October 18 – 20, 2012
Packer Lake; Lower Sardine Lake; a hike to Deer Lake, and around the Sand Pond
Total distance: 7.75 miles
Every once in a while I am blessed with a day that I can claim as one of my favorites. I experienced one of those special times during an autumn camping trip with my youngest son, Andrew.
Andrew came home from college during his four-day mid-term break. We left home the next morning and drove over five different highways to reach our destination: a remote corner of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the Tahoe National Forest. Four of the five highways we traversed had areas under construction causing delay-after-delay to our trip. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“a job and economic stimulus bill intended to help states and the nation restart their economies”) was in full force repairing roads.
After a five-hour journey, we reached the vacant Diablo Campground in the Lakes Basin area, and headed straight to Site #13 where our family spent many summer vacations cooking and sleeping outdoors. This was the first time that Andrew and I camped alone, and I have to admit to missing my husband. It was strange being at this meaningful place without him while he worked.
As soon as we set up the tent, we drove to nearby Packer Lake to fish (elevation 6200 feet).
There were several people on the rock, a prime fishing spot, so Andrew fished from the dock. The water was very low and he caught only snags. On the west shore is Packer Lake Lodge, a rustic mountain resort that was closed for the season. We walked around the lake (¾ mile) taking in the beauty of the fall colors and looking at the different cabins we stayed in each summer when Andrew and his siblings were young.
Afterwards, we drove up the steep and narrow forest service road near the Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail then headed back to camp.
The original idea for this escapade was to backpack somewhere in Yosemite instead of camping so far from home. Although we changed the trip format, the menu stayed the same, consequently we had only dehydrated meals with us.
During dinner, we planned the next day’s itinerary: a hike to the top of the Sierra Buttes, one we’ve done many times. Andrew was only three years old the first time he walked it, although I remember carrying him part of the way.
There wasn’t much to do at night so we went to bed early, around 8:00 p.m. Once bundled into our mummy bags, we gazed up at the bright, twinkling stars. We talked about the time my nephew camped here alone and encountered a charging bear who stole his food. Then we slept as the cold air nipped at our noses.
At 9:30 a.m. from the warmth of my sleeping bag, I looked over and saw Andrew walking up the hill carrying firewood. Without my glasses on he looked like a young version of his dad; he even had coffee and oatmeal ready like Chris would do. I felt a tinge of melancholy at my husband’s absence. During a leisurely breakfast we changed the plan for the day and decided instead to hike the Deer Lake trail.
With two essentials in hand (water and camera) and a few other things in the day pack, we headed out on the 2 ½ mile, 1,000 foot heart-pounding climb up the wooded and talus-covered slope to the lake. As a brisk but gentle breeze blew through the trees on the switchbacks, we could hear the rustling of the leaves. The colors were amazing in this area: warm orange, bright yellow, burnished brown, and rich red.
We crossed over four tributaries of Packer Creek (two of them dry) and after an invigorating hike were rewarded with a view of the craggy peaks of the Sierra Buttes.
Once we reached Deer Lake (elevation 7110), Andrew began to fish. I sat for a moment and took in the beauty of the area looking deep into the clear rippling water.
As Andrew continued to cast his line from different positions, I walked around the lake (one mile). This would be a fine area for backpacking if one would want to make the haul up the mountain with pack in tow.
When I returned, Andrew was on the other side of the lake. When he came back, we made quick tracks as we retraced our steps downhill and back to the car.
Next, we drove to Lower Sardine Lake (elevation 6000 feet) also home to an intimate mountain resort. Andrew immediately cast his line as I set the water to boil for our noodle lunch, albeit a late meal. Hungry from the strenuous walk, we sat at the picnic table near the water and ate quickly as the wind blew and the sun shone in our eyes.
As the sun lowered, Andrew walked to the other side of Sardine Lake to fish and I walked over to the sand pond. An interpretive panel at the pond said, “The Sand Pond was created from a depression caused by mining tailings dumped at the site from the nearby Young America Mine. When those tailings were later relocated, the resulting low spot filled with water from nearby Sardine Lake resulting in the pond known as the Sand Pond.”
While walking, I brought to mind each one of my children and the times we spent picnicking and swimming together. It was a sentimental walk through the one-mile interpretive loop.
Andrew and I met back at the car within minutes of each other, and ended the day at Packer Lake. We were all alone this time, save for the quacking ducks gliding along the water. It was from the rocks that Andrew caught and released four trout.
As I lay my head to rest that night, my heart sang with joy for the magnificence that God allowed me to encounter all day.
I awoke to the sound of two young boys squealing with excitement and chatting with their dads. They were on a nature walk—right through our campsite (boy was I happy that we decided to attach the fly the night before). I poked my head out of the tent and said, “Good morning,” shocking the group. The dads apologized profusely for walking through our camp saying the tent blended in so well they didn’t even see it.
It was another lazy morning at camp spent drinking coffee and working the San Francisco Chronicle’s crossword puzzle. Packing up was a breeze and by lunch time we decided to head for home.
This autumn adventure is one that I will recall with fond memories: quality time spent with my son on our first camping trip; the Sierra Buttes as a backdrop to every lake we visited; and splendid fall colors enhancing a picturesque area.