Not able to resist having a holiday between my work shifts, we were at it again. Our original intention was to meet up somewhere with Kathi and Shannon and so I’d done a search on Mountain Project for climbing spots within a few hours of us and landed at Table Mountain. Astoundingly when I searched for camping options, after having read on Mountain Project that there is NO camping nearby, I found a recreation area on New Melones (Mel-oh-knees) Lake, only a ten minute drive from the crag.
I was keen to get some climbing in on our first day at Table Mountain but Dan had different ideas and soon convinced me. He’d just bought a baby fridge that was to be converted into a Kegarator and so his morning was occupied with that. I packed and when I was done, started cleaning the house, waiting (im)patiently to get on the road. Around 11am, we were out.
We were heading to Sonora – the place we’d last camped at that Walmart – but this time we were going out to its scenic side, not the highway stop. As soon as we were out of the Bay Area, I was on the beers. We weren’t climbing today, at most we’d scope the place out, so I transitioned into chill mode.
We stopped in the town of Sonora to visit Sierra Nevada Adventure Company. It was the first time for both of us in the historic town and it was a lovely spot. You could just imagine the horses and carts treading down the main street kicking dust up on the wooden store fronts. We parked, found our shop and the Sonora Pass climbing guide we were looking for. Having got to chatting with the shop owner (very easy to talk to), Dan walked out with a new disc golf disc and we found out about the new course situated near the camp we were going to.
Not far out of Sonora, we drove on to New Melones Lake. We were in the country now, with farms extending into the hills, all of them freshly yellow with the onset of Summer. It was perfect weather – full sun but not too hot. We wondered how we ever crossed over to Arizona in June.
We drove into Tuttletown Recreation Area armed with a campsite reservation (strange, I know) and straight past the deserted entrance hut. Desperate for some lunch, we drove straight past the Acorn campground turn off to find some water and a spot to sit. We tried out a picnic area but that was way too far above the lake to be interesting so we carried on to the boat ramp. Yes, this would do just fine.
Dan put our chairs out by the van as I made sandwiches and we both started soaking in that holiday feeling with the heat of the sun. We watched a few boats jet across the low-level blue water as we ate then walked down the boat ramp to dip our feet in over one of the two jetties. It wasn’t quite hot enough to justify a swim and so the three of us sat and watched the world go by, even got to spectate a couple of boat landings on the ramp behind us. We speculated where Table Mountain might be, trying to spot any crag-type cliffs.
Time to check out our campsite, we packed it up and drove back up to Acorn, the only campground open of three in this area (I assume COVID, but who knows). I never book campsites and so when I was looking online a few days ago, I was meticulous in my site choosing. Smart me, of the 69 sites, I chose site 68 because it looked closest to the water and the most isolated. Well, the campground was pretty much empty except for the cluster of sites around site 68 because they were all close to the water and isolated!
When we pulled up to site 68 we discovered another couple in our spot about halfway done setting up. As I got out to get our reservation tags off the site post, the girl said to her boyfriend that they must have stuffed up because they were in our site. Not to worry, I told them, we were happy to go off and find a different spot since the place was so empty. Before we left to go find out spot, the boyfriend asked if we knew somewhere to swim and so I directed them to the boat ramp (ever the tour guide!). Dan was uncomfortable with whole situation. We were used to camping out in the wilderness with nobody even within earshot, let along within eyesight but we settled in at site 60, a very comfortable spot equipped with a fire ring and picnic table (standard issue obviously, but for us it was a highlight). With nothing much to set up, after we’d got out the hammock and chairs, it was beer and reading time. Cleo promptly found her spot underneath the picnic table.
Restless me, towards the end of the afternoon, I was keen for some activity so we wandered along the trail that ran just beneath our camp. We thought we had a chance of getting down to the water but the hill was steep and the scrub thick so we stayed on trail.
I collected flowers as we went to act as a centerpiece for our picnic table and we were soon back in our chairs drinking some more.
On my way to the bathroom I saw our site stealers at #68 so wandered over for a chat to see if they’d found water. Indeed they had and Kurt, a Welshman, soon discovered I was Aussie and so we talked away. I invited them over for a drink at the fire later that evening.
