Loch Leven Lakes

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Basics: Loch Leven Lakes are three very popular alpine lakes in Tahoe National Forest.  The lakes are surrounded by granite and typical Sierra scenery.  The hike is approximately 8 miles roundtrip.  It is slightly shorter if your destination is the first of the three lakes.  These lakes offer great swimming and camping – they definitely get crowded on summer weekends!

Directions to Trailhead: The trailhead is located on Hampshire Rocks Road between Exits 166 and 168 off of I-80. The trailhead parking is easy to spot – there is a wide turnout next to some restrooms on the north side of the road. The marked trail begins directly across the street from the parking area.

Note: GPS based distance is approximate. Download gpx of this routeDownload kml of this route.

Trail Description: May is bike month in Sacramento. Perhaps we should have spent the weekend riding our bikes, but we were overdue for a hike in the mountains. I’ll get plenty of miles biking to work on the weekdays. I wanted to visit Lake Aloha in Desolation Wilderness, but a forecast of 50 mph wind gusts was kind of a big deterrent.  On the other hand, the forecast for Loch Leven Lakes said 25 mph gusts.  Not bad! As an aside, ‘loch’ is Irish and Gaelic for ‘lake’ so the name Loch Leven Lakes is not only hard to say ten times fast but also quite redundant.

We got a slow and leisurely start on Saturday.  We reached the trailhead sometime around 10:00am.  There were plenty of other cars, but we had no trouble finding a parking spot.  I was surprised by how warm it was.  Most of the snow is already gone!

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We hiked away from I-80 and towards a crossing with the railroad tracks.  Soon, we met another hiker who was coming the opposite way with two dogs. She was quite friendly, but the first thing she said to us was: “you won’t make it up to the lakes.”  She told us the trail was covered in snow, running water, and downed trees.  She had turned around somewhere above the railroad tracks.  We both said something like “that’s too bad” while in our heads thinking: challenge accepted!

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After crossing a tributary to the South Yuba River we reached the railroad tracks (1.3 miles from the trailhead.) Shortly after crossing the tracks we met a second hiker. He was less discouraging, but again he mentioned the snow on the trail. He had also turned around before reaching the lakes.

We climbed up the trail and it soon turned into a small creek. The snow is melting fast on these warm days! Much of the runoff is apparently coming down the trail. We continued hiking higher until we reached the snow, about 2 miles in. This north facing slope still had some deep snow patches. We could see the top, and we could see footprints heading up.  Onwards!

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The snow was starting to get slushy but the postholing wasn’t too terrible. We quickly reached the top of the hill (2.5 miles in), then began our descent to the lakes.

Upper Loch Leven Lake is about 2.7 miles from the trailhead. It was beautiful, and we didn’t see too many other people. A small group had followed us up, but otherwise, we had the place to ourselves. Rob snapped a few photos, then we continued on towards the next two lakes. We followed the trail and reached Middle Loch Leven Lake pretty quickly.

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After a short rest, we made our way towards the third lake – High Loch Leven. Somehow, we lost the trail and ended up scaling up a short granite face in order to reach the lake. Despite what the USGS and official USFS maps show, the trail does NOT go in between Middle Loch Leven Lake and the pond to the east. Instead, the trail more or less follows the creek south of the pond, straight up to High Loch Leven Lake.

There were still quite a few snow patches and many ponds of water had formed in the low-lying areas around the lakes. At High Loch Leven Lake, we sat, ate lunch and took in the view.

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After relaxing for about an hour, we turned and headed down. This time, we did manage to follow the trail all the way out. Not sure how we completely lost it on the way in. I blame the downed trees and snow patches.

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All in all, beautiful hike on a sunny spring day! We did see quite a few other people on our way out – many of them made it all the way up to the lakes as well! There were many more footprints in the snow as we headed down towards the car.

More Info: This hike is in the book 100 Classic Hikes in Northern California. The USFS has a pamphlet/info sheet for the Loch Leven Trail System.

3 thoughts on “Loch Leven Lakes”

  1. Back in the days when the old hiking club would ever do that, we used to go there as Loch Leven Trail is the closest to Sacramento for above timberline type hiking. Many a peak climb would be rescheduled to go there, as no leader aside from me would even consider the drive to say the Eastern Sierra! Most of them didn’t know the difference or even care, a hike is a hike, by them. Many decades ago, we used to do ski tours here for the same reasons. Short drive. While now I go thousands of miles for a good hike or peaks, cheaper and using less gas than they do, they get their members and issue badges for what peaks that they are led to think are here. By some of them, Mt. Whitney is just up this trail!

    1. I love hiking in the Eastern Sierra, but I do appreciate shorter drives to the west side as well. It’s difficult finding time to get out there – weekends just aren’t long enough sometimes!

  2. In the old days, I’d load up my car with anyone interested and game from the old peak section after work Friday night, make the drive to Bishop or thereabouts, and then bag up to 3 13,000 foot peaks, driving home by Midnight, Sunday night. No such people anymore, not for free, for pay, even a salary! They demand a million, as they hate the Sierra, peaks especially! Though there is no one to even ride to Vegas for a hiking trip on any regular weekend, with luxury and dining, even paid for. Seems that 4/gal. did it for hiking trips, and even if there was one to do it, I’d get a electric car with free fast charge along the way, but as the old hiking club declared “hiking is work,” they wouldn’t be supporting zero emissions, ever!

Any thoughts?