Scores of outdoor enthusiasts know Lake Tahoe for its skiing, but there’s an equally avid percentage of the sporting populace that cherish the many trails that snack in and around and to the top of peaks.
The area is blessed with portions of the Pacific Crest Trail as well as the well-maintained Tahoe Rim Trail. These and other trails will challenge hikers and trail runners, not just with climbing but with the high elevation.
Mount Tallac Trail
Naturally, it’s all uphill in the first half (4.8 miles, 3,300-foot-gain) of the trek up to the peak of Mount Tallac. But, boy, is the view from the top shimmering: the cobalt-blue splendor of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake, enhanced by vast stretches of coniferous forest, to the east and the sheer granite starkness of the Desolation Wilderness, dotted by more alpine lakes, to the southwest.
To the top, at 9,735 feet above sea level, you’ll tramp along morain ridges, up granite-studded switchbacks, through brief bursts of shaded forests abutting two small lakes, and over a headwall covered with quadriceps-crippling volcanic rock from the Pliocene era.
Tallac isn’t the highest peak in the area (Freel Peak is the highest at 10,881 feet), but it is the highest peak rising from the shoreline. And it’s the peak most Tahoe tourists first see in town. The great thing about ascending Tallac is that you need no mountaineering skills. You must be fit and not averse to climbing, no question. But it can be accomplished by most in time for late lunch back in town. Those not living at a high altitude (that means you, Sacramentans) will need to prepare for the thinner air. The trailhead is at 6,440 feet. By Mile 2, it’s 7,200. Then 8,000 by Mile 3 and 9,100 by Mile 4. So, even though the trek is only 9.5 miles (half downhill, too), you still should bring twice as much water as you think you’ll need.
The way down, obviously, is easier but still challenging. You must scramble down the craggy talus to where the faint trail becomes slightly less faint and, eventually, gives away to a standard granite-boulder-strewn, high-country path back to the trailhead.
Route: Follow Mount Tallac Trail, circling around Floating Island Lake. At 2.2 miles, head straight at the junction of the Fallen Leaf Trail, which heads left. A sign says “Cathedral Lake, “ which is the next junction. At Cathedral Lake, veer right around the lake, climb switchbacks. Look closely as the trail becomes faint amid boulders. Follow switchbacks up the Cathedral Basin headwall to a meadow. At 4.6 miles, you reach a junction with the Gilmore Lake Trail. Turn right and ascend 0.2 of a mile to the summit. From summit, retrace steps to trailhead.
Barker Pass to Twin Peaks
Barker Pass is one of the more accessible trails during prime Tahoe trekking season – roughly June through October. You drive 7 miles on a winding road (starting 4.3 miles south of Tahoe City), the last half-mile being a dirt road. The parking lot is mere steps from the signed trailhead. You literally can get out of your car and go. It’s an 11-mile trek from Barker Pass to Twin Peaks along the Pacific Crest and Tahoe Rim trails.
Though it’s only 1,228 feet in elevation gain over 5.5 miles (one way), you’re climbing at 7,000 to 8,000 feet. The trails takes you through meadows and pine forests, follows scree-covered ridgelines that seem like the world’s end and, as a payoff, a three-tenths of a mile climb to the east summit of the peaks.
One beguiling feature of the trail is its diversity of flora. That’s evident in the first mile, as you make your way around the slopes of Barker Peak. You start amid a grove of pines, then quickly climb to a field of mule’s ear – a sea of floppy green leaves waving at you in a light breeze. Adding dabs of color are yellow of the mule’s ear flower and the purple shoots of silver bush lupine, which apparently can grow in the least-enriched soil anywhere.
An aerobic test will come during a 2.4-mile ascent via switchbacks. When the scree changes to loamy soil at about 4.5 miles, you know you’ve conquered the switchbacks. The best part of the run comes next. It’s a short, too short, flat trek across the signed boundary for the Granite Chief Wilderness. Just below the summit, the trail peters out and you are climbing over large, sharp boulders, step by step, hand by foot, to the 8,887-foot summit.
