Sarah, Debey, Terry and I had a fantastic camping trip last week at Wright’s Lake, just west of the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe, California.
After a 3.5 hour hop, skip, and jump from San Francisco, across the Central Valley, and most of the way up toward the Sierra Crest, we turned off on the Wright’s Lake Road, a well-paved, 8-mile backroad that leads to the lake and campground.
Immediately after turning off of US50, we were impressed by the variety of wildflowers growing alongside the road: Scarlet Gilia, Wooly Mullein, several special of lupine, paintbrush, and penstemon. Opening the windows, we got a blast of fresh Sierra air, heavy with pine and a tinge of Mountain Misery, a relative of the rose that grows at the low- and mid-elevations in the Sierras, and which has a distinctive (and not entirely pleasant) odor.
Winding along, we soon arrived at our campsite. The lake itself was packed, the day use area overflowing, and numerous folks enjoying a picnic on its shores. This was, afterall, the Sunday after the 4th of July, and most of these crowds would dissipate in the evening.
We unloaded our cars and went about setting up camp. Our new tent (an Eureka Copper Canyon 1312), purchased for this trip after we found that our prior tent was damaged in Sarah’s parents’ house fire on New Years Day, set up easily, and at 13×12′ proved to be more than large enough for the two of us
A dragonfly perched on our tent’s guy line, basking in the sun for a bit before flying off to parts unknown. Debey & Terry’s dogs Sorella and Carmella were itching for a walk, so after getting set up, we walked to the shore to get the lay of the land. Although Deb & Terry camp here every year, it was the first time for Sarah & I.
A great many birds were chattering in the forest, and we soon saw a Pine Grosbeak (LIFER!). Deb said this was a specialty of the area, which would prove to be quite true. On our short walk, we also saw numerous American Robins, a few Yellow-rumped Warblers, some Canada Geese w/goslings and Mallards w/ducklings on the lake, an Osprey, many Brewer’s Blackbirds and Dark-eyed Juncos, and several Western Tanagers. Not too bad for a 10-minute walk!
Back at camp we prepared a yummy dinner of BBQ ribs and ate and drank the night away.
First light on Wright’s Lake
I awoke early on Monday morning and quietly left camp, camera in hand, to catch the sunrise over Wright’s Lake. A film of mist covered the lake, slowly burning off as the sun rose (and, unfortunately, as the mosquitoes awoke).
A Great Blue Heron circled the lake, and several Mallard and Canada Goose families stirred, the geese in particular making quite a racket! I was a little surprised to see a couple of Bufflehead on the lake as well, both appearing to be female. Right as I was getting ready to leave, a Hermit Thrush flew in and foraged on the shoreline. Unlike my previous encounters with this bird, I had great views of this individual as it poked and prodded in the sandy banks.
Sunrise over Wright’s Lake
The mosquitoes soon became intolerable, so I left my camera at camp and went for a walk in the woods behind our campsite to see what was a-wing. I soon regretted leaving my camera, as another Pine Grosbeak flew by and perched on a well-lit branch for a moment before venturing deeper into the forest. As before, Mountain Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches were singing up a storm, and an unseen woodpecker earned its name. As with yesterday, Brewer’s Blackbirds, American Robins, and Dark-eyed Juncos were the most prevalent bird.
We had a tasty breakfast of yogurt & fresh fruit, then set off on a hike to Twin Lake (I’ll blog about that separately). Back at camp we had a delicious chili that I’d made a few days beforehand. Since we’d forgotten to bring firewood (duh!), Debey & I drove to the camp host to see if they had any for sale. Alas, the camp host site was vacant, and the little ranger kiosk was closed, so we gathered what we could from the woods. It turned out to be plenty, and we again ate and drank the evening away, retiring at 10pm.
Williamson’s Sapsucker and a Red-breasted Nuthatch
I again woke early (6:10am) and went for a walk, enjoying the solitude and quiet of the early hour. There was no mist on the lake this morning, but the birding was very good. After being jealous of Deb & Terry sighting a Williamson’s Sapsucker on our hike, I got my own view (LIFER!) by the lake, with a bonus Red-breasted Nuthatch, which we’d been hearing since we arrived, but this was my first sight of one (they’re small birds that favor tall trees, making them hard to see, but their call is quite distinctive). Also by the lake I saw a Rufous Hummingbird (LIFER!), all but indistinguishable from the Allen’s Hummingbird we have in the Bay Area, except that Allen’s don’t venture to the Sierras.
Other birds seen included Yellow-rumped Warblers (many!), Robins, Blackbirds, several Northern Flickers, Juncoes, Steller’s Jay, Olive-sided Flycatcher (heard, but never seen), Chickadees, Western Tanagers, Nashville Warbler, yet another Pine Grosbeak (and me again with no camera), Brown Creepers, and a few Swallows – wheew!
