Hiking Reno/Lake Tahoe: Jones-Whites Creek Loop
Some say hikers can be classified into two camps, those that prefer out-and-back trails and those that prefer loop trails. The former group finds pleasure in seeing the same location from a different angle while the latter group finds joy in entirely new landscapes. Virtually any trail is suited to the out-and-back ideal--you can always just turn around--but a smaller, more select group of trails is suited to loop hiking. Fortunately for outdoor enthusiasts of the Reno area, the Jones-Whites Creek trail was planned with loop hikers in mind.
Accessed by either the Upper Whites Creek Trailhead or the Jones Creek Trailhead, the loop trail takes on distinctly different personas depending on the direction of completion. If completed in a clockwise direction from the Jones Creek Trailhead, the trail climbs steeply for 2.5 miles before reaching an 8100 foot ridge top with views of the Truckee Meadows below. If completed in a counterclockwise direction from the Upper Whites Creek Trailhead, the trail climbs gradually along Whites Creek for 4.7 miles before arriving at the ridge. Regardless of the direction of completion, a mildly hilly 2.0 mile trail completes the lowest portion of the loop, connecting the Whites and Jones Creek trails at points just above each trailhead. The Church’s Pond trail, which departs west from the aforementioned ridge, provides the opportunity for a short, non-strenuous hike extension and a break beside a placid body of water.
Though the trail is frequently completed in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions, the portion along Jones Creek generally seems to see more traffic, possibly due to the recent completion of the nearby Galena Creek Visitor Center and possibly due to the winter closure of the Upper Whites Creek Trailhead. From the Jones Creek Trailhead, the trail first passes through an open forest of Jeffrey pine marked by an undergrowth of abundant manzanita. Shortly entering a dense forest of pine and white fir, the trail travels along the south bank of aspen-lined Jones Creek for a brief time before crossing to the creek’s north and reaching a junction with the main portion of the loop trail.
Continuing left at the fork to complete the loop in a clockwise direction, the trail parallels Jones Creek just up the sandy, pine covered hillside to the creek’s north for a moderate distance before first entering the Mount Rose Wilderness and later reaching a switchback near an aspen lined meadow. A series of additional switchbacks take the trail through a mixed pine/mahogany forest upwards to the aforementioned ridge. Along this stretch, views of Washoe Valley and the aspen meadow below enliven an otherwise arduous ascent. At the ridge, the Church’s Pond trail departs to the west, travelling by abundant wildflowers in late spring and early summer before passing through an aspen grove and arriving at the shores of Church’s Pond.
From the ridge, the loop trail descends to the northwest through dense conifer forest and occasional quaking aspen before first crossing the south fork of Whites Creek and later crossing the north fork of Whites Creek. Shade and moisture loving wildflowers prove abundant through this stretch in the summer months. After crossing to the north of Whites Creek, the trail descends through the pine/mahogany forest along the sandy slopes bordering the creek, occasionally passing through tobacco brush, cottonwoods, and aspen along the way. Eventually, the trail crosses to the southeast side of Whites Creek as it exits the Mount Rose Wilderness. The next stretch of trail consists of a largely uniform descent through semi-dense conifer forest along an old dirt roadway.
After passing the Dry Pond connector trail, the Jones-Whites Creek loop trail continues to descend through conifer forest, departing from and returning to Whites Creek’s alder-lined banks several times before reaching the junction with the lower portion of the loop trail. Proceeding right at the junction, the loop ascends mildly to the east through a stand of young Jeffrey pine before topping a mild ridge at an elevation of 6530 feet. After a short and sunny westward descent through sagebrush and bitterbrush, the trail re-enters a pine/mahogany forest and continues to the south for just over one mile before reaching the previously encountered junction just north of Jones Creek. Going left at the junction, the first portion of the route is retraced to arrive back at the Jones Creek Trailhead.
Do you presently find yourself distraught at the prospect of hiking an out-and-back route? Read on to discover more specifics about the Jones-Whites Creek loop trail.
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Trail Nuts and Bolts
Length: 10.4-11.8 miles; 11.6-13 miles via winter Whites Creek Trailhead.
