Outdoor Blog

Top five first backpacking trips for kids (or adults) in Tahoe

Five Lakes Trail-Inga, Steve, Taira, Chase, Ken, Laura

Five Lakes Trail-Inga, Steve, Taira, Chase, Ken, Laura

In a previous article, Backpacking with Kids in Tahoe-Tips for Success, I describe a dawning realization that an article written a few years ago, Backpacking around Tahoe with Kids in Tow, needed a serious update. I had described our first camping and backpacking trips we had taken with our young godchildren but never re-visited whether those were the best trips. In hindsight some were a bit ambitious for young children and as we got more familiar with Tahoe trails I have better recommendations. A reader, Diane, corresponded with me over the summer and shared her experience taking her 6 year old daughter, Joanna, to Five Lakes for her first backpacking trip. Read her story, Backpacking to Five Lakes with a kid, for additional insights into backpacking with kids.

Mike Ramirez with his wife and two kids, ages 7 and 9 on the John Muir Trail (Photo: Mike Ramirez, with permission)

Mike Ramirez with his wife and two kids, ages 7 and 9 on the John Muir Trail (Photo: Mike Ramirez, with permission)

If you want get really inspired, consider the feats of young long distance hikers. The Ramirez family completed the arduous 226  mile John Muir Trail with their two small children in 2013. The Ramirez’s, comprised of Mom, Dad and a 7 and 9 year old, completed the trek in just 19 days, the same as many adults. And how about Reed “Sunshine” Gjonnes, 13, who became the youngest to complete the long distance “Triple Crown”, hiking the 2,663  mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2011, the 2,200  mile Appalachian Trail in 2012 and the 3,100 Continental Divide Trail in 2013 with her dad, Eric.

Here is a subjective list of the best introductory overnight backpacking trips for kids in Tahoe, but they are actually some of our favorite weekend backpacking trips for adults too. Be forewarned, all of these involve significant elevation gain even if the mileage is relatively low and if you’re a flat-lander the altitude may acutely accentuate the perceived effort. These are based on more than ten years of experience backpacking the Granite Chief Wilderness, Desolation Wilderness and other Tahoe environs with and without kids.

Best Tahoe Overnight Hikes (1 night)

Five Lakes-the largest lake (Photo: Diane C-with permission)

Five Lakes-the largest lake (Photo: Diane C, with permission)

1.  Five Lakes:  Although it has the usual steep ascent common to all Tahoe hikes the reward is great, with two serene alpine lakes ringed with fir trees and big boulders to camp beside (along with ponds and muddy depressions that equal five “lakes”). It’s one of the busiest day-hiker trails in Tahoe, sometimes numbering 200 or so, but in late afternoon when the hikers depart you’re in the wilderness (the Granite Chief Wilderness). You don’t even have to get an early start to enjoy a night out in the woods. Read guest post from Diane C. who took her 6 year old to Five Lakes for an overnight in the woods.

    • Trailhead-Alpine Meadows Road about a mile before Alpine Meadows Ski Area
    • Out and back (return to your car the way you came)
    • Distance: 2  miles one way (4 miles round trip (RT)). It takes me about an hour to hike there without a pack so count on about 2 hours, with lots of rest stops, with a child and packs.
    • Regulations: California Campfire permit required for camp stoves. No camping allowed within 600  feet of the lakes, but you can find spots that meet that criterion.

Taira was an adventurous rock-climber

2.  Whiskey Creek: You still have to get up and over the Five Lakes ascent described previously but the section from Five Lakes to the Whiskey Creek campsite is stunning as it opens up from the forest to a dramatic canyon. A large rock wall forms the backdrop for the gurgling Five Lakes Creek that you can hear from the trail but can’t always see. Wildflowers can be seen throughout much of the summer, arising from small streams and springs. The trail levels off after Five Lakes, then descends to join the Pacific Crest Trail for a short time before branching left to reach the Whiskey Creek Campsite at a signed junction. Whiskey Creek was an old Basque shepherd’s camp and still has two historic buildings standing. Camp in a meadow or under tall trees near the creek. It’s at a cross-roads so it can be reached from Squaw Valley from the north or Barker Pass/Diamond Crossing to the south along the Pacific Crest Trail. A continuation of the trail also heads west to the gorgeous and unpeopled Picayune Valley, but that’s not a first hike for kids.

