Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Last, Longest, and Most Satisfying: From First Dinkey Lake to Courtright Reservoir by Helm's Meadow Trail

Date: August 2, 2018
Place: Dinkey Lakes Wilderness, Prather, California
Coordinates: 37.166173, -119.068209
Length: 9 miles
Level: moderate (last 1.5 miles strenuous)

Despite the perfect conditions my third night of the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness backpacking trip was restless, ridden with dreams of rangers coming to shoo me away from my campsite. Just before going to sleep last night I found a broken 'No Camping Here' sign nailed to a tree near my tent, a sign that wasn't visible from the direction I came from. Although I knew in my mind that no one will come in the middle of the night to the wilderness to get me out of there, my subconsciousness was active enough to disturb my sleep. It was very early and still fairly dark when I stopped fighting with myself and got out of my tent.
I walked down to the lake to collect some water and to enjoy the quiet pre down hour.
First Dinkey Lake 
Up until that morning I didn't see or smell any of the smoke coming from the Ferguson Fire which ravaged Yosemite during that time. On the third morning, however, I could smell the smoke right away when I left the tent. The air looked hazy and there was a belt of soot gathered on the calm lake surface, right by the shore. I had to reach far out to get reasonably clean water, and this time I also filtered it, not simply boil it as I usually do for my breakfast.
Ferguson Fire soot on First Dinkey Lake 
By sunrise I had finished my breakfast and was all packed and ready to go. All my fears and discomfort had dissipated by then, and somehow I was no longer in a hurry to leave this place.
Sunrise at First Dinkey Lake
Of course no ranger ever came up. Besides, the campsite I had used was already a well established spot - I wasn't making any additional scars in the land. I haven't even used the fire ring that was there. In the light of day I could lough at myself for worrying.
My campsite at First Dinkey Lake
Eventually I hoisted my backpack and started off. My plan for that day was to hike over to Helm's Meadow and either stay there for the night or camp at the Courtright Reservoir.  I had enough provisions with me and I wasn't expected at home for two more days, so I decided to see how the day goes.
My hike from First Dinkey Lake to Helm's Meadow and the Courtright Reservoir as captured by my GPS
I charged the trail to Black Peak Meadow with vigor and energy, but stopped stopped few steps into the trail: just around the corner was another campsite with a few tents. Everyone seemed asleep still but one man was up doing some morning work. He waved me and we started chatting. It was a good 20 minutes before I was back on track.
A followed the trail through the woods and soon the lake was behind me and I was alone in the wilderness once again.
The trail I took was narrow and somewhat hard to follow - not because it wasn't clear but because there were many other little trails merging and splitting off what I thought was the main trail. When I stepped into a forest clearing there were also dry creek beds that had clear foot prints in them, as if they were trail. It wasn't easy to figure out where to go and I hd to do some pathfinding navigation to catch up with the primary trail I wanted to hike on.

One of my pathfinding challenges was walking off trail without trampling the beautiful wildflowers that covered the forest clearing. And they were plentiful.

Among the meadow wildflowers I saw another flower I've met on previous Sierra Nevada hikes but not yet on this one: the Sierra Gentian. Naturally, I was very pleased to see it and took some more time trying to get a decent photo of it.
Sierra Gentian, Gentianopsis holopetala 
At the other end of the meadow I finally found the actual trail. A short distance into the woods I came upon the intersection I was looking for. It was time to make the first decision: do I extend my trip north toward Coyote Lake, go up Black Peak, or continue with my original plan to Helm's Meadow?

Not ready to decide on the spot I sat down for a short break and admired the lupine shrubs that covered large areas if the forest floor.
Brewer's Lupine, Lupinus breweri
I decided to go down to Helm's meadow. I walked for a while in the woods. The trail was level at first, then ascended somewhat as I approached Black Peak before curving east below the peak and leveling off again. I couldn't see black peak at all - the forest was much denser in that area. I did feel that there was a peak to my north although I couldn't see it. It's the sense one develops with enough wilderness experience.
Then there was a clearing and a meadow. Probably used to be a lake once. I stepped off the trail to take a closer look.

Little tree frogs hopped beneath my feet. I managed to take a few quick shots before the frogs disappeared in the vegetation. Then I run away from that meadow because by then the mosquitoes had found me and were gorging themselves with my blood.
Pacific Treefrog
I went on. The trail was mainly in the woods, but occasionally I came near a trickling creek belted with fresh greenery. The wildflower bloom in these wet strips was profoundly richer and livelier than in the dry forest ground.

