Freel Peak is the highest peak in the Lake Tahoe Basin, standing at 10,881 feet. Freel Peak basically sits on the border between the Lake Tahoe Basin and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and offers unparalleled 360 degree views of the entire region. In addition to the panoramic views, you’ll find a variety of Sierra Nevada wildflowers along the way (the Large-leaved Lupine grows tall in Armstrong Pass), as well as one of my favorite high altitude birds, the Clark’s Nutcracker. Although the 10-mile roundtrip route (via FS 051) is aerobically challenging and features high exposure, unless you’re attempting to summit it during the winter months it’s not technically demanding. In fact, probably more technically demanding is the dirt road leading up to the parking area!
Trail Data (approximations):
- Total Mileage: 10 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 2,700 feet
- Highest Point: 10,881 feet
- Trail: Alternating between hard-packed and sandy soil
There are a handful of other routes in which you can take in order to reach the summit of Freel Peak. However, starting from Forest Service Road 051 (aka Willow Creek Road) is the traditional way, and this is the route I’m writing about in this article.
From the intersection of HWYs 50/89 in Meyers, CA, take HWY 89 south approximately 9-10 miles until you reach FS 051. Forest Service Road 051 is easy to miss, so once you reach the official Luther Pass sign (south end of the flat stretch of highway adjacent to Grass Lake) drive about .75 miles down the hill in the direction of Hope Valley/Pickett’s Junction. The road is on the north side of HWY 89 (left as you drive downhill) and turns to dirt immediately after you pass the service road’s gate. Before you leave the house, however, confirm that the gate is open because it’s usually locked between November 1 and May 31 every year. This is common of all forest service roads in the Lake Tahoe region because it minimizes destruction to the roads and prevents people from getting their vehicles stuck or trapped during the wettest months of the year. Contact the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest office in Carson City, NV, to determine whether or not the gate is open. If the gate is locked you can still travel the road, but it will have to be on foot, ski, or snowshoe, and it means you’ll be adding an extra seven miles to an already long day.
Be aware that FS 051 is a rutted and rugged dirt road. The parking area to access Armstrong Pass, the Tahoe Rim Trail, and Freel Peak is an open dirt lot approximately 3.5 miles up the dirt road from the gate. In order to safely negotiate FS 051 you need a vehicle with a fair amount of clearance. Two-wheel drive cars are not advised as many of them are too low to the ground to overcome the rocks and ruts you’ll encounter. All-wheel drive and 4×4 vehicles aren’t necessarily a requirement, but inherent in most of their designs is good clearance. The parking area is on the left side of FS 051 (as you travel up the road) and it’s just past the second small bridge.
While standing on the road and facing the dirt lot, look to the far left of the parking area to locate the trailhead. It may take a minute to find because there aren’t any signs and it’s tucked in some trees and bushes. You will know you’ve found the trailhead when you’ve located the small foot bridge that crosses Willow Creek. This is where you want to begin your hike.
This description for reaching the parking area and trailhead to Freel Peak (and Armstrong Pass, the Tahoe Rim Trail, Jobs Peak, and Jobs Sister) is adequate enough to get you there. However, if you’re unfamiliar with the Luther Pass area and the road conditions of FS 051, I recommend you read the in-depth description of the route in my article about hiking Freel Peak, Jobs Sister, and Jobs Peak (in a day).
Once you’re ready to step off, cross the small footbridge over Willow Creek and continued heading uphill toward Armstrong Pass. This section of the trail is approximately one mile long. After you’ve traveled the mile, you’ll find yourself standing on the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT). The TRT continues southwest (to the Big Meadow Campground near HWY 89) and to the north (past Star Lake). Take the north route, which is on the right side of Armstrong Pass as you’re facing north (in the direction of Lake Tahoe). There is another trail at this junction that travels around the opposite side of Armstrong Pass. This trail heads in a northwest direction and links up with Fountain Place Road and the Corral Loop mountain biking trail system. So, veer right and contour the west-southwest facing aspect of Armstrong Pass.
