It’s probably a common anxiety dream. You are at school, or work, or the local grocery store, or just at home. But it doesn’t look like home. You discover some secret wing, department, corridor that you never knew was there that opens up a frightening, or maybe even magical and exciting new world that was there all along. That’s what it was like the first time we drove up the Hunter Lake Jeep Trail from our home town of Reno, Nevada.
The road bisects the Mt. Rose Wilderness area which spans the greater part of the high ridge of the Carson Range from Tahoe Meadow on the south to Reno on the North. The Hunter Lake Road is cherry-stemmed into the wilderness area. Cherry-Stem roads are not uncommon and represent a compromise between wilderness preservation and motorized access.
How to find Hunter Lake Jeep Road
The road is shown on the Forest Service map though it isn’t labeled. The road designation is FR 392 and is signed as such, though only once you get up out of the congested area above Reno. There is potentially some challenge finding the route as trails and roads criss-cross all over down there. Best shot is to start at the end of Pinehaven Dr. follow the main route west up the mountain from there.
What to expect
As it winds up from Caughlin Ranch and enters the evergreen forest of the Carson Range, the Hunter Lake Jeep Trail is basically easy. You should have no trouble getting any SUV with real 4×4 up it. Crossovers with traction control, and decent clearance could also make it, though slowly. Subarus, like this one, might also make it. Down low on the trail the major obstacles are loose climbs with alternating pot holes and ruts. These are the holes like at 2:10 in the video where you see the front driver side tire of my 4Runner come up. There are a few spots where this will happen. Traction control and lockers can help, as can picking a better line.
Higher up the trees thin out and the trail it becomes rocky and there is one spot in particular where you see me having trouble getting up. That was probably a bad choice of line as well, but with the locker on it had no trouble. I don’t believe there is a bypass for this. Once you get to the top of the ridge and leave views of Reno behind, the road enters a dense forest and winds through the trees.
There are many alternate routes signed along the way. These are out and back spurs and loops off the main trail. They are signed 392a, 392b and so on. I have not explored or mapped them though I would like to some time.
Hunter Lake and Big Meadows
Totally hidden, and more or less anonymous and unknown to most people who live in Reno, even those who, like me, felt they had done a lot of exploring in the area, are the beautiful wild Big Meadows and Hunter Lake.
These days neither is much of a lake. I’ve heard and read that 10 – 20 years ago it Hunter Lake was occasionally a lake in the spring melt, but now it is just a meadow. There is a turnout and kiosk there, but not much else. It is a beautiful pristine spot however and is worth stopping to walk around and have a snack.
As you continue on from Hunter Lake the going is rough. REALLY ROUGH. There are some small obstacles, though no real challenges. But it is a long haul out to Big Meadows. The aptly named meadow is shockingly large given that it sits atop a mountain you probably always assumed held nothing but bear poop and scraggy rocks. There is a defunct timber dam through the meadow that makes an interesting hike. This is a great place to stop for exploration and lunch, should you be smart enough to nit be going through at 9 PM on a week day. Both Big Meadow and Hunter Lake were originally man made to provide water for saw mills in the area.
Getting back home
My recommendation is to turn around at big meadow and head back the way you came. It’s shorter and more fun.
If you want to make a loop out of it, head out the west end of the meadow where FR 392 Ts into FR 462. Turning left on FR 462 will take you across into the Bronco Canyon burn area. There might well be a way out, but the main route is gated at the property boundary near the log cabin on the Truckee river near Floriston. Heading right on 462 takes you past Cone Peak and a microwave relay station before descending Garson Road to Interstate 80 at Boomtown.
Garson road is not a challenge, per-se. It is brutally long and bumpy though. You’re probably thinking, “how bad could it be?” Trust me man, it’s bad. It will take 2 – 3 hours from Big meadow to get back to I-80. The first time we did it it was a rainy Saturday afternoon and was quite beautiful. On a hot dusty afternoon, or say, at 10:00 PM on a Wednesday it sucks. Big Time.
Carson Range Adventure
All in all, the Hunter Lake Road offers adventurous travelers the opportunity to travel through awesome alpine terrain, far from the maddening crowds of yoga pants wearing instagrammers and experience a wild area with a remoteness that belies its proximity to a major city. Such a place is fairly rare these days, and becoming rarer and more valuable.