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Hiking Reno/Lake Tahoe: Upper Thomas Creek Loop Trail
For many years, Reno hikers longed for a maintained trail linking the trail systems of the southern Truckee Meadows to the nationally known Tahoe Rim Trail. Recently, the dream of such a link became reality with completion of the Rim to Reno (RTR) trail. While a sizable stretch of the RTR trail is brand new, a large portion of the route travels along the previously extant Upper Thomas Creek trail. But the Upper Thomas Creek trail should not be viewed as a simple “commuter” trail because it is an extraordinary--and long--hike in and of itself.
From time to time, the Middle Thomas Creek trail can be crowded, and though the upper trail is merely the continuation of the middle trail, it sees substantially less traffic. Solitude is often evident even at the trailhead. From the Upper Thomas Creek Trailhead (only accessible by car from May through November), the trail first travels west along a shady hillside of Jeffrey pine as it traverses around a parcel of private property, eventually crossing to the north side of Thomas Creek. Soon after crossing the creek, the trail enters the Mount Rose Wilderness beneath the shade of a grove of quaking aspens.
After entering the wilderness, the trail continues west through more pines and aspens and crosses a small tributary of Thomas creek before traversing up a sunny, wildflower covered hillside through twelve switchbacks. The slope of switchbacks produces excellent views of Mount Rose to the southwest and a colorful, spire-shaped cliff face to the west. Above the switchbacks the trail reaches a fork atop a ridge. This is the beginning of the 7.7 mile Upper Thomas Creek loop trail.
Proceeding right at the fork takes one northward on a counterclockwise tour of the whitebark pine forests of the Carson Range. After 5.4 miles of gradual climbing, the north loop trail reaches the start of the Rim to Reno trail. The south loop trail climbs more steeply across wildflower meadows and through whitebark pines before reaching the RTR junction after just 2.3 miles. The RTR junction sits at an elevation of 9,591 feet, just under 200 feet below and 0.6 trail miles beyond the peak elevation of the south loop (9,780). From the top of the trail at 9,780 feet, a 0.6 mile use trail continues south to reach a final talus climb to the summit of 10,243 foot Snow flower Mountain.
Are you ready to explore a little-used trail through the upper elevations of the Mount Rose Wilderness? Read on to discover more specifics about the Upper Thomas Creek trail.
Trail Nuts and Bolts
Length: 11.8-17.3 miles
Trailhead elevation: 7080 feet
Elevation gain: 2700-3200
Best time/season: summer through early fall
Shade availability: good
Trail users: hikers, runners, equestrians; no bikes in wilderness.
The Upper Thomas Creek Trailhead is reached by driving several miles past a gate up an unpaved forest service road. The trailhead is only accessible from May through October as the gate is locked--whether necessitated by snow conditions or not--from November through April. As such, a winter hike on the Upper Thomas Creek trail would first necessitate hiking 2.9 miles up the Middle Thomas Creek trailhead, making for a very long journey.
To access the Upper Thomas Creek Trailhead in the summer, 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 left passed the access gate. Drive west on the dirt road (NF-049/Logan Meadow Lane) for 2.2 miles before reaching a four-way fork atop a large flat area. Take the leftmost road and drive another 0.5 miles to reach the trailhead, crossing to the south side of Thomas Creek just over 0.1 miles into this stretch. The trailhead consists of a parking area along with informational signs and maps, but no other facilities. A four-wheel drive vehicle with reasonable ground clearance is recommended for the final 0.5 miles of road; however, several parking options are available along NF-049 prior to reaching the official trailhead, just be sure not to impede the flow of traffic.
From the trailhead, the Upper Thomas Creek trail travels through two switchbacks over the first 0.2 miles before heading west on a gradual, well shaded climb. Around 0.5 miles after the initial switchbacks the trail crosses through a perpetually moist (but not running) wash filled with aspens and diverse wildflowers. The trail subsequently climbs north along a sandy hillside for 0.2 miles before descending west past sporadic grassy meadows, aspens, and tobacco brush to reach a crossing of Thomas Creek after another 0.5 miles. Just 0.1 miles beyond the creek crossing, the trail enters the Mount Rose Wilderness.
Now in the wilderness, the trail winds its way west through additional pines, aspens, and some mahogany for 0.9 miles before travelling through a quick set of short switchbacks (four turns) over 0.2 miles. The second set of switchbacks exists in an aspen grove just above the creek. The trail slowly climbs west onto open, sunny desert slopes with few trees over the next 0.3 miles and then reaches another switchback. After climbing 600 feet and travelling through eleven more switchbacks over the next 1.3 miles the trail reaches a fork (the beginning of the upper loop) at an elevation of 8,840 feet.
