Backpack Tahoe National Forest

Jeffery and I couldn’t figure out a safer way to travel and avoid covid-19 than backpacking.  I was sure after our last backpack trip in Alaska a year ago my backpacking days were over, after all, we’re both senior citizens. 

Yet here we were off again on a 3-night backpack in the Tahoe national forest. Friends told us of a favorite place to go.  But that was 5 miles from the trailhead, while unnamed lakes were a mere 1.5 miles away. Though not as pretty as the popular backpacking lakes, they were just the ticket to avoid covid-19.   

It took just 3 hours to reach the trailhead, which has a forest service campground. Only one of nine spots was taken on Tuesday (but full on Friday when we came out).

By noon we’d reached the first of several lakes. The first was too close to the trail, so we bushwhacked to the second lake but didn’t see a good campsite. The third lake had a lovely campsite just a tenth of a mile from the next lake, but another couple beat us there by five minutes, young whippersnappers who easily passed us by. Unlike cheek to jowl car camping, there’s unwritten rules of being out of sight and hearing from other backpackers if possible.  Still though, it was just them and us within many square miles.

It would be hard to find a better site, with a perfectly flat rock to cook or sit on and gaze at the lake, a level tent site on heather like a feather mattress, easy access to the lake for swimming and water, and a third of a mile from several trails. There were almost constant cool breezes, much needed in the 80-85 heat, hot for 7,000 feet in the Sierras, but cooler than the upper-90s in the central valley below.

The next day we set out to explore. On the way to a glacial blue lake were a series of meadows chock-a-block with wildflowers and the constant buzzy undertone of thousands of native bees. The first meadow was full of Western Mountain Aster, Golden Brodiaea, broadleaf lupine, wild carrot, Rydberg’s penstemon, Smokey mariposa, Mountain pride, bladderpod, Sierra tiger lily, Sulphur flower, and rose meadowsweet. The next meadow was entirely oneseed pussypaws surrounding smooth granite boulders. One site describes pussypaws as “the most actively curious of all wildflowers, lying flat on the ground at night but lifting its stems several inches off the ground in the daytime to observe the world around it”. No wonder I thought they were different species. Other meadows were full of California false hellebore, and rarely the Western dwarf cliffbrake.

The lake was a deep aqua blue, with just one snow patch left on the mountains above.  Although lovely, I preferred our unnamed lake, because a group of six rowdy women were there, one complaining loudly that the woman with the toilet shovel couldn’t be found and she’d had to use a branch of pine needles. Ouch. TMI. 

Then it was down 500 feet to a basin with multiple lakes.  The trail there was not marked, but I could see where it must be, to the right of the junction where another trail goes left.  A tent was planted on top of the trail and the campers were hanging out there.  I wanted to bushwhack around their campsite by 20 feet or more, but Jeffery said he didn’t want to disturb them, and wasn’t swayed by my point that they were camped on the trail and deserved to be disturbed.  Later hikers we met thought so too, and reported that people had hung their hammocks across a trail. Jeffery pointed out that this is why we carry saws…

It’s just as well we didn’t explore the lakes basin. Even though we had 40 ounces of water apiece, that wasn’t enough in the heat and we got quite thirsty going up 350 feet up to sandy ridge. It’s an okay trail in that it has a a different ecosystem with views of the Sierra Buttes, but dry and less interesting.  

Often our trips to the wilds take getting used to the slow pace compared to our busy lives back home.  But no transition was necessary on this trip after sheltering in place for months, we are already quite entertained to see lettuce seeds sprout and notice the difference in their growth from the start to the end of the day, watching swallows dart low for bugs like fighter jets coming at us, and trying to identify butterflies that randomly fly by.

So it was tip-top entertainment at our lakefront campsite, just after sunset, to watch a female bufflehead fly as fast as she could, flapping madly, and then landing and skidding for dozens of yards. And then watch her rise into the air and repeat.  Repeatedly!  Clearly she did this for fun, and it was quite fun for us as well.

The next day was so hot I went swimming. Watching, Jeffery ultimately gave in and joined me.  Getting in was tricky as I nearly fell over as my feet sank deep into the mud, stirring up mud that looked like pictures of dustbowls or sand storms with huge lobes of billowing clouds.  But it was so refreshing, and when cold, I could climb on a rock to warm up. Though I did feel a flash of fear when I saw that there was a snake in the water, writhing in loops below until I saw it was a garter snake snatching a whirligig beetle from the surface. 

Our evenings of rum cocktails at sunset were a great way to relax after ten mile hikes both days. Huge clouds built up in the late afternoon, but alas, no rain. The fire danger is at the highest rating now, no campfires allowed.  But no problem, we were keen to see the Neowise comet, and around 9:30 pm spotted a smudge in the northwest sky below the Big Dipper.  With binoculars we got a good look at it, a white ball with a hard-to-believe spotlight trailing behind, and the darker it got, the longer the spotlight was.  A great way to end the trip.

In the past I backpacked on weekends while working, and I still remember how leaden and sore my legs were, but this trip I was fine. Go figure, given my age, but perhaps it’s because I’m retired and walk 5 to 8 miles a day with elevation gains of 400 to 1200 feet.  By the end of the trip, I’d never felt better — not aching or sore at all — plus lost a few pounds.  And we are keen to go on another backpacking trip!

Alice Friedemann  author of Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers and When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


P.S. The only downside on the trip were the day hikers without masks who wouldn’t get 6 feet off the trail to let us old people trudge by with our heavy backpacks, so we had to bushwhack off the trail and put on our masks. Surely it doesn’t require reading etiquette books to know that pandemic or not, backpackers have the right of way over day hikers…

Our lake campsite
Yet another lake on the trail
Meadow of pussypaws
Second unnamed lake
Third unnamed lake
Glacial fed lake
Shimmering lake

About Alice

I've milled and baked with whole grains for many years, because whole grains are delicious, and white flour is missing the nutrition that protects you from cancer, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and many other diseases. Plus it's a good emergency food.
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