Emigrant Lake is at an elevation of 8,602 feet in the Mokelumne Wilderness. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Impressive peaks reaching nearly 9,800 feet create a bowl effect, framing Emigrant Lake in a manner that could captivate hikers for hours. Even more remarkable, though, is the woman Melissa Coray Peak is named after.
Melissa Coray was the only woman in the 46-member battalion that was the first wagon train to go over the Carson Pass and the first to go west to east, according to the Sons of Utah Pioneers. Congress designated the Mormon-Carson Pass Emigrant Trail a national historic trail in August 1992. In October 1993, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names named the peak after Coray. The agency when naming the peak said it was to honor Coray and the “thousands of emigrant women who endured similar hardships in settling the West.”
Melissa Coray Peak at 9,763 feet is actually a subpeak of Peak 9795. Peak 9795, getting its name from its height, is identifiable because it has a small electric tower on it. From Emigrant Lake hikers are looking up to border of Kirkwood Mountain Resort. Skiers are known to venture down this back side in winter.
A few wildflowers decorate the trail even in mid-August. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Hikers can reach Emigrant Lake via Kirkwood, but some bushwhacking is required. A distinct trail juts off toward Kirkwood from the Emigrant Lake trail that leads to Covered Wagon Peak (9,565 feet) and Melissa Coray Peak. The latter is on the border of the Mokelumne Wilderness.
The out-and-back trail from the Caples Lake dam is 8.2 miles. We logged 8.63 miles that day, with the extra including a side trip to the waterfall and then to our granite slabs for lunch.
Water is a feature along much of the trail, with Caples Lake being the initial focal point. Driving along this body of water doesn’t reveal her true beauty; walking it does. The shoreline is pretty and inviting, with plenty of people only going this far. The trail flanks much of the southwest edge of Caples Lake before heading due south to Emigrant Lake.
Emigrant Creek flows from Emigrant Lake into Caples Lake. At various times it is visible from the trail, or can be heard. This would be a welcome relief for four-legged hikers. With so much water, it made for lush, verdant terrain. Small meadow-like grassy areas were a delight around more than one corner, as were the fields of flowers. Even in mid-August wildflowers were still pretty and worth gawking at. It would be a great trail to explore during their prime.
Most of the trail is a gradual climb along soft dirt and decomposed granite. Some was hardpack dirt from recent afternoon rains. Most people would not need poles going up or down. It’s single track, necessitating stepping off the trail so others can pass.
The trail from Caples to Emigrant is one most people in good shape can navigate without difficulty. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 50 west to Meyers. At the roundabout, take Highway 89 south. In Hope Valley, go right onto Highway 88. Just past the Caples Lake dam is parking on the left for the trailhead.
Permits required to stay overnight; must not camp closer than 300 feet to the lake.
Elevation gain was 980 feet, with minimum being 7,840 feet and maximum 8,650 feet.
An aerial view of the R/V John Le Conte pulling a large custom designed trawl to harvest mysis shrimp from Emerald Bay. (Image: UC Davis)
After spending about $2,000,000,000 ($2 billion for those who forgot what all those zeros mean) to improve Lake Tahoe’s clarity, the efforts seem to be for naught. Even so, the Draconian measures placed on government jurisdictions and agencies in the basin by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board remain intact. The silly idea of having every homeowner and business spend thousands of dollars on erosion control measures—aka BMPs—is still in place even though it’s not the cause of Tahoe going brown.
Fingers now point to mysis shrimp, also known as opossum shrimp, for the degradation of Tahoe’s famous clarity. These tiny critters that grow to less than 1 inch were introduced to the lake in 1963 by California and Nevada fish and wildlife departments in an effort to improve fisheries. This was done at multiple lakes. It was a failure in so many ways.
The sun may be setting on the opportunity to restore Lake Tahoe’s clarity. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
“It was seen as an ecological mistake, if not a disaster,” Geoff Schladow, director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center, said during a July webinar about the shrimp. “It does not seem that we can return to our goals; our goal to restore Lake Tahoe clarity to 97 feet.”
