Early Hiking Season in the Sierras – Where’s the Snow?

Like their owner, lots of miles on them

Like their owner, lots of miles on them

June 3, 2013, Lake Tahoe, California

Greetings hikers, although I’ve been semi-absent from the blogosphere lately, I promise I haven’t been neglecting my hiking, writing or my photography. Over recent weeks I’ve been hard at work editing a photo project and writing about hiking for the Examiner.com. (click for a link to my latest article) So far I’ve published 5 articles, mainly about Bay Area (SF) hiking, but most recently I’ve written about North Lake Tahoe trails. I was approached by a Reno-based PR firm a few weeks ago to see if I’d be interest in writing about that subject. Since I was planning a trip anyways, it didn’t take much prodding to sell me on the idea. The only difference is that they were interested in North Lake Tahoe, while my personal preferences have generally drawn me towards trailheads further south along the lake, Carson Pass, and a few spots along highway 50 (Pyramid Creek/Horsetail Falls). So in a way, this assignment was fortuitous in that it forced me onto trails and terrain that I otherwise might never have tried.

This way to adventure

This way to adventure

With a list of about 20 hikes and a short list of 5 recommended hikes to further winnow the choices, I mapped out a rough itinerary, planning to do two shorter hikes as I drove in from the Bay Area (a Tuesday), and one longer hike on my full day (Wed.) before driving back home on the third morning.

I’ll discuss my last hike because it was my favorite of the three. In a future post I’ll write & post photos of the day 1 hikes. Fo my main hike, initially I was going to hike Marlette Lake on the east (Nevada) side , but decided instead on a hike up General Creek Trail through Sugar Pine Point State Park north of Meeks Bay on the California side. I did the hike on May 22nd, and even at this relatively early date, the trails were clear of snow. By contrast, in 2011, I had to turn around on the Mt. Tallac trail past Cathedral Lake in mid-July because of snow on the trail. But rather than rue the lack of snow,  I early blooms of groundsel, snow plant, and balsam root.

Snow plant, the forest's way of saying, 'just happy to see you'

Snow plant, the forest’s way of saying, ‘just happy to see you’

Single-stemmed groundsel

Single-stemmed groundsel

I’m also going to start with some minor negatives on the General Creek hike. Although for others, especially less experienced hikers, what I perceive as negatives could very well be positives. The first couple of miles are flat and on a what looks like a fire road. In the winter, this section is a snowshoe/cross country skiing loop that follows the trails that were used for the biathlon and cross-country events in the 1960 Winter Olympics. It makes for an easy walk, an excellent jog or mountain bike ride when clear of snow. If you’re looking for an ass kicking or a training hike for Mt. Whitney or Half Dome, try the Bayview or Eagle Falls Trails into Desolation Wilderness a little further south (I’ll be writing about Eagle Falls/Dicks Lake/Velma Lakes later in the week).

Signage along the loop

Signage along the loop

General Creek

General Creek

Although the General Creek Trail eventually gets difficult about five miles in, the early section of trail meanders through meadows and mixed pine forest, roughly following General Creek. For me, the real hiking began when the main trail forked off from the loop and started to ascend single track towards Lily Pond and Lost Lake. Once on this section, the forest closes in some, but not as extreme as Mirkwood (Lord of the Rings) or as sinister as the apple-throwing trees of Oz.

Balsam-root

Balsam-root

As most of my friends and readers of my blog and Facebook posts know, I’m a sucker for wildflowers and I spent a good amount of time crouched in the dirt and underbrush trying to get definitive photos of arrowleaf balsam-root and single-stemmed groundsel. I also came across a good number of snow plant, spreading phlox and an occasional meadow penstemon.

Meadow penstemon

Meadow penstemon

While still not a lung-buster, the spur to Lily Pond was short, but I can’t really say rewarding climb. The pond is aptly named, as it was covered in water lilies. Unfortunately, because of tree shoots, bushes and undergrowth that crowd the shore, it’s very difficult to find an enjoyable view of the pond itself. I did find one small portal at the far end of the pond where I could get a passable photo.

Lily Pond

Lily Pond

If I make a return trip, I’ll save my energy and continue west towards Lost Lake and Duck Lake. Once I backtracked to the main trail, the path became steeper and more challenging, especially when the trail crossed over to the south side of General Creek more than a mile further up the trail. At this crossover, instead of a bridge, there’s a log and rock ford that isn’t obvious at first. It’s at this point after the ford that inexperienced or out of shape hikers might have a bit of difficulty. The ground becomes more uneven and a bit of rock scrambling is necessary. For me, this is where it gets to be fun. It’s also at this point that you start nearing the top of the canyon/ravine. The trail also becomes rockier and emerges onto a glacial shelf with large boulders and erratics, and twisted gnarled pines.

General Creek Trail

General Creek Trail

Glacial erratic and the view east

Glacial erratic and the view east

Shortly after taking these two photos, about six miles into my hiking day, I reached a junction of trail. A turn to the left would’ve led me on to Lost Lake, the terminus of the GC Trail. Because of my propensity to stop, wax poetic and take photos along the way, I felt it was getting too late to go the rest of the way to the lake. Instead, I found a wind-sheltered spot among the granite and a copse of trees to eat some lunch and enjoy the views around me. As it does with many hikes, especially out and back ones, the return trip to my car seemed to be twice as long as the ascent. But it was an immensely enjoyable hike. I will say that I do prefer the trails leading from the Mt. Tallac, Eagle Falls and Bay View trailheads, mainly because they start climbing immediately and a hiker can reach beautiful alpine lakes just a mile or two into the hike.

Eagle Lake

Eagle Lake

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About victorvolta

I am a freelance photographer/writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I grew up in the very suburban city of Santa Clara. Education: San Jose State University (class of '84) BA degree in Journalism with concentrations in Photojournalism and English. Favorite Foods: Ribeye steaks and Stan's Doughnuts (separate plates, usually). Favorite Drinks: Strong gourmet coffee and Trader Joe's Blood Orange Italian Soda (separate cups).
This entry was posted in California State Parks, Lake Tahoe hikes, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Early Hiking Season in the Sierras – Where’s the Snow?

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is great Victor! Your photos are beautiful. Looking forward to going on some of these hikes!

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