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Nature Index
(My hiking and camping adventures in Northern California.)

Culture Index
(NorCal cities, highways, restaurants, museums, architecture, historic attractions, vintage neon signs, roadside attractions, etc.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

U.S. Route 40: West Sacramento's Motel Row

20050727 El Rancho
R.I.P. El Rancho Neon

[If you're interested in Highway 40 history in Sacramento, see also my blog entries on Del Paso Boulevard and on Auburn Boulevard.]

While most Americans on roadtrips today are content to speed along controlled-access freeways sealed inside climate-controlled cars and SUVs, only pulling off for the safe and familiar comforts of chain restaurants and gas stations, they are also nostalgic for a bygone era when the traffic on the highway slowed to go through the heart of business districts of both small towns and large cities, and drivers could impulsively pull over to unique roadside diners, motels, service stations, and tourist traps.

While U.S. Route 66 from Chicago to L.A. (omitting the eastern seaboard, the most populous area in the country) has become a focal point for this nostalgia, Sacramento has been home to old highways of arguably greater importance and interest, U.S. Routes 40 and 50. U.S. Route 50's distinction is that it is the only surviving transcontinental highway that is not all Interstate freeway. U.S. 40, now supplanted by Interstate 80 in the West, ran from Atlantic City to San Francisco, and in California is notable for the fact that it mostly followed the route of the old Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway. (U.S. 50 also followed, and in some portions still follows, part of the Lincoln Highway route, the "Pioneer Branch" from Sacramento through Folsom, Placerville, and South Lake Tahoe before rejoining the northern route.)

One of the quickly disappearing local legacies of the pre-freeway routing of both historic highways is the motel row in West Sacramento. This was the major approach to Sacramento from the Bay Area on U.S. 40 for many years, and was part of the original routing of 50, when it originated in West Sacramento, as it does today. (In intervening years, 50 was routed down Stockton Blvd. and then Cherokee Lane through Lodi and into Stockton before heading over to Oakland via the Altamont Pass.) In the then unincorporated area of Yolo County, motels, restaurants, and a drive-in movie theater lured tourists off the road with boldy designed buildings and bright neon lights before they reached Tower Bridge, constructed in 1935, to enter the city proper. The main artery carrying traffic across the Sacramento River now, the Pioneer Bridge, was not opened until 1966.

When the freeway bypassed West Sacramento in 1954, the inevitable decline began. The El Rancho Hotel had once accommodated stars and high-ranking politicians, but when the Cleveland Cavaliers were booked there in 1985, several players refused to stay and paid for their own rooms on the other side of the river. The El Rancho Drive-In Theater became the El Rancho Mobile Park. Being in an unincorporated area without a local police force, the old motel strip became a place to escape strict law enforcement and harassment in the city, making it a popular gay cruising ground, but also an area blighted by prostitution, drug dealing, and fights. Adapting to the times, some of the motels became adult-oriented, like the Experience Motel, which became the Adult Experience.

In that area that now lies within the city of West Sacramento (incorporated only in 1987), there are still a few interesting remnants of the Route 40 heydays, including many surprisingly well-maintained motels, although they are fast disappearing. I started taking an interest in roadside relics in 2000 and photographed many with my old APS camera. Later I got a digital camera and with extensive practice improved my crude skills, and I went back to get better photos of the area, but some I would find were no longer there. And they keep vanishing on me.

20060827 West Sacramento City Hall
West Sacramento City Hall

Newly incorporated West Sacramento worked to turn around the area's image in the typically American fashion: by destroying the past. The Capitol Inn where Clark Gable once stayed was razed, rather than rehabilitated or reinvented, and became the site of West Sacramento's City Hall. In 1993, only 6 years after incorporation, West Sacramento instituted a comprehensive sign ordinance, strictly limiting the size of free-standing signs. Businesses were given a generous 15-year period in which to bring their signage into compliance with the ordinance, but no exceptions were allowed for. When I first started taking pictures of the signs along this route, I thought all the small, plastic, back-lit signs were there because the motels had changed names when they changed ownership over the years, but my research shows that most of them have been under the same name for 50 years. Those with plastic signs were ones to quickly adhere to the new city ordinance. While the city of Sacramento has sought to protect its identity by protecting its historic signage, like the Joe Marty's sign, the city of West Sacramento is mandating the removal of this important part of its history by May 1, 2008.

