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Freel Peak

Eldorado National Forest

October 17th, 1999

11.0 miles
3680 vertical feet
Total Time: 9:33

Rating: 9/10

Directions:   View Driving Map

Nancy and I drove up Oneidas Street toward Fountain Place to begin our hike. The road is paved, newly re-paved in places, but still has a lot of potholes. We encountered no one except a pickup truck inexplicably parked in the middle of the narrow one-lane road. Its driver seemed to wake up and subsequently moved to the side to let us pass. At the end of the road is a gate and the trailhead for Armstrong Pass.

It was still very cold (perhaps 30 degrees) by the time we started our hike at 7:42am. I donned my balaclava, hat, gloves, long sleeve shirt, heavy fleece, and rain jacket. Nancy had two layers of fleece and a jacket on, and still seemed to be cold.

The trail immediately forks -- an easier but longer way to the right (for horses and mountain bikes), and a more interesting path to the left. We of course took the left path, which involved crossing Trout Creek via a 20-foot log (not even leveled off).

A bush showing off some fall colors

The trail then begins ascending about 1000 feet to Armstrong Pass. Along the way we passed through a quiet forest along a very sandy trail. In it were signs of mountain bikes (which are allowed along the entire trail), hikers, and the occasional horse. We saw the signs, but we didn't actually see anyone for quite some time.

Our path would loop around and up to the rock formation

Unfortunately, the trail doesn't just ascend -- the "ascent" includes about 150-200 feet of descending. But we slowly made progress. We crossed several small creeks bordered by ground frost. We passed a meadow on the left and the occasional yellowing aspen. Resting in the path of an old rockfall, we had a great view of a large rock formation halfway up the mountain to the north. Looked like great rock climbing.

As we climbed and went further east, the rock formation disappeared around the corner. Then we found ourselves at Armstrong Pass, a sign pointing the way along the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT). There's not much of a view at Armstrong Pass -- mainly just trees. We turned left and headed northwest along the TRT.

Nancy preparing to ski (er, snowboard?) down Armstrong Pass

The TRT passes through a scattering of beautiful juniper trees. Then we hiked right next to the large rock formation that we'd seen from afar earlier. The trail remains nearly level for quite some time before ascending another 1000 feet. It does so with a series of 3 or 4 long switchbacks of moderate grade. Along the way are higher and higher views of the peaks of the Desolation Wilderness to the west.

At the top of the switchbacks is a saddle. From the saddle is a view of part of Lake Tahoe itself, visible for the first time during the hike. The TRT continues northwest past the saddle. Our goal, however, was Freel Peak, now clearly visible to the southeast. The Freel massif rises up another 1200 feet from the saddle, showing a saddle of its own. The peak itself (along with a microwave station) lies to the left of the saddle.

Nancy's playground

Before tackling the final ascent, we enjoyed the foxtail pines (I think) and Nancy's playground -- a wide assortment of rocks which scream "climb on!" She free-soloed to the top of the nearest rocks while I photographed the action. We spent quite a bit of time here. By the time she down-climbed and we started hiking again, probably an hour or more had passed.

Foxtail pines reaching for the sky

We struck off cross-country through the trees. There's no official trail here, though there are definitely footprints in the sand and rock cairns prevalent. The main goal is simple, though -- get through the trees, then traverse a rocky slope to the top. How exactly you get through the trees is mostly a personal matter. It's not too difficult hiking, though it is quite sandy in places and requires carefully walking over and under tree limbs.

After a half hour we were through. All that lay between us and the summit was a large rocky bowl. No more trees. Just a few knee- and ankle-high shrubs and a lot of rocks and dirt. As we climbed, I noticed two other hikers entering the bushes we had just finished. These were the first people we'd seen all day. I now expected we'd share the summit with them.

West slope of Freel Peak (top, center)

We were now over 10,000 feet high, and the thin air began to take its toll. We slowly made our way up, stopping every once in a while to drink and to take in the ever-increasing views. The higher we got, the larger the lake appeared, and the more incentive we had for reaching the microwave station and the summit.

