Sierra Nevada Forests, Part 2A, American River and Tahoe Areas

Sierra Nevada map 1

Continuing south in the Sierra Nevada forests, the American River watershed drains the western slopes and the Truckee River drains the eastern slopes. This post describes some of the features in this landscape. Part 2 describes the Mother Lode and Lake Tahoe areas encompassed by general areas of the Eldorado and Tahoe National Forests, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, and the northern Toiyabe National Forest portion within the Sierra Nevada. Drainages include the American, Carson, Truckee, and Yuba Rivers, with some of the Mokelumne and Walker Rivers. Part 2A describes the National Historic Landmarks, National Natural Landmarks, and National Forest system.

National Historic Landmark

Donner Camp Sites National Historic Landmark, Donner Memorial State Park and Tahoe National Forest, California, commemorates three overwintering sites of the ill-fated Donner emigrant party, who were trapped by an early snow while traversing the California Trail. Donner Memorial State Park (N39º19’ W120º15’) is 1,750 acres on I-80 west of Truckee. It includes two overwintering sites of the Donner party, the sites of the Murphy Cabin and Breen-Keseberg Cabin. The park also has a museum interpreting the site and 2.5 miles of hiking trails and monuments commemorating all California emigrants. The Alder Creek Camp site, Tahoe National Forest (N39º23’ W120º11’) is on State Route 89 north of Truckee and is located at the Donner Camp Picnic Area. The Donner Camp National Recreation trail is an interpretive trail with displays. A third camp site, the Reed-Graves Cabin, is near I-80 east of the state park on private land. The Donner Party consisted of 87 California-bound emigrants from Illinois. They arrived late at the Sierra Nevada, on October 31, 1846, and were unable to cross the Sierra due to deep snow. Unable to proceed, they camped at the foot of the crest. During the winter, 48 survived, most infamously by eating human flesh. During the winter, two thirds of the men, one third of the children, and one fourth of the women survived.

National Natural Landmarks

Two National Natural Landmarks have been recognized in the Sierra Nevada. Many other sites are likely eligible. Emerald Bay State Park, California (N38º57’ W120º6’) is 1,400 acres on the west shore of Lake Tahoe on State Route 89. The unique embayment was gouged by glaciers and is listed as an outstanding example of glacial geology. The bay and shoreline to the north are part of a state underwater park. Black Chasm Caverns, Sierra Nevada Recreation Corporation, California (N38º26’ W120º38’) is a three-level cave with the best helictite formations in the west. It is located on Pioneer Volcano Road in Pine Grove, California, off of State Route 88 in the Mother Lode. Cavern tours and an above-ground nature trail are at the site.

National Forest (NF) System

The National Forest system in the American River and Tahoe areas includes the Eldorado, Tahoe, and Toiyabe National Forests as well as th Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit; experimental forests, watersheds, and research facilities; and the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, administered by the Forest Service. The trail is further described under the National Trails System section. Wilderness areas and national recreation trails within the national forest system are also described separately.

Eldorado National Forest

Eldorado National Forest, California, is 670,000 acres in the Mother Lode crossed from east to west by US Route 50 and State Route 88 (Carson Pass National Scenic Byway). The Desolation Wilderness and Mokelumne Wilderness (both described separately) are within the forest. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (described separately) is accessed at Carson Pass in the south and leaves the forest at Miller Meadows (N39º2’ W120º14) in the north.

US Route 50 and Crystal Basin

US Route 50 crosses between Echo Summit (N38º49’ W120º2’) and Pacific (N38º46’ W120º31’). This corridor became the major stage route to California. The Pony Express National Historic Trail, described separately, crosses the forest along the US Route 50 corridor between Echo Summit (N38º49’ W120º2’) and Pollock Pines (N38º46’ W120º35’). The eight-mile section between Strawberry (N38º47’ W120º9’) and Kyburz (N38º46’ W120º20’) is designated as a National Recreation Trail. Phillips Station (N38º49’ W120º5’) was an 1826 stage stop in a grassy meadow, across from the current Sierra at Tahoe ski resort entrance. Twin Bridges (N38º48’ W120º8’) is below a 1,000-foot-high rock face called Lover’s Leap. Horsetail Falls in the Desolation Wilderness is also visible from this area. The area between the wilderness and Twin Bridges is the Pyramid Creek Geological Area (N38º49’ W120º7’). Pyramid Creek from Avalanche Lake to US Route 50 is considered eligible for the National Wild and Scenic River system. Just downhill from Pyramid Creek confluence with the South Fork American River is the Strawberry Pony Express Station. The area to the north and south of US 50 in the Twin Bridges-Strawberry area is a major summer hiking area, with trails to waterfalls, lakes, and meadows. To the south of US Route 50 and the South Fork American River, Station Creek Research Natural Area (N38º47’ W120º12’) is 750 acres of sugar pine-white fir forest type. The Wrights Lake Turnoff from US Route 50 (Forest Highway 4) follows the route of 1850s roads to Georgetown. South of Wrights Lake, the Wrights Lake Bog Botanical Area (N38º50’ W120º13’) is 65 acres. Wrights Lake is the trailhead for Desolation Wilderness.