20050728 Joe Marty's
Sacramento's Historic Joe Marty's Sign

Meanwhile, the proximity of West Sacramento to downtown is finally attracting the interest of major developers after the development of Raley Field, the Ziggurat Building, and the associated waterfront park area. Big changes are in store for the city in the near future, but for the moment let's look to the past.
Much of that past is nothing more than tantalizing hints I find in the library, like the names of the Pink Cucumber, or the Hawaiian Hut, old restaurants, or the old motel post cards in the Sacramento Room of the Sacramento Central Library. But I did get to see, and photograph, some of the remaining vestiges of this rich history, and have seen others' photos. Here's a review from west to east:

Ortega's West
4205 West Capitol

In the 1960s, this was the Road House. All that remains from those days, at least outside, are the two arrows indicating where to turn off the road.

20071008 The Road House

Walnut Trailer Villa
2355 West Capitol

20001020 Walnut Trailer Villa

The sign must have disappeared not longer after I photographed it, as I was never able to find it again. Here's a better photograph of it.

Red's Drive-In
2328 West Capitol

20080309 Old Drive-In

At least since 1961, this has been a liquor store: Henri's Drive-In Liquors, then Springer Bottle Shop, and currently A&B Liquors. But its shape betrays its origin as a drive-in restaurant, and the old city directory confirms this, indicating that in 1957 it was Red's Drive-In. When photographing it recently, a man bicycled by and told me that it used to have a giant top hat on top.

Yolo Club
2216 West Capitol

200010 Yolo Club

The Yolo Club probably opened in the 1930s. The vintage sign remained until at least 2000, although a Sacramento Bee restaurant review in 1986 of The Western Rib House at the Yolo Club mentions "the site of the old Yolo Club." Now it is operated as Puerto Azul, and the sign has been altered. Here's an advertisement for the Yolo Club from 1978:

"Mention the word 'barbecue' and Yolo Club immediately pops into mind. Long famous for its barbecued pork spare ribs and chicken, the specially-blended, tangy Yolo barbecue sauce is the same recipe developed by the original owners more than 40 years ago. Or try the special Yolo steak, hand cut right on the premises from the finest of choice meats. Yolo Club has a real western atmosphere, with a completely circular bar right in the middle of the dining room! Take the entire family!"

20060828 Puerto Azul
Puerto Azul

Plaza Motel
2007 West Capitol

In the last couple of years all of the neon tubing has been broken off of this large sign, and both arrows are now gone.

20050726 Plaza Motel

El Rancho Drive-In Theater
2000 West Capitol

20050727 El Rancho Mobile Home Park

The El Rancho Mobile Park was once the El Rancho Drive-In Theater, which seems more fitting for the glorious sign that once welcomed people to its entrance. A year or two ago I had a call from the owner, from Sonoma. She inquired if I was "Tom Spaulding the photographer," to which I hesitantly answered "yes" (I take a lot of photos, but have never made any money from it). She was looking for a photo of the old sign lit at night, but I was never fortunate enough to see it that way. The sign was taken down early in the summer of 2007.

Part of the El Rancho in 1946.

El Tejon Motel
1821 West Capitol

20080309 El Tejon Motel

It has been there since 1946, and likely a decade longer than that, yet it looks beautifully maintained. But there has been one change. Their motto used to be "Watch for the motel with the blue glass windows," but I've never found any blue glass windows there.

Denny's
1638 West Capitol

20070926 Denny's in Disguise

The building has now been divided to house two different businesses, and much of the distinctive roofline has been covered over, but from the side you can still spot the old Denny's underneath. Later it had a long run as Torrey's Coffee Shop.

Fremont Motel
1550 West Capitol

20080216 Fremont Motel

20061122 Fremont Motel

This motel is a particular favorite of mine, as I love the design of the building as much as its wonderful neon sign. I got to talk to the manager (and possibly the owner) when first photographing the sign at night and he seemed as fond of it as me. It is from him that I first learned of the city ordinance and the impending destruction. I don't see how this could possibly be considered a blight on the city that would hold it back from prosperity. To me it’s a treasure.

