In the Beginning… A Reflection on the Grouse Ridge-Black Buttes-Five Lakes Basin Area

A waterfall in the Five Lakes Basin provides water from snowbanks to one of my favorite lakes. The Black Buttes tower above. Hemlocks, pines and firs grow on the hillside.


Old Pond

Blue mountain, white snow gleam
Through pine bulk and slender needle-sprays;
little hemlock half in shade,
ragged rocky skyline,

single clear flat nuthatch call:
down from the treetrunks

up through time.

At Five Lakes Basin’s
Biggest little lake
after all day scrambling on the peaks,
a naked bug with a white body and brown hair

dives in the water,


A poem by the Nobel Prize winner and the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology, ” Gary Snyder.

I have just returned from my last backpacking trip of the summer, my fifth— one for each decade I’ve shouldered a pack and disappeared into the wilderness. My last two trips included the Grouse Ridge-Black Buttes-Five Lakes Basin area, the same region Gary Snyder refers to above. He lives outside of nearby Nevada City (just above Grass Valley in the map below), and, like me, has wandered and loved the glacier carved country from top to bottom, from the Buttes to the Basin.

The maps below provide information on the location of the area and where I backpacked on my two trips.


Yellow marks the general location of my two trips this summer into the Grouse Ridge area just north of Interstate 80 between Sacramento, California and Reno, Nevada in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (I was raised in a small town just outside of Placerville.)

The area circled in yellow was where we backpacked. I-80 can be seen at the bottom of the photo. I helped achieve the non-motorized status for the area in the 1970s when I was serving as Executive Director of the Sacramento Ecology/Environmental Center.

A close-up of the area. Today I am featuring Glacier Lake and the trail there from Grouse Ridge marked in yellow, which was the route I followed on my first trip. I went into the Basin on the Sand Ridge Trail when I backpacked in with my family.

The first trip into the Basin I made by myself this summer; the second was with my wife Peggy, my daughter Natasha, and her two sons, Ethan and Cody. It was our grandkids’ first backpacking trip and I wanted them to explore the area where my own backpacking experiences had begun in 1969— where I had first discovered the joys of backpacking, and the beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Our daughter Natasha with her two boys, Ethan on the left and Cody on the right. Sierra granite provides the backdrop.

Ethan and Cody contemplate another climb. Both boys, Ethan at 12 and Cody at 9, carried full backpacks. Ethan was like a deer on the trail, bounding ahead. Cody was like a Sierra badger, digging in and not giving up, mastering the trail one step at a time.

In the beginning: It sounds almost biblical. Dan Iles would like it. I met Dan at Glacier Lake on my first trip into the Grouse Ridge area this summer. He introduced himself as the Dean of Graduate Studies at the Shasta Bible College in Redding, California. He’s a serious Christian, and a heck of a nice fellow. I liked him immediately. He had backpacked into Glacier Lake with his 13-year-old grandson and told me that he had been bringing youth groups into the area since the 70s.

The Reverend Dan Iles at Glacier Lake.

I was getting ready to leave the next morning when he came over for a chat. I had told him the night before that I lived in the Applegate Valley near the small town of Ruch in Southern Oregon and he wanted to know if I attended one of the churches there that he was familiar with. I explained that I was a bit more Eastern in my beliefs, a bit more Zen, and something of an Agnostic. I dug into my pack and found Siddhartha, a 1922 novel by Hermann Hesse that a friend had given me in the 70s. The novel describes Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment at the time of the Buddha. I read it every few years because it reminds me of the importance of living in the present, of the interconnectivity of all things, and the value of a simple life— of not getting lost in our materialistic world.

Reading Siddhartha after dinner beside a quiet Sierra Lake. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Dan and I must have talked for 45 minutes or so about our lives. He described himself as a Professor of Practical Theology and told me of his efforts to help children and women in Africa who had been left homeless and destitute by the seemingly endless conflicts. He also told me that he believed in freedom of religion, that people should be free to worship according to their own beliefs, which is a concept that I strongly support. Still, I could tell he was concerned about my soul, that he would have considered a day spent trying to convert me as a day well-spent. It went with the territory of who he was and what he believed.

As I hiked past his camp to say goodbye on my way down into the Five Lakes Basin he urged that I read the Book of John in the New Testament. “It does an excellent job of describing the miracles of Christ,” he assured me. I’d read John before. In my youth, I had been considered a prime candidate for becoming an Episcopal priest. But I read it again on Dan’s recommendation. Miracles are what have been pulling people into Christianity for millennia. Jesus changes water to wine, feeds five-thousand people with two fish and five loaves of bread, walks on water, heals the sick, revives the dead, and ascends to Heaven.

