Day 4 (June 21, 2016 – South Lake Tahoe, California): “Stealing Thunder”
It was 6:10am when we awoke. Originally, I had planned on taking it easy and making it straight to South Lake Tahoe via the I-5 to the Hwy 50 through Pollock Pines to get there. However, given what we were able to accomplish earlier on in this trip, we figured why not make the detour towards Lassen Volcanic National Park and check that place out before continuing on to South Lake Tahoe?
So with that in mind, we checked out of the Holiday Inn Express in Red Bluff after having breakfast, then we left at 7:10am. We wound up taking the I-5 south towards the Hwy 36 due east. Apparently, this road was just as valid to get to Lassen Volcanic as the Hwy 44 due east of Redding. And as we were driving along the Hwy 36, we saw that the terrain here was much browner than what we had seen earlier on in this trip.
In any case, the traffic was light, and before we knew it, we were at the entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park (the entrance kiosks were closed), then we showed up to the visitor center at 8:15am. When we saw that the visitor center here was closed until 9am, we decided to keep driving in search of the Mill Creek Falls Trailhead.
However, it only took a few minutes of driving up the mountain before we arrived at the Sulphur Works, where I knew that we must’ve overshot the Mill Creek Falls Trailhead since I had seen maps indicating that the Sulphur Works was further north of the trailhead.
So instead of backtracking immediately in search of the trailhead for the waterfall hike, we decided to just do a little autotouring starting with the Sulphur Works at 8:30am, which was a roadside area with a boiling mud pool as well as some colorful hills flanking the road. And when we parked the car, we saw that there was a deer slowly making its way along the road, then hopping into the foliage and prancing away from us.
Fifteen minutes later, we had our fill of the intriguing Sulphur Works then continued up the mountain towards Bumpass Hell. We knew that the trail going into the caldera that was the main attraction of the Bumpass Hell was closed, but we figured that that woud be our turnaround point and we could try to check out what at least that car park was about.
Along the steep drive up, we made stops for such vistas for Broketop Mountain (which was a Mt Shasta-like volcano that blew its top and was now missing a very large portion of the imagined conical mountain), Lassen Peak, and even another view of some natural arch amongst some interesting craggy formations.
We even passed up alongside the Emerald Lake, which was frozen at the time. But when we were at the Bumpass Hell car park, we were treated to nice expansive vistas that took in Broketop Mountain as well as the deep canyons further below. There was also some kind of observation station as well. But there really didn’t seem to be much else to this spot so we got back in the car at 9:05am and headed back down the hill to the southwest visitor center.
At 9:30am, we were back at the visitor center, and just to make sure we knew where the Mill Creek Falls trail was, we went into the facility to ask the workers there where the trailhead was. When she said that it was next to the amphitheater adjacent to the visitor center, that was when I realized that this place was merely at the visitor center itself and we really didn’t need to go anywhere else to do this hike.
Anyways, we finally started hiking at around 9:45am, and it seemed like we were one of the first ones on the trail as there weren’t people around, but we did get passed by several people as we were busy taking pictures as the wildflowers were in bloom with beautiful mountain backdrops surrounding the area.
The trail started off by going down towards a bridge over Mill Creek, then went a little up and down before really going uphill for an extended stretch shortly after an unbridged stream crossing. Fortunately, a large chunk of this hike was in the shade of forest cover (which kept this hike from being really hot and tiring), and eventually after reaching the peak, the trail then descended slightly until we finally reached the overlook of the impressive Mill Creek Falls at about 1.6 miles from the visitor center.
The falls was said to be some 75ft and we were looking down at the falls from the overlook. However, we saw that there were a few smaller cascades further upstream as well as a couple of bridges at the top of the falls with people chilling out there. So we decided to keep going on the hike so we could enjoy a little picnic lunch there and enjoying the place for a bit before coming back towards the visitor center.
After having our fill of this place at the top of the falls, we then hiked back the way we came. Aside from a slight uphill initially, the hike was mostly downhill before climbing back up towards the visitor center at the very end. And at 12:20pm, we were finally back at the car, which was a bit later than I had anticipated going into this hike. Still, when we were enjoying the experience and taking our time, who’s keeping time?
Next, I had originally thought that perhaps we should drive the Hwy 36 back to the I-5 then jam our way towards Hwy 50 before going east to South Lake Tahoe. But then I realized that we could just take the Hwy 89 south towards Reno while visiting at least Frazier Falls along the way (which was one of the waterfalls we had targeted on the upcoming July trip).
This plan could also let us go to Carson City, Nevada, where we could visit Kings Canyon Falls. Indeed, it just seemed to make more sense to get these things done on this day then check into South Lake Tahoe without punting these things towards a later trip. In a way, we were kind of stealing the thunder of the upcoming trip(s), but sometimes we just had to seize the moment and live for the now instead of what might be later on since you just never know what might happen in life these days…
And so we were off going south on the Hwy 89 which had a surprising amount of traffic (especially truck traffic from logging trucks) on the two-lane highway, which meant that there were limited opportunities to pass. There was also a traffic stop due to road work that we were stuck on for a bit at around 12:55pm. But other than that, we trudged along the Hwy 89 eventually getting to a junction where the 89 continued through the town of Graeagle.