The familiar colors were there all over the place.
Fireweed, Chamerion angustifolium
But also plants that I encountered for the first time on this trip.
Few powered Larkspur, Delphinium depauperatum
But of all the wildflowers I was mesmerized most by the whiteheads. Their pretty umbels were covered with so many species of insects that looked like they're having a big fiesta. I took many photos of this species with many insects, but selected only one for this post.
Whiteheads, Sphenosciadium capitellatum, hosting a party
In between the occasional wet spots were long stretches of try forest. It wasn't really dry - there was plenty of green vegetation around, but it wasn't wet either. The soil was sandy and soft, and the trail thin and in many places overgrown.

Evidence of recent surface moisture were present all around, including large mushrooms that sprouted at the base of small pine trees.

I stopped for brief water and snack breaks every now and then. As the trail seemed to go on and on without any significant change I also checked my map and navigator more frequently, verifying that I was on the right track.
It seemed to me that I was walking for ages and ages and still no sign of the Helm's Meadow. The trail was constantly descending. Mildly at first, but then it steepened. I was going down and down through the forest and over little creeks, expecting to see the meadow every time the trees opened up a bit or when the trail appeared to level off, but each time it was yet another little wetland withers happy little wetland wildflowers.

And mosquitoes. That day was the only day on this trip in which I felt compelled to lather myself in feet more than once.
Fleabane, Erigeron sp. 
The environment was changing, though. Little changes the soil and in the vegetation cover told me that I was leaving the high lakes area and entering a new domain of Nature.
Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea 
For the most part I didn't pay too much attention to the ground if there weren't wildflowers or other interesting plants growing there. A movement in the sand did catch my attention, however, and I stooped over for a closer look. There I saw two insects locked in a battle for life or death. The right one, clearly a grasshopper, was caught in the double nelson death grip of another insect - a nymph (juvenile) of what order I couldn't tell.  I watched them fight until the grasshopper gave out and died to be the other critter's meal.
The cycle of life, insect version
I myself was ready to have lunch. Along my path there were many gooseberry shrubs, all laden with ripe fruit. After a few days of dehydrated food I was craving fresh produce but I couldn't remember if these were good to eat or not ... I didn't want to risk it so I left the beaconing berries hanging on the branches. One of the first things I looked up upon my return home was these berries, and I found out that indeed they were edible. A couple of weeks later I had the opportunity to consume some while hiking in Yosemite. They are, in fact, quite good. Never again will I forget that :-)
Gooseberry, Ribes sp.
When eventually the trail did level off and I exited the woods the sight of the meadow was a bit anticlimactic. There were still trees there, only smaller and stunted looking, with many a small clearing in between them. The herbaceous vegetation was nearly dry with bits of green rashes here and there and some die-hard wildflowers that were still clinging on to spring.
Cinquefoil, Potentilla sp. 
If that was the celebrated Helm's Meadow then I was disappointed. Still, there was much to see around, especially Dogtooth Peak, which from this direction looked the most high and prominent as I've seen it.
Dogtooth Peak
Almost immediately after leaving the forest I lost the trail. More likely, the trail lost me. I was still walking in the same direction, but the trail had vanished. Again came out my map and navigator, and again I set upon the direction I was supposed to be going to, and crossed country trail-less, hoping to catch up with the actual trail before long.
Hoards of grasshoppers jumped before me, like heralds before the Queen. I filmed a short clips of that, but in reality it was much more impressive.

I caught up with the trail again, and had to sit down and pick out thorny seeds from my socks. Then, for a short distance I was in the forest again.

Another small, dry meadow welcomed me. This time I could make a thin foot trail running across and I followed it. At that time I was hoping to come across a running creek because I was running low on drinking water.

I tried quickening my pace but was compelled to stop every now and then to look at the resisting last wildflowers of the season.
Meadow Beardtongue, Penstemon rydbergii var. oreocharis 
I've seen pussypaws here and there when I was hiking in the forest but now I was walking through a large patch of these lovely pink flowers. They were far enough apart that I didn't risk trampling any.

It was mid day and the hot sun was bearing down on me. I was tired, sweaty, and thirsty, and I needed to eat, hungry or not. Once again the trail had evaded me, but this time I didn't bother looking for it. Seeing a large tree ahead I made my way toward it and sat down.  Then, looking back, I realized that I had crossed a large area of Helm's Meadow without noticing. From there I could also see the Black Peak (the little dark bump to the right of Dogtooth Peak) that was concealed from my eyes by the forest trees.
Helm's Meadow 
Near the tree I finally found water - a narrow, deeply set creek that pretty much invisible from merely a few steps away. Only the line of slightly darker greenery revealed that there was water there still.

