Big Hill, El Dorado National Forest

Trip Date:  April 1, 2016

Find this Spot

It just doesn’t have to be complicated, but sometimes it is.  This was Caesar Chavez weekend and at one point in time, it was destined to be a big trip, since the holiday fell on a Thursday, and Friday was my RDO.  That big trip never materialized so it was thought to have gone by the wayside.  I used the Thursday to go with Kristen to see my mom.  She had been ill the past couple weeks and had a stay in the hospital.  She was back at Nazareth House in San Rafael, but was very weak and the lack of eating, the antibiotics and increased medications had wrecked her memory and clarity.  She was having a rough time.

We met my oldest brother Mike and his wife Edna at the facility.  Mom was in a wheelchair but out in the big common room.  We wheeled her out into the courtyard to get out of the noisy room and into the sun.  We had stopped for some chicken wings (my mom’s favorite), pasta salads, and Gatorade, so we sat around a table and had a little picnic.  It was really pleasant and nice.

After we ate and talked for a bit, my mom dozed in the sun and we chatted quietly.  When she came to, we decided to go inside for a bit as it was getting close to 5:00 and time for dinner for her in the dining room.  I wheeled her around the halls a bit, looking into the communal rooms and looking at the pictures on the wall, and looking out the windows into the various courtyards and garden areas.

When we returned to her room, she was very disoriented and unsure of where she was or why.  She knew us OK, but she was very unhappy that we were leaving her in the strange place with these strangers.  She didn’t understand why she couldn’t come home with us and she was pretty angry about the situation.  I wheeled her to her table in the dining room with her two table mates who were both glad to see her.  A couple gals at the next table reached out to her as well, but mom was having none of it.  She was mad at us and was letting everyone know.  It felt like leaving your screaming kids at daycare – knowing it is the right thing, the only thing, the best thing to do, but it tears your heart out doing it.

We went to dinner at the Basque restaurant on North San Pedro Blvd., La Chalet Basque, as mom and I had been there a few times and I wanted to show Kristen.  We sat outside in the warm sun, even though it was a tad breezy, the sun was warm and it was quiet so we could talk and air out our feelings a bit.  We had a couple drinks and poured some of the intensity out into the fresh air.  We all survived, I think.  Then we went in and had a nice dinner.  It got late and I felt bad we got back home so late as K had to go to work the next day, that Friday, but I was off to camp with the boys, and I needed it.

Bill picked me up about 9:00.  I was a little less than organized, but I had shopped and got all my stuff upstairs and up front by the time he came.  I talked to Ken as he was taking his dad to the doctor at Kaiser and helping him work through some of his stuff with moving out and divorcing and paying bills and legal stuff and settling into his new life and new housing – Ken has been carrying a huge load helping his dad through this tumultuous period.  He thought he would be done by noonish and hopefully on the road by 1:00 or so.

We weren’t exactly sure where we would end up with snow levels and potential road closures and limited access, but we headed up Highway 50 and then up Ice House Road.  The beauty of the day was everywhere, including the photographers at the bridge over the South Fork as we turned left up Ice House.  The left turn up Big Hill came sooner than I had remembered and we soon were up top of the narrow short ridge and looking for camp spots.

This area burned in the Cleveland Fire in the early 1990’s, the far northern area of the 25,000 acre blaze.  I think the first time I came up here, I was scouting for firewood with my dog Cubby a couple/few years after the area burned.  The views were spectacular and the new fresh growth was incredibly green.  I later came up here with Steve for a day trip when we headed down the hill with the back of the truck on fire.  I think I camped here for the first time with my wife Kristen, when the trees were maybe 4 or 5 feet tall; perfect to provide some coverage and shelter but not tall enough to detract from the views.

The boys camped in the area last year when we had the great stars and the great walk up to the fire station and helipad at night.  By then, the trees were tall enough to obliterate the views, so we had to hunt a while before we found a spot a ways down a dirt road, off the paved Big Hill Road.

