Pyramid Peak via Rocky Canyon

We’ve attempted and failed to hike Pyramid Peak more times than I’d like to admit. Poor planning, late starts and crappy weather have all thwarted past attempts. Our friend Nolan has had a similar experience. After climbing far more challenging peaks, we (jokingly) began to wonder if we’d ever make it to the top of “the elusive Pyramid Peak.”

Finally, this past weekend we made it happen. The weather was looking to be perfect. We chose the most direct route – Rocky Canyon from Highway 50. We were determined to finally knock this one off our list.

Basics: The Rocky Canyon trail consists of a 3.5 mile (and 4000-ft) hike from Highway 50 to the top of Pyramid. The beginning is very steep and the last stretch requires boulder hopping over a large talus pile at the summit. The trail is well traveled and easy to follow but a little tricky to find.  Though it is shown on Google Maps, it is not an official trail and the trailhead is unmarked.

Directions to Trailhead:  Parking is located along Highway 50 approximately 1 mile east of the Strawberry Lodge.  If you reach the Pyramid Creek parking lot at Horsetail Falls, you’ve gone too far.  After passing the lodge, begin looking for an overhead sign structure (used to provide chain info in the winter) on the right hand side of the the road.  The sign structure is located at the start of a passing lane (also marked with a big green sign).  The dirt area next to the overhead sign has enough room for several cars.  If it’s full, there is additional parking further up along the road, but be wary of the “no parking” signs scattered along the highway.  Google Map link to trailhead.

To reach the trail itself, cross over the creek and walk up the road a short distance.  When you reach the old stone mile marker on the right side of the road, the trail begins directly across the highway.  Make the short climb up the embankment and the path will become obvious.

Old marker across the highway from the trail showing 43 miles to Placerville.
Old ‘mile stone’ across the highway from the trail – 43 miles to Placerville.

Red Tape:  Hiking or camping in Desolation Wilderness requires a permit year round.  There are fees for overnight camping and a quota system is in place from May through October.  Day hiking permits are self-issued at many of the trailheads.  The trail described here does not have an official trailhead, but permits can be picked up at the Pacific Ranger Station located 4 miles east of Pollock Pines on Highway 50.  More info can be found on the Forest Service website.

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Trail Description: The alarm went off around 5:00am – far too early for a Sunday morning. We packed up some food and water, stopped for gas and coffee, then headed to Sacramento to pick up Nolan. The three of us arrived at the parking area below the trail shortly before 8am.

We crossed the highway and quickly found the trail.  The trail starts out steep.  My legs began aching almost immediately.  I’m not in good enough shape for this stuff, apparently. After about a mile, the trail began to flatten out.  We were still climbing but at a much easier grade.

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I got hungry and we stopped for a short break about two miles in.  It was cold in the shade, but warm and pleasant in the sun.  After a few minutes, we continued onwards.

Winter is coming...
Winter is coming…

Somewhere around the 2.5 mile mark, the trees began to grow sparse.  Views opened up behind us.  We could see Sierra at Tahoe, Kirkwood and all the little mountains in between.  (Yes, my geographical knowledge/orientation is based on ski resort location.)

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After about 3 hours of hiking, we reached the large pile of rocks that make up Pyramid Peak’s summit. The wind picked up as soon as we got above tree line.  It took us another 20 minutes to reach the top. We climbed up the rocks on the steeper east face of the summit. It would have been easier to go straight up from the south, but the east side kept us out of the wind.

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We reached the top along with a dozen or so other hikers/climbers. They were all part of the Sierra Mountaineering Club. We ate lunch and soon the large SMC group headed down. We had the summit to ourselves.

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Wind shelters were all filled with snow.
Wind shelters filled with snow.
Lake Aloha is dry dry dry.  It has turned back in to Devil's Basin.
Lake Aloha is dry dry dry. It has turned back in to Devil’s Basin.

It was windy, but not too cold.  The wind shelters were useless to us – they were filled with snow!  We signed the summit register, took some photos, then headed down.

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The hike back to the car was uneventful.  We were all happy to have finally made it to the top of this one.  It wasn’t even that difficult!  It was the perfect day for one last Desolation Wilderness trip before the snow sets in for the winter.

7 thoughts on “Pyramid Peak via Rocky Canyon”

  1. Nice pics, looked like a perfect day for crossing Pyramid off your summit list. I need to do that too, though I’m not terribly fond of bouldering. If I ever make a friend, I’ll take them with me up there. The route looks a bit like your Hwy 50, Aloha, Ralston trip…similar route? Couldn’t get the gpx download to work. And poor Aloha looks very “Desolate” when devoid of water doesn’t it? I’ve taken up trail running now off season, so breaking up my routine a bit…
    Thanks for the post! Lorenzo

    1. Hey Lorenzo,
      Not sure what’s going on with the gpx, but I have to right click and ‘save as’ to have it download. In any case you can also download it from gpsies:

      http://www.gpsies.com/map.do?fileId=gczhyislfapvjbhi

      I’d say this hike was comparable to hiking up Ralston Peak, only with a short Class 2 boulder hop for the last few hundred feet of elevation gain. You only need to use your hands a little bit and it’s mostly stair-like. The boulders are very stable.

      Before there was a dam, the old topo maps show the Lake Aloha area as Devils Basin, probably because it’s difficult to navigate that terrain. It should freeze and then fill again soon enough.

      Happy trails!

  2. Always good to see a safe and successful summit! Used to be I’d do that route for my birthday, solo! Now, I’m not even sure that I’d like doing the way from Lyons Creek TH, being that I’ve been pretty shaky even on trails, and that I like a perfect no rescue career to date. Too bad about the wilderness policy of no further trail construction as far as hiker safety. Odds are that some heli will crash, and then there’s a ton of debris, not that that would bother the USFS! But then the stats on rescues as far as trails are worse. I consider it a tragedy for hikers that the two major peaks on 80 and 88 are class 3, so the inept and inexperienced will stay away. But then, what would be peak bagging if it were no challenge? Congrats!

    1. Thanks Pete. I assume you are referring to Round Top on Highway 88. Which peak on 80 are you thinking of? Devils Peak perhaps? I do think it is nice having some more challenging peaks up 80 and 88. There are a lot of other great hikes for people who shy away from the Class 3 routes.

  3. Castle Peak HP. Though many hikers and clubs consider the lower north crag as the top, even a register there for awhile. Most are plain scared of ropes and safety stuff, being that they choose to remain ignorant. I got a good deal back in 1971, when the best guides and instructors in TM taught me for hardly $8! Love to share some of it, but the film I think got crunched up in some projector, or lost for now. Then it takes about a month or what to ship off to have scanned. One of my drifts is to record myself climbing the class 3 on Castle, and also a PoV on the route to the summit of Round Top. Easier with help, but there’s absolutely none!

  4. Did this on Saturday and saw only one other hiker. There was a bit more snow, but managed with just waterproof boots, (had snowshoes, but ditched them halfway up). Lucked out with just a mild breeze at the top. Lake Aloha (and pretty much everything out to Echo Lake), was frozen and snow covered. Made for a great view though. Valley was buried in fog. Been wanting to do this one for a few years myself, and nice to check it off my list.

    1. Hi Jeff. That’s awesome! It sounds like the perfect hike up Pyramid! It seems like it’s often much more of a wind storm up at the top. In all my trips up there, I have yet to see Lake Aloha frozen and snow covered. Hopefully I’ll make it up there again soon, before everything melts this spring.

Any thoughts?