. We do not know the long-term plan for that trailhead. If for some reason the trail becomes obliterated, there is a another reliable and signposted official access point a mile south where the Thomas Creek Trail crosses Arrowcreek Parkway.
The Thomas Creek Trail climbs to meet the R2R Trail and that trail soon enters the Mt. Rose Wilderness area. At the 9700-foot level, the R2R crosses a shoulder where a marked 1.25 mile easy side trail leads to the summit of 10,776-foot Mount Rose. We did not climb Mount Rose on this trip as we had done so just six weeks earlier. It is definitely worth going to the summit as the view from there is excellent. Descending from the Mount Rose saddle, the trail is renamed the Rim-to-Rose trail and soon connects to the TRT.
The route then follows the TRT over the top of 10,338 foot Relay Peak, the highest point on the walk. The TRT eventually crosses Highway 267 near Brockway Summit and the R2A route soon leaves the TRT to descend to the tiny town of Carnelian Bay on the shore of Lake Tahoe. Various Forest Service and other trails then lead back up into the mountains and eventually to the Highway 89 bridge across the Truckee River.
Across the river, the first Western States Pioneer Trail signs are encountered. Our R2A route primarily follows this historic 19th Century trail the rest of the way to Auburn. The Western States race route is mostly contiguous with the Pioneer Trail as well. The R2A climbs steeply up from the Truckee River and passes the Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski areas before entering the Granite Chief Wilderness. Along the way, the Western States Pioneer Trail partially overlaps several other named trails, including the Tevis Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the American Discovery Trail.
Note that in the Granite Chief Wilderness, at a fork we took the signposted left hand Tevis Trail option instead of staying on the PCT. We do not recommend this; although a bit shorter than staying on the Pacific Crest Trail/American Discovery Trail, the Tevis Trail option has not been maintained for many years. The trail was difficult to follow and required crossing the upper reaches of the Middle Fork American River in a very wet meadow. James inadvertently stepped into a water-filled vegetation-hidden sinkhole and was soaked up to his waist. We recommend staying on the PCT as continues north from the Tevis Trail junction. This junction is marked on our Caltopo map.
The R2A continues westward, often on the top of long ridges with sweeping views. There are several significant canyons that must be crossed, requiring long descents and equally long ascents. Eventually the trail joins descends to the Middle Fork of the American River and follows its canyon downhill to an altitude of 560 feet before a short final climb up to Auburn.
For those who want to extend this hike, we have mapped an additional 60 miles of walking from Auburn to Sacramento following trails along the American River. Much of this section is above Folsom Lake, a large reservoir where water levels are managed for irrigation purposes. Below Folsom, the route follows the American River Bike Trail, a mostly paved multi-use recreational path, down to the junction of the American and Sacramento Rivers. Since this route is in a much more populated area, finding campsites may be more difficult
With very few exceptions the entire route is on well-maintained trails. There were only a few short places where the trail routing was slightly ambiguous; using our CalTopo map should eliminate any confusion at those points. Brush was trimmed back and there were few blow-downs to climb over. In many places the trail was rocky and loose underfoot. We calculated that the R2A gains about 210 feet per mile if walking westbound, slightly more per mile than the TRT and slightly less than the John Muir Trail.
Much of the route is open to mountain bikes; some sections were built by Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association in cooperation with the USFS. The only mountain bikes we encountered were in the Tahoe area.
Motorcycles and OHV’s are allowed on some portions of the Pioneer Trail. We did not encounter any motorized vehicles on the trail, and although we did see some trails with tire tracks we never saw evidence of extensive OHV use. We saw a couple of trucks on the Forest Service roads, but the drivers were always considerate.
Although there is minimal pavement walking on this route, it crosses three main roads, and these carry enough fast traffic that caution is required. There is a bit of on-street walking in the communities of Carnelian Bay, Michigan Bluff, Foresthill, and Auburn. The route also follows a paved non-motorized multi-use path for about half a mile west of Carnelian Bay.
Crossing the American River
The American River must be forded once by wading and this is the only technical challenge on the walk. We forded at Oregon Bar where the Western States 100 Race crosses the river. During the race, the officials stretch a hand-line rope across the river, provide the racers with PFD’s, and post crossing guards in wetsuits. None of these safety aids will be present when you cross.