I filled up my water bottles, ate lunch, and rested well. I wanted to take a nap but lying down was a bit challenging - the ground was strewn with sharp little pine cones and I was too lazy to pull out and inflate my mattress. So I simply sat reclined on my backpack and let my eyelids droop.
I think I sat there for nearly an hour. Finally the magic of the place was working on me. Now that I knew there was fresh water available I thought that it would be a lovely camping spot if I ever made it back there with my family.
It was a huge plus not to feel any mosquitoes in that place, although other insects were plentiful.

Helm's Meadow was one of the places I considered for staying the night at. It would have been lovely, I think, but it was very early when I arrived at helm's Meadow, and even after my long restful break the sun was still high in the sky. I figured I could stay for the last night near the Courtright Reservoir.
Swamp Onion, Allium validum near Helm's Creek
Besides, I was alone in the middle of the meadow with no other human in the area, and I had no idea where the trail was. After I got on my feet and hoisted my backpack again my top priority was catching up with my trail.
Lemmon's paintbrush, Castilleja lemmonii near Helm's Creek
In the map I had the trail that goes through Helm's Meadow is marked as 'unmaintained'. I thought it was a bit of an understatement description because the trail was completely invisible. It was also marked that the maintained part of the trail continued after the crossing of Helm's Creek, not very distant southeast of my location. The plan was simple then - follow the nearest Helm's Creek fork all the way downstream until it connected with the other two tributaries, and pick up the trail at that spot.
Helm's Creek
It was a solid plan but it wasn't easy to execute. I had to make my way through high vegetation full of hidden obstacles such as fallen branches, deep sinkholes, an little creeks that appeared to my eyes when I was already upon them. Often I had to diverge from the main creek I was following, then push my was back toward it because straying, even by a little, meant loosing sight of the watery line.
It was slow progress, but a very pretty one. I figured that even if it took me the entire day to cross the Helm's Meadow area, I would still be good on my plan because it would be a nice place to spend the night at.
Trout at Helm's Creek
Eventually though, I did come to the creek forks' connection, crossed to the other side, and just as promised in my map - the trail was there, as if sprouting directly from the water. I took a few steps into the shade and stopped for another breather. Trail-less cross-country is hard work.
Helm's Meadow Trail

The terrain was changing again. Once again the trail was descending although much milder than the segment north of Helm's Meadow. it would drop a bit, then level off for some good distance. And there was no more problem of losing the path.
Helm's Meadow Trail
There were fewer wildflowers near the trail now. I knew that the creek was running nicely, but it was more distant, flowing somewhere to my southwest. If needed, I could walk over there for water, but I had already filled all my containers on my earlier stop. I also walked a bit quicker now. The scenery, while beautiful still, didn't captivate me as much. I still paused for wildflowers, however.
Towny Horkelia, Horkelia fusca var. parviflora
Eventually the forest closed in on me again, but it too wan't as dense as before. Large boulders poked through the top soil and I could see far between the trees.

The trail was descending again, and neared Helm's Creek once more. It wasn't close enough to see, but I could definitely hear it - the sound of cascading water. Tired from the monotonous walk through what seemed to me a monotonous forest I decided to check out the creek. I stepped off the trail and approached the sound of rushing water. Suddenly I was upon it - the most magical spot of my trip - right there at Helm's Creek, hidden from sight from the hiking trail.
Helm's Creek
My photos really don't do any justice to that place. It was a lovely small cascade with shallow pools at the bottom. The water run through with a happy sound, shimmering in the patchy sunlight that filtered through the boughs. the wet rock glistened, smooth with water and algae.
I dropped my pack, and sat down, gazing at the water, imbibing my soul.
Then it was time to wash. The water was cool but not cold. The pool was too shallow to submerge and the smooth rocks were very slippery. I enjoyed a good bath then stretched myself on the rocks. I might have dosed off too for a few blessed minutes.
Helm's Creek
Up to that point I was certain that I'll stay at least one more night in the wilderness before going back home. But when I finally left my hidden magical spot (I did save the coordinates for future visits :-) ) I knew I was getting out that evening. I felt cleansed, both physically and spiritually. That short hour by Helm's Creek was the experience I was looking for. Now I couldn't imagine myself spending another lonely night smeared with the sticky deet and reeking of smoke from my wood stove just for the sake of being one more night out. I had less than a mile to Courtright Reservoir and about four to get to the trailhead, and the sun was high still. I was ready to go home.
Helm's Creek Crossing
The trail intersection leading to Courtright Reservoir came up quickly. I crossed Helm's Creek, balancing on a line of large rocks and continued uphill and around the curve. Then I saw it - the Courtright Reservoir.
Courtright Reservoir
Once again I noted how low the water level was. In the area where Helm's Creek collects into the reservoir there was a field of logged stumps - the trees that were removed when the dam was built. Between them young trees were growing - a regenerating forest reclaiming the exposed ground.

