Notes on trekking from Squaw Dome to Iva Bell Hot Springs, June 2011

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Balloon Dome

Summary: Here is a novel route to access Iva Bell Hot Springs in the John Muir Wilderness of the Sierra National Forest.  Most people reach Iva Bell from the north (via Red’s Meadow), or from the east (via the PCT).  However, in heavy snow years—such as this year, 2011—the north and east trailheads may be unaccessible early in the season. The route I describe here provides early-season access to the hot springs from the west, starting at the McCreary trailhead in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.  CAUTION: This route uses trails that are poorly maintained.  Navigation skills are required, especially to traverse the section from Heitz Meadow, around Pincushion Peak, and down the Silver Creek drainage.

Trip Statistics: Approximately 25 miles one way.  About 6000′ total gain one way.  McCreary trailhead is located at 6774′. Cassidy Bridge is the lowest point at 4400′.  The saddle north of Pincushion Peak is the highest point at 8622′.  Iva Bell hot springs are located at about 6450′.

Conditions in June 2011: Small snow patches lingered on the Minarets Road, but we were able to drive a sedan within one mile of McCreary trailhead.  We parked our car alongside the road, left a note in the window (and crossed our fingers).  The trail from McCreary to Cassidy Bridge was completely snow-free and easy to follow.  Further down, we encountered a dozen poison oak patches at the bottom of the San Joaquin river canyon.  The poison oak was difficult to avoid; pants and a long-sleeve shirt are highly recommended for this short section.  Past the poison oak, there are several excellent campsites on the canyon floor near Cassidy Bridge.

The switchbacks east of Cassidy Bridge were in great condition, and we easily found Rattlesnake Lake — which is mostly a marsh these days.  The ascent to Rattlesnake Lake offered several good places to pause and enjoy views of Balloon Dome.  Although Rattlesnake Lake lacks the majesty of high-elevation Sierra tarns, it nonetheless felt extremely wild and lost; it seemed like no human had visited this area in a very long time.  Beyond Rattlesnake Lake, we sometimes struggled to follow the trail to Heitz Meadow.  The cross-country walking was easy, fortunately, so we followed what clues we could find: sawed logs and occasional water bars.  We found Heitz Meadow with its collapsed cabin, destroyed outhouse, and broken horse corral.  It was apparent that no human has lived here in decades.

East of Heitz Meadow, the trail disappeared under fallen trees and forest litter.  Views were minimal, so we took a compass bearing and tried our best to stay on course.  The cross-country walking wasn’t bad, but there were endless downed trees to negotiate. We found hints of the trail several times, so that was reassuring.  We eventually lost sunlight, so we camped near a creek at snowline (~7500 feet).

The next day, we hiked on solid snow over the saddle north of Pincushion Peak, past String Meadows, and into the Silver Creek drainage.  We used the compass to hike directly to the saddle, but — if you get lost — you could just as well follow the counters around Pincushion Peak and find the saddle.  A map is 100% required for this section. We dropped to Silver Creek, and then checked our GPS; surprisingly, we were only 100 feet away from the trail.  This early in the season, Silver Creek was an unfordable white stallion, but we found a wide log spanning the creek nearby.  This log seems to be a permanent fixture, and it should be easy to find for anyone hiking through this area.  (Hint: the log sits in alder bushes on both shores).  From Silver Creek, the switchbacks down to Fox Meadow were easy to follow, but they were overgrown with manzanita and huckleberry oak; this is another section where long pants are recommended to protect your legs from sharp branches.  At Fox Meadow, we rejoined the well-maintained trail that connects Reds Meadow to Iva Bell, and we cruised to the hot springs in luxury.

Iva Bell hot springs are scattered across a grassy hillside; we found at least seven pools, but there may be others.  I strongly suspect we were the first people to soak in the springs this season.  The meadow pools were covered in algae, but we easily scooped away the mess and enjoyed soaking in clean hot water.  The pool in the open meadow by the boulder is probably the hottest and cleanest, but the pool under the trees by the campsite has seats and shirt hooks and other nice features.  The highest pools are perched on a shelf (about 200′) above the meadow, but unfortunately they were filled with hundreds of tiny leeches; I think these pools are unsoakable until the leech problem is solved.

We camped near the meadow pools for two nights; it was heavenly.  A duo of hikers briefly passed through — apparently they entered over Mammoth Pass — but they seemed rushed and quickly departed.  The shuttle to Red’s Meadow was not yet running during our trip, so I’m not surprised that Iva Bell was basically empty.  Over the next three days, we returned to McCreary trailhead using our original route.

A note about navigation: We carried topographic maps, a compass, and an iPhone with GPS.  We relied on the map and compass to navigate the cross-country northeast of Heitz Meadow, but we also used the iPhone a few times to validate our decisions.  The iPhone GPS, surprisingly, worked very well in the wilderness.

Map: view the route in Google Maps:

Video Postcards from the trip: 

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