Five awesome getaways within reach
So, you’re itching to get outside and away from civilization. If you live in the North State, you don’t need to go far.
For the following package of stories, News & Review writers from Chico, Sacramento and Reno explored the not-so-distant reaches of California, but areas that are all distinctly beyond city life. Included are the Sierra Buttes, Richardson Grove State Park, Mono Hot Springs, Desolation Wilderness and Calaveras Big Trees State Park (and their surrounding environs).
Don’t be intimidated by these destinations. We provide “pro tips” direct from nonprofessional outdoor enthusiasts. So, get out there and start exploring the wildernesses in your backyard.
He likes big buttes
The thing about the Sierra Buttes is that it’s hard to walk up them—even when you drive more than two-thirds of the way to the summit.
But if you sweat through both the one-hour hike—and the sketchy staircase leading up to the lookout fire station on the uppermost peak—you’ll be granted a stunning, 360-degree view from atop the High Sierra.
In June, a group of friends and I used a cabin a few miles outside of Sierra City as a base camp of sorts. Four of us set out on a Friday afternoon from Chico and followed Highway 70 and the Feather River into Plumas County. A little more than two hours into the drive, we came upon a dramatic scene: the Sierra Buttes, jagged and looming over the Tahoe National Forest, ice clinging to crags well into summer.
That night we drank beer and played cards as we waited for the rest of our friends to arrive. When we bunked down, the collective energy in place (or, maybe, the beer) ended up keeping everyone awake too late.
The next day, with our full team of nine assembled, we backtracked along the Gold Lake Highway and picked a random trailhead. We chose well, as the Silver Lake Trail happens to pass a half-dozen crystal-clear mountain lakes, and for those looking to hike, the Pacific Crest Trail is easily accessible as it follows the ridgeline above the lake basin.
We kept a steady pace but made intermittent stops to climb rocks and take in the scenery—a mix of forest meadows, rugged geological formations and water, varying from turquoise to deep blue. The PCT was only about an hour and a half from the parking lot, but the intense sun and thin air—not to mention the adult refreshments enjoyed the night before—had taken it out of us, so we stopped at a rock face to snack, and then turned back.
The last day of the trip, the five of us who remained set out to ascend the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout. We drove up the backside of the buttes, parked once we deemed the dirt road impassable and set out on foot.
Our pace was slow as we climbed through subalpine forest, occasionally moving aside for descending mountain bikers and pausing to identify the “braaap” of ATVs in the distance. There was one series of switchbacks along the trail; the rest was straight uphill. Even so, it wasn’t long before the treeline was behind us, and it was another 10 minutes from that point before the lookout, precariously perched high on a rocky outcropping, came into view.
Next to the station’s staircase was a sign that read: “Sierra Buttes—Elevation 8,587.” The sign also informed us we were standing on “metamorphosed rock called quartz porphyry which was exploded from undersea volcanoes about 350 million years ago,” which made someone say, “Whoa.”
The staircase leading to the lookout is steep but short, making the difficulty-to-reward ratio quite favorable. We could see not only for dozens of miles in all directions—to the north, the peaks of Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta were just visible—but also through the platform’s grating to the lakes thousands of feet below.
Most notable was the lack of humans. Save for the colorful rafts and tubes bobbing in the water and the haze hanging over the Sacramento Valley, we couldn’t discern any signs of people—which was exactly why we were there.
Where: The Sierra Buttes are two hours east of Chico.
What’s the cost: It’s not a wilderness area, so no permit required. Nearby campgrounds have fees.
Restrooms, or dig a hole: No need for a shovel.
Pro tips: Take the Silver Lake Trail. Call the Yuba River Ranger District, Tahoe National Forest at 288-3231 or 478-6253 for more information.
Don’t forget the spatula
We wanted to feel insignificant. And few things dwarf us mere humans like the redwoods.
The towering trees—as tall as a 35-story building—exist all over California. But Humboldt County is known for holding the grandest and oldest. Humboldt also feels really far away, so we reserved campgrounds at Richardson Grove State Park, the southernmost option still technically within the county.
