We turned onto a narrow, unmarked dirt road, more like an access road that a public way. It was right where the trooper said it would be. We rolled and rumbled past some tent campers just beginning to stir as we made our way up the winding lane in the early morning hours. Sure enough, at the end was a paved parking lot and nice bathrooms. Tucked away without any signage, this seems a place for locals. We parked and started up the trail toward Big Meadow.
When a Sunday marathon route closed the only road to our planned, iconic hike at Emerald Bay, we talked with the California State Trooper at the barricade. She recommended this hike. When she said it led to a mountain lake, I didn’t need to hear any more. The best places in the mountains are beside serene, secluded alpine lakes. Each experience is more fulfilling than the last.
The trail started fairly steeply upwards, switch-backing through boulders as big as cars. There is no one else around and its quiet except for the sound of my breathing. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for marmots. This looks like just the place to find them warming themselves on these sunny rocks. Stopping to catch my breath at a turn, I scanned the hillside. It looks like good mountain lion habitat, too.
As the land flattened out, Big Meadow came into view. A small, crystal clear creek lined with willows runs along one side of the clearing. I paused near the edge of the woods to search the periphery of the grassland for deer or elk, the willows for moose and everywhere in between. No hide nor hair to be seen.
There are beautiful brook trout in the shallow, quiet stream. Their fins are adorned with stark white lines, and their bodies are exquisitely spotted. They aren’t wary of my approach, a testament to the lack of animals and animal sign so far.
I cross the meadow, letting the sun warm me. This is historic ground. For centuries, people have been managing this wide, flat area to keep the forest from taking it over. The Washoe tribe used fire to preserve this as a meadow long before they were displaced by European settlers.
Re-entering the woods on the other side, the trail ascends again. There are no switchbacks, but rather a seemingly endless uphill slog. The boulders are gone. Thick-barked pine and golden aspen take their place. To my left, where the ground slopes away, I can see across the valley to colorful and rocky mountains tops.
Occasionally I see light through the trees in the forest ahead and to my right. I must be nearing the peak, I hope. But its just a chance to recover on flat ground before the next incline. Finally, I round a ridge to see the trail switch-backing sharply down a few hundred yards. The trail forks at the end of these switchbacks, one path taking a longer route back to the parking lot on a “technical downhill” for those crazy souls that bike these routes, the other to Round Lake.
Now I’m in yet another woodland ecosystem on the way to Round Lake. Its a relatively flat, thin pine forest, strewn with hefty boulders of oddly composite rock. They seem so out of place appearing as construction debris in this fairly remote wilderness. I’ve never seen rocks like this before.
The soft, pine-needle trail gently rises, and I can see the shimmer of sun on the lake. No one else is here. The lake level is low, exposing wide sandy shores. After exploring a little, I find a comfortable spot on some lichen-decorated boulders under a tall Jeffrey pine. Long ago, as the lichens turned rock to soil, this pine tree took hold in the tiniest of cracks and pushed its way to its current grandeur.
On the rocks next to me, I marvel at the textures and colors of the lichens, some are fluorescent and look out of place and unnatural.
There are teeny-tiny spiderwebs stretching across some of the lichens. I catch fleeting glimpses of their makers but am unable to capture their images.
On the lake, a lone eared grebe is floating and preening. The wind is pushing him closer and closer to my side of the water. They are such adorable, little divers.
I sit here a while, have a snack and some water and just watch the world around me. Quiet solitude on a mountain lake. Perfect.
Then a couple of hikers appear at the shoreline. Then another small group. It’s getting crowded, and I’ve been here an hour. Time to go. The good news is the return trip is all downhill!