The Dude Motel and the Golden Motel
1501 & 1917 West Capitol

20070926 Dude Motel

20070926 Dude Motel

20080309 Bye-Bye Golden Motel Neon

Just two old motels that managed to keep the same name and the same sign in good repair for all these years until the city intervened.

King's Chinese Restaurant
1500 West Capitol

20050727 King's

What a beauty! Yet it didn't inspire me to eat there until after the sign was gone, I'm ashamed to admit. This was a massive sign that towered above everything, a true West Sacramento landmark.. Perhaps it was out of spite (a waiter there told me the owner was very upset to have to remove the sign) that it was replaced in 2005 with the most lowly and unobjectionable sign you can imagine, a small, back-lit, plastic thing hugging the ground. Now that's a "low-rent" sign, a term city officials have used repeatedly over the years in interviews when talking about redevelopment efforts (although I now see that the sign has been placed on a pedestal, making it look more typical). The old sign was first class. See it at dusk.

Budget Motel
964 West Capitol

20080216 St. Francis Motel

This was built in the early 1950s as the St. Francis Motel, advertised as "THE HOUSE OF DISTINCTION." It was still the St. Francis as late as 1980, but was the Budget Motel, with another boring new sign, by 1990. The office building is original though.

The Flamingo Motel
920 West Capitol

This motel never captured my eye, until I saw a postcard in the Sacramento Room of what the sign for it used to look like. One of my contacts on Flickr has posted his photo of that sign here.

Capitol Bowl
900 West Capitol

200010 Capitol Bowl

20051210 Capitol Bowl

Formerly the El Rancho Bowl, the neon signs on the building should be allowed to stay under the ordinance, as long as they are in good repair, but the free standing sign with a bowling ball for the letter "o" is likely doomed. People have told me that the owners always kept it in good repair, but part of it was flickering weakly when I photographed it at night, and there's no point in spending money to repair a doomed sign.

Old Town Inn
826 West Capitol

20060827 Old Town Inn

The horse statue standing outside this motel always struck me as peculiar, but it might have been part of the original decorative scheme, as before this was the Old Town Inn, it was the Pony Express Inn.

The Experience Lodge
824 West Capitol

2001 The Experience Lodge

This sign featured a diving beauty and a mixture of neon tubing and incandescent bulbs, a style that is a particular favorite of mine (see Plaza Hof Brau at the corner of Watt and El Camino for a fine working example). It has been gone for a few years now, although the motel is still in business, again with a plain and unobtrusive plastic, back-lit sign.

Welcome Grove Motel
600 West Capitol

20060827 Welcome Grove

Motel and trailer park, actually. Plus, there's a small house sitting on top of the motel. The approach to the Tower Bridge in this area is being reworked, and I don't know how that will effect the Welcome Grove.

Tower Bridge

20061022 Spirit of Sacramento

20080312 Some Bridge

The bridge has marked the transition from West Sacramento to Sacramento since it opened on 15 December 1935 is closed right now, but just temporarily, as the sidewalks are widened. The future of this structure is secure as only the Capitol Building rivals it for status as the representative landmark of the city of Sacramento.

For 25 years this was the main portal for traffic entering Sacramento from the west, as Mayor Arthur Ferguson envisioned it in his comments during the opening ceremony: "These towers shall stand through the years indicating the true friendliness and welcome of the City of Sacramento" (qtd. in Sacramento Bee 12/16/1935).

Once the freeway was opened on June 15, 1954 bypassing West Sacramento, the bridge became a real bottleneck for traffic, especially since the train tracks crossed the approach to it. This was not alleviated until the Pioneer Bridge was finished sometime in late 1966, carrying the freeway across the Sacramento River.
-----
Highway 40 continued:

North Sacramento's Del Paso Boulevard
Auburn Boulevard

Sunday, September 16, 2007

El Dorado National Forest: Echo Lakes to Lake of the Woods

20070916 Desolation Valley
Desolation Valley


From what I understand (and that's no guarantee of accuracy), the most popular entry into the Desolation Wilderness for backpackers is from the southern end of Lower Echo Lake. There are two advantages to this entry point: the car does most of the climbing, as it is less than 700 feet of elevation gain up to popular Lake Aloha, and one can take a boat taxi across the Echo Lakes and cut 5 miles off of the hike, round trip.

Despite the popularity of this area, it is one of the few approaches to the Desolation Wilderness I had not taken before this hikee. I've been meaning to do it for a long time, but after not going earlier in the season, I was going to put it off until next year, as Lake Aloha is partially drained late in summer to supply water to the downstream population. Unlike the many other natural lakes in the area with small dams built to increase holding capacity and control the outflow of water, Lake Aloha did not exist before a dam was built--this was the Medley Lakes area of Desolation Valley. A dam was built in 1875 and raised in 1914, creating Lake Aloha for part of the year. But late in the season it is drained, and isolated pockets of water--formerly the Medley Lakes--remain.

I changed my mind about putting off this trip another year after the hike I took with my friend Erik the previous week to Ralston Peak. From there we could see that many of the other lakes in the area were full and quite beautiful. So I suggested this for the next weekend, and Erik agreed.

The Echo Lakes lie north of U.S. Route 50, just short of the high point of the pass on the way to South Lake Tahoe. Right after the Tahoe at Sierra ski resort, we turned left onto Johnson Pass Road, which heads right down to join U.S. 50 again on its descent to South Lake Tahoe, as we found out because I went right past Echo Lake Road, and had to turn around. I suspect this road might have been one of the routes immigrants took during the Gold Rush.

Back on Echo Lakes Road, we drove to the parking lot just above Echo Chalet and the dam for Lower Echo Lake. The hike took us down past the pit toilets maintained by the U.S. Forest Service next to Echo Chalet, and they were especially fragrant that morning. Before heading up on the dam, there is the sign with Desolation Wilderness permits. Then we crossed the dam, and the bridge across its outflow, and started up the trail. I'm not sure if the boat taxi operates after Labor Day, but even if it does, there was no question that we would hike the 5 extra miles to save the money.

After crossing the dam, the trail climbs up some short switchbacks, and stays above the Echo Lakes the rest of the way, with some minor ups and downs. To the right rise large, rounded swells of granite, stained orange and black from minerals that leach out during the spring snow melt. To the left between the lakes and trail lie private cabins, many with small docks and roofs on posts to cover boats. Quite a few looked as though a lot of money had been put into them recently. Where there was enough soil to provide a foothold, conifers sprouted up.

20070916 By Lower Echo Lake
Along Lower Echo Lake

The trail was clear and wide, and had interesting artifacts. There was a point at which it looked like a large, rounded granite outcropping that would have been impossible to cross had been blasted to clear out a trail, and then there was concrete filling in part of the path. A couple of places had short metal rods sticking out of the rock. Erik speculated that there may have been railing at these points at one time.

Once past Lower Echo Lake, the lake views ended, as the trail along Upper Echo Lake is not as close to the water. We hiked through forest on dirt, with the cabins now much closer to the trail. The end of Upper Echo Lake is marked by a sign for the boat taxi.

After that, we climbed out of the forest onto granite scree. Below us to the left we had nice views of Tamarack Lake appearing temptingly close, with Ralston Peak, the destination of our hike the week before, rising up behind it. Turning around we had our best views of both Echo Lakes. We continued on past the spurs to Triangle and Tamarack Lakes, up into forest again, where we found our spur to Lake of the Woods.

We crossed Haypress Meadow and then started climbing steeply to the top of a ridge, and then it was steeply down (quite a bit more than we has climbed on the spur) to Lake of the Woods, with dramatic views of it through the trees backed by a granite dome and the peaks of the Crystal Range, most prominently Pyramid Peak.

20070916 Lake of the Woods
Lake of the Woods from Above on the Trail

Down at the lake we found some signed campsites, and a small concrete foundation. I'm not sure why that was there, but a book on the Desolation Wilderness from the late '60s mentions that the forest service put in pit toilets and picnic tables in parts of the Desolation Valley Primitive Area (its original designation) when few people were visiting, only to take them out when the number of visitors increased dramatically.

