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Hiking Reno/Lake Tahoe: Middle Thomas Creek Trailhead, the Northern Road
The Middle Thomas Creek trail is one of the better known hikes in the Reno area. Given its ambling profile through Jeffrey pine forest and alongside aspen-lined Thomas Creek, who could blame an outdoor enthusiast for enjoying a relaxing stroll through a quintessential Eastern Sierra canyon? But the trail’s popularity can, at times, produce a handful of drawbacks. If you’re looking for a thoroughly lonesome hike--encountering perhaps one or two other individuals along the way--the Middle Thomas Creek trail may prove too crowded. And, come winter, if snowstorms are followed by extended periods of cold and dry weather, the heavily shaded trail through Thomas Canyon often turns into a dangerously icy experiment in human balance, or lack thereof. If you feel like braving intermittent crowds and slick ice, enjoy the trail, but if you are looking for isolation and sure footing, one solution lies in the dirt road departing northward from the Middle Thomas Creek Trailhead.
At first experiencing a mild ascent through abundant sagebrush and bitterbrush, the route soon steepens as it climbs a hillside enlivened by numerous wildflowers come spring. After a further ascent past lichen covered rocks and more brush, the trail rounds a hillside to approach the aptly named Dry Creek. The trail continues its ascent to the west through dense woodlands of mountain mahogany punctuated by intermittent Jeffrey pine, and it soon approaches the upper terminus of the mild canyon harboring Dry Creek.
At the head of the canyon lies a trail fork. Following the right trail at this fork takes one on an extended, predominantly flat foray through open fields of low-growing grasses and shrubs before the trail terminates at a point with a semi-descent view of the Truckee Meadows to the northeast. The fields along the right trail often experience a memorable bloom of wildflowers from late April through late May.
Pursuing the left trail at the fork leads to a shallow pond bordered on one edge by a hillside of mountain mahogany and on the other by a collection of low-growing, brushy vegetation. Frequently dry in fall and early winter, the pond fills with the winter snows and becomes a lush tapestry of greenery with the warmer temperatures of spring, providing a home for a diversity of animal life, including ducks. Regardless of which fork you take, retracing your steps back to the trailhead is made easier by the downhill grade and wide views of south Reno and the Virginia Range to the east.
Looking for a nearby hike that provides feelings of isolation and does not become an ice rink in the winter? Read on for more information on these overlooked trails/roads.
Trail Nuts and Bolts
Length: 2.3 miles one way following the right fork, 1.6 the left.
Trailhead elevation: 6000
Elevation gain: 850
Best time/season: fall, winter, spring; summer mornings.
Shade availability: moderate
Trail users: hikers, equestrians, sporadic off road vehicles.
The route heads north on a dirt road from the Middle Thomas Creek Trailhead. To get to the trailhead, proceed 2.8 miles west on Mount Rose Highway (Nevada 431) from its intersection with Thomas Creek Road at Galena Market, and turn right onto Timberline Drive. Follow Timberline Drive for approximately one mile before continuing onto an unpaved road. After 0.2 miles the road crosses Thomas Creek and reaches a fork. Continue to the right for 0.1 miles before reaching the trailhead, on the left. A paved parking area, small number of picnic tables, and vault toilets constitute the trailhead facilities.
Have you Hiked Here?
Have you ever departed to the north from the Middle Thomas Creek Trailhead?
From the trailhead, find the dirt road proceeding to the north from the northwest edge of the parking area. Follow the road for 0.15 miles as it ascends a hillside of mixed brush, staying left at a minor fork after 0.1 miles. Pass over a small expanse of rocky terrain and continue on the road as it passes to the right of a lone Jeffrey pine and steeply ascends to the west. After a 0.1 mile westward ascent through grasses and occasional wildflowers, the road levels and heads north.
Following another 0.3 miles of mild ascending, the trail slowly curves to the west, entering the shade of abundant mountain mahogany. Continue on the trail for 0.7 miles as it parallels Dry Creek, first high above the creek and later alongside it as the canyon narrows. You have now reached a fork 1.4 miles from the trailhead.
If you choose to take the right fork, follow the trail north for 0.3 miles as it wanders through a brushy meadow while ascending very mildly. Follow the road for 0.1 miles further as it descends approximately eighty vertical feet through moderate height bitterbrush. Continue another 0.5 miles through more low-growing, grassy vegetation before reaching the terminus of the trail and a semi-interrupted glimpse of Reno below. Retrace your steps back to the trailhead or, if you still have energy, back to the previously encountered fork for a worthwhile hike extension.
Taking the left fork, follow the trail for 0.05 miles as it steeply ascends out of the mahogany forest. Continue another 0.15 miles before encountering the shoreline of a seasonal pond. Enjoy a break beneath the shade of some Jeffrey pines on the southeast edge of the pond before completing your journey by retracing your steps back to the trailhead.
What You'll See Along the Way
Upon its outset, this route passes through healthy stands of big sagebrush and antelope bitterbrush. Mammals frequently glimpsed in this location include chipmunks and black-tailed jackrabbits while birds to look for include western scrub-jays, spotted towhees, and various other sparrow species. As the trail undergoes its first steep ascent to the west, numerous wildflowers can be found underfoot. By far the most abundant is the purple beckwith violet, but the pink long-leaf phlox, purple-white purple milkvetch, and red desert paintbrush put on a decent show as well.
As the trail continues into the forest of curl-leaf mountain mahogany, desert peach bushes (blooming pink in the spring) can be seen to line the canyon of Dry Creek while short but large-flowered dwarf onions put on a display of purple and white beneath the trees. Mule deer frequent the mahogany forest, as evidenced by numerous game trails, while Cassin’s finch and blue-gray gnatcatchers complement the canopy of the admittedly short forest.
At the head of Dry Creek Canyon and alongside the seasonal pond are found the yellow desert buttercup and the aptly named, and also yellow, tiny evening-primrose. In addition to the many species of birds and mammals found elsewhere on the route, the pond occasionally harbors the songs of red-winged blackbirds and the antics of mallards.
The broad fields accessed by proceeding right from the fork at 1.4 miles harbor numerous additional species of wildflower including the low-growing, white sego lily and the taller, white prickly poppy. Amongst the fields are found more sparrows and, on occasion, mountain bluebirds, the Nevada state bird. The many species of wildflowers along this route reach peak bloom time from late April through early June, while the bluebirds are found year round.
© 2014 Jonathan Heywood