Fall in the Sierra Nevada is another beautiful season. The bugs are down to nearly nothing. The temperatures are much cooler. The trails are less crowded. The downside? The trails are very dusty. They have been hammered all season long by those on foot or riding horses. Well most of the “popular” trails are this way. In my case of getting to Duck and Chain Lakes, only a part of the trip was dusty.
I drove about 2 hours to get to the Rancheria Trailhead. I thought I could access an upper route on my map, but I found the road had a locked gate. Just beyond that gate there were down trees and rock slides. No wonder the gate was closed, so I backtracked down to the second option. The road was clear and nobody was parked there. For those familiar with the area you can park at the trailhead but it will add another mile or so of hiking to your day (one way). Driving a little further cuts that off. Driving even further could cut more, but the road was not passable. Anyway both River and I got out of the vehicle, smelled the crisp cool fall air, and began another work day outdoors.
It was great to be outside all day again. Doing surveys and hiking to a new destination for both River and I. River was just glad to be out and running around. She always thoroughly enjoys the hikes and today was no different. There was going to be a lot of uphill climbing though on this trek, but it did not phase either of us. We were ready to get moving.
The abundance of snow was still present on the landscape. Many parts of the Sierra still had snow in the upper and higher elevations. This resulted in continual recharge of the ground water, thus some creeks still flowing water. It was great to see and River enjoyed getting drinks of water along the way. The water was cold and clear! Soon we arrived at our first trail junction.
Our first destination was going to be Duck Lake. When we arrived at our trail junction, Duck Lake was going east, so that is the way we went. It would parallel Rancheria Creek at times on its way up the mountain. We were also getting much closer to the John Muir Wilderness boundary at this point. I didn’t see any signs yet though.
As the trail began to climb in grade we entered a small riparian area. On one of the lodgepole pine trees there was the John Muir Wilderness sign. I made sure to get a photo as we had officially entered into the wilderness area. The morning air was perfect for an uphill climb to the next trail junction. River did not stop for the photo but quickly realized I was not behind her. She came back to check on me after the photo above was taken. I laughed, told her good girl, which she responded with a happy tail wagging, and then continued on.
The trail at this point was narrowing down rather rapidly. This also meant not as much dust on the trail. There were definitely horse tracks as well as other boots. I had not seen anyone yet so maybe it was from the weekend. Hunting season was at hand but being in the middle of that time of year, most of the hunters were done. Anyway, the hike continued on with River checking in on me to see if I was doing okay. Her energy levels were doing great. Plus she would hear animals running around the logs and wanted to check their scents.
The trail became steeper, so my paced naturally slowed down. The weather was warming, but not uncomfortably warm for mid morning. I would take a break here and there to cool down a bit, drink a swig or two of water, and continue climbing. The trail is pretty bad in parts, but that is because of erosion problems. The trail is still easy to find. The last part is the hardest and steepest as I climbed up the rocky trail to a bench. From reviewing the map, I knew I was close to the next trail junction now.
We arrived at the next trail junction. There is a lake I want to visit in the opposite direction. However, I was not here for that one nor did I start early enough. I would have to do that trip in July when I have longer daylight. However, I knew I was close to Duck Lake now and followed the sign to where I needed to go.
The next trail junction was super close. We crossed a creek that contained some of the outflow of Duck Lake and then made a left heading further uphill. The trail was fading quickly at this point, but still easy to make out. This pleased me as we could be the only ones at the lake. The trail climbed some more and I was getting more excited with each step. I was surprised though to find a beautiful meadow half way to Duck Lake.
The trail paralleled the meadow on the southern side. The fall colors against the green trees and blue sky was spectacular. I paused to take in the view. As I made my way around it, I found a great vantage point to capture this narrow, but long, meadow. It had no name on the map, but maybe they call it Duck Meadow? Duck Lake was right above it anyway. Soon the trail crossed on the top of the meadow and we were climbing up the hill once again.
The hike uphill probably last 5 minutes. It was not that hard at all once we left the meadow. I could, once again, see the trees thinning on the horizon. The landscape was opening up and I knew the lake was just right there. Nobody was in sight either, so we had the place to ourselves and we descended slightly down through a camping area and onto the shores of Duck Lake.
I think my smile was so large it went from ear to ear. The view was wonderful and continued to get better as I followed the shoreline to the outlet of the lake. I took my sample and was more than happy to eat my snack. River was hungry too so we both enjoyed a break, refreshment, and the view. I could see down to the bottom of the lake and the fish were rather large too. Likely a good fishing spot. I could see taking my family here in the future too.
The snack went by quickly and we were both soon back on the trail. It was now downhill for a change too. An occasional bird chirp here or there could be heard. Nothing any larger though. No deer or bears. Nobody else on the trail except River and I. It was a very peaceful morning as we arrived back at the trail junction.
Upon arrival it was time to go left. Onto new territory and new scenery for both of us. River was happy to keep marching along and not showing any signs of being tired. I bet her snack of dog food helped re-energize her as she continued to walk ahead of me. The trail towards the Chain Lakes junction was easy to follow. I didn’t notice any new foot traffic either. I suspected we would have the whole day to ourselves.
The trail stayed at a pretty consistent grade as we walked. The gentle ups and down were no big deal. We did descend slightly into an old fire area. There were so many down trees, yet so many still standing. However, the trail crew had already been here and cut out all of them. This made for easy navigation. I thought I recalled one of them telling me about a small area with a lot of down. I think I just walked through it.
Once passed the down trees we soon crossed a slightly flowing creek. It was easy to skip over and we were greeted by a sign on the otherside. Walking up to the sign it said we needed to go left to Chain Lakes. It was time to follow along side another meadow and up to our destination. Looking on the map there were going to be three lakes. These three made up the plural part to “Chain Lakes” and the face they were all connected or “chained” together by a stream channel.
