It's nearly Christmas in the Sierra, and, so far, we've had a mild winter with pleasant temps and hardly any snowfall.
Me on Saturday morning: "Let's get out and go for a walk today, or a hike, or something."
I really wanted to take advantage of this non-winter winter we're having and get another hike in, in case we end up getting substantial snow at some point.
While winter has been mild, some higher elevation areas do have snow, so we had to think hard about where we could hike without running into too many obstacles. Plus, at 39º F, it wasn't freezing outside, but it's still winter, so of course, I would have to dress in layers, preparing to be cold.
Since we've been on a hot springs kick lately, it seemed fitting to drive down to Markleeville and hike in and around Grover Hot Springs State Park, but rather than venturing to the hot springs, we decided to hike to a waterfall instead.
We packed up our gear and headed out for the, roughly, 1-hour drive to the Charity Valley Trailhead. When we arrived, the trailhead lot was empty, which was just fine with us. This late in the season, we weren't expecting much of a flowing waterfall, but we were hoping for the best. And, at the very least, we were getting exercise outside in the fresh air on a beautiful December day.
Near the start of the trail, we were greeted by signs posted to charred trees alerting us we were entering a "burned area," evidence of the Tamarack wildfire.
In 2021, the lightning-caused Tamarack wildfire engulfed 68,637 acres after 113 active days. Arguably, an error in judgment by the US Forest Service turned into a massively destructive disaster as flying embers ignited spot fires the next county over, spreading the blaze across the California state line into Nevada.
It is important to note that in the Sierra, lightning-caused fires are actually "normal" and expected to occur as a part of the forest's natural cycle. In fact, the burning helps keep the forests healthy. Because of this, sometimes such fires are allowed to burn while monitored by US Forest Service personnel. Unfortunately, this one was gravely underestimated and resulted in devastating damage.
And now, over two years later, we were hiking amongst the sobering ruins. But we were still able to find and appreciate the beauty.
Along the trail, within the Grover Hot Springs State Park, is this pretty meadow surrounded by pines and peaks. I think during spring snow melt season, this meadow can become quite a marshland, thus, the raised boardwalk traversing the meadow. (We used the boardwalk on our return route.)
Up until this point, the trail had been obvious and pretty moderate with some gradual ups and downs. Then we reached this:
So, the tame trail turned into a rocky choose-your-own-adventure. At this juncture, we also came across two other hikers, but casual observation would suggest these two 60-something women were more "out for a stroll in nature" than out for a hike in the mountains, so once the trail became more challenging and less obvious, they likely felt a little intimidated.
When I first came up on them in this rocky section, I greeted them, and one of them asked me if I was by myself. I could sense her concern for me in her question. I just smiled and gestured that my husband was back there.
We didn't really know the "trail" any better than they did, but we tried to help lead the way for them a little bit through the rocks and trees. After a short distance of going up, down, around, and over boulders, we could hear the rushing of a modest waterfall, and not long after, we found it.
As we started our return route, we spotted a pair of winter gloves that had been dropped. My husband hiked back over to the two women who were still at the falls, to see if the gloves belonged to either of them. (They did, and she was appreciative of our thoughtfulness to return them to her.)
Once we reached the junction in the trail for Burnside Lake, just to add a bit more challenge and distance to our overall hike and to see a bit more of the sights, we turned and started the hike up to Burnside Lake. I thought the name of this lake was apropos considering...
This section of trail was a fairly steep grade surrounded by not much but burned trees, and I'm not sure any hikers have used it since before the fire swept through. The trail was covered in forest debris, and parts were even soggy with greasy mud, which I suspect was another side-effect of the torched soil conditions due to the fire.
We climbed and climbed until we reached 4 miles total for the hike so far, and then we turned around and headed back to the trailhead. (The hike from Grover Hot Springs to Burnside Lake is, in and of itself, 8 miles round-trip, and we'd already logged 4 miles one way. While it would have been fun to get to the lake, it wasn't realistic today.)
We descended back to the main trail, where we, once again, bumped into the two women hikers from the waterfall. We all kind of chuckled as we passed, and then we diverted to the boardwalk section.
The sun was getting lower and the temperature was following suit, so we took a few more pics of the meadow and then made our way back to the main trail that would take us back to the trailhead.
A family of tourists approached as we left the boardwalk, asking us if this was the route to the hot springs. Technically, yes, you could hike to the hot springs from here, but my husband got out his phone to show them on the map where they were in relation to the hot springs and then explained it would be better if they drove there. This family was not "out for a hike," so they appreciated the redirection.
I picked up a pretty decent pace on the stretch of trail back to the trailhead because it was starting to get chilly out and, at this point, I was ready to eat some dinner.
While this wasn't the most notable or exciting hike, I was just happy to have gotten outside to enjoy the weather. And it just might be our final hike of 2023. Maybe we'll come back in the future and finish the 8-mile roundtrip hike to Burnside Lake, or even take a soak in the nearby hot springs.
Hot Springs Creek Waterfall