Echo Lakes Gateway to Desolation Wilderness

Homes dot the shorelines of Lower Echo Lake.

There are many spectacular hikes in the Tahoe Sierra, but the trail to Lower and Upper Echo Lakes is the only one I’m aware of that offers water taxi service if you want to shave nearly 3 miles off your approach toward Desolation Wilderness or if you’re just bone tired on the way back and want a quick nautical lift to the car.

The taxi can deliver you to the far end of Upper Echo Lake and back again, but the service runs only from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The hike is 4.9 miles roundtrip if you skip the taxi.

The trailhead for these two beautiful lakes starts at the Echo Chalet west of Echo Summit on U.S. Route 50, about 10 miles south of South Lake Tahoe. Driving west on U.S. Route 50, just past the summit make a right turn onto Johnson Pass Road and follow signs to Echo Chalet. Park at the upper lot and walk down to the pier and boating area to the trailhead just past the dam. You’ll pass by the chalet’s family-owned grocery store with friendly staff. The trail is dog friendly, but pets should be on a leash, especially on entering Desolation Wilderness.

This moderate hike above the shoreline of Lower and Upper Echo Lakes starts at 7,525 feet above sea level but climbs only a few hundred feet up and down the first 3 miles, the approximate distance to the far end of Upper Echo Lake and the border with Desolation Wilderness. The two lakes are connected by a narrow water channel that may be closed to small boat traffic during low-water conditions. These small alpine reservoirs are popular with fishermen, boaters, kayakers and swimmers; numerous summer cottages have sprouted along the shorelines of both.

Hiking along the shoreline of Lower Echo Lake.

For those with the time and energy, from the trailhead at Lower Echo Lake it’s about 6 miles one way to Lake Aloha, a popular destination for day hikers and backpackers. Aloha is a dammed, shallow lake speckled with small granite-rock features that may shrink or expand based on drought conditions and time of year.

A wilderness permit is required to visit Lake Aloha because Desolation Wilderness is the most-used wilderness area per acre in the United States. During the summer, a quota system is in effect to disperse backpackers and campers throughout the 64,000 acres with wilderness designation, which must be obtained in advance. Day-use permits for hikers are available at the Echo Lakes trailhead. The Tahoe Rim Trail also intersects this trailhead and if you’re really ambitious, a 48-mile trek will get you to Tahoe City.

The well-maintained trail to Upper Echo Lake meanders along glaciated granite worn smooth in the last ice age, past stunted juniper pine and Western red cedar trees. A variety of wildflowers add splashes of color in season, but on calm summer afternoons temperatures can really warm up on sections of the trail with little opportunity for shade. During winter months, this area is popular with snowshoers and cross-country skiers who have obtained a permit for the Echo Lake Sno-Park parking area between Sierra-at-Tahoe and Echo Summit on U.S. Route 50.

High above Echo Lakes looms 9,239-feet-tall Ralston Peak, which beckons adventurous hikers searching for a high-altitude, birds-eye view of Lake Tahoe, Echo Lakes, Lake Aloha and many prominent Sierra peaks. Ralston Peak can also be accessed off of U.S. Route 50 near Sierra-at-Tahoe, but that thigh-burner trail is steep with significant elevation gain.

The water taxi at Echo Lakes.

The mountain is named for William Ralston, founder of the Bank of California, a San Francisco-based institution that utilized its business agent William Sharon to good effect. Sharon was the bank’s shrewd and ruthless representative that used unscrupulous tactics to gain control of some of the best producing mines in operation on Nevada’s Comstock Lode during the 1860s and 1870s. The day after Ralston bankrupted his own bank with reckless speculation in mining stocks and expensive real-estate developments, he died during his daily swim in San Francisco Bay, the result of either stroke or suicide.

Carry cash for the water taxi, which is $14 per person and $5 per dog, with a three-person minimum. There’s a phone to call for the taxi, but you’ll need a credit card to use the payphone if the phone isn’t working. Water taxi (530) 659-7207. | echochalet.net