A Beat-the-Clock Hike to Dardanelles Lake on a School Night
I knew this hike was on my husband's mind lately. But I didn't think it was one we would drive down to on a weekday after work and play a game of "beat the clock" to finish before it was dark. I figured it would be an upcoming weekend day-hike for us.
I was wrong.
Honestly, I was a bit hesitant to agree to this hike on a weeknight, knowing we'd be getting a late start, plus it takes around 50 minutes just to drive to the trailhead. I checked out the trail stats and reviews before we headed out. This was one where I didn't know whether we could trust the mileage because it showed a different total distance in a couple of different places. We thought it would be around 7 miles, and I was just hoping that it wasn't another hike that turned into an unexpected 10 miles.
Based on some of the recent reviews, we packed some bug spray, and – given our timing – our headlamps. I looked up a recent hike we did that was slightly less than 7 miles, but a little more elevation gain and that hike took us just under 3 hours. So, I did the math (read: counted on my fingers) and figured we would be back to the car by about 9 pm. Sunset was to be at 8:27 pm. I was going to have to really cook it on this one.
Despite it being day 397 of the 2021 summer heat wave, I donned my long-sleeved hiking shirt and pants (figuring I would regret having exposed skin if we run into a lot of bugs), and accordingly, I filled up my water bladder to the max, expecting it to be a hot hike generally, especially since I was wearing long sleeves and pants, I'd need lots of water (and, I was also half-preparing for a hike longer than the expected 7 miles, just in case).
I also packed some trail snacks and a thin extra layer for my top half, because you just never know what the temperatures will do after dark in the mountains.
We jumped in the Jeep and made our way down to South Lake Tahoe. We found the parking lot at the trailhead and wasted no time getting started. Once we made like Frogger across the highway to reconnect to the Tahoe Rim Trail, we immediately began climbing a relatively rocky stretch of trail. My husband noted, "Well, this ought to be fun coming down in the dark." And I'm thinking, "Yep. Whose idea was this hike tonight?"
Early on, a (tiny but mighty) female mountain biker approached us from behind, climbing hard. We stepped aside and allowed her to pass us, but looking at this trail so far, I couldn't believe that any biker would want to ride back down it. It has a lot of random rocks and boulders, exposed tree roots, oh, and steps like these...
It isn't very often we see trail steps like this, on a stretch this long.
I kept a very speedy and steady pace as best I could for the entire climb, not stopping to take any breaks. I knew that we were racing against sunset, so that was a good motivator to keep going strong.
Overall, I would say it was a great trail. We did have to navigate a few different intersections along the route, but fortunately, my husband had the trail mapped on his phone, so we were confident in our directions. This was the only intersection sign that specified our destination.
In addition to being a great trail, this hike had 4 different water crossings. Luckily, the first one had a really nice, sturdy footbridge across it and the others each had strategically placed stepping stones. So, no removing our shoes and socks this time!
After we crossed the bridge across the first creek – which had a bunch of fish in it! – everything opened up to this expansive, green meadow. This is generally unexpected, but especially after the rocky and mountainous terrain we just climbed up. You just don't expect to see a huge meadow at the top of that.
This meadow was every bit as quiet and peaceful as it looks.
Then, one of my favorite parts of this trail was this AMAZINGLY GIANT cedar tree. It might be the thickest and tallest one I've seen so far. Of course, I had to take a few photos.
To give you some perspective of its massiveness...
And, by the way, this tree did me no favors for hugging it. I ended up with about a dozen tiny, nearly invisible-to-the-naked-eye slivers in my hand after this. Thanks for nothing, tree!
We also passed through a couple of areas where the wildflowers were still in bloom.
Here's a couple of the really fun and quaint creek crossings.
I don't know why, but I just love them.
In 1 hour and 18 minutes, and after 3.7 miles of hiking, we found ourselves with this incredible view.
Dardanelles Lake. It was beautiful.
The sun was getting low fast, so we quickly ate our snacks, took a few more photos, and then turned back down the trail.
I kicked it into high-gear, bound and determined to get back to the car before it got really dark, before we would need our headlamps.
In a few of the lower, more lush sections, I did have to swat a few mosquitoes, but as long as we kept moving, they didn't seem to be too bothersome.
When we returned to that awesome meadow, we both looked down at the dirt trail and at the same time noticed fresh bear tracks. We stopped and surveyed the edges of the meadow in hopes of spotting it, but sadly, we could not, so we resumed.
The meadow was quiet and it actually felt a little damp. I could both feel it and smell it. It reminded me of being out in a country field back in the Midwest. I said all that was missing were the fireflies.
I never did get overly hot on this hike. On the return route, I admitted that I'd probably brought too much water with me. The temperature throughout the hike was very comfortable. The trail had a few steeper sections to contend with, but it really was a pleasant hike.
We made it back to the Jeep before we had to resort to using our headlamps!
In total, it was 7.57 miles with 1,286 ft. of elevation gain, which took us about 2 and a half hours to complete. It was a very enjoyable hike, so it's not hard to believe that it is one of the "heavily trafficked" trails in the Basin. I look forward to hiking this trail again when we aren't so pressed for time. It would be really fun to explore around the lake a little bit more and check it out from some alternate perspectives and take in the beauty surrounding it.