Scenic Sword Lake offers plenty of outdoor aventure in the Sierra

Special to the Sun-StarJuly 27, 2013 

Sword Lake is one of the best swimming lakes in the Sierra. It's got a beautiful setting, nice campsites, some good jumping rocks, and it's less than 3 miles from the County Line Trailhead.

Of course, all of these features mean that it also is popular.

On a backpacking trip to the lake two weekends ago, we found several large groups already camped there. We also ran into rangers who recommended that we continue walking for another 10 minutes to nearby Lost Lake, where we found a really nice campsite that put some distance between us and the other groups. If you want to enjoy the lakes with fewer visitors, try to do the hike on a weekday.

Find the trail by turning off of Highway 108 at Clark Fork, 19 miles east of the Summit District Ranger Station. Follow the Clark Fork Road until you see a sign for the Fence Creek Campground. Turn left on this dirt road and follow it for about six miles to the County Line Trailhead. If driven carefully, any vehicle can make it.

The trail starts at 7,200 feet and climbs steadily for just under a mile to about 7,420 feet. Then it begins a long, but gradual descent to Sword Lake at 6,859 feet. The road to the trailhead and the trail essentially take you around the backside of the Dardanelles — the long series of volcanic peaks that stand out on the northern horizon as you drive Highway 108. For a great view of the Dardanelles, stop at the Donnells Vista before you reach the Clark Fork turnoff. A short walk will take you to an overlook from which you can see the highway side of the Dardanelles. Sword Lake is on the other side. Our campsite at Lost Lake had a magnificent setting with the Dardanelles in the background.

Although the Dardanelles may look like quite an obstacle, the trailhead road takes you much of the way to a low pass to the west of the summits. We ran into hikers with dogs both going to Sword Lake and returning and two horseback riders as well. The wildflower display along the way was outstanding — far better than I would have expected in such a dry year. Mosquitoes were less of a problem than I would have expected and we saw hardly any at all at our dry campsite above Lost Lake.

Sword and Lost Lakes make an excellent day hike or fairly easy overnight backpack destination. There's no official trail from Sword Lake to Lost Lake, but enough people have hiked that way that you can find the second lake if you just follow the established paths. Lost Lake is pretty shallow which means that it is relatively warm for swimming, but doesn't offer any jumps. I didn't see any fish. Sword Lake is deeper and has some fish, but gets fished pretty heavily. If you continue hiking beyond Lost Lake, pretty soon you'll come to some nice views of nearby Spicer Meadow Reservoir.

Although you can swim in any part of the lakes, the most popular spot for jumping is a large granite bench on the south shore of Sword Lake. On any summer weekend you're likely to see quite a few people here. Before jumping into any mountain lake, make sure it is safe. If you're not sure, don't do it.

Sword and Lost Lakes are located in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. We ran into two horseback riders on our return hike from the lake and dogs on both days between highways 4 and 108. This wilderness has surprisingly few lakes, so this is one of the most popular destinations. Despite this, there are no quotas and you are guaranteed a wilderness permit. Permits are only needed for overnight trips and you can pick yours up at the Summit District Ranger Station on Highway 108 at the Pinecrest turnoff. "Leave no Trace" camping practices are especially important to minimize visitor impacts in popular areas like this one. Although there are many campfire restrictions throughout the state this summer, you can still have a campfire while backpacking in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. For more information, go to www.fs.usda.gov/stanislaus/" target="_blank"__gt__http:// or call (209) 965-3434.

The trail is pretty easy to follow and all the junctions are signed. I used the National Geographic Emigrant and CarsonIceberg Wildernesses maps to plan the trip, but it is rather large to carry on the trail. If you want a more portable map, the USGS Spicer Meadow Reservoir topo covers the area in more detail.

Adam Blauert is a correspondent to the Sun-Star. He's an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking, and exploring the western states. He can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com

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