Data released earlier this month show the clarity on average in 2019 was at 62.7 feet. It was at 70.9 feet the previous year. A white disc that looks like a dinner plate is dropped over the side of a boat at various times to come up with the average reading. It’s gauged by the naked eye of someone on board. Measurements were first taken in 1968; the level of clarity was 102.4 feet then.
Starting with the 1997 Lake Tahoe Environmental Summit with then President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore launching the inaugural Lake Tahoe Restoration Act there has been about $2 billion spent on efforts to restore the lake’s clarity. Money comes from the feds, both states, local jurisdictions, and private contributions. Results have been mixed, but never enough to accomplish the goals.
Now an effort is under way to remove the mysis shrimp to see if that will turn the tide. Schladow said this invasive critter has “profound effects” on the food web below and above it. The problem is the shrimp “annihilated” the daphnia population. Daphnia are small plankton that consume algae that cloud the water. While the shrimp have short lifespans, they are prolific at reproducing.
A collaborative project between Tahoe Environmental Research Center, UC Davis Graduate School of Management and UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine is developing a premium dog food out of the shrimp that is projected to make enough money to keep the harvesting component viable.
Billions of dollars have been spent to restore Lake Tahoe clarity with little to show for it. (Graphic: TERC)
Yuan Cheng, one of the MBA students working on the project, also spoke during the webinar last month. He said the No. 1 goal is to restore the ecosystem, then create awareness and public education, and third is economics, as in generating enough sales to keep the operation going. A nonprofit is the most likely way to bring Tahoe Mysis Treats to market. Food scientists and creative strategists were added to the MBA program’s team.
The mysis come up from the bottom of the lake at night, making harvesting trickier at that hour. A large trawl net is dragged behind a boat. Bioacoustics is also used to determine where the shrimp are in the water.
Researchers were led to the mysis-daphnia phenomenon when in 2011 the shrimp had all but disappeared from Emerald Bay, the daphnia returned, and water clarity increased by 30 to 40 feet, nearly doubling. (It’s not known why the shrimp left.) This was the first time anywhere that the relationship between mysis, daphnia and clarity had been established. A five-year study was started with private money that confirmed this link. Then in 2018 a two-year study began to determine if the shrimp could be harvested to levels that would allow daphnia to return.
The next step is to launch a pilot study in Emerald Bay in fall 2021 to determine how quickly the shrimp can be removed and how fast clarity is restored, outline the cost constraints, and determine the market demand for the product.
This would not be the first time a tiny critter was harvested from the lake in hopes of improving water clarity. Crayfish were the rage several years ago with more than one commercial outfitter working traps and selling the crustaceans to regional restaurants. Those businesses are no longer operating.
A bear in South Lake Tahoe fills up on cherries. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Humans have a way of interfering with the food chain for wild animals beyond leaving garbage out. The addition of unnatural food sources like bird seed is one way, other ways are via water sources like bird feeders and pools. Compost and livestock are other disrupters.
Add in non-native predators like cats and dogs and the system can get really out of whack. Buildings and habitat degradation also contribute to the problem.
“All of this can change animal behavior,” said Jessica Wolff with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. NDOW earlier this month hosted a webinar about the food chain titled “You are what you eat.”
It’s not just birds that are eating the seed people put out. Coyotes, bobcats, rodents, snakes and bears all find it tasty. Another issue is that birds are starting not to migrate because they can find food year-round when people provide it.
One reason mule deer love urban environments is because of all the ornamental flowers available in people’s yards.
There is a hierarchy in the animal kingdom when it comes to who eats whom. (Graphic: NDOW)
Participants were asked how much they and their families affect the local food webs. Twenty-five percent said not at all, 33 percent said a little, and 42 percent said a lot. Every home is taking up land that once was home to some other creature, so everyone is affecting the food chain. Fences limit travel. Human noise can be an issue, as well as lights at night.
NDOW officials stated how most places in the wild coyotes hunt during the day. Not so around the Lake Tahoe area and other parts of Northern Nevada. They are more nocturnal and eat human food. Even though Nevada is one of the driest states it has plenty of coyotes. This is because humans have put out water in the form of pools and bird baths.
