Hiking Mount Tallac (via Mount Tallac Trailhead)

Copyright © Jared Manninen

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The hike up Mount Tallac is one of the iconic hikes in the Lake Tahoe Basin and should be on your list of places in which to travel at Lake Tahoe. The hike is not for the faint of heart, however, as it features approximately 3,500 feet of elevation gain and high exposure. But the transformative experience takes you along the northern ridge that overlooks Fallen Leaf Lake, through secluded forest and past Floating Island Lake and Cathedral Lake, and then up and across a two-mile stretch of exposed terrain.

The hike to Mount Tallac is a favorite by many Tahoe locals, particularly for full moon hikes and to search for wildflowers. Sunrises and sunsets are also reason enough to hike up to Tallac as the peak features 360 degree unobstructed views. Some unique wildlife such as Pikas can be seen toward the top if you listen and look closely in the endless piles of broken granite. There are numerous ways in which to access Mount Tallac, but this article will feature the most common route to the top (via Mount Tallac Trailhead).

Mount Tallac (via Mt Tallac Trailhead) Trail Data (approximations):

Considerations for Hiking Mount Tallac via the Mount Tallac Trailhead:

  • Parking can get highly congested in the summer, so arrive at the trailhead early to ensure you find a decent parking spot
  • Carry more water and food than you would expect on this hike because you’ll be covering 3,500 feet of elevation gain and much of that time is highly exposed
  • Be prepared for snowy conditions in late spring and early summer, and the occasional late summer snow or sleet storm
  • Adhere to all Leave No Trace principles, particularly the one about packing out your trash
  • 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
  • Leave an itinerary of your plans with someone who’ll call emergency services if you don’t return by your prescribed time
  • Dogs are allowed, but keep them on leash and pick up after them
  • Check your dog’s paws for wear and bring booties in case they become too raw or turn around before things get serious
Click on the above map to enlarge it for better viewing and printing. This map is only for reference and shows the general route to Mount Tallac from the Mount Tallac Trailhead. Always carry a traditional topographic map and compass when traveling in the backcountry.

Parking Directions for the Mount Tallac Trailhead:

Drive north on SR 89 approximately four miles from the “Y” (intersection of HWYs 50/89) in South Lake Tahoe. Mount Tallac Road sits opposite of the entrance to Baldwin Beach. Head west on Mount Tallac Road for about 0.4 miles and take a left at the “T” intersection. Continue along Mount Tallac Road for another 0.6 miles to the trailhead.

Arrive early on busier days such as weekends and holidays in order to claim a parking spot closer to the trailhead, otherwise you may find yourself doing some bonus hiking. Be sure to fill out a day-use pass (located at the trailhead kiosk) since you’ll be entering Desolation Wilderness for the day. There is a gate at the entrance to Mount Tallac Road, and it’s often locked between November and May, so contact the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit during that time to find out if the gate is open or locked.

If you do plan to travel to Mount Tallac during the “off-season,” you can still park at the gate and hike the extra mile to the trailhead, just don’t block the gate.

Copyright © 2013 Jared Manninen
Sunrise over Fallen Leaf Lake on August 10, 2013. © Jared Manninen

Here’s a map to assist you in finding the parking area for accessing the Mount Tallac Trailhead.

Travel along the Mount Tallac Hiking Trail (via Mt Tallac Trailhead):

Traveling at a consistent pace, expect the hike to the top of Mount Tallac to take about three hours and the return trip to your vehicle approximately two and a half hours. The route to the top of Mount Tallac is highly exposed and generally slow going due to large sections that pass through talus and scree (busted rock of various sizes and states of stability). Bring more water, food, and layers of clothing than you expect to use.

Occasionally summer thunderstorms can roll in during the day, or it can just be really windy and cold up top. So even if it’s the peak of summer, don’t be the tourist wearing flip-flops, board shorts, a tank top, and only carrying the small bottle of water you picked up at the gas station on your way to the trailhead.

