Saturday, January 16, 2021

Liberty Lake

Lake Peak rises above Liberty Lake
8.5 miles round trip, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The great pyramid of Lake Peak rising above Liberty Lake in the Ruby Mountains is one of the most iconic alpine scenes in the state of Nevada. The day hike from Lamoille Canyon across Liberty Pass to Liberty Lake is one of the very best day hikes in the state, ascending out of a dramatic, glacier-scoured valley and past numerous alpine lakes to a high pass over what is arguably Nevada's most beautiful mountain range, before descending to an absolute gem of a lake in a jaw-dropping setting. The hike is understandably popular but is still far less crowded than hikes in California and Utah that are close to major metropolitan areas and on top of it all, the grades on this hike are quite moderate, although at its highest point it does reach about 10500 feet. While Wheeler Peak and the Snake Range may be the most popular hiking destination in Nevada's Great Basin after being bestowed national park status, the hike to Liberty Lake easily challenges the scenery of that more heralded region. If you've only got time to do one hike in the Great Basin, this would be an excellent choice.

I hiked Liberty Lake on an early October day during an autumn road trip through Nevada. While Lamoille Canyon is a long drive from any major metropolitan area- it's a 4.5 hour drive from Reno and 4 hours from Salt Lake City- it is still one of the most popular mountain destinations in the state of Nevada and is about a 45 minute drive from Elko, the largest town in the state outside of the Las Vegas and Reno-Sparks-Carson City metropolitan areas. To reach the Roads End Trailhead from Elko, I followed Highway 227 (5th St) east from downtown, crossing the Humboldt River and then the Elko Hills. I took Highway 227 east for 19 miles from downtown Elko, passing the suburbs of Spring Creek and then turning right at the sign for the Lamoille Canyon Recreation Area. I followed Lamoille Canyon Road south for about 12 miles as it entered the Ruby Mountains of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest until the road dead-ended at the Roads End Trailhead, where there was a large parking lot.

Three trails issue from the Roads End Trailhead: the Island Lake Trail leaves from the north end of the lot, while the stock trail up to Lamoille Lake leaves from the west end. The Ruby Crest Trail, which is the hikers' trail to Lamoille Lake and Liberty Lake, starts at the southeastern end of the lot, near the vault toilets; a black placard at the trailhead lists distances and times for hiking to Lamoille Lake, Liberty Pass, and Liberty Lake. I headed out on the Ruby Crest Trail, which was badly eroded in its initial stretch as it crossed through open subalpine meadows with gentle elevation gain for the first 0.3 miles. There were nice views to the head of Lamoille Canyon, which was lined by Liberty Peak and a number of unnamed but still impressive mountains.

Liberty Peak and Liberty Pass rise at the head of Lamoille Canyon
After the initial 0.3 miles through open meadows, the trail entered a forest, crossing a fork of Lamoille Creek as it started heading uphill for another 0.3 miles with a more aggressive grade. At 2/3 of a mile from the trailhead, the trail made a sharp left turn and continued to climb at a steeper, more sustained grade as it crossed another fork of Lamoille Creek and then began to tackle the eastern walls of the canyon. As the trail began switchbacking up the side of the canyon, the trees thinned out, providing progressively improving views down Lamoille Canyon to Verdi Peak and across the canyon to sharp Snow Lake Peak.

At 1.4 miles, the trail leveled out, having ascended about 800 feet since leaving the trailhead. I soon reached a flat upper basin surrounded by rocky alpine peaks. Soon after crossing a dried-out creekbed, I spotted the waters of Dollar Lake to the left of the trail. Making my way over on social paths, I found myself on the shores of a small, calm lake that reflected the nearby mountains. I arrived early on a Sunday morning and had the lake entirely to myself.

Morning reflections in the lower of the Dollar Lakes
Continuing past the lower of the two Dollar Lakes, I passed a small, marshy pond as I continued through this alpine basin. Soon after, the trail passed by the second Dollar Lake, which was just slightly larger than the first one and had more or less the same mountain backdrop. 

Evening light over the upper of the Dollar Lakes
Ascending just slightly as it left the second Dollar Lake, the trail soon came to an intersection with the stock trail from Roads End at 2 miles from the trailhead. Here, I took the left fork, continuing along the Ruby Crest Trail. Just meters past the junction, I arrived at Lamoille Lake; here, I took the spur trail off to the right to explore the lakeshore.

Lamoille Lake is one of the two lake gems along this hike. The lake is quite large and its crystal clear waters lay at the base of Liberty Peak's steep north face. A number of hikers were camping in the flat areas near the outlet of the lake and along the lake's east shore, which is connected to the main trail by a well-trod social path. I picked out a spot by the lakeshore to enjoy the views of Liberty Peak rising imposingly above the lake and Verdi Peak and Snow Lake Peak rising above the lake in the other direction. In the mid-morning hours, the lake's waters was still a perfect mirror, reflecting the peaks that surrounded it. While there weren't any aspens along this trail, I did catch some nice fall color here as the low brush across the lake had turned a nice shade of red.

Liberty Peak rises above Lamoille Lake
Verdi Peak over Lamoille Lake
After a half hour break by Lamoille Lake, I returned to the Ruby Crest Trail. Many hikers visiting the area turn around at Lamoille Lake, but there are far greater rewards for hikers willing to put in just a bit more time and energy to reach Liberty Pass and Liberty Lake. The Ruby Crest Trail immediately began to climb as it left the shores of Lamoille Lake, but the ascent was luckily quite gentle and utilized many well-graded switchbacks; in fact, seasoned hikers may find these switchbacks too gentle, but everyone should stick to the trail and not cut switchbacks as this is a popular trail and erosion is a serious issue.

