Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ruth's first backpacking trip


A few summers ago, we had just been camping and had taken niece Emma to a lake with her name. She caught a fish (her first?). It was a fun easy trip and got me wondering if there were other lakes with our family names that we might visit. Playing on Google Earth (addiction confession) I found a Ruth Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness. It is not far from the north edge of Yosemite and a one or two day hike from the nearest road. Emigrant Wilderness is also know for its beauty and fine fishing so I began my efforts to convince Ruth to go. I searched for other water features with our names and I don't recall any coming up.

A trip to Ruth Lake is more than 12 miles one-way. This means at least an overnight stay, preferrably more to relax and rest the feet after that distance. Close to Ruth lake are several other lakes and points of interest (at least to me).
Breaking the trip down to four-6 mile hikes makes it a minimum of three nights. Keep in mind that the elevation of the trail varies from 8500' to over 10,600'.

At some point I was convinced by wise friends that a warm-up hike would be a good idea to see if Ruth would be up to an adventure of this scale. I started looking in the Lake Tahoe area for trails and campsites with a view. I found lots of trails with amazing views. Most campsites along the trails in the wilderness areas do not have a view of the big lake.

Settling on the Desolation Wilderness I soon found that we had to choose a zone in the wilderness and reserve our first night AND camp in that zone the first night. Being summer, demand was high and my choices were really limited (10 days before hike). After searching through the areas within a day's hike of the trailheads, the Velma zone seemed the best choice, if not the only zone available. It includes Upper and Lower Velma Lakes as well as Granite Lake and Azure Lake. The Velma lakes are each about the same distance from the trailhead, about 4.6 miles and about 2000 feet of climb. So it would be a good hike to compare to my future backpacking plan.

I purchased the permit online, $5 per person for the first night plus $6 reservation fee, totaling $16. The only thing lacking gear-wise was footwear for Ruth and a backpacking tent (women like their privacy) but I found a cheap one on Craigslist two days before our trip, and boots for Ruth the same day (blisters to come). Ruth would use an ancient external frame pack, possibly a BSA model from 30 years ago, and I would use my own slightly newer external frame pack. gave us a forecast of 50-70 degrees, breezy with gusts up to 20mph.

We woke Monday at 5:45am and started preparing to leave, hoping to be on the trail by 8:30am. The Forest service rents bear canisters for free so I wanted to pick one up before we hit the trail. We didn't get to the Taylor Creek Visitor Center to rent the canister until 9:30. There I bought a map of the Desolation Wilderness and we headed to the trailhead, just a few miles from the visitor center.

Eagle Falls Trailhead is directly across Highway 89 from Emerald Bay at the southwest edge of Lake Tahoe. There are two parking lots at the location but they were both full and with heavy traffic and road construction conjesting the road we were forced to park about 1/4 mile south of the trailhead on the roadside. The sun was bright and it was already warm~80 degrees. I was wishing I had worn lighter clothing instead of jeans. Our packs seemed light. We had weighed them the night before without water, mine at 24 pounds and Ruth's at 19.

The trailhead was a beehive. Tourists coming and going to see Eagle Falls, Backpackers and hikers headed up and down the trail. The trail was very intimidating from the beginning, with lots of stairs. Eagles Falls is just 100 yards up the trail and features a bridge over the stream and a pool above the fall big enough for lots of people to wade or swim. Just after the falls is the wilderness boundary and a lot fewer people. The trail climbs aggressively over much of the next mile in a southerly direction toward Eagle Lake; the trail is not very wide as it skirts the side of the steep Maggie's Peak-North. Much of the trail is shaded by firs and cedars but a lot of the trail is in the open, skating across smooth granite with the trail marked by hand placed rocks to define the edges.

We decided to rest after a mile at the conveniently placed Eagle Lake, a mile from the trailhead and 500' higher. The lake is in a steep-sided bowl nestled between two ridges of granite. There were lots of day-hikers and swimmers enjoying the lake so we took a couple pictures and continued our hike.

As we climbed higher the trees thinned out and Ruth noticed more Jeffrey pine with its butterscotch scented bark. I have to say here that one of the highlights of this hike is the ever-changing aromas as the landscape changes between granite outcropping, lush alder groves, dusty pine forest, musky montane chaparral (couldn't identify this particular stinky shrub), and sub-alpine marshland--do mosquitoes have a smell?!

Hikers were much fewer above Eagle Lake. For the next couple miles we played trail leapfrog with a group of young adults, most of whom were hiking in sandals. Their destination was two mile beyond our own. I can't imagine backpacking in sandals! We still crossed paths with day hikers and backpackers on their way out of the wilderness and I usually asked them where they had been.

