What's the perfect starter hike? Not too long, not too strenuous, with nice scenery and a lake at the end of it. And close enough to the car that if things get really crazy, you can just hike out and go home. Here are a few that are just right for your first backpacking trip in the Sierra.
Caribou Wilderness: Loads of hikes and loads of lakes in this small wilderness just east of Lassen. We hiked from Caribou Lake to Triangle Lake, then down to Long Lake, around the Posey Lake Loop, and back to Caribou Lake in three relatively easy days, and we saw at least twenty lakes in the twenty-three miles of that hike. A peaceful and beautiful area--although we've been told that early in the season the bugs here are murder.
The Lassen Hiking Association has just about the best maps we've ever seen for hiking in any area: clear, comprehensive, and easy to print out. Check them out here: http://lassenhiking.org/
Here is a photo of Long Lake.
And here is a blog post trip report: https://sites.google.com/site/backpackthesierra/home/our-blog/caribouwildernesslandolakes
Grouse Ridge: Off Highway 20 near Donner Pass, this is a great trailhead with a ton of lakes as potential destinations. And the best part of this hike is that the first two miles are downhill. The only real uphill is on the way back out, when your packs are much lighter! From the Grouse Ridge campground and fire lookout, you can select which lake you’d like to visit. Then hike down to the lakes, keeping your eye out for good campsites. This can be as short as a two or three mile hike for an overnight, or you can visit a few lakes over the course of a few days. Glacier Lake, at the eastern end, is lovely, but there are plenty more to choose from. And fishing is quite good in this area, for rainbows and browns. 4-10 miles depending on destination.
Lyons Lake: In the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe, this five-mile hike has a couple of steep pitches (including the last half-mile before the lake) but gets a lot less traffic than most other destinations in Desolation. Lake Silvia is more or less on the way, but usually more crowded. Take the time and trouble to climb the extra half-mile to Lyons, and you won’t regret it. There are nice brook trout in the lake, and some nice campsites scattered around. You can easily do this in an afternoon, after driving from the Bay Area. And the peak west of the Lake is a fairly easy climb if you stay west of the crest all the way to the top. That makes this a two or three-day trip. 11 miles rt.
Clark Fork: In the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, this hike leaves from the Clark Fork trailhead off Highway 108 east of Pinecrest. You hike through some lovely forest, clamber across a stream, and then face a short but steep climb to the top of a pretty waterfall. Head upstream for a series of nice campsites on the Clark Fork of the river. This was our first pack trip together, so it has some fond memories for us. There are some nice brookies in the river, and you can day hike further up the river—all the way to St. Mary’s Pass, if you want to work long and hard. We were the only people in the valley here for two days: just us and the local cows on the range. about 12 miles rt.
Lost Lake and Sword Lake: We took this trip in June of 2010, a snowy year that meant many other trails would be covered with snow or under water. So was this one. But the hike is still great. In fact, it's probably better when the conditions are a little difficult. The trail is easy enough from the County Line trailhead that it can get overrun in the middle of summer. But with the late snows, we had to break our trail from the Wheat's Meadow trailhead, and we had the place to ourselves. The first two miles were a simple climb up and over the ridge, and then two miles of wandering up the Dardanelles Creek watershed in the snow. The trail was either under snow or under water, but we managed to navigate with map, compass, and a lot of stopping and looking around. Once you're there, the lakes offer amazing views--we camped on the western rim of Lost Lake, and admired the views of Spicer, the Dardanelles, and the rest of this part of the Sierra. Definitely one to keep in the back of your mind. And did we mention that nobody else was there? Try that in the middle of summer! 10 miles rt.
Bear Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness: From the trail head at Crabtree Cabin, behind Dodge Ridge, this is a nice five mile hike that is easy to get to, easy to hike, and has both fine fishing and lovely scenery! The downside? Yeah, you will probably be joined by more than a few people, especially on the weekends. But you can always keep going--there are campsites along the creek above Bear Lake (No camping allowed at Camp Lake...go figure!) or go cross country following the cairns and plastic ribbons up the ridge to Granite Lake. Or follow the creek up to Y Meadow Dam Lake. Or...this is a great place to explore! Whatever you do, don't miss the view on this trail. When you get to the trail junction at top of the ridge, walk 100 yards or so down the trail towards Grouse Lake...and the whole Emigrant Basin opens up in front of you. 10 miles rt.
Lake Eleanor from Cherry Lake: It's always hard to pick the perfect destination for a spring hike---especially considering the weather can change pretty quickly. But this hike works well, because it's at a lower elevation, and later in the summer it is too crowded to be much fun. That's because during the summer, this is a very short hike, (the road across the Cherry Lake dam is open), and you can drive to within about a mile of Lake Eleanor--or even within 200 yards of the Lake Eleanor dam. But before Memorial Day, you have to hike from the near end of the Cherry Lake Dam, and so the hike is closer to six or seven miles, round trip.
Lake Eleanor is a great destination early in the year---because there AREN'T that many people willing to make the hike. That's Lake Eleanor at left, in mid-May of 2011, which was a very snowy year. And yes, the next day it snowed six inches right here--just enough to worry the mosquitoes.
Polly Dome Lakes, Yosemite: Don’t be misled by the maps. The trail to these lakes is impossible to miss, even though it isn’t marked on the maps. Leave from the Murphy Creek trailhead near Polly Dome at Tenaya Lake in Yosemite, and follow the trail uphill. It is neither hard nor long. And note that a few miles in, there is a huge cairn marking a trail that heads east (right). It will take you straight to the largest of the Polly Dome lakes. It’s very clear, and only the last 75 yards is very steep. Even on busy days, this is not a top destination in Yosemite, so you won’t see that many people. No fish, but lovely scenery. 7 miles rt.
Jennie Lake, Sequoia/Kings Canyon: the hard part of this hike isn’t the hike, but the drive to the trailhead—we’ve done it in a Volvo 960 wagon, but it’s a lot easier (and slightly more relaxing) in an SUV. And it’s a long drive from the coast, either way. But once you get to the trailhead, this hike is pleasantly graded, and takes you to a lovely lake butting up against a granite peak. It’s five miles of hiking, and if you have time, you can take another day and work your way up to the top of the peak, as well. From the same trailhead, you can also climb Mitchell Peak, which is over 10,000 feet and has absolutely stunning views of the southern Sierra. 10 miles rt.
Lake Winnemucca and Round Top Lake: A great destination along the Pacific Crest Trail, but these are only a couple of miles in, so they get a TON of traffic. The trailhead at Woods Lake is quite lovely as a campsite in and of itself, and then you get to climb up the slopes of Round Top Peak to these delightful lakes. Camping is only allowed by reservation, and there are numbered campsites here, just like in a state park campground. Not our idea of the perfect backpacking destination, but a great place for a quick getaway, particularly if you can do it in the middle of the week or on the shoulder seasons. This is Round Top Lake in mid-October, after the first snowfall of the season. Only a couple of miles to either of these lakes.
You can also extend this trip to include a visit to Fourth of July Lake, further south, 14 miles rt.
Welcome to Backpack the Sierra > Destinations: The Best Sierra Hikes, The Best Starter Hikes, and Hikes by Highway >