While wildlife is wonderful to observe, it’s best not to encourage coyotes, bears and other animals to be comfortable in neighborhoods. Eliminating food sources, including garbage, is the first step. Scaring them away is also suggested by wildlife officials. The whole goal is to keep all animals wild.
Hiking in the Mokelumne Wilderness stimulates so many senses. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
What goes down must come up. This can be a painful reality when the down comes in the middle of a hike. No fireworks were going off, but the drop into Fourth of July Lake was worth having to climb out 2 miles and more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
In mid-July the bonus was all of the wildflowers. The array of flowers and their size is largely dependent on the previous winter’s snowfall. The four of us were not disappointed with the variety on July 19. Columbine, lupine, mule’s ear, daisies, Indian paintbrush, yarrow, and so much more filled the terrain. Rubbing a few leaves of the mountain peppermint was a great way to cleanse my hands of the mosquito repellent.
Lupine fields in the high country of Alpine Country are almost at peak. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Stopping to take pictures made this a much longer day. No one was complaining. Flowers were growing out of granite rocks, in fields that carpeted the ground, in clusters like a bouquet, and as single strands of beauty.
Roundtop Lake with the reflection of the peak by the same name. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Water was abundant along the trail, making the landscape so verdant, especially on the climb to Round Top Lake. These creeks would be a welcome relief for four-legged hikers. All the water meant two stream crossings across logs. There could be more in early season.
While the hike starts near Woods Lake, the trail doesn’t actually go to that body of water. However, it doesn’t take long for it to come into view through the tall pines. A highlight of this hike was that the views were always changing, seeming to only get better around each bend. It wasn’t long before Red Lake Peak (10,061 feet) and Elephants Back (9,585 feet) were visible. Not far off the trail was a distinct waterfall reminiscent of the Glen Alpine Waterfall near Fallen Leaf Lake on the South Shore.
Fourth of July Lake in the center is about 1,000 down. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
At first the trees provided plenty of shade, but that didn’t last. Going higher the subalpine setting turned to more expansive land with few trees.
At times part of the trek is along what was obviously an old road. A rusted frame of a vehicle that we guessed was from the 1930s is off to one side facing a stream. A structure in the water we surmised was once a bridge. Why the people didn’t turn around we don’t know. If only the trees could talk.
Several places along the trail flowers grow out of the rocks. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Other parts of the trail were soft dirt with a thin layer of duff, other sections were rocky, some granite stairs had to be climbed, other parts were loose scree. I was happy to have my poles, which came off the backpack for the decent into Fourth of July Lake and were used the rest of the trek.
Once through the main section of wildflowers, Round Top Peak (10,381 feet) and The Sisters (10,153 feet) come into view. There wasn’t much snow left on Round Top, but one diehard skier found enough white stuff to make a few turns between the two peaks. It’s possible to stop at Round Top Lake. The beauty was magical as the mountains reflected into the water.
Fourth of July Lake is a beautiful spot for lunch. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
We opted to continue on to our destination. Even if you don’t want to make the descent into Fourth of July Lake, keep going until you see it. It’s worth the view even from afar. An outcropping of rocks is where two people in our group waited for me and Brenda as we headed to the lake. Once at the lake we were at tree line again, with pines surrounding us. On the far side of Fourth of July a small waterfall flowed from the rocks. It would have been possible to keep hiking from there. This section is part of the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail. We opted not to visit the national park that day.
Starting from the trailhead parking lot we clocked 9.82 miles round trip. The elevation at Woods Lake Campground, which is near where we started, is 8,240 feet. Fourth of July Lake is just a bit more than 8,000 feet. The problem, so to speak, is that first we climbed to 9,433 feet before dropping down. While we didn’t bag a peak this particular day, the graphic on the GPS looked like we did a couple.
Another option from this starting point is to make a loop via Winnemucca Lake. Signs make this an easy option at the get-go or when at Round Top Lake. The nice thing about bypassing Winnemucca is that you are likely to see fewer people, especially when the wildflowers are out.