The stream flowed into a meadow that paralleled the trail. It was another beautiful arrangement of fall colors. The grass was a mix of green and yellow. The huckleberry bush leaves were read in some places. The willows were golden as they dropped their leaves for the season. In fact as we approached the top of the meadow there was ice! I could not believe it, but yes there was ice. It obviously was cold up here recently.
After the ice we jumped across a marshy area of the meadow. Likely the flows were too low, so the water was spreading out over the area. On the other side the trail quickly started to fade away. One could still make out a path, but it was getting harder to see it with each passing minute. On the bright side we would soon arrive at the lower of the three lakes.
The first and lowest of the Chain Lakes was in view. It did not look like many people dispersed camped here. At least not for awhile. Many of the flatter areas were covered in twigs and limbs from what looked like last summers natural pruning process. I decided since we needed to come back this same way we would do our survey then. Let’s get to the upper most lake and work our way back down hill. The trail crossed the outlet and began climbing up the ridge.
The trail was even fainter at some points. Stacked rocks guided our way up the mountain. It was warming up quite a bit now, but it still felt good outside. Eventually we reached a point where we had a nice view back down to the west of us. I could see Finger Rock as the nearest landmark. Hoffman Mountain was to the west. It was a nice spot to grab a drink of water and enjoy the vista. River was panting more, so we continued on. The second lake was nearby, so it was time for her to grab a drink. Again we passed by knowing on the way back we would stop.
The trail was easy to spot once we were near the second lake. It wrapped around in the clockwise fashion to the north. We followed and felt the crunching of lodgepole pine cones beneath us. River didn’t like that so she stayed up higher. I don’t blame her as it would not be so nice on the paws. It didn’t last long as we wrapped around the 12 o’clock position. The trail was now gone. Some stacked rocks remained, but the general direction was easy enough to follow. We had to go up.
The climbing was over and the trail started back south along a benched area. I spotted a trail and we continued onward. It would not be long and the last lake would be in view. As we walked I noticed a camping area with a fire ring. We were getting close and soon water shimmering between the trees beckoned us to come closer. Our arrival was near the outlet and what a sight to see.
The lake was absolutely beautiful. The water was crystal clear and fish were abundant. I took off my backpack, smiled at the silently calm lake, and grabbed a photo. It just happened to be lunch time for both of us, so we found a spot in the sun. It helped dry off my clothes while River lapped up water. I soon gave her some more dog food, which she devoured. She then looked at me and wondered if I would give her my apple core. When I finished it, I passed it along. I think that “topped her off” and she took a small nap while I worked.
River found a nice spot on a warm rock while I worked. The breeze was very cool, so the sun was welcoming. No wonder she found the darkest rock to lay on. Fish came up pretty close to us too. I guess they were hungry. I didn’t see any mosquitoes or flying insects about. Just a few carpenter ants that I donated as fish bait. Work went quick, but I waited awhile longer for River to get the nap she needed before moving down to the second lake. We were going to cross country travel there as it was much faster.
The way down followed a large boulder field. We nativgated around, over, and through it. Looking further down the path of boulders, I was beginning to think the other way would be faster. Thankfully things changed when I noticed an island to the left. There was shrubs and trees growing there. As soon as we both arrived, the ground was much easier and we could parallel the boulder field down to the second lake.
The middle lake was very long, but not nearly as deep as the other two lakes. Large swaths of grass was growing within it. It almost appeared to be more of a “marsh” at times. The water was definitely much warmer too because it was so shallow. I walked out on a fallen tree into the middle of the lake as far as I could. River stayed back on the shoreline drinking water and watching me. It is a balancing act and I wonder sometimes what River is thinking as I slowly make my way out and back. Once the samples were taken it was time to journey back down to the first lake.
I was happy we sampled the lakes in reverse order. The lighting was much better on the first lake for a photo. The samples were also in the shade so it would not be as warm to collect it. River found something in the mud. She kept sniffing frantically. She eventually ended at a log where a mouse ran out. She didn’t see it, but that was okay. I wouldn’t let her chase it anyway. However, when she returned to the solid dry ground she had mud socks :).
The samples were complete and it was time to head back down to the truck. At least most of the trek was all going to be downhill. In the warm afternoon, a downhill hike sounded nice. The fall vegetation had a new vibrancy of color, especially by the meadows we passed. There was stillness in the air and no sounds of anyone else nearby. We still had the place to ourselves. Eventually we made it to the first junction on the way home and headed right.
As we made the right the trail leveled off to some degree. We marched back across the creek and through the down and dead tree field. The trail climbed up just a bit and then dove back down to another trail junction. This was where we went up to Duck Lake earlier. Now we continued straight to cross another creek and make a left heading downhill once more.
On the way down I jotted down some notes about the trail and places it could be fixed. River was getting tired at this point, so she didn’t really lead anymore. She stayed close by me. I grabbed a photo of her as we walked. She was only a couple feet behind me. This is her usual “I am tired, but want to be close” spot. Sometimes she is so close that when I have stopped she slams right into me. That happened once, and only once, this trip so far.
We passed by the wilderness boundary and met up with our last trail junction. The trail was much flatter and river decided to take the lead once more. I think she had enough of the dust and was excited to get to her bed in the back of the truck. As we walked she occasionally peered behind to see if I was still keeping up. It just happened to coincide with me taking a photo of her on the trail. Her ears are still very good at hearing.
We crossed our final creek and the trail continued uphill. As we both marched along there was a user created trail that went off to the right. A faded orange flag was there to help mark the spot. If you recall we took a shortcut to save us some hiking time and this user created trail was it. It marched up very steeply to our parking spot. It was the hardest climb of the day and we were rewarded with a ride home. Another trip complete!