A little over an hour after we left the saddle, we reached the summit. The view is amazing. During the entire hike to the summit, at least 180 degrees of the view is hidden by the mountain. But now that we were at 10,881 feet, the highest point in El Dorado county, everything was laid out before our eyes. To the northwest, all of Lake Tahoe -- a better view of the lake itself than from Mt. Tallac. To the west, the Desolation Wilderness including Mt. Tallac and Pyramid Peak. To the southwest, Round Top. To the south, Hope Valley and its many yellow aspens was clearly visible. To the northeast, Jobs Sister, just a few feet shorter than Freel Peak. Beyond Jobs Sister lay the Carson Valley and a hint of Washoe Lake. The view is absolutely one of the best peak views I've experienced. The only negative is the glaringly out of place microwave station -- a 40 foot wide, 10 foot tall metal cylinder adorned by graffiti, topped by a giant rust-colored rectangular thing.

Summit Panorama
(Click image to view full size)

Note: if you want to see a QuickTime movie of the above panorama, and don't mind downloading 1.2MB, click here. It's the same image as the picture above, just in convenient movie format which makes it looks like it's a panning video camera.

While we enjoying the magnificent view I heard a distant yell. I looked over to Jobs Sister and saw two hikers standing on top. I assume they must have been the two hikers we saw an hour earlier, though I'm not quite sure of the route they took.

The summit register

The summit register was easily found on the top rocks, and we enjoyed reading it while signing it ourselves. Apparently only one hiker had made it to the top the previous day. And we were the first (perhaps the only) today.

Tallac above Fallen Leaf Lake as seen from Freel Peak

After an hour we decided to start heading down. Our trekking poles helped us make great progress without falling (although we slipped a lot). 35 minutes later we were back at Nancy's playground. I suffered from amnesia of sorts and thought the trail was closer to the rocks. I went down to investigate while Nancy stayed on the real trail. What I found was (most likely) the very steep trail that some hikers use to go straight up from Fountain Place, rather than taking the non-direct route via Armstrong Pass.

I decided I should go back to the real trail. I made my way toward the trail, trying not to head back uphill. Nancy thought I was going to meet the trail after the switchback, so she took off down the trail, leaving me to wonder where exactly the trail was (it was hard to see through the trees at first). Eventually I rejoined the trail, but she was nowhere to be found. I took out my whistle, but she was apparently out of whistle range. I should have given her one of my radios. That's what I brought them for, after all. I need to be more stubborn about using them. Eventually we found each other by whistling. She was on the next switchback. I caught up to her and we continued the descent.

Mount Tallac from afar

As we neared the juniper trees, we finally encountered other hikers on the trail. 4 minimally-equipped hikers passed us in the opposite direction. Didn't look like they were equipped to make it to Freel Peak and back, but you never know.

While I was taking a picture of a particular pretty backlit juniper tree, 3 mountain bikers came up the trail. It was pretty clear that the first biker was leading the other two, who ended up walking past us. We asked them where they were headed and they said Freel Peak. Nancy and I looked at each other incredulously. I envisioned the three of them dragging their bikes for 30-40 minutes through the bushes we had to hike through. Definitely unridable. But perhaps they knew of a longer route which avoided the bushes.

Juniper Tree

We trudged on, turning right at Armstrong Pass. We ran into another pair of hikers near the end; I'm not sure where they were headed; it was nearly 5pm by this time, and it didn't look like they had camping equipment.

We crossed the log and then we were back at my car. Nine and a half hours after we'd started. There were just two other cars parked here. Considering we'd seen 4 other sets of people, it's safe to say some of them didn't start where we did. When I got home I looked at the map and saw that there's a road leading to the east side of Armstrong Pass. I'm not sure of the state of the road, but it would definitely make the hike shorter. And the view is beautiful enough that I definitely plan to do this hike again.

Return to Lake Tahoe Fall 1999 trip report.

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