When we crossed, the river was running at about 400 cfs at the Oxbow gauge. Water depth reached to just below our waists, but the river’s velocity was relatively slow. We used hiking poles and walking sticks for stability and crossed together, steadying each other. Pack belts were not fastened so our packs could be easily shed if necessary. The river bottom was composed of rocks varying in size from grapefruits to dishwashers; wearing shoes is essential. The water was cool, but not unpleasantly so.
The crossing was not easy, but neither of us believed it was hazardous given the conditions we encountered. Conditions may be different at other times and you are responsible for making your own decision about whether or not to cross. The flow will likely be higher and the water colder in the spring and summer, both of which could add to the complexity and danger of the crossing.
There is another crossing point at Poverty Bar, downstream from Oregon Bar. After we had crossed the river, we met a couple on horseback who told us that the Poverty Bar crossing was the easiest and safest place to cross. We later examined that crossing and agreed with their assessment. Our CalTopo file includes an alternative mapped trail connecting Oregon Bar to Poverty Bar. Although we have not walked this route, we were told that it is passable. Our CalTopo files also include another optional route that avoids any crossing of the American River. We have not walked this route either and do not know what condition the trails are in, but based on reviewing satellite imagery, believe that they are passible.
We mailed resupply packages to the Carnelian Bay and Foresthill Post Offices. There is also a Post Office in Squaw Valley, but it is off route. Other sources of food along the route are marked on our Caltopo map.
We highly recommend the Edelweiss Restaurant in Auburn where we ate an excellent breakfast at the end of our trip.
Many water sources have been marked on the Caltopo map. The sources we marked had water in October 2019 following an above average wet winter. Some may not be reliable following low-snowpack winters. Be aware that there are several long ridgetop stretches on this walk without any reliable water sources at all. Many of our campsites were dry and had no nearby water sources. There are beaver in this region, so treating water for giardia is prudent.
We camped every night at decent to excellent sites. The trail is often on steep slopes, so finding flat, level, and clear sites was sometimes a challenge. Starting late-afternoon, we studied our topo maps and identified potentially level areas near the trail that we could target for our camps. We saw very few previously used campsites and we practiced LNT campsite management. The route might be well suited for using hammocks, but we do not use one and do not guarantee hammock viability.
We saw no other campers except at the Robinson Flat USFS Campground.
We met three other backpackers. Two were in the Granite Chief Wilderness and were out for a couple of days. The third was on a TRT thru-hike. We saw a few day hikers and mountain bikers in the Reno to Tahoe segments and met three hunters in the Duncan Canyon area. We also met a couple on horseback along the American River, and one fire crew preparing for a controlled burn, but otherwise the mountains were empty.
We had beautiful sunny days typical of October, with only fifteen minutes of very light precipitation during our final night. Daytime temperatures were generally very pleasant. The first couple of nights were chilly with temperatures dropping below 20 F.
October wildfires appear to be the new norm for the Sierra Nevada. We did have diffuse smoke from distant forest fires on two days during the walk, but no severe smoke or nearby fires.
CalTopo has map overlays for Fire Activity and Fire History and you can add these layers when viewing our CalTop map of the route. The Gaia GPS iPhone app has the same overlays, available in the Features/Weather Overlays list of map sources.
Prior to starting, you should check the Calfire site to make sure that there are no fires near the route. It would also be prudent to call the USFS office to make sure there are no planned prescribed burns in the region during your trip.
Insects, Bears, and Birds
Mosquitos were essentially absent. At lower altitudes on the last couple of days there were occasionally non-biting but annoying small flies.
We did not see any bears, but we saw bear scat every day on this walk, particularly at the lower elevations. We were told that there is a sizable bear population in the area, but unlike the national parks, the animals here are actively hunted so they tend to avoid people. We did not carry a bear canister but did hang our food every night.
We saw 65 species of birds on our trip. Small groups of Townsend’s Solitaires were still practicing their songs. Many Red-breasted Nuthatches were chattering away in the conifers and these cute little guys became the bird of the trip. We were also delighted to see two Osprey and a single Lewis’s Woodpecker.