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Falling for the Grandeur

39 degrees N 120 degrees W

October 15, 2006|David Lukas | David Lukas is a naturalist and co-author of the newly revised "Sierra Nevada Natural History."

DESTINATION: Upper Eastern Sierra

TOWN: Truckee

ELEVATION: 5,817 feet



CLOSEST HIGHWAY: Interstate 80


TEMPERATURE SWING: 14° (winter low) to 79° (summer high)


Nothing has made me appreciate the Sierra Nevada's beautifully rugged peaks more than spending the late summer on the infernal plains of Lubbock, Texas, where the highest point for 100 miles is the freeway overpass. I have come here to work with the papers of Barry Lopez at Texas Tech University. But even with the rare opportunity to study the manuscripts of this renowned nature writer, my mind keeps wandering back to California.

I especially miss the mountains at this time of year, when the crisp air and soft colors entice me out on what has become a ritual--to hike the granite peaks one last time before snow arrives. With its sparkling waters and conifer-cloaked hillsides sweeping from Donner Lake to the Sierra crest, the area around Truckee is my favorite fall destination. Willows and cottonwoods glow with a penetrating wash of yellows along the Truckee River as it flows out of Lake Tahoe and bends through the town. The river, at its lowest ebb of the year, seems in no more of a rush to leave the high country than the fly fishermen and campers who linger near its banks. Pockets of aspens tucked onto the hillsides flame a deeper orange against the dark-green backdrop. One summer I was hired to do a biological survey of the vast landscape around Donner Pass. My job was to walk every road and trail, follow every creek and ridge and ascend every peak, but I held off on climbing Castle Peak until the end of the project, saving for the last the volcanic hub that had caught my attention from every viewpoint.

From Interstate 80, as the modern traveler zooms over Donner Pass, its ramparts seem impenetrable and forbidding, but the popular, if somewhat challenging, Castle Peak Trail marches up its western flank to the 9,103-foot summit. This is the one I took on a late October day, eagerly anticipating the simple pleasures I would encounter at the edge of the seasons, when the mountains are getting ready for sleep: a flock of sky-blue mountain bluebirds calling softly to each other as they headed toward warmer climes; a wind-sculpted whitebark pine laden with ripe cones; the dry rustling of Davis' knotweed, the rust-orange carpet that covers the volcanic slopes at this time of year.

And from everywhere, the view took my breath away. To the east, the long basin that holds Donner Lake and Truckee; to the south, Lake Tahoe ringed with snowy peaks; toward the shimmering golden horizon that once lured settlers westward. I spent hours on the summit, taking it all in, this majestic landscape that in one moment is so full of nature's beauty and also of the deep history of human occupation. These slopes, timeless and unchanged, have witnessed Washoe trading parties, exhausted wagon trains and exuberant skiers.

In my mind, I touched every knob and dip in the landscape that I had combed that summer. Remembering Clark's nutcrackers sweeping overhead on a peak far to the north. Recalling the grief that washed over me when I discovered hillsides of old-growth red fir that had been felled by loggers in the Tahoe National Forest. Knowing the texture of each creek that ran in the silken shadows of deep draws in the distance.

I think this was the first moment when I fully understood what it means to be at home in the landscape, when I could map the nuances of its life in my body. Now, on fall days like that one, I feel a tug of sadness in letting go of summer's sweet promises--and an intense desire to roam the mountains, to walk in silence, to inhale every molecule of the season. Rather than plodding back down the trail, I practically skip, striding with the confident step that months of hiking bring. I carry the mood with me, along with a growing appetite, into the comfort of Truckee, into the bustle of restaurants and shops cheerful in their winter preparations.

This year I can only imagine these joys from the stale confines of a Texas library, longing for the mountains, hoping to get away one last time before the first snows bury the Sierra Nevada.



Trip Tips

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Old West or new? With its leather-bound platform beds and vessel sinks, the Cedar House Sport Hotel, (530) 582-5655 or, offers a departure (in ambience and price) from the historic Truckee Hotel, (800) 659-6921.

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