Exploring the Tahoe Basin, and Yosemite National Park: Experiencing the Natural World, and Building Friendships

Anytime that I can explore the natural wonders of this world, I jump at the chance. Just such an opportunity presented itself this last summer when I headed west to study the geology, and natural history of California. I currently live in Upstate New York, but have been an adjunct instructor of geology at Lake Tahoe Community College (LTCC) for the last five years. In my History of the Earth, and Its Life course, students are sent out to conduct fieldwork as part of their lab requirement for the course. For years, I have been sending students out to explore the geology of the Tahoe Basin, and I had not been there first hand to study it myself. I knew that I had to go. Thanks to the support of a professional development grant from Lake Tahoe Community College, and the generosity of Scott Valentine, and his family, I finally made it to California. I was anxious, and excited to begin exploring.

Scott is the resident geologist at LTCC, and at the end of every spring term; he takes his students on a field trip to camp, hike, and examine the geology of Yosemite National Park. I was excited that he invited me to join them. After arriving in Sacramento, I rented a car, and made the two-hour drive out of the valley, and up to South Lake Tahoe. I met Scott at the LTCC campus in the early evening, and accompanied him to the South Lake Tahoe Public Library where he was to give a public lecture on the geology of the Tahoe Basin, which I was eager to hear. As I sat down with what was quickly becoming a standing room only crowd, I watched, and listened to the crowd as they milled about and visited with each other before Scott’s talk began. It was clear that I was not in Central New York any longer. Many of the folks were older, many it would appear retired, but far from looking old, these folks looked as healthy, and robust as anyone did half their age. I could not help but overhear them excitedly talk about their hiking, biking, or paddling exploits, and it was clear it was a contest to see who could out do the other. It was refreshing, and enticing, and I wanted to jump right in, and join them, but I think I may have been too young.

It took Scott no time to win over the crowd. Of course, when you are a college professor, young, and fun to boot in a town of less than 20,000 people; many in the room were already acquainted with Professor Valentine. It was clear to me that Scott is a great storyteller who had me entranced right along with the rest of the room. After all, what is a more interesting story to tell than the formation of the Tahoe Basin, and the lake that occupies it. Lake Tahoe is the 2nd deepest lake in the United States at over 1,600 feet (Crater Lake in Oregon is over 1,900 feet deep). Here is a link that provides information on the formation, and history of the Lake, and the basin it sits in: http://tahoe.usgs.gov/facts.html. Things were getting off to a great start. After the talk, I followed him back to his home that would serve as my base camp for the next couple of days while I explored the basin, and before we set off for Yosemite.

Next morning after receiving suggestions, and directions, I set off to explore the south side of the lake, stopping at Inspiration Point, which provides a breathtaking view of Emerald Bay. I then headed across highway 89 from Inspiration Point, and made an easy one mile hike to Cascade Falls, a 200 foot cascading water fall which empties into Cascade Lake. From the top of the Falls, you can view Cascade Lake, and beyond that, Lake Tahoe. Inspiration Point was very crowded, and the trail leading to the falls was busy as well, and it was easy to see why, the views were incredible.

Cascade LakeDuring my visit to Lake Tahoe, I was simultaneously teaching an online class for LTCC called “The History of the Earth, and Its Life.” After so many years of teaching students in California, and never getting the opportunity to visit the area, to meet them face-to-face, I was very excited to have a chance to do so. I announced to the class that I was coming their way if anyone wanted to get together for coffee, or lunch, etc. The husband of one of my students owns a boating company on Lake Tahoe, where they take tourists out on the lake, and also rent boats. She offered to let me borrow a boat at no cost so that I could explore the lake on my own, or she and her husband would be willing to guide me; I chose the latter option. After returning from my hike to Cascade Falls, I met them at the marina (a short bike ride from Scott and Heather’s house) around 5:30 in the evening. I climbed aboard along with two of her friends, and her father who also joined us. We explored as much of the lake as we could before it got dark. It was incredible to be on the water, and to see the geology, and the landforms from this perspective. Peering into the emerald colored water knowing the bottom was some 1,600 feet below me was cool to consider. As we cruised around the lake, I was regaled with stories of the history, and the characters that made the area come alive. It was a fantastic evening spent with people who were great to be around, and who were willing to take the time to show me around “their” lake. As much as I enjoy teaching online, it was great to meet one of my students face-to-face,

Next morning I was off to explore the Carson Range in Nevada, specifically to hike to Lake Winnemucca via the Carson Pass. The lake sits at an elevation of 9,000 feet, and I had to stop and inquire at the ranger station if the trail was passable, or if it was still blocked by snowpack. After learning that there was still snow, but was passable without snowshoes, I set out for the lake, a five mile round trip. The trail was easy to follow, and I almost immediately ran into patches of snow. After passing a group of women on horseback heading out to the trail head, I saw no one else until I got to the lake. The snow fields soon increased in frequency, and depth, and I was soon up to my knees. The one thing I will say about hiking in the western US compared with the hiking on the east coast, is the lack of signage. Scott Valentine laughed at me when I told him I had brought my compass with me (a staple in the East, but apparently not so in the West). I was thrilled to discover that about a mile of the trail leading to Lake Winnemucca was also part of the Pacific Crest Trail which goes from Canada to Mexico. As a young teen, I read a book detailing the adventures of a 17 year old who traveled the length of the Pacific Crest Trail by himself. I always wanted to do that, so to have traversed even a mile of it was very cool. After a brief bit of scrambling, I managed to find my way to the lake where there was a couple, and their two children. In spite of this, I still felt like I was alone, like I was in a very desolate area, it was an incredible feeling. After a bit of lingering, and having some lunch, I was about to head back when I saw a lone hiker heading my way with what looked like a cat hiking with him.