Brenda and Roni on their way to Roundtop Lake. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
From South Lake Tahoe go west on Highway 50. In Meyers, take Highway 89 south. In Hope Valley, go right onto Highway 88. Turn left at the Woods Lake sign. This is 1.7 miles west of the Carson Pass Ranger District.
While much of the country tears down racist statues, in the Tahoe area change has come via the renaming of a peak. Jeff Davis Peak in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is now Da-ek Dow Go-et Mountain.
In the Washoe Indian language the name means saddle between points. The rock cropping at the top is now Sentinel Rock. The names were officially recorded with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names on July 9. Sentinel rock is what is listed on an 1883 survey map.
Talk of renaming this 9,025-foot peak in Alpine County in Mokelumne Wilderness has been going on for several years. Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. He doesn’t have any ties to California, and reportedly didn’t want it to become a state because of its anti-slavery position. Davis once said, “African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing.”
Alpine County Board of Supervisors, the U.S. Forest Service, and Gov. Gavin Newsom backed the name change.
Now the Washoe Tribe is working to change Jeff Davis Creek near the peak to Da-ek Dow Go-et Wa Tah. A decision is expected later this year.
In June 2019, the federal agency renamed Jeff Davis Peak in Great Basin National Park in Nevada to Doso Doyabi. In the Shoshone Indian language it means white mountain.
Looking north from the base of Rubicon Peak. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Up, up some more, then even more. That’s what hiking Rubicon Peak is all about—the ascent. In about 2 miles the elevation gain is more than 2,000 feet. My glutes on the way up and calves on the way down felt every foot of that climb.
The scenery, well, that’s what makes the effort worth it. It doesn’t take long before Lake Tahoe is behind you. Looking forward it’s obvious this swath of forest on the West Shore has been thinned. The openness is nice because the trail is single track. The second half of the route is steeper and eventually the trail diverges into many options. While there are cairns to help direct you, they are all over the place. Pick the route that looks best to you. This isn’t an ordinary Tahoe trek with nice switchbacks. Those barely existed.
At the start it looks like it will take all day to reach Rubicon Peak. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
From Highway 89 travelers, most notably headed south, can get glimpses Rubicon Peak with its unique rock formation. It’s from the tiptop that one gets the best views—essentially the entirety of Lake Tahoe from north to south. While this peak is in Desolation Wilderness, neighboring Granite Chief Wilderness is visible to the north.
With winds about 25 mph in Tahoma the afternoon we climbed, we opted to not scale the last 100 feet of rock. Rock climbers will find this last bit fun as it’s rated a class 3. Gusts were even worse where we were; to the extent I didn’t feel steady on my feet especially with the talus slope. Even not getting to the summit at 9,183 feet, the hike was well worth it because of the views and sense of accomplishment even for a short excursion.
While one dog and two kids were out on this particular day, this isn’t the hike for every dog or every child. The steepness, zero water for canines, and uneven/loose rock at the top would be reasons to think twice about who goes on the trail. It’s definitely one of the hardest 2-mile climbs I’ve done based on the slope and elevation gain. I would not do this hike in spring with any snow on the trail.
Reaching the top of Rubicon Peak takes some rock climbing skills. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
From South Lake Tahoe go north on Highway 89. If you hit Tahoma, you have gone too far. Turn left on Scenic Drive, right on Woodland Drive, right on Brook Drive, left on Crest Drive, right on Forest View Drive, left on High View Drive, and right on Highland Drive. Go through the gate to park so you are not on a residential street. The trail is the dirt road ahead. Do not go up toward the water towers. (Scenic Drive has two entrances off Highway 89. This route is from the southern entrance.)
The elevation gain was 2,112 feet. The lowest elevation was 6,931 feet, with the highest being 9,045 feet.
Not much water in Twin Lakes along the Tahoe Rim Trail on the East Shore. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
The trek to Twin Lakes in the Spooner Backcountry is one where the journey is more beautiful than the destination. It’s is a rarity when an alpine lake doesn’t capture all the oohs and ahhs.
Twin Lakes is just off the Tahoe Rim Trail near a junction that is popular with hikers and mountain bikers. With how low the water level was in mid-June, it would be possible to not even notice the lake. The expanse of dirt and grass had the dry lake bed being a larger mass than where the water was. From our vantage point we only saw one of the lakes.
