Over the years I’ve hiked on the trail out of Echo Lakes about a half dozen times and each visit was memorable.
There was the backpack trip with my daughter when on the way back from Lake Aloha a lightning storm necessitated a mad dash to the Echo Lakes water taxi. Or Day 11 of a through hike around the Tahoe Rim Trail when the sandwich and ice cream I procured from the Echo Chalet felt like the greatest meal ever. And then there were those times while hiking the entire Tahoe Rim Trail that I stopped for glorious swims from Upper Echo Lake’s boat taxi dock that were the highlight of my day.
While my visits to Echo Lake have been part of epic journeys, this jaunt along the lakeshore also makes for a damn fine out-and-back 5-mile hike, or perhaps even better, a 2.5-mile hike followed by a boat ride back to the start.
Views of Lower Echo Lake, Ralston Peak and flagpole-topped Flagpole Peak open up quickly.
The Echo Lake/Pacific Crest Trail/Tahoe Rim Trail begins at the dam on Lower Echo Lake near the Echo Chalet store. A short climb leads to a switchback where there is a view with South Lake Tahoe in the background and the remains of the 2007 Angora Lake fire in the foreground. Ten years ago, it burned more than 200 homes and came fairly close to Echo Lakes. Fortunately, there is a huge band of granite between Echo Lakes and the fire. Speaking of granite, this place is a paradise for granite lovers. You will be walking on it for almost the entire hike.
Leaving the fire view, the trail traverses with gentle ups and downs along the granite slope. Views of Lower Echo Lake, Ralston Peak and flagpole-topped Flagpole Peak open up quickly. In addition to the spectacular natural surroundings, what make this hike special are the rustic and charming summer cabins scattered atop the granite. They make me feel as if I am in Tahoe 1940 instead of Tahoe 2017.
In about 2 miles the trail reaches the western edge of Lower Echo Lake where an especially gorgeous group of summer homes enjoy acres of smooth granite leading from cabin door to water’s edge. Now the trail makes the short jaunt over to Upper Echo Lake, where a half mile of walking brings you to a trail junction. Here those who are more ambitious can continue straight ahead for a half mile of rocky uphill to Tamarack Lake, just across the Desolation Wilderness boundary, or another 3 miles of steep rockiness to the shore of large, shallow and spectacular Lake Aloha. Those who are just in it for a short hike and the views, however, can turn left at this junction and take the quick jaunt to the shore of Upper Echo Lake where a pier and small beach awaits you.
At the pier you have two options. But first, give your brain a rest and get into Upper Echo Lake. Now, refreshed and lounging on the dock you can more effectively review your options: return the way you came for a 5-mile hike and swim or take the Echo Chalet water taxi back to the trailhead. The fare is $14 each way; a minimum of three people is needed to make the jaunt. The water taxi is a popular option, however. There are sure to be tired backpackers, who have been carrying big packs for miles through Desolation Wilderness, and will salivate at the thought of joining you in the boat.
The taxi not only cuts out the hike, but is also a fun jaunt over the water of the two lovely lakes. A narrow stream cuts between the two lakes and late in the season the water level in this connection can drop too low for travel. So, if the taxi is a requirement, you may want to call in advance to make sure the taxi is running. The resort closes around Labor Day, as well, so get out and do this hike and taxi now while you still can.
Once you return to the trailhead, try a sandwich and an ice cream at the Echo Chalet. While I can’t promise it will provide the satisfaction I received after hiking for 11 days, it will taste pretty fine on a warm Sierra day.
To get there
Lower Echo Lake sits at the top of Echo Summit. Take State Route 50 from South Lake Tahoe toward Sacramento. One mile past Echo Summit, turn right onto Johnson Pass Road. Take this road 0.6 mile to a junction, where you will turn left on Echo Lake’s Road. Follow it about a mile to a large parking lot that sits above the Echo Chalet. A wilderness permit is not necessary for the hike to the end of Lower Echo Lake. If you get adventurous and decide to head to Tamarack Lake or Lake Aloha, a Desolation Wilderness day-use permit needs to be picked up at the trailhead. For more information, visit echochalet.com.