Furlough Fridays: Hiking in the Sierra

Unlike a lot of people around here, I think of the Sierras mainly as a place to go in the summer. I grew up in a hot climate, and skiing and snowboarding have never really been my thing. But I love how the Sierras clear out a bit in the summer, to make way for my camping, mountain biking and hiking.

Hiking was on the agenda last weekend. We met up with my best friend and his wife, then set out for the hour and a half drive to the Salmon Lake trailhead. Our destination that day was several of the small, glacial lakes that dot the western side of the Sierras like little beauty marks. The sky was clear, the temperature in the low 60s as we set out on what may prove to have been the last really nice Saturday of the year.

The trail started out at 6,500 feet. Living barely above sea level in Sacramento, this was enough elevation to have us breathing hard even though the trail was barely heading uphill, though we got our mountain legs after just a few minutes. We chose the shorter of two trails leading to this particular set of lakes. After a mile, there was a sign pointing out a quarter mile spur trail out to Salmon Lake.

When we got there, were found a few other people sunning themselves on the rocks by the lake. Down in the water, dozens of young bullhead catfish circled around in the water—apparently waiting for someone to feed them. Anything that dropped in the water, they immediately headed towards. They seemed so tame we started speculating over whether we could catch one with some potato chips and our spare hands.

Heading on, the trail got a little less dusty as we got to less travelled areas further from the road. The other trailhead is known for brilliant fall color on the trees—a rare form of beauty northern California actually runs short on—but we didn’t see too much of that. The area was dominated by evergreens.

But it hardly seemed to matter as we hit Lower, Middle and Upper Loch Leven Lake. We sat in the sun by the short of the Lower lake and ate the lunch we’d brought, the fall sun glinting off the water in front of us. There were great camping spots everywhere, several of them occupied. You can come in here and camp for free—one payoff of leaving your car and carrying everything two miles uphill at altitude. Unlike many places where you see lots of people, there was hardly any trash to be seen. All the camping spots had well-made fire pits made from surrounding rocks. The campers included a lot of older people and parents with kids.

While there are certainly more spectacular places to see in California, the Loch Leven Lakes were definitely pretty. The middle one had a nice serpentine shoreline, while both middle and upper had lots of little islands, some just a few feet across. Never mind that Loch Leven Lake would translate literally as “Lake Leven Lake.”

While we probably only hiked about five miles that day, we still left tired because of the altitude. That afternoon, as we dropped back down into the valley on I-80, the sun set before us was in surreal pinks and yellows (“Thank you, smog,” as Joy put it). All in all, it was a nice way to say goodbye to Indian summer.  

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