Updated: Dec 29, 2022
This Saturday morning, after a particularly exhausting work week, I slept in a little. But when I was ready to get up, the usual question came out of my mouth: "Where are we hiking today?"
It took us until 9:00 a.m. to commit to a final decision. A hike that had been discussed numerous times, and ruled out just as many, was finally drawn from the proverbial hat.
Mt. Tallac, here we come.
At over 3,000 feet of elevation gain, we knew this would be a challenging hike no matter what. Several route options lead up to Tallac, but my husband narrowed it down and now we had to decide whether we were going up the shorter, steeper route and then down the longer, more gradual route, or the reverse of that. I was advocating for the former, because my knees don't love a steep descent, especially one with unstable, rocky terrain. So, I'd rather take that challenge on the uphill. He wasn't sure he was up for that, but we thought we'd give it a try, nonetheless.
We arrived at the parking area at Lily Lake only to find it completely full, so we found a space tucked off to the side of the road in and loaded up our gear, including our hiking poles. We knew that near the beginning of the route we'd be making a hard left to begin the climb. That was a good thing, because the other direction of the trail looked like this:
So, we made our left and immediately began climbing.
And, really, we didn't stop climbing until we got to the top. The route offered varying degrees of steep grade – super steep and pretty steep – but you were definitely ascending the entire time. And it was rocky. This trail, overall, from start to finish, is likely the rockiest trail we've ever hiked on. Our hike on top of the only glacier in Nevada (in Great Basin National Park) somewhat rivaled the level of rockiness of this hike to Tallac, but by contrast, the entire route to and from Tallac was rocky. All of it.
This rocky section of the trail was very near the beginning and it should have given us a foreshadowing of what was to come. Don't get me wrong. We knew this hike would be challenging, especially taking this shorter route, but it didn't make any of the super rocky sections less daunting.
The views of the valley alongside the trail as we ascended to the top of the first ridge were impressive. So, at least we had decent scenery while we climbed.
More rocky terrain where we traversed switchback after switchback.
This little section of trail was particularly sketchy. The walking surface was extremely narrow with a rock wall squeezing on the right and a dramatic rock slide to your left down into a deep canyon below.
As we crested the top of the canyon, the view looking back was beautiful. And you could even still hear some water babbling down below.
After all of the full-exposure up until this point, the trail banks to the right and you kind of meander through a brief shaded area before it opens up again to a mountainous, desert scrub brush prairie.
By this point, our legs were starting to feel the challenge after less than 2 miles of dramatic uphill, but this section felt easier because it was less rocky than the previous stretch and offered a more gradual climb up to the first ridge.
After about 2 miles of non-stop climbing for 2,000 vertical feet, we finally reached the first ridge and were rewarded with an overlook of the south shore of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake on one side and the magnificent Sierra Nevada on the other.
This point in the trail is a little deceiving because you have this false sense of optimism that you've got to be almost there, but in reality, you're not. We still had 1,052 feet to climb in the remaining 2.1 miles to summit Tallac.
After the first ridge, the trail returns to crazy rocky terrain with a lot of steep climbing. At one point, a small group with a mom and three girls around the age of 10 – who were bounding down effortlessly, I might add – approached us. As they passed us, one of the girls happily gave us a word of caution that there's a chipmunk at the top who will try to steal our food. We laughed and thanked her for the heads-up.
Every hiker I met that was descending this final section kept assuring me I was "almost there." By the third or fourth time I was told this, I finally responded with, "Everyone keeps telling me that, but here I am. Still climbing." Those hikers chuckled and said it's only about 30 more minutes to the top.
We've gone on a lot of hikes, many tougher than others. I can honestly say this was the first time I actually felt like giving up on a hike. I was so close to the top, but by mile three, my legs were shot. It was everything I could do to keep moving. I've never felt quite that defeated before.
This final trail marker gave me some kind of hope.
So, I kept climbing, taking short breaks here and there, but I kept moving.
More and more hikers were making their way down this stretch, and the majority of them did not speak English as a first language, if at all. So, this peak clearly has an international draw.
Whew. I finally made it to the last pile of boulders that must be climbed to reach the summit at 9,739 feet, where I joined about 25 other victorious hikers. It's not the highest peak in the Tahoe Basin, but the view (and the feat) was nothing short of spectacular. Every angle was something special.
This view is of the south shore of Lake Tahoe, including Emerald Bay, and Cascade Lake.
More of south shore Lake Tahoe with a sliver of Fallen Leaf Lake off to the right.
Here is Gilmore Lake with smaller lakes Susie and Heather behind it, and way in the back, higher up, is Lake Aloha.
We finally made it to Tallac! I actually expected it to be windy and cold at the top, like every other peak we've hiked to, but it was actually quite pleasant. We sat for a few minutes to have some snacks, then took a few more photos.
So, that was really fun and challenging and it felt like a huge, rewarding accomplishment, but we still had the trek down ahead of us. And I, for one, had little idea what was in store.
The route we descended goes past Gilmore Lake and it's roughly a six-mile trail from Tallac back down to the parking lot at Lily Lake. We figured since it was six miles rather than three miles, it would provide a more gradual (and enjoyable) decline, especially compared to the challenging steepness of the route we took up to Tallac. Well, we were (mostly) wrong.
It's true, the grade was more gradual than our route up, but it was just as rocky with an infinite number of step-downs onto unstable and uneven terrain. No fewer than three times did we optimistically predict that "this might be the last rocky section." We were wrong every time. The rocks never ended. Six miles of rocks. Let's just say that these short little legs that are accustomed to going at a quick and steady pace were substantially thwarted and I lagged quite a ways behind my husband the entire way down. It was brutal. Our legs were already fatigued, and descending on rocky terrain for six miles pushed my patience over the edge a little bit. In fact, if someone had come by on a side-by-side or other ATV, I probably would have asked them for a ride the rest of the way. Thankfully, I did not experience any debilitating knee pain on this descent, but it was not fun.
And aside from a few large trees and the pretty Gilmore Lake along the way, the scenery wasn't that notable, or perhaps I just didn't notice because I couldn't take my eyes off the trail directly in front of me.
We briefly stopped along the shore at Gilmore Lake to take a few pics and give our legs a break.
Because this route was what it was, it was actually hard to for us to believe it was a designated means to and from Mt. Tallac, but the sign posts confirmed it. Given other alternatives, I honestly don't know why anyone would opt to take this route.
The most unique tree we've probably ever seen. My husband actually said he wondered if it was a redwood tree with burls.
This stretch of trail had dozens of clusters of bright orange berries. I fully expected to come upon a bear feasting on this treat.
While this never-ending trail of rocks labored on and on, the sun inched ever lower, taking the temperature with it, encroaching on the surrounding ridges that were fast becoming silhouettes. Slowly but surely, we crept closer and closer to the trailhead, but it couldn't come quickly enough. I was spent. Every bend in the trail I was hopeful the end was just out of sight. Then the trail transitioned to a rough road of rocks that eventually took us back out to the parking lot. Once we reached the parking lot, however, we had to walk a little ways farther along Glen Alpine Road to get back to the parked Jeep. Where I practically collapsed.
The saving grace after that tiresome six miles (over 10 miles in all with over 3,000 feet of gain) was getting to stop for pizza at our very favorite pizza place. And after all of that, I wasn't even that upset that we had to wait an hour for a table.