Wildlife & wildflowers at Waddle Ranch Preserve

A view of Martis Creek Lake and Northstar in the background. | Mike White

While waiting for the snow to melt in the higher elevations following a nearly unprecedented winter, recreationists are forced to seek places to enjoy their pursuits at lower altitudes. Thanks to the hard work of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, the 1,462-acre Waddle Ranch Preserve in Martis Valley, acquired in 2007, can now be enjoyed by the public. The area, along with the Martis Creek Lake Recreation Area directly to the west and Elizabethtown Meadows to the south, holds a 12-mile network of trails open for day use to hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers.

Download the trail map. Click on Hiking under the Out & About menu.

With plenty of moisture available from the heavy winter, the two bodies of water visited along this 7-mile semi-loop route should be at capacity. When full, Martis Creek Lake, formed by a dam built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1972 for flood control purposes, has a surface area of 70 acres. The lake and surrounding land offers boating, fishing and camping opportunities.

Smaller and more serene, seasonal Lake Ella (originally called Dry Pond but renamed in the 1960s for the wife of the owner at the time) and the surrounding shoreline are home to an abundance of wildlife, including a host of birds, coyotes, mule deer, mountain lions and many smaller mammals. Colorful wildflowers should also be prolific this year through spring and early summer. Away from the lakes, a quiet forest offers the opportunity for peaceful strolls.

The hike to Ella Lake includes some peaceful forest strolls. | Mike White

The route to Martis Creek Lake and Lake Ella begins rather inauspiciously around a closed gate and along the continuation of the paved road. Cross a short bridge over a spillway and proceed to the dam at 1.2 miles from the parking area. Beyond the dam, dirt tread leads away from lake and into the canyon of a small stream connecting Lake Ella to Martis Creek Lake. Reach a three-way junction and follow a sign pointing the way toward the Waddle Ranch Preserve. Cross over the creek and proceed to another junction with an unofficial path descending toward the shoreline. From there, a moderate uphill stretch leads through sparse forest cover to the 2-mile mark and a signed junction between Matt’s Trail ahead and Erika’s Trail on the right.
Continue the forested ascent on Matt’s Trail for another half mile along an old roadbed to where the grade eases near the vicinity of an intersection with Sawmill Road. To reach Lake Ella, veer to the left and follow the gentle grade of the road. Just before the lake you encounter a junction with Megan’s Trail on the right, which travels east through the trees for a half-mile to the edge of the preserve.

A short distance beyond is a second junction with Katy’s Walk, a lakeshore path also leads east for four-tenths of a mile to connect with Megan’s Trail, creating a possible eight-tenths of a mile loop alternative above the south shore of Lake Ella. From the second junction, the trail ahead travels along the northwest shore before petering out in lush vegetation near the north tip of the lake.

Dependent on annual precipitation, the water level in Lake Ella fluctuates between dry and wet years and from season to season during the same year. The area is home to a variety of bird and animal life, some common species of which are identified on an interpretive sign along the southwest shore. Conveniently placed picnic tables entice visitors to enjoy lunch while scoping out the wildlife.

Thanks to a big winter, Ella Lake is quite full this year. | Mike White

Once your visit to Lake Ella comes to a close, backtrack three-tenths of a mile along Sawmill Road to Matt’s Trail junction. Instead of returning the way you came, continue on the road another quarter mile to the vicinity of Beacon Meadow and a junction with Erika’s Trail. A picnic table and plaque are nearby.

Turn right and make a moderate, occasionally winding climb on Erika’s Trail past another picnic table and then along the edge of a forested hillside to a viewpoint of Martis Valley and the surrounding terrain. Beyond the viewpoint, a winding descent soon leads to a reunion with Matt’s Trail. From there, simply retrace your steps 2 miles back to the parking area.

The Waddle Ranch Preserve is open for day use only, sunrise to sunset. Pets must be leashed at all times to avoid disturbing the wildlife.

Follow State Route 267 to the vicinity of Martis Valley and turn northeast onto Martis Dam Road. Proceed to a small parking area with a portable toilet near the intersection of Glider Point Road (shown as Sailplane Way on some maps). A closed steel gate blocks further vehicle progress along Martis Dam Road. | tdlandtrust.org