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A four hour detour had us filling out our camping permit late afternoon at the Groveland Forest Service Station. This station is a few miles from Buck Flat. That is to say they are closer to Buck Flat than they are to Groveland. In Groveland, you actually find the Cal-Fire station right on Highway I-120. This ranger station however, is located between Buck Flat and Groveland about 200 yards off of Highway I-120, down a small asphalt road. The building is both impressive and misleading.
Impressive because of its size and architecture. It's inviting and well fitted to its surroundings. The outside is adorned with gardens, walkways, and information. Though parking is limited, from the sidewalks to the restrooms, all is comfortably sized. A little like a favorite pair of worn jeans. They have enough room to let you work, but you still can't pull them off over your boots.
The misleading part is, the actual visitor's center is large but the area used by the public is very small. Upon first entering the wood and glass sided building, you find yourself in the equivalent of a well kept visitors’ mud room. From there you step into another not so very big room. This one has things to buy, stuff to look at, and a counter manned by Forest Service Employees. Here is where we filled out our permit. The permit is free (but required), and you must call 24 hours in advance. They only allow 25 people per day to enter Lake Eleanor, so crowds are rare, but so is getting a spot on the weekends. The USFS Groveland Ranger Station phone number is (209) 962-7825 if you are interested.
Ultimately, we were met by a small clearing with gates, cars, bear boxes, and signs. Perhaps some of the most important ones are the "empty your car of good smelling stuff and lock it in the bear box…And no dogs allowed". Camping was in the campground on the northwest shore, or on most of the south shore. If the campsite had a fire ring and a bear box, then it was an official campsite. If not, it is considered disperse camping. More than anything, this meant a minimum of 100 feet from water in any direction, bring your own bear box, and no campfires.
After reading the signs, we headed for the trail. A short rise before a steady 6%-8% fall (0.4 miles from trailhead to lake). Now keep in mind that a 6%+ grade is what makes the big rigs grind and blat, depending on whether they are going up or down hill. With the sun taking its last look around, we smeared the water's surface, made little whirlpools with our blades, and then found camp at Frog Creek around 10:00 pm. Finally, our vacation had begun.
Frog Creek had two spots, but neither was taken. There was also a Forest Service Line Cabin there, but it was boarded shut and out of service. Water, beach, driftwood, and then we vanished into the trees. We also camped in the forest. It was so heavily forested between the lake and the campsite, at night from the beach you couldn’t see the campsite lantern. We took the site nearest the lake, site #80. This placed us in between the cabin and the lake, and the other site was to cabin right. We were a one minute bird's glide almost due south from Eleanor Falls, but a 1.2 mile paddle from the back seat of a canoe.
We filled most of our morning taking pictures of flies that looked like bees, reading books, sorting supplies, and checking out the lake with the Itasca canoe between us and the water. First up was Kibbie Falls. These falls are popular because backpackers have to pass them to get to their camp. Not really gentle, and not really strong, they are another pair of comfortable jeans. With that and a few pictures from the stern, we checked out the confluence where the falls fed the lake (a wide babbling brook around large rocks), and then headed out to Eleanor Falls (where Eleanor Creek feeds Lake Eleanor).
We were on our way when we spotted the first Bald Eagle. Actually, I think it spotted us because it made a huge ruckus while watching us from some 50 feet above. Eagle stares at tourists in canoe. Tourists stare at eagle in tree. Eagle watches tourists take out camera and point at eagle.
As we moved down the north side of the lake, we encountered a Golden Eagle and later, two Bald Eagles (one probably being the first one we saw). Eleanor runs roughly west to east with a slight counterclockwise spin, and it's vaguely in the outline of an outstretched flame, with the tip on the east slightly to the north. Eleanor Falls enters at the tip. So far, the vast majority of the shoreline was steep forest covered hills with occasional rock outcroppings. As we approached the falls the land took on a contrasted mix of high badlands cliffs, windswept granite, and pockets of both evergreen and perennial trees
We stayed at the bottom of Eleanor Falls taking pictures and marveling at how the water really battles its way down the falls, cascading around and over boulders and flats. At times it even changes directions, being forced upward a bit and then races back to the lake. Where the flow churns into the lake, there is a stunning, deep pool that hydro-churns the water and eventually forces its way out between large granite gates to mix with the rest of Eleanor. Everything was substantial, brutal, and powerful, but scaled down (except for the rocks). This was not a huge waterfall, and it did not carry massive amounts of water…It was just delivering the water in a forceful and aggressive way. I understand the water comes from a melting glacier lake, yet this water was fairly warm before it forced its way into the boil at the bottom. The experience was worth the effort. We took pictures from the land, the canoe, and while swimming in the water. Then we paddled to the main campground for a look around.
