We originally started off the year with the goal to hike the entire Tahoe Rim Trail before year’s end. We started off with good intentions, hiking from Big Meadow to Echo Summit. As the summer progressed though, we started to realize some of the challenges that the trail posed. The end of June brought 100 degree temperatures to Carson City, so we began researching a TRT section to hike to get out of the heat. The sections with plenty of water and camping were still snowbound. The sections that were open had long stretches without water or have limited camping. None of it was sounding very fun in the heat. We needed a new plan.
Near complete frustration with my TRT guidebook, I remembered that some friends recommended Kinney Lakes near Ebbetts Pass as an easy family backpacking trip. With the sweltering heat fast approaching, this sounded like a much better option. Easy hiking with lots of swimming. It would also be a good opportunity to introduce one of my son’s friends to backpacking.
We loaded up the car with packs, kids, and dogs, and drove up to the Pacific Crest Trail parking lot at the top of Ebbetts Pass. There is a nice trailhead here with wilderness info, wilderness permits, and a short connector trail to the PCT. Since Kinney Lakes lie just outside of the Mokelumne Wilderness, we didn’t bother to fill out the permit info. (Although had we decided to venture further into the wilderness to camp, the permits are free…)
When we arrived at the PCT, I told my son’s friend about the trail. It was fun to tell him that a left turn would take him to Mexico, a right turn, all the way to Canada. He couldn’t believe it! Just a short hike north on the PCT we crossed the highway, rejoined the trail, and began our climb up to Kinney Lakes.
The trail climbs immediately into a a beautiful forest. Widely spaced trees allow for open views of the mountains, the soft sandy trail is easy to walk on, and a nice mix of brush and wild flowers provide visual and fragrant enjoyment. Ebbetts Peak towered above us for part of the hike. We thought we might climb it if we had extra time, but never got around to it. There’s an American Flag at the top, and I hear it’s even lit up at night. We also passed by some smaller ponds, and even a couple snow banks. There’s nothing like a snowball fight in June to beat the heat!
In probably less than 2 miles from the trailhead, we reached the turnoff to Kinney Lakes. Far enough that we felt like we hiked some, but easy enough that we were barely tired. We followed a little trail behind the sign down to the upper lake. It led us into an area with big granite boulders and cliffs overlooking the lake. There was no easy way to get down with the packs, so we retraced our way back up to the sign. We found a little canyon just to the east of the sign, and followed it down instead. We ended up at a nice little cove on the northeast corner of the upper lake. There was a beach, and an existing camp just a ways up from the shore. We took it.
At first I was thinking I’d make the boys do camp chores like setting up their tent. Then I thought, nah…let them play. I said, “Alright boys, I need you to do something for me.” “Yeah?”, they asked. “Go swimming!”. They were into their suits in an instant, and into the water. They didn’t come out for another couple hours.
After camp setup was complete, a survey of the area was in order. A climb above camp revealed the larger, lower Kinney Lake below. Above the lake in the distance was Raymond Peak, stirring up memories of our climb up it a year ago. It was hard to believe we had such beauty and solitude only a couple miles from the trailhead.
Square boulders back at camp provided the perfect spot for a kitchen. We had a fine dinner of vegetable soup with a little wine to wash it down.
After dinner we enjoyed a nice walk in the fading evening sun, the subdued light bringing out the colors of everything around us.
After a good night’s sleep, it was time to do some exploring. We considered climbing a mountain, but in the end, we all voted to hike down to Lower Kinney Lake for an easy day of swimming.
We followed what I thought might be the easiest way down to the lake, but it ended up being steep and slippery. We’d definitely want to find a better way back up.
Once down at the lower lake, we hiked over to the peninsula on the south end. We passed what looked to be some great camping areas (provided there wasn’t lightening), and went out to the very end.
Kinney Lakes are man-made lakes, reservoirs that store water to eventually be used in Carson Valley. The steep cliffs and drop-offs we passed on the way down continue under the water. This allows for some great jumping and diving into deep water right from the shore.
The water wasn’t shockingly cold, but it did make me immediately swim back to shore. The boys, of course, got used to it and stayed in longer.
As we enjoyed the sun, we imagined how hot it must be back home in the valley. If we got too warm, we just jumped back in the water again.
As the afternoon progressed, dark clouds began to move in from the southeast. I kept a close eye on them, listening for any thunder. Pretty soon I got the feeling that we should start hiking back to camp. We climbed up the creek that led to the dam, and it was a much better route to get between the lakes.
As we neared camp, we could hear the thunder booming in the distance. When we got back to camp, we began immediately cleaning everything up, stowing it under the rain flies of the tents. The thunder was getting closer now. Much closer. As soon had we finished securing everything, the rain started. Just in time, we retreated to the tents.
The rain wasn’t too bad, but the thunder was crazy. I counted the seconds from lightening flash to thunder, “One-thousand-one, One-thousand-two, BOOM!!”. It was right over the top of us. The dogs weren’t happy at all about the thunder. For us though, it was a good time to sip some wine, snuggle, and read.
After the storm had passed, everything was extremely calm. The water on the lake was like glass, and created nice reflections. The mosquitoes seemed to enjoy the weather too unfortunately. I sustained a few bites trying to get the best photos.
After a dinner of macaroni and cheese, the boys retired to a rock above camp for discussion. I continued to take photos of the setting sun and reflections on the lake.
We awoke on the last morning to a lot of mosquitoes. There were feelings of wanting to stay longer, and feelings of wanting to get back on the trail to escape the bugs. Nobody really wanted to go back to the heat at home, but it was time to go.
It was nice to have an easy hike out. We enjoyed the snow one last time, knowing that it’d be almost unbearably hot when we got home. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable outings of the summer, and there were no regrets about not suffering out on the Tahoe Rim Trail. We still plan to finish it someday, but there is no rush now. My son’s friend ended up loving backpacking, and seemed to be quite natural at it. Not like the last time when another friend came along, and we made him march 6 miles in the snow! As we neared the car, we ran into a lot of other backpackers. Some of them were doing multiple sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, while others were thru-hiking. We gave away the last of our bug repellent to a couple of ladies that were hiking from Sonora Pass to Tahoe. They’d left caches of food at all the highway crossings, and would have to retrieve the canisters later. Talking to the hikers got me excited for our next outing, and we weren’t even done yet!
More photos from this trip on Flickr Here.