South Camp Peak (and The Bench)

Copyright © 2015 Jared Manninen

The hike to South Camp Peak probably isn’t in the top five trails to hike at Lake Tahoe, and it may not even be in the top ten. However, I would argue that it’s about as exceptional a hike as any at Lake Tahoe. Parking is abundant (and free), the trail is easy to navigate, there’s enough elevation gain to get your heart pumping, and the 10-mile (out-and-back) distance is perfect for a quality day hike. The best part, though, is that you’re afforded panoramic views of Lake Tahoe for a good portion of the hike.

Click on the map to enlarge it for better viewing and printing. This map is only for reference and shows the trail to South Camp Peak. The highlighted route is a little less than five miles, and the distance to “The Bench,” which is located bottom center on this map, is less than a mile from this route’s stopping point. Always carry a traditional topographic map and compass when traveling in the backcountry.

Trail Data (approximations):

  • Location: East TahoeSpooner Summit
  • Category of Hike: Day Hike
  • Total Mileage: 10 miles (out-and-back)
  • Total Elevation Gain: 1,800 feet
  • Highest Point: 8,776 feet
  • Trail Condition: Alternating between sandy and hard-packed soil

Considerations:

  • The trail to South Camp Peak features a lot of exposure so protect yourself from the sun and wind, especially if hiking midday
  • The trail to South Camp Peak is only five miles and features less than 2,000 feet of total elevation gain, but it is all uphill
  • If you plan to camp overnight near South Camp Peak, pack in enough water to last you through the night and be sure that you are tented between 100-300 feet from any trails
  • 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
Copyright © 2015 Jared Manninen

Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) blooming just beyond the rock ledge in the lower left corner of this photo and Map Lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum) growing on the boulder to the right on September 2, 2015. © Jared Manninen

Parking:

Thanks to there being parking lots on either side of HWY 50, there’s an abundance of parking options at Spooner Summit. I recommend parking on the south side of HWY 50, however, since this will be the starting point of your trek to South Camp Peak. In addition to multiple parking spots in the south lot, there are some picnic areas and vault toilets, as well as informative placards and displays about the local history. The trailhead that leads to South Camp Peak is at the back of the south lot, near an information kiosk.

Here’s a map to help you find the Spooner Summit parking lot.

Travel:

Although this day hike features only about 1,800 feet of total elevation gain, until you reach the open area on the west side of South Camp Peak you’re basically going to be hiking uphill the entire five miles (one-way). So, be prepared to travel uphill as soon as you leave the parking lot. The trail is stable and obvious, and even though it meanders in and out of forested areas you’re never too far from panoramic views of Lake Tahoe.

My favorite time of the day to hike this trail is at dusk so I can catch the sunset, as the predominant views are to the west. However, there is no bad time to travel this section of the Tahoe Rim Trail. Just know that if you plan to watch the sunset from this location you’re going to have to hike the five miles back to the parking lot in the dark. Or, plan to camp overnight. And even though the trail travels in and out of the trees, because there are so many unobstructed views you’re going to be susceptible to exposure. So, come prepared to protect yourself from the sun and wind if you end up hiking this trail during the middle of the day. Because South Camp Peak is on the east shore of Lake Tahoe, it remains free of snow longer than other parts of Tahoe, so you can hike this route later in the fall and earlier in the spring.

Copyright © 2014 Jared Manninen

Looking north across Lake Tahoe from South Camp Peak on July 8, 2014. © Jared Manninen

Since this hike is only 10 miles long, most people just make a day hike of the route. But this section is technically the Tahoe Rim Trail, so backpacking is fair game. I’ve hiked the five miles to South Camp Peak in the evening to catch the sunset, dry camped overnight (packed in all my water), and then hiked out the following morning after being treated to the sunrise. If you do intend to camp overnight at South Camp Peak, be aware that you must tent between 100-300 feet from all trails in this section of the Tahoe Rim Trail and use a previously impacted tent site. There are no water sources near South Camp Peak.

Copyright © 2014 Jared Manninen

“The Bench” is located less than a mile from South Camp Peak and is a great place to take a break. © Jared Manninen

Lastly, on the kiosk near the trailhead I’ve always seen notices posted about bear and mountain lion activity in the area between Spooner Summit and Kingsbury Grade (where this trail eventually leads to). Heed these warnings by being visible, making noise every once in a while to announce your presence, and keeping all of your scented items secured properly (especially if you plan to camp overnight along this stretch of the Tahoe Rim Trail).

Copyright © 2015 Jared Manninen

Views looking north toward Crystal Bay from the trail to South Camp Peak. © Jared Manninen