Newly fallen snow in Tahoe was all I could think of to celebrate my birthday with. Had a bad bout with the flu, but I had already paid for my fancy hotel room at the Grand Residences Marriott in Heavenly Village, South Lake Tahoe. I was not about to just lie around in front of the fireplace and not go play in the snow. It was snowing all the way over Echo Summit and down to the lake. There was still plenty of daylight left, so I went directly to the Eagle Falls Trailhead near Emerald Bay. About 8 miles north on Highway 89 from the “Y” in South Lake Tahoe, where Highway 50 and 89 meet. Parking is across the road from the Vikingsholm parking lot on Highway 89. If there is not enough space, park at Vikingsholm and walk (run) across the road to the trailhead. Before leaving the parking area, hike below the road on the Vikingsholm side, as the waterfall below the road is worth the effort to get there.
Once at the trailhead, the trail is not as easy to find with the accumulated snow from the past few storms. A little GPS, a little memory, and a little luck I found my way back to the lake. It’s only about one mile each way, about 20 to 30 minutes without snow in spring and summer. (If you wish to camp overnight in the Desolation Wilderness, you need to buy a permit from the Ranger Station in South Lake Tahoe or the Pacific Ranger Station in Pollock Pines on your drive up. You can also get a permit online at Recreation.gov. California Campfire Permits are also needed for camp stoves, and there are no open fires allowed in the Desolation Wilderness.)
Topo Map of Area
The snow was getting heavier and the wind picking up right behind it. After leaving the bridge and stones, the trail turned to snow about 6 inches deep. It was now time for the snowshoes. I met several guys coming back out from the lake also in snowshoes. They told me that they were the only ones back there, so I kept that in mind going back to the lake, another half mile in the snow. I do crazy things, but not stupid things…since I was the only one that knew I was back here, I didn’t get overly adventurous and leave the trail.
After dipping my hand in the cold lake and admiring the icicles cascading down from the rocks, it was time to make track back to the car. The snow was coming down a little heavier now; gusts of wind would send it sideways into my face or down the hood of my parka. It was still plenty warm, even working up a sweat trudging through the gathering snowdrifts back to the parking area. One last look and picture of snow falling over Emerald Bay before I go.
As always, another day, another adventure…
This time I’m off to Mt. Tallac, between Emerald Bay and Fallen Leaf Lake, Mt. Tallac is one of the most recognizable peaks in the Tahoe Basin, with a “T” or cross of snow below the peak in the spring and winter months. Rising above the lake at 9,735 feet from near lake level of 6,480’ at the trailhead, Mt. Tallac is about 4.8 miles to the summit. The views are some of the most spectacular in all of Tahoe, as you have unobstructed 360° views of the lake, the Carson Range to the east and Desolation Wilderness and Crystal Range to the west, and the Granite Chief Wilderness to the southwest and northwest. At this time of year, the metal barrier was not open yet for the season, allowing me to drive to the trailhead, about one mile up the paved access road. I parked my car near the roadside of the Mt. Tallac turnoff and Highway 89 and walked the extra distance. I started out wearing my Kahtoola Micro-spikes, as the snow and slush became icy in the shadowy sections of the road. Not long after first light, I was at the trailhead. I filled out my Desolation Wilderness Day Permit (instructions are at the trail sign), attached it to my daypack and was on my way.
It had snowed just yesterday, and the freshly fallen snow on the branches of the pine trees looked like Christmas trees, more than I could count. I was once again in a “Winter Wonderland” in one of my favorite places on earth.
The trail is fairly level for a half mile or so, until you begin to climb to the ridge between Fallen Leaf Lake and Cascade Lake. The higher elevation starts to open up views of Fallen Leaf, Lake Tahoe, the Carson Range and Heavenly Valley as you climb along the ridge line. The ridge is quite rocky most of the year and difficult to walk on. This time with snow and snowshoes, it seemed a little easier oddly enough. Once dropping down from the west side of ridge, the trail winds down and behind into a wooded section, deep in powder this trip to Tallac. After about 1½ miles, you arrive at Floating Island Lake, frozen over this time of year.
Looking up directly at Mt. Tallac peering down on you, the southeast chutes are visible for those die-hards that want to avoid the crowded trail in the summer, or ski down the gnarly face in the winter and spring.
About ¾ mile after Floating Island Lake, you emerge from the forested area of the trail at Cathedral Lake. A beautiful yet small lake, nestled in a rocky moraine at the foot of Cathedral Peak – this is a good place for a rest and a bite to eat before tackling the big climb that awaits you to the ridge.
The trail becomes quite rocky and steep much of the way up to Mt. Tallac. There are several switchbacks up the mountain, but it still quite steep and challenging any time of year. It is quite a cardio workout even if you don’t do the entire 3,300 feet of climbing to the summit of Tallac. After many stops to catch my breath, photo ops and just taking in the grandeur of the sights below me, I finally made it to the ridge. The saddle branches off at a trail junction, one direction continuing on to the summit of Mt. Tallac, the other, down the back side of the mountain to Lake Gilmore, deep in the Desolation Wilderness. That trip will have to wait until summer, when the snow and low temperatures melt away with the warm sunshine and more livable conditions.
The usual 6 hour, 4.8 mile hike has taken me that long to get nearly half way in the snow. I will not summit today, as I need to get off the mountain before nightfall. I hadn’t planned on being this slow, and did not bring my Petzl headlamp with me to hike after dark. Now to slog down the switchbacks in snowshoes – I actually think it was easier going up. Snowshoes were not designed to sideways, and it’s a killer on the ankles trying to do that. OK, I’m past Cathedral now, so the real steep past is past. Another hour plus getting out of the shade of the forested section and past Floating Island Lake, and I’ll be on the open ridge above Fallen Leaf Lake and in the sunshine. I came upon a couple with their dog, that must have turned around backtracking to their car. They didn’t have snowshoes and seemed to be moving faster than I was, so I took mine off and tried that for a while. It was all good until the shady areas turned to ice, and I had to put my Micro-spikes back on before I fell on my butt on the icy sections.
Finally back to the car, I have been out nearly 10½ hours today. Quite an adventure. At least nobody needs to come looking for me. Now, back to my fancy hotel for a sauna and jacuzzi bath tub, cozy in front of my own fireplace – a kitchen to make a nice pot of hot peppermint tea… and a giant king-size bed to fall asleep in.