For one of the best day hikes near Lake Tahoe, take a road trip to Squaw Valley, CA, the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Very popular, so expect crowds during peak spring and summer months. It seems that all of the hotels send their guests here, so plan to leave before noon to avoid the bulk of the groups, kids and dogs.
When to go:
This is a great late Spring to late Fall trip, as there are many areas of snow on north and north-east facets into early June.
How to get there:
- Take I-80 to Highway 89/Truckee Exit 185 and turn south toward Lake Tahoe.
- Drive south for 8 miles, turn right on Squaw Valley Rd.
- Follow the road until you arrive at The Village at Squaw Valley , 1750 Village East Rd. on your left
- (An excellent place to stay BTW, and a good place to buy food for your hike).
- Trams rides are free from High Camp back to the village (nice!)
Check with squawalpine.com or dial 1-800-403-0206 to confirm Tram schedule
Distance to Squaw Valley from:
- Reno 43 miles
- San Francisco 196 miles
- Sacramento 96 miles
From the parking lot at The Village, walk to Squaw Peak Rd. (if you see the PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn, you’re in the right place)
Follow the road looking straight up at the mountain with Tram tower above you for about 0.5 miles until the apex of the cul-de-sac. There you will see the sign for the Shirley Lake Trailhead.
What to bring:
- Good hiking shoes or trail running shoes (regular tennis shoes not recommended)
- Trekking poles (highly recommended)
- Small backpack with hydration or several bottles of water
- Snacks or lunch (REMEMBER TO PACK OUT ALL YOUR TRASH)
- Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses
- Light jacket and packable rain jacket (weather conditions change very quickly in the mountains)
- Optional: Water purification system like Sawyer or MSR so you can filter that ice cold, refreshing mountain stream water right into your bottle and “taste” the entire experience of your hike.
What to expect:
- This is a MODERATE hike – Give yourself 3-4 hours overall if you plan to take many pictures and breaks
- The trail starts off fairly flat, but transitions quickly from a lush green forest to steep granite slabs – when you arrive at High Camp, you will have climbed over 2,000 feet in elevation.
- Remember you are at altitude – you are starting at 6,200 feet above sea level, climbing to 8,200 feet in under 4 miles
- Conditions change quickly in the mountains – let someone know when you are leaving and when you expect to be back
- Many wonderful views, photo ops, wildflowers (Mule’s Ear, Corn Lily, Squaw Carpet, Mesquite) and critters.
Click on this link for a GPS track of my trip: Shirley Lake Trail and High Camp, Squaw Valley
Let’s hit the trail…
From the trailhead, the trail is marked with blue spray painted lines and marks on rocks and sign posts to indicate your path. The path follows Squaw Creek, as it climbs quickly into Shirley Canyon, displaying many waterfalls and cataracts along your path. The creek will be on your right side ascending most of your trip.
In early Spring, California Snow Flowers pop up under pine needles in shaded areas along the trail. Rich loam of decomposing trees resemble a park-like setting. Soon the path finds the water, at it’s a real treat when the water is flowing. Dogs make a mad dash to be the first ones in the water, only to come find me soon after to rub on.
I usually hike alone, but this time I made an exception. My friend Sara really needed to get out of town and unwind – and I needed get back into my element. Though this hike is not the wilderness, it’s still Tahoe, and my home. I shared my trekking poles with her, and we would soon find out how handy they were going to be today. That extra “umph” to get you over that boulder was a “God’s Send”. It is really fun to bring someone that is not used to seeing this much nature and wonder all in one hike. It was truly a treat for both of us. Sara is a professional photographer and I could always use a few pointers from a pro.
Now for the first of many waterfalls along our hike today…
Soon, our trail ascends the canyon…over tree roots and boulders…then the boulders became slabs of granite. The repayment for our hard work were the views…just awe inspiring.
After several boulders, we were climbing away from the water now. Just boulder after boulder…some rocks wet from run-off, so taking it slow and easy. We’re making it…the views just get better. The air a little cooler and wetter now, as the mist turns to a light drizzle. Now the rocks have become an enormous slab of granite that must be overcome…
Finally having having conquered the granite slab, brings a moment of pause to survey what we just conquered and the beauty of the Olympic Valley below us.
We find snow and runoff on the trail…that is, when we can find the trail. Now and then the snow hides the blue markers, and the gentle rain has now made the rocks wet…making it harder to see the paint.
We pass people along the way and they pass us…at this point we’re all oblivious to the time it has taken to get up here. We finally arrive at Shirley Lake.
The north and west sides of Shirley Lake are the only friendly sides, as the rest of the area is rather marsh-like and soggy. There is a trail and an unpaved road on the other side of the lake near the Shirley Lake Express chairlift. In summer it is easily visible, but not today. Today, all north and northeast facets are covered in snow, and the rain is beginning to turn to hail the size of BB’s…not pleasant, but then again, not as wet as rain. At about 4 pm, a group of young people have gathered with us at Shirley Lake, inspired by the view that they have earned. Inspired as we all are, we realize we have one hour and one mile to climb the snow and rock covered slope to reach the Tram in time before the last download of the day at 5 pm. The trail is nowhere to be found – it’s covered in snow and mud. Sara and I find some solace in watching the young one’s bushwhack the route…then we see if it worked or not…and go accordingly.
I didn’t think that we would need spikes, crampons or snowshoes on this trip… and Sara, an Alabama Girl, didn’t grow up with the benefit of knowing how to deal with snow and mountains. Each of us made use of one trekking pole to help anchor each step. I gave Sara a crash course in self-arresting technique in case she lost her footing, as it was a long wet slide back to the bottom of the hill. She was a trooper, and followed my steps that I carved in the snow. Finally a break in the snow, and she was off like a cannon-shot. The summit was in sight, we’re soaking wet and it’s 4:40 pm, no time to waste. Close to the summit was broken talus, a shale-like rock that is like trying to climb over dominos.
Finally in the safety and warmth of the Tram building, complete with infra-red heater and other fellow “drowned rats”, we are joyful in our conquest of time – we made it before the last Tram! It was a personal victory for Sara as well – an accomplishment to be proud of for certain.
One more adventure is in store for the day…the Tram ride back down the mountain with spectacular views from above.
Well that’s it for this trip – Hope you enjoyed the hike and will make it yourself sometime soon !
Tomorrow is another trail run and Annual picnic for my Donner Party Mountain Runners…and I’ll give you a little preview of the day… Yes….more hail, but bigger. We all had a great run for the adults and two races for the kids…who were completely undeterred by the weather.
See you on my next Adventure in the Tahoe Wilderness