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Hiking Reno/Lake Tahoe: Middle Thomas Creek Trail and the Dry Pond Loop
If you live and recreate in the Reno/Tahoe area, there’s a good chance that you have heard of the Thomas Creek trail. While there are three main stretches of the trail--the lower, middle, and upper “trails”--the busiest and most frequently referenced length of trail is the just under three mile long middle portion. In fact, the Middle Thomas Creek trail is one of the go-to destinations for Truckee Meadows residents in need of a quick dose of nature after a stressful day at work.
Further complimenting the Thomas Creek trail’s popularity are its close proximity to, and integration with, the Jones-Whites Creek loop trail and the trails of Galena Creek Recreation Area. The Dry Pond connector trail is a vital component of this integration, linking the Thomas Creek and Whites Creek trails. If completed as a loop, the hike past Dry Pond--which, despite its name, often contains water--provides 6.3 miles of outdoor enjoyment, encountering several vistas and plentiful wildlife along the way.
Well known for its vibrant autumn foliage, the Middle Thomas Creek trail has a great deal more to offer. From the trailhead, located north of the creek amongst sagebrush and bitterbrush, the trail heads south and enters the conifer forests of Thomas Canyon. Once in the forest, the trail finds its way to the banks of Thomas Creek and parallels the waterway for the extent of the trail duration. Alongside the creek one finds aspen, willow, alder and a diverse assemblage of bird life associated with such plants. Wildflowers and numerous shades of green complement the streamside vegetation in springtime as the forest of Jeffrey pine and white fir beyond the stream’s banks provides much needed greenery in the monotone depths of winter.
On close approach to the upper trailhead, the middle trail passes an array of stunning cliffs hundreds of feet tall before emerging onto a dirt road and crossing to the south side of Thomas Creek. Reaching the upper trailhead, one finds an open pine forest with a healthy array of penstemon (blooming purple in late spring and early summer) and manzanita in the undergrowth.
The Middle Thomas Creek trail passes a handful of picturesque, aspen-lined mountain meadows and offers some views of the Truckee Meadows, but the views found on the Dry Pond Loop trail put canyon-bottom glimpses to shame. Departing from the Middle Thomas Creek trail after 1.5 miles, the trail to Dry Pond ascends through a mixed mahogany/pine forest on the south side of Thomas Canyon. After a number of switchbacks, the trail reaches the open plateau harboring the trail’s namesake ephemeral water body.
After passing the Dry Pond, the loop trail descends the north side of Whites Canyon. Marked predominantly by low brush and occasional mountain mahogany, this stretch of trail offers stunning views of Mount Rose to the west and Washoe Valley to the southeast. Reaching the bottom of Whites Canyon, the loop trail follows the Whites Creek trail through forest and riparian environments largely similar to those found in Thomas Canyon, albeit mildly more open. Coming to the base of Whites Canyon, the loop trail follows Timberline Drive on its return to the Middle Thomas Creek Trailhead, passing over Whites and Thomas Creeks in the process.
Have you familiarized yourself with the beauties of Thomas Canyon and Dry Pond? If not, read on to discover what you've been missing.
Trail Nuts and Bolts
Length: 2.9 miles to upper trailhead; 6.3 mile Dry Pond Loop.
Trailhead elevation: 6000
Elevation gain: 1100 to upper trailhead; 980 to Dry Pond.
Best time/season: year round; icy/snowy winters, warm summers.
Shade availability: excellent
Trail users: hikers (dogs off leash), runners, mountain bikers, equestrians.
The trail departs from the appropriately named Middle Thomas Creek Trailhead, located at the end of Timberline Drive. 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.
The Route -- Middle Thomas Creek to Upper Thomas Creek
From the trailhead, the Middle Thomas Creek trail heads south for 0.1 miles before crossing a dirt road, Logan Meadow Lane, and continuing to the west. Another 0.1 miles after crossing the road the trail reaches a bear-proof trash canister, wilderness information signs, and a number of insightful trail maps. After familiarizing yourself with the maps, continue 0.1 miles directly alongside Thomas Creek before ascending and following a mild hillside for 0.15 miles.
Pass over a rocky wash and enjoy a 0.15 mile walk through an aspen grove before following an improvised bridge to the creek’s south side. The trail ascends and descends intermittently for the next 0.35 miles, reaching another semi-extensive aspen grove. Continuing 0.15 miles past the aspens, the trail reaches a small opening in the forest before continuing 0.25 miles up a mild incline, past more aspens, and through an additional forest opening. The base of Thomas Canyon can now be seen to widen as the trail climbs moderately for 0.15 miles before reaching the Dry Pond connector trail.
Past the Dry Pond trail, the Middle Thomas Creek trail continues 0.2 miles through pine forest before passing over a moist wash. After another 0.15 miles the trail passes to the south of a dense stand of white fir before returning to the banks of Thomas Creek and crossing to the creek’s north after an additional 0.2 miles. The trail now follows the road for several hundred feet before departing from the road to the west.