The trail followed the northwest 'arm' of the reservoir at a good elevation for nice views of the blue lake. I admit it looked very inviting and every now and then I had some thoughts of stopping and camping there, but something pulled me onward.
Courtright Reservoir 
I was crossing large slabs of granite. The trail wasn't obvious in these areas, but marked with cairns. The path looked like it was swept by the good custodians of the National Forest Service.

I was impressed by the field of huge pebble-like rocks that were strewn on the large granite slabs. It looked like a frozen moment of a march of some kind. Of course the moment wasn't frozen, but going on still at a geological time for which my passage was nothing but a nanosecond or less.
On the Eternal March
Perhaps the trees could tell the passage of the geological time of the marching rocks, but they did not share their wisdom with me, only their majestic beauty.

Then I heard voices. People's voices. It startled me. It was the first time that day since I left the First Dinkey Lake that I became aware of the presence of other human beings nearby. They were walking on the Cliff Lake Trail, I knew. I was still some distance from that trail, however. By the time I reached it, I didn't see any other people. i didn't hear them anymore either.
Nelson Creek

I reached the Nelson Creek and the Cliff Creek Trail ad paused there momentarily to appreciate the reflection and the riparian wildflowers. My trek loop was now complete - I returned to the same spot where I had crossed Nelson Creek four days ago. And it was just a little earlier hour than it was on that day.
Bigelow's Sneezeweed, Helenium bigelovii
I had a mile and a half to go to reach the trailhead where I had begun my trip. When I reached the Courtright Reservoir shore where I had stopped to rest on my way out, I suddenly run into two young men who were carrying large fallen branches with them. They were camping for the nigh at the lake, they told me. Waiting for more friends to arrive later that night and planning to go up to Cliff Lake on the morrow. They invited my to camp there for the night but I was already set on heading out. It's about half an hour walk, they told me.
All chewed I started uphill. Somehow I had forgotten the grade of that trail segment. On my first day I was going downhill and the mile and a half just evaporated under my feet. Now I was struggling uphill. At the end of the day, on the tail of a long hike, carrying my heavy backpack, that final stretch was grueling. Before long nothing was left from my cleansed, uplifted feeling I carried from Helm's Creek. I was sweaty and hot, and it didn't take long before I had to pull out my mosquito repellant to protect my precious blood.
Up and Out
It seemed like forever, but eventually I did make it up to the trailhead. I pushed my pack in the car and collapsed at the tailgate, panting heavily for a few long minutes before I could do anything else. Iy felt very good to take my shoes off and slip my sore feet into sandals. I would have rested there for a bit longer but the sun was setting and I hoped still to stop at the McKinley Grove of Giant Sequoia that Id seen on my way up four days ago. So tired as I was, I got t the driver's seat, made a mental farewell to the reservoir, and took off.

The Dinkey Lakes Wilderness is a fairly small area. The distances between lakes and other attractions are relatively short, compared to the vastness of other wilderness areas I backpacked previously. And the altitude differences aren't very challenging. Although I didn't walk fast, it felt as if I run through this trip, finishing my planned route with extras two days earlier than I had planned to. I could have checked more corners of that wilderness, but once again, it was being aloe that got me out of there sooner than I could have. And I missed my family.
I want to go back to Dinkey Lakes. It is a perfect place for a family backpacking - Next time I would bring Pappa Quail and the chikas along. And I'd schedule it for early July. And Probably begin ascending at the Helm's Meadow Trail. We shall see.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!


  1. This is a nice trail. I'm still impressed by the fact you hiked it on your own, being completley alone most of the time.
    The trout and the frog pictures are lovely. So are the views with the big rocks (and of course the flowers...)

    1. Thank you, my friend! You know, that trail could be a day hike too, I hope one day to take you there or on a similar trail in the mountains!

  2. I am also amazed that you go on such long hikes all alone. Even though I know you... and as you know me, I'd be too scared to do such thing :-)
    good think I have you to take me when I come over...

    1. Oh, I'm more afraid of walking through big cities ... people are much scarier than nature, you know. My discomfort at being alone stemmed from a different source - I had to pay attention to all the thoughts and feelings that are easier to suppress when I'm in the usual rat race of life. But of course the pros outweigh the cons. Still, I'd rather have a friend go along with me. Maybe next year.