By Ryan Loughrey
Our initial plan had been to go to Granite Lake in the Trinity Alps last weekend, but it seemed that this was everyone’s plan. The parking lot, and the overflow parking lot for the trailhead, were literally full. I’m sure that we could have parked on the side of the road, but the intent and the draw of visiting Trinity Alps is for the remoteness. Although I’m sure Granite Lake is beautiful, we were hoping for a little more privacy.
Although dismayed, we hastened to make a backup plan. We saw a sign for a trailhead to Lake Eleanor a little earlier, so we backtracked and took the turn. We found that about two miles up the road, a giant fallen tree blocked the road. There was one car that had parked at this dead end and hiked in, and this encouraged us that this might be a little less popular. According to the map, we could not be very far from the trailhead to Lake Eleanor, so we parked by the side of the road, saddled up with our backpacks, scrambled over the fallen tree, and followed the road. After probably a mile following the road (and wondering how far it was to the trailhead), we found that our map was not entirely accurate. It showed a loop with a dead end at the trailhead, but in reality there were a few different forest roads. We did find a handful of cars and families parked here, but we opted to continue on.
Lake Eleanor is approximately a half mile from the trailhead, and surrounded by soft and marshy soil that we encountered a lot during this trip. The lake itself is not as pristine as some of the others – no steep granite walls by the edge, or crystal clear blue water, which is probably why it was not as popular as some of the others in the area. It did have an abundance of green plant life and one of the creeks that fed into it was lined with green and yellow pitcher plants, which of course sparked our discussion of carnivorous plants, and the Little Shop of Horrors plant. Although the day was warm, there were not many people swimming. One option had been camping here, then having the entirety of the next day to continue on the trail and make as many miles as we could. However, we still had ample sunlight, so we opted to head for Shimmy Lake.
From the map, we guest-timated that Shimmy Lake was 4 miles or so northwest. We found that after Lake Eleanor, the number of hikers on the trail severely decreased. The trail steadily climbs, and a few times even follows an old road that causes confusion as to where the trail really is. Like so many other hikes, we had to navigate largely by “cairn spotting” – keeping an eye out for the stacks of rocks that previous hikers had used to denote where the trail was. At one road crossing, we did see spray painted in large letters “TRAIL” with arrows, which helped with navigation. Additionally, one old vertical plastic sign that used to read “Trail” that had been shot or cut down was propped up and now read “rail.”
On the trail to Shimmy Lake, there a few small stream crossings that usually are easily traversed by rock hopping. There are also a few small ponds or depressions that earlier in the winter no doubt were ponds. At one of the larger creek crossings, we did spot a mother who was walking ahead of her daughters. We spoke, and she mentioned that we were approaching a small, dismal sounding pond that they thought was Lake Eleanor.
We did pass a pond that was small, and stagnant. This was no doubt where that small family had turned around, but just past it was a pretty meadow. There was a fire ring, so we could tell that others had camped here before. We took a breather, taking our bulky backpacks off, ate some jerky, and studied the map. We weren’t sure, but based off how close we were to Lick Creek, it seemed like this might not be Shimmy Lake. We still had plenty of daylight, so we ended up continuing on.
After another mile or so, we were glad we did. We came to the real Shimmy Lake, hidden in the hills and nearly invisible unless someone was on this path. No one else was camped on the banks, and it seemed like this lake had not seen human visitors in ages. One part of the lake was bordered by grassy marshland, another by red and grey rocks seemingly tumbling into it from the wall behind them, and one side by dispersed trees and solid ground. We opted to camp here, quickly getting to work setting up our tent, the hammock, and gathering firewood. Much of the wood was damp, as we guessed that it had rained the day before.
The fire turned into the focal point and largest challenge of the night. The small pieces of kindling refused to catch, and we ended up using what we had brought for toilet paper as fire starters. We had a few false starts, with the smaller pieces of wood lighting on fire, but quickly being extinguished. Out of sheer stubbornness, I gave up momentarily to search the area for the best possible wood – looking for pieces that were the perfect size and as dry as possible. I completely took apart the wood we had arranged, and started from scratch, building a small pyramid with the new collection of sticks and determination. Finally, after this attempt, the flames travelled from the balled up pieces of paper to the kindling, and began to grow. It was smoky at times, but the fire continued to burn and become hungrier for larger pieces of wood. Soon, rather than meticulously placing each stick and branch like an obsessed street artist, I tossed large pieces without concern – knowing that no matter how damp they were, they would be consumed by the fire.
There is something special about a campfire and what it does to people. I, like nearly everyone else on earth, love gazing into the flames and watching the dance and seeming randomness of the flickering. I love the crackling and sizzle sounds, and watching pieces of embers float into the sky before being extinguished. More than this, I love watching people around the campfire. This trip was just myself and my significant other, and I gazed at her as the light from the campfire illuminated her exposed face. She, too, was entranced. Campfires seem to give humans a sense of quiet reverie and reverence. Her soul was calmed and quiet, and the look in her eyes was of contentment.
That night we slept. Not well, per se, but slept. It was a cold night, and we were bundled in every piece of clothing we had brought, and still the cold crept in. We woke up early, around seven, when the brilliant light of the sun streamed into our campsite.
We opted to spend a lazy morning slowly putting things away and drinking coffee while looking at the view. We took a smaller hike (opting to ditch our heavy backpacks for our lighter daypacks) up to the viewpoint of the Lily Ponds Lakes, Thumb Peak, and Poison Creek. We guessed we were looking out Poison Creek Valley, and from here, we stopped to eat. We climbed a small peak, sat on the rocks, and looked out. We had passed one couple that morning, who were headed back to the trailhead. Like the night before, we felt alone in the wilderness – an invigorating thought given that with our initial destination, we could not even find a parking spot. We whooped to the glory of the woods, and the sky was so clear we could see all the way to Mt. Shasta, the landmark that defined Northern California. After we had relaxed enough, we headed back to Shimmy Lake.
We had left the tent set up, to store our backpacks in. We saw one other older man with his two dogs, who had hiked up for the day. He was going in the opposite direction so we gave him some pointers (“Keep an eye out for the cairns.” “At the fork in the trail, go right” “If you see patches of snow on the trail, that’s the right trail. Keep going.” etc.), and then we headed back down the trail ourselves.
Going down the hill took seemingly half the time as going up. We found that although the pace was quicker, our knees and calves did not like the descent. Once again, we saw only a few souls on the trail until we got to Lake Eleanor, where we saw a family swimming and a group of people who seemed to be day hikers. We got back to the car and headed back home.
Since this was not our initial plan, after we got home and unpacked, we decided to look up the numbers. We estimated that with the lunch hike and parking at the fallen tree, it had been about a 10 mile round trip with approximately 1700 foot elevation gain (felt like more). It was a good venture into the wilderness, with us having our own mountain lake and lunch with a view that none could beat. We did get a few blisters, and ended up going to a destination we had done literally zero research on, but I’m glad we did – and would do it again in a heartbeat.
Shimmy Lake may not be popular or as dramatic, but it was ours. The views and the memories will be ones I will carry for quite some time.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine