LAKE TAHOE AREA: Hiking and Scrambling in High Alpine Country Above Squaw Valley in the Midst of Tahoe National Forest
So it is that one fine summer day we’re leisurely hiking, madly scrambling, and earnestly exploring in the high back country behind Squaw Valley, one of the West’s premier skiing destinations, and mountain biking / hiking meccas come summertime. Squaw terrain is located a few miles below the Donner Lake area on Interstate 80, and west (off Highway 89) of the northwest shore of Lake Tahoe, on the fringes of the Granite Chief Wilderness, basically in the vicinity of the upper upper upper (it’s one mighty big royal gorge) headwaters of the fabulous North Fork American River and other wondrous watercourses. This rugged land comprises about 4,000 acres of big time High Sierra scenery, and nearly 3,000 ft. of elevation gain to the highest nearby peaks -- Silver @ 8424 ft; Tinker Knob @ 8949 ft.; Lyon @ 8891 ft.; and the crowning glory of Needle Peak @ 9086 ft. Trails leading into the more pristine areas of Tahoe National Forest and Granite Chief Wilderness entice you to just keep on hikin', scramblin' and explorin'. If only you could. . .
It seems that this particular hike and environs is too close to bustling Squaw Valley to amount to much. Too many people, not enough wilderness. Wrong on all counts, Gambolin’ Man! This is big country, and not surprisingly -- it’s still the Sierra Nevada, after all! Bottom line - it’s easy to ditch the hoi polloi, hike a little beyond, find a get away, and not see a soul all merry day long. But don’t delude yourself, either - it’s just as easy to get disoriented or debilitated (high altitude sickness, accident or injury, e.g.) in this ultra-accessible landscape. But you’d have to want to get lost out here, because of the proximity to civilization and the popularity of the trail systems. But aha! That’s the paradox of the paradise! Thousands can enjoy, yet on a weekday in the peak of summer, you might well have the place to yourself!
At the trailhead, I’m thinking, aw shit, this is gonna be like some holy pilgrimage where everyone and their aunt and uncle will be oohing and aahing at the spendid sights awaiting intrepid day hikers up Squaw Creek Canyon. It’s on a million web sites and in a hundred guidebooks. Everyone knows about it and wants to hike it -- today, no doubt. And how can you blame ‘em, for indeed this is a famous “must do” day hike in the Tahoe area, notable for its drop-dead beautiful, very accessible scenery and easy hiking, and yet it packs a real honest-to-God punch and provides an adventurous outing / hike for all sizes and ages. We’re lucky today, though - very few people are out on the trail at this up-and-at-’em hour! Leave early enough, and return late enough, like we do, and you’ll own the place. (Such hubris, Gambolin’ Man! You own nothing! Nature owns you!)
Well, I’m contented doing exactly what we’re doing today - seeking out nature‘s peace and beauty. We‘re heading up a boulder choked ravine - carved out by pretty little Squaw Creek - enjoying perfect serenity and solitude on a brilliant day in a classic High Sierra setting. A steady uphill pace takes us along the winding contours of golden-tinted Squaw Creek, until the trail ends after 500+ ft. of elevation gain over a mile or more. At this point, the rest of the way becomes a fun scramble up massive granite slabs to the ever-lovely Shirley Lake, set in a pretty basin at over 7,000 ft. We’ve probably climbed over 1200 ft. to get here. And still not out of breath! (Only breathless with wonder and awe!)
The high, back country of Squaw Valley is no mere poseur to such TRULY SPECTACULAR spots in the Sierra Nevada -- Mt. Whitney, Kern River Canyon, John Muir Wilderness, Yosemite, King‘s Canyon, Sequoia, e.g. -- but I’ll have to admit, it’s not too shabby of a High Sierra Elysian landscape! I’ll take it any day. How on earth can you complain hiking gorgeous ultramontane hinterlands on a hot pleasant day, loved one in tow - that’d be my one-and-only Gambolin’ Gal - and no one in sight, in a perfect high elevation granite wilderness of peaks, buttes, lakes, forests and streams. Fact is, this place is as beautiful, exotic, remote, and pristine as anywhere in California’s Sierra Nevada at elevations of between 5000 ft. and 7000 ft. I don’t care where you are! I’m instantly charmed by the country, amazed by the remote solitude experienced on the very edges of a bustling tourist mecca, in awe of a nature experience so immediate that thousands can enjoy it, yet at the same time, we probably will have the place to ourselves, especially on the last part of the gambol - a mile or more scramble up and over sprawling slabs of granite and boulders the size of lakeside cabins.
