Tucked high above South Lake Tahoe sits Freel Peak at 10,881 feet, Tahoe’s loftiest mountain. It’s mostly treeless top was originally known as Bald Mountain before being named after a settler named James Freel, who lived at its base.
A 10-mile roundtrip hike will take you to the top of this imposing edifice and while it will require 2,600 feet of climbing to reach the summit, you will most likely avoid a crowd. I climbed Freel on a recent August day and saw only 10 people all day. This is quite a contrast to other Tahoe area peaks, such as Mount Tallac, which hundreds summit daily.
There are several routes to the top of Freel Peak, but the easiest and most direct is the trail to Armstrong Pass that begins at the end of a 3.5-mile dirt road off Highway 89. From Meyers, take Highway 89 south toward lovely Hope Valley. At Luther Pass, the road starts a long descent. About halfway down the hill, take the only left turn and start up Forest Service Road 051. Although I was able to guide my Subaru Outback gingerly over the potholes, puddles and rocky sections of this dirt road, I would recommend against a low-clearance vehicle — unless you don’t like it much.
The trail passes purple lupines, ancient Junipers and giant Western white pines on decomposed granite.
The trailhead to Armstrong Pass is 3.5 miles from the highway. You take a bridge over a creek; parking is immediately on the left. The trail begins on an old dirt road that quickly crosses the creek via a wide footbridge and continues uphill for about a half mile. It then becomes single track that ascends steeply over a rushing brook to the Armstrong Pass/Tahoe Rim Trail junction, at about 1 mile from the parking lot.
Now get ready to climb 1,100 feet on the well-graded Tahoe Rim Trail for 3 miles to the Freel Saddle. It’s 1 mile to the Freel Summit from there — in which you will hike an additional 1,100 feet.
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On the way to the saddle, the trail passes purple lupines, ancient Junipers and giant Western white pines on decomposed granite. Higher up, Clark’s nutcrackers loudly caw and flap between the whitebark pines that are their habitat. The trail passes just below the craggy and fascinating white-granite face known as Fountain Face. You are treated to constant, jaw-dropping views of the Crystal Range in Desolation Wilderness. Along the route, there are several creek crossings where springs high up on Freel’s slope provide sustenance for luscious wildflower gardens.
Finally, several long switchbacks designed to ease the grade bring the trail to the saddle. Here, amidst rock formations, new views open to the north including a wide swath of Lake Tahoe. Just below a large snowfield sits, still deep in snow in mid-August.
Now begins the crux of this hike. The final attack on the summit. A few decades ago I hiked up this peak before the trail was built and it was quite the sandy slog. Now the trail wanders through the boulders and around the beaten-down whitebark pines to ease the grade somewhat, but it’s still pretty dang steep — and I’m older.
The last half-mile is a steady ascent across the open treeless bowl to the top. Even if the steepness of this last mile doesn’t slow you down, perhaps the thin air at 10,000 feet will.
From the top, to the north and west, almost all of Lake Tahoe unfolds below you, as well as a small glimmer of Star Lake, which lies about 2 miles of hiking from the Freel Saddle.
To the west, the full glory of Desolation Wilderness lies open to inspection. To the northeast, Jobs Peak sits on the other side of a smooth bowl. To the south are Hope Valley and the endless panoply of Sierra mountains in the distance horizon.
The summit is joy once you have conquered Tahoe’s highest peak; unfortunately, you will now have to defend your belongings from a vociferous gang of chipmunks. Arm yourself with handfuls of gravel to scare them off. Don’t aim for them; as they scurry under the rocks you might get a few precious minutes of peace before they make another foray for your pack.
Don’t feed the animals
For several years, Tahoe’s popular summits have become challenging places to have a quiet lunch because people have been feeding the rodents that are happy to receive handouts. Please, please, do not feed them.