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Lost in Gold Country

A food photographer and her friends stumbled onto an off-the-grid summer getaway: Sugar Pine Reservoir.


Nate Murray takes the plunge off a rope swing into Sugar Pine Reservoir.

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Dave Franklin and his towel state the obvious.

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Jesse Pollock and Mariah Gardner dig in to a campsite dinner that’s a notch above your average roasted weenie.

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Evelyn Lee, Sarah Kleinman, and Eleanor the dog cool off in Sugar Pine Reservoir.

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Roasting corn on the cob.

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The route to Sugar Pine Resevoir.

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Traveler: Alanna Hale, photographer (and friends)
Vehicle: ’73 Jeep Wagoneer
Quest: In search of sun, swimming, and good company

The best traditions are often the result of simple dumb luck.

At least that’s what photographer Alanna Hale and her friends have discovered. For the past five years, Hale, Mariah Gardner—cofounder of the clothing brand Ozma—and a group of between six and eight friends have made an annual trek to Sugar Pine Reservoir for a sun-soaked midsummer campout. But they never would have discovered Sugar Pine, a 160-acre lake about 30 miles northeast of Auburn in the Sierra foothills, if they hadn’t been shut out of a better-known campground on the north fork of the American River.

That was five years ago. Their luck turned when one carload of friends, who’d set out early as bird-dog scouts looking for a last-minute reservation, stumbled onto Giant Gap Campground, next to the reservoir, where there was one site available.

Turns out it was a perfect spot to start a new tradition.

The group staked their claim and immediately got down to the business of, well, not doing much of anything. “We all work our butts off in the city, and here we get much-deserved downtime,” Hale says. “We hike around the lake, or sit on the sandy little beach area, or go in the water on our floaties. We just swim, read, cook incredible meals, and chill.” 

The spot felt so perfect that Hale and her friends wound up returning year after year. And like most traditions, Gardner explains, the trip has developed its own rhythm as the campers have built off each successive year’s itinerary. “We’ve got it really dialed in,” she says. “People pick one meal they’re going to master and bring all the things they need, so the food ends up being really awesome.”

The group has also gotten to explore gold country towns like Foresthill, where they stock up on snacks and get ice cream cones at Worton’s Market. About six miles down the steep, winding, single-lane Iowa Hill Road—no easy jaunt for Gardner’s 1973 Jeep Wagoneer—is the tiny gold rush town of Iowa Hill, where a lone store sells soda and beer and, Gardner says, accepts gold flake as payment. 

“Honestly, this is my favorite part of Northern California,” Gardner says. “It’s less populated than Tahoe or the Yuba River, but it’s got that same Sierra beauty to it—all that granite and these amazingly huge trees.” 

Hale agrees wholeheartedly. “It’s so much fun—it’s like summer camp for adults,” she says. “But you get to make your own rules.”


Destination: Sugar Pine Reservoir
Distance: 155 miles (3.5 hours’ drive)
Accommodations: Giant Gap Campground or Shirttail Creek Campground, 530-367-2224,
Provisions: Cameras, floaties, dominoes, Red Ryder BB gun, canned beer (to drink and to use, when empty, as shooting targets).
Necessities: Swimsuit, warm sleeping bag, halfway decent brake pads on your car or truck.


Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco 

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