Sitting prominently on the southwest side of Lake Tahoe is Mount Tallac. According to a Tahoe Daily Tribune article, the mountain was once known as Crystal Peak. It was later changed to the present name during the 1877 Wheeler Survey, taking its name from the Washoe term “dala’ak” (sometimes spelled “tahlah-act”) or “great mountain”. For many years I’ve sat on the beaches below and gazed up at the mountain, always thinking that someday I really needed to climb it.
Looking for an adventure closer to home, I decided to brave the summer crowds of Lake Tahoe and give Mount Tallac a go with my dad and my son. With all the backpacking we’ve done recently, the 3,307′ climb over five miles no longer seemed like such a daunting task. Especially with a lightweight day pack.
The trailhead is located approximately 3-1/2 miles north of South Lake Tahoe on Highway 89. Look for the Mount Tallac Trailhead sign directly across from the entrance to Baldwin Beach. Follow the signs, and park as near as you can to the trailhead. With our late start on a nice summer weekend day, we had to park nearly a half-mile from the trailhead! Before you start hiking, you must fill out a permit to enter Desolation Wilderness, and display it on one of your group member’s packs. Note that these self-serve permits are only good for day passes. Overnight permits are issued by the Forest Service. Most wilderness areas do not require a permit for day hiking, but as you’ll see soon into the hike, most trails are not nearly this busy.
The trail immediately begins a gradual climb up onto the moraine above the northwest side of Fallen Leaf Lake. In less than a mile, you’re up on top of the moraine with views of Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe. Hiking along the moraine is easy walking, and it gives you a firsthand look at how the glaciers carved this valley out and deposited the earth along the sides as they moved. At about the 1.3 mile mark, the trail leaves the edge of the moraine and climbs up steeper now to Floating Island Lake and into the Desolation Wilderness.
Floating Island Lake is interesting, and worth a stop to look. The lake is named for the large tufts of grass that break off the shoreline and float around the lake. We saw an island floating next to the shoreline, and decided to have a quick break while we checked it out. I’ve read that this place can be bad for mosquitoes, but we didn’t see any this whole trip. It looks like we’re officially past the mosquito season this year.
About 2.5 miles in, the trail climbs up to Cathedral Lake. This little lake sits up at 7,638 feet in an amphitheater-like setting. It’s not extraordinary, but makes a good rest spot at about the halfway point of the climb. It also appears to be a destination for many hikers, as the lake was packed. Still fresh from our break at Floating Island Lake, we kept moving.
Leaving Cathedral Lake, the trail becomes steeper. Many stairs and switchbacks take you up above the lake and then out into a big open bowl. With all the people hiking the trail, it’s easy to see the route ahead of you. The trail climbs the steep bowl to some relatively flat tableland above at 8,600 feet. Along the way there are fantastic views of the lakes below as you gain elevation quickly.
The trail reaches the table above the bowl near the 3.5 mile mark. Not only are there great views of Lake Tahoe behind you, but now you can see down into the Desolation Wilderness. Pyramid Peak is clearly visible, and you can see the edge of Lake Aloha.
The trail now climbs up the backside of Mount Tallac. You can’t see the top while you’re hiking until near the end. There are a few false summits that make you think you’re almost there, only to see a further peak up the trail as you round the next bend. As you gain elevation, you can start to see more of the lakes in the Desolation Wilderness.
Finally the top is visible, and you’re certain it’s the top. Especially when you start to see all the people perched around the peak. We hadn’t seen the Lake Tahoe side for a while now, and I was enjoying the tranquility of the woods. Without warning, Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake were suddenly visible over the cliff side of Mount Tallac, the trail taking us right to the edge. I felt woozy for a second as my brain tried to adjust to what I was seeing. I kept my eyes on the trail for the time being, and didn’t look over again until I had climbed up further from the edge.
Still climbing, we could now clearly see Gilmore Lake, Susie Lake, and Lake Aloha. And then we were at the top at 9,735 feet elevation after about 5 miles of hiking! As were dozens of other people. The very tip-top was covered with people, so we made our way to a nearby roost with views of Emerald Bay and Cascade Lake. The other side of Lake Tahoe was not visible in the smoky sky. In fact, we couldn’t see much further than Emerald Bay. It still didn’t change the fact that this was one awesome view.
Around 3:00 PM now, we decided to have a late lunch. Our eyes focused closer now, we started to realize that we were not alone. Several golden-mantled ground squirrels were scurrying around all the people seated for lunch, darting in and out for a free handout. With all the daily visitors to the peak, these guys must eat like kings. We had to shoo them away when they got too close.
After taking in the scenery and feeling refreshed, we headed back down the mountain, retracing our steps the whole way. Looking down into the Desolation Wilderness, I saw all sorts of places I wanted to go see in the future. Typically, I don’t like to fool with too much red tape when going hiking, but it looks like I’m going to have to become familiar with the online permit reservation system through recreation.gov. There’s just too much to explore up here, even if you have to share it with a lot of people.
By the time we got back to the trailhead, many of the cars from the morning were gone. We walked and walked down the road trying to find our vehicle. Just when I started to get concerned that it may have been stolen, we found it around the next bend. We actually got in an extra mile of hiking because of where we had to park. Next time we will get there earlier.
I highly recommend this hike. It’s not the highest peak in the Tahoe Basin, but I thought the hike was interesting the whole way. At around 10 miles out and back, it’s not overly difficult. The other good thing about this hike is that there are several points along the way that could be considered a destination if you don’t have enough time or energy to climb all the way to the top. The lakes might be good for young kids, and the tableland above the bowl still offers fantastic views in all directions. Just be prepared for the crowds, and you won’t be disappointed.
More photos of this hike can be found on Flickr.