Trailhead elevation: both around 6240
Elevation gain: 2000-2300 feet
Best time/season: year round; deep snow/ice occasional in winter.
Shade availability: good
Trail users: hikers, runners, equestrians; mountain bikers on lower loop.
To get to the Jones Creek Trailhead, drive west on Mount Rose Highway (Nevada 431) for 3.9 miles from its intersection with Thomas Creek Road at Galena Market, and turn right at Galena Creek Recreation Area. Continue west for 0.45 miles before turning right to arrive at the paved trailhead. A large parking area, picnic tables, and vault toilets constitute the trailhead facilities.
To get to the Upper Whites Creek Trailhead, drive west on Mount Rose Highway (Nevada 431) for 2.8 miles from its intersection with Thomas Creek Road at Galena Market, and turn right onto Timberline Drive. Follow Timberline Drive for just over 0.5 miles before turning left onto the trailhead access road (NF-047). Continue for 0.8 miles along the high-quality, single lane dirt road before arriving at a forested parking area with two picnic tables and vault toilets. The upper trailhead is closed November through April. Parking at the base of NF-047 along Timberline Drive is necessitated during this period, which lengthens the hike by 0.8 miles each way. If parking on Timberline, please be courteous to area residents and obey the nearby no-parking signs.
This account describes the trail as encountered via a clockwise rotation started from the Jones Creek Trailhead. The trail departs uphill to the west from the northern (gravel) end of the trailhead.
From the trailhead, the Jones Creek trail winds its way west through sunny, open pine forest for 0.3 miles and then encounters a signed junction with a trail that heads south to other areas of Galena Creek Recreation Area. Continuing right at the junction, the trail moves west through a recently thinned pine/fir forest for 0.3 miles before crossing to the north side of Jones Creek and reaching another signed junction. This is the Jones-Whites Creek loop trail. Going right will take you on a counterclockwise loop towards Whites Canyon while going left will soon take you to the top of the 8100 foot ridge as part of a clockwise loop.
Proceeding left for a clockwise rotation, the trail next encounters two separate, very steep ascents punctuated by moderate ascending in between. All told, the trail climbs 250 feet over the next 0.3 miles before entering the Mount Rose Wilderness. The next 0.2 miles constitute a brief reprieve, with the trail staying largely flat as it passes above a thicket of creek dogwood, which blooms white in early summer, and through a stand of white fir. After this reprieve, the trail ascends moderately up a sandy slope for 0.1 miles before reaching a steeper climb upon entering the shade of several large pines. Around 0.15 miles further, the trail reaches a switchback alongside an aspen-lined meadow.
The next 0.8 miles consists of a uniformly steep climb through four more switchbacks up a slope shaded by mountain mahogany and Jeffrey pine. Following this stretch, the trail travels through another swithback and then ascends west moderately for 0.35 miles before reaching the top of a ridge at 8100 feet above sea level. Enjoy a moment of respite as you admire the views and prepare for the continuation of your journey.
After topping the ridge, the trail descends for approximately fifty feet before reaching a junction with the Church’s Pond trail. The route to Church’s Pond ascends for 0.35 miles past abundant wildflowers (in late spring and early summer) and past two talus slopes before levelling off. A grove of aspens and mixed brush highlight the remaining 0.35 miles of trail to Church’s Pond, which is bordered by cliffs on one side and aspens on another. In sum, a journey to Church’s Pond will add 1.4 miles to the total distance of the Jones-Whites Creek loop, but the beauty of the pond is well worth the extra mileage.
Continuing from the intersection with the Church’s Pond trail, the loop trail descends moderately to the north for 0.4 miles through fir and aspen and later reaches a mild viewpoint of Whites Canyon below and the Truckee Meadows to the northeast. From here, the trail descends mildly for 0.6 miles along a moist, conifer slope that harbors a variety of wildflowers from June through August, eventually crossing to the west side of the south fork of Whites Creek on a poorly placed improvised bridge. The location of this creek crossing is particularly beautiful and warrants a moment of quiet contemplation.
