CHAPTER XV. TRAIL TRIPS IN THE TAHOE REGION
To nature-lovers, more or less active, the trails all around and about Lake Tahoe are a source of perpetual surprise and delight. I know of no region in California that possesses such a wealth of trails - not even the Yosemite or Mt. Shasta regions. The Lake is an ever-present friend. From ridges, peaks, summits and passes, near at hand or scores of miles away, it never fails to satisfy the eye. Again and again, when one is least expecting it, a turn in the trail, or a few steps forward or backward on a summit ridge brings it into sight, and its pure blue surface, now seen smooth and glossy as a mirror, again shining in pearly brilliancy in the sun, or gently rippled by a calm morning or evening zephyr, or tossed into white caps by a rising wind-storm, pelted with fierce rain or hail, or glimpsed only through sudden openings in a snowstorm, at sunrise or sunset, each with its own dazzling brilliancies - it always gives one a thrill and warming sensation at the heart.
Then, too, the number of peaks to the summits of which trails have been cut, so that the walker, or the horseback rider may have easy access, are many and varied. In all there are not less than forty peaks, each of which is well worth a trip, each presenting some feature of its own that renders its personality worth cultivating.
In this and other chapters, I present my own experiences as illustrative to give the general reader an idea of what may be expected if he (or she) is induced to try one of the chief delights of a sojourn in this scenic region.
WATSON'S PEAK AND LAKE
Leaving Tahoe Tavern, crossing the bridge to Tahoe City, the trail leaves the main road on the left about a mile and a half further on, passing the horse pasture on the right. Near Tahoe City is the Free Camping Ground owned by the Transportation Company. This has a mile frontage overlooking the Lake, and scores of people habitually avail themselves of the privilege, bringing their own outfits with them, as, at present, there are no arrangements made for renting tents and the needed furnishings to outsiders.
The slope up which the trail now ascends with gradual rise is covered with variegated chaparral, making a beautiful mountain carpet and cushion for the eye. To the foot and body it is entangling and annoying, placing an effectual barrier before any but the most strenuous, athletic and determined of men.
Now the white firs, with their white bark, and the red-barked yellow pines begin to appear. They accompany us all the rest of the way to the peak and lake.
Soon we cross Burton Creek, a mere creek except during the snow-melting or rain-falling time. It empties into Carnelian Bay. Burton was one of the old-timers who owned the Island ranch near the Lake shore, and who came to the Tahoe region at the time of the Squaw Valley mining excitement. When the "bottom fell out" of that he did a variety of things to earn a living, one of which was to cut bunch grass from Lake Valley and bring it on mules over the pass that bears his name, boat it across to Lakeside at the south end of the Lake, on the Placerville and Virginia City stage-road, and there sell it to the stage station. Hay thus gathered was worth in those days from $80 to $100 per ton.
About two and a half miles from the Tavern we come to a wood road, which is followed for half a mile. Years ago all these slopes were denuded of their valuable timber, which was "chuted" down to the Lake and then towed across to the sawmills at Glenbrook. The remnants are now being gathered up and used as fuel for the hotel and the steamboats.
Here and there are charming little nurseries of tiny and growing yellow pines and white fir. How sweet, fresh and beautiful they look, - the Christmas trees of the fairies. And how glad they make the heart of the real lover of his country, to whom "conservation" is not a fad, but an imperative necessity for the future - an obligation felt towards the generations yet to come.
Of entirely different associations, and arousing a less agreeable chain of memories, are the ruined log-cabins of the wood-cutter's and logger's days. Several of these are passed.
As we re-enter the trail, Watson's Peak, 8500 feet high, with its basaltic crown, looms before us. At our feet is a big bed of wild sunflowers, their flaring yellow and gold richly coloring the more somber slopes. Here I once saw a band of upwards of 2000 sheep, herded by a Basque, one of that strange European people who seem especially adapted by centuries of such life to be natural shepherds. Few of them speak much American, but they all know enough, when you ask them how many sheep they have, to answer, "About sixteen hundred." The limit allowed on any government reserve in any one band is, I think, 1750, and though a passing ranger may be sure there are more, he is nonplussed when, on his making question, the owner or the shepherd shrugs his shoulders and says, "If you don't believe me, they're there. Go and count 'em!"
Before the officials treated some of the Basque shepherds with what seemed to be too great severity there were numerous forest fires on the reserve. These men were generally both self-willed and ignorant, and we passed by at this spot a clump of finely growing firs, which had been destroyed by a fire started by a shepherd the year before.
Watson assures me that he has personally known many cases where a tree had been blown across a trail, and the shepherd would stop his sheep, set fire to the "wind-fall" and then leave it to burn - sometimes allowing it to smolder for months, to the infinite peril of the forest should an arousing wind blow the fire into life and make it spread.