Backpacking maiden voyage: Loch Leven Lakes

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After two or three years of thinking about it, followed by acquisition of a few key equipment items, I embarked on my maiden voyage backpacking.  Part of my plan was that the initial trip would be just one night with a relatively modest hike, and I would be accompanied by someone who supported the notion of a “Backpacking 101” type trip.  I feel fortunate and grateful that a couple I know through a hiking club were very happy to accompany me on such a trip; and we were joined by a fourth hiking club member who was looking forward to a relatively relaxed two-day, overnight trip.

The trail we jointly selected was the Loch Leven Lakes Trail, which is located off I-80 at Exit 168 in the Tahoe National Forest along a roughly 7-mile stretch of I-80 that dips into Placer County from Nevada County.  The trail elevation ranges between about 5800 and 6800 feet; when we selected the hike date it was on a short list of suitable trails at a low enough elevation that we could be sure the trail would be snow-free following a well above-average snow season in the Sierras.

Another consideration, as always for backpacking, was water.  The Loch Leven Lakes Trail goes to three lakes that are quite close to each other (Lower Lake, Middle Lake, and High Lake), with a fourth, Salmon Lake, not far off the main trail.  This configuration makes the trail quite popular, and we were glad to be able to schedule the trip for a Thursday and Friday, avoiding what would have been a much more crowded experience on the weekend.  We ended up camping at Middle Lake, the largest of the group.  This was our first view of Middle Lake, and it immediately made the uphill hike to get there worthwhile!

picture of our first view of Middle Lake

Our first view of Middle Lake

In essence we ended up doing three separate hikes: the main outbound and return hikes, plus a shorter side trip to High Lake without our packs, once we’d set up camp.  This GPS track shows the outbound hike, with the trailhead parking area denoted by the orange dot.  We hiked past Lower Lake to get to Middle Lake, roughly 3.4 miles.  The side trip to High Lake entailed following the trail around the south end of Middle Lake and then northeast to High Lake, about 2.1 miles round trip.  On the return trip from Middle Lake the next morning two of us made a short unintended detour that added to our total mileage, which was 9.1 miles for the trip.

GPS track

GPS track

In this area I-80 follows the South Yuba River, which is lined on both sides by higher ridges.  To reach the Loch Leven Lakes the trail climbs about 1000 feet up the Hampshire Rocks into higher country, as shown in the elevation profile for the outbound hike.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

On the morning of our outbound hike we noted that there was some smoke and haze in the air, as had been the case regionally for the previous few days due to the Detwiler Fire some 100 miles away, due south.  The size of the fire, along with the prevailing wind pattern, resulted in a smoke plume so far away.  Fortunately, by later in the day the smoke had abated, and the skies remained clear in the North Tahoe area for at least several days afterward.  This picture was taken on the return hike, looking north across I-80 in the general direction of French and Fordyce Lakes.  On the outbound hike we could see that there was a ridge in that direction, but it was very indistinct.

picture of view to the north from Loch Leven Lakes Trail

View to the north from Loch Leven Lakes Trail

The ascent is actually a bit more difficult than the overall elevation gain and mileage would suggest, mainly because the trail basically goes up the wall of the Hampshire Rocks.  In the first half mile there is a short section with a 20% grade.  After a modest dip, which includes the crossing of Union Pacific Railroad tracks, the longer steady ascent up the rock face is at about 10% grade.  This is a perfectly reasonable grade for a trail, but the rocky terrain, backpack-weight packs, and 80+ degree temperatures made it a bit more strenuous.

Not far from the railroad crossing the trail passes close to – and crosses – an intermittent stream, where there were several types of wildflower that appreciated the moister environment, or its remnant.  Among them was horse mint (Agastache urticifolia), whose leaves and stem proclaimed membership in the mint family.  I also appreciated the flowers’ reproductive parts extending so far beyond the petals.

picture of horse mint near an intermittent stream

Horse mint near an intermittent stream

A bit higher, perhaps 250 vertical feet above the last dip and into the steady climb, we passed several larkspurs.  I believe they are Nuttall’s larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum).  I often have a bit of trouble getting larkspur photos in focus – I think it’s a typical limitation of camera sensors – and this picture is a little blurry, though it does show the characteristic “spur” of the blossom on the left.

picture of Nuttall’s larkspur

Nuttall’s larkspur

Almost next to the Nuttall’s larkspur I found this pretty, nearly white flower that I have been unable to identify so far.  Of the wildflowers I checked out it looks most similar to a skullcap or snapdragon, but seems to be neither.

picture of pretty mystery flower along the Loch Leven Lakes Trail

Pretty mystery flower along the Loch Leven Lakes Trail

After another 0.2 miles or so the trail crosses the intermittent stream again, and near this crossing there were several alpine lilies (Lilium parvum).  Once again I was having difficulty getting my camera (phone) to focus on the flower itself.  But I wanted to show the structure of the petals and sepals, which are in the so-called erect configuration as distinct from the recurved configuration common with many other orange, spotted lilies.  Alpine lilies are also a little smaller than other similar lilies.

picture of Alpine lilies

Alpine lilies

As the trail approaches its highest elevation it begins to pass through more of an open forested area, and the trail tread becomes dirt, duff, some roots, and a bit of forest litter.

picture of Loch Leven Trail passing through forested area near its high point

Loch Leven Trail passing through forested area near its high point

After reaching the top of the ridge, or perhaps the top of the South Yuba River valley, the trail drops just 50 feet or so to pass by Lower Loch Leven Lake.  We had labored to cover 2.8 miles in 2 1/4 hours, so we rewarded ourselves with a short break here.  Note that the sky is still somewhat hazy.

picture of Lower Loch Leven Lake

Lower Loch Leven Lake

After our break we continued the remaining half mile to Middle Loch Leven Lake, where two of the group scouted campsites while I waited briefly at another campsite that was literally right next to the main trail.  There was an interesting rock cairn that almost looked like a Transformers character.  Our scouts selected what turned out to be a marvelous site.  There were excellent locations for our tents (one 2-person tent and two 1-person tents), as well as an informal fire pit surrounded by various flat rocks suitable for setting up cook stoves, for sitting, and for locating our packs.  Here is how the camp looked after we’d set up all of the tents.  It was my first time actually pitching my tent, as opposed to “pretend” pitching in my living room, so it took longer than it will the next time!

picture of Our excellent campsite at Middle Loch Leven Lake

Our excellent campsite at Middle Loch Leven Lake

After we’d finished setting up camp we were eager to go exploring, specifically to High Loch Leven Lake, so off we went.  The trail continues south along the west and south shores of Middle Lake before heading northeast and climbing 100 feet or so.  High Lake is about 1 mile away and just over a lip.  The trail was not very distinct, so it was helpful that the others hiking with me had actually been there before.  High Loch Leven Lake is serene, and the three women were happy to pose for a group photo as one of our companion dogs checked out the water.

picture of High Loch Leven Lake

High Loch Leven Lake

Near the lake’s edge there was some mountain heather (Phyllodoce breweri).  After we sat just chatting for a while we realized we might as well continue the conversation at camp, so we headed back.  Because the trail was indistinct, we followed a different path part of the way.  Along the way we passed several Leichtlin’s mariposa lilies (Calochortus leichtlinii).  I had also noticed quite a few before we’d reached camp, but decided to stop for photos here.

picture of Leichtlin’s mariposa lilies

Leichtlin’s mariposa lilies

After we returned to camp there was time for some swimming in Middle Lake before dinner.  It was pleasant to just sit on the rocks and enjoy the late afternoon serenity of calm breezes and pretty reflections.  A couple of years ago I started making a point of taking a picture out my hotel room window whenever there was an interesting view.  This is my Loch Leven Lakes view from my room, or room with a view.

picture of Middle Loch Leven Lake viewed from our campsite

Middle Loch Leven Lake viewed from our campsite

About a half hour later I was still admiring the reflections in the lake.

picture of pretty reflection in Middle Loch Leven Lake

Pretty reflection in Middle Loch Leven Lake

We continued our relaxed evening until shortly after sundown, when we all decided to retire to our tents – even though it was not yet 9 pm.  I must admit that I’d determined in advance that I was going to enjoy using my sleeping pad.  Indeed, it still amazes me that a 15-ounce inflatable pad is nearly as comfortable as a regular bed, but it is.  However, while unzipping my sleeping bag to get in I managed to disconnect the bottom of the zipper and was unsuccessful at getting the zipper re-seated.  The resulting “cool zone” down one side of my body contributed to fitful sleep for most of the night, and I don’t think I fell deeply asleep until nearly dawn.  As I related my story to the others, chuckling about my struggles with the zipper (which I fixed once it was daylight and I could see what I was doing), one of the others commented “Oh, we forgot to tell you, you don’t sleep well backpacking”!

In the morning there was time for another dip in the lake before we broke camp and started back.  We had two inflatable flotation mats – worthwhile to carry perhaps only because the hike distance was short – which could be taken out on the water.  The surface of the lake was so calm that there were pretty ripple patterns, with interference patterns as ripples reflected from the island in the background of the picture.

picture of morning ripples on the surface of Middle Loch Leven Lake

Morning ripples on the surface of Middle Loch Leven Lake

In the morning, as well as the previous afternoon at High Lake, there were several brilliant blue insects both on and near the shallow water at the edge of the lake.  Here is one.  Although I initially assumed this is a dragonfly (suborder Anisoptera), after a bit more research I concluded that this is more likely a damselfly (suborder Zygoptera) since the wings are folded against the body.

picture of brilliant blue damselfly

Brilliant blue damselfly

We took our time breaking camp and getting back on the trail.  Before long we passed a group of brilliant azure penstemon (Penstemon azureus) plants that I had noted the previous day and resolved to stop for pictures.  Although there are 9 species of penstemon found in Placer and adjacent Nevada Counties, azure penstemon is the only one at this elevation with yellow buds.

picture of azure penstemon

Azure penstemon

On the return trip I paid more attention to the wildflowers than I had on the outbound trip.  Some of the ones I noted were pretty face (Triteleia ixioides), corn lily (Veratrum californicum), and mountain pride (Penstemon newberryi).  I noticed a single plant of what I believe to be sanddune wallflower (Erysimum perenne).

picture of sanddune wallflower

Sanddune wallflower

As we descended further we passed spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa), crimson columbine (Aquilegia formosa), checkerbloom (Sidalcea sp.), some paintbrush (Castilleja sp.), asters, and pussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum).  There were sizeable patches, I think near the intermittent stream, of lush green ferns.  Finally, in moist areas there were some musk monkeyflowers (Mimulus moschatus).

picture of musk monkeyflower

Musk monkeyflower

On the return trip there was a short off-trail exploration, which added perhaps 0.2 miles to the distance.  Even though hiking down the Hampshire Rocks seemed fairly slow, we hiked down about a half hour quicker than we’d hiked up, even with the detour and my stops for wildflower photographs.

As I had anticipated, I learned a lot during this initial backpack trip.  And as I’d hoped, it was a great experience – and I’m looking forward to another opportunity to backpack soon.

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