Along this section of the trail to Freel Peak, you’ll cross a couple seasonal streams. These are where you can find incredibly tall Large-leaved Lupine. Another note, however, about this section is that if the temperatures leading up to your journey have been freezing, be prepared to negotiate ice. Do not take these sections lightly because those streams turn into dangerous ice flows. In fact my best friend, while hiking with me to Freel Peak in January 2012, slipped down a large ice flow and nearly wrecked himself. I slipped and fell on another brief section of ice right after his mishap. Fortunately we both were uninjured, but it was ignorance on our part for not treating these sections with more respect (i.e. taking the time to walk around them or carrying with us some type of foot traction devices). In the least, throw as much gravel or other natural debris you can find over the ice to decrease how slick it is. Normally I might’ve chalked up my stupidity to being a dumb kid, but I really wasn’t that young at the time! So, do yourself a favor by performing adequate research on weather and trail conditions and prepare accordingly.
Travel the Tahoe Rim Trail approximately 3 miles beyond the junction at Armstrong Pass to reach the saddle between Trimmer Peak (nearer Lake Tahoe) and Freel Peak. If you continued to take the TRT north, you would end up at Star Lake. Instead, find the sign at the saddle indicating Freel Peak’s location as being one mile away. Take that trail and you will start to head uphill. Please note that the first half of this last mile is the trickiest section of the route to Freel Peak. There are a number of switchbacks through weather-beaten trees that you will have to negotiate. Because this aspect of Freel Peak is north facing, snow can remain here well into the summer. As a result, people make their own trails to either avoid or cross the various patches of snow they encounter. Often it will appear that the trail through this relatively steep section has become a free-for-all. So, do your best to stay on the actual trail. Also, avoid getting too close to the edge of the cliff that the trail passes by. I don’t believe the actual trail even gets too close to this cliff area, so just be careful near this brief section.
At this point of your journey you will have reached about 10,000 feet in elevation and be fully exposed to the elements. The sun and wind can be punishing, so come prepared with adequate skin protection and water/food. Keep a closer eye on the weather once you reach the saddle and start heading up the mountain because there is no place in which to run once you hit those switchbacks. Also, monitor your hiking pace as well as your mental and physical states. Again, there are no quick or easy ways in or out of this region of Lake Tahoe.
Once you reach the summit, you can locate Jobs Sister and Jobs Peak with relative ease as they’re due east from Freel Peak. That said, you’ll notice how easy it looks to travel to those other two peaks. You wouldn’t be the first to think that, nor the last. In fact, Freel Peak, Jobs Sister, and Jobs Peak make up the great Tahoe hike known as the “trifecta,” “three peaks,” or “Tahoe’s Triple Crown.” Save it for another day when you’ve come prepared as there are a handful of other considerations regarding that route. I do recommend one day you travel it, though, and when you do decide to take on the challenge read my article about it for more information.
A quick note about Freel Peak’s name according to the book Tahoe Place Names: The origin and history of names in the Lake Tahoe Basin … Freel Peak was originally called Bald Mountain and Sand Mountain by various surveyors. However, on a map published in 1881 (based on the Wheeler Survey of 1876-77), the mountain was named Freel Peak after the rancher and miner James Freel, who had resided at the mountain’s base.
Lastly, when you’re driving through South Lake Tahoe on HWY 50, take a look back at where you traveled. Jobs Sister is the more defined looking peak as it appears as a sandy swash of earth with a pointy top. Freel Peak is the larger and rounder topped mountain just to the west of Jobs Sister. Many people mistakenly identify Jobs Sister for Freel Peak, so now you’ll know the truth!
- Confirm that the gate to Forest Service Road 051 is open and your vehicle is equipped for the road conditions – if the gate is locked, plan for traveling an extra seven miles (roundtrip)
- Plan for the worst, hope for the best—this route features fully exposed terrain that sits at 10,000 feet of elevation or higher
- Begin your hike earlier than you would start a lesser day hike in order to give yourself plenty of daylight to work with, as well as enabling you to get off of the peak before any afternoon storms have a chance to roll in
- Adhere to all Leave No Trace principles
- There are few trail signs and markers on public lands in the Tahoe region, so unless there are tracks to follow, the correct route may be difficult to identify–when in doubt, turn back
- Be prepared for inclement weather and carry plenty of warm clothes, food, and water
- Leave an itinerary of your plans with someone who will call emergency services if you do not return by your prescribed time
- Dogs are allowed, but keep them on leash and pick up after them
Below is a Google Map to assist you in finding FS 051 (aka Willow Creek Road) for accessing the trail to Freel Peak.
Here is an infographic I created about Freel Peak. Order your copy at RedBubble.