We visited our friends in Phoenix in the end of January (and to pick up all our packages!) right when a cold spell came through the area, and Phoenix ended up being cold(er than normal) and rainy. We were supposed to all go on a camp trip, but instead decided to do a day trip to Payson, AZ where it was snowing in Rim Country, because they normally only get to see snow onc...
Since northern California is an area where neither of us have spent time, and we ultimately wanted to start making our way north for the summer, we decided to spend a few weeks exploring northern California on our way to Oregon/Washington/Idaho. As always with our lifestyle, our timeline also gets dictated by work, so although we explored Mammoth, Tahoe, Sierra Buttes, Lassen National park and Shasta National Forest, we kind of just got a taste of each of those locations because we had other places to be and people to see, and I’m sure that there is so much more to do in each one of those areas.
The Mammoth Lakes area is full of hikes to alpine lakes, beautiful places to kayak, several natural hot springs, and volcanic geological features because it all sits in the Long Valley Caldera, formed 760,000 years ago from a volcanic eruption.
I only discovered this by just seeing an interesting pin on Google maps for “stone columns”, and saw that this lake has really interesting rock features all around the lake. The features everybody goes to see are these mineral columns, created by melting snow seeping into volcanic ash during the eruption 760k years ago. Then the columns became exposed after being eroded away in the lake. You only get to them either by motor boat, or a several mile paddle across the main channel of the lake, or by a 4WD jeep road. Then you can walk in and around the columns. The water levels happened to be really low this year, so we were able to walk into the columns in early June. Previous years the water is too high in the summer to walk beneath them. The reservoir also has a very scenic backdrop of the Eastern Sierras looking over towards Mammoth Lakes. If you are on a boat, you can drive the circumference of the lake and see all sorts of other neat rock features like caves and emerald green water. We took our jetboat out on the lake to see all this. It was $20 to launch on the reservoir, and it’s not very big, but we spent a few hours checking it all out and getting out to walk through the columns. The fun thing about the jetboat is being able to beach it right on the sand and not worry about a prop hitting rocks, so not every boat out there could get as close to the columns as we could. There were several people that had hiked in or taken the 4WD road already on the beach. The one downside was the number of flies in the columns, we couldn’t really walk around too long without getting swarmed by them. This is definitely a unique stop and if you have the means to go check these out it’s well worth it.
Just north of Lake Crowley there are tons of natural hot springs fed by the Hot Creek that you can get to by jeep roads. There are a few in the same general area connected by trails, and small parking lots where lots of vanlifers and RVs camp. They are all free wild hotsprings, but they have been built into more developed stone pools, and there is a valve on some to control the temperature. We got a beautiful camp spot just a tad uphill from the first hot spring we tried so that we weren’t next to the crowds, and it was big enough to fit in with our trailer. The first pool we tried was Rock Tub hot spring, and it turned out to be cold. It looked like you can turn the valve off for a while and let the water build up and then turn it back on to get it hot. There were several other families getting there at the same time so we let them have the cold pool and tried Shephard Hot Spring, just a quarter mile walk away. This one was hot, but taken, and it was a pretty small pool. The couple offered for us to join but we decided to take a walk to the Hot Creek instead. There was a trail from the parking area that took us to Whitmore Tubs Road and from there we walked down a road to a campsite that was right on the creek. Just a mile further up the creek is the Hot Creek Geological Site, which has several Yellowstone-like hot geysers that can rapidly change temperature, and you used to be able to swim in that section of the creek until 14 people drowned and now it’s prohibited. We walked to the section of the river by the campsite just to check it out, and when we stuck our feet in the river we were surprised to learn that that section of the river was still hot. It was probably 90 – 95 degree water throughout the entire creek right there, so we decided to hang out there for a while. I don’t know if we were supposed to or not, but it was better than a hot spring because the rushing water made it the perfect temperature for hanging out in. The other crazy thing was that the bottom of the river was almost entirely sea shells. Afterwards we walked down the river a quarter mile farther to look at a couple different camp spots and the river was cold, so it must not be hot in every spot. I’d say we found a hidden gem because I couldn’t find anything about that hot spot in the river online or on google maps.