Route: From the trailhead, follow the Pacific Crest Trail around Barker Peak and up a ridge. At 1.5 miles, turn left, following the trail on a 1.7-mile descent via switchbacks. After Blackwater Creek, go 2.4 miles uphill on switchbacks to the Granite Chief Wilderness plateau. After another .5 of mile, turn right at the arrow for the Tahoe Rim Trail. Follow it .5 of a mile to an unsigned junction. Make a sharp left at a 3-foot-high boulder and follow a faint trail toward the summit. After .1 of a mile, the trail ends. Climb over large rocks for the final .2 of a mile to the summit.
The Flume Trail
It may seem incongruous, but the best way to start your traverse of Tahoe’s famous Flume Trail – consistently cited in magazines and blogs as one of the nation’s most scenic trails for mountain bikers, hikers, trail runners and photographers looking for Lake Tahoe landscape portraits – is to hop into a shuttle van.
You park at the Tunnel Creek Station Cafe in Incline Village – the point-to-point trail’s end – then pay $15 for a Flume Trail Bikes’ shuttle service to drop you off at Spooner Lake for the start of the 13.2-mile trek either by bike or by foot.
Actually, the Flume trail is only part of the fun, but it’s a doozy, a 4.4-mile, flat single-track portion of the trail. Before you hit the Flume, you start with a climb from Spooner Lake (elevation 6,326 feet) to Marlette Lake (8,161 feet). After the Flume, you cruise in with a 2.9-mile, duff-dominant downhill cruise along the Tunnel Creek Trail. It is possible, by the way, to traverse the Flume Trail without going point to point with the shuttle service or the two-car-buddy-system. You can park at Spooner Lake, complete the first 10 miles of the Flume (including the most scenic parts), then turn right and take the Tahoe Rim Trail about 15 miles back to the Spooner trailhead.
Route: From the entrance kiosk, head straight to the sign for Marlette Lake. Head straight on North Canyon Road. If you are running or hiking, turn left after a half-mile at the trailhead for the Marlette Lake Trail. If you are a mountain biker, go straight on the North Canyon Road fire trail all the way to Marlette Lake. On the Marlette Lake Trail, follow the switchbacks up a hill and after reaching the peak of climbing, ignore the trail to the left and continue straight on the single-track down to the lake. Turn left on the fire road bordering Marlette Lake for 1.6 miles. When you reach the dam, turn left and cross the water to reach the Flume Trail. Follow the Flume Trail along the ridge line for 4.4 miles. At a junction, go straight (downhill) on Tunnel Creek road for 2.9 miles to the Tunnel Creek Cafe parking lot.
Desolation Wilderness, Echo Lakes and Lake Aloha
Roughly 6 miles into this out-and-back trek, close to the turnaround point at Lake Aloha, take time to stop and look out over the expanse of sheered white granite and boulders forged through geologic epochs. You need a minute or two to drink in the view – and some water.
Your immediate, albeit unoriginal, thought: This is a lunar landscape, bleached white and so nearly denuded of vegetation as to be otherworldly. But then your eye goes to the glinting, shimmering water, made an even more vivid blue by its offset against the monochromatic terrain. Concentrate hard enough, and all evidence of modern civilization – the crowd of hikers, runners and equestrians along this popular trail – recedes. You can begin to imagine the glacial forces that left behind these topographically rich moraines, dotted with the occasional brave pine staking a claim.
Starting at Echo Lakes, you pass gnarled trees and jutting boulders, granite piles, the grassy and wildflower-rich Haypress Meadows, the gloriously wooded sections of the Desolation Wilderness shaded by firs and white pines.
This trail is best attempted from July through early October, depending on the snow year, though some try as soon as May. Expect the rim trail to be busy most summer and fall days. This stretch is not open to mountain bikers, but dogs and horses are allowed – and are a common sight. All hikers are required to fill out a day pass if they want to venture into the Desolation Wilderness.
Route: Starting at the Lower Echo Lake trailhead, follow the Tahoe Rim Trail 2.5 miles to the Upper Echo Lake water taxi trail. Stay on the TRT up rocky terrain away from the lakes. After seven-tenths of a mile you will reach the Desolation Wilderness boundary sign. Over the next 2.9 miles, you will come upon several side trails. Stay on TRT through open granite areas and shaded woods. Turn around at Lake Aloha and follow the signs back to Echo Lakes.