Thursday, August 8, 2013

Grouse Lake, all to ourselves

Once again, the heavens aligned, and I was lucky enough to get some unplugged time in the mountains with old friends.

This year's backpacking trip was a 4-day, 3-night adventure in the Mokelumne Wilderness, one of about 150 wilderness areas in California.

The Mokelumne ("muh-KAL-uhm-knee") Wilderness is a bit of a patchwork, tucked into the Sierra Nevada mountains about midway between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. The wilderness encloses Mokelumne Peak, as well as the headwaters of the Mokelumne River, a river I'm quite interested in since it provides the bulk of my personal drinking water at home.

To get to the Mokelumne Wilderness we headed up California Route 88, the middle of the six great modern passes across the central Sierra Nevada:

  1. U.S. I-80 (Donner Pass)
  2. U.S. 50 (Echo Pass)
  3. CA 88 (Carson Pass)
  4. CA 4 (Ebbetts Pass)
  5. CA 108 (Sonora Pass)
  6. CA 120 (Tioga Pass)

California 88 is in the middle both horizontally and vertically, as it goes up higher than routes 50 and 80, but not as high as routes 108 and 120. Route 88 leads up to Carson Pass, at 8,574 feet, so up we went. It's Carson, Carson, Carson up here, by which of course we mean Kit Carson, John Fremont's guide, for whom Carson Pass, Carson River, and Carson City are named.

The geography gets a bit twisted up here. As I said, the Mokelumne Wilderness contains the headwaters of the Mokelumne River, which flows westward from its headwaters in Indian Valley near Reynolds Peak. And yet, the Mokelumne Wilderness also contains the headwaters of the Carson River, which flows eastward from its headwaters in the Lost Lakes region of Hope Valley. And, although the Carson River is generally found to the east of the Mokelumne River, up here near the crest it is all tangled up, such that the Carson River's headwaters are a good 10 miles west of the Mokelumne River's headwaters. This map shows it all.

The Grouse Lake trail head is at Upper Blue Lake, a P.G. & E. hydro-electric reservoir at 8,100 feet. It's nice to get access to the mountains from a high trail head, as it makes for fewer feet to climb, so we parked the car at the Grouse Lake trail head and got walking.

The trail leads gently from the trail head along the creek. After three quarters of a mile, we enter the Mokelumne Wilderness proper, and two miles in we're at Granite Lake, which really should be named "Dog Lake" for its popularity with the day hikers from the enormous Blue Lakes campgrounds.

All kidding aside, Granite Lake is a beautiful lake, and we had a short rest and snack while we enjoyed the view.

Leaving Granite Lake, the trail winds westward until it reaches the rim of Snow Canyon. Although it's short, barely 1.5 miles long, Snow Canyon is an astonishingly beautiful sight, rising 1600 feet from its mouth at Meadow Lake up to its source in the springs high on Deadwood Peak. At the point where the trail reaches the canyon, a marvelous vista provides a 270-degree view of the canyons and peaks of the Mokelumne Wilderness, and we stopped for our well-deserved lunch.

After lunch, the real fun begins. Up to this point, we'd walked about 3 miles and climbed about 450 feet, from the 8,136 foot trail head to the 8,600 foot mark where we met Snow Canyon.

In the next mile, though, the trail climbs 650 feet, until it reaches Snow Canyon's upper lip at just under 9,300 feet on the shoulder of Deadwood Peak. Many choice words were uttered during this portion, as this is not an easy section of trail, foregoing switchbacks and staircases for a simple and direct path along the canyon rim.

But we persevered, reveling in the spectacular terrain, and grateful that we'd made the decision to acclimate to the altitude by spending the first night in a hotel room at the Kirkwood Resort before striking out.

The trail's peak is also the Mokelumne River's peak, as we top out at a remarkable sight: a year-round spring bubbling fresh mountain water at 9,300 feet up Deadwood Peak. In the midst of the barren terrain, well above the tree line, the wildflower meadow around the bubbling brook has to be seen to be believed!

From here, though, the trail descends, nearly as rapidly as it rose, dropping 800 feet in the final 1.5 miles down to Grouse Lake, which sits perched in a small bowl above the just-as-dramatic Summit City Creek canyon.

Grouse Lake is the picture of the perfect Sierra Nevada lake: crystal clear waters, groves of pines and firs providing shelter, and stark granite walls enclosing the pocket-sized valley. We were even more pleased when we realized that we had met all three of the parties that were camped there the night before on the trail, heading out, and nobody else was following us in, so the lake was ours to enjoy in solitude.

We spent three delightful days at Grouse Lake, meditating by the shore, exploring the lake region, climbing the nearby rocks, and soaking up the views. At night, the 8,500 foot altitude and the new moon provided a nearly perfect starscape for our pleasure, and the hardier among us stayed up til the wee hours, identifying stars and constellations, and picking out the occasional shooting star.

Perhaps due to the remoteness of the valley, perhaps due to the altitude, perhaps due to the dry winter, we encountered very little wildlife: many birds and chipmunks, a few deer, and a single very brave mouse who ventured out to collect cookie crumbs right from under our feet!

All good things must end, so on our final morning we arose early, packed up and tidied the site, and retraced our steps back to Upper Blue Lake.

A few practical notes:

  • It never rained, and the temperature was mild, from overnight lows in the 40's to mid-afternoon highs in the 70's.
  • Although the winter was dry, there was plenty of water. Both lakes were full, and there were several springs and creeks along the trail should we have needed them.
  • Our timing was perfect, as there were almost no mosquitoes
  • A small fire on the second day sent a cloud of smoke through the valley, but the smoke cleared quickly in the afternoon winds and we experienced little more than a smoky smell and a bright orange sunset. I don't know for sure, but I suspect this was the Power Fire

  • The lake water was surprisingly warm, for a Sierra lake of this altitude, probably due to the dry winter and absent snow pack. Even Bryan The Timid was a swimmer on this trip!

And, a few gear notes:

  • My year-old, barely used Lowa Zephyr Desert boots become more comfortable with every hike. My first pair of Lowas lasted me nearly a decade, and this new pair shows every sign of being just as well-designed and well-built. They're not cheap, but boy are they worth it.
  • My Alite Monarch rocking chair was the hit of the trip. It's incredibly light and comfortable, and, when collapsed into its sack, is trivial to throw in the backpack for toting along on day hikes. Most recommended.
  • I ended up not trying my Aquamira Water Treatment Drops. I didn't even carry them on the trail. This was not due to any problem with the Aquamira product; it was just that our group already had two proven SteriPEN Classic units and we didn't see the need for any additional backup. The SteriPEN devices have been our first choice for several years, and they continue to perform well.
  • I was quite pleased with my Fenix LD01 flashlight. It's extremely light, produces a clear, powerful beam, and runs for hours on a single AAA battery. Roger's Mini MAGlite AAA LED was brighter and threw its beam further, but it is also substantially heavier and larger.

It was clear on our trip that the Sierra Nevada wilderness areas are no longer the secret that they were decades ago. But these beautiful mountains have been well-protected and well-preserved, and I have every hope that, as long as I can keep mustering up the strength and willpower to explore them, there will be spectacular nooks and crannies like Grouse Lake for me to see and enjoy.

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