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Since I’m not a skier and prefer avoiding crowds, spring and fall are my favorite times to visit South Lake Tahoe to hike myriad trails and soak in expansive views. If you are game for a strenuous hike with inspiring vistas, I highly recommend the Mt Tallac hike in Lake Tahoe. Make the most of your time on the Mt Tallac trail with my 10 essential planning tips.
After spending time in South Lake Tahoe, continue your California adventures in ten gold rush towns, including Murphys and Oakhurst, which offer delectable food, unique wines and outdoor adventures in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Mt Tallac Hike details:
- Distance: 10.5 miles (16.9 km) round-trip day hike. The Mt Tallac hike took us nine hours due to frequent stops for pictures and a slow descent after I tweaked my knee.
- Mt Tallac Elevation: 3500 ft (1067 meters) elevation gain to the Mount Tallac summit at 9735 feet (2967 meters)
- Permits: Wilderness permit required (see below for details)
- Best timing for Mount Tallac Trail: June-September
- Sights along the way:
- Lake Tahoe
- Fallen Leaf Lake
- Floating Island Lake – 1.7 miles (2.7 km) one-way
- Cathedral Lake – 2.3 miles (3.7 km) one-way
- Desolation Wilderness views
- Check fire danger levels via Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit
- All Trails – I love this app for its helpful trail guides
- Please Respect California, pack out all your trash, and preserve our remarkable outdoor offerings
1. Stay at Camp Richardson to get an early start on the Mt Tallac hike
Located only six minutes from the Mt Tallac trailhead, Camp Richardson offers lakefront cabins nestled amongst the trees. With two bedrooms (each with a double and single bed) plus a pullout couch, the Fleetwood cabin sleeps eight people. Cabin sizes vary and accommodate two to eight guests. Relish the South Lake Tahoe views and enjoy meals or game nights from your indoor dining table or outdoor picnic table.
Chill your snacks and water in the fridge and reheat food on the gas stove or in the microwave. A gas fireplace keeps the cabin temperature cozy on cooler nights.
TOP TIP: Since the fireplace and heaters are in the living area, be sure to keep your bedroom door open to stay toasty at night. After mistakenly closing my door, I awoke shivering in the middle of the night.
2. Witness sunrise at Emerald Bay before the Mt Tallac hike
Head to Emerald Bay and watch as sunrise bathes the trees and Fannette Island in golden light. Look closely and you can see the teahouse that sits atop the island, erected by Lora Knight in the 1920s. She also built Vikingsholm Castle, a 38-room mansion as her summer home.
FUN FACT: Fannette Island is the only island in Lake Tahoe.
3. Grab breakfast, lunch and snacks for the Mt Tallac hike at Alpina Coffee Café
Alpina Coffee Café is the perfect spot to carb and protein load prior to setting out for the Mount Tallac hike. My customized, behemoth breakfast sandwich, with eggs, pepper jack cheese and spinach on a hearty jalapeno cheese bagel, satiated me until lunch on the Mt Tallac summit at 3:30. Breakfast burritos, French toast and waffles are also offered. If you are visiting in the fall, treat yourself to an apple cider while relaxing by the fire in their comfortable chairs.
Their grilled veggie flatbread Panini proved to be the perfect companion for the hike as it didn’t get mushy (which I loathe!). Alpina’s blueberry crumble bar is mouth-watering. This well-deserved reward boosted my energy after we came down from hiking Mount Tallac.
4. Secure a permit for the Mt Tallac hike
Before setting out on the Mount Tallac trail, make sure you get a wilderness permit. Day hikers can obtain the free permit at the trailhead. If you will be camping and staying overnight, you must secure an overnight permit for Desolation Wilderness in advance from the Visitor Center or Forest Service Ranger Stations. The cost is $5 per person for the first two nights.
5. Get an early start for the Mount Tallac hike
Since this is a popular trail, opting for an early start is important for two reasons. The Mt Tallac trailhead parking lot holds only 12 cars and fills up, especially on the weekends. If the lot is full, you’ll have to park along the road and add more distance to an already grueling day.
TOP TIP: Make sure to check Mount Tallac weather forecasts before you head out to try and avoid any heavy winds or afternoon storms.
Given how exposed you are heading towards the summit, Mt Tallac weather is an important consideration. On the day I hiked in October, winds were so fierce that I seriously considered turning back after crossing the talus field as I worried about getting knocked off my feet.
