On a Thursday in August of 2015, we backpacked into Dardanelles Lake, a small lake in the south end of the Lake Tahoe Basin. Because of its distance from the highway and ease of access off the Tahoe Rim Trail, it’s a popular destination during the summer with day hikers an backpackers alike. It’s also located outside of any wilderness area, so other than a campfire permit for your stove, there isn’t much red tape to deal with. This is both good and bad.
We’ve left the Big Meadow TRT trailhead for several other hikes, so we were familiar with the first part of this hike. It’s always a treat to hike through Big Meadows. The creek, bridge, and trail leading through the meadow and into the woods beyond is a place that makes you want to linger. Unfortunately, the meadow hike is over too quickly and the trail starts climbing again.
The TRT ducks into the woods and climbs the canyon below Stevens Peak. There isn’t much to see in the woods here, so it’s nice when the climb tops out and you are rewarded with open views from the ridge top. This is the high point of the hike, the trail now dropping down the other side of the ridge to a trail intersection at the 2 mile mark.
The TRT continues south at the intersection, but the way to Dardanelles Lake turns back to the northwest down the Lake Valley (aka Christmas Valley) trail. We ran into a friend on a mountain bike on the way in that said he had just been to Dardanelles Lake, and he advised us that the turnoff to the lake is only marked with a pile of rocks. Not thinking I’d have to worry about an intersection at a low hiking speed, I didn’t pay much attention. Less than a 1/4 mile down the Christmas Valley Trail, though, I let my mind wander and I actually walked right past the pile of rocks that marks the turnoff. Luckily I had only made it a few feet before something clicked in my brain to turn around and check out the rocks. Sure enough, there was the trail. I don’t think I anticipated the turnoff so soon after the previous intersection. It is a bit odd that such a popular destination doesn’t have a trail marker, so be on the lookout!
The previous section of trail passes through a zone of conglomerate volcanic rock, the kind of rock that dominates Stevens Peak, Red Lake Peak, and the area around Carson Pass. Once you’re on the Dardanelles Lake trail, though, granite becomes the dominant terrain feature, the country now looking more like the nearby Desolation Wilderness. There are a couple creek crossings early on the trail with fun stepping stones to aid crossing. The creeks were low this drought year, and much of the foliage in the area was already looking like it was Autumn.
After some pleasant hiking through the woods and over the creeks, the trail makes the final climb through the granite boulders to Dardanelles Lake. The blue lake is striking when you first see it. Deep blue water below granite cliffs. It’s quite a contrast to the blue-green waters of Round Lake less than a mile away. There weren’t many people here when we arrived, just a few day hikers preparing to walk out. We followed the trail around the north side of the lake, all the way around to the southwest side for some more secluded camping. We saw many existing campsites along the lakeshore as we made our way around, but being used to wilderness regulations, they were much too close to the water for me to feel good about using them. Not only is there a greater chance for water contamination, but it prevents others from enjoying that part of the shoreline.
We found a nice site near the end of the lake, sheltered from the wind, and far enough away from the lake for some privacy. We worked on setting up the camp while the boys headed down to the lake to do some fishing. With all the downed wood and existing fire ring, a small campfire would’ve really completed the setup. Unfortunately, we were well into the summer fire restrictions.
Although we saw many fish earlier in the year, this was the first time the boys brought their fishing gear on a backpacking trip. Bad timing too, because outside the Carson River, I don’t think my son would get another bite the remainder of the year. Warm temperatures and low water levels made for one of the worst fishing seasons.
Before settling in for the night, I explored an area of granite to the southwest of the lake. It was pretty wild looking, very grid-like with big boulders in the squares. It reminded me of a big chess board. Dardanelles Lake is under 8,000 feet elevation, so it’s easy to stay warm in the summer months. The boys even decided to go without a tent and sleep under the stars.
We made some of the worst pancakes ever the next morning. It was a new pre-mix we tried, and not only was it mostly tasteless, it made way too much of a mess for a backcountry kitchen. The dogs were the only ones not to complain!
We spent the rest of the morning fishing, swimming, and exploring. Some of the best views of the lake can be had from the rocks above the southwest shore.
As we started our hike out Friday morning, people began arriving in droves. Tents began popping up around the lake, and one group we passed must have had 15-20 people in it. I realized how lucky we were to pretty much have the place to ourselves for a night. This is what I was referring to earlier about the place not being regulated. One one hand it’s easy to plan a trip in, but on the other hand you may be sharing the lake with a lot of people. Seeing the crowds coming in, I’ll definitely avoid this place on the weekend when planning to camp. It made a great weekday trip, though, and I loved that it was so close to home. I’ll come back, and even think it would be a good place to introduce someone to backpacking.
- Map of the area on the Tahoe Rim Trail page.
- Tom Harrison Maps and National Geographic both have good area maps.
- More photos from this hike on Flickr.