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Tinker Knob

Tahoe National Forest

Tahoe National Forest Links:

July 21st, 1999

15.0 miles
4355 vertical feet
Total Time: 9:14

Rating: 9/10

Directions:   View Driving Map

I hiked in Granite Chief Wilderness.

I parked my car in the main lot of Squaw Valley, then walked over to the fire station, which is where the Granite Chief Trail starts.

It was about 9:15am when I started the hike. I had the trail all to myself. There are a lot of side trails which are hard to distinguish from the real one. There were a few signs which said "Trail" with an arrow, and I followed those where available. The USGS map I had showed that the trail headed north, following a creek until heading west across the creek at about the 6750 foot elevation.

I walked in and out of forest, whistling occasionally to make sure any bears in the area would hear me. Of course, I make so much noise with my trekking poles that whistling is probably unnecessary. It also occurred to me that I have no idea what bear scat looks like. I saw some stuff on the trail, but wasn't sure. It would probably be a good idea for me to find out.

Small cascading waterfalls

I reached a beautiful cascade of small waterfalls about an hour into the hike. After taking some pictures, I crossed the creek at about the appropriate elevation, then went through more forest before starting to climb granite boulders. Stacks of rocks showed most of the way, though they were few and far between. I was at the bottom of a half-bowl, and had to work my way up to the ridge.

A stack of rocks (top, middle) leads the way

Shirley Lake

After reaching the top I continued west along the trail and soon had a great view of Granite Chief looming above and in front of me, a little to the left. The trail flattens out here and at 11:15am I found myself standing on the shore of an beautiful lake. Unfortunately, it was also an unexpected lake. I checked out the topo map, noticed the unmistakeable ski lift on the other side of the lake, and decided I was at Shirley Lake. This was bad. This meant I was nearly three-quarters of a mile away from the trail, the closest point of which lie to the northeast of where I was.

According to the map, I gathered that I'd been following Squaw Creek the whole time, though I was supposed to follow a side creek for a while, then cross it. Going further west was not an option. There was no more trail past the lake, and the terrain gets much steeper. Retracing my steps along the trail wasn't an option, either, as I had no real idea how far back I'd made a wrong turn, and most likely it would have added a tremendous amount of distance to my already long hike.

So I decided to cross the creek and head cross-country northeast to get to the right trail. My progress was hindered by large swampy meadow areas and overgrown bushy areas, which I avoided. I kept studying the terrain and looking and re-looking at the topo map to make sense of it. I kept making progress further east, but not as much progress going north due to the terrain. When I finally reached a point where I thought the trail should be, it wasn't there.

The trail crosses another side creek, which I thought I found (it's hard to tell because there are so many side creeks, and only a few show up on the map). According to the topo map, the trail crossed the creek at about 7380 feet, so I started following the creek up in hopes of finding the trail. But 7380 feet came and went and still no sign of the trail. I began to grow frustrated and headed east across the creek, hoping to find the trail further back.

Silver Peak

It occurred to me that, even though I wasn't hungry, I should eat something. I perched myself on a slab of granite overlooking Squaw Valley and ate some of my bagel as I looked at the maps again. The Squaw ski lifts brought trams full of people up the mountain to my right. To the northeast I could see what I assumed was Silver Peak.

I was starting to think about heading back down to the trail I'd taken up and returning the way I came. Then I heard voices. No, I hadn't gone crazy. Below Silver Peak were a large group of hikers coming toward me. They were obviously on a trail, but not the one I'd taken. Maybe that was the trail I should have taken? I wasn't sure. Looking at the topo map now, in hindsight, that wasn't Silver Peak I saw, but the peak next to Silver Peak.

As I was waiting for these hikers to approach me, I noticed a man perched on a rock just a few hundred feet away from me. I wondered to myself how he'd gotten up there. I scramble up to him and asked him. He'd come up the Granite Chief Trail that I'd somehow lost track of. He was part of the group coming up the trail toward us. After chatting with him a bit to get my bearings and confirm the trail ahead, I headed up the trail. It was now 12:51pm. I'd lost over an hour and half and probably added at least a mile to my journey. I'd originally hoped to reach the Pacific Crest Trail at 12pm. Now, of course, that was impossible. I'd pretty much lost hope of reaching Tinker Knob today. I resigned myself to at least reaching the Pacific Crest Trail before turning around.

Nevertheless, I saw no point in completely giving up yet, since it was still relatively early, so I started hiking as fast as my lungs would allow. It's all uphill, about 700 vertical feet up to the PCT junction. The trail crosses the creek just a bit further up from where I had looked for it earlier. And now, after spending the first 3 hours of my hike in complete isolation, I started seeing other hikers. Most of them coming down.

I gained the PCT at 1:25pm. My altimeter read 8090 (the topo map says about 8100). I started to think I had a slight chance now. I was still over 3 miles away, but I figured I could try to make it to the top by 3pm before turning around. I didn't want to turn around too late because of the threat of darkness and bears. I had a headlamp, but I'd clambered up granite rocks on the way up and didn't want to go down that at night. (of course, that wasn't part of the real trail, but I had no idea what the real trail was like) Also, I figured the later it was the more likely I'd run into a bear. So I had some definite motivation for turning around before it got too late.

