Standing on top of the world on Mt. Tallac

Photos & story by Jenn Sheridan · 

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Standing tall at 9,735 feet with a recognizable cross of snow defining its presence even after a dry winter, Mount Tallac is a must-do bucket list item. After a few years of living in Tahoe, it was about time that I tackled the hike, so on a recent Sunday afternoon I set out with Lisa Nigon with the goal of catching the sunset over the lake as we descended.

Mount Tallac is located in the southwest region of the Tahoe Basin. Driving on Highway 89 south from Tahoe City, look for the signs for Tallac Historic Site on the right side of the road. A paved, single-lane road will lead you to a parking area and self-service permit station for entering Desolation Wilderness.

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Snow Plants were in full bloom along the trail ·

The trail begins by meandering through the trees toward the base of Mount Tallac. Recent thunderstorms in the area meant everything was lush and green and the deep, woodsy scent refreshed the senses. Wildflowers and snow plants were in abundance throughout most of the hike. I’ve often wondered what family a snow plant actually falls into. Is it a flower or a fungus?

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Two hikers enjoy the views, which stretch for miles in every direction· 

I finally did some research and found that it’s more closely related to shrubs such as Manzanita, laurel and azaleas. More surprising to me is that the snow plant doesn’t have chlorophyll. It receives nutrients from a parasitic relationship with the fungi that grow in the roots of surrounding conifers. Don’t pick it or destroy it, however, as it’s protected by California law. But enough of being a plant nerd.

As the trail climbs, you’re greeted with the sights of Fallen Leaf Lake below and Lake Tahoe to the east.
You’ll reach Floating Island Lake, named for the large island of grass that floats around the lake, in 1.7 miles. The trail continues for another mile or so before reaching Cathedral Lake where hikers might catch a sight of the resident duck families.

This is roughly the halfway point to the summit of Tallac, but the next part of the hike is the most difficult. As the trail rises above the tree line it becomes a steady and demanding climb with little respite from direct sunlight. Take it slow and stop to enjoy a snack and take in the views as needed.

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From the summit, one can take in views of Lake Tahoe, Fallen Leaf Lake, South Lake Tahoe and Desolation Wilderness in one glance ·

The most difficult part of the trail follows several steep switchbacks up the wide cirque to the top of the ridge. Avoid the temptation to cut off the switchbacks and charge straight up the hill as this exerts unnecessary energy and erodes the trail.
Stop and congratulate yourself once you crest the ridgeline. The hard part is over. Here you are greeted not only with stunning views of Lake Tahoe to the east but the beautiful scenery of Desolation Wilderness opens up to the west with granite peaks and clear alpine lakes. I have to say that this hike is one of the most scenic adventures I have experienced in a long time, and that says a lot when you live here.

From here, it seems logical to follow the ridgeline to the peak to the north, but beware of the false summit. Instead, continue to follow the trail that meanders through the meadow before veering right into the trees. It may feel as though you’re heading away from the peak, but soon the trail will wrap back around and the true summit will come into view.

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Jenn and Lisa celebrate at the summit of Mount Tallac · 

Scramble the last few hundred feet to the top and take in the panoramic views from the top of the world. After another quick snack, we began the return trip enjoying the changing colors of the sky as the sun began to sink to the west. Although the descent was much less demanding than climbing Mount Tallac, it still took us more than two hours to get back to the car. We had packed headlamps just in case, but we were happy to make it back before dark.