The Marble Mountain Wilderness offers some of Northern California’s most spectacular hiking and backpacking. And with that comes a myriad of photo opportunities. I’ve made several trips into the Marble Mountains and two things stand out in my mind. First is the incredible beauty that comprises the Marble Mountain Wilderness. Its peaks are stark and rugged and its valleys are green and lush–almost to the point of overwhelming the senses. The second point that sticks out is the high number of bear sightings. I see black bears every time I backpack into the Marbles. On the first occasion, we had just reached Campbell Lake. It was late in the afternoon and we were setting up camp. Suddenly a large male appeared and stood up on his hind legs, sniffing the air, not more than thirty feet away. While black bears are not usually a threat to human beings, I admit to feeling a little nervous with this 6-foot tall, 300 pound animal standing only feet away. A sharp clap of my hands and he was gone. Maneaten Lake is another place I have experienced a high incidence of bears. On my first trip there, we had a bear visit our camp all three nights. Even with the presence of my dog, Waldo, the bear would wander in.
Maneaten Lake (left) is one of the area’s shining jewels. At 112 feet deep, it is the second deepest lake in the Marble Mountain Wilderness, and with its steep granite walls and very little surrounding vegetation, the lake is a gorgeous turquoise blue. One of the most frightening experiences of my life came on a solo trip into Maneaten Lake, when a terrifying lightning storm moved in and completely engulfed me. Lightning flashed 360 degrees. As I was totally exposed, I confess to fearing for my life. In 15 minutes the storm had come and gone. While frightening at times, these are life-enriching experiences. Lightning and bears and isolation put the ‘wild’ in wilderness–and that is what most appeals to me about the Marble Mountains.
There is a peaceful, idyllic quality to the Marbles, as well. I spoke earlier of the area’s lushness. The hike into Sky High and Frying Pan Lakes, via the Red Rock Valley-Little Marble Valley Loop (12 miles/2400′ elev. gain), is a prime example of the lushness and intensity of the greens. Entire hillsides lay covered in corn lilies. The lakes are worthwhile destinations and offer numerous photographic opportunities.
Other worthy hikes include ABCD Lakes (a cluster comprised of Aspen, Buckhorn, Chinquapin, and Dogwood Lakes), and Ukonom Lake, the Wilderness Area’s largest lake with a surface area of 67 acres. It was at Ukonom Lake that we were serenaded by a pack of coyotes during a rainstorm late one night. I was utterly transfixed by the haunting beauty of their chorus. Even Waldo sat silently listening.
The Marble Mountain Wilderness consists of 89 lakes and countless streams and creeks scattered across 241,744 acres. Over 500 species of plants have been identified here–many endemic only to this area. It is home to several rare wildflowers, including the endangered McDonald’s rockcress. You will also find a number of locally rare conifers, including the subalpine fir. Whether your interest is wildflowers, wildlife, or the landscape, the Marble Mountains provide endless possibilities. Some day hikes exist, but to really experience the Marble Mountains, I recommend a multi-day trip (3 days minimum) to anyone who is serious about wanting to photograph this amazing place. Good photos cannot be rushed and having the time to allow the animals to come to you only increases your likelihood of capturing that epic shot. As a photographer, I love hiking solo. I’ve had numerous wildlife experiences because I’m not conversing with other people and I’m more attentive. Dogs are wonderful hiking companions–however, if you’re wanting a photograph of a 300 pound bear sniffing the air, consider leaving Fido with the in-laws. Pack your 300 mm telephoto and a tripod, and be prepared to be surprised.
While many of the popular destinations see high use in the Summer months, crowds drop off exponentially after Labor Day. I made the 26-mile roundtrip into Ukonom Lake in mid-September, and aside from passing a couple of hikers on the trail, we didn’t see another human being for five days–and with the exception of the serenading coyotes, we had the lake completely to ourselves. Don’t forget your wide-angle lens. The views are big in the Marble Mountains.
Many good guidebooks are available, including Marble Mountain Wilderness, by David Green and Greg Ingold (Wilderness Press).
I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.
Until next time, happy image-making…