Distance: 9 km
Elevation gain: 500 m View map Download GPS track
With the avalanche conditions too high for a snowshoe trip deep in the mountains today, Sandra and I decided to head to the Castle Wilderness and snowshoe to the summit of Carbondale Hill, home to an active fire lookout. Despite being described in Andrew Nugara’s snowshoeing guidebook
this isn’t a very popular destination and I figured we’d have a day of strenuous trailbreaking and was oddly looking forward to it.
We followed the directions in the guidebook and parked at the gate on the Castle Falls Road, just past Ohagen Road. The gate is meant to keep snowmobilers out, but tracks packed down all around it indicated it was rather ineffective at doing so. It was, however, reasonably effective at keeping us out as we found ourselves postholing in deep crusty snow as we made our way around it. I knew it had been warm and windy lately, but I hadn’t anticipated such crusty conditions this early in the year.
Once past the gate we followed the plowed and mostly dry Castle Falls Road for a bit over 1 km before turning left onto the unsigned and gated road to Carbondale Lookout. Despite the earlier gate, multiple signs, and the gate on this road, the trail had been packed by a snowmobile and we made quick progress until the track ended about a kilometer up the road. We donned our snowshoes here and started breaking trail along the road. The snowpack was relatively supportive and we sunk less than six inches, but even in the shaded forest the snow was crusty and had a tendency to snag our snowshoes, making trailbreaking more frustrating than strenuous.
After a kilometer of tolerable snowshoeing the snow crust thickened to the point that it could almost bear our weight, but with each step we’d crash somewhat unexpectedly and violently through it. This was terribly frustrating, but thankfully after just a hundred meters or so of this misery the trees thinned considerably and a dry grassy slope appeared. We eagerly abandoned the road here, strapping our snowshoes to our already heavy winter packs just in case we encountered snow higher up. This turned out to be a very good call, for while the drifts and snowpatches along the ridge were for the most part easily avoided or crossed, a huge, deep snowpatch just below the summit was impossible to cross without snowshoes (I tried and comically failed repeatedly).
Sandra and I have hiked to the top of many fire lookouts and the views from the top of this one rank in the top third. Mountains surrounded the summit to the south, west, and north, and the view of the smaller hills to the east was also very nice. Better still, the weather was the best we’ve had in a very long time with the temperature hovering just below zero with absolutely no wind, which permitted us to have a very relaxed lunch at the top.
On the way back down I decided to follow the lookout road in the hope of avoiding the deep snow patch below the summit. While we did avoid that particular snowpatch, the variably supportive drifts along the road were equally frustrating and we soon abandoned it and retreated to the mostly dry ridge we’d ascended. It was then an easy hike back to the truck.