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Mount Tallac (2012)

Desolation Wilderness

Mount Tallac Hike Links:

September 3rd, 2012

9.4 miles
3350 vertical feet
Total Time: 9:34

Starting elevation
6456 feet
Max elevation
9735 feet

Rating: 10/10

Directions: From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 89 north. Pass the sign for the Tallac Historic Site and keep going. You'll see a sign for the Mount Tallac trailhead. Turn left toward the trailhead and also Camp Concord and Camp Shelly. Note that this is just before Baldwin Beach on the right. At the first fork, keep to the left (the right fork leads to Camp Shelly). At the next fork, keep to the right (the left fork leads to Camp Concord). Follow the road all the way to the parking lot at the end. The road is paved all the way and the parking lot is only about a mile from Highway 89.   View Driving Map



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As you may know, I make it a point to almost never do the same hike twice. There are just too many good places to explore. However, the view from the top of Mt. Tallac is so amazing that I've made an exception - twice. The first time I hiked it was in 1997, and I liked it so much I returned in 1999 (albeit using a slightly different route). I had planned to do it every few years, but kids have a way of changing things.

In the last couple years, I would gauge my kids and decide if they were Tallac-ready. The answer was obviously no until this year. They'd done an 8.5 mile hike with a fair bit of climbing last year, so I thought they were finally ready for Tallac's nearly 10 mile hike and over 3000 feet of climbing. After their performance on our recent backpacking trip, I was sure they were ready.

And so on this bright sunny morning, we arrived at the Mt. Tallac trailhead parking area. It was 8:15am, and there were already quite a few cars parked here (maybe a dozen), though we had no trouble finding a space. Joining us about 20 minutes later was Reza, who would be the only person who's been on all 3 hikes up Tallac with me.

It was about 8:50am by the time we got started, and I did some rough calculations. I estimated about 5 hours for the hike up, arriving around 2pm, staying at the top for an hour, and taking about 3 1/2 hours for the descent. So I figured we'd get back around 6:30pm. That was the plan, anyway, and as it turned out it went pretty much to plan.

Well, my plan didn't get off to a good start. After picking up a permit (self-register) at the trailhead, we started up the flat dusty trail. Less than 2 minutes later, Jean noticed that Jared wasn't wearing his hiking shoes. I'd told him to change into them as soon as we'd arrived, but hadn't checked to see if he had. He was still wearing his sneakers. And so we all went back to the car, he changed his shoes, and off we went.

Although I had hiked this trail before, it was 15 years ago, so my memory of parts of it were spotty. Somewhat forgettable is the first half mile or so of the hike, which starts climbing in earnest after a short flat section. After a short twisting climb, it straightens out but continues to climb a bit more gradually.

The trail heads mostly south and after about three quarters of a mile gains the ridge to the west of Fallen Leaf Lake. Now the views start to come. There are nice views of Fallen Leaf Lake to the east, Lake Tahoe to the north, and Mt. Tallac to the west. The thing is, the views only get better the further you go. As Rez pointed out later, if you stop and take a picture because the views are great, you'll walk further and a few minutes later decide to trash the picture you just took because you just found a better view.

First view of Mt. Tallac from the trail

Looking back (north) along the ridge above Fallen Leaf Lake toward Lake Tahoe

The trail stays on the ridge, with all its views, for about a half mile before the trail reaches a trail intersection. Here, a trail to the left leads down to Fallen Leaf Lake and is the route we took from the Glen Alpine Trailhead in 1999. We followed the trail straight ahead, which veers west away from the ridge. About 0.4 miles later (about 1.6 miles from the trailhead), we reached Floating Island Lake.

Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe

For some reason, I have no pictures of our visit to Floating Island Lake from 1997, nor any real memory of it. But it's actually a fairly nice lake, and a nice place to stop for a quick break, which we did. The north end is well-shaded, with plenty of downed trees to sit down on. A little patch of dirt/grass about 10 feet long sits near the northeastern shore, giving it the name "Floating Island" Lake.

Floating Island Lake

After a snack break, we continued along the trail, which follows the eastern shore of the lake. The climbing continues, up to Cathedral Lake about three quarters of a mile later. Cathedral Lake is definitely not as photogenic as Floating Island Lake, but it's another decent place to take a break and filter water if you need to. We didn't, as I had packed plenty of water in preparation for a long hike on a warm day. I could have saved us some weight by packing less water and carrying the filter, instead, but since we had been backpacking recently, pack weight didn't seem like a factor.

Cathedral Lake

After a short snack break, we hit the trail again. The trail up to this point had climbed mostly gradually. That would change as soon as we left Cathedral Lake. The trail pitches upward steeply immediately, switchbacking up out of the trees. There are still a few trees here and there, but for the most part you get unencumbered views of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake, with Freel Peak clearly visible beyond Fallen Leaf Lake to the east.

Looking up at the climb ahead

Looking back at Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe

We could see hikers snaking their way up this section of trail. We saw a lot of people on the trail today, probably somewhere in the range of 50-75 hikers, and at least a dozen dogs. Mt. Tallac is a place to visit to enjoy the spectacular view, not a place to find solitude.

Knowing what to expect, I told Nathan to stop at the last tree. We did so, taking one last minute to enjoy some shade before starting the steep exposed (to the sun) climb up the rocky bowl. Now I felt like we were starting the real climb. But to be honest, this part of the trail wasn't as tough as I'd remembered it. It was fairly steep, sure, but we just climbed steadily and soon enough we were at the top of the climb. At the top we could see the big meadow in front of us. Interestingly, the large rock pile we'd seen in the meadow in 1999 was no longer there; it hadn't been there in 1997, either.

