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Big Elk Lake

Day 1 of 3

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Friday, July 5th
Lovers Camp to Big Elk Lake
7.3 miles
2540 vertical feet (ascent)
880 vertical feet (descent)

After breakfast we checked out of motel and left at 9:30am. We drove south on Highway 3 to Fort Jones, where we made a brief stop at the local grocery store. We picked up some lunch fixings and snacks. The cashier at the store asked about our trip; she said she'd been to Cliff and Campbell Lakes. I'd read that those might get crowded, so that was another reason to avoid them on this holiday weekend. We then drove on Scott River Road, whose dividing line disappears after about 7 miles. After about an hour's worth of driving from Yreka, we reached the hiker's parking lot at Lovers Camp. The lot was full.

The parking lot has spaces for about 30 cars, and all of them were taken (including one small bus!). As we stopped the car and waited, a couple groups of backpackers came out and started to get ready to leave. So we ate our lunch while we waited. Eventually, another car came and the two of us took the two newly created spaces. We chatted about our plans -- they were going to Sky High Lakes, just an overnight trip. We didn't have any precise plans, but I was thinking about going to Big Elk Lake via Sky High Lakes today, doing a day hike tomorrow, and then returning the short way the last day. We would stay pretty true to those plans, with a few minor changes.

Being in bear territory, we were worried about what to do with our food garbage. There aren't any garbage cans at the parking lot, and no bear boxes either. We eventually packed our garbage away as best as possible, hiding it in the car. This is something that isn't recommended in places with more bear/human interaction, such as Yosemite.

We didn't get started off on the trail until nearly noon. We had plenty of daylight left, though, so I wasn't worried. The first four miles on the trail are very routine (i.e., somewhat boring). It consists of up and down, mostly up, through a dense forest which blocks all view. About 5 minutes into the hike we crossed a dirt road, passed an information kiosk, and picked up the trail on other side. About a mile into the hike we turned right at the fork with the Red Rock Valley Trail.

We crossed over some muddy patches of trail and also a few creeks. Nothing a little rock hopping couldn't prevent from keeping our feet dry. We also had to pass lots of horse shit along the way. We saw a few horses today -- 3 of them in a group, then another pair with a pair of dogs. All of them were headed down the trail back toward Lovers Camp.

Leopard lilies (lilium pardalinum)

Resting next to the trail

Orange upside-down wildflowers (leopard lilies) hung next to the trail here and there. Other than that, there wasn't much to see. We climbed a staircase up about 200-300 feet, then came to another trail intersection, 4.1 miles into the hike. To the left, Sky High Lakes; to the right, Marble Valley. Either route would take us to Big Elk Lake, but Marble Valley was the more direct route. Jean wasn't doing very well and we were going slow, so we decided to take the short way today, saving Sky High Lakes for the last day.

View to the left

Views to the left near the tent

Around the time of the trail intersection, we started to get more views. At first, was saw a meadow to our right. Then, through the trees, we could see mountains to the southwest. We passed a tent which was camped near one of these nice views. However, the thick growth of trees prevented most unobstructed views. When we finally reached Marble Valley, the views in comparison were astounding.

Cabin at Marble Valley

There's a cabin at Marble Valley (closed to the public), with a sign stating the elevation of 5880. The cabin is not remarkable, but the view of the mountains behind it are. Looking northeast beyond the cabin, a meadow stretched out toward Black Marble Mountain high above. There's a creek flowing here, and several flat spots to pitch a tent. We discussed camping here for the night, but ultimately decided to keep going.

Marble Valley, looking northwest

Soon after we turned left on the PCT trail heading away from Marble Valley, we encountered a large group of hikers, about 15 women, all headed out to camp at Marble Valley (they'd been at Summit Lake the night before). So if we'd had camped at Marble Valley, we would have had lots of company. In contrast, we wouldn't see anyone else until we reached camp tonight.

Looking northeast from the trail

The trail climbs through some beautiful displays of wildflowers -- mostly lupine. This was just a glimpse of the wildflowers to come. Still, I found myself turning around to take pictures often, of the flowers and the Marble Mountains beyond them. We were out of the trees now, with great views behind us and to our left, and we enjoyed them as much as we could as we climbed up 400-500 feet. At the top, we briefly enjoyed more views before heading down the other side.

Looking back toward Marble Valley

The trail sign at the top says Big Elk Lake, 2 1/2 miles. However, don't believe it. The book I have says 1.6 miles, and that's much more believable. It's not an easy 1.6 miles, though, consisting of a steep 550-600 foot descent to the Wooley Creek Trail intersection, followed by a 300-350 foot climb to the lake. Along the way it's mostly cool, shady, relatively open forest.

When we emerged from the forest, we threaded our way through a thick meadow, walking on water at times (the trail was filled with water, only about 1/2 inch deep for a short time). Jean pointed out wild parsley growing in the meadow. We passed more beautiful displays of wildflowers, then emerged from the meadow. I noticed a depression in the ground ahead of us (the trees were shorter). Sure enough, it was Big Elk Lake.

Lupine just before Big Elk Lake

Big Elk Lake is about 4.5 acres, backed by mountains on the west side and meadows on the north and south side. The south side has a huge meadow leading up into the hills (and the trail we would take tomorrow). We walked around the lake, looking for a good camp site. We met another group of 8 campers who'd just arrived from the opposite direction. They'd be camping right next to the northern shore. One of them came out to us and recommended the knoll on the eastern side of the lake. I asked him about Spirit Lake, from where they'd come. He confirmed that it would make a nice day hike for us the next day. He offered us a dirty old grill grate they'd found next to the fire ring; we told him thanks but no thanks -- we'd just use our backpacking stove.

We set up camp on the knoll, which rises about 10 feet above the surface of the water and includes two fire rings. We washed up and cooked our dinner -- MSR's tomato pesto pasta, and a package of tuna. I have to say that both were two salty; dinner the next day would be much better.

One downside of camping at the lake is that the sun disappears quickly. We arrived at the lake at 6:30, and the mountain blocked the sun by 7pm, even though it wouldn't set until 8:30pm. There were also quite a lot of mosquitoes flying around at this time. Looking out on the lake, we could see an occasional fish jumping out of the water.

We'd seen a couple deer during the day (or maybe the same deer on two separate occasions). At camp, we saw more. About 3 or 4 of them came close to our camp, foraging, around sunset. After dark, when I emerged from the tent and turned on my headlight, I saw several sets of eyes staring back at me. My light wasn't bright enough to make out the full form, so I was a bit freaked until I could figure out that it was just the deer, not some bears invading our camp site.

After the sound of our human neighbors banging a drum died down, we fell asleep to the sound of frogs making their signature ribbit sounds around the lake.

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