Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Lake Aloha

Lake Aloha
7.5 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain with boat shuttle (otherwise, 12 miles round trip)
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no parking fee required, Echo Lakes boat taxi fee optional

The 2021 Caldor Fire heavily affected the Echo Lakes area and the Desolation Wilderness. Check current conditions before attempting this hike.

The shimmering blue, island-dotted waters of Lake Aloha is the most iconic landscape of the Desolation Wilderness in California's Sierra Nevada and is one of the highlight hikes around Lake Tahoe. The approach from Echo Lakes- which is the most popular approach for day hikers- follows the Pacific Crest Trail and gives hikers the option to shorten the hike using a boat shuttle. This route is packed with scenic delights en route and delivers hikers to Lake Aloha with the least overall elevation gain. For those with a full day to hike out to Lake Aloha, this is certainly not to be missed when visiting the Tahoe area. 

I hiked to Lake Aloha with Anna and her mother, who was visiting us at the time, during a July visit to Lake Tahoe. The weather was unusually warm during our visit, hitting 90 degrees in the Tahoe area itself during hike, which made this hike somewhat more difficult than it actually is; the hot weather also portended the disaster that the Caldor Fire would wreck on this landscape later that same summer.

From South Lake Tahoe, we reached the trailhead by following US Highway 50 south and west from town, passing Meyers and climbing uphill towards Echo Summit. Towards the top of the long Meyers Grade hill, the unmarked Old Meyers Grade Road split off to the right from the highway; we took this right turn. Old Meyers Grade Road continued climbing uphill via a few switchbacks until leveling out after crossing Johnson Pass and coming to a junction after 0.8 miles with the poorly marked Echo Lakes Road shortly after the pass; the Echo Lakes Sno-Park parking area lies directly across from the Echo Lakes Road turnoff. We turned onto Echo Lakes Road and followed it past Berkeley Camp to Echo Chalet. The hiker parking lot above Echo Chalet was already completely full by the time we arrived just after 9 AM, so plan to arrive early on summer weekends if you hope to find parking. 

From the trailhead at Echo Chalet, there are two ways to reach Lake Aloha. The lowest effort approach is to take a boat taxi from Echo Chalet to the dock at the far end of Upper Echo Lake, which shaves off just over 2 miles each way for the hike. For those who want to reach the lake on their own two feet, the Pacific Crest Trail also runs directly past the front of Echo Chalet before following the northeast shore of Lower and Upper Echo Lakes towards Lake Aloha. As I took the boat, I'll describe that option here; based on my admittedly secondhand knowledge, the PCT option should not pack in too much more elevation gain as it should simply follow the lakeshore. The Echo Lakes boat taxi usually operates 9 AM to 5 PM between Memorial Day and Labor Day from Echo Lakes Chalet and typically costs $20/person, each way; current information on the service can be found here. There is no scheduled service; boats embark whenever there are at least three paying customers, and service back from Upper Echo Lake must be requested by 4:30 PM.

Lower Echo Lake
We boarded a boat taxi and set off across Lower Echo Lake, a long and beautiful reservoir nestled between forested slopes broken by slabs of granite. Within ten minutes, we were across Lower Echo Lake and transiting through the narrow passage connecting the Upper Lake with the Lower Lake. This scenic and shallow passageway sometimes becomes too shallow for travel by late summer, complicating plans for travelers hoping to use the boat shuttle. We passed by many vacation homes- the lake is a popular spot for Californians to retreat during the summer.

Narrow strait connecting the Echo Lakes
The boat continued across Upper Echo Lake, which was especially scenic with the pointed granite summit of Ralston Peak rising behind the lake. After 20 minutes, we arrived at the dock at the far end of Upper Echo Lake; we disembarked and followed a hundred meter-long trail that led uphill to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail.

Ralston Peak rising above Upper Echo Lake
Upon meeting up with the Pacific Crest Trail, we turned left and followed the PCT northbound towards Lake Aloha and Canada. The PCT ascended gently through a rocky forest and broke out onto a rocky outcrop a third of a mile after leaving the boat dock. Here, we were rewarded with lovely views back over Echo Lakes, with Upper Echo Lake looking especially beautiful with its placid blue waters dotted with forested islands.

