Unless You’re A Carson Valley Local, Bet You’ve Never Hiked This Eastern Sierra Trail

Cat on the Fay Luther Trail

A little friend on the Fay Luther Trail

By Kimberly Wilkes

Photos by Patrick Wilkes

A spotted cat stretched out on one of the branches of a Jeffrey pine. It stared at my husband Patrick and me from alongside the trail where we were hiking.

A bobcat? I wondered.

But then I saw the leash around its neck. Turns out some people were taking their cat for a walk.

Yes, their cat.

We had hiked this trail a lot, and had seen plenty of pooches pattering their way up or down the trail with their owners. But never a cat.

The feline was enjoying one of our favorite Carson Valley trails, a scenic trek that for the most part only Gardnerville and Minden locals know about. And maybe a few visitors who inquire about the best spots to hike in the area. The Fay Luther Trail hugs the base of the eastern slope of the Sierra and at its high point only reaches about 5,700 feet. So it’s a great hike in the fall, winter, and spring, when many trails in the mountains are blanketed in snow.

Fay Luther Trail Panorama

Panorama of the Carson Valley from Fay Luther Trail

The Carson Valley Trails Association did an amazing job of building and maintaining the trail, which includes a series of loops and connector trails totaling nine miles.  On the Interpretive Loop, you can pause along the way to read signs delivering interesting facts about the area’s geology, history, and fascinating people who once inhabited the area such as Snowshoe Thompson and Ira Luther.

The Hike To The Creek

Luther Creek on One of The Carson Valley Trails

Luther Creek

Depending on your energy level and how far you want to go, you’ve got a number of choices. If we only have an hour, we like to hike up to the creek. From the trailhead, start trekking up Sandy Trail, a wide path cutting through the sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and bitterbrush.

Bitterbrush in Bloom on Fay Luther Trail

Bitterbrush in Bloom

From late March through April, the desert blushes here with pink blossoms of the desert peach. Bitterbrush branches, covered in small yellow blossoms, poke up above the sagebrush, adding splashes of color to the high desert. In August and September, the golden rabbitbrush flowers provide a colorful encore to the earlier season wildflower show.

Desert Peach on Carson Valley Trails

Desert Peach in Bloom

Bitterbrush in Bloom Sandy Trail Fay Luther Trail

Bitterbrush in Bloom

On this first section of the trail, you’ll have a great view of the Pine Nut Mountains on the eastern side of the Carson Valley.

After a half mile, you enter the Jeffrey pine forest. In the shade, this part of the trail is much cooler than the sun-baked first half mile.

Snow Plants on Fay Luther Trail

Three Snow Plants on the Luther Creek Spur Trail

At just under a mile, you reach spritely little Luther Creek. Admire its pools and miniature waterfalls and listen to it serenade you as it travels down canyon. You can also explore a short spur trail next to the creek.

Difficulty: Moderate

Hike Distance: Approximately 2 miles round trip.

A Carson Valley Trail With a Grand View

View from Upper Fay Luther Trail 3

Instead of hiking straight to the creek, you have another choice. A half mile up Sandy Trail, you’ll see a large Jeffrey pine shading a bench with a view of Carson Valley. Stay straight on this trail and about 1/10 mile past this bench, veer off on to the narrow path shooting uphill from the wider main trail. This is the uphill branch of the Interpretive Loop.

Follow this trail through the forest. Climbing, you reach a section of trail with a good view of the green cropland of Carson Valley and the Pine Nut Mountains beyond. This flat section gives you a reprieve from the next part of the trail.

Approximately 1.2 miles from the trailhead, you’ll see a path heading uphill. It’s signed Grand View Loop. Take a right here and huff and puff your way up the steepening trail.

The trail pauses in its uphill journey on top of a Manzanita-covered hill 1.5 miles from the trailhead. In late March through April, thousands of little pink flowers dangle from the Manzanita plants. Patrick likes to nibble on the green Manzanita berries as he hikes past.

Manzanita Flower on a Carson Valley Trail

Manzanita Flower

Manzanita Flower on Fay Luther Trail

Manzanita Flower

From this point in the trail, you can either take the Grand View Loop back down, backtrack the way you came, or if you want a workout and some spectacular views continue straight ahead to where the trail ends a little over 2.5 miles away.

As you climb higher and higher, the view of Carson Valley, the Pine Nut mountains, and the eastern flank of Job’s Peak and its neighboring mountains becomes ever more dramatic.

View from Upper Fay Luther Trail

The view as you ascend the Fay Luther Trail.

The view takes on different personalities at different times of the year and in different weather conditions.