Continuing downhill on US Route 50, Kyburz (N38º46’ W120º18’) was an inn and toll house with a historic lodge; Sugarloaf House, a stage stop and Pony Express site, is also in this area. South of Kyburz along the Silver Fork American River (N38º42’ W120º12’) is a hiking area. Silver Fork is considered eligible for the National Wild and Scenic River system from the confluence with Caples Creek (N38º41’ W120º11’) downstream to Kyburz (N38º46’ W120º19’). Downstream of the confluence with Silver Fork is Kyburz Diversion Dam (N38º46’ W120º19’) for the El Dorado Irrigation District. The water is routed in the El Dorado ditch to a storage reservoir near Pollock Pines and to Akin Powerhouse, a hydroelectric plant to the north of Pollock Pines. Indian Springs (N38º46’ W120º20’) was a resort hotel in the 1920s and 1930s, which also bottled mineral water for sale. Whitehall (N38º47’ W120º24’) was the site of an 1850s saloon and the beginning of a toll road downhill to Placerville.

Riverton (N38º46’ W120º27’) was a hotel and stage stop in the 1860s. From Riverton, Forest Highway 3 (Ice House Road) leads north to the Crystal Basin Recreation Area, a joint project of Eldorado National Forest and Sacramento Municipal Utility District. The recreation area consists of nine reservoirs with trails and recreational facilities in between. The reservoirs are Rubicon Reservoir, described under the Desolation Wilderness, Buck Island Reservoir (N39º0’ W120º15’, Loon Lake Reservoir (N38º59’ W120º19’), Gerle Creek Reservoir (N38º58’ W120º24’), Robbs Creek Dam (N38º57’ W120º23’), Ice House Reservoir (N38º50’ W120º21’), Junction Reservoir (N38º51’ W120º27’), Camino Reservoir (N38º50’ W120º32’), and Union Valley Reservoir (N38º52; W120º25’), which is the largest. Trailheads in the Crystal Basin lead to the Desolation Wilderness. The South Fork American River from its headwaters near Echo Pass (N38º49’ W120º2’) downstream to Blair Bridge near Pacific House (N38º46’ W120º30’) is considered eligible for the National Wild and Scenic River System.

Further down US Route 50, Bullion Bend (N38º46’ W120º34’) was the site of a stagecoach robbery in 1864. North of Bullion Bend on the South Fork American River, the Peavine Research Natural Area (N38º47’ W120º34’) is 1,100 acres with Pacific ponderosa pine and black oak forests. Year-round hiking areas are south of Pollock Pines at Fleming Meadows (N38º42’ W120º33’) and Cedar Park (N38º43’ W120º36’). Also south of Pollock Pines is Jenkinson Lake (N38º43’ W120º34’), constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation but transferred to the El Dorado Irrigation District in 2003. It adjoins Eldorado National Forest lands. North of Pollock Pines, Slab Creek Reservoir (N38º46’ W120º41’) on the South Fork American River and Brush Creek Reservoir (N38º49’ W120º37’) are operated by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District within the Eldorado National Forest. East of Placerville, the Placerville Nursery (N38º45’ W120º44’) is 150 acres on Fruit Ridge Road. It supplies seedlings to other national forests in California. Also on Carson Road east of Placerville is the Institute of Forest Genetics, described separately.

State Route 88

State Route 88 bisects the forest between Dew Drop (N38º31’W120º29’) and Carson Pass (N38º42’ W119º59’). The California National Historic Trail, Carson Route, crosses the forest from Carson Pass to Amador. The 15-mile section from Caples Lake (N38º42’ W120º4’) to Tragedy Springs (N38º38’ W120º9’) is designated the Carson Emigrant Historic National Recreation Trail. The Carson Pass-Caples Lake area provides trailheads south in the Mokelumne Wilderness and north to places in the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and lakes in the Eldorado National Forest. Just south of Carson Pass, the Round Top Botanical and Geological Area (N38º41’ W119º59’) includes a wealth of rare plants and geologic formations such as Elephants Back in the Mokelumne Wilderness. Caples Lake is operated by the El Dorado Irrigation District as part of the El Dorado hydroelectric project. Caples Creek (N38º43’ W120º8’) downstream of Caples Lake is considered eligible for the National Wild and Scenic River System.

