Mt Jefferson and Arc Dome

24-25 Oct 2005 - by Debbie Bulger

My sister Barbara pointed out to me that sleeping in the back of a pick up and waking up to frost-encrusted camper shell windows is not everyone's idea of a fun vacation. For me, it was the perfect way to spend my birthday.

In threatening weather, we drove over Tioga Pass passing the undraped skeleton of the Tuolumne Meadows store where camping supplies and ice creams are dispensed in the summer. It was sprinkling by the time we reached Tonopah, NV, so we decided to get a motel.

The next day we hightailed it to the ghost town of Belmont, albeit without National Forest maps since it was Sunday, and the ranger station in Tonopah was closed. We spent several delightful hours in Belmont, made particularly interesting since I had an old book on ghost towns with photographs from the late 60s and early 70s. It was fun to compare what time or restoration had done to the Belmont ruins in the intervening 30 to 40 years. We peeked in the windows of the County Courthouse, visited the ore smelter and tramped around what was left of the stamp mill outside of town.

Evening found us camped in a grove of mahogany trees at the Jefferson Summit saddle contemplating the route up Mt. Jefferson that we would take the next morning. We saw no point in driving all the way to the 4WD trailhead and just hiked up the dirt road in the morning. There were mountain bluebirds in abundance watching our progress and refusing to sit still long enough for a good photo.

There is a trail all the way, although in places it is faint. Mt. Jefferson's windy, cold summit (11,941') hosts a scattering of antennae, but an astute photographer can crop out the intrusions. The leisurely climb took us about 8 hours including time on the summit.

Sleeping in the back of the truck, I thought I heard rain in the middle of the night. We awoke to no visibility. We could see no valley, no trees, no mountain. Only white clouds all around our truck at about 8800 feet. "We'd better get out of here," I suggested to Richard. Last winter we had been caught in a flash flood, and I didn't want to repeat the experience. So we jumped into the cab and started driving. A couple of thousand feet down, the visibility improved. We could now see the snow on the mountain tops all around us. Luckily the snow line was above 8800 feet.

I had planned a layover day for exploring between climbs, so the weather was no problem. We started east toward Arc Dome and stopped by the partial ghost town of Manhattan to see among other buildings, St. Patrick's Church which had been moved long ago from Belmont.

Manhattan was friendly and interesting. A work crew was finishing off a new foundation for the old schoolhouse. As he left the site on an ATV, a young man advised us, "Go in the old school and look around. The church is unlocked and you can go in it too. Just don't take nothing." We took photos. Of special interest were the tin ceiling panels and flattened cans that had been used as siding on some of the houses in town. The Manhattan mine is still in operation.

On the road again, we decided to have lunch among the cottonwoods in the Peavine Campground. The striking yellow of the cottonwood leaves contrasted with the black tree trunks. Suddenly, as we drove toward the campground, a merlin glided ahead of us, barely a foot off the ground, with almost no flap of its wings. Surely aeronautical engineers must envy its superb design.

After lunch we continued on increasingly rougher dirt roads until we came to a steep downhill with about a 30% cross slope ready to pitch us over the edge. We probably could have made it in our 4WD truck, but I wasn't going to find out. We backtracked from this remote area and went back to Tonopah. It was Tuesday, and the ranger station was open.

After stocking up on National Forest maps, we drove north to Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. On the way we encountered some interesting road signs. For some reason, whoever made the signs (the state? the County?) didn't believe in arrows. Picture this: We are at the junction of two dirt roads. The printed metal sign reads, "Gabbs 20, Cloverdale Ranch 12, Ione 30. That's it. No arrows. We had only a general idea where any of these places were. We weren't completely sure which road we were on. I had to dig out my compass. It was almost as if we had entered the Twilight Zone.

The next day we toured Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park although the fossil exhibit was not open and all we could do was peer in the windows. The mining town (Berlin) exhibits were also closed for the season, but the well-signed buildings were interesting, however not as authentic as Manhattan and Belmont. Then it was on to Columbine campground, our trailhead for Arc Dome.

That afternoon we scouted the beginning of the climb since we planned to start before dawn so as to return in daylight. The aspen were past their prime, but we discovered abandoned paper wasp nests, woodrat nests and high up in a stout aspen tree crotch, a very large raptor nest.

We rose at 4:30 a.m. and were on the trail by 5:00 a.m. reaching the Arc Dome plateau by sunrise. Roundtrip, the hike (on a sometimes-disappearing trail) was 14 miles and about 4600 feet elevation gain. From the plateau, we could see the summit of Arc Dome (11,773 ') peaking over the rim, but just over the hill, so to speak, we had to drop down a heartbreaking 600 feet before we could climb up again to the summit. We made our way up the steep slope on snow-dusted switchbacks.

Arc Dome was used as one of the survey stations for the 39th Parallel triangulation. John Muir climbed the peak, then known as Toiyabe Dome, in August 1878, as part of this project. The ruins of the building which was the survey station can still be seen on the summit as can graffiti from 1902 and other early years of the 20th century. Richard uncovered the remains of old handmade boots put together with nails. For more info on the history of the 39th Parallel triangulation see On the way down, we tried to find an old pack trail which was designated on the map. The exploration cost us another couple of miles of walking all over the plateau with no trail found. Giving up our search, we returned to camp, flushing a few elk as we neared the campground.

That night around a warming campfire we enjoyed the starry night and the campground all to ourselves.

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