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Shirley Lake

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Spring and summertime in Tahoe offers miles and miles of hiking trails, full of wildflowers and regional birds. A few trailheads lead to the Shirley Lake hike; both are located at the very end of Olympic Valley where the Granite Chief Wilderness begins. If you’re a trailblazer or having trouble finding the trailhead, simply follow Squaw Creek up and into the forest, find the blue blazes (spray-painted blue lines), and you’re hiking in the right direction. While locals and youngsters may use this method, we recommend you ask someone where the Shirley Lake trailhead is. Once you find the trail, the signage tells you that the hike goes for about four miles round-trip, with a moderate 1,300-foot elevation gain.

As you stroll along the trail’s initial wide dirt pathway, admiring all kinds of pine trees and multiple manzanita bushes, you might question the hike’s “modesty” when you begin to climb over granite rocks and roots and stumps to merely stay on the trail. Never fear; the trail levels out and redeems itself with its unique and super fun rock-hopping feature. Take a break as you arrive at the first swimming hole stop, fully equipped with a waterfall (and a secret cave if the rocks are dry enough to mosey around). We urge you to keep on truckin’, though, because you’ll come across plenty of picnic spots, not to mention Shirley Lake itself.

Peruse the Granite Chief Wilderness in all its glory: deadwood hanging onto life; lichen that looks like Halloween; families of dead trees that have stayed together; clear swimming holes and slides, complete with beach-like pools of sand; rugged Juniper bushes that look nothing like the ones in your front yard. Meanwhile, Squaw Valley’s mountains tower over Shirley’s red rocky canyon.

You might pause in your tracks to witness a fallen tree’s gnarled, ancient root system. Compare it to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or Dali’s surrealism. Then, find more milky universes inside even more pine tree roots. One perfect granite slab reminds you of your mother’s kitchen countertops. The long, red lady fingers of a willow bush in pre-bloom stretch out to you in early spring. Around the bend, roaring waterfalls slink over mountains of granite slabs and you think, Is this mountain made of dirt or rocks? as you continue to play rock-hopscotch with the blue-blazed trail. As you reach the top of Shirley Lake, things get bigger.

Granite rock slabs transform into great walls of California and appear as silent, rumbling drums. The lake stretches wide and glossy. Pines and aspens scatter its edges and you think, Man, this is a great spot for a picnic.

On your way down, spy things you missed on the way up. Hear the slight crunch of pine cone petals under your feet. Offer condolences to a fallen, carved-in aspen with a still-chartreuse trunk. Your naturalist friend pulls out her “Sierra Nevada” guidebook and advises that that stick of tiny, shriveled tomatoes you pointed out is actually a parasitic plant, something like a pine drop. You thank her, gaze towards the sky, and think, Maybe I’ll take up birding, because Shirley Lake will do that to you.

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