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September 20, 2009

Fallen Leaf Lake

When I talk about diving Lake Tahoe or other local venues, people inevitably ask about the water temperature, which is usually in the mid to high 60s in the summer and late summer. That's apparently too cold for many divers to even consider. That's unfortunate as they are missing out not only on some good diving, but also on the adventures that come with each and every dive trip. I thought of that again after spending an unforgettable day diving Fallen Leaf Lake near Lake Tahoe.

The water level at Fallen Leaf Lake, whose name originates from an Indian legend, is at about 6,370 feet, as mentioned in a prior entry. There isn't much information on the lake itself, though American nature writer and lecturer George Wharton James described the area in "The Lake of the Sky," published around 1915 (where he describes the water level as being 6,300 feet, 80 feet higher than Tahoe). A small dam was built in 1934 and some sources refer to the lake as a reservoir, although the water level appears to be constant. Despite Fallen Leaf Lake's proximity to Lake Tahoe and Route 89, it's a remote area where a very narrow and only marginally paved road leads part-way around the lake. There are small (albeit very expensive) cottages along the east side of the lake, and the tiny community of Fallen Leaf at the south end has a post office, but it's only open a few months of the year as is the one and only shop.

Remote though the area is, it has an amazing history. In 1863, a man by the name of Nathan Gilmore discovered mineral springs a couple of miles west of Fallen Leaf, just past a tiny body of water now known as Lily Lake for the water lilies on it. Gilmore eventually built a wagon road from Fallen Leaf Lake, set up a summer camp and log home so he could bottle and ship the carbonated water from the spring, and by 1880, "Glen Alpine Springs" had become a resort. By 1910, the resort, which now even had a post office, could be reached by automobile (it can't anymore). In the 1920s, noted architect Bernard Maybeck designed no fewer than 20 buildings for Glen Alpine Springs, though only six were ever built. The resort was open until the mid-1960s, then eventually became a Federal Historical District.

Today you can drive up to Lily Lake on an impossibly narrow mountain road where you literally have to get off the road if someone comes at you. At Lily Lake there is a small, tidy parking lot nestled into the terrain. There are only about 20 very tight spaces, and if those are taken there is nowhere to go and you have to return. Some sort of "Lot Full" notification system would greatly reduce traffic to and from the area. Anyway, the views around Lily Lake are spectacular and, in my book, compare favorably even with Yosemite, especially if you factor in the complete absence of Yosemite's crowded tourist atmosphere. From Lily Lake it is a short one-mile hike to Glen Alpine Springs, which we didn't do as we got there after our dive when it was already getting late.

But to the diving itself. We parked at the lot by the Fallen Leaf store (and Post Office when it is open) and carried our gear down to the boat ramp. You can unload down there, too, but then have to move the car back up on the lot. It was a beautiful mid-September day with the temperature in the low 80s, and the water a nice 67 degrees on the surface. This was going to be not only our first dive in Fallen Leaf Lake, but also the first with our new Uwatec Galileo Sol dive computers.

The water looked absolutely gorgeous, but as soon as we got under it became apparent that this was not an ideal dive site. The beach instantly falls off at an almost 45 degree angle (James had indicated a depth of 380 feet in his book). The bottom is all silt and gets stirred up if you so much as whirl a fin within two or three feet or so. Once we got underway we found ourself at a depth of almost 60 feet just a few dozen feet away from shore. The water temperature quickly dropped, too, and there was one of those massive thermoclines you can actually see as optical distortions, as if the water were some gelatinous mass. Visibility wasn't nearly as good as I'd expected and it was already getting darker. The steep, featureless silty slope made me feel somewhat disoriented and I also found that I could not easily see the very detailed display of my new Galileo.

We slowly made our way along the slope, ascending to about 30 feet where we found all sorts of discarded beer bottles and soda cans (including a special bi-centennial one from 1976) but not much else. There was driftwood and a few massive tree trunks, but overall it was quite uneventful. Between having to constantly try not to stir up silt while looking for things and the steep slope, I never really got into it, although we actually stayed down for a full hour. Carol emerged with two baskets full of cans and bottles and other assorted trash (though it really wasn't bad at the bottom), and I went up to take my gear off and bring the car down to the dock.

The Fallen Leaf store makes decent burgers and chicken strips (and serves nice, big portions of ice cream), and so we munched on those on the establishment's veranda overlooking the lake. We then made our way up to Lily Lake, taking in the breathtaking vistas.

Even though the dive itself wasn't spectacular, we spent a wonderful day exploring, seeing new things, discovering nature, and realizing once again that you really don't have to travel far to see great things and have a wonderful time. The Sierra Nevadas are spectacular, and diving in some of those lakes is not only an adventure, it is also absolutely free.

Posted by conradb212 at September 20, 2009 04:09 PM

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