Backpacking Bucks Lake Wilderness

One day after summer solstice I took a short backpacking trip into the Bucks Lake Wilderness, following the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Bucks Summit to Spanish Peak, then taking the Gold Lake and Granite Gap trails to Rock Lake, an out-and-back trip of about 7 miles each way.

Starting Out in Quincy

I drove up to Quincy Thursday night and spent Friday working remotely from the shade of a patio table at the Feather Bed Inn. At lunch, I visited the Mount Hough Ranger District offices to pick up a map. There, the officer on the front desk mentioned the Plumas National Forest now has a resident wolf pack!–including at least one female and an adolescent male who is periodically kicked out of the pack and often spotted alone. Fortunately, they seem to like the north end of the Forest, over by Susanville. (I later found this story in the local paper.)

After work I took an evening stroll around town, passing the house I grew up in, now remodeled almost beyond recognition, and stopping in a few of the shops. I grabbed dinner at Pangea, an old favorite, and had a beer at the new Quintopia brewery.

There is something really amazing about Quincy in summer. In what other town of less than 5,000 people, more than 90 miles from any city, can you find a local NPR affiliate, quality thrift shopping, solid restaurants, great coffee, and three different live bands in a three block radius on a random Friday night–all about 20 minutes from gorgeous river-side natural hot springs, the PCT, and dramatic, easily accessible back country.

Of course, there’s something a little surreal about visiting Quincy too, at least if you grew up there, like a permanent case of deja vu. While of course I bumped into plenty of people I actually know, I also recognized almost every face without quite being able to place it. It’s weird after so many years in the city to look at everyone you meet and think–I know you, do you know me? How well do we know each other? Because everyone is either someone you went to school with, or the sibling or cousin of someone you went to school with, a friend of your parents, one of your teachers, or someone your brother worked with at the pool that summer.

Backpacking Bucks Lake Wilderness Day 1: Bucks Summit to Spanish Peak and Rock Lake

After filling my water bottles from the hotel bathtub (the only tap large enough), I left Quincy early Saturday morning, following the Bucks Lake Highway up to Bucks Summit staging area. I assembled my pack in the parking lot and started up the PCT.

Bucks Summit PCT trail sign
Bucks Summit PCT trail sign

I’ve hiked this trail many times before, but it felt new to me. There is something really magical about springtime–and it is still spring in the Sierras, even in late June, the day after the longest day of the year. Warm but not yet hot, with a strong wind and a completely cloudless sky. Tons of wildflowers, the lupines on the trail not yet flowering, the pine trees all pale green at the tips where the new needles have just come in.

As I walked, I wondered to myself why anyone even bothers with the Coastal Range when the Sierras are just as close and better in almost every respect. Fewer people, fewer bugs, better weather, no Poison Oak, well-maintained trails, and, in my opinion at least, more beautiful scenery. There was just one small challenge…

Snow on the PCT, Bucks Lake Wilderness

I encountered the first patches of snow about 2 miles into my hike. I’m still a beginning backpacker and pretty slow anyway–but the snow slowed me down even more. It does come with some really special plant life though–like these little guys, the Shorthorn Steer’s Head, a rare-ish wildflower related to the coastal Bleeding Heart. They only grow in snow melt above 4,000 feet.

There were also fields of lilies punching up through the ice water. Another week or so, and this should be pretty amazing.

Spanish Peak

I reached Spanish Peak by noon, a distance of 5 miles according to the sign, though only 4.5 if you believe the phone. There, I found the this year’s Berkeley Forestry Camp taking a break from their introductory hike. I hung out on the peak for a bit, having lunch, taking photos and eavesdropping on a lecture about the history of the region, the impact mining and the dynamic landscapes of California.

Spanish Peak, Bucks Lake Wilderness
Spanish Peak

PCT to Gold Lake Trail

From Spanish Peak spur, I returned to the PCT and continued on, passing through a snowy field. It took me some time, and the friendly assistance of a passing thru-hiker, to pick up the trail again on the other side–but once I did things went well until I reached this sign for the Gold Lake Trail. I’m sure you can see my problem.

I’d glimpsed my destination, Rock Lake, from the ridge through the trees, so I knew about where to go, but there was no picking up the trail in all that snow. I slid down the first, snow-covered section on my heals, and occasionally, my ass. It was super fun, if maybe a little dangerous, given how much the pack changes your balance. Lower on the mountain trees gave way to huge granite slabs, which were relatively easy to traverse, crossing back and forth over the creek, occasionally stumbling across trail but invariably loosing it again in the snow. I eventually made my way through a thicket of brush and onto the shore of Rock Lake around 3:00. My phone measured 7.25 miles.

Rock Lake

The spring runoff meant the established camp was mildly flooded, but I managed to find a dry spot wide enough for my (new) single person tent, and set up camp. I spent the rest of the afternoon laying out in the sun on the granite overlooking the lake, reading and writing in my notebook, completely alone, except for a couple who passed by around 6:00.

Backpacking Bucks Lake Wilderness Day 2: Rock Lake to Bucks Summit

It was a whole lot easier to pick up the Granite Gap and Gold Lake trails leaving Rock Lake then finding them under the snow on the way down. I left Rock Lake around 8:00, stopping for water about half way back to the PCT. This water–it was so good!

Once I hit snow I predictably lost the trail again, but picked up the PCT easily enough on the ridge. From there, I followed the PCT back down to Bucks Summit. On the drive back to town I stopped off at a favorite Spanish Creek swimming hole for a (really freezing) swim–actually more of a 5-second plunge followed by some lounging on the shore.

Swimming at Spanish Creek
Swimming at Spanish Creek

This was the introductory hike I was dreaming of when I went for a dry run at Portola State Park last month. It was a beautiful trip, and I have no new blisters! None! I can’t wait to come back and do a longer version that takes in Three Lakes, and the Mill Creek loop.


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