My favorite mountain getaway for camping and easy backpacking is off of Bowman Lake Road where there’s a beautiful landscape of lakes, creeks, meadows and granite mountaintops in a little-known spot called Grouse Ridge Recreation Area.
Tom Stienstra of the San Francisco Chronicle has written about the area over the years (most recently on Sunday, Aug. 2 in his Sunday Drive column) but, despite the publicity, you don’t find many people here. To escape the summer fog in the city I went up a couple of weeks ago with a friend. Unfortunately, the gray weather followed us and we found ourselves in a Sierra storm, with dark skies that turned to rain and even some hail.
One reason that I love this area is that it so accessible. You take Interstate 80 east 40 miles past Auburn to Highway 20. Drive four miles on Highway 20 to the Bowman Lake Road and turn right. (Or, if you’re coming from Nevada City, it’s about 22 miles on Highway 20 to Bowman Lake Road). If you’re not much of a camper or backpacker, you could spend the night in Auburn or Nevada City and drive over for some spectacular day hikes.
The trails I love to hike start at Carr and Feeley lakes. To get to the trailhead, drive about eight miles on Bowman Lake Road and then take the turn for Carr and Feeley and drive a couple of miles on a bumpy and rocky dirt road. High-clearance vehicles are recommended on the road but cars seem to do okay. There are a few primitive campsites at Carr Lake but my favorite thing to do is to pack a backpack and walk in a couple of miles to gorgeous granite-studded Island Lake and find a spot along the shores.
It’s a flat, easy trail to Island Lake past lush ponds covered with lily pads (see left) and, because it’s so close to the trailhead, it’s almost more like camping than backpacking. When I go with friends, we sometimes even bring a small cooler and beach chairs. Check at the trailhead, but campfires in designated spots are usually permitted. Dogs are permitted, too.
There are dozens of lovely lakes to explore, many from the trails that radiate from Island lake (the USGS Emigrant Gap topo map covers the area), including little picture-perfect Round Lake, Milk Lake and Penner Lake. You’re close to civilization (at night if you listen closely you can hear the rumble of vehicles on Interstate 80 or more distant trains) but a world away in a beautiful Sierra landscape.