South Lake

Bishop Creek rivals most Eastern Sierra destinations and South Lake is no exception. At 21 miles from the town of Bishop, the road to South Lake passes through many ecozones from desert scrub, Pinyon and Juniper, and finally Lodgepole and Limber pines. Past the Parcher’s Camp resort on both sides of the road are sweet, lush, riparian zones with ultra wildflower displays. Water gushes from springs on the talus slopes on the hillsides in this area even in the driest of years.

The first mile of the Bishop Pass Trail that heads up out of the South Lake trailhead is actually an old road that was constructed for logging the planks needed to face the dam. The retaining walls that the workmen built for the road are substantial and up to 25 feet high. Most people don’t even realize they are walking on an old road, because a lot of aspens have grown up along the edge. At the end of the road a mill site was constructed and many stumps remain from the logging that occurred all over the hillsides in that area.

On one particular hike I walked up from the lake and found cord wood that had been cut, stacked and never retrieved. The wood was in four foot lengths and had to be packed on mules to fire the boilers at the sawmill. It still sits there today in one to two cord piles on steep slopes in various spots around the lake.

There are many choices to take from the South Lake trailhead. Most people are heading over Bishop Pass and packing in, but within two miles are lovely little lakes off the beaten path such as Hurd, Marie Louise, Bull and Chocolate. Another trail takes off to the inlet of South Lake and heads toward Treasure Lake. Treasure Lake is exactly as its name implies-a true beauty shimmering in multi-colors in the sun.

Long before there was any power plant operation and dam at South Lake, cowboys from Bishop were riding up the steep slopes and marking blazes on the trees. This was no Marlboro ad, but the real deal. They were riding their horses in places with a mountain backdrop like no other in the world. It must have been a very special feeling for them to be out there in the wilderness in the1890’s.

I found one of their trails and followed it all the way up to the base of the mountain slope just over the hill from the Green Lake basin. It was at this location that I discovered where they constructed a fence about a quarter of a mile long out of Limber pine trees and baling wire to keep the cows from going down the hill. They even made a three pole gate that is now down on the ground from the snow. Except for an occasional old horseshoe (and if I didn’t see cow bones nearby), I would have never known that cowboys had been there. Usually, there are only signs of sheep herding in places like that.

Later in time mule packers from the resort in the 1920’s would use these old trails to pack in hunters. Now they are abandoned to time and history. Only the blazes are left to tell where the cowboys went, and when those trees blow down or burn up, that will be the end of it.

As the bench narrows down at the base of the slope the sage and bitterbrush grow lower to the ground and are sprawled out clinging to the rocks to escape the wind. Out on the exposed slopes the wind, snow and sand blast uprooted trees into beautiful golden patterns of sculptured art. Down lower in the forest great clouds of yellow dust blow through the trees to pollinate them. On the higher slopes the Limber pines begin to look like bushes with small trees sticking out here or there fighting to survive. Some of the younger trees on this slope have been blown down by powerhouse gusts of wind, but other trees around them are still intact. The trees with their roots still attached to the ground will continue to live in their stooped over condition for many years to come.

As I descend down into the forest and approach a small opening in the aspens, a deer springs off into the woods, a baby grouse takes flight, and a red-tailed hawk swoops down with its wings folded back in a stealth maneuver to catch a chipmunk. There sure is a lot of life in these woods. A little farther down I enter a granite drainage loaded with newly bloomed Columbines. They range in color from white to purple and yellow to red. Some are a combination of colors, all in one small place.

Something is shining on the ground that looks like glass. It is, but not the modern kind of glass. It is a small piece of black obsidian that was left there by a hunter who passed this way a long time ago. He would be glad to know that little has changed since he was here last.

Well, it has been a big day for me, and it’s time to head back to the parking lot. I will probably stop and shoot the breeze with a few hikers along the trail just to see how their hike has been going. Back at the parking area there are some real cool things. Above the parking loop is a little picnic spot under a large Lodgepole tree with two tables. The view from this spot is absolutely “splen-tacular” and not very many people ever use it. Also, an abandoned water pipe takes off from here up toward Green Lake and is a favorite for people to walk and run up. I’ll save that for another story. Until then my friends, happy trails.

In 2013 South Lake went down 80 feet below its historic level not even witnessed by the Indians.  Because a tunnel was constructed beneath the bottom of the lake and a hole blasted through, the lake has drained far below its old shoreline. We shall see what happens in the summer of 2014 if the lake actually goes down the drain hole.

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One Response to “South Lake”

  1. riverbearphoto Says:

    Thanks for your informative an interesting blog!

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