Highway 4: hidden wilderness
August 8, 2009
When looking for an alternative route to and from the South Shore, or even just a quick getaway, recreation enthusiasts don’t need to look farther than Highway 4.
The 61-mile long Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway goes through Alpine and Calaveras counties along the Sierra Nevada, and contains approximately 20 campgrounds, two national forests and wilderness areas.
“It’s a great, hidden, out-of-the-way place,” said Genny Wilson, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Carson District Ranger. “There’s not a whole lot of traffic in that area.”
The highway starts just outside of Markleeville as a typical two-lane road with centerlines, but quickly gains elevation and turns into a skinnier highway with just the fog lines to guide drivers.
The area is open for summer operations from Memorial Day to Labor Day, said Patty Frates with the Stanislaus National Forest Calaveras Ranger District. The high elevation section is usually closed between mid-November and May because the entire route is not plowed during winter.
Two National Forests are in the area – Humboldt-Toiyabe and Stanislaus – and both are near the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.
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The wilderness area is named after explorer Kit Carson, and the distinctive granite formation called “The Iceberg” on its southern boundary.
Many backpacking opportunities are found here, such as the 26-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail from Sonora Pass to Ebbetts Pass through the wilderness area. The 2,650-mile PCT stretches from Canada to Mexico.
“The Carson-Iceberg Wilderness doesn’t receive a lot of visitation,” Wilson said. “The backpackers and hikers that do know about it visit the area a lot.”
Other shorter trails include the Bull Run Lake hike, which is 3.5 miles one way. The trailhead is off the highway at the Stanislaus Meadow. Two miles into the hike, the trail connects with the Heiser Lake Trail, which will take hikers up to Mosquito Lakes.
It’s a good idea to pay attention to the cairns (stacks of rocks to mark trails) when going up to Bull Run Lake, or Mosquito Lakes. At certain points during the trek, the trail crosses some rock fields that make it tough to navigate without the markers.
Besides hiking and backpacking, the Highway 4 area also offers fishing, horseback riding and biking.
In the spring, rafters can float down the Carson River all the way to Highway 395, Wilson said.
Highway 4 is south of Lake Tahoe and north of Yosemite National Park.
Highway 4 in east Arnold to Highway 89 at Markleeville
2 1/2 to 3 hours with minimum stops
Arnold 4,000 feet
Ebbetts Pass crest 8,730 feet
Markleeville 5,500 feet
Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Grover Hot Springs State Park, Carson-Iceberg and Mokelumne National Wilderness areas, the Pacific Crest Trail, Bear Valley, the Stanislaus and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests, Hermit Valley, Lake Alpine, Mosquito Lakes and Carson River.
Stanislaus National Forest
Calaveras Ranger District
Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest
Carson Ranger District
Source: Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway Association
For Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, permits are available at Carson Ranger District trailheads, Carson Ranger Station, the Markleeville Chamber of Commerce and Forest Service Visitor’s Center.
For Stanislaus National Forest, permits are available at the Calaveras Ranger District.
Campfire permits must be obtained in person and are required for all open fires, including camp stoves. The permits are not valid when fire restrictions are in effect.