Updated: Dec 19, 2021
Lake Tahoe has been in the national news for days now as the Caldor Fire burns its way into the Tahoe Basin from the south shore, threatening tens of thousands of homes and displacing just as many people as they wait and see if they'll have anything to come home to.
On the north shore of the lake, we've basically been smoked out for the entire month of August. Some days, the air quality index (AQI) readings have been literally off the chart with ratings above 800 (a 0-50 rating is considered good/healthy).
All of this has caused closures of national forests and state parks, which also means no hiking. Not that you'd want to be out hiking when the AQI is at the "hazardous" level, but it has limited our ability to get outdoors and (safely) enjoy our area this summer.
In addition to the evacuations, closures, and poor air quality, we've also had plans and events canceled in the wake of this. Most notably, three cousins from Minnesota had booked their first trip to Tahoe and ended up canceling a few days prior to their planned arrival. This felt especially disappointing for me after other family members had also canceled their Tahoe trip in spring 2020, just after the COVID madness set in. While it feels like a huge let-down, I'm also glad that my cousins' first trip to Tahoe wasn't during this crazy smoked-out fire season. It's pretty difficult to fully enjoy the beauty here when you cannot see it.
Last year's disappointments were many and you found yourself getting used to it. This year, however, felt like an opportunity to regain life, and now we have yet another ravaging fire season not only destroying homes and businesses and communities, but also our beautiful landscapes. As we've watched the progression of these fires, my husband and I have come to realize that nearly every place we have touched in the past year has now been torched. It's an incredibly heavy and sad thought, but at least we were able to see those places in all of their glory before the fires swept through.
So, after probably five weeks of no hiking, last Saturday, we drove two hours south to Sonora Pass to escape the Tahoe smoke and take advantage of the Stanislaus National Forest not being on the closure list and get a decent hike in. And by "decent," I mean a high-elevation hike on the rocky Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that totally kicked our butts.
But first. We have to get to the trailhead.
Sometimes, I just close my eyes and hope we don't tip the Jeep over.
After a navigating through a few particularly rough spots, we made it to the trailhead.
And it was all uphill from here via the PCT.
Our first pass of Leavitt Lake from the trail.
I always love the brilliant blue lakes nestled amongst the desolate, rocky mountainscapes.
I wasn't exaggerating about it being all uphill. It was steep.
After several rest stops in the shade on an unforgiving rocky climb, we made it to this incredible overlook, which is at the crest of a short trail spur. I'm glad we ventured out on it. The photos and videos do not fully capture the magnitude of what is before you.
This was a massive "crater" alongside Leavitt Lake that could be seen from this overlook.
When you're up above 10,000 ft. elevation, you feel like you're on top of the world.
After this brief stop – you guessed it – we climbed some more.
And then we crossed over into the Toiyabe National Forest and the view from this convergence was pretty amazing.
Here's our trail. (You can see the smoke in the air.)
Still going up.
I love the layers of peaks in this shot. While the wildfire smoke is not good, it does add a neat effect.
Then we came up another spur that led to an overlook of Koenig Lake.
It was not long after this point where we found ourselves on this remarkably rocky, narrow section of the trail with nothing but rocks to your left and a rocky sloped edge to your right. Basically, rocks as far as you can see.
This stretch was also where we came across numerous PCT through-hikers, who were on route from Canada to Mexico. We learned that the wildfires and related forest/trail closures forced them to bypass the closed sections and many of them were rejoining the PCT nearby, where the national forest was still open.
In about a 3/4-mile stretch of the PCT, we passed 14 other hikers. One of the guys was holding what looked like a shiny silver aluminum umbrella, while another guy was wearing what I would describe as baseball pants. One gal, while looking around, told us, "This is a little different than southern Oregon." We laughed.
Then we came up to this really unique rock formation. It reminded me of something you might see in an Arizona desert landscape.
We rounded this trail and diverted down to Latopie Lake, carefully following a steep and loose dirt and rock trail, which is where the real fun began.
The "trail" past Latopie Lake more or less turned into a steep, rocky downward slope where earlier in the year I'm sure a nice little creek flows.
Once we got toward the "bottom" of this mostly dry creek bed, the trail was hard to find. So we traversed across more steep side slopes in the direction the map showed the trail existed. On our way there, we happened upon six deer! Hard to imagine how they can survive in this tough terrain.
My watch buzzed. I looked at it and saw we had just gotten to mile 6. I laughed out loud and said, "Six miles. Why does it feel like ten?"
Eventually, we found ourselves on a rocky cliff, obviously no longer on the supposed trail. I was not looking forward to this little adventure. Truth be told, it's not the first time we've been on a hike and my husband suggests we take an alternate route (usually a less-traveled path) back to the trailhead to turn what would otherwise be an out-and-back into a loop route instead. This often results in a few surprises.
The trouble here was not only did we have a rock cliff in front of us, but the sun was getting ever lower in the sky, so to avoid navigating the less-traveled return route in the dark (we did have headlamps with us), we couldn't afford to spend too much time exploring other options. We had to make a decision and go for it.
At my insistence, he did quickly survey the immediate area to our left, to see if it would allow us a safer descent than a rocky cliff, but he said that way looked worse than what was in front of us. Sigh. Here we go again.
Having flashbacks of a previous "alternate route" slate-sliding adventure from a few years ago at Upper Sardine Lake, I carefully selected each footstep and tried to use any available vegetation to control my balance and speed. I still slipped and fell. Twice. But fortunately, I did not get seriously injured. I eventually got to a point where it was so steep and so loose, I lowered my center of gravity (i.e., nearly sat down) so that I could slide on my feet and avoid falling again.
We finally made it to the bottom of this rocky canyon, and then we had to make a decision on which route to take next: the forest road that we weren't 100% sure connected to where we needed to go, or climb up and over another ridge in front of us to get directly back to the other side of Leavitt Lake.
As much as I was not interested in cresting yet another ridge on this hike, I also didn't want to risk the unknowns of the forest road and potentially add more miles to the hike. So, we headed toward the ridge.
Now there was a wide creek in front of us. And this one definitely had water. I rolled my eyes. Cool. After that unexpected rock-sliding event, now we're going to have to do a water crossing?! At this point, I was exhausted, annoyed, and a bit anxious to just get back to the trailhead before dark.
We looked around to try and find a narrower or shallower passage to cross the creek, or a log footbridge or something – again, racing against sunset. After several minutes, my husband discovered a rock bed connection where we didn't have to cross through the water, and I was very thankful for that. So we got on the other side of the water without having to get wet, and at this point, I was just determined to finish for the day.
I trudged up that ridge and a huge sense of relief swept over when I saw Leavitt Lake in front of me. And I just kept going. I finally made it back to where we parked the Jeep near the trailhead, and I was definitely looking forward to heading home. I was thrilled we made it back before dark.
It was really nice to be able to get outside and hike again, but this one was tough. Between the steepness of the majority of the trail (both up and down), the above 10,000 ft. elevation, the non-stop rocky terrain and rock-sliding section, the bit of smoke in the air, and us not having hiked in five weeks, it felt like a pretty hard hike. But it was good to get a hike in.
Here are a couple of post-hike views from Sonora Pass.