top of page
  • Writer's picturebalzaccom

July through September 2014

To build a fire—or not! Post date: Sep 29, 2014 4:36:46 PM Yes, we know. Sitting around a campfire can be nice. You can stare into the fire, tell stories, drink a little bit and if you are lucky, get everyone to go to bed before they start singing. We’ve done it many times with pleasure—in car campgrounds. But if you truly believe in the philosophy of Leave No Trace in the backcountry, then one of the items you’ll need to take off your list is the evening campfire. There is no way you can have a fire in the wilderness and not leave a trace—even if it is only the barren dirt around your campsite, where you collected all the wood to burn.

We have all seen these campsites: a large fire ring, a few logs and large stones around the ring for sitting, and not a scrap of anything remotely flammable (twigs, leaves, pine cones, etc.) within 100 yards. Every tree denuded of its branches up to well over head height, where campers have broken off (and even sawed off) the limbs for their fires.

That’s not Leave No Trace. The only differences between these campsites and those in a car campground are the lack of a picnic table, and a place to park your car. It’s even worse when you make a new fire ring and blacken rocks that were perfectly untouched the day before. And given the extreme drought and fire danger we’re facing these days in the Sierra Nevada, making a fire is no longer something we can support. The risks are too high.

Last year, we lost something over 400 squares miles of forest and $1.8 Billion in damage in the Rim Fire near Yosemite—started by a backcountry hunter who didn’t manage his fire properly. And this year the King Fire alone has burned another 100 square miles. Sure, you say. But we are very careful. Except that in a recent poll of backpacker magazine, a huge majority of those readers (and they are, after all, serious backpackers) admitted that they usually just leave the embers of fire in place to burn out after they go to sleep.

And if a breeze pipes up and blows some of the ashes off the embers, and blows the sparks into the forest? We’ve got another Rim Fire, thank you very much. So we’d like to suggest a new version of that opening paragraph above:

Sitting out under the stars can be nice. You can stare into the sky, watch for shooting stars, tell stories, drink a little bit, and if you are lucky get everyone to go to bed before they start singing.

October Hiking Post date: Sep 23, 2014 3:44:35 PM We've had quite a few requests for destinations for a late season hike in the Sierra this year. October can be a wonderful time for hiking in the Sierra, but there are also a few things to keep in mind:

1. October can be cold. Sure, it can snow in July at higher elevations, but it is much more likely in October. It will almost certainly freeze at night, and possibly be much colder. We always suggest making sure that you are well-equipped for cold...and that you have an escape route in case bad weather comes rolling in.

2. Don't assume that a little snow never hurt anyone. Snow doesn't have to be really deep to cause problems. If it is deep enough to cover the trail you will have to navigate yourself back to the trailhead using map, compass, or GPS. If you don't know how to do that, we'll probably find you in the spring thaw....

3. Nights come earlier in October--and that means you are going to spend more time in your sleeping bag, keeping warm, and less time sitting around and chatting with your friends, or fishing...

You'll notice that we didn't say anything about sitting around the campfire. With the damage from the Rim Fire last year and the King Fire this year, many of our favorite destinations for lower elevation hikes (which are great options early or late in the season) are closed. And those areas will take years to recover. It is very sad. The next time you go hiking, ask yourself if you really need a fire...and if you are prepared to put it out completely before you get in your tent. We know far too many people who enjoy a fire, get ready for bed, and leave the coals glowing under a blanket of ash.

After all, what could happen?

The Curse of Island Lake Post date: Sep 19, 2014 4:41:32 PM Three times.Three times we have made plans to hike to Island Lake in the Desolation Wilderness. And three times our plans have been foiled. Once because M wasn't feeling well. Once because a huge storm was predicted (and delivered.) And now the King Fire. Tahoe National Forest has announced that all hiking in Desolation Wilderness should be abandoned until that massive fire is under control---and it is 5% contained at this point. It has destroyed homes, injured firefighters, and carbonized over 100,000 acres of forest. And it has closed US 50 for a few miles as well.

So even if we WANTED to go hiking there, we couldn't get through to the trailhead. We've had other trips cancelled, both because of fire (in Yosemite) or other reasons. But we've never had to cancel the same itinerary more than once, except for Island Lake. And now it's three times.

