Sugar Creek
May 16, 2010
Surrounded by some of the most scenic areas in the state, it seems Sugar Creek has been hiding in plain site. Even though I'd driven over it countless times, I didn't notice it until I saw it on a topographic map. The creek runs underneath Highway 123 at a sharp, dangerous turn, and I think most folks are too focused on the road to see the stream. I did a search online and didn't find any evidence that anybody had explored the creek recently. There were no photos or blog posts.
I was hoping the stream would reveal something special like its next door neighbors: Bear Creek with its Sidewinder Falls, Pam's Grotto, Pack Rat Falls, and Haw Creek Falls.
I cooked up a plan involving my mountain bike that would cut my hiking distance in half. I arrived at the highway crossing, just east of the Big Piney Creek bridge at Fort Douglas, around 7:30 in the morning. I hid my camera gear in the bushes, then drove up the highway to park at the Wheeler Cemetery road.
I rode my bike back down the mountain, a distance of 3.8 miles. I only had to pedal in a few spots, the rest of the ride was downhill. In fact, with an elevation drop of 1,100 feet, I had to use the brakes a few times to stay within a safe speed.
Then I grabbed my camera gear and stashed the bike in those bushes and I was finally off to explore Sugar Creek. Within the first hundred yards I came upon a young raccoon so intent on catching crawdads that it didn't even see me walk up. It was an unforgettable scene. The little guy was working by feel alone. He was reaching down into the moving water, too murky to see through, and turning over rocks. In just a couple of minutes he caught a couple of small crawfish, which he quickly munched and swallowed. I tried my best to slowly get the camera out of the bag, but at some point the raccoon noticed me and ran into a hole at the bottom of a huge Sycamore. I went ahead and set the camera at the tripod and aimed it at the hole and after waiting for 15 minutes got a single shot of the raccoon sneaking a peak at me.
My assertion that no two streams are alike held true for Sugar Creek. I didn't find any major scenic features, no tall waterfalls or natural bridges, but Sugar Creek is perhaps the most gentle, pleasant stream I've visited in a long time. Moss seemed to cover nearly everything, and there were ferns everywhere. The woods were filled with lots of big Beech trees and I passed many giant boulders. The stream bed was relatively narrow. It seems like half the time the stream bed was filled with rocks and stones, and the other half it was solid bedrock.
In the first mile, I passed bluffs 40 to 60 feet tall on one side of the stream or the other. I wore my new felt-soled NRS water shoes and simply walked up the middle of the stream. It was so nice to be able to do that! And when I did have to walk up on to the forested bank, there was no ice storm debris to detour around, no sticker bushes, and hardly any ducking underneath tree limbs. I moved up the creek very fast.
The prettiest waterfall, which cascaded down multiple drops for an overall height of perhaps 12 feet, was about 2 miles up the stream. As I set up the camera to take pictures from the big pool of green water below, loud thunder began to boom. After taking a lot of pictures from different angles, I packed up the camera and tried to wade through the water to the base of the falls, but I found the pool to be quite deep. A similar pool below a waterfall downstream had also been unusually deep compared to the rest of the stream.
I walked through the woods to the right to get above the falls and continued walking upstream.
As I stopped at the next small waterfall I encountered, the sky got very dark, to the point that it was a bit difficult to see, and it thundered a lot. It started raining lightly but hardly any of that got to me underneath the canopy. Still, I got scared and put on my raincoat for a bit, but I got too warm so I took it off.
As I continued upstream the creek got shallower and narrower. At the point where its two main source drainages ran down the mountainside to merge, the stream was not much more than a rocky path through the woods.
I hung a right to bushwhack steeply up the mountainside toward the Tahoe. It was tougher than I imagined, especially in those thin water shoes. I had to walk half a mile with an elevation gain of 650 feet. I came upon a spot where I think lightning struck a tree. All around the base of the tree, there were black rocks that looked like they'd been blasted out of the ground. It was pretty bizarre!
I got to the Tahoe a little before 4 o'clock and drove back down to retrieve the bike. It was a nice change to be finished with a long hike and have plenty of daylight left.