Continuing right takes you on a leisurely 6.0 mile route to the trail’s peak elevation of 9,780 feet while continuing to the left results in a 1.7 mile climb to the same point. For the purposes of this account proceed right to follow the loop in a counterclockwise direction.
After the junction, the north loop trail continues to climb north up the desert slope through two additional switchbacks before curving into a forest of whitebark pines after 0.4 miles. Just after the pines, the trail passes a lush wildflower meadow before climbing east for another 0.4 miles to reach an elevation of 9,170 feet. From here, the trail gradually descends north through whitebark forest for 1.2 miles before reaching an open talus slope with excellent views of Hunter Lake and the Truckee Meadows to the northeast.
Somewhat remarkably, the next 3.0 miles of trail consists of a largely uniform curve to the southwest through more whitebark pines and past occasional wildflower meadows. The trail climbs moderately and passes beneath a talus slope for the last 1.0 miles of this stretch before reaching a junction with the Rim to Reno trail 5.4 miles beyond the first loop junction. To stay on the Upper Thomas Creek loop, proceed to the north from the junction and pass through four switchbacks over 0.6 miles before topping the trail at an elevation of 9,780 feet.
From the top of the trail, you can either immediately descend towards the trailhead on the south loop or follow a use trail south to the 10,243 foot summit of Mount Snowflower, a point harboring excellent views that is the seventh highest peak in the Lake Tahoe basin. The use trail first ascends steeply up a talus slope over 0.1 miles before quickly descending to a mild ridge. Follow the sandy use trail through whitebark pines as it ascends moderately to the south for 0.4 miles. At this point, the use trail disappears and a 0.2 mile journey up talus slopes takes you to the top of Mount Snowflower. After enjoying the views and resting atop the peak, retrace your steps back to the loop trail.
From the peak trail elevation, the south loop trail descends steeply for 0.5 miles through five switchbacks before taking on a steady northeastward orientation. After moderately descending notheast for another 0.6 miles through whitebark pines, the trail steadily emerges onto open desert slopes that harbor plentiful wildflowers (namely, wooly mule’s ears) from late June through July. Travel a further 0.6 miles through scrubby vegetation and reach the previously encountered loop trail junction. Retrace your steps for the final 4.2 mile return trip to the trailhead, enjoying views of some of the Reno area’s most extensive aspen groves in the process.
Do you prefer long, gradual climbs or steep, to-the-point climbs?
What You'll See Along the Way
Jeffrey pines are the predominant source of shade for the first three miles of trail, often mixed with low numbers of curl-leaf mountain mahogany. Scattered throughout this stretch, however, are more than six groves of quaking aspen. The vegetation beneath the pines consists largely of green-leaf manzanita and tobacco brush, but wildflowers such as the stocky, red snowplant; the purple-blue slender penstemon; and the blue smooth stickseed are present as well. Early on, also look for spreading dogbane, a small, oppositely leaved groundcover that turns a vibrant yellow in early autumn. Beneath the aspens--especially in the moist area at mile 0.7--look for red crimson columbine, white thimbleberry, and mountain rose. Frequently encountered animals along the initial miles of the Upper Thomas Creek trail include various chipmunk species, the Douglas squirrel, and birds including hermit thrushes, house wrens, Stellar’s jays, and northern flickers.
In the sunny, desert-like portions of the hike found near the large set of ascending switchbacks, sagebrush and antelope bitterbrush prove the dominant shrubbery. Yellow wooly mule’s ears, red Applegate’s paintbrush, and purple daggerpod are common wildflowers in this area. Conspicuous birds through here include fox sparrow, lesser goldfinch, and pine siskin.
The topmost portion of the trail--the loop trail--is dominated by forests of whitebark pine. Some obvious wildflowers along the loop include the white-purple western aster and the yellow Sierra wallflower in semi-shaded forests along with the white mountain pennyroyal in sunnier areas, primarily near talus. A few animals of note also occur here at high elevation, the most notable being a small population of American pika, a small, rabbit looking rodent found primarily in the talus surrounding Mount Snowflower. Listen for the high-pitched “reeeer” call of the pika as you approach the summit. Black bears are also infrequently encountered along the trail, as are high elevation bird species such as pine grosbeak and red crossbill. Count yourself lucky if you see bears, grosbeaks, or crossbills as they all represent uncommon observations.