In the spring and summer, the croplands and grazing fields in the Carson Valley stretch out below like a patchwork quilt of different shades of green.

After a snowstorm, the Pine Nut Mountains are frosted in buttercream white. When puffy clouds drift across the sky, watch their shadows hover on the face of the mountains and the Carson Valley far below.

When we hiked this section of the trail in April, rock gardens of white and pale pink mountain phlox decorated both sides of the trail.

Mountain Phlox on Fay Luther Trail

Mountain Phlox

Mountain Phlox Rock Garden

A rock garden of mountain phlox.

At one point, a mountain frosted with snow that glistened in the afternoon sun towered over a sea of emerald green Manzanita.

Manzanita and Mountain on Fay Luther Trail

A little more than 3 miles from the trailhead, you’ll cross a tiny creek tumbling its way down canyon. It’s a great place to stop and dip your feet in the water or pause for a lunch or snack break. (If you hike here in late summer it’s possible this creek may be dry.)

Beyond the creek, the trail ascends farther through Manzanita and then into a pine and fir forest. We stopped our journey at 5 miles from the trailhead. However, we learned from two women we met on the trail that if we had ventured farther we would have been able to admire views of a creek far below. Where the trail ends at a rock outcropping, cairns point your way to a small waterfall.

Difficulty: Strenuous

Hike Distance: Approximately 11 miles round trip

An Easier Stroll

Job's Peak Ranch Trail

View from Job’s Peak Ranch Trail

Rather than heading up toward the creek or the Grand View Trail, you can instead make a right turn on the path that eventually leads to Job’s Peak Ranch trailhead.

This is a mild walk, with very little elevation gain.

In April, the air at the beginning of this trail is perfumed with blooming Desert Peach.

Desert Peach Job's Peak Ranch Trail

Desert Peach

Large lichen-covered boulders rest beneath Jeffrey pines. One rock is the size of a mountain cabin.

At the same time the Desert Peach put on their colorful show, little white and pink mountain phlox bloom next to the trail.

Mountain Phlox Job's Peak Ranch Trail

Mountain Phlox

Through the woods and below the trail, you’ll glimpse some distant ranch homes. Canadian geese honk on the shores of a pond by one of the houses.

Lowing cows sound like they’re practicing for a performance of the Bovine Philharmonic.

Continue walking past the houses, through the forest. Within a couple of miles, you’ll cross a creek.

Not long after, the trail passes by scattered houses in the Job’s Peak Ranch development. Most of them are partially camouflaged by trees until you descend farther down into the sagebrush. Despite the presence of the homes, it still feels as if you’re spending time in the wilderness.

You can hike the entire 3.5 miles from where you parked your car to the Job’s Peak Trailhead and then return the way you came. Or, if you have two cars, park one at the Fay Luther Trailhead and another at the Job’s Peak Ranch trailhead to shorten your walk.

Difficulty: Easy

Hiking Distance: 7 miles round trip from the Fay Luther Trailhead to the Job’s Peak Trailhead and back.

One of the Most Beautiful Carson Valley Trails

Kimberly Wilkes Fay Luther Trail

The author on the upper reaches of Fay Luther Trail

On the Fay Luther Trail, appreciate the stunning views of the Carson Valley. Inhale the perfume of the pines. If you’re lucky, perhaps even catch a glimpse of wildlife. One day, I encountered a huge buck on the first half mile of the trail.

Thank you Carson Valley Trails Association for building this tranquil trail.

Directions to Trailheads

Road to Fay Luther Trail

Road to Fay Luther Trail

From the intersection of Highway 395 and Highway 88 in Minden, Nevada head south on Highway 88 for 6.5 miles (you will pass through a roundabout and an intersection with a stop light). Turn right on Fairview Lane and drive 1.7 miles (Fairview Lane becomes Foothill Road). Look for the Fay-Luther Trailhead sign on the west (left) side of the road. The Jobs Peak Ranch Trailhead is 2 miles further.

If you are coming from South Lake Tahoe, at the base of Kingsbury Grade at the 4-way stop with Foothill Road, go south (right) on Foothill Road for 2.5 miles to the signed Jobs Peak Ranch Trailhead on the west side of the road. The Fay-Luther Trailhead is 2 miles further.

Nearest Campground

Crystal Springs Campground in Woodfords is about a 10-minute drive from the Fay Luther Trail. To find out which campsites in this campground have the most privacy, read the excerpt from our book Eastern Sierra And Death Valley Camping With Privacy: Your Guide To The Campsites With The Most Privacy In Mammoth Lakes, Tuolumne Meadows, Death Valley, And Beyond.

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