Sierra Tiger Lily (Lilium parvum)
The early light shone nicely on a cluster of lovely Sierra Tiger Lilies, so I couldn’t resist taking a few photos of them. Other than our hike on Monday, I’d only ever seen them once before, and not in anything like the numbers here!
Since our plan for the day was to eat chorizo and eggs, drink bloody marys, and float in the lake, we thought it would be a good idea to get in at least a little exercise, so Sarah & I went for a walk around the lake. At 2.25 miles, it’s the perfect morning walk length.
Sierra Mariposa Lily (Calochortus minimus)
We saw many more wildflowers along with butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies, none of which I can identify.
A chipper chipmunk got confused as we stood on a bridge crossing the lake’s tributary, running back, then forth, then back, finally scrambing past us at top speed.
The lake has 80 or so summer homes along its shores, so it’s not all that wild, but the homes are sans electricity and all have outhouses, so it’s not particularly urban either :). We met a gentleman in his 70s who has been spending his summers here for the past 30 years, wintering in San Diego – sounds like a good life to me!
A great many Mallard ducklings were in the grasses along the shore, several dozen of them. Probably a good thing to have a large clutch, what with Herons and the like around!
At camp we feasted on some excellent chorizo and eggs, courtesy of Terry’s talents behind the skillet, and some delicious bloody marys to chase them down, mmmmm! We inflated our toy raft and inflatable lounge and went for a swim in the lake.
I have definitely never swam in such a temperate Sierra Lake! Wright’s Lake is very shallow (I can stand up in most of it), which makes it quite unlike most other 7000′ lakes I’ve dipped my toes into. We brought some corn to feed to the geese and ducks – it was very cool floating right alongside them, even if an over-zealous goose occasionally took a nibble of my sandals. Even neater was getting within a couple of feet of a pair of young mallard ducklings, by far the closest I’ve been to any young bird in the wild. They floated and preened serenely, unconcerned by my presence.
Storm over Wright’s Lake
All good things must end, however, and our good thing ended when we saw dark clouds on the horizon and heard some far-off thunderclaps. Time to get out of the lake! We beat a retreat to our camp and put away the things that shouldn’t get wet, and secured our tents. A good thing, as when the storm hit, it hit hard, with pelting rain and much lightning.
We watched all of this from the relative comfort and dryness of the veranda in front of our new tent, sipping wine and snacking on pate and cheese – a fine way to weather a storm indeed! It didn’t break, but merely tapered, and after we’d finished our lunch we declared it to be nap-time.
I went for a walk during a break in the storm and was surprised at how much pollen had collected in pools along the way – no wonder Sarah & I had been sneezing since we arrived! Happily the storm was mostly gone by evening, and we were able to enjoy a small fire, grill a tasty steak, and have steak salad.
It was raining when we woke, which worried Deb & Terry, since they were planning on leaving for a week of backpacking today, and hadn’t been able to pack their bags due to yesterday’s storm. They found an available campsite and decided to move to it so they could have an extra day to get ready. After a breakfast of yogurt & fruit, we broke camp and followed Deb & Terry to find the little general store near Icehouse Reservoir.
This was a longish drive on mostly un-signed backroads, but we eventually found it, a depressing little store with entirely processed foods and a grumpy proprietor. Deb & Terry had to wait another 45 minutes for ice to arrive, but Sarah & I continued homeward.
Although we had a somewhat anti-climactic end to our trip courtesy of the storm, this was a fabulous place to camp. I can see why it books up months in advance – the lake’s proximity to the Desolation Wilderness, its beauty, and the nice campsites on its shores make it one of the nicest places I’ve camped. The wildflowers and, especially, the birds were spectacular at this time of year, and I was pleased to tick 3 new species.
|Birds seen:||Wildflowers seen:|
|- American Robin
+ Band-tailed Pigeon
- Brewer’s Blackbird
- Brown Creeper
- Canada Goose (and goslings)
- Dark-eyed “Oregon” Junco
- Great Blue Heron
- Great Horned Owl (H)
- Hermit Thrush
- Mallard (and ducklings)
- Mountain Chickadee
- Nashville Warbler
+ Northern Flicker
- Olive-sided Flycatcher (H)
* Pine Grosbeak
- Red-breasted Nuthatch
* Rufous Hummingbird
- Steller’s Jay
- Swallow sp.
- Yellow-rumped Warbler
- Western Tanager
* Williamson’s Sapsucker* = life bird, + = year bird, (H) = heard bird
|- American Bistort
- Buckwheat sp.
- California Corn Lily
- Cinquefoil sp.
- Floriferous(?) Monkeyflower
- Lupine sp.
- Mountain Monardella
- Pretty Face
- Paintbrush sp.
- Pussy Paws
- Red Heather
- Royal Penstemon
- Scarlet Gilia
- Sierra Mariposa Lily
- Sierra Tiger Lily
- Smokey Mariposa Lily
- Sulphur Plant
- Yampah sp.