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Trail Options between Lake Tahoe and Highway 4 | High Sierra Backpacker

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Trail Options between Lake Tahoe and Highway 4

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 09 October 2009

The Second of the seven trail sections between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney is from where you exit the Tahoe Basin at the Carson Gap,  to Highway 4. Highway 4 is the road crossing the Sierras where Ebbetts Pass and Lake Alpine are located. Lake Alpine is a resupply point for long distance backpackers.

Lake Tahoe has three good trail head options at  that I recommend for long distance Southbound backpackers, independent of if you are taking the Tahoe to Yosemite or Pacific Crest Trail between the Carson Gap and Highway 4.

The three trail head options are Meeks Bay across the Desolation Wilderness, Echo Summit, which starts in the Meiss Country Roadless Area, and S. Upper Truckee in Meyers, which also starts in the Meiss Country Roadless Area. These trailheads are throughly described in the trail guide as well as the previous forum entry.


Exiting the Lake Tahoe Basin Southbound through the Carson Gap offers you the choice of two distinctly different  trail routes to Highway 4 from Highway 88. Highway 88 is the highway just South of the Carson Gap, where Carson Pass is located.

The two mains routes between the Carson Gap and Highway 4 are the Pacific Crest Trail and the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail. The PCT trail tracks along the Eastern flank of the Sierras through Carson Pass to Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4. The TY Trail traverses the Western flank of the Sierras to intersect with the Eastern Shore of Lake Alpine on Highway 4.

The most heavily traveled route between Lake Tahoe and Highway 4 is the Pacific Crest Trail. The Tahoe to Yosemite route is lightly traveled, and not maintained, between where you will intersect with it in Summit City Creek below Fourth of July Lake to Camp Irene.

 The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail and PCT have run together since they intersected 11.5 miles South of Meeks Bay just below Phipps Pass North of  Middle Velma Lake. The Southbound long distance backpacker can follow the PCT all the way to Mount Whitney.

The PCT and Tahoe to Yosemite Trails continue South until they part company at the Carson Gap.

Echo Summit is 21 miles South of where the TY and PCT trails join. These trail intersect with the trail up from South Upper Truckee at Meiss Cabin. From there only the Upper Meiss Meadow and a gentle three mile grade separate you from the Carson Gap, the point that divides the Tahoe/Truckee drainage from the Carson drainages, and the point where you will decide if you will head South on the TY Trail or the PCT.

The backpacking between Meeks Bay and the Carson Gap is an excellent 4 day, 42 mile backpacking trip. This could be first segment of your eventual full exploration of the mountains between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney. If you did one 42 mile section each Summer, you will complete the Tahoe to Whitney trail in 10 years.

Nonetheless, It's here, at the Carson Gap where the backpacker is confronted with two distinct routes to Yosemite. The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail parts from the PCT at the Carson Gap, to pass over the Western shoulder of The Sisters and Round Top on its way down to Summit City Creek towards its eventual junction with the Mokelumne River.

Below: Approaching Carson Gap from the North. The trail is obscured by the snow.


The Pacific Crest Trail, on the other hand, turns East from the Carson Gap for a short walk down to the Carson Pass hut,, where you can check out the Kit Carson monument, and kick it for a few moments on the picnic tables, and talk to the volunteers who work there. There are picnic tables at the Carson Pass as well as a picnic table at the Northbound trail head parking lot , which sits a 1/4 mile North of the Carson Pass. The Northbound trail head at Carson Pass also has a bathroom and a garbage can. Nice places to have one of your lunches.

From there the  PCT moves onto the dry Eastern Flank of the Sierras with great views of the dry mountains to the East, and stays on the Eastern Flank of the Sierras for the rest of the 22 miles that separates the Carson Pass from Ebbetts Pass. The terrain is primarily volcanic, decorated with tiny islands of granite. The terrain along the Tahoe to Yosemite route is primarily granitic from Summit City Creek to the last section of the climb up Mount Reba's Northern flank.

Below: Pacific Crest Trail through Carson Gap, backpacking South. The PCT travels Left of Elephants Back (the snowless "wedge" mountain on the Left), while the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail passes Right of Round Top, the snow covered mountain on the picture's right.

Pacific Crest Trail through the Carson Gap, backpacking South

The Tahoe to Yosemite Trail passes West around The Sisters and Round Top, then dives into the deep granite and deteriorated trails bounding Summit City Creek on its way down to its junction with the Mokelumne River.

But before you get on down to the Mokelumne River there are about 4 miles of non-maintained trail between the Summit City trail junction and the first, the upper ford of Summit City Creek. This little section features three very difficult sections to either navigate or pass through. Once you pass this deeply forested maze/obstacle course, you encounter a clean granite surface that is well ducked all the way to the first ford of Summit City Creek.. At least it will be well ducked until the snows knock the ducks down this Winter.

After crossing, do not follow the natural crack/drainage up, but instead look to your right and find the faint bits of  trail bed as it passes above and around the steep rock bounding Summit City Creek South of the upper ford. This brief rock section is also reasonably well ducked, but if you do lose your way a bit, don't freak out. The route works its way over the rise between the mountain and the rock-bound creek, then plunges down into what looks like one big manzanita bush all the way to where Summit City Creek again flattens out.

At the bottom of the Manzanita descent on the other side of this rise the terrain flattens out, the forest thickens up a bit. Adjust your route to move you towards where you can access Summit City Creek, and you will soon see where the creek rushes down into a wide granite flat, bounded by trees breaking through plates of granite, and littered with large granite boulders. Just past this granite flat there is a little dirt flat with a well established camp, fire pit, and benches (July 2009) surrounded by trees, positioned on a rise overlooking Summit City Creek. 

When you continue South through this fine camp site and watering spot, you pass through nice forest for a bit, then soon again pass out of forest cover as you turn steeply down mountain and again plunge into a maze of manzanita.

My best advice through this section is to keep the Summit City Creek as close to your right side as possible.  Just don't wander off to your left too far, into what looks like a better, forested surface. These forest arms drain the mountain, and will shortly lead you upward, and away from the 2nd ford.

If you lose your way a bit, don't freak out, just keep heading down. There are many channels through the manzanita down the mountain, and if you don't head to far to your left, all these paths through the manzanita  will bring you down to your final ford of Summit City Creek. Stop, observe, and you will find the best path through. If not, you will just work a bit harder, and take a bit longer, to get down to the second ford. This means you should give yourself the proper amount of time to get through this section. It may be harder than you think.

As you approach the lower ford the manzinita thins, and you will see that you are getting closer to intersecting with Summit City Creek. As you get down to creek level, you should see a fragment of solid rock trail work on your right, near the Creek, that brings you  to the ford. This point is right where you can again gain access to the Summit City Creek after the Manzanita descent. You will see a great amount of ducks on both sides of Summit City Creek when you locate the ford.

The solid trail work brings you to a heavily forested flat section that is full of downed trees. It appears that this is where violent Spring thaws running down Summit City Creek deposit the trees it has caught up.

Look downstream, and you will see ducks marking a route downstream through this thicket. There are real good ducks to follow, for the 50 yards or so, to where you can ford to another short section of rock trail on the other side of Summit City Creek. If you can't find the ducks, follow the easiest route possible downstream for about 50 yards, then start looking Right, across Summit City Creek, for the big ducks and obivious channel the trail follows out of the opposite bank.

More to Come...and add your comments and experiences with these trail routes and trail heads below.

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