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Hampshire Rocks

Started: 2021-07-25 15:51:59

Submitted: 2021-07-25 23:04:45

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator goes camping near Lake Tahoe and narrowly avoids getting stuck in a major traffic jam

Two days after moving into our house in Santa Cruz, we left to go camping in the Sierras.

Sometime in the spring, in a break from planning our move to Santa Cruz and worrying about the pandemic, I looked at our summer plans and decided that I needed to make a camping reservation somewhere so we could actually go camping this summer. (California has apparently not built any new campgrounds in decades, despite the state population growing by several multiples in that time; as a result, the best camp sites fill as soon as reservations open sometime in the winter.) When I picked the dates I thought that we have moved into our house earlier in June, but redoing the floors took longer than I expected so we had less time to unpack than I had hoped we would before the date of our camping reservation arrived.

California has a great selection of stunning beaches and redwood forests, but we can get those right at home in Santa Cruz, so I looked to the Sierra-Nevada Mountains for some stunning alpine scenery and found a Forest Service campground on I-80 on the way to Lake Tahoe called Hampshire Rocks. This was apparently a reference to a landmark on the wagon trail taking 19th century immigrants into California, on the long descent from Donner Pass to the Central Valley around Sacramento, the route now occupied by I-80.

We left Santa Cruz on Wednesday, 23rd June. We put off packing for the trip until Wednesday morning, since we were still unpacking our house (and we were still surrounded by boxes; we had, at least, set aside the stuff we knew we'd want to take camping before packing the house to move). We drove up I-680 through the East Bay, eventually joining I-80 west of Vacaville. Even during the middle of the day, at the tail end of a global pandemic, we hit heavy traffic in the East Bay and northward on our way to Sacramento.

We arrived at our campground late in the afternoon, giving us enough time to set up the tent before supper. I stopped to pick up firewood at a gas station close to the campsite, but it was not entirely clear whether it was ok to light a campfire in the developed campsite. The campground itself had no signs indicating one way or another. Most of the information I could find online (on my phone, we had great cell coverage a the campground) talked about the fire ban inside the National Forest lands inside Tahoe basin, which did not appear to directly apply to us because we were in a different management unit of the Tahoe National Forest. I figured it was probably ok to have a campfire, but we decided to put off hot dogs (our traditional camping meal, cooked over an open campfire) for another night in hopes of gathering more information. Kiesa brought freeze-dried backpacking meals that we could prepare by adding hot water, which were considerably easier to prepare and clean up than most other camping meals.

Tent at Hampshire Rocks campground
Tent at Hampshire Rocks campground

The campsite's main flaw was its proximity to I-80. The Forest Service warned me about road noise when I made my camping reservation, but it wasn't entirely clear how much of a problem it would be. We ended up in a campsite closer to the highway than many other campsites, close enough to see traffic on the road as we sat at our site. During the day the noise remained in the background, but at night, as we tried to sleep, traffic subsided and the noise dropped off until a big truck drove by, and I'd hear the wind rushing around the truck as it zoomed past. This did not make for an especially restful night.

On Thursday morning, 24th June, we set out on a short hike (two miles one-way) to Summit Lake, near Donner Summit. We parked off I-80 next to one of the ski areas along the Interstate at a sno-park that (in the summer) also doubled as a trailhead accessing the Pacific Crest Trail. We hiked through pine forests and over rocks polished by glaciers in the last ice age (accompanied by interpretive signs), then joined the Pacific Crest Trail as it headed north through a pair of tunnels under I-80.

Trail under I-80 at Donner Summit
Trail under I-80 at Donner Summit

The tunnel was built as a corrugated pipe laid in place below the roadbed, then covered by the road as it was built.

Julian and Kiesa walk through the tunnel under I-80
Julian and Kiesa walk through the tunnel under I-80

The first tunnel, under the eastbound lanes, was dry. The second tunnel, under the westbound lanes, had a bit of water at the entrance, with a small selection of rocks piled on one side to give us something to walk on in hopes of keeping our feet dry.

Calvin investigates water in the tunnel
Calvin investigates water in the tunnel

On the north side of the highway, the terrain grew steeper as we hiked towards the lake perched on the hillside. Half-way to the lake the trees parted, giving us a commanding view to the south, across Donner Summit and the Interstate highway, and Donner Pass and the two-lane highway and the first trans-continental railway.

