Salmon Lake: A Love Story

(Scroll to the bottom to read about my favorite hikes in Plumas National Forest.)

When I first visited Salmon Lake, I was a baby in a backpack. My parents had wandered up from a different campground, and they fell in love with the slow barge that carried foot passengers away from the road and out to the far shore where no roads led. They admired the gemlike teal water, the tall pink rocks, and the simple little cabins where families could stay for a full week—or two!— whipping up pancakes, shepherding the chipmunks out of the doorways, and building picnics for lazy days on the water. My family returned every summer, and so it passed that I grew up at the lake. I scrambled up rock faces, scraped my legs on the dry elbows of manzanita and huckleberry oak, howled at the moon, learned to swim, and got a little taller every year.

This is where I learned to take risks, vacillating and calculating and finally making the leap from the high rocks on the island in the middle of the lake. Once I hit the water, I never regretted it. As a family, we would hike out past snowmelt cascades spilling over granite slopes and wade, screaming, into ice-cold pools at the bottom. Boldness was favored.

This is likely where my fascination with sea monsters began: my dad would dive deep and swim up from beneath me in the blue-green depths, clutching at my ankles like the Kraken, or catching water snakes and tossing them toward me (somehow, I still loved him).

This is where my interest in good food might have been born: my mother was an expert packer and would spare no luxury in bundling up fresh food, which we’d carry by hand across the lake and keep cool on ice throughout the week: farm-fresh tomatoes, crunchy walnuts, tangy citrus, rich parmesan. Soft, sweet peaches are nice at home but take my word for it: they taste best on a mountain.

I learned here to appreciate the path less traveled. When Salmon Lake filled too thickly with kayakers and trout fishermen, we would escape in a rowboat, glide past the crackling pottery remnants and old iron bedposts at a historic dump site at the far end of the lake, pull up in the shrubs, and traipse down an overgrown trail to Middle Salmon Lake. Here, the shallow water was consistently a couple degrees warmer than Upper Salmon, and almost always we were the only visitors, drifting like happy newts through the mild shallows.

This is where my love of the absurd was nurtured: it’s hard to say where the tradition began, but every year my dad would allow me to dress him in drag on the front porch of the cabin using found materials: colorful beach towels, pine sprigs.

This is where I learned how to be comfortable with my own company in the outdoors. I liked it best when I could paddle a kayak out to a secret cove somewhere and just sit still. I’d write little poems and watch the light move on the water and make friends with the wild ducks. As I got bolder, I’d disappear for whole afternoons, following rock cairns high above the lake. I poked around old gold mines and found lakes that I couldn’t match up with maps. At some point, I stumbled across the Pacific Crest Trail and followed it as long as I could past granite dropoffs, vanilla-barked pines, and jeweled blue basins of water spread out below. I understood why people start walking this path and don’t stop for thousands of miles.

Every year, the dynamics of Salmon Lake were a little different. Sometimes we’d visit the same week as the other Hindleys, and we’d share wine and picnics with my dad’s family. As my brother grew older, he became less interested in coming. When my dad died, tradition lost its footing. I stopped returning for a couple summers. We tried to fill the little cabin with other company: my mom’s brother and his glowing wife, a work friend of my father’s, my mother’s new boyfriend. Often it didn’t seem quite right: a little emptier, a little too heavy with expectation. But invariably, every year, Salmon Lake managed to be fresh and magical in unexpected ways.

This year, the season was quiet and lovely.

It was a summer of reflections:

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A summer of cozy cabin time:

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The Hill Cabin: built for relaxation.

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Mama concocting something delicious in the kitchen.

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The morning sun coming through the upper window of our little Hill Cabin.

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These two managed to sleep through the sunrise.

I spent time among warm rocks, bright with sun:

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The season brought sunrises and sunsets to die for. It is tradition for us to drag a mattress outdoors and to sleep under the stars at least a couple of nights every visit, but this year I borrowed Rick’s jumbo hammock and nested in it every night. I got to rock to sleep under the cold moon and swing into wakefulness every morning at dawn. It was heavenly:

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It was a summer of tall trees, in various stages of grandeur and collapse:

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Mom greets a big pine.

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Needles of three: Jeffrey pine!

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Mom leans in for a good sniff.  Jeffrey pines smell like vanilla and caramel and everything nice.

