Bike Rides & Hikes

Weekend Hike: A trio of secret alpine lakes

Lake Winnemucca is a 5-mile hike from Highway 88.
Lake Winnemucca is a 5-mile hike from Highway 88.

Not much beats a close-up view of the snow-capped Sierra from the shores of a shimmering lake, lined with the earliest wildflowers of the season. You can find it right now in the Carson Pass Management Area, just east of Kirkwood ski resort on beautiful Highway 88.

To get to Lake Winnemucca, the first in a cluster of lesser-known lakes that includes Round Top Lake and Fourth of July Lake, start at the Carson Pass Information Station on Highway 88. The volunteers there are extremely helpful and can provide you with a map and free walking poles to use for the day. (You may need them in the snow.)

The journey from the station to the highest lake is 5 miles each way, with tons of up-and-down travel and a high point of 9,364 feet. Directions on the trails are well marked, though the trails themselves can be eclipsed by snow drifts, so pay careful attention to the path as it disappears and reappears once you get into the higher sections of the trip.

The first mile is actually a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail that takes you through lush woods and past the small but pleasant Frogg Lake. There, you’ll divert from the trail to head up to Winnemucca, a 1.5-mile gradual climb from the fork.

As you make your way up, keep an eye on the Elephant’s Back peak at 9,585 feet. The higher you go, the more patches of paintbrush, crimson columbine and purple lupine you’ll see popping up along the trail.

Approaching Winnemucca, the landscape changes to a prairie, dotted with thick brush and massive rocks. Follow the creek to drink in the first, and largest, alpine lake scene of the trip. Wear layers – the breeze can be nippy if the water is still partially frozen.

Down on the shore of the lake, you’ll see a small trail veering to the right. Take it until you encounter the sign that directs you to Round Top Lake.

Much of the way to Round Top is covered in snow, so don’t go farther unless you’re equipped with warm socks and waterproof boots. If you look up, you might see a few particularly daring hikers and snow-shoers making the scramble up to the 10,381-foot peak of Round Top itself.

For the final leg of the trip, take the mostly downhill trail to Fourth of July Lake. Be sure to apply sunscreen when you stop at Round Top – you’ll be above the tree line and the sun is extra strong.

All in all, this out-and-back is a fantastic peek at a tranquil, uncorrupted area. Every step on the trail is a chance to wonder at a panorama of slopes and peaks in the distance, or to zoom in on a blooming high-altitude flower at your feet.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola