Granite Chief • Lake Tahoe Area Mountains
• Placer County


Granite Chief from afar


and from much closer


Adam and Edward astride the summit boulder


I pose with an ice-axe

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Date: June 22, 2002 • Elevation: 9,006 feet • Prominence: 1,846 feet • Distance: 7 miles • Time: 5 hours • Gain: 3,000 feet • Conditions: Clear, with lots of snow on the higher slopes • Teammates: Adam Helman & Edward Earl

Granite Chief is located near the Squaw Valley Ski area, host of the 1960 Winter Olympics. In summer, a tram takes people up to the upper buildings. The summit had long been believed to be the highest point of Placer County, which is why we were here to climb it.

I was on a week-long hiking vacation in the Lake Tahoe region, and had picked Adam Helman up at the Reno airport a few hours earlier today. We then drove to a campground near the peak, meeting Adam's friend, Edward Earl, there. I had never met Edward until tonight. We talked for an hour or two, then crashed.

For Edward, this peak would be his 58th and last California County highpoint. If he was successful, he would be one of very few people to have climbed all 58 highpoints. We were up early the next morning and hiking by 6:30 a.m., in pleasant and dry conditions.

The trail starts behind the fire station along Squaw Valley's main road, and splits and braids with other trails as it slowly gains elevation up a small canyon. We took one wrong turn and found ourselves hiking along a swollen creek. Fortunately we discovered our error fast and backtracked to a junction, where a sign pointed the way to Granite Chief. How the three of us missed that sign going in is beyond me.

The trail gains steadily up the forested canyon walls, then starts a long traverse with some up and down as it heads toward the canyon headwall and main summit ridge. Periodically the views were expansive and we could see the summit off in the distance, other times we were amid huge trees. There were also some rocky areas where cairns marked the way. The scenery changed often enough to keep it interesting. We all made good time and in about 2 hours had covered about 4.5 miles. Small patches of snow started to infringe on the trail, eventually growing very large and often forcing us to make educated guesses as to the proper direction of travel.

Eventually the snowdrifts simply forced us to find our own way, but since we were very close, this was not a problem. We descended into a marsh, then ascended up the headwall below a ski-lift to gain the saddle east of the summit. This headwall was covered in snow and totally covered our trail, so we ascended via a steep series of rock outcrops and short, steep snow inclines. Only one move on the rocks might have approached class-3, and the snow traversing wasn't too bad as long as we kicked steps, and we came to the saddle with no problems.

From here, it was about 300 more feet up the ridge amid snow, trees and rocks to the top. We picked our own routes through this mix and eventually reached the top about 3.5 hours after starting. The summit is topped by a big rock, and Edward deliberately waited before tagging it, as Adam read a prepared speech and I acted as witness and well-wisher to Edward.

Then, the big moment for Edward: he had reached the highest point in all 58 California counties. We congratulated him, ate lunch, snapped photos and took in the views, with Lake Tahoe dominating to the east, and a multitude of peaks to our north, west and south. Freel Peak, which I did the day before, was off to the southeast. This was Adam's 50th California county highpoint, well on his way to completion.

After nearly an hour, we started down, but had no interest in re-negotiating the snowy parts we passed coming up. Instead, we descended to the saddle and ascended a subpeak to Granite Chief's east, and walked down service roads toward a tram complex that we could see in the distance. We could see a pool and hear music. The temptation was too much and we took the tram down (for free) to the parking area, drastically cutting our time and distances down (and wear and tear on my knees). Coming up was about 5.5 miles and about 3,000 feet of gain, whereas going down was about 2 miles and 1,000 feet of loss. In doing so, we shaved 3 miles and about 2 hours from our time.

We said our goodbyes in the parking area. Adam and I headed into Nevada to start tackling peaks out there, while Edward started back for San Diego.

Update, September 2008: A new highpoint has been discovered for Placer County, a 9,040-foot contour on the east face of Mount Baldy (in Nevada) that pokes across the state line into Placer County, California. Edward and Adam would eventually visit this new point, while I have not.

(c) 2002, 2016 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.