After passing through the town, we then took the Gold Lake Road that eventually went a long 4 miles on the somewhat narrow road. The road climbed alongside a valley or canyon that was kind of reminiscent of some of the roads we had been on in Norway, but in this case, the road was nowhere near as scary narrow as the ones we became accustomed to in Europe.
At 2:45pm, we finally arrived at the Frazier Falls Trailhead, which was surprisingly busy. We claimed one of the two remaining spots at the trailhead though none of them were in the shade and it was 82F up here though it was 90F in Graeagle (which was pretty warm considering we were in the mountains).
The well-signed trail was mostly paved as it vacillated between being flanked by tall trees (providing some shade) as well as open exposed areas flanked by impressive rocks. These rocks probably hinted at the kind of geology responsible for the formation of Frazier Falls.
The trail was quite popular as there were lots of people of all ages going back and forth along the trail. When we finally got to the overlook of Frazier Falls, there was a crowd of probably about a dozen people or so. But Mom and I chilled out at the overlook taking in the direct view across the canyon at the 176ft falls as well as partial views down the canyon.
Apparently, this waterfall was caused by glaciers (which seemed to be a recurring theme as Lake Tahoe we knew was caused by a huge glacier). Not only that, but apparently Gold Lake which sourced Frazier Falls was also caused by a glacier. Anyways, there really wasn’t a whole lot more we could do with this falls in terms of the experience other than to look at it from this overlook so when the crowd dispersed, Mom and I pretty much had the falls overlook to ourselves for a bit before we realized that it was getting late and we continued on.
We got back to the car at about 3:45pm by which time we were the only ones left. The drive back down the hill was pretty uneventful though there was probably just one car going up. Other than that, we went back through Graeagle then continued east on Hwy 70 as it would eventually cross into Nevada and join the Hwy 395. The landscape towards the 395 was pretty much desert and barren but the pace of traffic was quick.
So we drove through past Reno before reaching Carson City, which was the state capital of Nevada. It was a little more low key than Reno, but it was nevertheless a city in the desert on the doorstep of the Sierra Nevada mountains. After filling up on some pretty cheap gas (at least compared to California), we then drove on some local streets before joining up with the Kings Canyon Road (which didn’t join up with the main road).
The Kings Canyon Road was slow paced (at most 35mph), and we eventually got to the end of the paved part of the road right at the trailhead at 5:45pm. I guess the timing of our visit was good because the hiking was under the shadows caused by the cliff before us. The car park was still in the hot afternoon sun, but once we got on the trail, the shadows grew and eventually engulfed our car.
The hike was uphill along one elongated switchback before hitting a junction where a sign indicated that there was another 1 mile of hiking to reach some upper waterfall. We weren’t sure if we were up for going up to that other waterfall, but we were intent on keeping right and following the path leading right up to the somewhat hidden Kings Canyon Falls.
Looking down from the trail, we could see there was some kind of wider path that led straight up along the stream from the trailhead area (actually right next to someone’s home) but we knew that that particular trail was closed to the public.
We finally got to the falls, which wasn’t particularly large nor tall, but it still had pretty significant amount of water, which was saying something for a state as dry as Nevada. There were a handful of people already here enjoying the place without being overburdened by the stifling heat. In fact, it was noticeably cool at the base of the falls. And I guess that was something to be considered when doing this excursion as it was certainly not the place to be under the hot desert sun earlier in the day.
So we took our time taking what photos and movies that we could. When we conversed with one of the locals who was enjoying the falls with us, we asked about the upper waterfall, but he said that we did good going to this one as the other one was not as nice as this one, apparently. So that prompted us to have our fill, then we left and regained the car at 6:20pm.
At this point, we were now ready to finally head to South Lake Tahoe and check into our accommodation at last. So we took the 395 south to the Hwy 50, which curved (at a pretty high speed) its way back up into the mountains, and then we finally arrived at the Holiday Inn Express in South Lake Tahoe at 7:10pm. Apparently, we showed up just in time to have some freshly baked cookies (which made my paleo diet go to hell).
The room we got was a bit smaller than the one in Red Bluff, but it was pretty much to the expected IHG standard that we came to expect. No surprises there. It did have a noisy small refrigerator to keep our waters and fruits cool, and the restroom was almost as big as the main room itself.
Shortly after checking in, we then finally drove out for dinner. We realized that some of the highly rated places were not within walking distance within the main drag of South Lake Tahoe even though our place was apparently “centally located”, but we targeted this place called MacDuff’s Pub.
At 8:10pm, we finally found this place, which was tucked away from the main drag. The food was hearty as we had a shepherd’s pie as well as a spinach and artichoke dip (with celerty sticks and carrots along with flat bread instead of chips), and we also had their famed bread pudding, which was really more like a really sweet sticky date pudding though the texture of the bread was not quite like the spongy caramel cake we’d get with sticky date or sticky toffee.
At 9:05pm, we were finally back at the Holiday Inn Express, and then we finally called it a night to yet another long and event-filled day. But with this being the first of three nights in South Lake Tahoe, I was expecting there to be significantly less driving excursions for these next couple of days. But often times, things take a bit longer than expected so we’ll see how things turn out come tomorrow…