Does it exist?

Photos to take our mind off our work Post date: Sep 18, 2014 6:38:41 PM We've spent quite a bit of time working on getting our house back in order after the big Napa quake, which left us with a mess on our hands. Thanks to all who sent their messages of support. And the good news is that we are making progress...with primer being applied today, and painting to follow!

But in the meantime, we've needed a few minutes of mental escape...

We've always wanted to put our best photos together into one album, and that is now done. You can see them all on this single Google photo page:

Twain Harte Dam Post date: Sep 12, 2014 1:44:35 PM A few weeks ago we heard reports of damage around the dam in Twain Harte. The small lake there is more recreational than a municipal water supply, but the story still got our attention. We have a small cabin nearby.

But that whole story came to life when we saw this you-tube video!

It's hard to believe, but just another example of how these mountains are still alive!

On a Happier Note Post date: Aug 26, 2014 5:46:02 PM We did have a very nice trip up Green Creek this past weekend. This is another nice trailhead on the East side of the Sierra, via the Hoover Wilderness. It's an area we'd been wanting to explore ever since we looked down the canyon from the Virginia Lakes trail and saw lake after lake. The trail up to Green Lake is a very pleasant stroll up the canyon. Some of it runs alongside Green Creek, and none of it gets too steep.

You couldn't ask for a better start to a backpacking trip. And we didn't see anyone at all on the trail on Friday afternoon. True, the weather was breezy, but that just added to the pleasure of the hike.

Once at Green Lake, however, the trail changes entirely. It's a steep climb of about 1,000 feet in about a mile, and while it starts out in broken forest, the last part is through the kind of rough scree that we remembered from Bloody Canyon. And now the wind had picked up even more.

By the time we arrived at West Lake, it was howling, and we spent some time looking for a campsite that might be a little sheltered. There were not many options, but we found one hidden behind both rocks and bushes that cut the wind to a dull roar.

And we are not joking about that. At one point we looked up to see if a low flying jet was in the air above us--but no, it was just the wind howling through the trees, and blowing spume off the lake in a cloud. There were whitecaps slapping against the shore, and the tops were getting blown off by the wind.

It was not exactly relaxing, but we did manage to make dinner, and as the wind lessened in the evening, take a stroll along the ridge to see the sights.

The wind slowly died down over the course of the night, and the next morning dawned calm and beautiful. And cold. In fact, we had ice in the water bottle, and a thin film of ice on our tent. So we took a few extra minutes to get out of our bags and get warmed up before we started the day---hitting the trail at the luxurious hour of about 9 a.m.

We explored round the lake a bit, and then headed back to Green Lake, where we picked up the trail to East Lake, Nutter Lake, and Gilman Lake.

Nice hiking. Gradual slopes on the trails, not many people, and perfect weather. We finally stopped for lunch at Gilman Lake, where we took a small (and very steep) spur use trail down to the outlet. There was barely room to sit down here, but it made for a quiet spot on a lake that most people just hike past.

And then, perhaps because of a premonition about the earthquake, or just a desire to sleep in a bed that night, we hiked back out and drove back to our cabin above Sonora. But this is a really nice area. We'd like to come back and explore a bit more, do some fishing, and add to our list of memories...

Napa Earthquake hits close to home Post date: Aug 25, 2014 6:43:04 PM By now you will know that we live in Napa. And while we were backpacking up the Green Creek trailhead in the Hoover Wilderness this past weekend, our home was having a different kind of adventure. We got a phone call from a friend at 6:30 on Sunday morning asking us how we were. We were fine. We were sleeping nicely in our cabin up by Sonora. And then we got the news. So we packed up quickly and headed back home. It wasn't a pretty picture. So we had a different kind of homecoming from what we initially had planned. It took most of the evening just to get a pathway through the destruction in the whole house...and clear the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom so that we could use them. The rest will have to wait

The office is open today, and we are cleaning up a few broken bottles of wine, putting bookshelves back, and generally tidying this up. Our computers are working, our internet connection is fine, and we are open for business. All good. Some of our staff were hit harder than others. The worst seems to be downtown near the office, where our house had severe damage to the plaster walls, and everything ended up on the floor. The kitchen was a particular mess, with broken wine glasses and food on the floor. And the wine cellar lost some very nice bottles….very sad.

