Elizabeth and I spent Friday night at a motel in South Lake Tahoe. Delightfully, that meant that we could wake up late and get to the Mount Tallac trailhead by 9 o’clock. That certainly was much better than waking up at 5:30 in Walnut Creek only to get there at the same time!
We started hiking at 9:15. The day was warm and sunny and the mosquitoes from earlier in the summer were gone. We hiked through a forest of white fir (Abies concolor), Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi), and sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). We were on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, and the sagebrush in particular was evidence that we weren’t too far from the Great Basin.
We walked by Floating Island and Cathedral lakes, two small, pretty lakes that seemed to be destinations in themselves for many hikers. Beyond Cathedral Lake the trail climbed out of the forest and up a broad cirque on several rocky switchbacks. We’d had a wet spring and there were still large patches of snow next to the trail, one of which we had to hike around. The views behind us of Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe were excellent.
More switchbacks led us to the top of the cirque, where we were greeted by a fine view of the aptly named Crystal Range: shimmering granite peaks still striped with snow.
We turned north toward Mount Tallac. The trail meandered for a mile through flower-filled meadows broken by groves of ancient conifers. Here was an old western white pine (Pinus monticola) with thick, scaly bark; here a mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) with branches gracefully drooping at the tips; here lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta subsp. latifolia), denizen of high-elevation forests throughout western North America; here, at treeline, whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) and its attendant Clark’s nutcrackers (Nucifraga columbiana).
A four-foot tall pile of rocks marked the trail leading to the summit. The path wove through big, dark, shattered rocks, but it was so well-worn that we climbed largely without needing our hands for balance.
Within minutes we were on the summit. Before I describe the views, let me say that it was packed. I’d never seen so many people on a peak: families, friends, children, dogs—everyone was there enjoying the excellent weather.
We saw Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay, and South Lake Tahoe. The sky was remarkably clear, revealing crisp outlines of distant peaks. The only clouds were a few puffy white ones on the southern horizon.
We were going to spend the night in South Lake Tahoe again, so without a long drive home to think about, we wiled away our time on the summit, eating and enjoying the view. Resident critters scurried around visiting hikers, hoping for food in the form of handouts or carelessness.
I took out my camera and took pictures of them.
Golden-mantled ground squirrels (Spermophilus lateralis) popped onto the rocks, standing on their hind legs to scan the summit for any offered or neglected bits of food.
There were even a couple of yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris)—or maybe there was just one that kept disappearing into the rocks and reappearing somewhere else—I couldn’t tell.
We cruised through the meadows and then down the cirque, soaking up views the entire way. Next to a stream, from an unseen spot in the dense vegetation, came the low booming of a sooty grouse (Dendragapus fuliginosus). We took a pleasant break at Cathedral Lake then went on to finish at 5:15, 8 hours after we started.
The drive to our motel was only 10 minutes. I could get used to this.