I must admit I was feeling conflicted about writing an article about Fontanillis Lake. On the one hand, it’s my job to write about beautiful places to visit around Lake Tahoe. On the other hand, this is my favorite lake in the Desolation Wilderness and to be honest, what makes it so special is I can usually find quiet and solitude there. So, don’t tell anyone.
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Fontanillis Lake sits about 5 miles west of Emerald Bay, just to the north of Dicks Lake and about 1 mile southwest of Middle Velma Lake. It’s a long narrow lake surrounded by high granite walls with Dicks Peak towering high above. I’m not really sure if I could define why I love this place so much; there are a ton of beautiful lakes in Desolation Wilderness. Perhaps it’s just the perfect combination of rock, stunted trees and big mountain views. Or it could be that the water is crystal clear and icy cold — and several times while pondering these frigid waters I’ve witnessed an osprey diving down for a catch. But most likely it’s just that I’ve been visiting this lake for more than 30 years and it has a special place in my heart.
11 miles roundtrip | Strenuous
Reaching Fontanillis Lake
There are at least three ways to get to Fontanillis Lake. First, it’s located next to the Tahoe Rim Trail/Pacific Crest Trail. So if you happen to be heading north thru-hiking the 170-mile-long Tahoe Rim Trail or the 2,600-miles of Pacific Crest Trail, you will see it first from the top of Dicks Pass; a few miles later you will walk right along the lake’s shoreline. Also, you can take the Bayview Trail out of Emerald Bay or the Eagle Falls Trail also out of Emerald Bay.
Each of those meet up after about 2.8 miles of hiking from their respective trailheads. Either route is pretty darn steep, but the good news is that most of the climbing for the entire 5 miles to Fontanillis is done in the first half — about 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
Yep, this is no leisurely walk in the park. After the two trails combine, there is a pleasant mile of gentle up and down through the granite boulders to another junction. Along the way you get great shots of Mount Tallac. At the junction a right turn heads down to the popular and also quite beautiful Middle Velma Lake. But our trail heads left.
The trail then winds across a rocky flat before dropping down to the shore of an unnamed small lake that makes a great swimming spot and lunch break. There is a bit of smooth granite to lie on along its shore. In the fall, the mountain heather that surrounds the lake shines bright red. Past this shallow lake a steep climb up a slope begins, taking you over an area that holds snow well into the summer. Actually, this segment is easier over snow, which eliminates a number of rocky switchbacks.
The slope ends on a flat at a junction with the Tahoe Rim Trail. From here, a wonderfully added viewpoint option is staring at you to the north. Climb up that big knob of rock that towers above the slope you just hiked. It’s a bit of a scramble, but in about 5 minutes you are at the top and at one of my favorite views. There before you is Dicks Lake, Dicks Pass and Dicks Peak to the south. To the west below you is all of Fontanillis Lake. To the east and south: Middle and Upper Velma Lakes, Maggies Peaks and Lake Tahoe. Many years ago, I led a group of folks on a hike up this knob of rock. After they felt guilty for secreting used lunch bags and a couple of rocks into my backpack when I wasn’t looking, they christened it Tim’s Knob, which I think has a nice ring to it.
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Once you’ve had your fill of Tim’s Knob, you just have another mile or so back on the trail to Fontanillis Lake. First, you pass the quick spur trail to Dicks Lake and then shortly get to saunter next to Fontanillis’ shore, which you walk along for about a half mile. Be sure and stop and enjoy all the views and perhaps take a quick, very cold dip in her waters.
At the end of the lake you meet the outlet creek. Where several options await:
Option 1 | Turn around and hike back the way you came. This is an 11-mile roundtrip.
Option 2 | Follow the outlet creek down the granite slope to Upper Velma Lake, then make your way up the drainage to the little lake I talked about earlier, where you meet the trail back to Bayview. This route is a bit longer and involves some minor bushwhacking skills. But coming down the slope of the granite next to the swiftly moving stream could be the highlight of your trip.
Option 3 | Continue past Fontanillis 1 mile downhill through a deep forest to Middle Velma Lake, then follow that Velma Lake Trail back to the junction with the Dicks Lake Trail, where you retrace your steps to the trailhead. Expect a challenging crossing of the creek coming out of Upper Velma Lake that will become Eagle Falls.