Carson Pass (SR 88)
THE POPULAR PIONEER PATH
HIGHEST ELEVATION: 8,574 feet
CLOSED FOR WINTER: No
ALONG THE WAY: Jackson, Volcano, Cook’s Station, Ham’s Station, Pioneer, Kirkwood, Carson Pass Information Center, Hope Valley
WHAT TO DO NEAR CARSON PASS
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Get a taste of the Pacific Crest Trail with a short (or long) hike from the Carson Pass Ranger Station.
Look for the metal jet roofs above the rocks by Carson Spur.
Grab some grub at Cook’s Station or Ham’s Station. They’ve been Carson Pass roadside stops for more than a century.
If you fish, hope in a float tube and cast your reel in Caples Lake.
A Scenic Route
The Carson Pass, otherwise known as the pretty (but longer) route to Tahoe from the Bay Area, ventures into the foothills by the Gold Rush towns of Jackson and Volcano before finding its way to the Carson Spur, Hope Valley and eventually Carson Valley on the other side of the Sierra.
The Gold Country Prelude
Coming into Jackson, a white church dominates the landscape. It’s the Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church, built in 1894. Unrelated to the church is nearby Pioneer Cemetery, established in 1851 and filled with unmarked graves of those who came here as settlers and miners. Jackson was also home to the Kennedy Mine, one of the most major in the Mother Lode and one of the deepest in the world, extending almost 6,000 feet below ground. (In operation until 1942, it’s now open for tours.)
Tiny Volcano, tucked away just off Highway 88, was named for the shape of the valley where it’s situated. It’s bowl-like, just like a volcanic crater, and morning fog resembling steam further strengthened that impression in settlers’ minds. Volcano’s heyday was brief, but many of its original buildings have been maintained, making it one of the most historic-looking towns in the Sierra. Its Country Store, open since 1852, bills itself as the oldest operating market in California.
Into the Woods
Beyond Volcano, Highway 88 passes two old roadside stops that have been offering drinks at their bars and meals in their restaurants for well over a century: Cook’s Station and Ham’s Station. Next comes Eldorado National Forest, where things become very scenic for the rest of the trip across the mountains. There are few opportunities for gas — and none for a haircut, according to the sign at Zip’s barber shop — after Pioneer.
And Out Again
The view opens up approaching the Kirkwood ski area and Caples Lake, where fisherman loll in float tubes once the snow and ice melt. Continuing on to the summit, the next major landmark is the log cabin that serves as the Carson Pass Information Center. It’s buried in snow in winter, but staffed by volunteer docents in summer who answer questions and issue wilderness permits. The busy parking lot out front isn’t just would-be campers and people with questions, though. This is also a trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail.
Hope Valley: A Secluded Sierra Shangri-La
From there, the road descends to Hope Valley, one of the Sierra’s largest alpine meadows. A coalition opposed to development began securing preservation in the 1980s. Now 25,000 acres are protected, with the majority managed by the US Forest Service and California Department of Fish & Game.
It’s pristine, and also quiet, given that this is one of the least-traveled all-season passes. In winter especially, visitors have ample opportunity for solitude, which has its pros and cons.
In 2012, a couple off-roading in Hope Valley became stranded in their vehicle during a storm. In a remarkable tale of survival, the woman would be rescued nearly a week later with only minor frostbite from a horrific ordeal. After her boyfriend set out for help, she eventually followed. Venturing into the elements, she would come to discover that he had not survived. Continuing on, she took shelter in a hollowed tree and had only tomatoes and snow to sustain her. She was eventually found by her brother, who hijacked unused highway department equipment to search beyond the main road and incredibly managed to locate her.
Steeped in Pioneer History
John Fremont & Kit Carson
The Fremont Expedition came through in February 1844, likely being the first to attempt a mountain passage here in winter. They’d been warned against it by the Indians who told them of the route, but were desperate to re-supply at Sutter’s Fort and decided to give it a go.
With Kit Carson serving as guide, the group survived the trek, but barely. It took several weeks, and there was no food to be found. That left them to manage on whatever they still had with them, including some pack animals. As they pushed West, Fremont’s group would become the first white men to glimpse Lake Tahoe, spying it from the high elevation of Red Lake Peak (10,651 feet). Carson would also carve his name on a tree at the summit of the pass that now bears his name. (A marker notes the spot, though the etching has been relocated to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.)
