Lassen National Forest
Destination Deets: Christie Campground, Eagle Lake, Lassen National Forest Cost per night: $20-$30 Dog friendly? Very! Hot tip: 15 and 17 Troy loop are some of the nicest sites because they are closest to the lake
After barely leaving the island of Alameda for four months, our family loaded up the SUV for a five-night camping trip in Lassen National Forest a few weeks ago. We were hoping an extra-long sojourn at a woodsy lake would make up for the Alaskan cruise we’d canceled, or, at least, keep us sane enough to ride out the rest of the pandemic. We got about a day of relaxation before that plan fell apart.
We felt pretty good about the coronavirus risk level. We had been to this campground before and knew that the sites are large and the campground doesn’t have too many sites in it, meaning there was a low chance of crowds at the bathrooms. We purposely chose the campground farthest from the Eagle Lake Marina, since it tends to be the least popular. And several nights of our trip were to be weekdays.
Not only we were looking forward to a change of scenery for the first time in months, we were especially looking forward to forming our first temporary “bubble” of friends, as our county’s public health order had called it. Of course, our friends were from a different county and we were traveling to a third county, so I don’t know that our Alameda health orders applied, but at any rate: We would be cautiously spending time with one other family, masked when possible, outdoors, and keeping a safe distance as much as we could. We missed our friends!
After a rocky start including an unexpected all-nighter on Epu’s part and the realization that we’ve never really packed for a whole five nights at a campground before, we arrived at Christie Campground under cover of darkness. We had snagged a campsite adjacent to the lakeshore, and our friends were set up just across the road from us. One really sad thing about setting up your tent after a campground’s quiet hours have begun: I ended up sleeping on an empty air matress rather than turning on the loud pump.
The next day was the summer bliss we’d been anticipating. After breakfast, once I had spent a couple of hours completing my camp kitchen set up, I took over for Erik, who had already spent some time down at the beach watching the kids and dogs splash around. The beach at Christie Campground is barely a patch of sand, and a large group had already staked out most of it with two sunshades pitched side-by-side, but we managed to set up a couple chairs that were six feet away from the crowd. We knew from last year to bring water shoes to avoid the ooey feeling of feet sinking into the mud near the shoreline. Once you wade out a few feet, the bottom becomes sandier. The water is clear and cool and lovely, though, and swimming felt wonderful.
Our safety plan was looking good. The hygiene station Erik had set up — a water cooler positioned over a basin so that people could wash hands and brush teeth at our campsite to avoid unnecessary bathroom trips — worked great. Christie campground also has water spigots positioned every few campsites, and the nearest one was right next to our driveway. And the two-stall bathrooms were almost always empty so we never had to be in a confined space with another person.
My friend and I sat in chairs in the sun and chatted. We spotted a bald eagle flying above the lake. (I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised given the name of the lake.) Plenty of black terns floated here and there. I saw a hawk with a beautiful pattern on the bottom of its wings circling over the grassy field near the lake.
When the sun became too intense around 1 p.m., we rounded up the kids and brought them back to the campsites, where some shade could be found under trees. Neither of us had brought shade tents, but I will next time we go back to this campground. After lunch, there was a lot of reading and napping in hammocks and camp chairs. The kids rode their bikes around the safe campground circle. Then back to the lake. Our friends brought an inflatible boat which the kids had a great time paddling around, sometimes towing a floatie toy along behind. I took a long swim, heading to what looked like a beach on the side of the cove our campground is nestled in. It took me quite awhile, maybe an hour, and the water was mostly deep enough that I couldn’t touch the bottom. I’m a decent swimmer and the water was calm, but still there were moments when I wondered if I was being a little crazy. When I got to the other shore, I discovered that what looked like a sandy beach from my original shore was just brown grass. I walked back around to our beach, which only took 10 or 15 minutes. I was glad I had water shoes on to protect my feet from the hot and prickly brown grass.
At some point during the day, the dads noticed that our SUV had a flat tire. Fortunately our friend had brought a patch kit. The boys pulled a long nail out of the tire, patched it, and we hoped to be good to go. If not, we did have a full-size spare on hand.