20070916 Lake of the Woods
Lake of the Woods

Behind the campsites a piece of glacier-worn granite juts out into the lake, and we went out on that to eat lunch on a sloping shelf into the water. It's exactly the kind of spot where I like to go swimming, and then lie back and dry out on the warm granite afterwards. The only problem was that it was in 60s and windy, and the water was too cold. The season for swimming in the mountains had already passed for 2007.

20070916 Lake of the Woods
Granite Rest Stop

I had planned on Lake of the Woods being the final destination of the hike, but Erik had never been to Lake Aloha before. Since it was so close, I suggested that we proceed, even though I knew the water level would be low.

We followed the trail around the north edge of the lake, then started up just next to a high granite dome. Along the trail it was surprisingly lush for a hike into the heart of the Desolation Valley, but the satellite images show that this was just a narrow band of trees between Lake of the Woods and Lake Aloha, with plenty of open granite beyond them on either side.

We reached the junction with the main trail from Echo Lakes. I had expected to be able to see Lake Aloha from there, as the map shows it lying quite close to the lake, but we were still in the trees. A little bit farther along there was a junction with a post indicating only that behind us were the Echo Lakes. But another hiker there told us that the trail to the left went along the south side of Lake Aloha and quickly ended, while the trail to the right went along the north shore of the lake.

We headed towards the north side of the lake, and quickly came across the dam, with a depression of dried mud in front of. We explored several of these depressions where water had formerly been before finally coming upon a large body of water that had not been drained and had not yet evaporated.

We had started the hike under clear skies, but as the day went along it kept getting cloudier. At this point I noticed that the clouds coming over the granite peaks of the Crystal Range that rise up directly from the west shore of Lake Aloha were ominously dark, so I suggested to Erik that it was time to start back. I had told him earlier that the junction with the trail we would return on had to be at the north end of the band of trees along the northeastern edge of the lake. I returned to the the trail and started in that direction, while Erik was taking pictures behind me.

After a while I stopped and waited for Erik. Then I shouted to Erik. Then I started walking back on the trail while shouting to Erik. Then I started running back on the trail shouting to Erik. I stopped and wondered if maybe he had gotten ahead of me off trail, but that didn't seem likely, as I should have been able to see him between the trail and the lake. I considered just continuing on, counting on him to follow the trail signs back to the car when he realized we had gone different ways. But instead I kept heading back until I found him and a man with two llamas. He had headed back on the trail the way we had come, until he encountered the alpaca-loving man who told him he had not seen me coming that way before him. I told him we should hurry back in case it rained, since we didn't bring jackets, and promptly headed off. Later he told me he had two trash bags we could use as ponchos.

We marched back through forest and cross some areas that must get swampy when the snow is melting, as there was a sort of boardwalk along one stretch, and then a raised area of dirt held between logs on another stretch. We passed by and above small Lake Margery before reaching the spur we had taken earlier to Lake of the Woods. From that point we retraced our steps back to the spur for Tamarack Lake.

We were heading southeast, while the ominous clouds were slightly to the north, and it appeared we would avoid any rain, so when we reached that junction, we headed off to Tamarack Lake as I had originally planned. I told Erik that taking this spur, which actually heads off to three lakes very close to one another, would put us back at the car by 4:30. It was 2:45 then so I was estimating the remainder of the hike would take us 1 hour and 45 minutes. I ended up being off by by a full hour.

Tamarack Lake certainly looked close, and it was. We headed across an open area filled with bits of broken up and breaking up granite everywhere, following cairns to find the trail. Once to Tamarack Lake, I headed south, with Erik following my lead, towards where I thought the other two lakes were. But we came to a steep drop off, and I couldn't see any lake at the bottom of it, so we headed back towards the southern end of Tamarack Lake. At some point we hit something that looked like a trail, and two people hiking back the other direction reassured me.

I believe this is just an unofficial use trail. It shows up on my map, but so do other unofficial, unmaintained use trails. Once on the other side of the seasonal outlet creek for Tamarack Lake, bone dry when we were there, it was easy enough to follow.

