(Note: Please forgive the strange fish-eye effect of all the photos in this article – I was trying out my new Optrix XD gadget for iPhone videoing and still hadn’t quite gotten the settings sorted out).

Last month, Small Thing and I managed to sneak in an end-of-season excursion to Donner Summit to ride the Castle Peak Loop. Attempts to ride this loop in the early summer were abandoned when we came across deep snow on the backside of the mountain and I hadn’t gotten around to going back, despite this being some of the most gorgeous riding in the high Sierra.
Consulting the weather forecast showed me that if I wanted to go, I would have to do it on Saturday when it would still be pleasant – or not at all. So on Saturday we set off up the mountain on the 75 mile drive. As far as I could remember, the loop was about 15 miles, so I figured so long as we started riding by 1 pm, we’d be finished before dark (~6:30 pm).
There were three flaws to my plan.
Flaw 1 was forgetting that most of this loop is uphill. Never mind that it’s a loop, you never notice any of the downhill part because you’re trudging up, up, up, forever. Or at least that’s what Small Thing thought.
And Flaw 1B was forgetting just how technical the trail was – large parts of it are across granite slabs, much of it requires the horse, uh, pony to knows how to climb up (and down) rock steps, put his foot in a space that is barely big enough for said foot, clamber over sloping rock, squeeze around boulders (I only knee-capped myself once, but got really good at contortion), step down into narrow creeks, over roots, over fallen tree trunks, … you get the picture. This is not a trail that involves speeding unconcernedly across neatly mown turf.
Flaw 2 was forgetting that I’d want to stop at regular intervals to take pictures, admire the view, chat with hikers, etc.
Flaw 3 was overlooking the fact that “Solo Pone = Slow Pone” – and Small Thing proved this to be true by attempting to eat at every opportunity and plodding along in a sulky fashion when I didn’t let him.
Small Thing and I admired the overlook to Frog Lake.
Small Thing smelled a large coyote that was sniffing down the trail long before we actually spotted him.
Small Thing cheerily munched on the green grass next to the small creeks in lieu of actually drinking from them (Lucy thinking “well, at least he’s getting elytes”).
The 1000′ drop to Frog Lake. I suspect I enjoyed it more than Small Thing who was miffed by the lack of vegetation up there.
Two hours into the ride, we’d barely covered five miles and I was starting to do the math and conclude that we’d be out there until 8 pm. Uh oh.
I began to peddle. Small Thing responded by continuing to try and eat every piece of vegetation in the immediate vicinity and ignoring my paddling legs. I got out my rommel and suggested that he pay better attention to my requests and he grudgingly stopped eating, but continued to advance down the trail with his sea anchor thrown out behind.
As time went on, we started to make better forward progress although Small Thing was sure that he might die if he had to do more than a shuffling trot. I, of course, fell for it hook, line, and sinker, worried that I was asking too much of him, so babied him along and got off at regular intervals to run with him <roll eyes>.
To complete the loop, you have to go across-country to link one trail over to another. Exactly where this spot is located is a bit of a mystery, so you just set forth and hope for the best. Small Thing knew we were lost, and he really knew it when I told him “it’ll be fine” and we ended up sinking in a small bog. I continued to fret about time, but once we hit the Pacific Crest Trail we started to make up some miles. The fact that we were now headed towards the trailer didn’t hurt either. Small Thing’s outlook on life continued to improve the further south we went.
The pony was wearing his Back Country Boots which worked great for hoof protection in the rockier parts, and for traction when we were on some of the granite slabs. Towards the end of the ride, when we pretty much trotted everything, albeit slowly, I would have been worried without the added grip from the boots. I’ve found that late in the year, when hooves are rock-hard, even barefoot can be slippery on pavement and rock.
The last part of the trail is probably the most fun – Small Thing knew we were nearly there, so he speed-walked over the most technical parts, and picked up the pace to the point of trotting over terrain where I’d be thinking “uh…!?” and then we’d be through. All we had left to do were the two tunnels that went under the freeway, and as he had on the way out, my brave pony aced them again.
Miraculously, we made it back way before darkness set in and Small Thing’s legs didn’t fall off despite the ordeal of having to do 15 solo miles with hardly a bite to eat.
It was just as well we got out on the Saturday – ski season started the following Monday and the Castle Peak Loop is, once again, under a blanket of snow:
The Caltrans highway cam at Donner Summit on I-80
Lucy Chaplin Trumbull
Sierra Foothills, California