October 20, 2011, Mt. Tallac Trail, Desolation Wilderness
The final day of my 3-day Lake Tahoe/Hope Valley/Mt. Tallac Autumn Color Photo Safari was devoted to finally making it to the top of Mt. Tallac (9735′). Starting from the Mt. Tallac trailhead near the west shore of Lake Tahoe, this was my third attempt. Last summer, during my first try, I got off to a later than prudent start and got a little more than half-way up the 5-mile (10 miles roundtrip) trail before the skies grew threatening. From past experiences on Mt. Whitney, I’ve learned that being in the wilds during a thunderstorm is a frightening adventure so I retreated. Even so, I hiked the last mile in a driving rain and was practically sprinting to my truck the last quarter mile.
Earlier this year, in late June, I tried again. The record snowpack and cold spring temperatures meant that much of the trail above 8,000′ was still covered in snow. I even ran into some patches early on, before Floating Island Lake and as I approached Cathedral Lake, the trail became even harder to follow, at times. Photo below is from the June 30th hike. The pictured section is from about 1/2 a mile before reaching Cathedral Lake.
Aside from the hard to follow trail, it was a glorious day to hike. Between the lakes, I met up with a couple of other hikers and between the three of us, we were able to team up to find where the trail continued. I had anticipated the trail being under a generous amount of snow and rented snowshoes from REI. Nevertheless, once I got to Cathedral Lake, the trail got much steeper and I seemed to be the only one pressing onward. With the snowfields getting thicker and the unfamiliar trail becoming even harder to follow, I decided against continuing. I did not want to be one of those people you read about or hear on the 6 o’clock news that needs rescuing after getting lost and surviving on lichens and roasted squirrels for 5 days.
On my most recent hike, the conditions were perfect. A crisp autumn morning to start, no threat of storms, and a clear trail.
Admittedly, while I’ve hiked quite a bit since my Mt. Whitney attempt in early August, I was not in peak condition and I underestimated the difficulty of the hike. Since I’d been in the mountains for a couple of days before the hike, the altitude wasn’t much of an issue. The trail, when clear, is relatively easy for the first 2 or 3 miles. Past Cathedral Lake, however, the trail becomes much steeper.
Once past Cathedral Lake, the trail climbs dramatically through alpine forest, aspens groves, and up a series of switchbacks. At the top of the switchbacks, the trail came to a plateau and was exposed to a welcome stiff breeze from the open wilderness to the west. The view became more expansive and I was afforded a breathtaking view of the Desolation Wilderness.
From the plateau, it was another mile and a half (approx.) to the summit of Mt. Tallac. As I said, I was in better condition a couple of months ago, but eventually I got to the top and was treated to a panoramic view of Lake Tahoe, Fallen Leaf Lake, Desolation Wilderness and surrounding areas.
After a 20 minute break to enjoy the view and eat some lunch, I descended along the same trail. As always, it’s a different experience when you’re walking downhill and not gasping for breath. This late in the season, there aren’t the abundance of wildflowers that I found in August and September, but I did find a few near patches of snow at around 9,000′.
I was tired during the last couple of miles, but I was still cognizant of the beauty that surrounded me. There was also a touch of sadness and melancholy, knowing that this was likely my last Sierra hike for the season.