    • Trailhead-Five Lakes Trail trailhead on Alpine Meadows Road about a mile before Alpine Meadows Ski Area
    • Out and back (return to your car the way you came), or continue to Squaw Valley or Barker Pass if you’ve left a second car there and/or if you’re camping a second night
    • Distance: 4  miles one way (8  miles RT). If you can get an early start a nice itinerary is to stop for a leisurely lunch at Five Lakes and then hike for a couple of hours in the afternoon to reach Whiskey Creek—it’s much easier going after Five Lakes.
    • Regulations: Campfire permit required for camp stoves. No camping allowed within 600  foot of the historic structures, but you can find plenty of spots that meet that criterion. There is also a large group campsite that can accommodate stock animals, which usually are out in the fall.
High Loch Leven Lake

High Loch Leven Lake

3.  Loch Leven Lakes: You might not think this destination is as nice as it is with the trailhead just feet from the roar of Interstate 80 but by the end of the two mile ascent the freeway noise disappears as you clear the summit. There are a series of three lakes, each with camping. The first, Lower Loch Leven Lake, is the least attractive of the three but also the least visited. We camped here and had the small, pleasant lake to ourselves and thoroughly enjoyed climbing the terraced rock ledges behind the lake to get superb sunset views. The second lake, Middle Loch Leven Lake, a quarter mile down the trail, has a few low islands and is quite pretty. The lake stretches out in front of a big rock wall and there are a few exposed campsites. The third lake, High Loch Leven Lake, one mile from the first lake, is great for swimming and has a large number of campsites arrayed along one shore but can be very crowded. It has a large boulder-island in the middle of the lake that some intrepid swimmers like to warm themselves on. We elected to remain at the first lake for two nights and took a day hike to the other two lakes. See my account of our trip in Backpacking to Lovely Loch Leven Lakes.

  • Trailhead-Near Rainbow Lodge on Interstate 80. Take the Rainbow exit to Rainbow Lodge (50080 Hampshire Rock Rd, Soda Springs, CA 95724, 530-426-3661)
  • Out and back (return to your car the way you came).
  • Distance: 2.5  miles to Lower Loch Leven Lake (5  miles RT), 1.5 (8  miles RT) more miles to High Loch Leven Lake.
  • Regulations: Campfire permit required for camp stoves.

Chase and Taira with parents, Ken and Laura around in the Granite Chief Wilderness

4.  Peter Grubb Hut: This hike involves the standard uphill Tahoe trek, this time to Castle Pass. Drop over the other side and the trail opens up to the serene Round Valley, a semicircular ridge that cups a gentle valley perched atop another ridge so the downward views are as good as the upslope views. You can stay in the very rustic, dim cabin, built more for winter use, but it’s not necessary (closed in 2013-14 for repairs). There are campsites in the vicinity and you can still take advantage of the double decker outhouse. It’s a beautiful spot along the Pacific Crest Trail to hang out and there are lots of scrambling opportunities, but no lake. There is a large stream just beyond the hut where you can get water. See Peter Grubb Hut hike article for more information.

  • Trailhead-Boreal/Castle Peak exit off Interstate 80. From Truckee take a right at the exit (away from Boreal Mountain Resort) and park in the small area at the trailhead.
  • Out and back (return to your car the way you came).
  • Distance: 4 miles one way (8 miles RT)
  • Regulations: Campfire permit required for camp stoves. If you want to stay in the hut Peter Grubb Hut, reservations and information are available through the Sierra Club and at Clair Tappan Lodge (800-679-6775)

Steve and Chase on the way to Paradise Lake

5.  White Rock Lake: This hike has the least elevation gain but the trailhead is the hardest to find, being nothing more than a Pacific Crest Trail road crossing on a remote Forest Service Road. It’s a pleasant hike with good views of the Sierra peaks but traverses a web of logging roads that are open to off-road vehicles. Therefore it has slightly less of a wilderness feel but is still worthwhile for the varied terrain and the large lake at the end, which is always a draw for kids. It’s also one of the warmest lakes in summer though it has a squishy mud bottom. Read a recent account of our trip to White Rock Lake and beyond in Backpacking Webber Lake to Donner Summit on the PCT.

