Ebbetts Pass crosses the Sierra Nevada Range of California 30 miles or so above the Nevada border, and separates 5 drainages into 2 states. It is one of 5 Sierran passes ascended and descended on the infamous "Death Ride" by bicyclists.
This article traces the overall geographic significance of the Ebbetts Pass Area. TopoZone has excellent maps showing this area, accessed via the External Links section below. Photos of the relevant peaks are shown as "children" to this "parent" object.
See Highland Peak, Raymond, Reynolds, and other mountain pages for more info on permits and access routes, including links to the Highway Dept. for road closures, and the US Forest Service for detailed campground information and wilderness permits. A court-ordered off-road vehicle ban is in effect for user-created roads until late 2007. Ebbetts Pass is closed in winter, and opens about Memorial Day most years.
Highway 4 starts in the Bay Area, and runs due East through the Delta to Stockton, then rises up through the gold country of the Sierra foothills. The main route ascends the West Slope of the Sierrasalong the ridge between the North Fork of the Stanislaus River on the south, and the Mokelumne River drainage on the north.
The East side of Ebbetts Pass drains into the Carson River system and the Walker River, which both flow down the steep escarpments of the Sierran tilt block out into the Nevada desert.
The pass to Northward is Carson Pass, on Highway 88, and the pass to Southward is Sonora Pass, on Highway 108. All three passes were identified by early mountainman scouts for furtrapping and military expeditions, including Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, Captain John C. Fremont, and Joe Walker.
Wagon trains of pioneer settlers created trails up the steep eastern slope escarpments and talus slopes, crossed these passes, and descended the West Slope, lowering their wagon boxes, agricultural implements and home furniture by ropes down canyon walls.
Ebbetts Pass was the site of one of the earliest and most difficult expeditions. The Bidwell Party originally ascended Sonora Pass to the South, rumbled through the high granite-floored Emigrant Basin, lowering their wagons by ropes down headwalls to Kennedy Meadows; then they had to do it again over the next canyon walls into present-day Donnell Reservoir, to the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus. But then they could not get down further steep canyon clefts, so they had to reverse course and hoist (!) their wagons with ropes UP ledges near the Dardenelles buttes, to the ridge dropping West off Ebbetts Pass. They couldn't go back across the Great Basin. They had already glimpsed the Great Central Valley of California.
Alpine Geography & Navigation
The Ebbetts Pass Area is actually a double summit. It consists of Ebbetts Pass proper, and Pacific Grade Summit a little to the West.
In between is a swale area, from which another river system drains those high boulderfield lake basins to Northward, curving around to the NW, becoming the Mokelumne River drainage.
Mokelumne Peak is a little farther North and West, and the Mokelumne Wilderness is a system of high ridges and walls. These in turn constitute a system along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), extending from Mexico to Canada, through the Sierras to the Cascades, to the British Columbia Coast Range.
For the portion of the PCT between Sonora Pass, Ebbetts Pass, and Carson Pass, the crestline connects a series of volcanic cones, such as the Dardanelles Cone and Leavitt Peak at Sonora Pass via a saddle in the headwaters of the Clark Fork Stanislaus called Saint Mary's Pass. From there the saddle rim climbs over various peaks, descending to the Highland Lakes between Folger Peak and Hiram Peak, at Wolf Creek Pass. Wolf Creek Pass falls off to the East, into the Walker River drainage toward Nevada. sThe crestline climbs between Tryon Peak and Highland Peak up to Ebbetts Pass proper, at the base of Ebbetts Peak.
From Ebbetts Peak the ridgeline swings Westward, then Northward, along a rim that drops off steeply into Blue Lakes Complex, Red Lake, and others, on the East side of Carson Pass. The rim climbs up into the back slopes of Elephant Back and other prominent peaks through saddle passes used by other emigrant wagon trains to the Kirkwood Meadows Ski Area, ridge of volcanic towers, culminating in Thunder Mountain above Silver Lake, draining to the Cosumnes River and the Silver Fork of the American, and its northern nose, called Carson Spur, which drops straight down into Caples Creek Canyon. That Carson Pass region is important to be aware of if lost in winter.