6. Bring plenty of water for the Mt Tallac hike
Since you’ll gain 3500 ft in elevation during the strenuous 10.5 mile hike, make sure you are prepared with plenty of water. We saw people with only a small 16 oz bottle of water, which is not sufficient for this grueling hike. I opted for two 32 oz Nalgene bottles on the side of my bag.
If I had room in my camera backpack, I would have brought my 3 liter/100 ounce Camelback to easily rehydrate during this exposed hike. If you don’t want to carry all your water with you, you can use a water filter or SteriPen to refill at Floating Island Lake (1.7 miles in) or Cathedral Lake (2.3 miles in).
TOP TIP: If you are planning to refill along the way, know that Cathedral Lake is the last source for water on the Mt Tallac hike.
Shortly after leaving this lake, you’ll emerge from tree cover and be exposed the rest of the uphill push, ascending 3000 feet over the next three miles.
7. Use hiking poles and hiking boots to stabilize your knees and ankles
Hiking poles are KEY for the Mt Tallac hike. While I didn’t use them until three miles in, they helped me stay balanced while traversing the scree (loose rock) area.
TOP TIP: Use the poles to test rock stability before stepping on them.
Since high school soccer took a toll on my knees and ankles, wobbly rocks are my nemesis while hiking. Hiking boots with ankle support are also beneficial. Not only do they shield you from sharp rocks, but they also protect your ankles from rolling too much on the unstable and varied surfaces.
8. Pack layers and waterproof gear for the Mount Tallac Trail
Whenever heading out for a long hike, I make sure I’m prepared for inclement weather. Given that weather in the mountains can be unpredictable, make sure you have:
- Quick dry/wicking: Shirt & pants
- Insulating layers: Fleece jacket & down jacket
- Waterproof/windproof layers: Jacket & pants
- Head & hand protection: Wool beanie & thin gloves
- Sun protection: 50 SPF Sunscreen, wide brimmed hat with a neck strap & Buff
Without a neck strap, the FIERCE winds would have ripped my hat from my head and sent it tumbling within the first hour of the hike. The relentless winds also resulted in significant windburn that fortunately resolved by the next morning. While many people on the trail wore baseball hats, I don’t feel they adequately protect my fair skin from the harsh sunrays, especially at altitude.
- Headlamp: Even if I’m hiking in the middle of the day, I always have this with me. It’s helpful for signaling in case of emergency and also important if returning after sunset. Due to my knee issue, we descended the last hour in the dark, so this aided with seeing turns and obstacles on the trail.
- Portable charger – If you are using your phone for pictures, videos or navigating with All Trails, having a backup battery charger is helpful.
- TOP TIP: Since there is no cell service during the hike, turn off cellular so that your phone isn’t searching and running your battery down.
9. Expect false summits on the Mt Tallac hike
Crossing the scree field is a bit tricky as the trail route isn’t marked with orange blazes. Following other hikers is the easiest way to navigate for both ascent and descent. Be aware that this area can be SUPER windy since it’s so exposed. Once you get across the uneven rocks, you’ll ascend over a ridge, thinking you’ve summited.
Nope! The trail levels out into an alpine meadow with some trees shading you and continues with gorgeous views of Desolation Wilderness and a lake in the distance.
Push on for another 30 minutes to the summit and astonishing views of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake.
10. Reward yourself with dinner and a South Lake Tahoe sunset view
After burning major calories, treat yourself to dinner at Artemis Lakefront Café. Refuel and warm up with their Mediterranean offerings including hummus, warm lentil soup and a falafel wrap.
TOP TIP: If you arrive in time, head to the lakefront just outside the restaurant and watch the sunset and reflections on Lake Tahoe. Make sure you have a hat and gloves as we were FREEZING while photographing sunset in October’s 30-degree temperatures.
If you are craving Thai food, I highly recommend Orchid Thai.
TOP TIP: Order the pumpkin curry, which is flavorful without setting your mouth on fire and has generous amounts of pumpkin.
After hiking in South Lake Tahoe, journey an hour to the West to start your exploration of Gold Rush towns in Placerville. Alternatively, head two and a half hours south to discover Murphys, a charming gold rush town in the Sierra Nevada foothills with an impressive wine tasting and foodie scene.