That's how we found ourselves in Plumas-Eureka State Park this morning. "Plumas" (as I'm told it's called by locals) is barely an hour from the valley north of Reno where we live, and yet most Reno residents I know have never heard of it. This is both a shame and a blessing. The park sits inconspicuously just a few miles up from the retirement community/artist colony of Graeagle, just to the east of Eureka Peak. Gold was discovered here in 1851, and so while the park provides protection to a hidden corner of 6,700 acres of Sierra Nevada wilderness, including all the granite peaks and waterfalls and big piney forests that you would expect, it also protects the remains of the mining era, including the massive Plumas-Eureka Mill through which $8 million in gold is said to have moved. These buildings, which in their day were probably not much more than noisy, dirty industrial plants, have gained a sort of looming, mysterious presence as they have sat for many decades, rusting and unused, relics of a different era standing quietly alone in a great pine forest.
I'm surprised not only that so few people in Reno know of the existence of such a fantastic little mountain park so close by, but also that it's taken me over a year and a half to bring Melissa there. I am surprised because I (selfishly, delusionally) consider this wild region north of Truckee to be "my" little corner of the mountains. I can get away with this delusion because these deep forests and granite hills of the northern Sierra are often overlooked by outsiders, wedged as they are between the much more high-profile tourist attractions of Lake Tahoe to the south and the massive volcanic edifice of Mount Shasta to the north. These are the "undiscovered" Sierra Nevada, and that's just how I like them.
On a whim we decided to hike up to the old Jamison Mine, who's abandoned buildings and rusting equipment sit perched above a noisy creekbed. When we had left the house earlier in the day I had been concerned that the weather might be cold--it is late October after all, and we would be over 5000 feet in elevation--and so we had dressed in layers. But the temperature could not have been more comfortable, and soon our fleece jackets were stripped off and tied around our waists. Melissa and I sometimes joke about enjoying the Fall "Color" (as opposed to the plural "Fall Colors") here in the eastern Sierra, since the only trees in this climate whose leaves change color in the Fall are the aspens, which turn a uniform shade of brilliant yellow around the beginning of October. Certainly, the Sierra will never rival New England for extravagant displays of fall foliage, but Autumn in these mountains does have an unmistakable quality to it, very distinct from the rest of the year. The low-angle of the sunlight seems to make every detail stand out just a bit more than at other times.
Keela is half Labrador Retriever and half Border Collie, a water-loving hunting dog mixed with an athletic, highly-intelligent working dog bred to shepherd animals several times her size. At six months old she is a bundle of pure energy, and she was never going to be satisfied with the short hike up to the mine, and so we decided to push on towards Grass Lake and the Lakes Basin. Although I suspect she is only a little more than half grown she pulls powerfully against her leash, and this morning she practically jerked me up the steep ascent to the basin. When we crossed out of the park boundaries and into the Plumas National Forest I decided to let her off the leash, despite dire warnings posted about the presence of bear and mountain lion in these woods. Though I'm sure Caesar Milan would disapprove, there really is nothing like watching the unbridled joy of a puppy set free to explore the mountains.
The hike to Grass Lake from Plumas consists of a steep, rocky vertical ascent for about 3/4 of a mile, followed by a general leveling out of the trail over the last 1/2 mile or so until you reach the lake. You know you're getting close when you can hear the roar of Little Jamison Falls off to the right. Some years this waterfall would be little more than a trickle by late October, but this year we are lucky, and today the falls were roaring. Little Jamison Falls is a near-perfect example of what I love about the West. Back East such picturesque little waterfalls can be found occasionally, but they are usually well-known, boasted about by locals, pictured in postcards, visited by hundreds of people on a busy day, and are often the focal points of hiking trails or even of whole parks. But the West is still big enough that it can surprise you. In these mountains, such a wonder is not marked or advertised, and is not even on the main trail. It can be found off a short spur, churning away in obscurity, known only to a few locals and overshadowed by larger, more "impressive" waterfalls close-by. Although yesterday's weather couldn't have been better, when we unexpectedly stumbled across these 30-foot falls the entire viewing audience consisted of two human beings and one dog.
When we finally arrived at the lake, Keela could not contain her excitement. She charged through brush and water and dirt in tight, hyperactive circles of joy, with no purpose other than to fill her lungs with cool mountain air, stretch her young legs and take in every muddy, earthy sensation. Watching her, I knew exactly how she felt, although I don't have that kind of energy anymore (if I ever did). I was content just to sit still and breath it all in.
Grass Lake itself was having one of those serendipitous days when everything comes together just right--the weather was warm, the sky was clear, the surrounding mountains were reflected perfectly in the still water and the fall colors (yes, there was actually some red mixed in with the yellow aspens and the green cedar and pine) were the perfect accent. You just can't plan these sorts of moments. Sometimes you'll spend hours hiking to a lake like this in the cold or the rain, and when you get there the skies are gray and drizzly or snowy and the lake itself looks fetid and grim, and there's nothing you can say or do to convince your skeptical fiancee that spending the day this way is actually "fun."
And then there are days like today, days when the only frustration is the knowledge that the demands of the work-a-day world will soon force you back down the mountain and home again to face Monday. But the hike was amazing none the less. Driving back through Portola, with Keela passed out asleep in the back seat, Melissa (who isn't really in to this sort of thing and doesn't even own a pair of real hiking boots) actually said "You know, if we did hikes like that on a regular basis next year I think I'd really like it."
Music to my ears.