Pacific Grade Summit is to the West of Ebbetts Pass itself. It is a little lower, and establishes the westward flow of Highland Creek from one of the Highland Lakes, and the North Fork of the Stanislaus. That eventually converges with the Clark Fork down into Spicer Meadows Reservoir after a steep fall down into benchland meadows with numerous other reservoirs.
Along the West-trending ridgeline of Highway 4, the winding tarmac descends down past the edge of Lake Alpine and its lodge/store, down past Mt. Reba and the Bear Valley Ski Resort. This is near the end of the road in winter. The Mokelumne River descends the canyon to the North of the ridge here.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS GEOGRAPHY:
The ridge and pass system of the 3 connected passes is significant for SummitPost members to learn and memorize for navigational purposes. The complexity of 5 rivers draining from these high basins would make it easy to get lost here, especially in an unseasonable snowstorm.
Following the wrong drainage in a snowstorm will lead you into totally different geographies and literally, different states. Subtle differences in the direction of flow of gently dropping creeks can lead a climber, hiker, fisher or hunter into steep dropoffs, as well as radically different outcomes in seeking sources of help for search & rescue of comrades left up above.
These vertical changes are exacerbated by some radical directional changes as well. River headwaters that flow off the Eastern side all take radical turns: the Carson River forks all veer to Northward and stretch many miles along Highway 4 before reaching Highway 89 within Alpine County California, before crossing the state line and dropping into the desert grazing pastures of Nevada. The Walker River also drops steeply, though it crosses Highway 395 more quickly.
SummitPost members who use this site for more than mere hiking and climbing, but also familiarizing themselves with the geography for fishing trips, hunting trips, or search & rescue prevention, can develop navigational savvy to prevent getting lost.
The ancient seabed sandstones found on some summits were lifted up by volcanism deep within the earth's crust, intruding granitic batholithic upthrust through them, which resisted weathering by successive milennia, so that granite domes and cliffs remain on some ridges of the Sierra. But on Ebbetts Pass the primary surface geology is volcanic -- the last eruptions from the Dardanelle Cone on the next ridge south, on Sonora Pass, and St. Mary's Pass. The granite underlies it, appearing mostly on the eroded Eastern side, supporting perched lakes on granite ledges.
Lava covers most of the Sierra Crest in this region. Granite domes, faces, and cliffs are found in Emigrant Basin and Yosemite to the South, and in the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus to the South. The North Fork, below Ebbetts Pass, does not have such granite, unless there is some in the very headwaters, where this author has not guided. Sandstone boulders along the ridgeline of Ebbetts Pass attest to the original ancient seabed sources.
The volcanic walls with volcanic plugs on the Kirkwood Meadows Ski Area ridge on Carson Pass likely extend South, to the walls that constitute the Northern rim of the Mokelumne/Carson interface zone. Those ridges are mostly rounded, but there may be some decent climbing back in there.
Watershed and Hunting Boundaries
The unique geography is also significant in a legal sense, in that water resource planning jurisdictions follow watershed lines, as do the national forest boundaries, as well as hunting zones. Ebbetts Passs is the SE corner of the immense Zone D5, ranging from the Middle Fork of the American, which edges on Lake Tahoe, follows south over Echo Pass and Carson Pass to Ebbetts Pass, and technically gets very complicated down below on Wolf Creek Pass. The boundary follows jagged forest boundary lines along the PCT, then takes a sharp jag to a straight west line along T7 and T8, to the road between Upper and Lower Highland Lakes. This boundary is significant because it demarcates Wolf Creek Pass, through a subtle swale -- the south lake drains off to the south into the Stanislaus, and the north lake drains off to the north.
Canyon Ascent from East
This pass is the most dramatic when ascending from the East side. It climbs from Highway 395 in Nevada and California, to 89, to 4, as well as south from Tahoe over Luther Pass on 89, to the junction with 88 coming off the back side of Carson Pass, then South through Markleeville (county seat of Alpine County) to join SR 4.
The side-roads uphill from Markleeville to the West to Gomer Hot Springs and further side roads up 2 other creeks (e.g. Pleasant Valley) all head at the peaks just North of Ebbetts Pass, leading toward Carson Pass. (eg. Raymond Peak.) A lost hiker in that North country could descend into those drainages and get out eventually to the county seat on a long day.