After dinner, I paddled my kayak out. It was a spectacular time of day to be on the water, with the light picking up every ripple of the surface and turning it into a mosaic of shifting jewels. The birds like this time of day too. A pelican turned up near the shore and patrolled back and forth. Fish lept out of the water every few seconds. I didn’t leave the cove that Christie Campground sits in, but I paddled here and there, rotating a lot to take in the views of the hills bordering the lake as the sinking sun changed their colors.
Our area of the lake was empty save for one small group who were competing throwing skipping stones. They were really good at it.
I returned to find the others campfiring. Once it was good and dark, we trooped down to the lake to look for the NEOWISE comet. It wasn’t quite dark enough so we hung around. There were a number of other groups by the lake then, probably also looking for the comet. When we finally saw it, it was underwhelming — little more than a smudge in the sky. During my sunset paddle, a couple of airplane contrails had taken on brilliant pink tones and were frankly much more interesting to look at. But at least we now had seen the comet!
Since we were going to have five days to enjoy this campground, and we knew it would only get more enjoyable once the weekenders cleared out, we decided to use Day 2 of our visit for a little field trip. This is where our idyllic getaway went off the rails. Our plan was to drive 50 miles to the northeast to the Subway Lava Tube, just north of Lassen National Park. We packed up beach gear in case we found a lake to picnic at along the way, and headed out during the late morning.
As we were pulling out, Pebbles and Epu pointed out that there was a wildfire nearby, and that we could see a plume of smoke across the lake. I didn’t think much of it, as the air quality in our campground was still fine. After all, it was late July in California, and fires were normal.
We went through Susanville and soon were on highway 44 heading northwest. The smoke in the air was getting thicker, and soon we were driving right toward the plume. The kids got scared and started asking to turn around, but Epu and I explained to them that if there was really danger to drivers, they would close down the road. I have to admit though, that at the moment I took this video, it was hard not to feel a little nervous, remembering stories of people in the Napa and Paradise fires escaping their homes through flames on both sides of the road. You can see in the video that the smoke looked scary, and I didn’t even film when we drove by the flames because I was too busy watching first responders for instructions.
After we got through, the road was closed behind us.
We made it to the lava tube without incident, ate our lunch and walked through the short cave. It’s a fun activity, but it was a bit crowded for our taste given the pandemic. All of us wore masks in the tunnel, of course, but not all the other guests did. It was nice and cool inside, though, which we really appreciated as the outside temperature climbed into the upper 90s.
We saw a few off-duty firefighters touring the cave as well, which reminded us to map out a new route back to the campground, giving the fire a wide berth. Our new route, 299, was twice as far, and took us through lots of desolate backcountry and tiny towns we would not otherwise have visited. Like the town where our tire went flat again: Fall River Mills.
We pulled over in the lot of one of the town’s many abandoned businesses and took shelter from the blazing sun under a narrow overhang while Erik inspected the tire. It looked like the patch was intact, but the tire had gone flat in another spot.
Across the street from us, a family was in their yard, the kids playing in a tiny wading pool just off the highway. They came over with bowls of water for our dogs, which was very sweet.
I took Badger and walked around the town in the heat, just to check things out while Erik and our friend worked on the tire. There were bridges across the river nearby, so I was hoping to find a pleasant place to wait or even splash around. I didn’t find that, but I did find the Fall River Mills hotel, which had some tables and chairs on a shady veranda. I went back and fetched my friend and all five of our kids (Nutmeg sat this trip out) and we waited in comort at the tables.
Within half an hour, the guys had put the spare on the car, and we were off again. One of the towns we passed through on the way back to the campground was called Sheepshead, and we were disappointed to not see any sign to pose in front of. Sheepshead is a card game popular in Wisconsin.
As we drove home, we followed reports of the Hog Fire, the one that had blocked our path. Apparently it was growing. Still, it didn’t seem too close to our campground, so I didn’t sweat it.
We finally got back, grateful to be able to jump into the lake to rinse the road dust off before starting dinner. Many of the other campers had departed, and the kids had a great time gathering up abandoned wood from empty campsites. We had been thrilled to see a large, noisy family group next to us packing up that morning, but when we returned, there was an RV parked at the site. Oh well. It was just a guy and his wife and they stayed quietly inside.
In the morning, I woke to Epu quietly panicking. Apparently, the Hog Fire had doubled in size overnight. We also had a number of texts from Nutmeg, who apparently had been following fire news from home, and wanted us to leave. The air quality at the campground was still good, but the plume of smoke across part of the lake looked more menacing.
