Call of the Canyon
"Here is magic."
Have you ever been told to take a hike? Well, I've got the perfect place for you: Shirley Canyon in Olympic Valley. What draws locals and tourists here? What makes this path unlike all the others? Is it really a big deal?
Believe me, it is.
I invite you to join me on this recent hike up Shirley Canyon. Just read on. You will soon understand what the big deal is, have some fun, and learn some things along the way. Are you ready?
The crisp morning air sends a chill down our spines as we set out on our hike. It's a bluebird day. It'll warm up, however. We’ve got our boots, water, snacks and sunscreen, essentials for our trip. The trailhead begins at the end of Shirley Canyon Road, just past Olympic Valley Chapel.
Usually accessible, the entrance to the trail happens to be in the exact location where an avalanche, 200 yards wide and 25 feet deep, tumbled through the neighborhood in late February, 2023. The damage it inflicted to the trees and the three-story apartment building remain a haunting reminder of the wrath of Mother Nature.
But today we're experiencing her sweetness...
We must navigate over some fallen trees and branches before we even begin our journey, but adventure awaits as the canyon calls.
The first thing you notice is the fragrance of clean alpine air, enchanting and intoxicating aromas of crisp fresh-cut pine. You find yourself wanting to inhale more than exhale.
Then, as you hike through the mixed pine woodlands and quaking aspens, you hear the ambient rush of heavy water. Washeshu Creek (formerly called Squaw Creek) pulls you in with its hypnotic, peaceful sounds. And before you know it, you're fully immersed in the allure of nature.
While Shirley Canyon Trail is marked with soft blue paint, the markings are not always reliable, so the creek serves as a good guide up the canyon.
The trail is around three miles to Shirley Lake and another two miles to High Camp with a total elevation gain of 2,000 feet. Along the way we may encounter other people, and their dogs, all blown away by the same beauty.
Within three minutes we arrive at the first of several waterfalls.
Mark Twain wrote about Lake Tahoe in his book, Roughing It: “The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn't it be?--it is the same the angels breathe.”
Had he written about the hike we're on now, Twain might have added, "And the views are so spectacular the angels must be gazing upon them as well."
More Than a Happy Place
The shivers you feel from watching these waterfalls plunge to emerald pools below is more than just a mystical or magical experience. To some, including me, it feels spiritual.
Interestingly, there's scientific evidence that says waterfalls release "negative ions" which increases our production of serotonin, the chemical which leads to our happy feelings. Something of which Shirley Canyon is in no short supply.
Trevor Kekke, a Truckee resident and great grandnephew of Shirley Scott, wrote about this Canyon and the lake named after his great aunt in Moonshine Ink: "From the time she was a toddler until she was about 13... Shirley's special place was the creek on the northern part of the valley, with its sparkling waterfalls. She would play for hours wandering the canyon and splashing around in magical swimming holes with her grandma, so they named it Shirley Canyon. The lake, in the wilderness area, is also named after her."
Wildflowers, Quaking Aspens & Junipers
It's easy to be distracted by the power and intensity of the waterfalls, especially when there's heavy snowmelt like this year. But there are other stunning things to notice and marvel at along the path, such as the wildflowers and trees.
Some wildflowers burst through the rocks and others carpet the fertile ground. Seeing such color against the granite grays is a feast for the eyes.
Blanket flowers and Dandelions
Our hike takes us past elegant quaking, (aka trembling), aspen and majestic juniper trees. The aspen trees are easy to spot in spring and early summer, their white bark and radiant green leaves stand out among the pines. When the light hits them the forest around them seems to glow.
But there's something else about the Aspen that makes them wildly interesting: they are clonal trees which grow in all directions and regenerate themselves. The largest and one of the oldest living organisms on earth is the Pando Aspen Grove in south-central Utah, a stand of aspen trees spreading over an area of 106 acres in Utah, a collection of 47,000 genetically identical stems sharing one collective root system.
The average age of these individual trees is only around 130 years old. The root system, however, is 80,000 years old. To put things in perspective, the last major Ice Age ended about 11,700 years ago. This makes the aspen tree not only the largest living organism, but the oldest living organism on earth as well.
With their distinctive gnarled and twisted bark, Sierra (or western) junipers are special for several reasons as well, including their ability to grow in the harshest environments. Their massive underground root systems make junipers masters at finding and conserving water. They typically live from 350 - 700 years old.
The mighty junipers are scattered around Shirley Canyon like tall sentinels keeping watch of our forest. Their branches heavy and strong, often spread out like the mythological Medusa's head of hair.
Not too far away from Olympic Valley is the oldest juniper tree in the United States. It's estimated to be 3,000 years old and located in the eastern most part of Tuolumne County, California, known as the Bennett Juniper Tree.
Granite Slabs & Panoramic Vistas
As we climb higher up the mountain, we begin noticing less trees and more massive granite rock slabs. These large slopes of smooth rock provide wide open views of Olympic Valley and surrounding mountains. And if we're lucky, we may catch a rainbow too.
"To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour"
~ William Blake
When you make it to Shirley Lake, you'll want to take a dip before you continue your hike to High Camp. And once you arrive at the top you'll be rewarded with more astonishing views of the Sierra and Lake Tahoe.
If it's running, and you want a quick and free way back to the base of the mountain, you might want to take the Aerial Tram down. The views are epic of the village below.
Make sure to take your fully charged smartphone to follow along the trail and track your hike with the Palisades Tahoe summer mobile app.
Sense the Magic
A few miles off the highway, a million miles from ordinary, Shirley Canyon is a source of inspiration from the things you smell and hear, to the things you see and feel. Your senses will be grateful for this gift of adventure and wonder.
The Canyon calls... and she whispers in your ear, "Here is magic."
Thanks for joining me on this exhilerating hike up Shirley Canyon. Hope to bump into you again someday on any given trail.
Editors Note: This article is featured in Palisades Press / Summer 2023 issue / in newstands around Lake Tahoe now.
Hello! I’m Michael Kennedy, Olympic Valley, CA resident. I’m a freelance writer, photographer, and teacher. Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, please share with others. I value your attention, it means a lot to me and it helps others see the story. If you're interested in any photos in this post, or in my gallery: click here, let me know what size you want, and I'll send a quote. My email: email@example.com.