Echo Lakes from the PCT
The trail alternated between forest and open granite while making its continual ascent, entering the Desolation Wilderness at 0.7 miles, until breaking out into the open granite for good around a mile from the boat dock. At 1.1 miles, we came to the junction with the spur trail down to Tamarack Lake. We took this spur on our way in, descending along a 200-meter long trail that led down to the shore of shallow Tamarack Lake at the foot of Ralston Peak. This was a pretty although ordinary lake; Ralston Peak's sharp pyramid behind the lake was the nicest part of the view. Mosquitoes were horrendous around this lake in July.

Ralston Peak above Tamarack Lake
Returning to the PCT, we followed the trail northbound as it continued a steady climb. Views over Echo Lake and Tamarack Lake were increasingly impressive over the next mile as we ascended. On a hot and sunny day, this stretch of the trail was quite challenging as we were being baked constantly by the sun with no shade; luckily, the ascent moderated shortly after the trail went through a set of switchbacks and we returned to the forest at 1.8 miles from the boat dock after reaching the summit between the Echo Lakes basin and the Lake Aloha watershed.

Tamarack Lake viewed from the PCT
The trail wandered through a mix of pleasant conifer forests and small meadows over the next mile and a half over rolling terrain with mild ascents and descents. While less scenic than the climb up from Echo Lakes, this stretch of the hike was also easier and more shaded, which made it somewhat more pleasant. We passed numerous trail intersections over this stretch for paths branching off to Lake of the Woods and Lake Lucille; at each junction, we stayed on the PCT northbound.

Meadows and forest along the PCT in Desolation Wilderness
Although generally confined to the forest, this stretch of trail did offer occasional views to the north across Glen Alpine Valley to Mount Tallac, one of the most noteworthy peaks in the Lake Tahoe region. At one point, the trail passed just above small Lake Margery, offering one of the nicest views on this stretch of the hike.

Mount Tallac and Lake Margery
At 3.2 miles, the PCT began a gentle but sustained descent through the forest as it dropped into the basin containing Lake Aloha. The trees were dense enough here that there was little sign of the lake until we were almost at its shores; at 3.5 miles, when we could see the lake through the trees, we took a spur trail to the left of the main trail and descended to the shoreline of the lake itself. 

Lake Aloha is one of the Northern Sierra's most stunning sights. The great granite ridge of the Crystal Range, which encompasses Pyramid Peak, Mount Agassiz, and Mount Price, rose above the sparkling waters of Aloha, which was dotted with numerous stark granite islands. Snow often adorns the bases of the granite cliffs of the Crystal Range, although during the drought year of 2021 there was little snow left by July.

Pyramid, Agassiz, and Price rising above Lake Aloha
Lake Aloha is not a natural lake, but rather a reservoir formed by a dam across Pyramid Creek built in 1875 that flooded Desolation Valley. PG&E managed this dam and its associated hydroelectric project at the start, although the lake is today overseen by the El Dorado Irrigation District. As the water in Lake Aloha is drawn down for hydroelectric generation, lake levels fluctuate through the season and across years; when lake levels are low, more islands are visible in the middle of the reservoir. Desolation Valley once contained the Medley Lakes, a set of natural lakes scattered across this granite landscape, before all of the Medley Lakes were merged into the single Lake Aloha by the building of the dam. That this lake is not fully natural and is still being actively managed for human uses is a bit incongruous with the fact that Desolation Wilderness is supposed to be a federally protected wilderness area, but certainly the lake's unnatural origin does not detract much from its incredible beauty.

Island-dotted Lake Aloha
We enjoyed lunch and then backtracked to the boat dock, rushing to make sure that we made it back by the 4:30 last call for the boat taxi. The phone booth at the dock was not operational when we arrived but we had enough cell service to successfully call Echo Chalet and arrange a boat to come across the lake to pick us up.

Lake Aloha is a highlight destination in the Tahoe area. While this means that parking can be hard at Echo Chalet, surprisingly the hike itself did not feel overcrowded and there was plenty of room to spread out along the lakeshore. While you shouldn't expect solitude, you can still look forward to a reasonably calm and quiet experience at Lake Aloha despite the area's incredible scenery and popularity.

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