I should have said, “Thanks, I’ll do that,” and moved on. But I couldn’t help myself. “I don’t need miracles, Dan” I responded. “I’ve got this.” And I raised my hands to take in the surrounding countryside. The towering Black Buttes climbed above the blue-green Glacier Lake. Giant red firs and pines stood as silent sentinels over the campground. Brightly colored flowers called to insects with an urgency that predated man’s sojourn on earth. Massive cumulus clouds spoke of lightning and thunder and rain and hail— of the incredible power of nature. If I needed awe, if I needed inspiration, if I needed a reason to believe, it was right there in front of me, behind me, surrounding me. I didn’t have to travel back in time 2000 years to events that required a leap of faith to believe. I waved one last time, turned, and hiked down the trail toward the Five Lakes Basin.

Photos of Glacier Lake and my hike into the lake.

The Black Buttes of the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains tower over Glacier Lake.

A close up of the Black Buttes as the sun sets.

The moon hovers above the Black Buttes in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

A small pool fed by melting snow provided this reflection shot at Glacier Lake.

Red fir reached for the sky above my campsite.

Glacier Lake in the Grouse Ridge Area of the Northern Sierra Nevada mountains.

I found these two moss colored elders along the trail to Glacier Lake.

What insect could resist this brightly colored Red Mountain Heather that I took a close up of along the Glacier Lake Trail.

Towering cumulus clouds threatened thunder, lightning and hail at Glacier Lake.

I found a small creek along the trail to Glacier Lake and decided to camp next to it, thinking it might provide a short hike for my grandsons. (They didn’t need it.) I removed bear scat from the campsite so they wouldn’t get too nervous.

This boulder next to the campsite reminded me that the area had been carved by glaciers. The granite rock, known as an erratic, had been left behind by one of the glaciers.

I hid out under my tent’s groundcloth as lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and hail pounded down on my campsite. Later, as the sun set, all that was left of the storm was a few puffy clouds.


NEXT POST: It’s down into the Five Lake Basin.


















43 thoughts on “In the Beginning… A Reflection on the Grouse Ridge-Black Buttes-Five Lakes Basin Area

  1. Amazing adventure with three generations of backpackers! Perfect weather, beautiful lakes, wonderful stories and new memories made…could not have asked for a better first backpacking trip for Ethan and Cody!

    • Nor could I ask for better companions on the trail than you, Ethan, Cody and Peggy, Tasha. Thanks for brining the boys and yourself out from North Carolina for the adventure. –Dad

    • It’s one of my all time favorite places, Cindy. I’ve taken many people there over the years and wandered alone through it many times. It has always been good for my body and soul! –Curt

  2. What beautiful photos of a beautiful place. I’m with you on the miracles thing. I think they are everywhere, it’s just a matter of how one views the world. And they’re especially obvious out in the wilderness. I think you have no need to worry about your soul 🙂

  3. Hi Curt- It has been a while since I have left a comment, but both your story of reverend Dan and responses to him steeped in such wisdom says to me- say hi and once again express my heartfelt appreciation for your insights, writing and most of all, your spirit. Hesse’s Siddhartha has played such a beautiful part in my life. I suggest the reading to friends and students quite often. Thank you for your stories. They are treasures and I live your adventures in a vicarious way. – Rahjta

    • Thanks for stopping by Rahjta. Your comments are always appreciated, especially since I return to your blog on occasion for insights and always appreciate the depths of your explorations. I am pleased to see that you share my appreciation of Siddhartha. –Curt

  4. Your grandkids are so lucky! All these days in the wild with their mom and grandparents. What a treat for them and for all of you. The photos are gorgeous and I smiled when I read that you were reading (probably re-reading) Siddhartha, a book I’ve read so many years ago in Paris but seems to fit the Sierras perfecty well too.
    Each time I get away and surround myself with nature I feel in a state of miracle. No question about it, natural beauty talks to our souls.

    • I think we were all lucky, Evelyne. It was a great way to spend several days, and free of electronic gadgets! I think the boys suffered a bit of withdrawal at first. 🙂 Siddhartha is perfect for a trip into the wilderness. “a state of miracle…” I like it, and thanks. –Curt

    • I think that is a good observation, G. There is great beauty in our country, for those who want to seek it out (as there is great beauty everywhere in the world). And there is peace. We all need to stop on occasion, and escape the constant bombardment of media to contemplate the things that really matter in our lives. The wilderness provides such a refuge. But a walk in a city park also helps! 🙂 –Curt

  5. Lovely mix of pictures, Curt – the overview of the maps, the personal connection of the portraits and of course the beauty of the surroundings … all linked by your engaging text. Right up my street – as you’ll know from your visits to my posts – and a really good model of observational possibilities …

    • Thanks, Dave. It’s beautiful country, good for the body and soul. You can feel the tensions draining away with each step. Glad it resonates with you. And I certainly see the similarities in our views. –Curt

  6. My God Curt, these pictures….just extraordinary!!! Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful adventures you go on. What a joy to be able to see them!!! Sharing these now. 😉 btw~ Natasha, Ethan & Cody are absolutely beautiful!!

  7. Such an excellent post, Curt! Love that you and Dan had a respectful, open conversation full of differences and acceptance. We should all strive for this. It would make the world a more peaceful place. I look forward to reading Siddhartha. Thank you for what I expect may become a favorite book of mine, too!

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