The trail to Thunder Mountain (N38º40’ W120º5’) starts on State Route 88 west of Kirkwood. It passes volcanic formations called the Two Sentinels. Silver Lake (N38º39’ W120º7’) is also a trailhead for day hiking to glacial lakes such as Shealor, Granite, and Hidden Lakes. Silver Lake is operated by the El Dorado Irrigation District as part of the El Dorado hydroelectric project.

South of Carson Pass, Meadow Lake (N38º36’ W119º58’), Twin Lake (N38º36’ W119º56’), Lower Blue Lake (N38º37’ W119º56’), and Upper Blue Lake (N38º37’ W119º57’), are operated by Pacific Gas & Electric as hydroelectric storage reservoirs for the North Fork Mokelumne River. Salt Springs Reservoir (N38º30’ W120º11’), Bear River Reservoir (N38º34’ W120º13’), and Lower Bear River Reservoir (N38º32’ W120º15’) are also PG&E hydroelectric projects on Eldorado National Forest lands. The North Fork Mokelumne River between the Mokelumne Wilderness (N38º31’ W120º10’) and Tiger Creek (N38º27’ W120º29’) is protected as the 12,000-acre Mokelumne Archaeological Area. There are more than 100 prehistoric and historic archaeological sites of high integrity in this area. The North Fork is also eligible for the National Wild and Scenic River System.

Georgetown Approaches

The northwestern portion of the Eldorado NF is approached from Georgetown.  Off of State Route 193 at the junction of Meadowbrook Road and Bear Creek Road, the Traverse Creek Botanical Area (N38º52’ W120º49’) protects 220 acres of rare chaparral plants growing on serpentine hills, which contain high levels of magnesium, nickel, and chromium. Trails have been constructed through the serpentine chaparral. Further to the south is the Rock Creek Botanical Area (N38º49’ W120º46’) is 420 acres of similar habitat. To the east of Georgetown, Stumpy Meadows Reservoir (N38º54’ W120º36’), operated by the Georgetown Public Utilities District, occupies Eldorado National Forest lands. The Leonardi Falls Botanical Area (N38º55’ W120º32’) is 219 acres near the Rubicon River. Little Crater Geological Area (N39º1’ W120º34’) is 210 acres and Big Crater Geological Area (N39º1’ W120º36’) is 125 acres, both overlooking the Middle Fork of the American River. The Rubicon River is eligible for the National Wild and Scenic River system from its confluence with the Middle Fork American River (N39º0’ W120º44’) upstream to Hell Hole Reservoir (N39º3’ W120º24’). Hell Hole Reservoir and Ralston Afterbay (N39º0’ W120º45’) on the Middle Fork American River are operated by the Placer County Water Agency on Eldorado National Forest lands.

Institute of Forest Genetics

Institute of Forest Genetics, California (N38º44’ W120º44’) is 234 acres on Carson Road east of Placerville in the Mother Lode planted to various conifers. The Eddy Arboretum has the world’s largest collection of pines, with 78 species of pine and 24 species of firs.

Onion Creek Experimental Forest

Onion Creek Experimental Forest, California (N39º17’ W120º21’) is south of Donner Summit in the North Fork American River watershed. Permanent forest study plots of red fir and white fir forests are used for research by the University of California, Berkeley and the Pacific Southwest Research Station. It borders the Tahoe National Forest, the North Fork Reserve, and the Chickering American River Reserve of the UC Natural Reserve System.

Sagehen Experimental Forest

Sagehen Experimental Forest, California (N39ᵒ26’ W120ᵒ14’) is 8,100 acres north of Truckee on State Route 89 bordered by the Tahoe National Forest and Independence Lake Preserve of the Nature Conservancy. It is the home of the Sagehen Creek Field Station of University of California, Berkeley. It includes the entire watershed of Sagehen Creek, which is a glacial cirque with virgin red fir forests.  Over 50 years of hydrologic data has been collected in the lodgepole pine, Jeffrey pine, ponderosa pine, and fir forests upstream from Stampede Reservoir. The forest is known for its diversity and variety of springs and spring habitats. The Mason Fen Botanical Area is within the forest. This wet spongy peatland area has a moss and sedge mat. The willow thickets in the Sagehen Creek valley are part of the Northern Sierra Meadows Important Bird Area. The willow thickets host Lincoln’s sparrow, Wilson’s warbler, and willow flycatcher.

Part 2B continues with the national forest system and then describes the reservoir and hydroelectric power systems of the American River-Truckee River area of the Sierra Nevada forests ecoregion.