But we are all fine, healthy. Schools in Napa are closed today, as are many businesses, but we are all cleaning up, putting things back, and getting our lives into order again. Here’s a link to the photos from my house, if you are interested:

Sad Story from Matthes Crest Post date: Aug 19, 2014 9:58:29 PM If you remember our trip from earlier this summer, we hiked past Cathedral Peak and spent some time watching climbers on Matthes Crest in Yosemite...Those mountains were the scene of a sad story this week.

(Reuters) - A veteran outdoorsman fell to his death on a solo climb at Yosemite National Park in California the same day he proposed to his girlfriend, a newspaper reported.

Brad Parker, 36, of Sebastopol, California, and his girlfriend, Jainee Dial, climbed to the top of Cathedral Peak on Saturday and it was on that trip that she accepted his marriage proposal, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported.Later, Parker set out alone to scale Matthes Crest a few miles away, where other climbers saw him fall from a granite crest on Saturday evening, the newspaper said. Park rangers found his body and removed it by helicopter on Sunday, it said.

A spokeswoman for Yosemite National Park did not immediately return calls seeking comment.Parker's father, Bill Parker, told the Press Democrat his son called him after his girlfriend accepted his proposal and told him it was the "happiest day of his life."

Bill Parker said he believes fatigue may have played a role in the death of his son, an experienced climber, after he climbed to Cathedral Peak and went on a run to Matthes Crest.

Another Data Point Post date: Aug 5, 2014 6:19:18 PM One of our friends is an engineer, and he often talks about data points….when you get enough points on the chart, you can start seeing a pattern, and then you can come to some conclusions. They might be incorrect, but at least they are supported by the data. So on our last trip we camped at Leopold Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness, and we were completely alone. Every other lake in the area had some campers, and some had what were described as crowds. But lonely Leopold was quiet—just us three chickens.

It was lovely. Of course, Leopold doesn’t have any fish to catch…and once again we found that where there is no fishing, there are far fewer people. Want to get away from it all? Then go someplace where the fish are not jumping. Or if they are, they’re illegal to catch.

How Much Trash? Post date: Aug 4, 2014 6:37:27 PM Our last post generated some interest in what kinds of trash we find in the back country. The answer is all kinds. We’ve found an old fleece jacket, lots of those mylar balloons, and plenty of lousy bits of food packaging. The worst is used toilet paper, from those who are really unclear about what you are supposed to do to LEAVE NO TRACE.

And on this last trip, a first for us: a nicely made sticker celebrating the 50th anniversary of the wilderness act. Yep---left at a campsite miles from a trailhead. We usually pick up the trash we find (TP excepted) and deposit it in a trash can at the trailhead or at home. A few things, like our cookpot, we add to our packs and use as an ultimate version of re-cycling. With that in mind, we put that wilderness sticker on one of our bearvaults. Looks good

Lead Balloons Post date: Jul 31, 2014 3:08:17 PM We’ve been finding a lot of balloons in the high country on our trips. Way too many to make us happy. On this last trip we found both a Happy Birthday and an Happy Valentine’s Day balloon ten miles into the wilderness. Very sad. Maybe the next time you consider buying someone a helium filled balloon, you could just make do with a nice greeting card instead, made with recycled paper.

Thanks. We all appreciate it.

Instant Water Post date: Jul 30, 2014 4:24:17 PM We have a new piece of equipment that we like pretty much. It is less expensive and lighter than what it replaced, so you know that’s a good thing. And it may be easier, too.

We’re talking about our Sawyer Squeeze water filter that we picked up at a local sporting goods store for about $25. It weighs only a couple of ounces, and we were happy with how it performed over the past couple of trips. You simply fill the plastic folding bottle with water, and then squeeze it to force the water through the filter. Simple, easy, and quick.

Well, not so easy. The folding bottle is a bit of an issue. In big water, it’s fine. But the first time we tried it we were at a tiny creek…and our old pump filter would have been easier to use. And to get the bottle full, you actually have to blow it up first with your mouth—not sure how hygienic that is on a trip with multiple people getting water. And M found the squeezing to be tedious and a bit hard. Her hands are smaller than P’s and probably not quite so strong…

P had less of an issue with it. So we’ve now bought a couple of larger bottles to use with this. Our hope is that we can fill up a couple of 64 ounce bottles at the creek, then take them back to camp to squeeze through the filter. And if we can do that, we’ll be very happy.