It was a time to appreciate small growing things, snarling with texture and life:

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And it was a summer of family: in all of its iterations!

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Ty and Beth joined us this year as honorary family and settled smoothly into the “Salmon Lake way of life.”

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Mom and Rick shared the porch with me for a couple of nights.  Don’t they make it look cozy?

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Mother/daughter: a shining constant through all our years at the lake.

Salmon Lake is a timeless place, but change is inevitable, too. I have seen lush tiger lilies and asters clog the trails where snowmelt still saturates the ground, and I’ve smelled the hot dust of late summer here, when parch pervades and snow is just a distant promise. Somewhere, a much smaller little Hannah still drifts around in a rowboat looking for rhymes for “green.” Meanwhile, in the corridors of my imagination, grown-up Hannah follows those rock cairns long miles into the mountains until the sun starts sliding back down from the top of the sky and it is time to return home: home to the hammock, home to the starry ceiling, home to Salmon Lake. Every year, I find new ways to love this place, new ways to return more deeply than before.

Find it:

Salmon Lake is right near the border of Plumas and Tahoe National Forests. It’s a pretty special little corner of the world (especially if you like geology!). If you’re not staying at the lake, you can still hike anywhere you’d like, and you’re welcome to rent a rowboat. To arrange this when you get there, just pick up the phone in the old-fashioned black callbox in the parking lot and it will ring through to the lodge.  Visit their website to find out more: www.salmonlake.net

Best hikes in the area:

Deer Lake

From Salmon Lake, the hike up to Deer Lake is steep but the rewards are exceptional: views of the Sierra Buttes, the cold blue water of the lake, and a feeling of seclusion that is a nice change from the more bustling shores of Upper Salmon. If you are beginning the hike from the lodge at Salmon Lake, hike up past the lodge on the tractor track and turn left at the junction leading to Horse Lake. Signs will lead you the rest of the way: it’s not much more than a mile to the top. Alternatively, if you are approaching from the parking lot at Salmon Lake, you can tack an extra couple miles onto your hike by taking the trail above the parking lot westward and upward. Follow rock cairns all the way up the ridgeline. Eventually you’ll see views of Gold Lake off to your right. If you continue among the cairns, you’ll enter the woods and end up on the Pacific Crest trail. Turn left and follow the signs to Deer Lake (or, for a much longer and totally stunning adventure, turn right and hike out toward Mt. Elwell. You’ll be rewarded with unbelievable views of the Lakes Basin and cliffy granite topography).

Lakes Basin Recreation Area

Find a map of the Lakes Basin Recreation Area, park at the Lakes Basin Campground, and disappear into this enchanted valley of scattered blue lakes and rushing creeklets. In my opinion, the most stunning and remote destination here is Helgrammite Lake. The lake itself is somewhat small, but the views down into the rest of the Lakes Basin are breathtaking, and you’ll be alone enough up here to risk a quick skinny-dip in the surprisingly warmish water.

Another favorite in this trail system is the easy 1-ish-mile walk down from the Lakes Basin Parking area to Hawlsey Falls.  Follow the trail toward Graeagle Lodge. You’ll pass a junction up to Silver Lake (keep straight), and then another junction at a small creek crossing not too far beyond that: here, you’ll turn right toward Hawlsey Falls rather than continuing toward the lodge. You’ll likely have to do a little scampering over jammed logs at the end of the trail, but it’s worth it for the sweet little waterfall and the private (and very cold) swimming hole underneath it.

Also in the Lakes Basin area is Silver Lake: large, lovely, and almost always alive with its own wind system, this lake sparkles just like its namesake. It’s an easy one to incorporate into a longer loop (say, up to Helgrammite Lake), but it stands on its own as a destination, too. Some lucky character has a private home on the far side of the lake. Look carefully and you might see it tucked among the trees!

The Sierra Buttes

It’s possible to access these by foot or mountain bike from Salmon Lake if you’re feeling ambitious (just follow the Pacific Crest trail past Deer Lake toward Packer Lake). However, you can also drive closer and approach the lookout tower from a parking area at the end of Packer Lake Road.

The Pacific Crest Trail

Lots of access points, lots of beauty. The longer you walk through this part of the Sierras, the more deeply you’ll fall in love. Be careful, or you might end up wanting to walk the whole 2600-mile trail!

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