Prior to the 2015 hiking season there was a gap in the immediate Lake Tahoe area of my hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail. During the 2015 hiking season I was able to fill in most of the gap, which was from Ward Peak to Tinker Knob. In 2014 I’d hiked north from the junction near Twin Peaks to where the trail passes just west of Ward Peak. And in 2011 I’d hiked south from the Donner Summit area to Tinker Knob. Since the publication of Wild by Cheryl Strayed I have had increased interest in tracking my PCT mileage and filling in gaps where I can. Earlier in 2015 I had hiked between the Granite Chief Trail, near Squaw Valley, and Tinker Knob.
Along the route of this hike there are many places where the area around the trail is quite open, and as a result the views of the Pacific Crest and surrounding Granite Chief Wilderness are, in a word, iconic. In addition, the weather on the day of my hike was beautifully clear: a perfect day for what turned into an 18-mile hike!
My plan was to hike to the PCT from Alpine Meadows Rd on Five Lakes Trail, go south to my 2014 turnaround point near Ward Peak, then go north as far as was reasonable (about 6 miles), and finally return down Five Lakes Trail. The route is shown on the GPS track, with the orange dot denoting the Alpine Meadows Rd trailhead. On the return trip I made a short detour to explore the Five Lakes area.
The trail passes through Tahoe National Forest, mostly in the Granite Chief Wilderness and completely within Placer County. From Alpine Meadows Road the Five Lakes Trail climbs 1000 feet to the PCT. The rest of the elevation profile is a little complicated to sort out because of the T shape to the route, but hopefully will be clear as I describe the hike. The total climb was slightly over 3600 feet.
Five Lakes Trail climbs steadily from the trailhead on Alpine Meadows Rd, topping out 2 miles later, at just over 7500 feet elevation, before a gentle descent into the Five Lakes Basin. Along the way, about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail enters the Granite Chief Wilderness. Near the top of the climb there is a nice view of a rocky ridge that overlooks the Alpine Meadows ski area.
On the hillside above the trail, actually on the flank of Squaw Valley’s famed KT-22, there are interesting rock formations.
After traversing the Five Lakes Basin and side trails to the lakes, the trail reaches a T junction with the PCT. Near this junction and elsewhere along the trail I noted several checkermallow (Sidalcea glaucescens) wildflowers still in bloom. I had not realized before that there are some flowers in this genus that bloom into the early fall.
At the PCT junction I turned left to hike south. After crossing Five Lakes Creek, with remnants of corn lily (Veratrum californicum) plants nearby, the trail climbs 1000 feet via switchbacks to 8400 feet elevation. Some of the trees on the hillside displayed interesting patterns: trunks with a bend near the base, and a moss line, denoting typical winter snow depth, several feet up the trunk from the base.
While climbing the switchbacks I encountered a group of 6 or 7 young (twenty-something) mountain bikers, which startled me since they were not supposed to be there. I mentioned to the lead biker that I thought mountain bikes weren’t allowed on the trail, and he glibly replied that they are allowed every Sunday (obviously, it was a Sunday). I knew that was false but decided not to escalate the encounter into a confrontation. What a shame that some trail users choose to flaunt regulations that are intended to ensure that the trail remains available to users over the long term. Specifically, in federally designated Wilderness areas, as well as on the entire PCT, all motorized and wheeled vehicles are forbidden.
There were also nice views to the northeast across the valley in which Five Lakes Creek runs toward Squaw Peak.
After reaching 8400 feet elevation the trail has only gentle elevation changes over the next 1.3 miles or so until I reached the turnaround point for my previous hike from the south. Shortly after reaching this section of trail there is a brief but spectacular view of Lake Tahoe some 2000 feet below.
The trail follows the ridge line and, half a mile later, is just below and west of the top of one of Alpine Meadows’ ski lifts. This is the view looking north along the ridge. The fence at the left defines the ski area boundary.
Although there is relatively little vegetation on this ridge I did find a bright red plant, presumably in fall coloration.
For the next mile there are frequent northward views toward the ridge line that extends west from Granite Chief. Distinctive Needle Peak is in the center of the picture, between Granite Chief on the right and Lyon Peak just left of Needle Peak.
About 3.2 miles past Five Lakes Trail is the location of the turnaround point of my 2014 hike from Twin Peaks. I stopped for a short break before returning toward the junction. With my back to Ward Peak, I had a wonderful view westward into the Granite Chief Wilderness.
After returning to the T junction I took another short break and continued hiking north. I was planning to go past the Whiskey Creek Trail junction at about 1 mile, to the next junction 2 miles farther. In this section of the PCT the terrain is a bit different from the previous section: always changing, and always beautiful.
The first mile is a 300-foot descent along Five Lakes Creek toward Whiskey Creek. About halfway along I noticed an interesting rock formation: a smaller rock balanced on a larger rock. It seemed amazing that the smaller rock had not tumbled to the ground!
After reaching the junction with the Whiskey Creek Trail I continued north on the PCT. While still in the low-elevation section of the trail there was a pretty view to the south or southwest into the Granite Chief Wilderness. Mount Mildred is not far away, but I can’t specifically identify it in the picture.
The trail follows Whiskey Creek for about 0.4 mile. In this wetter area there was pretty bracken (Pteridium) along with other moisture-loving plants. Some of the plants, like the bracken, were still green but others (e.g. thistles and bistort, I believe) had entered the fall-winter dormant season.
In this area the PCT is also passing to the southwest of Squaw Peak, some 1500 feet above the trail.
There were a few exceptionally large trees, such as this one. My hiking poles serve as a rough ruler: the trunk’s diameter was at least 2 meters. The base of the tree reminded me of a giant elephant’s foot, probably because of the pattern of the “toes” and the texture of the bark.
Occasionally I encountered a bit of fall color, contrasting nicely with the evergreens.
Not far away there was a pretty, open meadow, which most likely is colorful with wildflowers in the spring. There is a nice stretch of trail that traverses the edge of the meadow, where I found a few blossoms of mariposa lilies (Calochortus) that had become translucent as they dried.
About 3.1 miles past the Five Lakes Trail I reached a junction signed Tevis Trail, and I turned around there after yet another short break. When I plan to approach the same location later from the other direction, as I do in this case, I prefer to turn around at a marked trail junction or other distinctive location. After returning to Five Lakes Trail I turned left to return to the trailhead.
As I approached Five Lakes I decided that I had enough energy and daylight to do a brief exploration of some of the lakes. On previous hikes I had only found two of the five lakes, though I know the others are not far away. This time I followed a social trail to the smaller of the lakes I’d previously found, about 0.1 mile off the main trail. I think the peak in the background is KT-22.
The same social trail led quickly to another lake, which I’m sure I had not found on any previous exploration in the basin. The surface of this lake was even calmer than the first lake.
I decided that I needed to respect the time of day and return to the trailhead, still a 45-minute hike away. I’m sure I will return other times and continue to see if I can find all 5 lakes! I will also return later to fill in the 2½ mile PCT gap to Granite Chief Trail.