Yes, humans have accomplished greater feats with lesser supplies, but why willingly put yourself at risk? Besides, the more tired and exhausted you get, the lesser you are inclined to carry that empty water bottle (when you don’t have a backpack to put it in). Case in point, when I hiked Mount Tallac on August 23, 2017, I collected four of those “disposable” water bottles, a beer can, and a large handful of micro-trash from the trail. This is unacceptable, so please carry a small backpack with extra supplies, and pack out everything you bring (and find along the way). The trail to Mount Tallac is being “loved to death,” so do your part to ensure it remains beautiful and free of trash.

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen
Erik standing on the trail of talus leading to Mount Tallac on August 23, 2017. © Jared Manninen

Snow can last long into the summer on and around Mount Tallac, which can make for unstable footing, blinding brightness, and an additional way for you to get sunburned (as it reflects up into your face).

Speaking of snow, many backcountry skiers and snowboarders venture up Mount Tallac and other aspects of its surrounding ridges for backcountry powder turns. Although, most of those adventurers access Tallac via the Spring Creek Road (a little further north on SR 89).

Backcountry skiing and snowboarding Mount Tallac is an entirely different animal compared to hiking up the peak during warmer months and will not be covered here. Sorry to disappoint. However, the bottom line is that if you are venturing up Mount Tallac in late spring or early summer and there is still a lot of snow, be prepared to bring micro-spikes, crampons, snowshoes, and/or an ice axe to negotiate questionable aspects of the trail. Also keep in mind that the first snow of the 2017/18 winter in Tahoe was on September 21, the last day of summer. Always be prepared.

Copyright © 2006 Jared Manninen
Looking north from Mount Tallac on May 14, 2006. Look at the lower left corner and you’ll see a backcountry snowboarder carrying an orange snowboard and hiking along the ridge. © Jared Manninen

If you plan to bring your dog, routinely check its paws. There’s not really any question as to whether or not their paws will wear down. It’s more of a question as to how severe they will wear. The reason their paws are vulnerable is due to all of the granite rocks you’ll be hiking over. The flesh on your dog’s paws will yield far sooner than that granite ever will.

True story … a former co-worker of mine called me from the top of Mount Tallac many years ago requesting help in carrying her dog down. Its paws were so raw that they began to bleed, and the dog essentially refused to walk because of it. Needless to say, I was not nearby and it took me and the friend I was with quite a while to reach her and the dog. So, they inched their way down to about a mile from the trailhead where we caught up with them and carried the 80lbs shepherd out on a makeshift stretcher (fashioned from our hiking poles and a blanket).

Monitor your dog consistently, bring booties for its paws in case things turn ugly, or simply turn around before you reach that point. Floating Island Lake or Cathedral Lake are great spots to elect to finish your hike and turn back.

View from the top of Mount Tallac on August 23, 2017. Cascade Lake is the nearest lake, followed by Emerald Bay, and then Lake Tahoe. Considerate people sitting below the actual summit of Mount Tallac enjoying their private slice of paradise. © Jared Manninen

Lastly, when you do reach the top of Mount Tallac, resist all temptation to permanently park yourself and your crew at the highest point (it’s obvious where it is once you get up there). Everyone wants to tap the peak, but we don’t want to have to walk all over you and your lunch to do so. Slap the peak, take some photos, and then find someplace else to rest before your descent.

Below is a design I created in 2017 called the Mount Tallac Infographic. It is a poster-sized piece of art that is attractive and provides basic information about the prominent peak located on the south shore of Lake Tahoe.

In addition, I’ve added to the poster some backpacking and hiking wisdom that I’ve gained over the years. The image of Mount Tallac that I used in the design of this infographic is a vector art version of one of my photos (you my recognize it from a previous Tahoe Trails post). Order a copy at RedBubble. Thanks for your support!

Copyright © 2017 Jared Manninen