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Exploring Our Backyard: How I accidentally discovered delightful Smith Lake

Smith Lake 1.jpg
Beautiful Smith Lake in the Plumas National Forest

One of my favorite parts about living in Northern Nevada is even after spending more than 20 years of my life here, there are so many places left to explore. Waterfalls, lakes, hot springs, you-name-it are tucked all over the place. But I often find it hard to break away from my usual haunts. There are certain beaches, hikes and campgrounds I hope to visit at least once a year, which doesn’t always leave room for exploring new places. It's a strange juxtaposition because at my core I love the thrill of seeing and experiencing something new. This circumstance came to a collision this week.

The intention for my story this week was to take you to Upper and Lower Sardine Lake via the roughly 1.5-hour drive through some beautiful scenery in the Plumas National Forest. It’s a once-a-year kind of spot I enjoy making the trek for. There’s a little “resort” at Lower Sardine Lake with a couple of cabins with an easy hike up to Upper Sardine Lake, where there's an amazing view of the Sierra Buttes. It’s a different scenery than a lot of places in the area with the backdrop of the jagged mountains.

That was the idea until about two-thirds of the way there. A very literal roadblock would end those plans. The road had not been paved and was covered in a foot of snow. Damn.

We possibly could have gone another way around to get there, but it would have taken too long. My stomach sunk when I saw the snow. I was taking my wife and her friend (who we’ve been quarantining with) there for the first time. I’ve been to the Sardine Lakes several times, but for whatever reason she had never been able to make it. I was so excited to share this special place with them and give them that new outdoor destination feeling.

At this point, we had two choices. Give up and just go back home. There’s no way that was going to happen. Or find somewhere else to hang out. It was funny because as I was explaining this area to my wife, I talked about how there were hundreds of unexplored lakes and ponds in the Sierra that we had never even heard of. Probably never will. It turned out this would be a perfect time to put that theory to the test.

FOMO (fear of missing out, a debilitating feeling I regularly suffer from) kicked in, thinking about how we could probably try to get to Sardine Lake through another route. I pleaded my case to the group that we should give it a shot. It didn’t get me very far. I semi-reluctantly gave up on my plans and decided to give in to spontaneity, and it did not disappoint.

On our way back to a main road, we saw a sign for “Smith Lake." As we passed it, we discussed stopping, but again the indecisiveness was present and we kept driving until we got a half mile away and all said, “Screw it." We turned around and decided it was at least worth checking out. We turned down a gravel road until it dead-ended to a little bathroom and a sign. I got out and saw how well mapped out the area was, with an arrow with the No. 1 associated with Smith Lake. We thought, "Well, what the hell, it’s only a mile. If it sucks, at least we got outside and had a nice hike." A well marked sign for the Smith Lake trail was just to our right. Away we went.

The hike had a steady climb on the side of a mountain that opened up to a beautiful view of the Plumas National Forest. There wasn't another soul on the trail. It was just us three and our friend's Labrador (Willow), who was excited to hit the trail after being pent up in the back during our indecisiveness.

After 20 minutes, we almost got to the top of this side of the mountain, and that’s when a little doubt crept in. There was a ton of snow on the trail. Things were going to get wet. But again, "Screw it. Let's just keep going. We’re pot committed now." After a short discussion over which direction the trail was going (I was wrong, but will never admit) we could hear a creek. Good sign. Lakes usually have creeks for drainage. Then there was this beautiful bridge that crossed the creek. Another good sign.

A few minutes later, there was an actual sign pointing to a trail that said Smith Lake was a quarter of a mile away. We're in business. After another 10 minutes trudging thorough the snow and trying to avoid it as much as possible, we made it. And it was as beautiful and serene as we could hope for.

Crystal clear water, beautiful tall pines and fresh mountain air. Willow couldn’t wait before diving into the bone-chilling water and happily swimming across the lake to chase the resident ducks. There was another couple enjoying the lake from the opposite side, but they only stayed for a few minutes before we had the whole place to ourselves. Nirvana. While we didn’t get to experience our intended destination, this was more than fine. We cracked open a couple of cold ones, threw down some towels and had a perfect afternoon.

On the way back down the hill, I noticed an amazing spot where those previous people were hanging out that looked like a magical place to go backpack camping. Littered with fallen trees, there was a perfect natural seating situation and even a bear box to store your food. Duly noted.

On the way back, I followed the creek for a little bit with more crystal clear water and lots of little trout swimming downstream. Also noted.

All in all, it was an awesome day and a reminder not every destination in this region needs to be the most popular for it to be amazing. Sometimes you should forget your plans and let spontaneity win.

Smith Lake, I can’t wait to go back. Or maybe we should check out something else? Yep, the FOMO is still alive and well.

Until next time.

Nevada Sports Net's executive producer Alex Margulies will feature a local recreation activity every Thursday in his "Exploring Our Backyard" feature. "Exploring Our Backyard" will return with new TV episodes this summer. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @marguliespxp.

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