Tuesday, October 27, 2015


The Sunday edition of the local paper bore a front-page picture of elk grazing in what would be Lake Pillsbury, had there been water.  A trip to that Coast Range locale had long been on my bucket list and Monday’s calendar page was blank.

First – A Little History.  Lake Pillsbury is the second of only two reservoirs on the Eel River.  The first, Lake Van Arsdale, was constructed in Potter Valley (1906) with the intent of diverting Eel River water through a mile-long tunnel to a powerhouse on the Russian River.  This would supply electricity to a growing Ukiah, California, and provide additional water to the growing Russian River Valley.  The Eel River salmon population did not get a vote in this project, suffering due to the Eel’s depleted flow.  Lake Pillsbury was formed by the construction of Scott Dam (1921) to store water in order to provide a more consistent flow down to Van Arsdale and the hydro plant there.  The storage of cold water at Pillsbury and its diversion down the Russian proved to be another blow to the salmon population.

Today’s Trip involved the pickup rather than the motorcycle because the quick fix on my throttle hand apparently isn’t all that quick a fix.  The good news is that Edward, the loyal lab-mix, is able to explore with me.  (He’s such a good boy.)

Exiting state route 20 about eight miles east of US 101, we course our way into the bucolic Potter Valley.  A light tule fog clings to the valley floor cloaking ranch houses and barns in blanket of gray.

Just south of the Van Arsdale powerhouse, a directional sign points us to Lake Pillsbury some 14 miles away.  The road swings east climbing over the shoulder of Middle Mountain as it follow, at a distance, the Eel River.   
The deep canyon and thick pine forest are reminiscent of similar spectacular stream courses sixty miles east in the Sierra.  Except these are little visited.  Quiet.  Perhaps a bit more pristine.

The pavement ends and the well-used route is heavily washboarded this late in the season.  The ride would have been more comfortable on a dual sport bike like a GS or a Stelvio rather than chattering along in the Nissan Frontier.   

After about seven miles, we cross into Lake County.

An intersection near the lake finds us again on pavement.  Right (south) leads to Upper Lake, California.  Left heads over a small ridge dropping us into the basin inundated in normal years by Scott Dam.

But this and the previous three years have been anything but normal.

Though gated and locked, we pull off the road at a campground.

The view of the lakebed calls to mind the high mountain meadows of the southern cascades in Plumas County – my old stompin’ grounds.  Many of those meadows were also inundated becoming reservoirs for a growing California.

A few hundred yards distant graze the elk made famous in the Sunday paper’s photo.

They see (or smell) us, and begin to migrate away.

Reflections from the low sun glimmer off the dead pool perhaps a mile to the south.  My Panasonic Lumix’s telephoto capabilities fool us when it comes to estimating distance.

Breaking off a small embankment, we hike the dry lakebed seeking what might be left of the pool.

The ground is parched and cracked.  Plant life makes is appear as if this part of the basin hasn’t flooded in more than a year.

One of several derelict buoys warns us about creating wake.

One of several boat slips rests on the lakebed bringing new meaning to the term “dry dock.”

That dead pool is further away than I want to go so we turn back toward the campground.   

A curious cow has ventured a bit nearer to us than the rest of the herd, but is soon called – or frightened – back.

Before leaving the area, we check out the Lake Pillsbury Resort.  Lake Pillsbury is fronted by both public and private land.  The resort is private, neatly kept, but apparently closed this day.

We opt to return home via Forest Road M-1, which leads us down White Rock Canyon to the community of Upper Lake and state route 20.  There’s a ten mile section of nicely graded dirt followed by a paved three mile descent involving close to twenty hairpin turns.  Edward, the lab-mix, is not happy with the back and forth.  I wish, at this point, that I had ridden the Guzzi. 28 miles south of Scott's Dam, we have descended into a valley of walnut orchards and vineyards and then onto the tiny antique row that is Upper Lake.

The Lake Pillsbury basin is shallow and should fill nicely after a season of average or better rainfall.  It is a place worth revisiting.  And the several roads that spoke away from the lake up the furthest reaches of the Eel River and past promontories like Snow Mountain (the Coast Range’s highest point) mean the bucket list has simply gotten longer.


An “OH! MY!” Moment:  Every good trip has at least one moment that takes your breath away: a surprise or a view or an incident that you wish you could capture on film or video but somehow can’t.  Today’s was different. 

Resting about fifteen feet off of Potter Valley road, still frothing, was the carcass of a bull elk.  Why it lay there dead or dying, I cannot imagine.  A vehicle had not struck it or the vehicle would have been disabled as well.  Perhaps it had been shot.  The fog was pretty intense, and the curve a bit blind, so the best I could do was utter: “Oh!  My!”



A little history (from a so-so source): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Pillsbury

About Lake Pillsbury Resort: http://lakepillsburyresort.com/

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. What a beautiful area. Thank you for including some history too.

    Is it wrong that i want to pet Edward's fuzzy head in that first picture of him?