Over our heads on either side the bare granite peaks towered, hiding Lake Tahoe and long distance views from all but a couple points on the trail. I felt some trepidation as we climbed that we might never get out of the canyon and have the view open up around us. But I shouldn't have worried. Our trail pretty much topped out after 2.6 miles where we met the Bayview trail, an intense sister trail to the southeast. There is a low dome of granite just north of  the trail. I ventured out alone here while Ruth waited and was treated to a view of Tahoe as well as the water cascading down from Lower Velma Lake toward Eagle Lake. Nowhere on the trail was this view possible so it was definitely worth the scramble up this little dome.

The trail bends west here and another mile of easy up and down brought us to another fork in the trail. To the left was the trail to Dick's Lake, to the right was the Velma Lakes trail. Turning right we were now traversing a gradual descent heading northwest straight for the Velmas. We decided to stop for lunch. A flat granite boulder provided a spot to munch and enjoy a catnap before moving on. We knew we were getting close to our destination and the anticipation of hitting the trail's end was growing.

We continued slightly downhill for nearly another mile when we noticed a body of water to our left. We had reached Upper Velma Lake! Now to find a campsite. The lake looked marshy, as in mosquito heaven. Wilderness rules dictate camping at least 100' from water and the trail. We were also instructed to camp in established sites if possible and that those sites were marked. I planned on camping on the far side of the lake so we trekked on.

Continuing with the lake on our left we soon crossed the outlet of Upper Velma, a beautiful creek that looked worthy of a swim. We pressed on though, hoping to find a place to relieve our shoulders of our packs. We found a place where we could cross by hopping across dry rocks. Upper Velma was as clear as could be. I half expected to see fish swimming but the water did not appear deep and I had recently read that efforts are being made to remove trout from these Sierra lakes to increase the native Yellow-Legged Frog populations.

Mosquitoes gave us a warm welcome as we circled the lake heading south. Ever on the lookout for a campsite we crossed the outflow from Lake Fontanillis into Upper Velma. Most of the west shore was either sloped granite or marshy areas infested with bloodsucking insects. We had to walk more than 1/2 mile around the lake before finding a decent site at the south end. It wasn't marked, but we had yet to see a marked campsite so we didn't feel bad about the location. We camped a couple hundred feet from the lake hoping the mosquitoes wouldn't find us. A stream fed the lake not too far to the east where we replenished our water supply.

It was around 3pm by this time. We set up camp and decided to nap. The afternoon sun was too warm in our backpacking tent so I put up an extra rainfly to shade us. Shade, combined with a slight breeze, cooled us off enough to enjoy a decent nap.

At dinner time I told Ruth she had to light the stove by herself  since it was her first backpack adventure. She lit the stove extremely well and in no time (about 13 minutes) we were enjoying beef stroganoff a la Mountain House. I surprised her with dessert of freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches.

We debated hiking back to see Lake Fontanillis but we were both still tired and too footsore to make the effort. We prepped our camp for the night. We had rented a bear canister but it wouldn't fit in my pack so we had left it behind. We placed our stinky garbage far from camp for the night and double bagged our smelly goodies with baking soda. Other measures were taken as well to keep the bears away but we didn't have any nighttime visitors nor did we hear about any others who did.

We slept as well as we could expect on a couple inches of cushion. With sunrise we enjoyed instant oatmeal for breakfast and then we were off on a walk to Lake Fontanillis. Lake Fontanillis is about 200 feet higher than Upper Velma and the outflow from Fontanillis is almost entirely over a smooth slope of granite. Some of the flow is a sheet of water more than 20' wide! It looks like a fun slide but the slope is broken up just enough to discourage riders.

Climbing the granite hillside was vigorous exercise and we were glad to reach the top. Lake Fontanillis was beautiful and seemed vacant of human activity. We wished we could spend more time there but it was only an overnight trip. The view from the edge looking over Upper Velma and over Tahoe was gorgeous and really made the trip worth it.

At this point the inevitability of the return trip was upon us. We headed back where we had stowed our packs ready to go and began the hike back to the Suburban. We chose a slightly different route out, making our way along the stream we camped near up to the Dick's Lake trail. We found a little pond there that was great for swimming. It was nice to cool off and hike with clean feet. Soon we met up with the familiar trail. Yesterday's memories of the different parts of the trail came back to us as we hiked down, places where we accidently lost the trail, met other hikers and their advice and stories, rocks we had rested on.

I always detest getting back in the car after a trip like this. Its like waking from a pleasant dream that you know sleep won't bring back.

All in all it was a great trip and I would do it again. I had an amazing and enjoyable time and a new adventure with my best friend, who didn't complain at all, even with blisters forming on her heels.