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Frog Lake Snowshoe Hike

Mokelumne Wilderness

January 16th, 2011

1.9 miles
440 vertical feet
Total Time: 4:11

Starting elevation
8557 feet
Max elevation
8873 feet

Rating: 8/10

Directions: From Kirkwood, drive east on Highway 88. At Kit Carson Pass, turn right into the large parking lot where there's a monument, pit toilets, and visitor's center. In winter (November through May), you'll need a Sno-Park permit. Day permits (as of 2011) are $5, and season permits are $25. Permits are not available on-site; they can be purchased online or at some local stores.   View Driving Map

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GPX File

I learned something on this hike from my 4 year old son today. But more on that later.

It was another beautiful clear winter's day. We made the drive from South Lake Tahoe to Carson Pass, about 45 minutes away. The Carson Pass Sno-Park parking lot, at 11:30am, was nearly full, but we had no problem fitting into one of the few remaining spots. There's also space for cars to park closer to the highway, as well. If you are going, keep in mind that permits are $5 for a day pass or $25 for a season pass, available online or at local stores but not at the parking lot itself. Someone at the parking lot said that the CHP regularly checked for permits, and fines are $87.

The trailhead has a couple of pit toilets and an information center that's closed during the winter. We strapped on our snowshoes and headed off on the trail, which at this time started about 4-5 feet above the parking lot because of all the accumulated snow (Carson Pass sits at 8650 feet).

We'd done this trail before, a little over 4 years ago, although no one else in my family seemed to remember it. In any case, it was a completely different experience this time because of course it was covered in snow. Besides that, the "trail" probably deviated from the normal summer trail, although there were occasional blue markers on the trees to mark the path.

Signs at the start of the trail, almost completely buried in snow

The first part of the trail traverses a steep slope and was just wide enough for the width of two snowshoes. After this, the trail widened again. When I say trail, I mean the snowshoe and ski tracks left in the snow that we followed. And there were quite a few tracks to follow, mostly on the main trail but some isolated tracks branching off in various directions.

Hiking on a narrow section of the trail

Looking up at a blanket of snow

Soon we reached a trail intersection. It wasn't marked as an intersection from what we could tell, but the tracks led off evenly to the left and right. I took out the map and soon came to the conclusion that the left fork was part of the Pacific Crest Trail, while the right fork was the one to Frog Lake. As we were there, a couple skiers came by and said they were on their way to Winnemucca Lake. That's one of a few great destinations from the Carson Pass lot. With the kids, though, we were limited to Frog Lake as our destination for the day.

Looking north to Red Lake Peak

We took the right fork and kept going. Later, a group of hikers passed us and started heading up a steep hill to the left. I suspect this was a shortcut from the main trail. Since they were headed that way and it looked well-tread, we followed them. Eventually we rejoined the main trail. At some point I started considering taking one of the lightly treaded paths to the left. I knew the lake was to the left somewhere, even if I couldn't see it. I suspected that most of the paths to the left would reach it, and faster than the main trail. But we decided to stick to the main trail for now.

Eventually we broke out into the open, with views of Round Top to the southwest and the distinctive Elephant's Back to the southeast. I knew from the map that we should reach the lake before Elephant's Back, so I decided it was time to head to the left. Even though there weren't any well-tread paths to the left, I just followed whatever faint paths I could find that led in that general direction. I was hoping we hadn't overshot the lake, and soon enough I found that we hadn't. As luck would have it (or perhaps I subconsciously remembered the route from 4 years ago?), we ended up on a little hill directly above the lake. A couple minutes later, we were spread out on our tarp, having lunch under the trees above the lake.

So what did I learn from my 4 year old? Whenever we take a lunch break, I've been taking the snowshoes off my boots, then putting them back on when we're ready to go. It's a time-consuming process. My son instead left his boots in his snowshoes and just pulled his feet right out of his boots. So simple; now why didn't I think of that?

Looking southwest to Round Top

Elephant's back, to the south

Elephant's Back (center) and Round Top (right) from the main trail
(Click image to view full size)

Climbing up the mostly unbroken snow

As you might suspect, since Frog Lake is small and shallow, it was completely frozen over. Still, the area was a very pretty sight, with great views of the surrounding area. As we were finishing up lunch, a boy scout troop trudged by and walked right across the surface of the frozen lake.

Elephant's Back and part of frozen Frog Lake (on the left)

Frog Lake and Elephant's Back
(Click image to view full size)

Frozen Frog Lake

After we spent some time building a snowman overlooking the lake, we headed toward the east end of the lake. I knew that there should be great views from there, and we might also be able to pick up the Pacific Crest Trail heading back toward the parking lot. Well, there were some nice views, but I couldn't see any trail. We headed back to where we'd had lunch (on the north side of the lake), and picked up a trail heading up and over the hill on the north side of the lake.

Our snowman

Clouds rolling in over Round Top

Looking east from just east of Frog Lake

View to the east from just east of Frog Lake
(Click image to view full size)

Because of the geography, I knew we'd either run into the trail we'd taken to the lake, or reach an edge to the right where we'd be able to see the road. So I wasn't too concerned about getting lost. We were hoping this would be much faster, and we weren't disappointed. While the path we took to the lake was just over 1 mile, the return route was about half a mile. The trail headed down steeply; it's quite easy to head downhill through soft snow on snowshoes, and a lot of fun, as well. Soon we were able to see the road in the distance, and soon after that rejoined the main trail.

Red Lake Peak

Snowshoeing downhill with Red Lake Peak in the distance

Caples Lake

Lots of skiers and dogs were heading back now, as well, on the main trail. We joined them and soon were back at the parking lot, now nearly empty.

I've made it a habit to try to never do the same hike twice, with rare exceptions. There are just too many great hikes out there that I haven't done yet. This little excursion has me thinking of revising that plan, though. Hikes are so much different in winter compared to summer, I might consider doing the nicer hikes twice - once in summer, then again in winter.

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