We cooked steak and veggies over the fire, happy to finally be getting rid of our workshop off cuts and enjoying their warmth. After dark, we put Cleo to bed and sat by the fire chatting until Kurt and Lisa wandered over for their drink. They were at New Melones on their way back to the Bay Area after a trip to Yosemite and so would be gone in the morning. They were a great pair and we talked until well past midnight. With the fire dwindling and our eyelids drooping, Kurt and Dan swapped numbers and we said goodnight.
After breakfast, Kurt and Lisa came by for a van tour which Dan happily gave as I finished making us crag lunch. They were very enthusiastic about renting from us and promised they’d be in touch. We contemplated where they could find a watering hole better than the boat ramp before we said our goodbyes and head to the mountain.
Driving back through the countryside, I mused at how much my Mum would love the landscape we were driving through while Dan fantasized about all the toys he could have with a plot of land like those around us.
We stopped in at the gas station closest to the lake for a few supplies and (again) got chatting to the attendant. By the time we left, he’d told us about the red moon lunar eclipse that was scheduled for 4am the next morning and that we’d better get up to see it! Yes we would!
Armed with our new guidebook, I directed Dan towards the crag and after opening a gate by a horse-filled paddock, we lumbered down a very uneven road, understanding why the guidebook suggested low clearance vehicles go no further. We reached the end and saw no cars were parked – we’d have the crag to ourselves! We could see the lake below us so we’d been right in our speculation on the jetty yesterday – this was Table Mountain!
We packed up and walked past a gate towards “The Grotto” climbing area. It didn’t take much navigating as the path was well travelled. Once we turned off the road, we hiked up a steep winding path and about halfway up, came across a large metal grate structure. Curious, I went to investigate and we found that it covered a huge hole in the ground. A few meters wide, it was an intimidating mouth looking to swallow anything that might fall nearby. We tried dropping a few stones through the grate and down into the hole and heard water splash somewhere far below, but neither of us was game to stand directly over it despite the grate.
As we reached a talus field, we were at the base of Table Mountain. Not really a mountain, more a flat top that had once been a lava flow, hence forming the columns and various rock formations. It was a decent height and the view of the lake was stunning. We were surrounded by beautiful white bottle brush trees and despite the burning sun overhead, we were in complete shade thanks to the north west-facing walls.
Pulling out the guidebook, I realized the first climb on the “Welcome Wall” was one of only a few bolted routes in the area and so I picked that as our first ascent. A 5.10a, it looked an absolutely perfect way to get started on the wall. I racked up while Dan set up the hammock – essential for a comfortable belay! I enjoyed the climb, as did Dan and both of us felt relieved to be back on a wall.
After running up the route a second time, I joined Dan in the belay hammock for a snack and a swing as we looked down onto the lake. We could see the road we’d come in on and spotted a person walking away from us, not quite managing to figure that one out. As we relaxed (I know, one massive climb in and we’re chilling), as heard others approaching and watched as they passed by below us and around to the Grotto. Trying to gain some momentum, we packed up and followed the new pair around to the most popular climbing spot. As we passed by the Welcome Wall, I got that familiar feeling that I needed to train harder so that these 5.11+ trad routes would be accessible to us.
We took the long was around to get to the Grotto wall since Cleo isn’t capable of Class 4 scrambling and after some doubting, we made it through the talus field and to the base of the Eastern Front.
Here come the excuses… Having not climbed trad in over a year, I was feeling nervous and a intimidated now that there was another climbing pair nearby and it sounded as though they were pushing it with multiple shouts of effort coming from them. And so we stayed on the Eastern Front and I set up on another rare bolted route called Iron Curtain (5.9).
This route was rightly described as dirty in the guidebook and so I couldn’t say I was happy on the wall. My feet were sliding on dry moss, the wind was starting to really whip and another party of climbers had arrived and were making a rucus. I just wasn’t feeling it. Dan enjoyed the route much more than I and came down making Cleo a happy girl now that we were both on the ground.
