Our last camping adventure in the mountains was derailed by snow, and I had some concerns that last weekend’s trip would be canceled due to fire. The Lakes Basin region, including the Tahoe and Plumas National Forests and surrounding uplands, has as of this writing no active wildfires. It’s a beautiful place, and I know that fire is part of the beauty of this land, but we hoped to spend a few days out in the wild. We’d visited before a couple of years ago, and it looked promising for a more thorough exploration. That we did, taking two days off from work to allow for extra exploring and birding time. Here’s a scene from our weekend – this is Smith Lake, with a lone oarsman plying the calm waters.

Oarsman on Smith Lake

We rolled in to our site at Diablo Campground at around 6:30 pm, with plenty of time to set up camp and have dinner before sundown. Nice little camp, is the Diablo. Just 18 sites, all fairly large, shaded by lodgepole pines and adjacent to Packer Creek. In the neighboring campsite was a father/son/dog, who appeared to be sociable and not overly boisterous. You never know what you’ll get in the instant society of the campground. Their dog came over to visit right away, and did not return to her master’s repeated shouts of “Callie!”. She’s a three year old Golden Lab, and Resident Expert said that if a dog doesn’t respond to voice commands by age 3, “the dog is lost”. We don’t mind random dog visits, so this was not a problem. Friday was a “blue moon” night, but clouds mostly obscured the rising full moon. Now one of our neighbors is playing the guitar, and he’s pretty good! We learned later that he (the son) is starting at Berklee College of Music in the fall.

The sky was overcast the next morning, looking very much like it was setting up for thunderstorms later in the day. I had an interest in hiking to a group of lakes we hadn’t seen in our last trip: Smith, then on to Grass, Rock, and Jamison lakes. I had a terrible map though – it showed very little detail for topography or trails –  it was better suited as a road map, but this was all they had at REI. We would rely on fellow hikers and trail signs to get to our destination. Our trailhead is at Gray Eagle Lodge, which looks like a good option if you want to stay indoors at night. There are several small lodges in the Lakes Basin, most are fairly rustic, but Gray Eagle appears to be a notch above. Just might have to check it out one of these days.

Your hike out to Smith Lake climbs up a well graded trail, up and over a ridge, and then follows the creek up to the lake itself. There are backpack camps on the lake, and a family was breaking camp along the south shore as we arrived. No trail signs here, and my map was no help, so after looking around some we headed back to the main trail. Up to this point we had seen few birds, but then we saw a large owl drop from a branch and coast silently, as is their way, across a small meadow. Didn’t see where he flew off to, so he’s noted in the bird log simply as “owl”. Here’s Owl Meadow.

owl meadowIf I were an owl, I would be in the top branches of one of these tall trees. Right about then, a father/daughter/dog backpacking team came down from the lake. I prepared myself mentally to engage them in conversation, with the aim of discovering trail knowledge. Is there a path beyond the lake? “Sure, there are two, no, three stream crossings, and then you can climb the ridge up to the lakes back there. And if you want to make a loop out of it, you can connect to the trail to Long Lake and make it back to the start. It’s a longer hike though – about three miles.” (Three miles? No problem.) Sounds good, we say, thanking our benevolent guides and petting their tiny white dog. We press on, taking a side trail around Smith Lake, where we quickly encounter two, no, three stream crossings, plus the overgrown trail and uncertain footing. The guy didn’t mention this. See here, Resident Expert, coming down from a wildly overgrown area.

smith trail

Here and there we were treated to lovely views of the lake, so I am not complaining. We saw three camps along the lake shore – this one looked best to me. The tent site is back in the trees a bit, and we have a fine campfire ring, getting a close examination here from our Resident Expert.

smith lake campfire

Can you picture yourself by a little fire here, after the evening trout catch and release, with the stars reflected in the lake? Of course you can.

Onward and upward, as we proceed with lake-hunting. Mostly upward, as it turns out, with a stiff climb up to a ridge above Smith Lake. This part of the trail doesn’t seem all that well maintained either. And the lack of maintenance was confirmed when we finally reached the crest of the ridge.

trail not maintained signSure, now you tell us. We break here for light refreshments, and then press on for the lakes that I am sure are just around the next corner. But they don’t seem to be, do they? We’re going downhill again, and I say that I don’t like giving up elevation. Resident Expert says yes, and it was dearly won. The descent is picturesque though, with good views of the surrounding countryside. Here’s some bright chaparral with Mt. Washington and other nearby peaks.

Mt. Washington

I didn’t know it at the time, but our next lake is way down in the canyon below Mt. Washington. And not only is it downhill, but they throw in a few obstacles for you.

tree down

Now our trail meets up with another trail, with a sign indicating that Jamison Lake is a good three miles from here. But that would be where we connect to the Long Lake trail somehow, right? And wouldn’t that make this trip a lot longer than the three miles that first guy said, given that just this one segment is three miles in and of itself? You bet we’re panicking. But not so much that we don’t proceed further, first sighting the unexpected and delightful Little Jamison Falls.

Little Jamison Falls

And a bit farther along we finally get to another lake, Grass Lake.