Kiesa, Calvin, and Julian hike through a field
Kiesa, Calvin, and Julian hike through a field

We reached Summit Lake, a small alpine lake surrounded by pine forest. We ate lunch and Julian and Calvin amused themselves by splashing in the water along the shore. I advised them that we did not have a change of clothes and they managed to avoid getting too wet.

Julian and Calvin at Summit Lake
Julian and Calvin at Summit Lake

I took a lap around the lake while the kids splashed in the water, ad by the time I got back they were ready to hike back down the mountain.

Kiesa, Julian, and Calvin at Summit Lake
Kiesa, Julian, and Calvin at Summit Lake

As we returned to the car an afternoon thunderstorm began to rain, then stopped raining once we actually reached the car, but remained overcast for the rest of the afternoon. As I pulled out onto the frontage road and prepared to merge onto eastbound I-80 heading towards Truckee, I saw that traffic was backed up on the Interstate. I turned westbound on the Interstate instead, backtracking to take the two-lane road over the original Donner Pass. There was some road construction on the road leading up to Donner Pass, and traffic seemed like it was heavier than it might otherwise be on the road because people had diverted from the backed-up Interstate to the older, smaller road. We eventually learned that a tractor-trailer heading east down from Donner Summit had crashed and jack-knifed itself across the entire road, closing the entire eastbound highway while crews worked to remove the crashed vehicle and clean up after it.

I had considered driving oner Donner Pass anyway, because it was another interesting route into Truckee, providing an up-close view of the original trans-continental railway, built across the crest of the Sierra-Nevada mountains at great expense in the nineteenth century.

Donner Summit Bridge
Donner Summit Bridge

Shortly after Donner Pass I stopped at an overlook to admire the elegant concrete arch Donner Summit Bridge, with Donner Lake in the distance; and the rail grade leading up to Donner Pass, tunneling through the weathered granite forming the mountains and protected by snow sheds and resting on retaining walls, all built a hundred and fifty years ago by immigrant labor, all of it an amazing testament to human engineering and tenacity, but rendered redundant by a lower-level rail tunnel and the two-lane highway I was driving on and the (albeit currently closed) superhighway on the opposite side of the valley.

Rail line leading up to Donner Pass
Rail line leading up to Donner Pass

We drove around Donner Lake to Donner Memorial State Park. The rain had picked up again as we went inside the museum discussing the Donner Party's ill-fated journey to California, culminating with the group trying to wait out the winter near where we were staying. (None of the original buildings survived.)

Outside the museum was the Pioneer Monument, a large statue dedicated to people who immigrated to California.

Pioneer Monument at Donner Memorial State Park
Pioneer Monument at Donner Memorial State Park

We stopped by Safeway for extra camping food (including additional roasting sticks) and headed back to our campsite, worried about the road conditions we'd find. Google Maps indicated that the westbound lanes were open while the eastbound lanes were still closed, with traffic backed up for miles. As we drove west towards Donner Summit the eastbound lanes were eerily empty; then we spotted the crashed truck on the highway, attended by emergency vehicles. Traffic was being held at the Donner Summit rest area, and as we headed west we could see a second, larger closure a few miles away. Traffic was completely stopped on the highway, and had spilled over onto the frontage roads, and I think I saw at least one truck stuck in the median where it had tried to turn around but had gotten bogged down in soft ground. I turned off onto the exit to my campsite, double-checking every turn to make sure I was going the right place because oncoming traffic was stalled so if I missed my turn I'd never make it back.

Traffic backed up on I-80
Traffic backed up on I-80

From our campsite next to I-80 we saw the traffic stopped on the highway. This just brought on new road noise: engines idling and air breaks venting as they sat, waiting for hours for the road to reopen. A half-hour after I took the picture above, traffic started moving again. The highway had been closed for hours and I got lucky seeing and avoiding the traffic when I did.

For supper I lit a fire (all of the available evidence suggested it would be ok, and several of our neighbors at the campground had lit their own fires) and we cooked hot dogs for supper, then finished with marshmallows and s'mores. Once we were finished eating, Calvin started roasting random things on the end of a stick and came up with the idea to roast a Cheeto. It caught fire and burned spectacularly, suggesting that Flamin' Hot Cheetos was actually an incendiary device, not just a flavor.

Cheeto on fire over the camp fire
Cheeto on fire over the camp fire
Tolkien is hobbit-forming!