We'll keep you posted.

Social Climbers Post date: Jul 24, 2014 4:31:18 PM We heard back from Matt, one of the two climbers we met at Echo Lake last week. Here's what he had to say about their experiences climbing the Matthes Crest... Thanks, Paul! It's great to see how little we are up there. There were actually 3 parties on the rocks that day - the first two sets climbed the ridge from south to north. The 3rd set was actually a party of three. They climbed up the talus at the base between the North and South summits, climbed each face with the rope between them, then the stretched the rope across. They were just starting to climb each summit as Wes and I finished the traverse.

I kept watching to see them on our way down but didn't see them stretch the rope across, glad you got a shot!I was really impressed with the Sierra. I've never been to Yosemite before and was amazed at how well groomed the trails were, how courteous everyone was and with how luscious the scenery was once we arrived at some of the lake areas. When we started up the trail up towards Cathedral Pass, things were kind of dry and limited to only a few shades of green...but once we obtained the pass and started heading across the meadow and down near Echo Lake, I couldn't believe how green and beautiful everything was.

I thought green in the summer was reserved for really rainy the Cascades...but the soft meadows were one of the most enjoyable parts of the hike. On top of the crest, we could see for miles and miles - hill after hill. On top of the magnanimity of it all, there was miniature beauty on the very top of the crest as well - there were several pockets of sand up there that were home to some beautiful wild flowers. Am looking forward to making another trip back.As for the food....didn't find much of anything for about 2.5 hours, but at least the roads weren't busy.

Thanks for sharing the meadow with us and posting the pictures.Best,Matt

Yosemite's Budd Lake and Beyond Post date: Jul 20, 2014 11:01:56 PM We're just back from a wonderful trip to the southern side of the Cathedral Range in Yosemite. Because there are no marked trails through here, this area gets a lot less traffic than trails just a mile or two away. And the scenery is simply spectacular.

We were hoping for an early start, but roadwork on Tioga Highway help us up and we didn't hit the trail until about 11 a.m....

We started up Budd Creek (no trail, although there is a trailhead for this route, and there is a use trail that starts further up the Cathedral Lakes trail) and simply followed the creek for about 3-4 miles up to Budd Lake. Nothing complicated about the navigation, but this route goes pretty much straight up from the beginning, and doesn't stop climbing until just below the lake.

At the lake we ran into a couple of biologists who were netting the trout out of the lake, as well as a large clan of marmots.

From there the route skirts the very southwest corner of Echo Peaks, and then heads straight down some steep granite until you can traverse over to the base of Matthes Crest. From there down, it's pretty easy hiking all the way to the lake. And the views going over Echo Peak are fabulous. If the weather had been a little better, we would have been tempted to stay longer up there. But the clouds were gathering, an darkening. We kept moving to get down off the granite and into the canyon.

That evening we met a couple of climbers who were going to climb the crest the next that added to our entertainment. So did the thunderclouds that threatened us. We heard thunder, saw lightning, but never felt a raindrop. Gusty winds, but no rain. And by nightfall the threat of rain had disappeared.

After enjoying a very peaceful night at Echo Lake, we got up the next morning and headed cross-country to Matthes Lake, where the views are equally magnificent. Again, the navigation is pretty straightforward. You skirt the southern end of Matthes Crest, and head up the canyon. You can't miss it. Stunningly beautiful.

And despite our worries, we didn't see but a few mosquitoes during the whole trip.And then, after lunch and a nap, we climbed up a small ridge to the west of Echo Lake to enjoy the views of much of the western half of Yosemite National Park. The route to the top was simple--we just headed up Echo Canyon until the trees would lead us up most of the way to the top. Then it was simply walking the ledges to the summit. Meanwhile, the climbers were up on the top, and working their way north along the crest in perfect weather. That evening we enjoyed the blue skies, congratulated the climbers on a job well done, and took a few photos around sunset--like the one below.