It was beyond 3pm but that was lunch for us and so we sat and out our sandwiches looking down into The Grotto observing the shirtless group of guys tackling the short routes on The Ort Wall. About halfway through my sandwich, another group showed up and with all the noise and my timidness, I knew I was done. Dan was perfectly ok with that. We finished our lunch and started our way across the Talus field, back past the covered hole and another couple groups of climbers – it was a busy place for a Tuesday afternoon!
By the time we were back at the car, I was well and truly ready for a swim and Cleo too. There were now a few cars surrounding ours and back at the horse gate, the carpark was full! We didn’t bother stopping at camp, just went straight down to the boat ramp. Jjust around the left of the boat ramp, despite the numerous parked vehicles in the carpark above and the family nearby enjoying the water, we had complete privacy. Obviously then, I got naked and dove into the deep clear water. I was able to entice Cleo to cool down with me but Dan was not to be convinced. I’d made the mistake of telling him about the hot showers available at our campground.
And so on our way back to camp, I sat in the van reading my book as Dan showered his body. I’d used soap down at the lake and the shower was important for us to get the poison ivy oils off our body. The guidebook had rightly warned us that the approach trail was riddled with it and so we were being cautious.
Back at our site, the place had emptied out and so we took our pick of the litter on site 69 which had a better view of the water. We got straight to relaxing, with me going a little too far. Telling myself I was preparing for the 4am lunar eclipse, I had myself a nap with the doors open to the lake.
When I woke, the huge yellow moon had come over the horizon against a pink sky, stopping me in my tracks to watch it creep up into the sky.
We started dinner after the sun went down, Dan sizzling chicken wings over the fire as I lay next to it doing some satellite watching. Our only company for the night was a family in the disabled campsite and a solo man across the way with a tent, boat and truck. He spent most of the evening sitting in his running track on his phone. Not our idea of camping.
It was around 10pm when I crawled into the back of the van for the second time that evening – Cleo too, we were both ready for bed. Around 10:30pm I was surprised to hear Dan talking to someone. It was the ranger. She wanted to see our “tags”. I’d taken the one off the rear view mirror because I didn’t like advertising that we were paying customers when we’d been outside the park, because that would make us commoners. Dan poked his head into the van and found it and upon producing it, this chick pointed out we were in the wrong site. Lying in bed listening to this, I swear I could hear Dan’s eyes roll as he scanned our surroundings – a bunch of empty sites. Dan explained that there’d been someone in our site when we arrived and since the place was obviously empty, surely it didn’t matter? “Oh, you can’t do that. You need to move.” Did I mention it was 10:30pm at night? She then asked to see the other tag we’d received showing my name. I had to dig around in the bin to produce that and had she not been satisfied with that, I would have been getting out of the van. Dan gave her some attitude then, asking what she would have done if we were asleep in the van (since you know, it was 10:30pm at night). She laughed and said she’d have sent the ranger super early to kick us out. What a lovely lady. Need I say, what the fuck? I still can’t believe it but, Dan moved the van over one site and we went to bed.
Our lunar eclipse viewing attempt was sound in its intention, but we failed at the execution. We had an alarm set for 3:30am and when that rung out, we peered out the driver’s side of the van to see that the full moon had become a half-sliver. It was happening! Knowing it would be slow going for the moon to be completely covered and turn a dark red, we set another alarm for 4:00am to see the big show. Unfortunately when I woke up at 4:30am and saw out the passenger’s side another half moon, I knew we’d missed it. Dan had set an alarm for 5am by mistake. Whoops.
No matter, we woke up properly a few hours later and I cooked up a big brekkie. We drove on out to Table Mountain and same as yesterday, we were the only ones there. I made lunch at the car before we trekked back to the Grotto. While I felt much better about trad leading today, the columns of the Grotto still looked a little intimidating and so we did our first climbs of the day on the Eastern Front.
As I placed gear up on “Plan Blue” (5.8), I looked up to see a huge grey-faced squirrel staring down at me from what looked like his home. He seemed curious, not concerned, as I approached him but he soon hid himself within the rock.