The next day we went to check out the Hot Creek Geological Site and see the geysers. The river is all roped off since you aren’t allowed to swim there anymore, but the geysers were really beautiful blue colors and you can walk along the creek for a few minutes. At the time of year we went, there was still a bit of snow on the peaks and the grass was really green. If you go to the right vantage point, (Bree’s Overlook on Google maps) you can get a perfect shot of the winding hot creek with the geysers and Laurel Mountain in the background. This was definitely worth a stop and an easy dirt road in with decent parking.
We visited Lake Tahoe in the first couple days of the summer season, so it was still a bit cold and windy, but it warmed up significantly while we were there. This is the largest alpine lake in North America. It is 22 miles long and 72 miles around, so it took us a minute to figure out what all we should try to see around the lake, and where we could even go with our camper and boat trailer without having to spend a ton of money. What we first learned is dispersed camping is not allowed in the Tahoe Basin due to overcrowding and fire risk, which made it difficult for us to find a free place to camp around the lake. It’s a shame that it’s become enough of a problem to prohibit dispersed camping, because there were some beautiful places we would have loved to camp. I did notice a significant amount of toilet paper trash around some sections of the lake which is a shame people don’t pick up after themselves and ruin it for the rest of us. Lake Tahoe has had to crack down on parking restrictions around the lake too, due to tourists not parking responsibly to get to certain hikes causing traffic delays, etc, since it’s a two lane highway all around the lake. All of this was overwhelming me a bit when trying to figure out where we should go around the lake because we had the boat trailer with us, and feeling like we wouldn’t be able to park or get to do any of the hikes around the lake. It was also confusing to figure out what sections of the lake were private vs public. The East (Nevada) side seems like it’s made up several state parks with entrance fees and small parking lots, and some sections that are public beaches. The west side is a lot of private residences. After not finding a very good consolidated resource, we decided just to go and drive around the lake, stop whenever it was convenient for overlooks and hikes if we could, and just figure out a place to sleep later. We also wanted to get the boat on the water for at least a day. The not planning actually worked out pretty well for us in the end, and we spent two days driving the circumference of the lake, and two days boating around the shoreline of the lake as well.
First we drove the Mt. Rose Highway from Reno to the north end of the Lake. This was such a pretty drive with lots of pulloffs and hikes along the way, and we stopped at this short interpretive loop hike to stretch our legs and because we were just excited to finally be in some high altitude pine tree-filled mountains. Then we drove around the lake clockwise, starting from Incline Village. On the east side we stopped at Secret Cove, which isn’t so secret, and requires a steep hike down a bunch of winding loose trails to the shoreline. The secret cove is super clear turquoise water, and actually it’s a nude beach. But the weather was still cold and windy on the first day we visited so nobody was partaking in the clothing optional option. The hike down to secret cove is probably a half mile, and you can walk an extra half mile to Chimney beach along the shore of the lake. This section is full of huge boulders and bright blue water and is truly stunning. Luckily we were able to find parking easily for this hike along the shoulder of the highway right where the trail starts.
We parked along a shoulder of the two lane highway by South Lake Tahoe for the night. After scouring iOverlander, it seemed like our only free options to ‘stealth camp’ for the night were at a Safeway, that was loud and small, or at one of the casinos on the Nevada side, but it looked like their parking lot was under construction at the time. So we just parked on the shoulder and luckily the highway was pretty calm at night and no one bothered us telling us to move. It was a wide shoulder that looked like some trails were nearby, so we got away with it.
For our second drive day, we parked at the Taylor Creek Snow-Park and hiked to Fallen Leaf Lake. This was a short and flat hike (2 miles each way) through a very nice forest that takes you to the edge of the lake and you can walk even longer around it. The lake is super clear with beautiful colorful rocks and mountain backdrop, people were out on SUPs and kayaks. There’s an RV park right there too, and the trails would be great for mountain biking. These trails kind of weave and wander throughout the area so you can kind of make it however long of a hike you want.
Then we stopped at Meeks Bay, a nice protected cove on the west side with a sandy beach with easy enough parking on the shoulder of the highway, and got out our Kokopelli pack rafts to float in the bay. It was a bit windy still so we had to wear our jackets while paddling, and then just hung out at the beach.