Lake WinnemuccaIt turned it to be a very small dog, which was this man’s hiking partner, and he was great at it. Although, he did struggle some in the deep holes in the snowfields (dog, and his master). We all hiked the two and a half miles out together, and had a great conversation about hiking in the Sierras, his work (he was a custom woodworker), and life in general. The comradarie that one encounters when hiking is special. There is a common bond shared by all hikers, the love of wild places, nature, and pushing themselves to their physical, and mental limits. We parted at the trail head, and I headed back to South Lake Tahoe to shop for food for Scott and I as we were to leave in the morning for Yosemite National Park.


          The next morning after packing up, and grabbing a mega breakfast burrito, we headed out of town to meet up with Scott’s geology students at the Mono Lake Visitor’s Center. After a brief hike to check out the lake (an unusual, and unique place, check out this link for more information: http://monolake.org/), we headed the short drive up to Yosemite. We spent the rest of the day stopping at various points through out the park to examine the geology, and natural history. As we clambered up onto these granitic domes, the vastness, and the wide open spaces blew me away. Standing on top of Pothole Dome, and looking out at Tuolumne Meadows was awe inspiring. I am passionate about the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, but this was an entirely different experience, not better, but different, and incredible to witness first hand. Our final stop of the day before heading to camp, and one of my favorites, was at the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. You can imagine, and attempt to envision the size of these trees that can live up to 3,000 years, but you soon realize that these attempts are in vain as soon as you are standing among them. A real reverent moment for me. Check out this short video from Ken Burns’ documentary on the national parks. This clip discusses the visit that Teddy Roosevelt made to see John Muir, and spend time with him in Yosemite, and how this visit ultimately changed everything: http://video.pbs.org/video/1633380446/ We headed to Hodgdon Meadow to set up camp. I was in bed by 8:30 still adjusting to the 3 hour time difference, and the busy day of activities.

Giant SequoiaIn the morning, I joined three others from the group for a hike from Glacier Point down to Yosemite Valley, about a nine mile hike, while the rest explored the shops, and museums that abound in the Yosemite Valley. The hike was incredible, the companionship equally as amazing. I was hiking with people with a passion similar to mine to explore, and learn about the natural world around them. The time flew by as we exchanged ideas, thoughts, and knowledge with each other. Tired, hot, and hungry, we met up with the rest of the group in the Valley. We decided to grab a pizza rather than head back to camp, and cook, which none of us wanted to do. Another great day in the park.

Yosemite Toulemne MeadowsIn the morning, while the rest of the group headed back to South Lake Tahoe, I continued on toward the coast, after one more stop at a different grove of giant sequoias. I trekked among the trees all alone, and I couldn’t help but think about the first people to see these trees, and what they must have thought.

Heading for the Coast

My next stop was Pinnacles National Park, an amazing geologic, and natural wonder on the San Andreas fault. The rocks of Pinnacles are part of the 23 million-year-old volcano that was located near Lancaster, California some 195 miles Southeast of Pinnacles National Park. The Pacific tectonic plate is moving in a northwesterly direction against the North American plate, and transported these rocks north 195 miles over the last 23 million years. Check out this link for more information: http://www.nps.gov/pinn/naturescience/index.htm.

I arrived at the park at mid-day, and after receiving some information from the ranger at the ranger station, I set out to explore the Pinnacles in 110-degree heat. There were very few other people in the park, and I had a great hike, and got the opportunity to examine the incredible geology up close; it was well worth baking in the mid-day sun. It was great exploring this area not only because of the incredible geology, but also because I can now recommend this location to my students from near by West Hills College (where I also teach). One of their major projects is a lab/field assignment, and Pinnacles being about 90 minutes from campus makes a wonderful place for them to conduct much of their fieldwork.
I had one final stop on my tour, and that was at Point Lobos State Park near Carmel California. With a rich geologic and natural history, and beauty, my final hike of the trip around the park was a fitting way to end the journey. After lunch at Big Sur, I headed back up to Sacramento to catch the red eye back to Syracuse. Here is a link about Point Lobos: http://www.stateparks.com/point_lobos.html

Point LobosFinal Thoughts, and Reflections

            This trip provided me with opportunities, and unique experiences. I was able to explore areas that I have always wanted to explore, but I was also able to learn more about the geology, and natural history of these areas.   The knowledge that I gained will improve my ability to teach, and direct my students as they conduct their field work. Of equal, and perhaps even greater importance, it allowed me to forge relationships with a unique group of people. I had picued the curiosity, and interest enough in one of Scott’s students that he signed up for my online course on the “History of the Earth, and Its Life”. He has also tutored some of my students, and he invited me to his wedding this past August (which I, unfortunately, was not able to attend). I also got to know Scott, and his family, as well. Scott first hired me at LTCC, and has been a champion of mine for the last five years, but we had not yet met face-to-face. I think we both have a better understanding of what makes the other tick, and only helped to cement our professional, and personal relationships.

A final note I want to share. As awesome as our 110 national parks, and 59 national monuments are, and I strongly encourage you to visit them (http://www.nationalparkservice.org/), do not neglect your local state, and county parks. There are thousands of them across the country. Each of them offer unique opportunities to explore the natural world, and to rebirth the spirit, and escape the madness, and chaos that can be everyday life.



Author: Mark

Geologist (paleontologist), online educator, natural historian living in Central New York State with my wife, and teenage daughter. Enjoying, and camping in the Adirondack Mountains.