Continue 0.1 miles through desert brush and past mahogany before reaching a view of several cliff faces on the south side of Thomas Canyon. Over the next 0.35 miles the trail passes several dense groves of aspen and two rusty old cars before reaching another dirt road. Follow the road for several hundred feet as it crosses to the south side of Thomas Creek and ascends a semi-loose slope. If you do not want to cross the creek atop boulders, several fallen trees just east of the road provide assured footing.
Follow the trail as it parallels the roadway through an open forest of Jeffrey pine for 0.35 miles before reaching the Upper Thomas Creek Trailhead. Retrace your steps back to the Middle Thomas Creek Trailhead, or to the Dry Pond connector trail if you are in the mood for more fresh air.
Do you prefer Thomas Canyon or Whites Canyon?
The Route -- Dry Pond Loop
From the Middle Thomas Creek trail, proceed to the south for just under 0.1 miles before reaching a broad switchback and heading to the west. After only 0.05 miles reach another switchback and head east through a mixed forest of Jeffrey pine and mountain mahogany. Around 0.25 miles after the second switchback, enjoy views of Thomas Canyon and the Truckee Meadows provided by a minor forest opening. Continue another 0.15 miles up a moderately steep, shaded slope before reaching switchback number three.
Head west for 0.25 miles and reach switchback four. Proceed 0.1 miles through two more switchbacks (numbers five and six) before heading 0.2 miles east through abundant, bushy tobacco brush on the final push to the plateau of Dry Pond. Pass through an open pine forest bordering the west end of Dry Pond as you proceed just over 0.2 miles across the plateau.
The trail now descends briefly to the east before reaching a switchback (number seven) and heading west. Continue descending westward for 0.25 miles through scattered mahogany and brushy, desert vegetation before reaching another set of switchbacks (numbers eight and nine). After switchback nine, descend west for 0.4 miles to re-enter a conifer forest and reach a crossing of Whites Creek made easy by fortuitously placed boulders.
One hundred feet after crossing Whites Creek, the Dry Pond connecter trail intersects the Whites Creek trail. To continue on the Dry Pond loop, head left (east) on the Whites Creek trail. Follow the Whites Creek trail for 0.1 miles before reaching a trail fork. Take the left trail or, if you like, proceed to the right to follow the equestrian trail/road. From the fork, the trail continues through the forests on the south edge of Whites Creek, largely paralleling the creek, for 0.7 miles before reaching a dirt roadbed and the intersection of the Jones Creek trail.
Upon reaching the roadbed, follow the trail as it travels to the north of the roadway (the equestrian trail) for 0.45 miles before intersecting a trail that travels approximately 0.05 miles south to the Upper Whites Creek Trailhead (open May through October). Follow the trail as it continues to the north of the road (now the trailhead access road) for 0.45 miles before crossing to the road’s south. Descend for 0.2 miles as you parallel the road to its south before re-intersecting the road at an informational sign. Follow the road for 0.15 miles as it descends through increasingly open forest to the east and arrive at Timberline Drive. Proceed north on Timberline Drive for 0.75 miles to return to the Middle Thomas Creek Trailhead.
What You'll See Along the Way
As the trail first departs from the trailhead it passes by sporadic Jeffrey pine and through desert scrub marked predominantly by antelope bitterbrush and big sagebrush. Chipmunks can be found wandering through the brush along this stretch while small, incredibly gregarious gray birds known as bushtits are often found flitting from bush to bush in family groups over twenty members strong. Additional animals to look for through here include black-tailed jackrabbits and multiple species of sparrow.
Traveling along the bottom of both Thomas and Whites canyon, the trail is shaded predominantly by Jeffrey pine, though sporadic quaking aspen groves and black cottonwood provide dappled light as well. Beneath this shade and in drier areas, the predominant undergrowth consists of greenleaf manzanita and tobacco brush (blooming white in early summer). One wildflower, the purple slender penstemon, puts on a vibrant showing from mid-June into early July in the open forest just below the Upper Thomas Creek Trailhead. The undergrowth in the moist riparian area along the creek consists predominantly of willows and mountain alder, though one flower, the purple-white sierra onion, puts on a good display from late May into early June.
Predominant animals along much of the trail through the canyon bottoms include the conspicuous Douglas squirrel, several species of chipmunk, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, mountain chickadees, Stellar’s jays, and, in the summer, western tanagers. Depending on forest health at higher elevations, the large, black and gray Clark’s nutcracker (named for well-known, early 19th century explorer William Clark) can also prove abundant.
Along the Dry Pond loop, various grasses, reeds, and other moisture loving types of vegetation complement the banks of the pond while a forest of Jeffrey pine and curl-leaf mountain mahogany blankets the southern slope of Thomas Canyon. On the northern slope of Whites Canyon, plants of the desert such as antelope bitterbrush prevail. Animals to look for along the connector trail include mule deer, Cassin’s finch, and spotted towhee.
© 2014 Jonathan Heywood