The Mormon Battalion
Carson Pass would later become the main emigrant trail thanks to a group of Mormons, and it was blazed “backwards” — west to east. After the Mormon Battalion fought to help win the Mexican-American War, some had stayed on near Sacramento, getting work at Sutter’s Fort. But by 1848, they were ready to return east and settle in the faith’s new and growing Utah base. To avoid heavy snow at Donner Pass, the wagon train skipped the established Truckee Trail and forged a new route over Carson Pass. It came to be known as both the Carson Trail and Mormon Trail.
Carson Canyon, The Devil’s Ladder & West Pass: A Hellish Pioneer Route
Though shorter and easier than Donner Pass and soon becoming the favored way into California, this new route over the mountains still had its perils. There were three particularly harrowing spans: the Carson Canyon, Carson Pass proper and West Pass.
Carson Canyon was strewn with massive boulders that beat up wagons, sometimes blocked the path and always slowed progress. Rocks here still bear scars from wagon wheels. Hope Valley on the other side was the reward for making it through, a lush green landscape dotted with lakes and ringed by mountains. Many took a welcome break there before dealing with two summits.
First was the actual Carson Pass, where a punishingly steep pitch called The Devil’s Ladder required ropes and pulleys for the wagons. After conquering that, the Carson Spur still loomed ahead. This required ascending a second ridge via West Pass, where the elevation was nearly 1,000 feet higher than the Carson.
But Nonetheless Popular & Eventually an All-Season Road
Despite the difficulties, Carson Pass received a steady flow of emigrants. Thousands of people would cross into California here. Besides Kit Carson’s etched tree signature and wagon wheel marks on Carson Canyon rocks, another lasting trace was left by a group of Odd Fellows who came through in 1849. Large rocks some 14 miles west of Woodfords still bear the Odd Fellows symbol and names they inscribed there.
By 1863 a toll road called the Amador-Nevada Wagon Road was established, widening the route, smoothing the grade and making this the major Sierra thoroughfare. But it would remain so only for six years. Once the Transcontinental Railroad was running across Donner Pass, the Carson lost its heavy traffic. (The opening of the lower-elevation Johnson Cut-Off route at Echo Summit also contributed.)
In its new life as a scenic Sierra route, it remained a toll road until 1911 when the Alpine State Highway was established. The following years would bring some more substantial road work to make it more and more auto-friendly, which resulted in various realignments that deviated some from the old trail. The first widening didn’t come until the 1930s, and the terrain around Carson Spur wasn’t significantly smoothed until a large-scale project completed in 1960. But even after bulldozers and explosives made winter travel through Carson Pass a possibility, it didn’t become all-season until 1971 when the owners of the Kirkwood Resort pushed for (and helped to fund) winter plowing.
With Carson Pass having the distinction of being the highest-elevation trans-Sierra pass to stay open in winter, managing ongoing accessibility is a feat.
The responsibility falls to California’s Department of Transportation (Caltrans), specifically its District Three. This branch must not only keep Carson Pass clear, but also Echo Summit and Donner Pass, so it’s no surprise that this branch has an elite team of snowplow operators known as the Sierra Snowfighters.
But beyond clearing these roads after heavy snowfall, these Caltrans crews must deal with an even bigger worry: avalanches. Both the Carson Spur and the top of the pass are prone to them, as is Echo Summit, and backcountry skiers and snowmobilers in these areas have been killed.
There are several natural avalanche chutes above where Highway 88 hugs the rock at steep angles near the Carson Spur, and signs warn motorists not to stop. During the fierce 2010/2011 winter, more than 300 avalanches closed the road over the course of the season.
Several things are done to protect it from tumbling snow. For one, special structures called jet roofs have been installed at the top of the ridge. Their purpose is to alter wind patterns that would otherwise create snowy overhangs likely to break loose. Air cannons and, occasionally, explosives are also deployed to dislodge unstable snow into a controlled avalanche that can then be dealt with quickly.
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