The hike to Round Lake is not a secret Tahoe hike by any means. However, it’s definitely a Tahoe local’s favorite (especially for quick overnight backpacking trips) because it’s not far from town, but out of the way enough to feel as though you were hiking a remote backcountry trail. This relatively easy day-hike features stunning scenery thanks to the diverse terrain through which the trail travels. Big Meadow itself is home to many species of wildflowers and birds, and the conglomerate rock in the surrounding area of Round Lake is an interesting diversion from the granite-centric landscape of Lake Tahoe.
Trail Data (approximations):
- Location: South Tahoe – Christmas Valley – Big Meadow Trailhead
- Category of Hike: Day Hike
- Total Mileage: 7 miles (out-and-back)
- Total Elevation Gain: 1,250 feet
- Highest Point: 8,075 feet
- Trail Condition: Alternating between hard-packed and sandy soil
- Proceed with caution while driving around the bend to the Big Meadow Campground as the trail crosses SR 89 near this point
- Parking can be limited on weekends during the summer as this trailhead is used by many people including day hikers, Tahoe Rim Trail thru-hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrian riders
- During the spring and early summer Big Meadow presents wet conditions
- The Big Meadow Campground and parking area is closed during the winter months, so you’ll have to go to nearby Grass Lake in order to cross-country ski and snowshoe
- 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’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
Parking for the trail to Round Lake is located at the Big Meadow Campground and parking area on SR 89 just west of Luther Pass. Drive south of Meyers, CA, along SR 89 (through Christmas Valley) for approximately 5 miles. Once you reach the pronounced bend in the road, keep your eyes open because less than a half mile more you’ll find the entrance to the Big Meadow Campground and parking area. The entrance is on the north side of SR 89 and is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Also, proceed with caution around this bend because the trail to Round Lake actually crosses SR 89. This means there’s a good chance you’ll encounter hikers and mountain bikers trying to cross the road at this location.
Parking is free and plentiful, and near the entrance you’ll find pit toilets. However, the Big Meadow parking area serves the needs of many as it’s a trailhead to multiple other hiking trails, an official Tahoe Rim Trail trailhead, and is multi-use (i.e. mountain bikes and equestrian). So, it’s not just other day hikers that you’ll be contending with in order to find a parking spot. To avoid the crowds, try to hike this trail during the week and/or early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
If you show up to the parking area and discover that there are no more available spots, drive further into the campground (which is self-serve and free). You may have to walk a little further by doing this, but I believe you can park along the road. Just be sure to observe all posted signs and notices regarding parking in the actual campground area. Please note that during the winter months the Big Meadow Campground and parking area is closed.
The trailhead to Round Lake is at the far side of the Big Meadow parking area.
Here’s a map to help you find the entrance to the Big Meadow Campground and parking area.
Once you park at the Big Meadow parking area, make your way to the far side of the lot to find the official trailhead (complete with maps and information). Except for the short road crossing that you’ll have to negotiate, the trail to Round Lake is as straightforward as any hike at Lake Tahoe. Stick to the Tahoe Rim Trail (of which the trail to Round Lake is a part of) and you’ll reach Round Lake with ease.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention two junctions that you’ll encounter along the trail to Round Lake. Each of the two signposts are clearly marked, but just in case you have questions I’ll clarify:
- The first junction is located.75 miles from the trailhead. You’ll find a signpost just before you technically enter Big Meadow (the actual meadow this area is named for, not the campground or parking area). At this point you’ll have two hiking options, which are to either take the trail to the left and go to Scott’s Lake or take the trail to the right to hike to Round Lake.
- The second junction you’ll encounter is at approximately mile 2.5 (at the bottom of a 250 foot descent). At this signpost, veer to the left in order to continue hiking to Round Lake. If you take the right (north), you’ll either wind up hiking to Dardanelles Lake or hiking down the Christmas Valley Trail (aka Lake Valley Trail on some maps) to the south end of South Upper Truckee Road.
Although I don’t list the hike to Round Lake as a Family Fun Hike (due to its length and elevation gain), it is a great hike for kids if they’re more seasoned hikers. Or, you could always just turn back before technically reaching Round Lake. The reason I say this is because my stepdad’s assessment of the trail when I hiked it with my folks in 2018 was that “it’s pretty flat for being mostly uphill.” They’re from Minnesota and they discovered that the 1,000+ feet of elevation gain spread out over the first 2 miles of the hike was not completely exhausting, but deceptively tiring nonetheless.
The last thing to note about the hike to Round Lake is that the trail, as I’ve previously mentioned, is multi-use so you’ll encounter mountain bikers (who will typically bike down the Christmas Valley Trail) and the occasional equestrian rider. Just be mindful of your surroundings in order to avoid collisions, or simply being startled.