Heading up the big bowl of rocks

We were now about 3.3 miles in, with only about 1.4 miles to go. But they'd be climbing miles. The trail now flattens out before climbing steadily but not too steeply, cutting westward across the southern face of Mt. Tallac. During this climb we couldn't actually see the top, it being obscured by the topography. There are trees here and there, perhaps a third shaded and two thirds unshaded.

To the south, across the meadow, we could see Mt. Price, Mt. Agassiz, and Pyramid Peak looming above Lake Aloha. The scenery took on a different meaning since we'd backpacked in much of the Desolation Wilderness on two different trips in the past two years. Jacks Peak and Dicks Peak were also clearly visible to the east. As we climbed higher still, we could see Susie Lake to the southwest, a tiny corner of Lake Aloha, and Gilmore Lake closer to us.

Mountains above Lake Aloha

Looking back down from the trail

Mountains above Lake Aloha

Susie Lake, with a tiny portion of Lake Aloha barely visible near top right

As we climbed and climbed, the summit nowhere in sight, Jared had a tough time going on. Despite having come this far, he wanted to turn around. I had to keep prodding him along. I knew he could do it, as long as he had a positive attitude (which he didn't at the time). Around this time, a Russian man with an SLR in hand came up to him and said, "What is your name? You are my hero!" He asked to take a picture of him, he was so excited to find a 6-year old doing the trail. This seemed to help Jared go a bit further before he started complaining again.

From left to right: Pyramid Peak, Mt. Agassiz, Mt. Price, Jacks Peak, and Dicks Peak (far right)

Finally, after a long slog uphill, we reached the second and last intersection on the way up. To the left is a trail leading down to Gilmore Lake; we'd taken this trail down fleeing from a thunderstorm in 1999. To the right is the trail to the summit of Mt. Tallac. Just to the right of the trail post was a large pile of rocks. I'd remembered this pile of rocks from a picture I'd taken in 1997. However, it's interesting to compare the pictures because the pile of rocks has gotten at least 20 times larger since then. Apparently, over the years people have added to the pile. Looking carefully at the sign, maybe it's kind of a joke, since the sign says "Mt. Tallac" with an arrow pointing directly at the pile of rocks. It does bear a striking resemblance. Who knows how big the pile will be years from now.

Pile of rocks next to the final trail intersection

Same intersection, smaller pile of rocks in 1997

So we turned right and started the final push. It starts out as a trail, curving around the base of the huge talus section at the top of Mt. Tallac. This brought us to the best view so far, looking out at Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe from the edge of a cliff.

Hiker checking out the view from the edge of the cliff

After taking some pictures, we now started walking through the talus. Jean and Nathan were already at the top. We could see that they weren't that far away, but reaching them was slow-going because of the jumbled mess of rocks of varying shapes, sizes, and angles (many of them thin and sharp). Eventually, though, we reached them, summiting around 2:15pm, just a little behind schedule.

The view from the top, of course, was tremendous. We shared the summit with at least 15 other hikers and probably an equal number of chipmunks as we ate our lunch. Afterwards we went to the very top itself, a few feet away from our lunch spot. From there is a 360-degree view of the area. Of course there's Lake Tahoe to the northeast and Fallen Leaf Lake to the east. There's Emerald Bay and Cascade Lake next to each other at the southwest corner of Lake Tahoe. There's Lake Aloha and the mountains above it. There's Gilmore Lake closest to us to the southeast. There's Jacks Peak and Dicks Peak. There's Freel Peak beyond Fallen Leaf Lake. Such an amazing view, and hardly a cloud in the sky.

Emerald Bay, Cascade Lake, and Lake Tahoe

Panoramic from near the summit
(Click image to view full size)

View from the very top

Gilmore Lake (foreground), Susie Lake, and barely visible Lake Aloha below mountains

Gilmore Lake

Fallen Leaf Lake; Freel Peak visible to the east

After enjoying the view, we started our descent around 3:10pm. We were one of the last ones to leave the peak, although there were still a handful left and we ran into a handful of people coming up on our way down. As we started our descent, something interesting happened. Jared, who had lacked energy near the top and complained so much, was a bundle of energy going downhill. To be honest, none of us could keep up with him on the descent. He didn't want any breaks. He was practically running downhill. Meanwhile, the rest of us were being cautious, using our trekking poles to slow our descent and save our knees on the often rocky terrain. Jared has six year old knees and no fear. Just wait until he has 40-year-old knees; then let's see how fast he can descend.

Descending Mt. Tallac; that little spec in the distance is Jared being chased by Jean

One of my favorite parts of the descent is standing at the edge of the meadow, at the top of the bowl descent. It looks like you could just take a hang-glider and soar from here. Sadly, we had to use our tired feet, walking on lots of rocks.

Starting the descent into the bowl

View from the bowl

We did stop briefly at the two lakes to slow Jared down and have a little snack. We were now in the home stretch, walking along the ridge above Fallen Leaf Lake. The sun was just disappearing behind Mt. Tallac now. I raced ahead so I could get a picture of the sun peeking over the edge of the mountain. The light on the ridge was beautiful at this time of day.

Cathedral Lake

Duck in Cathedral Lake

Sun starting to sink behind the mountain

Late afternoon light on the ridge above Fallen Leaf Lake

We made it back to the trailhead at 6:29pm, just ahead of schedule.

Back to trip report.


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