Day three had us hiking up Echo Canyon to meet the John Muir Trail at Cathedral Pass. As we did, we took one last look at Matthes Crest, and saw two climbers working their way back and forth on a hire wire act between the two high points of the northern crest. Insane!

Here's a link to the first of those photos: We saw more people in the first ten minutes on the JMT than we had seen in the last 48 hours, and so the hike back to Tuolumne Meadows was a bit of a culture shock. But the drive home, with memories of those fabulous peaks, put us a good mood for many hours.

No Fishing, no trash, no people.....hmmm. Post date: Jul 8, 2014 5:29:51 PM Our last trip took us to the upper reaches of the East Carson River, Golden Creek, and Murray Creek. It's an area that is completely closed to fishing year round. That watershed is now a preserve for the rare Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

. And guess what? There were no people there. No trash. The trails were not well maintained…but there also weren’t a million use trails around every lake and stream, either. It was beautiful water, by the way. This area was not particularly remote, but there was simply less evidence of humans, and more wildlife, than we have seen anywhere else.

Coincidence? Maybe not.

Just saying. I love fishing in the mountains, and have done it for more than fifty years. But I am glad places like this exist.

East Fork of the Carson and its Creeks Post date: Jul 7, 2014 10:38:02 PM So we were looking for a place to avoid the crowds on the big July 4th weekend, and boy, did we find it!

We headed out to Clarks Fork, off Highway 108 in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, and started up the Disaster Creek trail. Not a disaster at all….but pretty darn steep as it climbs about 1,000 feet in the first mile. The next two miles are a little better, which gets you to the junction of the Paradise Valley trail. (We passed a well-marked use trail heading south to the PCT here….more on that later)

If Disaster Creek wasn’t a disaster, Paradise Valley wasn’t a valley. Another steep climb took us up past charming cascades, and then to a final push that took us up to the PCT. The whole climb is about 2700 feet over six miles, but most of that is concentrated in a few steeper sections.

From here we went straight across the PCT to descend into Golden Canyon. While this trail has a bit vague in places, there was only one direction it could go---straight down along Golden Creek. We ended that day after about 8 miles alongside the creek, where we would try out the new tent I made. This is remote country. We saw no human footprints, but lots of bear scat. And M saw the bear at the foot of one of the waterfalls we passed. The whole area is closed to fishing, so it lacked the use trails, trash, and human impact of most other areas in the Sierra. Lovely.

At the foot of Golden Canyon we searched for the use trail up the Carson River through White Canyon….but we came up empty. There may be a trail there, but according to someone we spoke to later, it hasn’t been maintained in forty years or so. We chose to keep heading down the Carson River to see if we had misunderstood the map….but nope.

Someday we’ll go back and see what we missed. At Carson Falls we ran into the only other couple we saw in two full days of hiking. They had hiked in from Ebbetts Pass, and seen nobody else until they met us. A quiet but friendly little chat followed.

After lunch along the Carson River, we climbed up the very steep trail along Murray Creek. This gave us some nice views over the Carson River, and eventually took us to our second camp, at the headwaters of Murray Creek. With lots of bugs (biting flies, not mosquitoes, and they were vicious!) we camped out along a ridge above the canyon with great views, and strong gusts of wind from time to time.

The new tent did fine. The third day took us up to the top of the ridge between Murray and Wolf Creeks, and then up to the PCT. Beautiful, open scenery here, and this was the very best part of the whole trip. Once along the PCT we ran into the crowds---five people in two miles—and then hopped back over to the trail down Paradise Valley to complete the loop.

This trip doesn’t have the kind of huge vistas that you find in the high country of Yosemite or SEKI, but it does offer real isolation in a very different kind of Sierra.

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

One Last Snow Report from the Pilewskis

Those snow rangers in Tuolumne Meadows are on their way down, but have posted one last report from the High Sierra. As usual, it's a great read, with both info and photos. Check it out--and be happy t

What's it like up there now?

The Yosemite snow rangers have posted another report from Tuolumne Meadows. Snow conditions continue to evolve, and another storm this weekend could have an impact, but there is no question that sprin

Spring is around the corner

Although the new snow has left more than four feet of the stuff on the ground, spring may be on its way, at least, that's what the rangers spending the winter in Tuolumne Meadows seem to think. That's


bottom of page