20070916 Ralston Lake & Ralston Peak
Ralston Lake & Ralston Peak

We climbed up and then had the dramatic view of Ralston Lake backed by Ralston Peak, and we could see where we had been the week before looking down on the spot we were at then. Unfortunately, we were looking into the sun, which meant that the camera could not capture the beauty that our more sophisticated eyes were taking in.

There were two paths down to Ralston Lake, one to the east to the north shore, and the other to the south to the dam at its outlet creek. We took the latter, which was more steep. The dam, dedicated to Ross E. Pierce by the Mt. Ralston Fish Planting Club in 1960, had a center section that was broken off.

We crossed the dam and climbed up the granite on the southeast side of the shore a ways for the views. The sun was mostly covered with clouds then, but occasionally the wind would blow them away, and the lake would be hit with a greater intensity of light, revealing a beautiful emerald color in shallow portions of the water.

From there we set off to find Cagwin Lake. My map showed the trail going along the north side of the then-dry outlet creek for Ralston Lake, but I knew enough by then to trust the physical evidence of the land before me over the map, and the trail to Cagwin Lake clearly lied on the south side of the outlet creek. We followed it, and found a sure sign that we had gone the right direction--an El Dorado National Forest sign naming Cagwin Lake and indicating it was at 7680 feet. We hadn't seen signs for any of the other lakes.

We went back the way we had come, and got off trail after crossing the dry outlet creek from Tamarack Lake. There were cairns we sometimes spotted, and eventually following those we got back to our spur trail, just before it joined the main trail back to Echo Lakes. The views we had of the Echo Lakes were marred by the shadows cast by clouds. I hadn't taken a photo earlier on the way out, thinking the view would be better in the late afternoon sun.

Back on the main trail, I revised my estimate of when we would make it back to the car. I checked it by the time it took us to make it back to the sign for the boat taxi, and we were not doing well. Unless the distance on my map was off, which is always a possibility, we were going really slowly. So I cranked it up from there, setting the pace for Erik, as always. Some people pay personal trainers as much as $75 an hour for such a workouts.

20070916 Steller's Jay
Steller's Jay on the Dam

For some reason, 5:30 became the magic time for me. I made it back to the car just before it, and felt a sense of accomplishment for achieving this arbitrary goal. Erik came along a few minutes later after calling his wife at Echo Chalet, and we headed home.

Hike Summary

Date: 16 September 2007
Trailhead: Echo Lakes
Approximate distance: 13.7 miles

Saturday, September 15, 2007

El Dorado National Forest: Ralston Peak

20070909 Me on Ralston Peak
Erik's Shot of Me on Ralston Peak

Had I known what a spectacular overview of the lakes of the Tahoe Sierra this peak afforded, I would have hiked it earlier. Instead, I waited until I had run out of other ideas for hikes with nearby trailheads that lead into the Desolation Wilderness, and then chose to hike this trail out of convenience. My friend Erik joined me again.

The parking lot for this trail is just off of U.S. Route 50 to the north, shortly after (when headed east) Twin Bridges and Horsetail Falls, just before the final climb to the pass before dropping down into the Lake Tahoe region. A sign nearby indicates the area is Camp Sacramento.

From the parking lot, we hiked up a dirt road that curves around past a cabin and then to the signed trailhead where there were Desolation Wilderness permits available. After filling one out, we started into the forest.

For 45 minutes we hiked up a moderate grade on a dirt trail with few rocky sections. The grade was easy on our legs, and the dirt was easy on our feet. But eventually I knew things would get difficult, as it is a 2800-foot climb to the top of Ralston Peak, accomplished in only 4 miles. At the end of that 45-minute stretch, we hit the steep portion.

The next 30 minutes was slow going leaving us short of breath as we plodded on the overly steep trail wondering why there weren't more switchbacks. When we reached a ridge with a dramatic view of Pyramid Peak off to the west, we got some relief, as the trail took us on moderate ups and downs. But this respite was short-lived, and soon we hit another steep stretch. This second difficult portion proved to be much shorter, however, taking only about 10 minutes. From there to the high point of the official trail, our climb varied back and forth between moderate and steep as we passed through an area where the trees were more sparse. This would probably be a nice wildflower area earlier in the season.