This time, that road was covered in snow, and if I am not mistaken, the road to the spot Steve and I were was under snow as well.  These are the only 2 roads off the East side facing the spectacular view of the Crystal Range and Desolation Wilderness, which is the highlight of the area. Bill and I drove up top for a beverage and clear thinking.  The fire station was empty as most are these days, but this may have been a case of just being too early in the season yet.  The only sound was coming from 3 SMUD guys doing some work on what appeared to be a new radio/communication tower.  All of the reservoirs in this drainage, including Loon, Union, and Ice House, are owned/operated/managed by SMUD for hydroelectric power, part of the Upper American River Project, stemming back to 1957.

From up top, you can look right down on many of the inlets and shoreline of Union; you can see Ice House off in the distance, and you can see the notch in the Sierras that Loon sits in.  At 6130’ in elevation, you are only about 300’ lower than Loon and Lake Tahoe on the other side of the Sierra’s, and looking straight across, due East, into Desolation.  These are, in my opinion, the best views from up top; you can see 360 degrees totally unobstructed.  You can see the mountains along I-80 to the North – maybe as far as Mt. Lassen; ridge after ridge to the West – as far as the smog and air pollution will let you. You can see the mountains around Carson Pass (Elephants Back) and Kirkwood ski resort to the South; perhaps a very triangular peak around Bear Valley way out there.   And to the East, you were looking right into the Sierra’s and Desolation Wilderness.

Bill and I had a snack and another beverage while enjoying the views and debating the merits of finding a spot up here on the heliport, near the barracks, or over by the towers that offered the best views of the Sierra’s to the East.  While the views were spectacular, and the stars would be equally awesome if we had a clear sky, it was windy up top, it was weird to be near all the structures and construction, and if anyone came up, we would be in plain view just about anywhere we could find enough flat open ground to make a camp spot.  Enough cars came and went to make it seem there could be visitors all night long.

We decided to scout our options below the ridge.  We headed to Union Valley reservoir thinking that the weather might keep the campers from gathering in large masses.  Unfortunately, the Forest Service kept all the gates locked on every road to the campgrounds; not a single one was open.  This is yet another example of government agencies keeping the public out of their public lands and away from recreational opportunities.  This is becoming a growing concern as more people head out into public lands for recreational, emotional, or spiritual reasons, and agencies reduce staffing and resources to recreational areas.  Their response is to simply close areas, lock gates, and prevent access.  It isn’t right.  But I digress.

The access closures made our camp hunting decision easier by limiting our choices to one, a spot we noticed right off the road at the bottom of Big Hill.  It wasn’t remote, secluded, or special in any way.  The views were not even really good, let alone great.  But, it would meet our simple needs quite well.  We headed back up top to our designated meeting spot, hoping and praying Kenny would, this time, without the distractions Mr. Graham presented last time, in fact find the end of the road this time.  Our confidence was rewarded.

With the number of vehicles that had come up the road, I had stopped looking each time to see if it was Ken.  Of course, that is the time it was Ken, and about dam time too. We greeted each other excitedly; glad to see that he had survived a morning at Kaiser and helping his dad with a number of needs.  The odds may have been against his successfully maneuvering his way through all of that and still having the energy and desire to head out of town on a Friday afternoon to meet the boys somewhere out in the woods.  But here he was, in the flesh, and happy to be here.

We wasted little time with debating the pros and cons of our one option for a camp spot and headed down the road to our little opening in the forest.  I was dragging a bit and was a little less than focused.  I unloaded my stuff from Bill’s truck and wandered about looking for a suitable tent location.  It was exhausting putting up the tent, but I mustered the strength and carried on.  I think starting the fire supplied the needed energy boost as smelling the smoke out by my tent was very satisfactory.

I heard Ken talking to someone out by the road, but couldn’t figure out whom.  I was here and Bill was over near his tent.  I realized he was talking on the phone letting his people know that he had met up with us and all was well.  We discussed the merits of being within cell range; on one hand if stuff is happening or it is tough to get away from responsibilities, you can check on or be reached if need be.  That way you can still be on the trip and still keep an eye on things and you feel like being away is OK.