Up and over a pillar, three bolts took me to the anchor and a very nice view down to the Lake. Dan climbed now and he was straight back in the swing of removing gear while climbing. On his way back down, he placed a piece to get us set up on the next route and as I lowered him from there, he saw the squirrel poking his head out from the rock. Problem was, Cleo saw him too. She was right below the squirrel watching intently and as I lowered Dan, the squirrel obviously saw him as a threat and started heading down the rock. Then the yelling began. First Dan tried yelling at the squirrel to warn him not to go any further, then he tried telling Cleo to quit hunting and let him get by. I’d stopped lowering Dan at this point but still the squirrel descended the rock, straight towards the pitbull’s jaws. Dan watched in horror as Cleo made a leap for it, punching the rock with her nose as the squirrel jumped off and landed unceremoniously on the ground before sprinting off towards the closest tree. We both shouted desperately at Cleo to heel but she was onto him, jumping blindly off the edge of a small cliff, her eyes intent on the squirrel and her ears closed to anything around her. The squirrel had escaped and Cleo landed awkwardly on her back on some sharp rocks. She came to her senses then and came over to me as I lowered Dan off the wall. A busted lip and some big scratches on her back and belly, but otherwise she was ok. Dan did his “bad girl” routine and she sat herself in the corner of our small area until we were done climbing.
Using the same anchor, we jumped on “Road to Ruin” (5.9), then a really nice crack climb called “Proletariat” (5.10a). It was good bang for our buck!
Now we were ready to hit the columns of the grotto. This wall was an exhibition of the lava-made columns that formed the entire cliff. With the bubbly rock above it, it was two walls in one and with all the cracks, there was barely a bolt in sight. Small birds made homes of the crevices in the upper wall and were making themselves very busy above us flying in and out chirping gently.
It could have been lunch, but I wanted to keep the momentum going, so I racked up for “Bandito” (5.8). What a brilliant climb, with an ever-changing crack and a half-chimney, I was stoked.
After lunch, Dan took a run up it and enjoyed it as much as me. He set the hammock up then for a belay as I took to the route again for a second pass, having a completely different experience on top rope.
While Dan was happy to call it, I wanted to get one more in since we still had the place to ourselves. On the Ort Wall, I found a nicely bolted 5.9, “Sidesaddle” that was a perfect way to end our day of climbing. The route was apparently too easy for Dan to be bothered with and so I descended, we coiled our rope and were on our way. Cleo was moving a little slow over the Talus field but we had no sympathy for her. We felt very special to have had all of Table Mountain to ourselves for a day and were surprised to not see another soul all the way to the horse gate.
I was excited for another swim and it was warmer today so I liked my chances of getting Dan in. We tried a different spot this time at the old boat ramp which was a little more secluded. We stripped down and washed, getting Cleo in for a good scrub too.
With about an hour until sunset, we parked up at a spot just above the boat ramp with some picnic tables and got out some biccies and dip to watch the sun slowly descend behind the mountains opposite the lake. There was a couple on a stand-up paddleboard exploring the coves of the lake, powerboats headed to the marina and two planes flying in loops close to each other overhead, obviously enjoying their view. After her dinner, Cleo was in bed, obviously feeling sore and sorry for herself so she missed the gorgeous sunset.
Back at camp (site 68, we were too scared to park up anywhere else), we made dinner in the van and watched some WRC before bed.
A New Camp
On our way out the next morning, we searched around for potential free camps, knowing that we weren’t all that keen to return to Tuttletown for the paid campsite experience again. On the way up to Mark Twain’s cabin, we found a stellar dirt road that led up to the top of a rise, a perfect camp with a stunning outlook of the lake. Yes, this would do just fine for next time, we’d just have to find somewhere to park the boat! We were excited at the prospect of having discovered a place so close to home where we could hang out for a week, sail when the wind was good and climb on the still days.
For now, we said goodbye to Tuttletown and returned to our little oasis in Redwood City where we still had a day and a half to play before I went back to work.
May 24, 2021 (37.2586111, -122.0822222)