This was kind of an exploratory hike. I tend to use the “exploratory” designation when I don’t quite complete what I hoped to on my hike, or I know I’ll plan to return later for a more extensive hike. In this case, I did successfully hike to the Five Lakes Basin above Alpine Meadows, but I only found two of the five lakes. I then continued to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail and explored a relatively short distance in both directions, about 1.2 miles of the PCT. I plan to return to this area perhaps three more times: once to find the other three lakes; once to hike south on the PCT to the Ward Peak area, where I previously hiked from Barker Pass; and once to hike north on the PCT toward Granite Chief, where I was hoping to hike the day following this hike.
The GPS track shows, as usual, my complete route including explorations and detours. The orange dot marks the trailhead along Alpine Meadows Rd. In addition to the PCT explorations at the lower left, the track shows another exploration near the largest of the five lakes. I’ll mention more about this detour later.
For information about the hike I referred to Mike White’s book, Lake Tahoe Top Trails. The basic hike to the Five Lakes Basin is rated as moderate. It is about a 1000-foot climb in 2 miles to get to the side trail to the largest lake. Some of the trail is a bit technical, but this is offset by the relatively modest distance.
The entire hike is within the Tahoe National Forest, and a portion of it is in the Granite Chief Wilderness. Hiking this trail highlights how closely related the Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley resorts are, geographically. The hike begins on the road to Alpine Meadows, has great views of the beautiful mountain backdrop (Alpine’s so-called front side), and features views of the adjacent parts of the Squaw Valley resort.
About 0.4 miles from the trailhead is a beautiful view of the Alpine Meadows front-side mountains. There had been some snowfall a couple of weeks prior: enough to look pretty on north- and east-facing slopes, but the trail itself was clear.
As the trail continues, the rock formations farther up the hillside are quite spectacular.
There is a set of stairs about 0.8 mile from the trailhead. About 0.3 mile later the trail passes by a row of lift towers. Since they look new, rather than abandoned, and they follow a route between Alpine and Squaw, I wonder if a new connecting lift is under construction.
Although a short section of the lower trail is in forest, most of the trail up to the Five Lakes Basin is along an exposed hillside, or more like a rock wall, with only scattered trees and occasional low ground cover. Here is a beautiful isolated tree uphill from the trail.
This view was about 1.2 miles from the trailhead. The steep, rocky hillside prompted me to wonder how in the world the trail would get to the top of the valley. Actually, if you look carefully, you can see the trail snaking along and up the valley wall, starting at the lower right of the picture.
There is one particular section that climbs up bare rock in a little gully. Yes, this is the trail; there is a hairpin turn at the small wall visible near the top of the picture.
Just past this steep area there are several unusual tower-like rock formations. I’m not sure what they should be called; they are not quite hoodoos, or pinnacles, or tors – perhaps spires? though their tops are rather rounded. Anyway, I thought they were quite striking.
As the trail gets closer to the lip of the Five Lakes Basin it passes below the legendary KT-22 peak. The story behind the name goes something like this: in 1946, before any lifts had been built, the wife of the owner of the Squaw Valley property hiked up to this peak and, while skiing down, needed to make 22 kick-turns. This is the back side of KT-22.
Just past the Granite Chief Wilderness boundary there is a very short use trail to the first of the five lakes. There was a little bit of snow about 10 yards off-trail near this junction. Since tree trunks can be seen on the lake bottom, this is apparently a fairly shallow lake, or perhaps it is extra shallow due to the current drought conditions. The peak that’s barely visible in the background would be visible at other locations on the hike. I think it is an unnamed peak at the north end of a mile-long ridge that runs slightly west of north from Ward Peak. For lack of a better name, I’ll call it Ward Peak neighbor.
Just about 0.1 mile past the use trail to the first lake is a signed junction with a trail leading to the heart of the Five Lakes Basin and the largest of the lakes, where I stopped for a break. This junction was the highest elevation on my hike.
As it happens, I had hiked up to this area some 7 years ago. It had been so long that I forgot that I actually got to one of the lakes, though this is the easiest to find since there is signage and a clear trail. I found this picture when I checked my archives. Even though that hike was a month earlier in the Fall, there was more early snow that year. Also, the surface of the lake was calmer. Clearly I took both pictures from the same location on the lake shore!
As I ate my sandwich I noticed several mallards swimming around and enjoying the lake.
As it turns out, the map in my reference book draws the trails in a different configuration from what I experienced. As a result of that difference I continued along the side trail for perhaps 0.3 mile past my lunch stop before I decided that it was taking me in the wrong direction to go to other lakes in the basin. I turned around and retraced my path to the original signed junction. After my hike I realized that other maps show different trail configurations in the basin. Some other time I’ll return, perhaps with someone who knows how to find the other 3 lakes!
At the signed junction I continued toward the Pacific Crest Trail, about 0.7 miles farther and after a gentle 150-foot descent. The PCT junction is a T. I was hoping to have enough time to explore both directions from this junction and still return to the trailhead before dark. First I turned left, which is south on the PCT even though the trail goes almost due east. I knew that there were switchbacks coming soon, so I decided to turn around at the first one, which was only about 0.25 mile past the junction. As I returned, I happened to notice a stalk of flowers, well past their prime but not yet having lost their petals. They were striking because of the backlighting by the sun.
At the T junction I continued straight, to explore the PCT in the “logical north” direction, which is actually southwest. I was expecting another junction about 0.9 miles away, and only had enough time to go that far. This section of trail passes below Squaw Peak, and there were glimpses of ski area features, such as the top of one of the lifts. At the junction the Whiskey Creek Trail goes to Whiskey Creek Camp. I turned around and retraced my path to the trailhead without further detours or explorations.
Along the next section of trail I had almost continuous views of “Ward Peak neighbor,” which I had first noticed at the first of the Five Lakes. It was interesting to see the same peak from different angles and to note that there was a snowy side and a bare side, which made it easy to see the changing perspective.
As I left the Five Lakes Basin and started down the 1000-foot hill, the rock faces and formations had warm hues in the late afternoon sun. Here is one place, about a mile from the trailhead, where there are darker and lighter rocks and a few colorful bushes near the trail.
There were also occasional views of more distant hills, possibly the Carson Range farther to the east.
I had been paying particular attention to the time during my hike, since sundown always seems to come earlier than expected in November. (It was just a week after the end of Daylight Savings Time.) I was surprised to encounter several people heading up the trail within the last mile or so. I even asked one couple how far they planned to go, and they said “just to the end of the trail,” which meant to Five Lakes. There was only so much I could say to them about earlier sunset – in fact, the sun had already set behind the hills and it was more like dusk. I hope they were properly equipped to descend that steep gully safely. In any case, although I arrived back at my car about a half hour before the nominal sunset time, it was definitely getting darker and I was glad to be off the trail safely.
I look forward to return to this pretty trail to complete the nearby sections of the PCT and to find the remaining three lakes I haven’t yet found.