On the other hand, you don’t really feel like you are away, but like you are on call or part here and part there – never really submersed in the trip or being away, free, relaxed, on your own.  There is no right or wrong; just what it is.  In this case, with Ken involved in so many things with his dad, it was best to be connected just in case, rather than perhaps not feeling like he could be away if he couldn’t be reached and perhaps within range of getting back if need be.  In any event, once checked in at home, he was good to relax and enjoy being out here.  Once we had set up tents and sleeping arrangements were made, we gathered by the fire to discuss cocktails and dinner.  Ken and Bill passed around some excellent cheeses and crackers, olives and grapes.  They were all tasty snacks that awoke my hunger, and my thirst.

I had defrosted a rice, red cabbage and turkey bacon brew I made some months back that I never got to, so I wanted to be sure to consume all of that on this trip.  I told the boys to go light with food they bought so we could devour this.  I did an outstanding job heating it up over the fire with a foil top and beer added for moisture and it proved again to be a most tasty and healthy food like substance.  We were pretty full, but the night was young and I wanted to cook a pork roast K got for me that we had marinated for days, so onto the grill it went.  It was great to sit around the fire, meat on grill over open flame.

Some of the places we have camped over the years are truly outstanding spots.  Many however, are very average, that is, until night falls.  It often becomes real quiet and still and beverages have washed away the turmoil and tumultuous trials of city life.  Such was the case with this little spot.  We may have heard/seen one vehicle after dinner.  Bill put on an awesome assortment of tunes.  The fire was great, our bellies full, our nerves less taught.  It was a good night.  I do not recall the details exactly, but I do believe we waddled out the hundred feet to the road to look at the stars.  For some reason, we have seen incredible stars off ice House road – like it is in some very dark place and/or the air is very clean and clear.

I recall suggesting a short drive up the hill to the Look out, but no one was in shape for such a journey.  Instead, we melted into the chairs, the fire, the orange embers, and eventually slumber.  I awoke with a child’s excitement to see the sunrise from up top.  My enthusiasm diminished as I realized I was the only one awake and the only one with this expectation as the sun was up and the fire going and I still was the only one awake. This was very unusual as Kenny almost doesn’t sleep on these trips and is awake or up all hours of the night and wee morning.  I do remember clearly being awake before Bob and Steve on 2 of our 3 mornings – again, if it isn’t Ken up first, it almost never is me next in line.  However, I enjoyed the early morning, the color in the sky; the birdy activity, the growing shadows, and eventually the company of my friends around the fire.

After a bit of this and that, we did clamber into Bill’s truck for a ride up top.  The view did not disappoint.  In all directions, the morning seemed to glimmer and glow.  We took our time strolling along the road that looped around the entire hilltop.  Looking out in all directions, near and far, glimmering water, shimmering snow, clear blue sky, warm calm air.  It was great to be up here at 6130’ on and early April morning.  My phone rang and it was Jordan so I got to talk to him from up on top of Big Hill on my camping trip – that was a very cool thing.  With phone in hand, I also called K10 to “check in”.  Leaving up top, I felt our trip was also coming to a conclusion.

And so it was.  We stoked up the fire and had another round of coffee, but packing and preparations for departure had begun.  Ken headed out and Bill and I were not far behind.  I did not collect rocks or wood or plants of any kind, although there were plenty of chunks, branches and small Cedar trees long dead and dried that could have become fine fire materials, but I resisted.  I wanted to explore a bit before we went home, but with as much snow on the ground and as many locked gates, my enthusiasm had waned.  We decided to explore around Ice House reservoir on the way home since it actually was on the way.  Again, the campground was behind locked gates, despite there being people camped around the boat parking area, and lots of people launching boats.   Why deny access?

We cruised the roads that were open; to the boat ramp, to the day use area, to the beach area, and then out the road to Wright’s Lake, Forest Highway 32.  We only got around a few turns and a fair amount of snow was still thick on the road.  There were certainly tracks through it, and a van coming from that direction, but we didn’t really have anywhere to go and digging out of snow was definitely not on the agenda.  Besides, I had begun to imagine being on the couch with K10 watching the NCAA Final Four Games that would decide the Championship game Monday night.

Find this Spot


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