Every few minutes, it’s stop and shoot, stop and shoot - everything along the way fascinates in this wild land of such unexpected beauty (why unexpected? - it’s still the Sierra Nevada, after all!) Along the way, we‘re sidetracked by flowery, sweet-smelling meadows where deer have left copious droppings. We’re waylaid endlessly admiring stands of pungent sugar pines, cedars, tall Douglas firs, and my favorite tree in the Range of Light, the venerable and gnarled Western Juniper. The air smells pleasantly of smoky pine duff and some unidentifiable mountain sagebrush or chaparral blossom. It’s really quite lovely, quite heavenly -- no where else to be, nothing else to do. We eat a snack on the precipice of a ledge overlooking a miniature canyon of carved polished rocks and chutes bursting to life with tumbling water, the color of gold. This is a sacred land of big rocks, big trees, big peaks, big water, big sky. And yet, “it ain’t the John Muir”, as an old amigo used to say to me, condescendingly, every time I would deign to extoll “lesser” scenes of simple beauty in nature. . .
I love the way Squaw Creek cuts and twists through colorful ancient bedrock, carving out the pretty gorge of waterfalls, cascades, and clear shallow pools. You won’t find too many fools dipping in these icy waters --except maybe Gambolin’ Man, sweaty and hot on this 72 degree day! The going, although relentlessly uphill, is on a nicely maintained trail that hugs and crosses Squaw Creek a dozen times; it is crazy easy, but, of course, in the end, it takes us our usual dilatory several hours to cover just a couple of miles. Although we have a destination in mind - Shirley Lake - I could care less if we reach it (but glad that we do), for everything - every sight, every sensation - along the way fascinates and deserves close scrutiny, special appreciation. I’m surprised we manage to cover as much ground as we do, given our natural proclivities to stop and gawk, in silent admiration, for long stretches of time at every pretty, little thing along the way -- pine cones littering the forest floor like an avant garde art installation; colorful lichen splotching into psychedelic designs on boulders; a curious, attentive Golden-manteled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis) perched on a log; a lumbering beetle; darting minnows; a fat bumblebee sucking nectar; the fleeting appearance of a hummingbird; flowery delights; thick textured bark lying on the ground like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; a stellar jay preening on a limb; self-reflections in a shimmering pool.
Shirley Lake is a gem. Her glistening waters are inviting, crisp, reflective of magical images - a white boulder, a brown tree trunk, clouds and grasses. She‘s whispering and teasing me. . .lured by the Siren call, I strip bare and slip in the clear water for a refreshing, delightful swim. It takes some persuasion to get Gambolin’ Gal to do same, thinking it’s got to be frigid, but she sees me luxuriating and can’t help but to strip and slip in, too. She is amazed at the clarity and inviting nature of the water, the purity of the experience in a normally freezing but today utterly divine High Sierra lake, with no one about but us and God’s creatures great and small (of which we see just a few of the small). Now, some hikers come by, slightly ruining our fantasy. But they pass and we’re all alone again.
On the way back, we miss a cairn and take a wrong turn - serendipitously leading us to a most venerable granddaddy Juniper. This specimen must be at least 300 - or 1000 -- years old, who knows! We admire it, hug it, bless it, enjoy its offering of hospitality and shade, wish it well, and then continue on our disorienting way to end up at the edge of a high cliff overlooking a 50 ft. drop-off to a rocky basin. No biggie. Carefully, we follow a rocky, rutty gradient down, to the safety of the trail and a few more stops along Squaw Creek. The light of day is fading into alpenglow, enhancing the golden aura effect - everything is bathed in diffuse yellowish light, filtering out intense glare, softening harsh edges, and creating a magical sensation of being in a dreamy unreal world. We linger in it for as long as possible.
All in all, day hiking the nearby, and paradoxically remote, high back country of Squaw Valley California, has been a marvelous, fun, superb outing. Sure, we didn’t hike in ten miles to a fabulous lake at 10,500 ft. set beneath 13,000 ft. snow-capped peaks, or witness the magnificent spectacle of a 1000 ft. waterfall plunging over precipitous rock cliffs in some world-famous National Park, but hey, who's complaining? It's still the Sierra Nevada, after all! And we owned the place! (Careful there, Gambolin’ Man - the place owned you!)