Disclaimer: I’m not much of a camper. My parents weren’t very outdoorsy. My friends in college weren’t, either.
My proud Eagle Scout of a camping partner chose the campsite, but I don’t think either of us expected such luxury. Running water, sure. But such impeccably clean bathrooms? With intense diagrams explaining how to flush the not-complicated toilet? And recycling? Showers?
Sure enough, the other campers seemed keen on the luxury. There were enormous, multiroom tents and elaborate stoves everywhere. And children. I overheard one adorable little boy tell his mom, “I think that tree is old.”
We thought we were getting crazy by bringing a large cooler with beer and cheese and stuff. Alas, we forgot a spatula. Our burgers fell into the fire and our calzones escaped their foil encasings. Luckily, the Eagle Scout was prepared with a backup supply of salami. Four meals later, I have zero interest in eating salami for the foreseeable future.
The mosquitoes devoured me each night. We saw a rattlesnake. As we tried to fall asleep at 9:30 p.m.—don’t judge—we could hear what must have been a rave at a neighboring campsite. I felt old, lame. Another neighbor gave us a half-bottle of port that read “Dumpster Diver 2013.” It was sweet, syrupy and delicious.
Wine aside, hiking through those glorious, 1,000-year-old Sequoia sempervirens easily saved the weekend from failure. The park’s visitor center sits in the middle of a cathedral-like grove of redwoods. Their stark uniformity gave them an air of nobility, with the late afternoon light creating lovely refractions in between.
A 4-mile hike brought us through two more impressive groves and up an ear-popping 1,000 feet. I sweated disgusting amounts, but I don’t exactly hit the gym. I think most physically fit people would call it “moderate.”
What was most astounding about that hike, and subsequent hikes, was the complete silence and emptiness. We came across one other couple on the trails over the course of the entire weekend.
Later, we realized that the hundreds of campers were at the swimming hole on the Eel River. In this drought, it was more like a dipping hole, but still entirely pleasant in the heat. Though without children—or floaties—we quickly felt out of place.
By day three, we were ready for a change of scenery. Since we were already so far north, an extra hour to loop around the coast felt more than worthwhile. Highway 1 wound through forests, rugged cliffs and 200-person towns. Cars frequently stopped to admire the impossibly blue ocean and mysterious North Coast fog.
We ended our detour in Fort Bragg, at the Glass Beach. Legend has it that residents would dump bags of household garbage onto the beach in the early 20th century. After decades of waves crashing onto shore, the trash has broken down into sea glass. Lots of people come and collect the prettiest, brightly colored pieces of glass, to the point that white and brown dominate the current landscape. Still, that mandatory long walk on the beach feels way more epic when said beach is made of glass.
Where: Northern California in Humboldt County, just south of Garberville, about a four-hour drive from Chico.
What’s the cost: Reservations recommended, $35 a day.
Restrooms, or dig a hole: Showers and toilets!
Pro tips: Of the 170 campsites, Oak Flat is the farthest from the highway and Madrone sits in the middle of a redwood grove. Trails and swimming holes abound. And, while it’s a family-friendly park, it is also bear and rattlesnake country, so take proper precautions.
Added bonus: Nearby coastal escapes on Highway 1. Find out more at www.parks.ca.gov.
Five men and a bathtub
There are a lot of great reasons to go camping, but one of the best is male bonding. Not like bondage, in a sexual sense, but in the sense of a bunch of dudes getting together in the wilderness, drinking too much, stripping down, piling into a dirty wet hole in the ground, and talking about their feelings.
I went camping recently with a group of friends I don’t get to see that often. We eventually settled on renting a cabin at Mono Hot Springs, deep in the Sierra Nevada, about 85 miles east of Fresno.
The first night, the six of us hung out around the fire for a bit, imbibing, before trekking out on foot to find some of the natural hot springs. We crossed over a little river and followed a path over rough and wet terrain. After a bit of hunting, we found a pool large enough to accommodate the six of us.
Just before stripping down and climbing in, my friend Mike stumbled and fell fully clothed into a nearby stream of very muddy water. He fell in head-first with the frightened, panicked yelp of a cow about to stampede.