Epu wanted to go home. Our friends and I tried to talk sense into him. I urged him to speak with a ranger, which he did. The ranger assured him that they would warn us if we needed to evacuate. However, Epu knew that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy the rest of our stay while worrying constantly that a fire was going to trap us here.
We decided to pack up and head away from the fire, hoping that since it was now a weekday we would be able to find a first-come, first-serve campground. At first we thought to drive into Lassen National Park, but since we had learned Manzanita Lake was closed due to someone getting bitten by an otter, and reaching the other lakes in the park from our location while avoiding the fire would be difficult, we set our sites on Shasta Lake, about 130 miles to the west.
However, while driving toward Shasta Lake, I started to message a friend who has a house in Burney, which is on the way. He recommended we try a campground much closer to us, and if we couldn’t get a spot there, we could always crash at his house. Conveniently, we came to a roadblock where traffic was reduced to one way due to construction, according to the sign, so I hopped out of the car to tell our friends about this promising new plan.
Unfortunately, our friends didn’t have as good news for us. They had been following behind us, and warned that the spare tire looked wobbly under the load of our trailer basket, kayak and fully loaded car. And — of course! — the tools to work with the tire were buried under all our gear in the back of the car.
Even worse, we then found out by asking other drivers that we were not waiting to get through a construction zone. We were stopped because a new wildfire had started ahead of us. And soon, we were turned back entirely. We would later learn that this was because of the Gold Fire, which ended up being even larger than the Hog Fire.
Fortunately, before we got turned around, Epu had managed to access the wrench he needed and tighten the bolts of the spare tire, and it turned out that was all the tire needed. Phew.
We couldn’t go back to our campground because the road we had come from was also now being blocked, presumably because of the Hog Fire. Our only option now was to head to 395, which would take us to Reno in the south and Modoc National Forest to the north. Not knowing much about what lay northward, we chose Reno, figuring we could either find a nice lake somewhere on the way or just go home.
Again, we found ourselves driving through expanses of scrub desert, with no buildings in site. We were grateful we had made sure every water bottle was full before leaving the campground. When I got a data connection, I found a single campground in the Tahoe area with openings: the private Alder Creek campground. Funnily enough, we were familiar with that campground. We and our friends had rented a ski house down the road from it the winter before last, and I had walked Badger there, although the campsites were covered in snowdrifts then. We knew it had a creek, and Donner Lake wasn’t far away, so we reserved a site online and hoped we could fit both families into one site.
As we finally, finally got through Reno and headed to Truckee, more bad luck hit us. It started raining. In fact, it was a thunderstorm. This is unusual in summer in California. After we pulled into the parking lot of the Alder Creek campground, we stepped out of our cars into a downpour.
The camp host came to the doorway of her RV and told us that because we were arriving late in the day, she had given away our reserved site. But she did have one tiny site and one by the river. But the one by the river was probably flooding about now, she said. And the tiny site probably wouldn’t fit both our tents.
We looked at our friends and sighed. This was not really working out. We didn’t have ponchoes or extra tarps with us. Besides, the weather forecast said the night temperature would drop into the low 40s and we hadn’t packed our warmest clothing either. I imagined us damp and shivering all night in our sleeping bags, even assuming the rain stopped.
We hung our heads, graciously accepted the camp host’s offer t make an exception to the rules and refund our reservation, used their bathroom, and said goodbye. We had tried very valiently, but our camping trip was over, two nights early. Worse, we had spent two of the three days we’d had doing almost nothing but driving.
We made it home by about 11 p.m. and spent the next day on Twitter, following the two fires’ growth. In the end, the Gold Fire consumed 22,634 acres, and the Hog Fire ate 9,564. The Hog Fire ended up creating its own weather, and more thunderstorms like the one that hit us in Truckee kept aircraft from fighting the blaze for awhile. As far as I know, the Eagle Lake campgrounds were never evacuated. Several news international news stations asked to borrow my video footage of the smoke plume, and I let them use it.
Having traveled more than we’d expected during our getaway and visited a few gas stations and shops on the road, we stayed home as much as possible over the next two weeks, avoiding even small encounters just in case any of us had picked up coronavirus. None of us did.
Next trip is to an Airbnb near Yosemite, with a reservation to enter the park crowd-free. Fingers crossed that things go more smoothly!