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I’ve certainly enjoyed the late season hiking in Lakes Basin this winter due to the lack of snow, but I was overjoyed to awaken yesterday to a few inches of snow on the ground in the valley and a heavy white layer on Mills Peak and the trees leading up to it.

This morning I decided to go exploring to see what’s still accessible. Gold Lake Highway is now closed so we parked in the staging area parking lot conveniently located at the road closure point. There’s a pretty little trail that runs about a mile from the parking lot through the forest and comes out on the Gray Eagle Lodge road.

It’s a fun trail on skis when there’s more snow, but today it was totally enjoyable in hiking boots. There’s a slight elevation gain, which is much more noticeable on skis or snowshoes. On foot, it’s a gentle climb, suitable for any level hiker. This is also a great summer trail because it’s short with lots of shade – perfect for families with young kids or people who lack the stamina for longer hikes. Come on out and get your winter wonderland fix and check out this little slice of nature’s beauty.

Update: 1/21/18 This trail was one of the last ones built by the Forest Service about a decade ago before budget cuts took the USFS out of the trail creation and maintenance business. We’re fortunate to have the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship in our backyard to maintain the myriad trails that wind through Plumas and Sierra counties and build new ones for us to enjoy.

On yesterday’s hike we found a fairly large downed tree that was easy to climb over in boots, but would be very challenging in snowshoes and impossible on skis. I happened to run into Greg Williams, the brain and heart behind SBTS, last night and asked him if he could take care of the downed tree sometime. I received these pictures from him today after he and his son had taken care of the tree. Now that’s some amazing trail maintenance response time! If you enjoy hiking or mountain biking in this area, please check out the work of Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship and consider supporting their efforts.

 

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One positive aspect of this strangely dry winter is the fact that Gold Lake Highway is still open and hiking is still abundant. With a couple hours available before a late afternoon shift at work I was feeling the urge to get out and explore before forecasted rains start up again tomorrow. With recent rain and very cold overnight temperatures I was concerned about encountering icy trails at high elevations. I hadn’t been on the Graeagle Creek trail for awhile so I thought I’d take that route to the Smith Lake trailhead. It would all be fairly low elevation so shouldn’t be icy.

Entering the woods from the parking area just off Gold Lake Highway is like entering a totally new world. The ground is softly carpeted with beautiful red pine needles, florescent green moss adorns the north facing side of the trees and the rush of Graeagle Creek is an alluring siren.

Just a quarter mile from the road lies the beautiful Graeagle Creek crossing. I was struck by the beauty of the frost-encased exposed tree roots that looked like multi-media pieces of art. The rails of the bridge were still frosty yet I lingered to take in the dynamic energy of the coursing creek. The colors of the rocks seemed so vibrant with the overcast sky and clear, clear water. It’s really a glorious spot.

After crossing the creek I stayed on the path to the Smith Lake trailhead, but a short distance up the trail I encountered a new option. The very new sign indicated the Smith Creek Trail was a mile away off to the right. I’d never been on this stretch of trail before, so off I went to explore.

The trail is beautiful, opening onto land I’d never experienced. Initially the trail heads north and slightly west with views to the east of endless pines and towering Beckwourth Peak in the distance. Continuing on, the trail crests the ridgeline and crosses it to head more westward and slightly south offering breathtaking views of Eureka Peak in the foreground and the towering white boulder that is Mt. Lassen in the distance.

After crossing the ridgeline, the trail begins to descend and the wide open expanse gives way to the forest. Initially, the forest feels spacious but as the trail continues to descend, the density of the trees made it increasingly dark and a bit foreboding. It will be a great, cool hike in the heat of the summer. Since I wasn’t sure exactly where it was going to let out and a looming deadline to make it to work, I decided to head back to civilization without reaching the end of the trail. I suspect it ends in the Smith Creek subdivision somewhere. I didn’t track time or distance, but my guess is that the turn onto this trail is about a half mile from the Graeagle Creek Trailhead, and walked about a mile or a little more before turning back.

I’ll definitely explore this surprising new trail when I have more time. It’s a great elevation for early and late season hiking.

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Holiday Greetings to all from the Lost Sierra. It’s a gorgeous Christmas day, made that much better by a walk in the snow by a lake. There is just something about large bodies of water that draw me like a gravitational pull, and today Gold Lake did the pulling.