Following the crossing, the trail first passes through mixed brush and then along a pine slope before reaching an aspen grove and a log crossing of the north fork of Whites Creek after another 0.4 miles. The next 0.5 miles consists of a mild, sandy descent through open pine/mahogany forest before reaching an overlook of the compilation of the two forks of Whites Creek atop a minor, loose cliff face. The trail now parallels Whites Creek to the creek’s northwest for 0.8 miles before exiting the Mount Rose Wilderness and reaching a log crossing to the creek’s southeast side. This stretch of trail passes plentiful aspen and cottonwood.
After exiting the wilderness, the Jones-Whites loop descends along an old roadway through an open forest of pine and fir for 0.8 miles before reaching the Dry Pond connector trail. Just under 0.1 miles outside the wilderness, the trail passes a minor aspen meadow that provides verdant spring greens and stunning fall yellows. Unless you are feeling particularly ambitious, continue past the Dry Pond trail and reach a fork after 0.1 miles. Go left at the fork to stay on the foot trail (the right trail is intended for equestrians, though foot traffic is welcome as well). From the fork, the trail continues along the south side of Whites Creek through pine/fir forest and past several large cottonwoods for 0.7 miles before reaching the signed junction with the lower loop. Much of this portion of trail runs parallel to the creek.
Proceed right at the junction to stay on the Jones-Whites loop and ascend moderately east up a pine-covered hillside for just under 0.3 miles before topping a broad desert ridge. Follow the trail as it descends west along a shade free slope for 0.25 miles before re-entering the cover of Jeffrey pines. Over the next 0.95 miles the trail winds its way south, first through pine forest and later through abundant mountain mahogany. Reach a signed junction with the Jones Creek loop trail at the conclusion of this stretch and continue right (west) for 0.5 miles to reach the previously encountered junction with the Jones Creek trail. Go left at the junction and retrace your steps for 0.6 miles to the Jones Creek Trailhead.
What You'll See Along the Way
Given the variety of slope profiles encountered along the Jones-Whites Creek loop trail, the large diversity of plant and animal life present along the trail should be no surprise. The early portions of the route are marked by towering Jeffrey pine and white fir and an undergrowth of green-leaf manzanita, tobacco brush, and occasional antelope bitterbrush. Notable and conspicuous wildlife of this area includes chipmunks, Douglas squirrels, pygmy nuthatches, and dark-eyed juncos (a species of sparrow). As the trail climbs steeply to the north of Jones Creek, Jeffrey pine mixes with curl-leaf mountain mahogany, both of which shade the groundcover-like purple wildflower known as squaw carpet (typically blooming from mid-May to mid-June). Just after entering the wilderness, an abundance of red-barked creek dogwood can be seen growing just below the trail along the creek. Climbing higher, chipmunks and other small mammals complement a bird life composed of vociferous Clark’s nutcrackers and the heard, but seldom seen sooty grouse.
Many consider the trail to Church’s Pond to be the most beautiful portion of this hike. Just after leaving the loop trail, a veritable garden of wildflowers delights the eye. From yellow wooly mule’s ears and red Applegate’s paintbrush to the pink mountain spiraea, this area is a sight for sore eyes (and muscles). The bloom along this stretch of trail peaks from mid-June to early July.
Descending to Whites Creek, the trail passes a diverse array of shade-loving wildflowers too numerous to mention as well as fruit-bearing shrubs such as Sierra currant. Near the banks of Whites Creek, crimson columbine, purple big-leafed lupine, and blue glaucous larkspur compose the summer color of an understory found beneath aspens that turn a vibrant yellow in mid-October. Birds found here include house wren and, during fall migration, the secretive varied thrush.
As the trail travels through the open forest along Whites Creek, numerous additional species are encountered. A brown plant known as pine drops juts several feet above the soil--gathering its metabolic energy by parasitizing the root system of other plants—as crest lupine brings a dash of purple color to the forest floor in June. Animal life through here consists of small mammals such as the western gray squirrel and birds such as Stellar’s jays and hairy woodpeckers. The final portion of the hike, the stretch along the lower loop, is marked by sagebrush, bitterbrush, and additional mahogany and Jeffrey pine. One bird to look for through here is the rambunctious, but tiny blue-gray gnatcatcher.
© 2014 Jonathan Heywood
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