Hiking Reno/Lake Tahoe: Hunter Creek Trail
Sometimes the most beautiful and unique natural places are the ones closest to home--and thus civilization. Such is the case with the Hunter Creek Trail.
Following the canyon of namesake Hunter Creek, the trail meanders along desert slopes for approximately two-thirds of its length before entering a particularly beautiful and shaded pine-fir forest and terminating at a twenty-five foot waterfall. The waterfall flows year round and is complimented by the greens of alder and willow in the summer and natural sculptures of ice in the winter.
Given the trail’s sunny profile for much of its length, it is often snow free during the winter. This makes the Hunter Creek Trail an excellent choice if you’re looking to avoid the deep snow and bitter temperatures of higher Sierra elevations in the winter. Unfortunately, this sunny profile makes for a comparatively scorching experience during the summer, with trail temperatures often exceeding 90, and occasionally 100, degrees Fahrenheit during July and August. When hiked during reasonable weather, however, Hunter Creek makes for a memorable, moderate-length journey.
With a trailhead located just beyond the Reno city limits, the trail enters the protected splendor of the Mount Rose Wilderness after only 0.4 miles. So what are you waiting for? Let’s get hiking!
Trail Nuts and Bolts
Length: 5.6 miles round trip
Trailhead elevation: 5000
Elevation gain: 1200
Best time/season: fall, winter, spring; summers prove unbearably hot.
Shade availability: low for first two miles; excellent for final 0.5 miles.
Trail users: hikers and runners (some with dogs off leash).
The Hunter Creek trail begins at the recently completed Michael D. Thompson Trailhead. To get here, drive 1.3 miles west on Mayberry Drive from its intersection with McCarran Boulevard and turn left onto Plateau Road. Follow Plateau for 1.1 miles and turn right onto Woodchuck Circle. After 0.8 miles Woodchuck reaches a large roundabout. The signed trailhead is accessed by taking the first right after entering the roundabout. The trailhead offers plentiful parking, a small number of picnic tables, and restroom facilities (summer only). The trail begins behind the metal gate at the southwest edge of the parking area. If hiking to Hunter Creek Falls, the roundtrip distance is around 5.6 miles (2.8 one-way), with 1200 feet of vertical elevation gain.
Hunter Creek Trailhead Map
From the gate at the trailhead, the Hunter Creek trail proceeds for 0.1 miles on a gravel roadway before crossing to the west side of Hunter Creek via a number of fortuitously placed boulders. The nearby Steamboat Ditch trail can be accessed via the two northbound trails found just before and just after the creek crossing. The Hunter Creek trail, however, continues on to the southwest. Following the crossing, the trail continues along the roadway for another 0.15 miles before the roadway turns around and veers up the hillside to the north. Again, maintain a southwestward trajectory to stay on the Hunter Creek trail. After another 0.15 miles of hiking and a brief bout of climbing the trail passes the signed entrance to the Mount Rose Wilderness.
The next 2 miles of trail consists of a fairly uniform climb along the desert slopes to the west of Hunter Creek. Occasional stretches of talus break up the otherwise mundane nature of this stretch of trail--which can be scorching hot in the summer, so be sure to hike early and drink plenty of water. Around 0.5 miles beyond the wilderness boundary the trail reaches its only set of switchbacks and, just before the first switchback, a brief area of cooling shade.
1.5 miles beyond the switchbacks the canyon surrounding Hunter Creek widens, allowing the trail to enter a dense forest of white fir and Jeffrey pine. The remaining 0.4 miles of trail consists of a few ups and downs into largely dry streambeds and an eventual emergence into a semi-open meadow 0.1 miles before trails end. The first sounds of the waterfall can often be heard from the meadow, inviting the trailgoer to the conclusion of their upward journey.
Where Do You Like to Hike?
Do you prefer hiking in the forest or the desert?
What You'll See Along the Way
Along the sunny portions of the Hunter Creek trail a desert ecosystem prevails. Oceans of non-native cheat grass coat the mountainsides to the creek’s north, broken only by an infrequent big sagebrush or rubber rabbit brush. The riparian area of adjacent to the creek harbors a greater diversity of flora than the desert slopes, incorporating such species as Fremont cottonwood, quaking aspen, willow, and mountain alder. Further along, curl-leaf mountain mahogany greets hikers just before the trail enters its final, shaded stretch amidst towering pines and firs.
The greatest diversity of fauna near Hunter Creek is found largely along the waterway itself. Amidst the pine and fir one can glimpse chipmunks, Douglas squirrels, Stellar’s jays, mountain chickadees, and other forest denizens. Further downstream and amongst the desert vegetation, mountain cottontails and black-tailed jackrabbits punctuate the hillside accompanied by several species of sparrow. If one listens closely, the canyon walls will often echo the call of the ever-elusive canyon wren, though a sighting of this species should be considered a rare privilege.
© 2014 Jonathan Heywood