Hiking to magnificent Marlette Lake

Located high above Lake Tahoe, Marlette Lake is the picture of high mountain beauty. Tall pines grow to the edge of the lake’s crystal waters, which reflect the rich, blue hues of the sky.

But despite appearing like it has always been there, Marlette is mostly manmade. The lake traces its origins to the 1860s when Virginia City’s mining barons were casting about for lumber and water for their burgeoning empires.

While a small body of water, known as Goodwin Lake, did exist in the area, it wasn’t large enough to provide much help in meeting the town’s growing water needs.

In 1873, however, lumber magnate Duane Bliss and railroad manager Henry Yerington constructed a dirt fill and stone dam across the head of the Marlette Basin.

Originally, Marlette Lake’s (as it was renamed) water was used for a series of flumes that helped carry lumber from the Sierra Nevada range down to Carson City.

Three years after the initial dam was built, a larger dirt and masonry dam was constructed, which raised the lake’s level to 37 feet and increased its water storage capacity to more than 2 billion gallons.

Water from the enlarged lake began being transported directly to thirsty Virginia City, which by this time had a population of more than 25,000 people. A box flume was built that extended north from Marlette to the Hobart Creek water system, which stretched across Washoe Valley to Virginia City.

During the next 75 years, Marlette served as one of Virginia City’s main water sources (it still provides water to Carson City) and as a hidden jewel high in the Sierra that was frequented by the occasional hiker and sheepherder.

In the 1940s, a man named Jack Ferguson, who was the flume-keeper and only year-round resident at the lake, decided to construct a 40-foot sailing yacht on the lake. For five years, he hauled in large pieces of timber and built a marvelous hand-pegged vessel.

He completed the work in 1948 and then discovered a problem — how do you move a 40-foot boat designed for ocean sailing from a mountain lake? The answer was to load it on a huge trailer and truck, which cautiously moved it to Spooner Summit (about five miles away) in about an hour.

Ferguson’s folly actually made it to Sacramento, where it was fully fitted and rigged — and eventually sailed to the South Seas.

Today, Marlette Lake is an extremely popular mountain biking and hiking destination. In the 1970s, the dirt road leading to the lake and the path of the old box flume, which runs to Incline Village, was developed as one of the region’s first substantial mountain bike trails.

The Marlette Lake Trail begins at Spooner Lake, which is part of Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. After parking in one of the lots at the park (which is about ten miles west of Carson City via U.S. 50 and State Route 28), you can follow signs to the trail.

The trail is fairly level for the first half-mile on North Canyon Road as you walk beside a picturesque meadow and into a forest of firs and pines. Within a short time, you pass a wooden park service cabin (to the left) and begin climbing into aspens.

Along the way, you pass several small creeks, which can sometimes make the road muddy as well as beautiful wildflowers. The hike (or ride) is moderately steep, mostly pleasant and largely shaded as you continue to climb higher (the 4.6 mile-long trail takes you from 6,950 feet to 8,157 feet).

About halfway on the journey, you reach a fork in the road. To the right, you can hike about a mile (almost straight up the side of the mountain) to Snow Valley Peak, part of the Lake Tahoe Rim Trail. To the left is the path to Marlette Lake.

A bit farther ahead, the trail runs parallel to a large meadow, then reaches the bottom of a fairly steep incline that is the final obstacle to reaching Marlette.

Mountain bikers know this final hill because it’s steep and most end up walking their bikes to the top. It rises for about a quarter of a mile although it seems a lot longer when you’re climbing.

At the top, however, you’re rewarded with your first glimpse of marvelous Marlette Lake, which is another half-mile downhill. The walk to the lake through the trees is remarkably quick.

At lake level, you can find plenty of picnicking spots as well as places to enjoy the magnificent scenery. Signs describing Marlette’s history can be found in the rocks at the lake’s southeast end.

For those wanting to ride or hike the Flume Trail, continue around the southern end of the lake. You cross a bridge that spans one of the creeks that feeds the lake, then head around the west side of the lake and onto the narrow path of the old box flumes.

For information, go to www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/ltbmu/recarea/?recid=11772.

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.


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