Snow melts, and Sierra campsites - May 2017

I hadn't been on the West side of the Sierras for a camping trip since the snow began to fall back in December. Now that things are warming up, and the snow is melting, Reed and I thought it would be good to try scouting out some new campsites in areas unknown to us. I wanted to find somewhere that wasn't far from a major highway, somewhere that I could get to if I decided on a whim that I wanted to be around a campfire that night. Our target area was Tahoe National Forest, around the I-80 / Highway 20 area. A rough 3ish hours from the Bay Area with plenty of options for lakes, trails, and meadow scenery. We left the Bay Area late Friday and rendezvoused at my cabin in the Grass Valley area for the night before starting early in the morning up 80 and into the mountains.

We woke up early and hit the road, stopping for fuel and a bomb breakfast burrito in Colfax. The goals for the day were simple. Find a great campsite that was close to a body of water, mark any locked gates, and relax in the afternoon. Once we got up the hill to Highway 20, we turned down Bowman Lake Road, the main road through the area that we would be exploring. The lower section of the road where it crosses the Yuba River is about 4.5k feet in elevation, well below the snow line. We started our day on an off shoot at about 6k feet that led towards a couple of alpine lakes. We encountered a snow drift that stopped other non-4wd biased vehicles that had been parked on the side as people decided to hike from there. We were able to make it through the first drift without issue, but about another mile up the road we came up on an abandoned older Toyota pickup with a big lift and 37” tires. When we came around the corner, we realized why they were stopped, a large drift that was a few hundred yards long. No going through here.

We back-tracked and tried the only other option on this road to reach the lakes, but we were met again with a thick layer of snow. We made our way down the trail and back to the road to see if we could advance farther up on the main, paved, road. But in heading back down, we came to the first drift we passed through. Although this time, there was a brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee about a quart of the way through with the family out and the tires spinning. With no easy option around them, Reed and I got out to assess the situation. He told us that he saw us go through the drift and thought he could follow. Instead lack of momentum, clearance and most importantly tire traction brought him to a halt with his frame resting on the snow. The problem with “Sierra Cement” is that once you lose momentum and stop, the heat from your vehicle melts the snow around anything sticking down and “cements” you into the drift. Really, the only way out is a pull from one direction or the other. We brought Reed’s MaxTrax down from on top of the Autohome and gave a self recovery a go. After repositioning numerous times, digging, and instructing the man how to properly engage his 4wd system (yeah… I know), we weren’t able to free him. So, plan B, which was tricky. He wasn’t far enough to pull him through the drift towards us, so we had to get around him to pull him back the original direction. We used the MaxTrax on the outside of the drift to create a hard shoulder that I could use to get around the Jeep without sliding into the ditch. With some maneuvering and spotting from Reed, I was able to crawl around and get to the other side. From there it was a quick snatch recovery and he was out. He had a problem with his Jeep’s adjustable suspension, likely attributed to a small log he pulled out from the front suspension after the recovery. We didn’t much feel like trying to diagnose the problem and they wanted to get on with the hike. So we moved on.

 About another 5 minutes up the road, we found a familiar scene. I didn’t get any photos this time around, but the scenario was the same. A low clearance SUV had tried to go past a drift where other, larger vehicles had stopped. Stuck. Others had tried to pull him back our direction with no luck, and he was now getting pulled through the drift by those who had made it through and were trying to get back. They were using a chain, and had attached it to a weak point as I walked up. They gave it a yank and whatever it was attached to on the front came flying out. He had a rear hitch receiver, so I offered to pull him back. I feel awkward sometimes in these situations. I want to help others, but at the same time to what point do I risk further damage to their vehicle or even mine. Thoughts aside, I opt’d to help. Not for him, but for the several vehicles trapped by him blocking the road. Snatch strap and 4lo was all it took to get him out. Having heard from the rangers and others on the thru side of the drift, there wasn’t anything to be gained going through, so again, we back-tracked to a road around 5.4k feet for another attempt at a lake and a campsite.

 This road was promising. There was snow still around on the hillsides, and there hadn’t been any on the road. But as it always happens with the melt in the spring, I was wrong. One more drift. I looked for anything obvious sticking out of the snow like a rock or a branch. There was a set of tracks leading through it already, one vehicle. I gave it a go, but met the Sierra Cement head on. Stopped dead. Thankfully I never put my strap away and with a simple tug from Reed, I was able to back up. I spend a few minutes with the shovel taking a few inches of snow off of the center section of the drift to allow for some better clearance. The second attempt was successful, we were through and moving forward. At the top of the hill there was a cabin overlooking the lake. We parked and walked around a bit. The other vehicle was parked in a corner of the clearing away from the house with a mountain bike rack on the back. When we walked around we were able to find a nice spot to camp that took a little detour through some brush to get to, but it was well worth it.

 We set up camp and headed down to the lake, Reed’s three dogs led the charge as they had been along for the ride the whole day. The lake was pristine, and the beer was cold. It was exactly what we were looking for. We noticed that one of the dogs, Milo, had cut his foot on the rocky beach. We decided to head back and clean it up before making dinner. Thankfully it wasn’t serious and it was easily bandaged. For dinner we cooked some chicken fajitas on the Skottle, a classic for Reed and I. A big campfire and some good beer rounded off the evening before calling it a night. In the distance, we could see groups of lights in and around the Fordyce Trail.

 Our plan in the morning was to take our time breaking down camp before heading back to the Bay Area. Reed wanted to make sure that Milo’s foot was in good shape, and home was the best bet. We packed up shortly after eating some warmed up leftover pizza and left the campsite behind. With it way-pointed in my Gaia app, I will be sure to revisit when it’s a hot weekend and I am looking to cool off! We came back to Bowman Lake road and aired up before hitting the highway. We stopped at Ikeda’s for burgers and pie before making our way back home. 

We accomplished the goal for the weekend, and had a great time doing so, with a few fun recoveries along the way. The Sierras are officially open, and I am stoked!

Max Sheehan