That night we drove all the way to Tahoe City where there was free water fill at the visitor center, as well as a free place we thought we could get away with overnight parking at a trailhead for a through-hike. This is a cute little tourist town with a few restaurants and path right along where the lake feeds the Truckee River. We stayed here to be close to one of the public boat launches to take our boat on the lake the next morning.
The invasive species boat inspection to get onto Lake Tahoe is probably the most thorough in the west part of the country. Still only being our second summer with a boat, we’re learning these things as we go. A lot of lakes do a quick check to make sure there’s no quagga muscles and that everything is dry. Lake Tahoe spent an entire hour with us going through every square inch of the boat, because they need to protect these pristine waters. They wanted to know every single place we’d been in the last year, even though the boat had been dry and in storage for 5 months. Because we had been to Lake Powell within the last 12 months, even though it was 8 months ago, we were automatically flagged for requiring a decontamination. Even if we had gotten a decontamination at Powell, Tahoe would’ve required it anyway so that they know it’s done right. They wet the boat down with 140 degree water and ran it through the engine to kill any invasive species that could be hiding in the boat. It wasn’t too big of a deal, but the inspection itself was $55, and $20 for the decontamination. If they find a quagga muscle it can be $250! We didn’t make an appointment and luckily they were able to work us in because we showed up first thing in the morning. They also wet down and inspect all of the “toys” like if you have inflatables and floaties in your boat, any ropes, anchors, life vests, etc.
A lot of the boat launches we looked into were quite expensive too ($45), but we found one that was $25. We planned to get an early start on the water that day, but since we were still figuring out the inspection process, we didn’t launch until 10 am from Lake Forest Boat Ramp, and it was already choppy. We were getting pelted with ice cold water for the first part of the ride, but we stuck to right at 600 feet from the shoreline to be just at the edge of the no wake zone, and this helped keep us in smoother water. The chop in our boat is not ideal, it just splashes us right in the face and the boat slams down pretty hard at each swell. We had goose down jackets, buffs, and rain gear on when we left in the morning. It didn’t take us long to get down to the south end of the lake where the water is calmer, and by the time we were there the day turned out to be beautiful and warm. Emerald Bay on the south end of the lake was our destination for that night since we splurged ($40) on a boat-in camp spot at Emerald Bay State Park. We don’t like to pay for camp sites too often, but this seemed like a fun experience. We packed all the camping gear with us on the boat that morning for one night of camping. Once in Emerald Bay we did some exploring in the bay, including hiking up Fannette Island. We killed the engine and just floated in some shallow water to warm up from the day, and ate the lunch we packed. At the campground we unloaded all of our camp gear on the shore, and then you have to buoy your boat up about 20 feet out in the bay. The camp host will dingy you back to shore, but he was busy at the moment, so Blake just pumped up one of the Kokopelli rafts and paddled back to shore. We set up camp and then hiked two miles from camp to Eagle Falls. It was an easy hike with a little bit of incline, and the falls were way bigger than I expected. The trail also takes you past the historic Vikingsholm building from some of the original settlers which is now a museum in the state park. You cross the creek and we walked for a few minutes on part of the Rubicon trail to extend the hike.
Since we don’t tent without our camper very often, we don’t have a ton of camping gear like a good camp stove, so we brought our little folding Coleman grill and a portable propane bottle. We do have a nice small Yeti cooler, so we packed an easy dinner and breakfast that we could just cook on the grill. Lake Tahoe is bear territory so you have to use the bear box in the campground, but since we were in a state park we were lucky we were able to actually have a camp fire.
The next morning we drove the boat back north along the east side of the lake, which took us past Secret Cove again, and Cave Rock and Sand Harbor State Parks. The south end of the lake by South Lake Tahoe had some extremely shallow water and we stopped to get a drone shot of us in this perfectly clear water.
The east side of the lake has all the deep blue and turquoise coves, so we played around there too. By the time we were trying to cross the north end of the lake back to the boat launch around 4 pm, it was so choppy and windy out we were getting pelted with waves and were slamming down on each wave. We had to just troll a couple sections to get through, and we were so impressed at the jetskiers playing around in these waves. We stuck really close to the shore, going past all the marinas and homes, and geared up in all our rain gear again. There are some really beautiful mountain homes on the north end of the lake and we enjoyed seeing all those. The thing that saved us was the seat heaters Blake installed because the water is so cold, and we were getting splashed in the face with every wave!
