RIDING THE WILD SIERRA: Adventures on ATVs
A few Saturdays back (the first time), I got a chance to spend some time exploring what has got to be one of the best outdoor adventures available in Reno-Tahoe, America’s Adventure Place! I signed on for an ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle, a.k.a. Off-Road/Off-Highway Vehicle) tour, of a part of the Plumas National Forest, off the romantically named Last Chance Creek near Frenchman’s Lake. The 30-mile drive from Reno was an easy 35 minutes – north on US 395 past Stead, up to Hallelujah Junction, and then West on Hwy 70 to the tiny hamlet of Chilcoot (just before Vinton), which boasts a miniscule but massively cute Frosty Freeze burger-shop (straight out of an Andy Griffith episode). I called Lisa and Jay, the owners/operators of "High Sierra ATV Tours" from there, and they gave me directions to their location. I was running a little early (I guess you could say I was a little excited) – otherwise they would have come over and picked me up. The drive to their place took about 6 minutes. Another group was already there, and we did the basic paperwork and put on our gear (a helmet, long pants [not shorts], closed-toe shoes and lots of sunscreen), plus about 5 minutes of instructions on how to drive our fully-automatic Arctic Cat ATVs – and then it was off into the Sierras on our Arctic Cats. The equipment was all new, surprisingly clean, and astonishingly comfortable. I chose to ride with Jay, the owner, so I could take a bunch of photos, and boy – was that a great idea or what! Within ten minutes of leaving the starting point, we were high enough into the mountains that even in mid-June, it was fairly cool, and I was glad I had brought a jacket.
We were climbing some pretty steep grades and the Arctic Cats negotiated the climb with real ease. The ground clearance was almost as good as the Hummer I’d driven out in from Reno, and the 650 CC engines delivered enough power that even the 35-40° grades and boulder-stacked trails did not slow us down.The landscape transformed rapidly from the dry and sun-drenched nether elevations to cool greens as our adventure threw us deeper and deeper into the hands of the hills. The vegetation quickly moved to tall Ponderosa pines, Cedars, and then lots of other more Alpine trees. The forest was so beautiful. And we did not encounter a single other soul. No, I take that back, we ran into two people on the way back, but that was everyone the entire ride. It is pretty much an undiscovered country – silent in its majesty, and breath-takingly beautiful. We stopped on numerous occasions, to take pictures, splash about a little in the different (very cold) little creeks we crossed. There was one little picnic spot that I absolutely fell in love with – it was a tiny little spring-and snow-fed lake called Snow Lake, that does not appear in the maps. I could have stayed there forever.
I could see that snow marks were still fresh here, and commented that this would be a perfect location for snow-mobiling in winter (something that Jay and Lisa are gearing up to provide in the coming winter seasons). I was told that the area gets over 15 feet of snow on the ground many winters. But it is unspoilt and hard to get to – unless you have a knowledgeable local guide.
Jay was the Tour Guide, and that was what made this so great. If I had just rented or brought an ATV over and done this by myself, it would have been (a lot of fun still, but) nowhere close to such a wonderful experience. Jay knew just about every little inch of that wilderness (1.2 Million acres), and he knew just which way to go all of the time, even when there was no trail to follow.
We got to see some great flora all along the way. I was particularly fascinated with the almost maroon-red ‘Snow Flowers’ that Jay pointed out. These grow for just a few weeks in the year, just as the snows leave the mountains, and are quite striking. But while it’s so pretty now in summer, Jay pointed out that best time to visit these forests is the Fall, as the leaves turn from green to crimson to gold, in all their autumnal glory.
Our trip was a pretty long one – we climbed to the top of Crystal Peak, got a glimpse of the spectacular, volcanic Lassen Peak in the distance and rode out to the overlook where we gazed at a stunning bird’s eye view of Frenchman’s Lake. I was surprised that even with such a long trip, I was not really physically exhausted. You DON’T have to be very athletic, young, or even particularly fit – to enjoy an adventure like this. The Arctic Cat ATVs, being fully automatic, are very easy to maneuver, easier than driving any automatic-shift car. I wonder if I can get my dad to do this with me, if we could come here together. I mean, he has lived in big cities all his life, as I have, but I know he’d love it as much as I did this time.
One thing I was a little disappointed about was that we did not see much fauna – Jay tells me that there’s quite a bit of deer in those woods, but they generally don’t come out until twilight or early in the mornings. There are also some bears around (and Jay had shot one a couple of years ago), but they really shun human presence, so it is very hard to get to see one up close, though we did see some quite fresh bear-tracks along the way.
It was almost evening before we got back to the homestead, which incidentally is also Jay and Lisa’s home.They were very generous and allowed us to use the bathrooms at their home to wash and clean up, and since the Frosty Freeze (the only game in town for food) was certain to have closed for the evening – they even invited to me to join their family (plus a few guests they had that evening) for a weekend barbeque. (Mind you, they probably do not do this for their customers in the normal course, but I must have looked more hungry than most, LOL.)
Jay showed off his skills (and that old boy’s got skillz in this dept) with some very juicy thick ribeye steaks on his ‘Cowboy Grill’ – a very interesting and useful contraption that doubles as a barbeque pit and a campfire centerpiece (that you can sit around, as you would around a campfire). (I just know I want to buy one of these — I found out that he’d bought his from the Hearth Patio Show at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center earlier in the year.) The food was great, the company very friendly and cheerful, but the overall experience – stupendous. They invited me to come back again. And I know I will, and very soon.
I love the forest, the wilderness of the Wild Sierra around Reno-Tahoe. I love the whole adventure feel of Reno-Tahoe, you know, that story-book feel of the Wild Wild West not being all that far away or long ago. There are not too many chances to experience that up close and personal – particularly if you are from the city. To me, that is the charm of Reno-Tahoe – the Wild Sierra is still untamed there, and it is just around the corner from a pretty big city (which feels like a much bigger city than it really is) with all the urban comforts, great hotels, superb nightlife, world-class headliners and an overall entertainment scene that puts most US and European metros to shame.
I am so glad I went on this tour, and I sure as heck am going back!!!!
And I am going to try and post a few of the photos soon here – as soon as I
get a chance to catalog them and pick out the best ones.
P.S.: I went back next weekend with my friends Katie and Ken and their troupe, the cast and crew of a local indy film production company (BarFly Productions), and made a little movie about this place – check it out below.
Feel free to share the love and leave a comment.
For more …
High Sierra ATVTours
Videography by BarFly Productions (www.BarFlyProductions.com)