The pool was more like a comfortable bathtub than the sulfurous scald some hot-spring enthusiasts might crave. But it was large enough for all of us to stand comfortably with the water up to our necks as we stared up at the stars, undiminished by light pollution.
When it was time to go, Mike ran out and grabbed what he assumed was his muddy clothes, and then he started running back to our cabin, buck naked, carrying a pile of random clothes, including, as it turned out, my pants. So I walked back to the cabin like a proper shirtcocker, balls gently caressed by the summer breeze.
The next morning, I checked out the place a little more, and learned it’s an actual resort. There were several cabins like ours, as well as tent camping, a small general store and restaurant, and a spa building. There were a lot of people around, including families with younger kids. I was surprised to find so many signs of civilization considering how remote and treacherous the road in had seemed.
The surrounding area was impressive. Between the John Muir and Ansel Adams wilderness areas, it’s the kind of scenic High Sierra beauty that stirs the frontiersman spirit within even the most hardened urbanite. We checked out more of the dozen or so hot springs in the area. None of them were mind-blowing in temperature or water quality, but they were all decent.
That night, we hung out around our fire. At one point, in the middle of discussion, I noticed somebody at a nearby cabin shining their flashlight in our general direction, a friendly shut-the-hell-up. It reminded me that although it felt like we were out in the wild, bonding with our cavemen ancestors and staring down the fire, we were actually surrounded by people, most of whom were trying to sleep.
So, yeah, not necessarily the best place for drunken male bonding. We had a great time, but we might have traumatized some innocent bystanders by walking around with no pants.
Where: Mono Hot Springs is just over six hours southeast of Chico, just south of Yosemite.
What’s the cost: Depending on the campsite, $19-$39 a night.
Restrooms, or dig a hole: No drinking water, vault toilets. Campsites have picnic tables, grills and bear lockers.
Pro tips: Not optimal for drunken male bonding. Visit www.monohotsprings.com or www.fs.usda.gov for more info.
No. 2 on the moon
Is this what a lunar landing feels like? Only wearing a 40-pound camping pack with a pint of whiskey in it instead of an astronaut suit?
I sometimes ask that when I arrive at one of Desolation Wilderness’ many alpine lakes. Such is the case with Lake Aloha, just southwest of South Lake Tahoe—there aren’t any trees near the water, just massive, monochromatic granite expanses, which give off a serious moon vibe.
Aloha is one of Desolation’s bigger lakes, and it’s a perfect entry-level camp spot for a debut foray into the 60,000-plus-acre region, which is located at the base of the Sierra Nevada. From the lake, you can hike for days, hopping through the wild and diving off jumping rocks.
Part of the fun of visiting Desolation each summer is figuring out which water spot is your favorite. Is it the sleek rock jumping at Fontanilis? Or venturing off-trail to the secluded Lower Velma, what with its Lord of the Rings cliff drops?
Unfortunately, this is the outdoors, so there are rules. Desolation is not car camping. You will need to dig a hole to shit. Then, you will wipe your ass with BYO toilet paper and haul it out in a Ziploc bag. Bear canisters and water-purifying pumps are more important than your iPod. And forget about that campfire: It’s a $300-plus fine.
But let’s focus on the positive. Every summer, my crew of friends enters Desolation for a handful of nights. Last year, three of us gatewayed near the more touristy Emerald Bay entrance, via the Maggie’s Peak trail. The switchbacks out the gate are enough to send you back to your car’s A/C, but the route is generally less strenuous than the bay’s other entrance at Eagle Lake. If you don’t want to have knee surgery at 50, this is a good thing.
Echo Lake is less busy and, if you’re a baby, you can take a boat cab to cut off 2 miles of the jaunt. Wright’s Lake is a shorter day-trip. And, if you really want to crisscross the entire Desolation expanse, consider entering through north Loon Lake—which is not part of the wilderness area—then head toward Spider Lake to enter the valley. Bonus points for anyone who knocks out that multiday trip; I hope to do it one day.
My favorite memories of Desolation are the alpine lakes. That snowmelt water, those pop-up granite islands—swim out to one, take a nap, get lost in the silence.