We made it back to the boat launch slow and steady and of course the water looked epic and glassy again right after we’d gotten the boat back on the trailer and finally warmed up.
We camped at the trailhead in Tahoe City again, and walked through the little town to get ice cream and see the Truckee River. The next morning we woke up and noticed the parking lot was packed (on a Sunday), and everyone was blowing up tubes and SUPs and kayaks and putting in the river here. We asked a couple people about what stretch of the river they were floating, and decided to do the same! We got out our Kokopelli Packrafts and floated the 3 mile stretch from Tahoe City to the River Ranch takeout. It’s mostly flatwater with a couple ripples, and it was clearly the locals’ weekend hangout because we probably saw several hundred people floating it that day. A bike path follows the river the entire way, so at the end we just hopped out, dried everything, rolled it up and walked the 3 miles back to the truck. It was a really nice easy float for our Rogue Lites.
We were given the recommendation from Reno locals to go to the fire lookout in the Lakes Basin on our way north from Reno. This turned out to be one of my new favorite hikes. You can see the Sierra Butte on the drive up to the trailhead, and its jagged peaks tower above everything else and you can just barely see the fire lookout and know that you have to gain a lot of elevation to get up there. The road in goes past several campgrounds and trailheads and alpine lakes, but not much dispersed camping. The road was paved, but at one point turned into a way steeper grade than we were expecting, since we were pulling our trailer. We ended up parking at the Packer Saddle instead of the trailhead to avoid another steep grade, and we weren’t sure if we’d fit into the parking lot. This was perfect though, and we got to hike an extra .5 mile each way to the trailhead on a beautiful single track on the side of the hill that paralleled the road.
At the trailhead, you can take the hiking trail, or you can actually take on OHV route all the way to the top. Even though we could’ve dirt biked this in probably 20 minutes, we opted for the hiking route to get some exercise that day, and the trail is probably more scenic than the road. The trail goes along the ridge, crosses the PCT, and starts gaining elevation up the rocky peaks. You get an amazing view over the lakes basin, it’s crazy how many small lakes there are down below you. At the end the hike starts to switchback and you start getting views in every direction. The grind is tough but so worth it. At the end you come to the stairs, and there’s a sign telling you about the construction of the lookout. The fire lookout was built in 1915, but the stairs were completed in 1964. At 8,587, this is the highest peak in the surrounding region. You can see through the stairs as you walk up them, but there’s handrails, and they are so sturdy. You definitely get a little adrenaline rush on the stairs, but they aren’t that bad. After three flights of stairs, you are at the base of the lookout. One more flight and you are on top of the lookout! You can see into the old building but it is locked off. There was a full kitchen inside with an oven, stovetop, refrigerator. There were propane lines to propane bottles at the bottom of the stairs. Crazy to think someone lived there while on lookout for fires!
I think we hiked this on at least an 85 degree day with full sun, but at the top it was windy and cold! We were glad we had jackets. The hike back down the stairs wasn’t bad either. We hiked this on a Monday in the middle of the day, and only saw probably 5 other groups. There were several cars in the parking lot, but we never felt like the trail was crowded. One group left the summit when we arrived, so we had it all to ourselves. With a lunch stop we spent about 4 hours total on this hike.
We were so hot on our hike that all we could think about was jumping in the lakes below us, so when we were done with our hike we drove down to Tamarack Lake and got our Kokopelli packrafts out so that we could float a little. We could see up to the top of where we just hiked. There were a few couple dispersed camping spots on this lake for small rigs, but we were planning to drive a few hours farther north towards Bend that night so we didn’t stay.
We found that the drive between Sierra Buttes and the Butte Lake entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park was so scenic. We took the Gold Lake Highway to Graeagel, north on Highway 70 and 89 towards Lake Almanor, (which seemed like a mini Tahoe), along the east shore of this lake, and on highway 44 towards the national park. The landscape started to really turn volcanic and the forests were so lush. Highly recommend this drive if ever making the same route we did!
LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK:
We didn’t intend to visit many national parks this summer because we don’t want to deal with the post-pandemic elevated crowds, and we’ve decided after visiting Tahoe to stay away from established areas that make dealing with the boat trailer a headache. However, Lassen Volcanic National Park was on our way from Tahoe to Bend, Oregon, and since it’s a smaller park in kind of a random area and we’d never been before, we decided to check out the northeast corner of the park by Butte Lake. This is a lesser known entrance to the park that leads to one campground, a day use area for Butte Lake, and only a couple hiking trails, only accessed by a 6 mile dirt road separate from the main entrance to the park, so we hoped it would be less crowded. We got one of the last two first-come, first-serve camp spots at the camp ground when we pulled in around noon, since we didn’t make a reservation. There are only 15 of those spots available each day so we got lucky there was a spot left. The main reason we came here and main attraction is the hike up Cinder Cone. You can hike 700 ft vert in .8 miles straight up the side of a cinder cone. From the top you can see views of Lassen Peak, the Fantastic Lava Beds, Butte Lake, and the Painted Dunes. These are all extremely magnificent views, and geographical wonders. We’d never seen anything like the painted dunes before. They are deposits of hot ash that oxidized after the volcanic explosion 350 something years ago.
The hike up was extremely grueling, but we thought it would be better just to grind it out so it only took about 13 minutes to get up the face of the cone, and then we had to sit on the ground for a while to make sure we didn’t pass out. The top of the cinder cone is so unique because it actually has trees growing on the surface. You can hike down into it too, but we’d had enough elevation gain for the day. The hike down was less grueling but also difficult because you’re sliding on so many volcanic rocks and getting those pebbles in your boots. We had to empty our shoes like 5 times on this hike. You can hike down the backside of the cinder cone to get a different view from where you came up, and then hike around the side along the painted dunes to get back to the main trail. These dunes are amazing colors and really unlike any sand dunes we’ve ever seen. Although it was tough, we’d definitely recommend this hike.
We took our Kokopelli packrafts out on Butte Lake for a sunset paddle when the lake was really calm. The south edge of the lake is all lava rocks and rock features and some islands made of lava rocks so it makes for a unique paddle, and you can see back to the top of the cinder cone we just hiked.
The campground was decent and clean and we were allowed to gather wood for a fire. We don’t normally pay for a camp spot, but we liked the idea of being able to come back from the hike and kayaking late and not have to worry about finding a place to camp while cooking dinner. Sometimes it’s worth a few bucks not to have to move every day. It was $22 for a dry camp spot, so not too bad. In the morning we went for an additional walk along the shore of the lake to get a higher viewpoint down into the lake. We didn’t go into the main section of the park, and another day would love to go back and hike Lassen Peak.
SHASTA NATIONAL FOREST:
We didn’t explore much in Shasta National Forest because we were going to meet a friend in Bend, but we did stop at the McCloud waterfalls. I was looking for a short hike along our route, and my research showed that Burney Falls was the hot spot to go in this area, but Burney Falls is a state park, and I didn’t want to pay or deal with parking. It’s a spectacular waterfall, but instead I found the McCloud waterfalls. There are three, a lower, middle and upper, all accessed very easily from a free parking and trail system, and they even had pull through spots that fit our rig. You can hike between all three on a ~3 mile trail. On a weekday in the middle of the day, these waterfalls were crowded. We decided to just stop at the middle one, and look at the overlook. What I didn’t realize was that you can actually hike down into the falls and swim in the pool at the base of the waterfall. This totally reminded us of our Hawaii trip in March. We went and changed into swim suits and grabbed towels so we could hang out for a bit. The hike down for about a half mile was steep and loose but not too bad. The water was freezing! We dipped in, and it was so refreshing, but too cold to actually swim. People were actually cliff jumping from one spot too, and even walking up behind the waterfall. For so many people, I’d say it stayed pretty clean. I felt like this was a worthwhile stop despite the crowd.
Our time in NorCal came to an end with a great view of Mount Shasta, and finally getting to a major highway for the first time in 300 miles or so.