Grass Lake

There were fish jumping and ducks diving all across the surface. A good place to stop, rest up a bit, and realize that we were pretty much out of water. When setting out on a midsummer hike in the mountains, they say you’ll want to be in condition for hilly terrain, bring a good map, spend a day or two adjusting to the higher elevation, and bring plenty of water. All good advice, that went unheeded by us. I’d say if you are only going to heed one thing, go with “bring plenty of water”. Even here, we were thinking about pushing on to find this mythical trail to Long Lake, but reason prevailed and we turned back. Sorry to miss out on the other lakes, though. I now know that you can hike in from a much closer trailhead in Plumas-Eureka State Park, if you’re interested in seeing Rock and Jamison Lakes. Another day, perhaps.

As you can see from the pictures, the morning clouds vanished, and by mid-day it was relentlessly sunny and quite hot – in the low 90’s, I’d guess. We had to climb back up that steep chaparral-covered hillside now, and our last few sips of water in the canteens were distributed with sacramental reverence. Just before we started the climb we encountered a hiker pair with experience in these hills. I asked if there was a way beyond Jamison to Long Lake, and he said, well, sure, you could do it, but it would be about 13 miles. Beyond Jamison you would climb up to the Pacific Crest Trail, and follow that until you can make it back down into Lakes Basin. He did mention an off-trail option, but that would involve some Class 3 free-climbing. So our decision to turn around was probably for the best.

These folks also knew about the local birds, and the fellow mentioned a secret spot called “Bird Bridge” out in the Sierra Valley. Just might have to look into that.

We were mildly crazed with thirst by the time we reached the end of the hike. Training is really good at eliminating this kind of mental torment, as we recall from our marathon days. If you methodically work your way up to it, you’d be surprised what you can deal with. All we could think about was the ice chest and the cold lemonade within, awaiting us in the back of the Forester.

Finally, the Forester came into view.


We guzzled our lemonades, fired up the air conditioner, and went for a drive to refrigerate ourselves. After this hike I wanted a decent map, and we aimed for the USFS station down the hill near Blairsden. Found it, and it was closed. We needed more ice, and stopped in a town called Graeagle. It was blazing hot and busy with vacationers. After being out on the trail all day, this was a bit much to deal with. We kept driving, and probed out into Sierra Valley a little bit. This is one of the many surprising, never-heard-of-it places you can discover in California. It’s a huge alpine valley – basically what Lake Tahoe would look like if it were filled in with 2000 ft. of sediment, as is the case here. We started hearing thunder, and decided to head back to the campsite. On the way into the town of Portola, we could see rain drifting down.

portola stormLooks like we might get the dust rinsed off the old Forester. Sure enough, looking ahead you could see a line of demarcation between the dry and wet highway surface. Then we were in it; a nice steady rain shower. Starting to rain a little harder. Really coming down now. We can see cloud to ground lightning strikes around us, and then the hailstorm began. We rolled into Portola and parked at Leonard’s Market to wait it out. And we waited. This thing was not relenting. Resident Expert pointed out that mud was starting to flow across the parking lot. We were basically in a flash flood now. If you’re looking for a vehicle that’s nice and quiet while waiting out a hailstorm, you may want to look at something other than the Forester. Great for driving in a hailstorm though. That’s what we eventually did – what started out as that cloud over Beckwourth Peak shown above was spreading out in all directions, and the only way to escape it was to drive out from underneath. I don’t understand the meteorology of it, but somehow that big dark cloud took all the heat energy from the surrounding area and made a huge weather machine out of it. The air temperature went from the low 90’s to about 65 degrees in a matter of minutes.

That was pretty exciting, and we were ready to head back to camp and discuss our day’s adventures. When we rolled in, we noted that last night’s neighbors had left – we had an empty camp site next door. They were a known quantity, and now we were open to random chance. What if somebody horrible moved in?

Before you could say “somebody horrible”, a truck towing a trailer, followed by another vehicle, rolled in. Yep, looks horrible all right. This was a crew of about 5 adults and 5 children, plus a very large dog. They maneuvered their trailer into the tent-only space, only hitting a few boulders, helpfully guided by adults on either side of the truck helpfully yelling “Turn!”, with added expletive-laden emphasis. Once the trailer was in place, there was more shouting and low-level mayhem. Periodically one or more of the “people” would shout at their large dog, who probably enjoyed being referred to by name, but understood little else.

As dusk fell, the Men drove off in the Truck, ostensibly to acquire more water and ice. They were gone for quite a while, and during their absence the gals and the kids carried on quite nicely. Not as quiet as other good campers, but not terrible. But well after dark, the Truck returned. The Men were not successful in their search for ice and water, but found other beverages, it seems. We retreated to our tent around this time. By all appearances, the 10 o’clock “quiet time” rule that all good campers adhere to was not applicable to these folks. Once they started up their music, Resident Expert handed out the earplugs and we went off to Dreamland.

But somewhere around midnight I woke up, and the music was still going. And there were lights shining on our tent every few seconds. Out of control flashlight handling, I guess. Then, the first roll of thunder was heard. Then another, closer. And we started to hear drops of rain on the tent. Could that storm over Portola have made it all the way over here? That thing must be a monster by now. What’s going to happen next?

Stay tuned.

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