Last month the Rim fire, Burning Man and the closing of the Bay Bridge meant our planned Labor Day backpacking trip to the Sierras was in question. Finally, after much discussion we opted to head for the Snow Mountain Wilderness Area about 110 miles north of San Francisco in California’s Lake County.

Armed with outdated maps and hopes of some lake swimming, we hit the road ready for our adventure. Stopping at a ranger station, we got the skinny on the trails and hoped to hike to some small waterfalls. We were told the driving was rough to get to the trailhead, and included fording a river, which sounded exciting till we got to it and panicked.

We promptly set up camp and found a swell swimming hole, as we were to wait till the next morning when the other half of our party was to arrive. Once our big group was assembled,  we decided to spend the day at a big lake before attempting to ford the river again.

The driving was dusty, long and we made a few bad choices. Desperate to swim in a lake, we headed for Lake Pillsbury, which sounded enchanting, but was, alas, quite a depressing scene. Lake Pillsbury is a man-made lake in Northern California, situated an arduous 33 miles east of Ukiah in the Mendocino National Forest. Reviews were mixed, but as the the temperature climbed, we just wanted to cool off. What we found was a dried up, somewhat scungy car-camping scene, with campers and giant garbage bags full of empty beer and soda containers all smooshed together in the seedy campgrounds. The bathrooms, cute store and expensive gas were welcome, but this was not what we had in mind for our backpacking adventure; we didn’t even want to swim in the lake.

Finally we decided to return to the small menacing river and attempt to get past it with an all wheel drive Subaru Outback.

Turns out  it was passable with a little know-how and we made our way into the belly of the beast, a beautiful un-visited 60,000 acre wilderness area far from the Sierra smoke and the seedy campground. Having aborted our backpacking goal, we were equipped with five giant water containers and following the outdated maps we headed to Summit Springs, which sounded lovely on both accounts.

We had nearly reached the summit when we saw a fabulous spot to camp. We had our backpacking gear and camping stove and found this great spot on a ridge, flat but with plenty of logs for sitting and food preparation, and stunning 360 degree views.

The kids found a great launch pad and spent hours flying a single paper airplane and watching it catch air drafts, soaring like an eagle. Then they alternated who went to retrieve it. Sometimes they had to figure out how to get it down from a high branch of a pine tree, other times, bouldering into the small ravine. When they weren’t doing this they played epic Frisbee games or took turns doing the dishes; the best antidote to technology over-saturation. We hiked a bit, read, told stories and returned a third time to our little swimming hole, building mushroom statues and skipping countless stones.

Had we known there was a spring and we weren’t going to backpack we might have packed a different menu, but you know everything tastes great at 5000 feet in the wilderness! The sunsets were nuclear given the smoke-filled distance and night temperatures were not as chilly as in the Sierras. We will definitely return and hopefully it will be as uncrowded as it was this big holiday weekend. Next time we will make it to the waterfalls.

Filed Under Adventure Travel, Budget Travel, California, Camping, Driving Trips, Eco Friendly Travel, Family Travel, Hike/Backpack, Northern California, wildlife


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