Searching for Headwaters

Holly and I are on a quest to visit the headwaters and mouths of California’s rivers. On a recent trip we explored the South Fork of the American River, which runs from near Echo Summit in the High Sierra to join up with its Middle and North forks at Folsom Lake just northeast of Sacramento. We drove east from San Francisco first to the dam and then toward the headwaters.

Horsetail Falls, headwaters of the American River

Horsetail Falls, headwaters of the American River

I had never been to Folsom Dam before and wanted to see its reservoir’s historically low level. In his 1986 book, Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner told of going up to Folsom Dam during the big El Niño rains of 1982-83 to watch the flood waters breach the dam. It held then and also through subsequent floods that could have inundated Sacramento and the surrounding area. Now the Bureau of Reclamation is taking no more chances and is in the midst of raising the dam and building an auxiliary spillway to let more water out if big rains ever return. But this year, after four years of drought, the reservoir looks like a few big puddles on the bottom of a huge expanse of lakebed.

We drove to the boat ramp first where we found no boats but a lot of ramp. The one other person there was a bicyclist who lives in the area and knew something about the dam. He pointed out exposed ruins called Mormon Island, at one time on the bank of the river, where Mormons had set up a mining camp and struck gold. The population of the town in 1853 was 2,500. All the settlements in this basin were flooded after the dam was built in 1955, and not seen again until this millennial drought hit the state. We could see the remnants of an orchard and some foundations of buildings.

“You can hike right over there,” he said. “I go there all the time.” He also told us that the city of Folsom gets all its water from this reservoir and they are at the point where their intake valve is barely below the water’s surface. Water managers have been freaking out about the possibility of this condition, called a “dead pool,” when the reservoir runs dry and communities run out of water. I want to go back and see the reservoir when it’s full, or at least fuller. There is an interpretive center at the dam and we will visit next time.

From there we got back on Highway 50, part of the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway in the U.S. Constructed between 1855 and 1858, Highway 50 was designated the very first state road. It hugs the bank of the American River, then climbs right up over the Sierra and down into South Lake Tahoe and Nevada. Our destination was the Strawberry Lodge in a tiny spot called Strawberry, not a town really, just the lodge and a store across the highway. We had stayed here before and we love this place. If you are interested in the history of this area, talk to the owner, Mike, who can tell you all about the history of the lodge, the Pony Express that ran right through here in 1860 and the rest stop in the 1850s. This was the last stop on the road before you got to Echo Pass at 7,337 feet, and it was mobbed during the Gold Rush with wagons waiting in line to get over the pass.

This latest incarnation of Strawberry Lodge was built in 1939 (others over the years succumbed to fire), a handsome architectural treasure from that era. Walk up onto the front porch and through the swinging double doors and the first thing you see is a huge stuffed bear set among a collection of historical artifacts. Hang out in the great room where there’s usually a fire in the stone fireplace, or move on to the bar for beer on tap and dinner. The lodge is a bit of a hangout for locals and we watched the Democratic Presidential debate with a young couple who brought their kids. They have no TV at home and drop in at the lodge for dinner from time to time. We were sorry to miss the karaoke night on Saturday but we gotta catch it next visit.

We like this spot because nearby is the road to Wrights Lake, a stepping off point into Desolation Wilderness. Holly and I have both backpacked there many times over the years. You can drive right up to Wrights Lake and its campground, a popular spot for swimming, fishing, kayaking and playing in the summer, but when we got up there in mid-October, we had the lake almost all to ourselves. The drive up is about five miles and a 1200-foot climb. The lake is at about 7000 feet.

We walked around Dark Lake, which is right next door and has a few cabins around it, shuttered for the winter. We took the short hike to Beauty Lake, another little jewel. Then we set out our chairs at the edge of Wrights Lake and sat under the trees in 72° weather and read a book. It had been 93° in the Valley so we were pleasantly surprised by the lovely weather.

If you don’t want to get in your car there are plenty of places to go right out of Strawberry Lodge. We like to take our chairs down and put our feet in the American River, just behind the lodge. But you can also hike up to the big rock just beyond the lodge called Lovers Leap. It’s quite imposing but Mike told us there are three trails to get up there and one of them is easy so we will try it next time. I walked up the Pony Express trail, which winds along the river for several miles.

Of course we had to drive up to Echo Summit, where we parked and took a short hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. The next day we drove up Highway 50 maybe a mile to the trailhead for Horsetail Falls and Pyramid Creek. This is the headwaters of the American and it comes out of Lake Aloha, the glacier-polished granite moonscape basin just below Pyramid Peak in Desolation Wilderness. You have to be a rock climber to climb this route but you can hike to the base of the falls and it’s a beautiful hike along Pyramid Creek. As you hike up, the roar of trucks on Highway 50 diminishes and you begin to hear only the roar of running water. Both Holly and I have hiked in to Lake Aloha in the past so we felt that we didn’t have to hike the several miles this time to claim that we had been at the headwaters of the South Fork of the American River.

By Molly Martin

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