This was a backpackers/horseback campground, and it lay one mile east on the north side of the lake by trail from the dam. I had been particularly interested in checking it out because it was supposed to have pit toilets. Since we had no facilities out here, and we practice "No Trace" camping, we go in bio degradable/eco friendly/no spill in canoe waste disposal bags. Sounds bad, but really is very clean compared to most public restrooms (at least the ones in SoCal). However, these fancy forest friendly bags cost about $3.50 each, so cheaper accommodations were always a welcome option. We found campers, bear boxes, fire rings, hitching posts, and stock feed boxes. But we didn't find the toilets. We later learned that the toilets were farther down the trail and were really bad. We did however, find several colored and laminated wanted posters of the local outlaw. An oversized hairy quadruped predator named White #80.
White #80 is the local black bear. I don't know if the white refers to the tag on her ear, or the light color she displays on her side. The posters named her, gave a brief psychological profile…And explained how to handle her. So let me see if I can remember this right. She's persistent. She has a thing for picnic baskets & backpacks. She's even known to take sandwiches right out of campers' hands. Campers, on the other hand, are to respond accordingly. Do not give up your food at any cost. Yell, scream, gang up, wave sticks, and make hollow threats. Never be more than an arm's length away from food out of the bear box. Yea right, like I'm going to fight off a bear that's grabbing my sandwich.
True to form, next morning my wife slept in and I headed for a photo shoot adventure. I hiked from our campsite to Frog Creek Falls (about 1 mile), up the sides, over the canyon walls, around the forest (about 3 miles total), and past some bear scat (a couple of days old). The visual pallet was filled with granite of all sizes, downed trees, water pools, and all sorts of color plugged into the landscape here and there. It was rugged and striking. Climbing out of the creek and up on top, I found harsh and stunning vistas. Twisted branches of Manzanita and old lightning struck trees peppered the pallet with their own form of spices. From a distance the nearby hills looked covered with moderate vegetation, yet from up close, there were trees sparsely embedded in huge granite outcroppings with sandy game trails. Light played tricks with shadows, water, and topography. Boulders the size of cars were perched upon stacks of smaller boulders, so high I could stand beneath them. Great debris fields lay compressed in small and confined areas, speaking of glorious floods in their past. This is a land of contrast and disproportion. I took pictures nearly the entire way.
I returned to camp and the sun was a full finger width above the east canyon peaks. Frog Creek was well lit. The campsite however, was still in dark forest, as were the deer when I stepped in…and they scattered.
One adult buck leaped from about 15 feet in front of me and found cover in the forest. A doe a few feet from the buck did the same. To my right and about 20 feet away a yearling brother and sister bounded by my wife. Some of the deer were only about five feet from her sleeping bag when she woke. She had been trying to get pictures with her cell phone. So after I armed her with one of my cameras, we spent the next 45 minutes to an hour close quarter stalking the youngsters with cameras. They seemed to be fascinated with the flashes. They never ran from us, but they never let us get within 12 to 15 feet either. They watched us, they ate, and they posed for us. Then they simply walked off.
We never saw White #80, which suited my wife fine. We've been camping in bear country for decades, but for some reason this walking rug really unnerved my wife. Perhaps it was its history of being supremely bold. I never figured it out, and my wife never let it stop us from having a great time in the woods or on the lake.
When it was all over, returning the gear to the truck became a monumental task. It was hot and dry outside and the trail was dusty. Shade didn't come until you were on the top third of the trail. HHWP (Hetch Hetchy Water and Power) vehicles frequently used this trail (the trail was actually a poorly maintained service road). Due to our over packing, it took several trips up the road. Five miles up the road and 1/4 mile back down. On the gps it was simply 0.4 miles both ways, but I’m sure the gps was wrong. Mid afternoon our last day, we had completed our final portage, so I went down for a few parting shots of the lake from above. On my way back I crossed the tracks of a bear cub on the trail. A cub means mommy is nearby and would probably go beyond "supremely bold" I'm glad we didn't see this at our campsite because this is a dangerous situation.
The nearest actual town is Groveland. There is a community park and playground, some places to stay, and several places to eat.
Canoe / Kayak Anchors