The Ebbetts Pass region is also a potential ski tour in winter, from Kirkwood Meadows Ski Area southeasterly. Although I have not heard of it being done in winter, the Pacific Crest Trail has been run from Highway 50 on Echo Pass to Elephant Back on Carson Pass east of Kirkwood (Highway 88) down to Markleeville. That did not quite reach Ebbetts Pass, but that is do-able.
A geographically significant side-trip to the East is uphill from Wolf Creek Campground. A side road climbs Eastward, up past the Leviathan Mine to the barren ridgetop of Monitor Pass, then drops down the far side to Highway 395. This is the route of part of the Death Ride, and provides astounding views of Nevada, north to Pyramid Lake and the Dogskins, west to the Sierra Crest of the 3 passes discussed here, and south toward the Sawtooth Ridge region near the Matterhorn in northern Yosemite.]
On the Ebbetts Pass route, Highway 4 climbs from Wolf Creek Campground in a narrow ribbon of tarmac, like a trail. Not even centerlined until recently, it used to wash out often. It is still not maintained in winter, and wiggles around between boulders as it switchbacks up the pass.
As it reaches the last steeps above Silver Creek campground, near the confluence of Noble Creek, the road barely misses trees, and nearly grazes rock walls. The visitor rises up from beneath, then alongside, lakes perched on ledges. With fast glances you can peep through the trees and see the lakes as you rise up past them at eye-level to the surface of the water. (Probably Kinney Reservoir.) The lakes are often covered in snow until late in the fishing season. Headwall cliffs dropping into the lakes provide dramatic backdrops.
In those final 500 feet of switchbacking up the pass, one is tempted to take pictures of the overhanging peaks and talus chutes dropping from Silver Peak and Highland Peak down into Silver Creek and Noble Creek. DON'T DO IT! You'll be whacked by a suddenly oncoming car whose occupants are trying to do the same thing around a blind drop-turn!
One is tempted frequently to stop and get out of the car to explore beatiful pocket campsites among the huge boulders in here.
A seemingly still-higher sugarloaf looms above Ebbetts Pass. On the map it is an un-named topo-line circle, just above one of the "t's" in Ebbetts.
When one finally reaches the ridgetop, the ridgecrest obscures views Southward. Suddenly the Southward view breaks out. One can look out across the vast spaces of the Stanislaus toward Ssint Mary's Pass and Sonora Pass. On most days in summer there are huge thunderheads looming between the ridges or beyond, with other stacks reaching far down by Yosemite's Tioga Pass, and off into Nevada.
Pacific Grade Summit and The Mokelumne
PACIFIC GRADE SUMMIT And The Mokelumne:
To the west of Ebbetts Pass proper Highway 4 crests over out of the Carson River watershed, into a basin of marshes and ponds with snags in high elevation lodgepole pine and other species.
This boulder strewn basin's creeks flow gradually out to the North to create the Mokelumne River. When the road finally reaches Pacific Grade Summit campground it is cresting again, over into the drainage of the Stanislaus.
Highland Creek flows next to the road, Westward, eventually into the Stanislaus. From Mosquito Lake there is another cresting over into Lake Alpine. The NFk Stanislaus drains that, eventually down into Spicer Meadows Reservoir.
Stopping and looking out to the South from Ebbetts Pass itself should reveal Highland Lakes, where Wolf Creek Pass drops to the East, into the Walker River drainage, out toward Nevada.
The TopoZone maps show several campgrounds, all of which would provide wonderful locales to enjoy the alpine. However, none are really very near technical climbing objectives.
On the East side, down below Silver Peak and Noble Canyon is Silver Creek campground. See Highland Peak page by keema for more info on this.
On Ebbetts Pass proper there is a campground near the summit.
There is also one near Pacific Grade Summit. There is also one back in on a 4-wheel drive trail to the North.
One of the most dramatic campgrounds may be on the 4WD road to Highland Lakes, to the South, at Wolf Creek Pass.
Another road to the South breaks off below Pacific Grade Summit, crossing the canyon to the next ridge.
Campgrounds at Lake Alpine provide lakefront beauty, as well as easy access to a classic lodge restaurant and bar, as well as a well-stocked store.
Further restaurants and services are available downhill at Bear Valley Ski Resort.
External Links TopoZone USGS Map of Ebbetts Pass Area.
History, Geology and Hydrology of Ebbetts Pass Area, by Nevada Dept. of Water Resources.