After being under the weather I was desperate for some fresh air and my dog needed a good romp so off we went with another friend and her dog. It’s unusual for Gold Lake Highway to be open and dry this time of year, but it makes easy access to the high country. We drove to the Gold Lake Campground road once again for a lovely walk. The snow is about 5 inches deep with a light, crunchy layer on top. Someone had driven down the campground road making the walking very easy going.

We wandered down the road and back through the campground to the dam where my friend’s Golden decided that no water is too cold for her. My dog, after barely tolerating the Santa hat, was having no part of that cold water.

The patterns of snow and ice on the lake were fascinating, and with the light haze of cloud cover, the lake had a silvery reflective glow that was stunning. It was as if the lake had been covered with frosting that had been whipped up and then partially melted. Every angle offered a unique perspective.

While it had been cool at the start of the hike, the temperature climbed into the forties and the clouds steadily cleared leaving us plenty warm and sun-drenched by the time we wandered back up the road to the car. What a spectacular way to spend Christmas day.

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The snow has been falling in the Lost Sierra in fits and starts. Way back in September Lakes Basin got 4-5 inches, which was not necessarily a welcome weather change for my friends who were camping at Gold Lake. October also delivered a couple small, early-season snow drops, but the weather warmed up between them so there has been little accumulation and Gold Lake Highway has remained open. However, last week’s snowfall and this week’s cold temps may change that trend.

It’s lovely to be able to get up to Lakes Basin this late in the season. There’s still great hiking to be had and the beauty factor is off the charts! The light covering of snow completely transforms the area and makes it feel like you’re discovering familiar terrain for the very first time. Even roads that you typically drive on become beautiful forest walks, like today’s walk on the Gold Lake campground road. Some of the lower elevation hikes are still hikable such as the Graeagle Creek and Smith Lake trails. The few inches of snow create a bit more of a workout, but hey, that’s one of the reasons we all go hiking, right?

Take advantage of the mild late season and get some wintertime hiking in. You’ll be happy you did.

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It’s that gorgeous time of year in the Lost Sierra… crisp nights, warm days and foliage making its magical transformation from green to all shades of yellow, orange and red.

There’s a leisurely pace to the color changes this year. During the drought years the color changes were unspectacular and lasted a short time. But this year nature is putting on quite a show.

You don’t have to go off the beaten path to find bright colors. Downtown Quincy is full of deep reds and oranges on the main drag and on the streets surrounding the courthouse. Graeagle has some bright spots of red in the Graeagle Meadows complex and the aspens all over town are shimmering in bright yellow. Along the Feather River you’ll find more aspens in all shades of yellow, cottonwoods in deep gold and willow bushes glimmering burnt orange in the setting sun.


Further into the mountains and in the forest, the colors are often more subtle, but no less beautiful. Wind through your favorite parts of Lakes Basin and take in the oranges, yellows and reds you’ll find from large aspen trees to smaller gooseberry bushes and a host of varieties in between.

For those of you who, like me, have wondered why leaves change color, this article provides a succinct explanation. There are additional article suggestions following the article.

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Having a mid-week day off is always lovely, but having one in the fall in the Lost Sierra is an extra special occurrence. It’s so gorgeous out that I decided to visit my favorite aspen grove which is just off the Frazier Falls road near the parking lot for Frazier Falls.

The trees circle a beautiful little meadow standing like sentinels until the wind blows, then they dance like they’ve just discovered bebop. Today the bright yellow leaves are all a-jiggle as I lie in the soft dry grass listening to the chatter of birds and chipmunks and the soft rustle of the dancing aspens. There’s only enough moisture in the upper air to form the slightest wisp of clouds in the otherwise bluebird sky. It’s a very fine fall day.

The Lost Sierra is known for its rugged beauty and outdoor recreation, but it’s also a haven for stillness and silence, a place to move at a different pace. I suspect that’s why so many who come to visit end up finding a way to stay. The quiet simply becomes addictive.


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3.75 miles for the full loop, beginner to moderate
Approximately 2.5 miles to the lake and back, which is a great beginner hike 