As the trail ascended, there were initially views of Lamoille Lake below with improving views of Lamoille Canyon, Snow Lake Peak, and Verdi Peak. As I continued to ascend, I left behind the trees and the views of Lamoille Lake to enter the rocky upper reaches of the Ruby Mountains; while the terrain was quite rocky here, the trail stayed in decent shape and continued the uphill with its gentle grade. Finally, as I approached Liberty Pass, Lamoille Lake burst back into view below. Mount Fitzgerald and the other peaks lining the south side of Lamoille Canyon were now visible to the west above the ridge over Lamoille Lake and I could now see over the top of the Ruby Crest to the deserts and mountains of the Basin and Range to the east.

Mount Fitzgerald and Snow Lake Peak rising over Lamoille Lake
After 700 feet of gradual ascent over 1.4 miles from Lamoille Lake, I reached Liberty Pass, a rocky notch between Liberty Peak and the main Ruby Crest that was 3.4 miles from the trailhead and 10450 feet above sea level. From this high point of the hike, there were views to both the north and south: in addition to the now-familiar views of Lamoille Canyon, I looked ahead to see Lake Peak and the Ruby Crest extending to the south.

View down Lamoille Canyon from Liberty Pass
The view to the south gave a glimpse of the many rocky alpine peaks that continued to make up the Ruby Crest beyond the Lamoille Canyon area. After its initial four mile long segment to Liberty Lake, the Ruby Crest Trail continues for another 30 miles or so along the high, rocky peaks of the Ruby Mountains, which are dotted with lakes that fill alpine cirques. This backpacking route ends at Harrison Pass to the south and is one of the more popular alpine backpacking trips in Nevada. The stretch of trail to Liberty Lake is by far the most frequented segment of the Ruby Crest Trail but by many reports it is also the most scenic.

Ruby Mountains from Liberty Pass
Leaving the pass, the trail initially followed a low ridge extending south from the pass. After entering the Ruby Mountains Wilderness, the trail began to descend a bit and soon came to the edge of a cliff overlooking Liberty Lake. This was the most stunning view of the hike: Lake Peak, which has the form of a lopsided pyramid, rose above the clear, blue waters of Liberty Lake, which was set in a rocky bowl with sparse trees about 350 feet below. Castle Lake, a smaller lake, could be seen nestled in the cirque under Lake Peak. The skies were unfortunately hazy on the day of hike due to smoke from wildfires in California, otherwise I would expect that I would've also been able to see past the shoulder of Lake Peak out into the neverending vastness of Nevada's Great Basin.

View overlooking Liberty Lake to Lake Peak
I stayed at this overlook for a while to soak in the incredible view before descending along the Ruby Crest Trail towards Liberty Lake's shores. The trail dropped through a set of switchbacks before gradually going downhill as it circled to the west around Liberty Lake; there were constant views along this descent of Liberty Lake's sparkling waters below and Lake Peak's noble form across Kleckner Canyon. 

Lake Peak rises over Liberty and Castle Lakes
At 0.7 miles from Liberty Pass and 4.1 miles from the trailhead, the trail came to a junction above the south end of Liberty Lake. Here, I took the left fork and then followed unmarked social paths to cover the final few hundred yards of the hike to reach the shoreline of Liberty Lake. The lake was placid and deep; in fact, Liberty Lake is one of the deepest lakes in the Ruby Mountains, at over 100 feet deep. There were a number of other hikers who had camped around the shoreline, but there was still plenty of room to spread out and find a spot to lunch and nap. I spent a few hours at the lake, enjoying the views of Liberty Peak and the unnamed peak on the crest to the east of Liberty Pass rising above the lake. 

Some of the campers here were fishing in the lake, which is home to a number of stocked trout species and one native trout, the Lahontan cutthroat trout. You might wonder how there are any trout species native to an alpine lake in an endorheic watershed, where the flow from this lake ends up evaporating in the middle of a desert basin. The trout arrived in these alpine lakes after having earlier inhabited the prehistoric Lake Lahontan, a massive inland sea covering much of the western Nevada Great Basin during the last ice age that was fed by the Truckee, Walker, and Humboldt Rivers. In cooler climes, this great lake connected many of the watersheds of today's Great Basin and supported a population of cutthroat trout. However, as the climate changed and Lake Lahontan gradually shrank until its only remnants were the modern Pyramid and Walker Lakes, the trout adjusted by migrating to mountain streams and lakes, each surviving population isolated from the others.

Liberty Lake
If you find that you have extra time once you reach Liberty Lake, there are options for further exploration: Favre Lake is 1.2 miles farther to the south and 500 feet lower in elevation at the top of Kleckner Canyon. Even if you don't choose to add a couple of extra miles to your hike to visit the shore of Favre Lake, you can catch a glimpse of it lying at the base of Lake Peak by just hiking a couple hundred meters further along the Ruby Crest Trail with minimal elevation loss.

I stayed at the lake for a few hours and got a glimpse of Favre Lake from above before I returned to the overlook above Liberty Lake to photograph Lake Peak in late day lighting. I returned to the trailhead just after sunset and had an excellent dinner at Monkey Sun, an underrated Chinese restaurant in Elko.

This was a beautiful hike and one of the highlights of my trip to Nevada. Once you've exhausted visiting the country's better known national parks, you can find more beautiful scenery with no tour bus tourists by visiting the Ruby Mountains and Lamoille Canyon, and you can see some of the best that this range has to offer by day hiking to Liberty Lake.

No comments:

Post a Comment