Isolation has its place, but I do recommend Desolation in a group, especially for your first time. On a recent visit, we hiked the easy trail along Echo toward Aloha. After a few hours of midday sun face-melt, the trail gives way to cooler forest cover before descending onto Aloha. Jumping into this lake after a killer hike is like diving into one of those freezers at Costco.
But don’t stay at Aloha too long; keep on the trail for another 45 minutes—it has to be like trekking on the moon!—then tiptoe along the cliffs near Heather Lake and chill in the shade surrounding Susie Lake. If you’re bold, or unemployed or whatever, keep climbing to Gilmore Lake, and Dicks. Then keep going. And forever.
Where: Desolation Wilderness is about 3 1/2 hours southeast of Chico.
What’s the cost: Permits required and prices vary.
Restrooms, or dig a hole: Bring a shovel and bury all human and canine waste at least 6 inches underground.
Pro tips: This is not car camping. Bring all the essentials—a first-aid kit, water-pump, etc.—and go with a veteran camper.
Like fungus, but taller
The trees in Calaveras Big Trees State Park are the largest living beings on Earth. At least they were—until scientists discovered a fungal colony in Oregon that technically is larger.
Those scientists are still debating whether acres of mushrooms actually form one distinct organism. Meanwhile, the majestic 250-foot giant sequoias continue to stretch their branches toward the heavens, just as they had for centuries before humanity even invented the scientific method.
Walking the park’s shady North Grove Trail encourages mental time travel. You can’t help but imagine the Mesozoic era, when giant sequoia forests covered parts of North America and Asia. The towering trees were a fitting landscape for Jurassic beasts.
A single giant sequoia can live for thousands of years. What was happening on Earth when their tiny seeds, the size of an oatmeal flake, first settled into the dirt of the Calaveras area? How many generations of Native Americans lived peacefully among the trees, before a white settler named Augustus T. Dowd “discovered” the giant sequoias in 1852?
And how long did it take after Dowd’s report for the trees to fall prey to capitalists debarking them for exhibits and building saloons on their stumps?
The 1,244-year-old tree Dowd first spotted in 1852 was sawed down by 1853. A year later, enterprising men skinned the giant sequoia called the Mother of the Forest so they could build a hollow replica to trot out to tourists in New York and London. The Mother’s shriveled, decaying core still stands in the North Grove as a monument to humanity’s environmental carelessness. As does the Pioneer Cabin Tree, which had a tunnel cut through its trunk in the 1880s to attract more tourists, and clings to life by only one green branch.
Fortunately, the big trees are forgiving. One doesn’t live for millennia without learning patience. The trees don’t mind if you step off the trail and hug their massive trunks. (Try it. It feels warm and barky.) During the warmer months, you’ll likely see rings of schoolchildren holding hands and trying to circumscribe their girth.
For a quieter view, detour to the Grove Overlook Trail and wind your way through the treetops. Even at their very tips, the sequoias are wider than the trunks of most other tree species in the forest.
To commune with the red-barked giants far away from tourist foot traffic, pack some water and snacks and set out on the more strenuous South Grove Trail. The South Grove contains 1,000 giant sequoias, including the park’s two largest trees, the Agassiz Tree and the Palace Hotel Tree.
These groves are nature conservation on the grandest scale, at least until Oregon designates a Giant Fungal Colony State Park.
Where: Calaveras Big Trees State Park in Arnold is about 3 1/2 hours southeast of Chico.
What’s the cost: Prices vary.
Restrooms, or dig a hole: Good amenities at 129 campsites.
Pro tips: The North Grove Trail is wide, flat and “stroller friendly.” The Three Senses Trail, a rope-guided route, offers Braille signs and tactile nature encounters for the visually impaired. More advanced hiking is available on the Lava Flows and River Canyon trails. The park’s new visitor center opened in May and features nature exhibits, a cozy fireplace lounge, a theater inside a faux tree stump, and a well-stocked gift shop. The little warming hut off the North Grove Trail is where the Calaveras Big Trees Association sells snacks to raise money for the park. There’s no cell service in the park. Find out more at www.parks.ca.gov.