There are so many good reasons to hike Smith Lake! The photos below are from today’s hike, but it’s equally beautiful in the spring and full summer. Here are my top five reasons for loving this hike.
  1. Because of its full sun exposure at the start of the hike and its relatively low elevation (lake elevation is 6100’) this hike is one of the first to be accessible in the spring and one of the last to remain accessible once the snow starts to fall. The trailhead is also one of the lowest, making it a shorter drive to start the hike.
  2. The exposed rocky ridge on the northern rim (accessed via what was called the Jamison Connector trail, which is supposed to be renamed by the Forest Service to Smith Lake trail) offer views for miles and makes you feel like you’re on top of the world without a strenuous hike (highest elevation is 6300’).
  3. It’s a great loop hike, which is my favorite kind, enjoyable in either direction. Counter-clockwise, you get your climb in at the beginning and finish in the cool shade of the south side. Clockwise, you get the magic of the forest, crossing the creek on a log and the cool shade at the beginning and then end with the fabulous vistas from the northern rim followed by a long downhill.
  4. I’m not sure why the color of Smith Lake is so unusual, but it has a blue-green color that is different from all the other lakes in the area. Some days (or some times of day, I can’t figure out which) the color is nearly emerald from the ridge overlooking the lake. I just love the color of this lake!
  5. You can get a good workout if you go at the uphills with gusto but it can also be a leisurely hike when you’re in the mood to simply commune with nature. When time is short and I want to bust out some quick exercise, I blast up the face, then take the switchbacks to the rim full steam. But sometimes I just want to drink in all the views and the hike is more of a meander. I love the flexibility of the hike!
Note: The trail on the back (west) end of the lake is not maintained. A few of us locals go out periodically with clippers to keep the Manzanita back, but the trail itself is fairly steep with loose rock and not in the same good shape as other trails in Lakes Basin. Also, despite our efforts this year, the south side is massively overgrown due to the plentiful water and warm summer. Hopefully we’ll get back up there before the snow falls to clear some of the brush back.

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One of the great end of summer treats in the Lost Sierra is Thimbleberries. They are delicious! Sweet with just the right amount of tart, almost imperceptible  seeds, and they grow in patches all over Lakes Basin in the cool, shady, forest understory.

Last week’s electrical storms in the Basin delayed my annual berry-picking, but today I thought I’d check a couple of patches that lie just off the trail from the Lakes Basin campground toward Long Lake. Typically, the ripening season is just after Labor Day so I knew I was a little late, but I had my fingers crossed that I might get lucky since everything bloomed late this year.

Thimbleberries are a member of the Rubus family (think blackberries, raspberries, etc.) and like raspberries they have no thorns so they’re fun to pick and eat. They grow low to the ground and are easily identified by their large, palm-shaped leaves.

The lower elevation patches had passed their prime and I found very few berries, but I headed to higher elevation to test my luck. Fortunately, I found a big patch with many berries still left on the vine. Some of the bright red berries were dried out, but I managed to find enough juicy berries to sate my seasonal appetite.

An added bonus was the discovery of late season wildflowers!

Be sure to add the search for Thimbleberries to next summer’s list of Lost Sierra adventures. It’s a great outing for the whole family.

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It started off benignly enough. I was running some errands in Portola and saw the first fluffballs over Beckworth Peak. Hmmm, I thought to myself. Best to get the swim in early today because it looks like thunderclouds are forming.

It’s what I call “Thunder Bumper” season in the Lost Sierra. After a very hot, dry summer we’re lucky to be having late afternoon thunder showers roll through, drenching the area in much needed rain. The lightening that accompanies it can be dangerous, but so far the lightning-induced fires have been minimal and have been extinguished right away.


I rallied my die-hard swimming friends and we headed to Gold Lake to sneak a swim in before the storm clouds built up too much intensity. Definitely not one of the smarter decisions… “die-hard” was close to being an apt descriptor!

We headed up to the southern shore of the lake past the campground to a little cove we like. I had seen the thunderheads building to the southeast, but prevailing winds tend to be southwesterly so I thought we’d be okay.

The water temperature is still very pleasant so we decided to swim out to one of the small islands. As we neared the island a few hundred yards from shore, I felt something cold pelting my back. I thought one of my friends must be playing a trick, but when I looked up, I saw a huge dark cloud overhead and hail pounding the water around me. We quickly swam back to shore and hunkered in the trees as we toweled off. The air temperature had dropped significantly and we heard the low rumble of thunder as we clamored through the hail storm back to our cars. The hail pelted us all the way down Gold Lake highway, and the storm ultimately produced quite a bit of lightening and rain. Looking back at it from the Mohawk Valley, I knew we were lucky to have dodged a bullet!



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It was a cool, somewhat breezy afternoon at Nakoma when my friend asked if I wanted to go kayaking after work. She suggested Sardine Lake because it’s the most protected, so we headed up Gold Lake Highway to see if we could find relatively calm water.

We stopped to check Gold Lake because it’s on the way, but it’s usually windy there by 10am, so I couldn’t imagine it would be calm at 6pm. But it’s the largest lake in Lakes Basin and my favorite for kayaking, so it was worth a quick look.

And surprise, surprise, there was barely a riffle on the lake! The cloud cover was likely the reason for the calm air and it gave a little shade from the intensity of the sun. We quickly plopped the boats in the water and headed for the far shore.

There wasn’t another soul in sight. We paddled to the far end where there’s a little cove I like with large granite boulders, perfect for stretching out in the sun and diving from to cool off, both of which I did. Heaven.

On the way back a slight breeze developed, but it was a westerly, so it gently blew us back to the beach. Another perfect evening in the Lost Sierra.

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Approx. 5 miles round trip, moderate to strenuous. 

Mt. Elwell is the second highest peak in the area, topping out at 7,818 ft. It can be a strenuous hike but the views from the top make it so worthwhile. I usually prefer this hike in the fall when it’s cooler, but the temps in the Lost Sierra have dropped this week and I felt like flexing my muscles, so off we went to the Smith Lake trailhead just 15 minutes from Nakoma.

There are a couple of ways to access the peak, but today I chose to go up and back on the cooler north side which has more shade plus two ponds and a small lake near the top for my black dog to cool off.

Starting at the Smith Lake trailhead, accessed off the Gray Eagle Lodge road, the trail is in full sun for the first 1/2 mile or so. After you cross the rather oversized bridge, stay to the left toward Smith Lake and about a 1/4 mile on, go left where the sign indicates the turn for Mt. Elwell. You’ll immediately cross Smith Creek again, this time with no bridge. (If you want to see Smith Lake, go 1/4 mile past the turn to Mt. Elwell and you’ll encounter the beautiful green-blue water of Smith Lake.)

The forest of moss-covered firs you encounter shortly after crossing Smith Creek is one of my favorite places in Lakes Basin. There’s just something about that section of forest that feels enchanted to me. Every time I hike through I expect to see elves and fairies peeking out from behind the trees.

The trail gets a little steeper near the top, and even in mid-August we encountered a large patch of snow that obscured the trail. Past the patch of snow we arrived at the saddle which runs between two rocky uprisings. The one to the west is the actual peak. If you have no fear of heights and don’t mind a rocky scramble, I highly recommend ascending the peak. It provides great views down the Little Jamison Creek basin on one side and views of Long, Silver and Round lakes on the other side.

We weren’t fortunate enough to see Mt. Lassen on this particular day, but that’s another reward for ascending the peak on clear days.

We enjoyed our picnic lunch, then headed back down the way we came. The entire hike with lunch took about 4 hours. This hike is best attempted in the morning so you’re off the peak long before any afternoon thunder storms roll through.

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Easy hike, approximately 2.5 miles. 

It’s been a warmer than usual summer in the Lost Sierra so I decided to take my hike before work this morning while it was cool. With just 2 hours available, my friend Patty and I chose one of the many Long Lake loops from the Lakes Basin trailhead, which is about 20 minutes from Nakoma.

Our route was: Bear Lakes Loop, starting toward Long Lake. Take the right fork toward Long Lake, then the next right fork to the connector trail to the dam, across the dam and down to the Lakes Basin campground, through the campground, back to the trailhead.

Almost immediately we began to encounter wildflowers galore! Prime time for wildflowers is typically mid- to late-June but the entire area was still buried in snow at that time. I’d been afraid that the snow would negatively affect this year’s bloom, but it was the exact opposite. Apparently all the late moisture had a positive effect because we were dazzled by bright spots of color from the beginning to the end of the hike.

At the beginning, it was Tiger Lilies, Indian Paintbrush and Columbines in the shade along the creek. As we rose in elevation and got into more sunshine, we saw what I think is Bitter Dogbane, Mountain Spirea, Fireweed, Corn Lily, more Tiger Lilies and something in the Daisy family.

As we descended, I was feeling completely satisfied by the hike and the diversity of flowers we’d seen, but there was yet another bountiful surprise awaiting us.

When we made the cut from the campground onto the little dirt path that leads back to the trailhead road we encountered what can only be described as a magical wildflower wonderland. Lilies, Indian Paintbrush, Penstemon, Daisies, Fireweed, Checker Mallow, Columbine and so many more varieties lined the trail and extended back into the dense forest as far as we could see. It was truly an explosion of color that my photos cannot fully capture.

If you’re in the area in the next week or two and enjoy the beauty of wildflowers, be sure to add this hike to your list of “must sees.

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