  • Trailhead-Forest Service Road 86 between Webber Lake and Meadow Lake. Look for PCT marker on tree at GPS waypoint: Lat 39°25.502’0″ N. Long 120°26.911’0″W. See my article for explicit directions.
  • Out and back (return to your car the way you came).
  • Distance: 6 miles one way (12 miles RT)
  • Regulations: Campfire permit required for camp stoves.

Overnight Hikes (2+ nights) for kids

A little more extensive, good for 2 or 3 night trips, allowing for afternoons to frolic in lakes or stream:

Taira practices her map-reading skills near Five Lakes

 6.  White Rock Lake (first night) to Paradise Lake (second night). You can camp at Peter Grubb Hut a third night or push through to Donner Summit. Requires 2 cars, leave one at Donner Summit. See Backpacking Webber Lake to Donner Summit on the PCT for more information.

  • Trailhead-See article for detailed directions to the barely marked trailhead (just a small PCT marker on a tree) on FS86 between Webber and Meadow Lakes.
  • Park the 2nd car at the end of the hike: Boreal/Castle Peak exit off Interstate 80. From Truckee take a right at the exit (away from Boreal Mountain Resort) and park in the small area at the trailhead.
  • Distance: 21  miles end to end (6  miles + 5  miles + 9  miles days 1-3)
  • Regulations: Campfire permit required for camp stoves. If you want to stay in the hut Peter Grubb Hut, reservations and information are available through the Sierra Club and at Clair Tappan Lodge (800-679-6775)

 

7.  Barker Pass to Diamond Crossing the first night, Whiskey Creek the second night, out the Five Lakes Trail to Alpine Meadows Road. Requires 2 cars, leave one at Five Lakes Trailhead.

  • Trailhead-From Truckee take Highway 89 south toward the West Shore. Take the Barker Pass Road into Blackwood Canyon. The first nine miles are paved. One half mile further, on the dirt road where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road, is the trailhead with a large parking lot (not the trailhead for Ellis Peak—that’s another hike).
  • Park the 2nd car at the end of the hike: Five Lakes Trail trailhead on Alpine Meadows Road.
  • Distance: 13  miles end to end (4  miles + 5  miles + 4  miles day 1-3)
  • Regulations: Campfire permit required for camp stoves.

 

Chase loves a fire at night.

These backpacking routes, ranging from two to six miles one way (four to twelve miles round trip) are good trips for 6-12 year old backpackers. Five Lakes and Loch Leven Lakes are the best for younger backpackers (and parents who might not have that much backpacking experience) while Whiskey Creek, Peter Grubb Hut and White Rock Lake trips can be accomplished by older kids. By the time they are teenagers they should be ready to tackle 8-10 miles a day, which is a comfortable amount for all but the most driven hikers.

Photos by Inga Aksamit except where noted. 

 RELATED STORIES

 RESOURCES:

More tips on backpacking with children: REI article-Backpacking with Kids

Backpacking Gear Lists:

General backpacking forum: Yahoo Group-John Muir Trail

Permits:

Permits are not required for overnight visits in this area. However, California Campfire Permits are required if using a portable campstove for cooking or building a wood fire. Permits and information about current fire restrictions are available from any Ranger Station or California Dept. of Forestry office.  Permits are available online at the Forest Service website  after completing a short, 4-question quiz.

Forest Service Ranger Station: 10811 Stockrest Spring Rd, Truckee, CA 96161

 Reference: The Tahoe Sierra by Jeffrey P. Schaffer

Steve and Chase at PCT trailhead (Webber Lake to White Rock Lake)

Steve and Chase at PCT trailhead (Webber Lake to White Rock Lake)

2 thoughts on “Top five first backpacking trips for kids (or adults) in Tahoe”

  1. Backpacking to Five Lakes with a kid | Inga's Adventures August 28, 2015

    […] Top five first backpacking trips for kids in Tahoe […]

    1. Ben July 14, 2017

      Great website – very helpful, thanks!!

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