Exploring Grouse Ridge: Lakes, lookouts and mountain cows
October 3, 2008
GRASS VALLEY ” Numerous high Sierra Nevada trails, alpine lakes and a fire lookout make the Grouse Ridge non-motorized area off Bowman Lake Road a worthwhile place to visit this fall.
Grouse Ridge Lookout was built in 1923 and sits at a windswept elevation of 7,653 feet above sea level, according to the National Historic Lookout Register.
Grouse Ridge Lookout is eligible for the national register of historic places, said Bill Slater, district archaeologist for the Tahoe National Forest. He has argued to make the lookout a tourist destination but the project has never gotten off the ground because of a lack of funding.
“It’s already a really popular recreation area in general,” Slater said who envisions it as destination for recreationists who cross country ski in winter and hike in summer months.
Fire lookouts have become popular places for overnight stays nationwide and the renovated Calpine Lookout in nearby Sierra Valley requires reservations months in advance.
“It’s the history of fire fighting, the history of the forest service and it’s a great view,” Slater said.
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Grouse Ridge Lookout has seen better days but still offers spectacular scenery.
To get there, take Highway 20 east of Nevada City and turn onto Bowman Lake Road. It’s a six mile drive to the turnoff to Grouse Ridge Lookout, and another six miles up a bumpy dirt road to the lookout parking lot and campground.
A high clearance vehicle is recommended, but on a recent weekend there were a number of small sedans, including newer model BMWs parked in the parking lot.
To the left of the parking lot, follow the short trail up to the lookout. For more hiking, take a right from the parking lot to a trailhead that leads to Carr Lake, Island Lake, Round Lake and Glacier Lake to name a few. Backpacking possibilities are endless with 40 lakes in the Grouse Ridge non-motorized area.
Several weeks ago, when I visited the trail system, I was surprised to find evidence of cows among dried plant stalks at the edge of Milk Lake. Biting cold winds pushed puffy clouds racing across a blue sky. Reflections of granite boulders bounced across the rippled surface of the water.
Later we heard what sounded like someone pounding on pots and pans. Then I remembered the cows. The sound was cowbells clanging in the woods.
“That’s so they can find them. Because of the terrain and vastness, it’s hard to find them this time of year,” said Leigh Sevy, forest rangeland management specialist, who oversees the licensing of forage for use by ranchers.
There are roughly 40 allotments, or areas meant for grazing and 20 families who hold permits within the Tahoe National Forest.
For more than a century, ranchers have herded their cattle, sheep and goats into the high country of the Sierra Nevada during the summer months to drink from cool mountain streams and to graze on tender green forage.
Grazing in the Sierra Nevada predates the national forest service. Coupled with timber and mining concerns, overgrazing was one of the driving forces behind the formation of a national forest system, a division of the Department of Agriculture, Slater said.
In the 1800s grazing was heavy in the Sierra Nevada.
“You’re talking about thousands of thousands of animals. Today there’s no way, the resources couldn’t support it,” said Leigh Sevy, forest rangeland management specialist.
While too much grazing livestock can do harm, a limited amount is beneficial because it keeps wildfire fuels in check, Sevy said.
Hiking in the Sierra Nevada means planning for unpredictable weather. Before heading up to Grouse Ridge, check the weather forecast and always dress in layers.
Sturdy walking shoes, topographical maps, a compass, high energy snacks and plenty of water are also advised.