The Mokelumne Wilderness



A dragonfly checked out my toes at Wheeler Lake. I reached for my camera, but s/he flew off.       I waited, and after a couple of minutes, s/he returned.

On July 16, Barbara Higbie and I took off for what we expected would be a 5-day backpacking trip in the Mokelumne Wilderness, in the Sierra north of Highway 4, west of Ebbetts Pass. I had purchased an older guide book at a bookstore in Oakland for $1, and the itinerary for the area seemed promising. I was interested in seeing the area that furnishes 90% of our East Bay drinking water, for one thing, and the descriptions of the mix of volcanic and glacial terrain sounded visually promising. I had purchased a topographical map of the area from, so that I could plot our trek. I love maps!


Orange highlighter marked our travels, starting from Hwy 4 on the lower right side.

Barbara and I got together and planned out our meals, snacks, and so forth. I had been dehydrating nectarines, peaches, and blueberries, and my latest delicious find for the trail: parmesan cheese. You can get rid of 75% of the weight, and have a wonderful and welcome addition to boring trail food! We divided up packets of fruit and nuts for munchies during the day, and took packets of almond butter and crackers and a few bars for lunches. Our favorite hot meal ended up being something I had thrown together, with dehydrated  black beans from the Berkeley Bowl bulk foods section, mixed with dehydrated brown rice, carrots, spinach, and kale that I had purchased online. Throw a little of that parmesan on it, and it was delicious! Breakfast was a mix of oats and toasted amaranth flakes with protein powder and dried whole milk, with dehydrated blueberries and bananas. I’d say we ate well, except for one suspect dinner that we couldn’t force ourselves to eat. We ended up burying it somewhere in the woods. Barbara had gotten her hands on a book on ultralight backpacking, and wanted to use the suggested food amounts from there. Turns out that we don’t eat nearly as much as the guy who wrote the book (who was hiking 20 miles/day). I pointed that out before we left, and we cut our rations down somewhat, but were still left with too much food to carry for five days. Next time, I’ll probably pack too little to make up for it.


Dehydrated fruits and cheese, plus nuts and milk, getting ready for the trail.

I started out to pick up Barbara before 7:00 AM on July 16, after having spent the last three days on the road with the Right Hands, playing in Winters, Santa Cruz and Rohnert Park. I was working with a sleep deficit and was pretty tuckered out by the run, but also psychically energized by the great audiences and terrific band. Of course, half-way to Babz’s house, I had to turn back because i had forgotten things that at the time seemed really important: my balaclava for cold weather and extra velcro to affix our gaiters to our shoes. After a slow start, we made it to the Sandy Meadow trailhead shortly after noon, on a clear, warm day. Left the van in the dirt parking lot, and took off up the trail. The first thing that greeted us was a large swath of Mariposa lilies —the most I’ve ever seen in one place. A good omen. Then huge meadows of lupine and purple mountain aster. We met a woman and her Jack Russell terrier out for a walk as we started up the trail, and then didn’t see another human for the rest of the hike.


Barbara pauses in a field of flowers


The little mountain hemlock. They rarely get bigger than about 6 feet tall.

We walked through red fir and lodgepole forests scattered with little mountain hemlocks (John Muir’s favorite tree). The new sage-green growth on the tips of the branches were so full of of life, silently singing, “Look at me! Look at me!” And how could you not? We heard a hermit thrush singing somewhere off in the woods. The trail was relatively gentle, but still kicked my tired butt. It was only that, though—standard tiredness—and really I had nothing to complain about. The streams were a rich brown from the tannins in the duff.


Rich tea-stained water.

We arrived at Wheeler Lake, and were surprised to hear, out in the lush, swampy meadow surrounding the lake on two sides, the sounds of cowbells. It felt like we had walked into Switzerland accidentally. At least at first it wasn’t so annoying. The cattle were on the far side of the lake. We found a nice campsite among the granite boulders above the trail, and set up camp and had an early dinner. Afterwards, we decided to wash off the dust and sweat in the lake, and take a swim. The lake was surprisingly warm, and the bottom was squishy with decaying plant matter (and probably cow dung). Nevertheless, we got in it, and it felt great, until I suddenly remembered reading about leeches in warm mountain lakes. We swam fast to shore, and in fact I had two of the little suckers trying to attach themselves to my leg. Ugh! Barbara had been spared. It is obvious to me that the lake could use a little less fertilizer in the form of cow poop. I doubt there is a fish that could survive in it at this point.


Danger! Leeches!


Still, it was beautiful in its way…

At 6:30, there were, thankfully, still no mosquitos, but the cowbells started getting louder and louder. The cattle were working themselves over to our side, eating as they went. The bells must really drive them crazy in some way. There is no way they can move without the damn things ringing! There were 16 head of cattle, big and fat and feasting incessantly on the rich grasses.

Wheeler Lake is bound on three sides by tall, rugged volcanic cliffs. It looked like we must be inside some ancient caldera.


Today, I read the compass backwards and told Barbara that South was North. I need to brush up on my skills!

We were in our tents by about 8:30, and even with the cowbells I slept like just another log in the forest. My phone tells me we walked 6.5 miles. My body is trying to tell me it’s more like 10.


9 thoughts on “The Mokelumne Wilderness

  1. Love reading your hikes and remember some of my own. Your fan for forty some years when you sang with my son in the Oakland’s children’s chorus


  2. Spent many weeks over the past years in Carson Ice Berg Wilderness, so the “Danger Leeches” picture resembles “Elephant Rock Lake”. Homestead was at “Ithaca Lake”, but “Union Lake” housed the Trout.


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