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Walk this way

Fall has fallen and the weather is glorious. That delicious morning chill creeping through the bedroom windows announces the end of Sacramento's notorious triple-digit heat and heralds the progression of turning leaves and diffuse light filtering through misty skies.

October is also the wake-up call to rediscover the outdoors minus the threat of heatstroke. Right now, there is a window of respite before the ski season turns Highway 50 and Interstate 80 into icy parking lots.

This is the in-between season, and so we're headed into the Sierra for a hike or two or three, before state and federal overseers close the parking lots, which are near the trailheads.

It's the ideal time for a walk in the woods because the trails are lightly traveled, the trees are showing their colors and, as always, few things can top a bracing walk in the fresh mountain air. Plus, you can't hike when the trail is under 3 feet of snow (but you can snowshoe).

Miles and miles of excellent trails crisscross the Sierra Nevada range and wander through more than 63,000 acres of Desolation Wilderness. The terrain ranges from 25 million-year-old mountains of granite and fir forests to mirror-surfaced alpine lakes and windswept meadows.

Though we're not talking here about a John Muir mystical experience or a nonstop Sierra Club trek, some of these hikes can be long and strenuous. Just remember: There is no rule that says you must complete the whole hike. Go as far as you wish, then turn around and head back.

Keep in mind that a hike is not a race. The point is to discover something about yourself through experiencing the natural world. Which, some would say, is better than spending the weekend watching TV.

Here are seven routes - most of them easily accessible via Highway 50, and one best accessed via Interstate 80 -- that will allow you and yours to get a taste of the much larger hiking feast that awaits next spring.

Horsetail Falls

Where: The trailhead is at Twin Bridges off Highway 50, just past the Strawberry Lodge. Driving east, the parking area is on the left. There is a $3 parking fee.

One-way length: About two miles.

What's there: The canyon formed by glaciers ages ago offers an easy go of it up to the point where the trail enters Desolation Wilderness (a sign marks the boundary). The trail gets steeper and harder to follow from there to the base of the falls, so look for cairns (small piles of rocks that serve as trail markers). Some brave souls bushwhack up to the top of the ridge above the falls, but we don't advise it because you can't beat gravity -- the drop would be fatal.

In the spring and through the summer, the falls gush into rushing Pyramid Creek, which empties into the American River. Right now, the falls are down to a relative trickle, but the vistas, the granite formations and the quiet woods are still awesome.

There are two choices: Hike to the base of the falls or take the easier, well-marked Pyramid Loop Trail before the entrance to Desolation Wilderness and cut the trip short by about one-half mile. Note: A pass is required to enter Desolation Wilderness; typically, passes are available in boxes at the trailhead.

Echo Lakes

Where: Near Echo Summit on Highway 50 (past Horsetail Falls), turn left after you spot the "Echo Lakes" sign on the right, then turn left onto Johnson Pass Road. You'll come to a parking lot on the left, which overlooks Echo Lakes Resort (a few buildings and a small marina). Park there and walk down.

One-way length: About two miles to the end of Lower Echo Lake.

What's there: Weirdly shaped granite formations and weather-twisted trees, with the glittering blue lake on the left, are well worth the trip. The trailhead is near the marina complex and general store, which are closed for the season. The gently sloping trail parallels the lake to the point where Lower and Upper Echo Lakes meet.

Also, the nearby Pacific Crest Trail leads to Lake Aloha, if you feel like adding another 31/ 2 miles one way to the hike.

Rainbow Trail

Where: Off Highway 89 on the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe, past Camp Richardson at the Lake Tahoe Visitors Center.

Round-trip length: A half-mile of mostly paved path that forms a loop trail.

What's there: As flat and simple as this interpretive trail may be, it is also charming. Highlights include signage explaining the ecology of the area, a dramatic vista of Mount Tallac, open meadows, stands of aspen and the Stream Profile Chamber, an underground viewing room that takes viewers into a stocked trout pond.

The trail meanders past Taylor Creek, which right now is home to hundreds of kokanee salmon spawning up to Fallen Leaf Lake. If you're looking for a hike that offers a living lesson in nature's mysteries, this is it.

Mount Tallac

Where: Continue on Highway 89 and look for the trailhead sign; the turnoff is on the left, opposite Baldwin Beach on the right.

One-way length: Nine miles.

What's there: This is a brutal but gorgeous hike that's just about all uphill, mostly over chunks of foot-pounding broken granite. Plan for most of the day if you have ambitions to reach the top of Mount Tallac, and bring along plenty of water and food. Descending is a workout on the feet because of the steep grade and all that broken granite.

The first leg parallels Fallen Leaf Lake, with remarkable vistas of it and Lake Tahoe. Some hikers turn around at the point where the trail takes a right and plunges into the woods, but if you keep going, you'll be rewarded with fir forests, meadows, streams, a look at Floating Island Lake and a well-deserved breather at mirrorlike Cathedral Lake. From there it's about 21/ 2 miles to the top of Mount Tallac, regal at 9,735 feet. If you make it, feel justified in planting your flag.

Rubicon Trail

Where: The dusty, mostly level Rubicon can be accessed from two trailheads. Our favorite stretch is between the Vikings holm historic site on the shore of Emerald Bay and Rubicon Point, near Lester Beach, which is near D.L. Bliss State Park (the other entry point) on the west shore of Lake Tahoe. Take Highway 89 to Emerald Bay, park in the big lot overlooking the bay (not the smaller vista point), walk down the switchback road and look for signs pointing to the trail.

One-way length: 41/ 2 miles.

What's there: This is the perfect hike for novices and those out for a fairly easy trek in the woods. The trail parallels Lake Tahoe, sometimes so closely the daring hiker could take a quick dip (swim out 50 feet and the water plunges to 800 feet), sometimes soaring above it at treetop level.

The views of the lake are incredible, as are the rock formations and cliffs. Keep your eyes peeled for eagles' nests near the tops of dead trees.

Tahoe City to Brockway Summit segment, the Tahoe Rim Trail

Where: Take Interstate 80 toward Reno and exit on Highway 89 near Truckee, toward Tahoe City. The road parallels the Truckee River, always a nice sight. Shortly before you reach the intersection of Highways 89 and 28 in Tahoe City, turn left on Fairway Drive and park in the community center lot on the right. The trailhead is across the street.

One-way length: 19 miles.

What's there: This segment of the 165-mile-long, volunteer-built Tahoe Rim Trail climbs through airy forests (because of logging, the trees are new growth) and fields of sage and manzanita to reveal views of Lake Tahoe, the Truckee River Canyon, Twin Peaks and other points of interest. Keep going and you reach incongruous lava cliffs (10 miles in) and then Watson Lake (12 miles in). Look for huge incense cedars and junipers that the loggers left standing (one big juniper is three miles in).

The Tahoe Rim Trail is a loop trail broken into eight segments that sweep along the ridges and mountain tops around the Tahoe Basin. Its elevation ranges from 6,200 feet to 10,333 feet and offers a variety of sights: meadows, forests, lakes, streams, granite cliffs and dreamlike views.

Carson Pass to Lake Winnemucca

Where: Coming down from Echo Summit toward Lake Tahoe on Highway 50, look for the Highway 89 sign on the right, before the agricultural inspection station. Take it over Luther Pass until it dead-ends into Highway 88. Turn right and drive through Hope Valley (ablaze right now with orange-and yellow-leafed aspens) to Carson Pass, named after frontiersman Kit Carson. There is a parking lot on the left; the trailhead is next to the ranger hut. There is a $3 parking fee.

One-way length: 21/ 3 miles.

What's there: This clearly marked segment of the Pacific Crest Trail winds through woods and meadows covered in brilliantly colored Indian paintbrush, lupine, mule's ear and other wildflowers in July and August. Explore little Frog Lake on the way to Elephant Back (look for the hills to the left of the trail at 9,585 feet). These rounded hills are lava domes, and you feel like you're at the top of the world when you climb up for spectacular views of neighboring peaks and bright-blue Caples Lake.

After hiking over a series of ridges, you come to Winnemucca Lake and its glory - dramatic cliffs and huge slabs of granite ideal for spreading out a picnic and enjoying the ambience of what is called the California Alps.

After a rest, consider continuing to Round Top Lake and Fourth of July Lake.

Oh, and unless you have a photographic memory, don't forget the camera.

Take a (safe) hike

A hike in the mountains refreshes the soul and quickens the blood, but that doesn't matter if you get into trouble. That's why preparation tops the to-do list.

If you're heading into the Sierra for a walk, here's an old mountain saying to take with you: If you don't like the weather, stick around for 10 minutes and it'll change.

Yes, the weather is unpredictable - we've seen hail in June and lightning in October - so the No. 1 rule is: Watch the sky.

Beyond that, here's a checklist to consider before you start:

* The outdoors are not Disneyland and hiking trails are not amusement-park rides. Respect where you are and watch where you walk. Nature is unforgiving.

* Don't go into the woods without a sturdy hiking stick and a sharp knife. One can save you from a nasty spill, the other can save the day.

* Dehydration is always a threat, so pack plenty of water and stop often to drink it.

* Thirsty? Never drink from mountain streams. There is the danger of contracting giardiasis, a common intestinal illness caused by consuming contaminated water. A protozoan, Giardia lamblia, is the culprit -a microscopic parasite you never want to meet.

* Exercise leads to hunger, and the lack of oxygen at altitude depletes the body's resources. Bring along more then enough food to see you through the day; you could end up spending the night.

* Bring something warm to wear, just in case.

* A backpack is a must. How else will you be able to carry all this stuff?

* It might be cloudy in the morning, but it could be blazing by noon. Wear sunglasses and a hat, sunscreen and lip balm.

* Wear thick socks and hiking shoes that cover the ankles.

* A cell phone can't hurt. Nor can a first-aid kit, compass and topographical map of the area.

* Insect repellent can ease the worry that parents have about children getting ill from disease-carrying ticks or mosquitoes. After a hike, check for ticks.

* A permit is required in the Desolation Wilderness. Permits are found in wooden boxes at the trailheads. Fill out the paperwork and keep your copy. You'll be helping yourself and the U.S. Forest Service when the search parties go looking.