Friday, November 6, 2020

Mount Tallac

Gilmore Lake and Lake Aloha with Pyramid, Agassiz, and Price viewed from Mount Tallac
10.5 miles round trip, 3300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Mount Tallac is a high summit that delivers outstanding views of both California's Lake Tahoe and the granite alpine landscape of the Sierra Nevada in the Desolation Wilderness. One of the classic hikes in the Sierra Nevada, this well-loved ascent is an enjoyable journey past numerous lakes through alpine meadows to this high summit and its sweeping views. Yes, the hike is popular, but don't let that dissuade you: these views are worth putting up with crowds on the trail. The hike packs in plenty of elevation gain but paces out the ascent fairly well, making it a reasonable hike at these stats- still, infrequent hikers should not underestimate this uphill challenge!

I hiked Mount Tallac with Anna during a Labor Day weekend trip to Lake Tahoe. From South Lake Tahoe, we reached the trailhead by taking Highway 89 north for 4 miles from the junction with US 50 along the lake's southwest side until coming to the Mount Tallac Road, where we turned left. This turnoff was signed for Camp Shelly and Camp Concord and was right across from the Baldwin Beach Road; there is no sign that explicitly indicates that this leads to the trailhead for Mount Tallac. We drove this road to its end at the trailhead, ignoring the branching roads leading to the camps. Over Labor Day weekend, the lot was full and cars were lined up for a distance along the road away from the actual start of the trail. A self-serve permit for the Desolation Wilderness is required for day hikes: we picked one up and filled it out at the trailhead.

Departing from the trailhead, the Mount Tallac Trail began to climb at a moderate grade through a pine forest with copious manzanita in the understory. After 2/3 of a mile, the trail broke out onto an open chaparral ridge. From here, we had our first views of the hike: Mount Tallac, the great rock pyramid that was our destination for the day, rose above us while long Fallen Leaf Lake filled the valley below us. The next half mile followed this minor ridge with just a gentle ascent, delivering constant beautiful views of Fallen Leaf Lake and the peaks to the west- Monument, Freel, Jobs Sister- that later opened up to include the gem-like blue waters of Lake Tahoe itself to the north.

Mount Tallac
Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe
At 1.2 miles, the trail returned to the forest and then made a moderate ascent to reach the eastern shores of Floating Island Lake at 1.7 miles from the trailhead. Floating Island Lake- really just a shallow pond- was small and ringed by trees, with Mount Tallac blocked by the trees on the west shore of the lake.

Floating Island Lake
Leaving Floating Island Lake, we began a steady ascent through forested slopes punctuated by occasional chaparral clearings. At 2.4 miles we passed a junction with a trail joining from Fallen Leaf Lake and at 2.5 miles from the trailhead we came to the shores of Cathedral Lake, a small, placid lake at the foot of a talus slope.

Cathedral Lake
After passing Cathedral Lake, the trail became substantially steeper as it began a switchback ascent up a rocky, chaparral-covered slope. At this point, views began opening up again, soon encompassing much of Lake Tahoe to the north. Fallen Leaf Lake was also partially visible below.

Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake from the trail above Cathedral Lake
At 3.1 miles, we exited another wooded stretch into the bottom of a large talus basin. A lone, impressive pine stood at the bottom of this bowl, apparently missing the memo that the terrain and exposure should be too much to support such a large tree standing so erect. Past the pine, the trail began ascending up the sides of the bowl. The trail was unpleasantly rocky as it switchbacked up the large talus slope; the route was not too steep but still maintained a steady uphill grade, picking up 500 feet of elevation gain to reach the top of the basin.

Talus bowl above Cathedral Lake
At 3.7 miles, the trail emerged atop the talus bowl, reaching the top of Mount Tallac's south ridge. Incredible views opened up to the south and west: the Sierra Nevada stretching south to Round Top near Carson Pass was laid out before us, with the granite peaks of the Desolation Wilderness now visible to the west.

The trail reentered sparsely wooded terrain as it continued to climb constantly, now heading north towards Mount Tallac's summit. The trees became ever-sparser the higher that we climbed: the open slopes on this side of Tallac were covered in beautiful grassy meadows, some of which still had smatterings of blooming wildflowers even around Labor Day. 

Meadows on Tallac, Mokelumne Wilderness Peaks in the distance
Views to the west of Desolation Wilderness only got better the higher that we ascended. Soon, Gilmore and Susie Lake were visible in the forest near the foot of Mount Tallac, while we just managed to glimpse the waters of Lake Aloha filling the granite basin at the base of the high ridgeline of Pyramid Peak, Mount Agassiz, and Mount Price.

Meadows on Tallac with Pyramid Peak and Mount Agassiz in the distance
The open alpine slopes on the high reaches of Mount Tallac were one of the joys of hiking. Windswept trees and broad, wildflower-dotted meadows served as a foreground to sweeping mountain views. At 4.9 miles from the trailhead, we passed a final trail junction with an alternate ascent route from Gilmore Lake and the Glen Alpine Trailhead. The trail turned right at the foot of the rocky summit here and then returned to the south ridge, opening up incredible views of Lake Tahoe. The final couple hundred yards followed the ridgeline to the summit, which was packed with hikers enjoying their lunches and the view.

Wildflowers on Tallac
What a view it was! All of Lake Tahoe was laid out before us. The largest alpine lake in the United States and the second deepest lake in the country, the lake's waters are notably blue and clear. The development along the south shore of the lake was visible- both the sprawl of South Lake Tahoe and the stateline with Nevada, delineated by the appearance of high-rise casinos. Freel Peak, the highest peak above the Lake Tahoe Basin, rose to the south of the lake. Fallen Leaf Lake filled a long valley to the east. Looking east across the lower peaks of the Carson Range, we could see out to the mountain ranges of Nevada's Great Basin (Lake Tahoe itself is technically part of the Great Basin watershed, as it drains via the Truckee River to endorheic Pyramid Lake in Nevada).

Mount Freel rising over South Lake Tahoe
The beautiful blue gem that is Lake Tahoe stretched out to the north, bound by the Sierra Nevada on the left and the Carson Range on the right, with Mount Rose rising high over the lake's north shore. Closer in, granite Sierra peaks rose over Cascade Lake and Emerald Bay, a pretty arm of Lake Tahoe. The view to the north and west encompassed the beautiful Desolation Wilderness with its many snowcapped peaks and lakes. 

Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay, and Cascade Lake from the summit of Mount Tallac
View into the Desolation Wilderness
Mount Tallac is a classic hike for understandable reasons: there's much to enjoy along the trail itself and the views from the summit are incredible. If you don't mind the crowds (which exist but aren't overwhelming- this is a hike with 3300 feet of elevation gain ending at nearly 10000 feet after all!), Mount Tallac is an extremely rewarding hike and highly recommended for visitors to the Tahoe region.

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