Carson Pass to Lost Lakes

The area surrounding Carson Pass is beautiful and far less crowded than the neighboring Lake Tahoe basin. This hike follows the Pacific Crest Trail, climbing the ridge under Elephants Back, through the Mokelumne Wilderness and into the heart of Toiyabe National Forest. In late summer, it’s possible to reach the Lost Lakes with an OHV. If you’re on foot, it’s best to visit when snow still covers the dirt road. We planned our hike for July 4th weekend- when Tahoe is overrun with visitors- and we found plenty of solitude.

Hike Basics
Distance: 12 to 13 miles
Elevation: 2400 ft, roundtrip
Red Tape: Permits are required year-round for overnight trips in the Mokelumne Wilderness. During summer months, a quota system is in effect for Fourth of July Lake, Round Top and Winnemucca Lake, but not for the route described here. Wilderness permits can be picked up at the Carson Pass Information Center (at the trailhead) or at the Amador Ranger Station in Pioneer. There is a parking fee at Carson Pass, but it is acceptable to leave a car there overnight. Campfire permits are also required (even for a stove). These are good for one year, required in many wilderness areas, and can be picked up along with your overnight permit.
Other Notes: Additional information (including ranger station hours) can be found on the Eldorado National Forest Service website.

Directions to Trailhead
The trailhead is located at Carson Pass, right behind the Carson Pass Information Center. The parking lot is just off of Highway 88. Google Map link to trailhead.

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Hike Description
Last year when we hiked the PCT, we got caught in a violent thunderstorm right before reaching Carson Pass. Instead of climbing higher up on to the exposed ridge, we took a parallel route (along a dirt road) down to the highway. It was surprisingly difficult to catch a ride in the pouring rain, but we eventually managed to hitch to the Kirkwood Inn and Saloon for a hot meal.

That’s a lot of miles. This sign is on the side of the Carson Pass Information Center.

A few weeks ago, Rob suggested we drive up to the trail to bring beers to PCT hikers. I immediately thought of this short little section of trail that we had bypassed. The weather forecast looked perfect (no thunderstorms!), so we planned to spend the night out there.

We drove up to Carson Pass, parked and paid the parking fee for two days. I wasn’t entirely sure if our planned destination was still within the boundaries of the Mokelumne Wilderness, but the Information Center was open so I checked in and picked up an overnight backcountry permit. The ranger asked if we had GPS and mentioned that there was still quite a bit of snow. I told them we did, and we left the station with permits in hand.

We grabbed our gear from the car – Rob loaded several cold beers into a soft sided cooler and shoved it into the top of his pack. As we started out on the first quarter mile of trail, we ran into a number of day hikers. Many of them seemed to lose the trail quickly under the snow. We followed our GPS and soon we were alone in the wilderness.

The first two northbound thruhikers we met were from France: a young woman and her dad. He didn’t speak much English but they both happily accepted a beer. A mile or two later we ran into a group of 5 men. They were pretty excited about Rob’s mobile trail magic. It was only 10am, but they finished their beers quickly. We talked briefly, then continued onwards- Rob with a much lighter pack.

We only saw one other hiker that day, a thruhiker from Romania. With still so much snow on the ground, I got the impression that the average day hikers and backpackers weren’t out in full force yet.

I was feeling the altitude, and the snow made for slow going. We took our time, enjoying the views. We reached the Lost Lakes sometime around 3pm. We walked around the first lake and found a nice open area to set up camp.

Despite the warm weather, the water looked a little too cold for swimming.

We spent the rest of the evening cooking, eating, relaxing and exploring our surroundings. We climbed Lost Lake Peak which provided views to both lakes and the surrounding mountains.

Looking towards The Nipple from Lost Lake Peak.

The following morning, we retraced our steps back to Carson Pass. It was hot. The sun reflecting up on the snow gave me a bit of a sunburn and I had a difficult time staying cool enough to keep going.

Lost Lake in the morning.
We were able to glissade in a few places.
On our way out we met another hiker. He walked with us through the snow so that he wouldn’t have to waste a bunch of time with navigation.

Despite the heat, we made it back to the car sometime around noon. Overall, a short but relaxing trip in the mountains. As we drove home, Rob was already thinking about where we could go for our next trip.

Any thoughts?