At the high point there were large and obvious cairns off to the east of the trail, and a clear use trail beyond them. The trail up to the peak is not official and is not maintained by the forest service, but there were plenty of cairns left by other hikers to suggest a route, and the terrain was not difficult, being not all that steep, only sparsely sprinkled with trees, and with lots of dirt rather than jagged boulders to cross.

We followed along from one cairn to the next until we came to a large amount of talus right at the peak. I wasn't sure if we should just climb straight across that to the highest point, or continue along the dirt to the south of it and find an easier path up. I tried the latter, with Erik following. We soon came to a ridge with dramatic views of Echo Lakes, Fallen Leaf Lake, and Lake Tahoe. Climbing up the spine of this ridge, we eventually had to clamber across piles of talus anyhow on the way to the summit.

At the summit, the view is spectacular, although it was marred that day by all the smoke in the air from the Plumas fire. There is the aforementioned view of major lakes off to the east. At the foot of Ralston Peak directly to the north--close enough to give me the urge to hike down to them for a swim--lie Tamarack, Ralston, and Cagwin Lakes. In the distance to the north lie Mt. Tallac, Gilmore Lake, and Susie Lake. Off to the west is Pyramid Peak, looking more like a pyramid than it does from any other direction I have viewed it. Visible below that to the north and east are vast Lake Aloha, Lake of the Woods, and a couple other lakes of the dozen or so small ones south of Lake Aloha.

20070909 Desolation Valley
Pyramid Peak, Lake Aloha, & Lake of the Woods

Actually, there wasn't so much a Lake Aloha to see on the day we were there, as there was a series of small lakes. Originally, that was what was there--the Medley Lakes. But in 1875, a dam was built, and in 1917 it was raised, creating the inexplicably named Lake Aloha. Late in the year, water is released from the dam to feed lower lakes, Pyramid Creek, and the South Fork American River, and ultimately Sacramento. Only instead of bare granite, or trees, grasses, and wildflowers springing up in any foothold they can find in between the Medley Lakes, now when the water recedes we are left with large expanses of cracked, dried mud.

It still looked lovely from our distance. I broke out the binoculars my father gave me for Christmas and found the trail up Mt. Tallac, and boats in lower Echo Lake, Fallen Leaf Lake, and Lake Tahoe. We also took pictures of the abundant golden-mantled ground squirrels. Just like the ones we experienced on the summit of Mt. Tallac, they were aggressive and would climb across us in search of food we brought along.

20070909 Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel

When it was time to head back, we just went directly across the talus the short way, rather than how we had come. There were a few cairns and a patch of trail on the other side of the talus as we started back, but the trail soon disappeared, and I wasn't seeing cairns as we had on the way up. After some time I checked my map and compass.

My Desolation Wilderness map is not always accurate. Although this is not an official trail, the map did show a trail to the peak. However, the trail it shows branches off of the main trail farther north than where we left the main trail, and then goes southeast to the peak. We were heading mostly east and a little bit south, so I figured we needed to go more to the north to follow the trail shown on the map back to the official route.

Soon enough we saw some hikers coming along the main trail, and found it, although not at the same point we had left it originally. I thought we were farther down the trail to the south, but instead, we were north of the point we had branched off before, as I realized when we started climbing, rather than descending the whole way.

We got back to that point, and then it was steeply downhill from there. Going steeply downhill can be slow going, but since it wasn't a rocky trail, we made excellent time. We made it back to the car by 2:30, whereas on the last hike we did together we made it back to the car at 7:00.

It's definitely a hike to repeat, particularly since the smoke didn't let us experience in its full glory. I'd also like to try it when the water level of Lake Aloha is higher, and there is more snow on the surrounding peaks.

About Me

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I love to learn about, visit, photograph, research, and write about everything that is interesting, unique, and historical about Northern California, and wherever else I should be fortunate enough to find myself.  I've spent many years scouring the roadside in my little car for interesting subjects and walking down hiking trails in the Sierra Nevada and along the coast to get to know the wonder that is Northern California.  I share most of this via photos on Flickr, and as much as time permits me to on my blog, the NorCal Explorer.  Fine art prints of my photos are for sale on Imagekind.