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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
More tips on backpacking with children: REI article-Backpacking with Kids
Backpacking Gear Lists: See Backpacking Resources Page
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 National Forest Ranger Station or California Dept. of Forestry office. Permits are available online at PreventWildfireCA.org after completing a short, 4-question quiz. The permit is free and may be printed from your computer.
Truckee Forest Service Ranger Station: 10811 Stockrest Spring Rd, Truckee, CA 96161
Reference: The Tahoe Sierra by Jeffrey P. Schaffer