Tinker Knob (far left), still a long ways away

I continued my break-neck pace, almost sprinting downhill. Yes, downhill. I passed through a few scattered snow patches and muddy trails. I passed a sign which told me I had 2 miles to go before Tinker Knob. Shortly after that I encountered two women who were returning from Tinker Knob. I asked them how long it would take and they said about an hour. It was now 2:08pm. I'd reached the end of the descent and would now start the climb from about 7500 feet elevation -- leaving me about 1500 feet still to ascend.

The mountain slopes are covered with Mule's Ears

I headed up through a field of plants. They have big green leaves with small bright yellow flowers. The entire mountainside was covered with them. It was a strange and beautiful sight. I've since learned that they're Mule's Ears.

Up to this point I hadn't really known which of the peaks was the one I was headed toward. I started to have this sinking suspicion that I was headed toward this massive peak towering above all else, standing somewhat alone, seeming so far away. I thought to myself that if that was the actual peak I was headed to, there was no way I'd get there in any reasonable amount of time. It seemed completely unreachable. Unfortunately, I encountered a group of men who were returning from Tinker Knob who confirmed my worst fear.

The summit plateau

I trudged on. Up and up, until I started up the switchbacks which gave a clear view of the saddle above me. I climbed steadily, at a rate of about 30-35 feet per minute. I soon found myself standing on the saddle, glorious views to the other side, and just the final climb up the peak remaining. I was happy I'd made it this far, but I knew there were still some difficulty ahead. The Tinker Knob massif is a jumble of rocks upon rocks, similar to Mt. Tallac, only steeper. I started up the backside, walking on a trail which soon disappeared into the rocks. At first I used my trekking poles in both hands to help balance myself. It began to get more interesting, however...At one point I had to put both my poles in my right hand as I reached for a handhold with my left and physically pulled myself up to the next foothold. I stepped carefully, testing each foothold gingerly before placing my full weight on it. Suddenly, there was nowhere left to climb. I'd reached the top of Tinker Knob, elevation 8949 feet! A wave of jubilation and triumph passed over me. After all the frustration of earlier that day, I think this was the happiest I've ever been to reach a summit.

Almost there!

I'd reached the summit at 3:10pm. A large circular stack of rocks signified the actual peak. I took pictures, enjoyed the view. Snapped a picture of myself holding the summit register. There wasn't any paper inside, so I tore a piece from my notes and wrote "Yippee! Awesome!" and signed my name along with the date and time. This was the first time I'd actually signed a summit register, per se. One creature curious by its absence was the marmot. I'd seen marmots at the top of Alta Peak and Mt. Dana. But nothing here. Perhaps there aren't enough people at Tinker Knob to attract them.

The summit marker

The summit register

Anderson Peak from Tinker Knob

View looking southeast from the summit
(Click image to view full size)

At 3:21pm, I started my descent. As I started the descent from the saddle, I encountered two people coming up the trail. I was about to tell them that I'd expected to be the last one at the top today, but they ran past me before I could. Trail runners. Carrying minimal gear, of course.

Gully on the slopes leading up to Tinker Knob

I still had a long way to go. It bothered me a bit that I hadn't eaten much (just a Harvest bar and a little bit of my bagel), but not enough to make me stop. I think the altitude made me lose my appetite. I did eventually stop and reapply sunscreen, however.

I made it to the bottom of the first descent at 4:23pm, then started the climb back up to the PCT/Granite Chief Trail intersection. I got there at 5:00pm. After running into so many people on the trail between 1 and 3pm, I hadn't seen anyone since those trail runners. I continued the descent. One comfort I had was that I could see the holes left by my trekking poles on the way up. So I knew I was headed in the right direction.

Suddenly, I heard a loud noise behind me. I whirled around, half expecting to find a bear coming after me. But no, it was the trail runners. In the back of my mind I knew they'd pass me eventually, but they still scared the shit out of me.

At 5:30pm I reached the spot where I'd encountered the man on the rock, over four and a half hours earlier. Now the fun part would begin -- the part of the trail I hadn't been on. In contrast to the rock scrambling I'd done to get up this far, the real trail is a gentle grade with good footing most of the way -- a real trail, even.

Fourteen minutes before I reached the end of my hike, I found where I'd made my fateful mistake. There were numerous unmarked trail intersections near the beginning of the hike. I'd taken the relatively wide, well-tread, sandy trail off to the left. The actual trail went off to the right, covered with rocks, and looked like a dried-up creek bed. There's no sign here, of course. Sigh.

Near the end I passed a group of people playing on a ropes course. A girl was strapped to a rope, dangling in mid-air, swinging and twirling and screaming. Looked like fun. My day was completely different, but I was very happy when I rounded a corner and finished my hike next to the fire station. Now I just had to drive back and find something to eat!

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