An aspen grove along the trail would be even more colorful in the fall. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Jay Howard, who was the park supervisor for Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park for many years, said, “I think the issue of wet some years and dry for other years is due to a relatively small watershed. They are also small bodies of water that are greatly subject to evaporation. When evaporation exceeds the amount of water coming in from snowmelt, a pretty fast drawdown can occur. I don’t know for sure but I don’t believe those lakes have any groundwater or springs entering from below. Over the years that I’ve noticed, the fact that they have water has seemed to be tied to snowpack—heavy or at least average snowpack years, they have water—dry or below average snowpack years, they tend to have so little water that they dry very quickly. And yes, they are unusual due to their high location.”
These lakes, such as they are, are at almost 8,000 feet. One guy the four of us passed said in 30 years of hiking the area he had never seen water in the lakes.
A field of granite boulders seemed to be sprouting from either side of the lake. They were round, not jagged and rough like so many in the Sierra. This must be from being under water at times.
Most of the trail to Twin Lakes is an old logging road. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
The sign near the start of the trailhead in Incline Village says Twin Lakes is 3.8 miles. Three of us recorded a round trip of 9 miles from the base of the road. The parks department might want to redo its signs with the correct mileage. Better signage where the road meets the Tahoe Rim Trail would be appreciated as well. Twin Lakes is not on any of the signs up there. Had we gone left we would have been headed toward the Mount Rose/Tahoe Meadows trailhead of the TRT, while going straight would have had us going downhill on the Red House Flume Trail toward Hobart Reservoir. We took a right toward Spooner Summit, which was less than a mile to the lakes.
Most of our route was along Tunnel Creek Road, which to cyclists is better known as the Flume Trail. While we were going up, most on two wheels were coming down. This is an old dirt road, so it’s wide enough for various recreation users, and good for social distancing. Still, it was up the entire way and at times seemed a bit steep, especially for the two who had been living at sea level until a week before the hike. That steepness, though, didn’t present a problem coming down.
A couple spots along the route Tunnel Creek could be heard and seen. This would be a welcome relief for four-legged hikers, especially with much of the trail being exposed and not shaded. The openness was perfect for picture taking—water and mountains. Lake Tahoe in several locations was breathtaking with its grandeur. The curvy shoreline offered a definition not often seen from Tahoe trails; with some shallow areas mesmerizing because of the emerald hue.
Much history is stored in this section of the Sierra. A set of flumes were designed to take water from the area, through the Washoe Valley on the other side of the mountain, to Virginia City where it was used in the silver mines in the late 1800s. A tunnel on the Tahoe side was used to transport water and lumber in a V flume. That wood was needed to build the mine shafts. A couple informational signs are posted near the start of the trail. One says, “The Marlette Lake water system was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was listed as a Historical District in 1992. The system has been upgraded and is still used today to supply Virginia [City] and Carson City with water.” Today the water system is owned by the state of Nevada.
Lake Tahoe is prominent along much of the lower section of the trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
A monkey in Tahoe? Yes, with just a small amount of doubt. It might actually have been a gorilla.
The stone-faced creature has one of the best views of Lake Tahoe from the Spooner Backcountry. He was a little rough to touch, but docile. I think he was a he. I didn’t look. It was just a feeling I got.
I’m not sure how long he has been watching over Tahoe from Incline Village. Years, though. How did he get there? Well, legend has it the granite rock always had a look about it that resembled a gorilla. The eye and mouth are distinct. Then some guy took a chisel or the like to the rock to make the nostrils and ears. While normally I’m a staunch advocate of not defacing what Mother Nature has created, this goes down as one of those exceptions.
The rock is captivating.
Monkey Rock looks over the Incline Village area of Lake Tahoe. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It’s a relatively easy 2.5-mile round trip trek from the Tunnel Creek parking area in Incline. With much of the route being an old road, it’s wide enough for social distancing. What people will need to learn when hiking/walking is to go single file when passing. This will keep all of us safe.
While this section is the end of the famous Flume Trail, few cyclists were coming down.
It’s possible to make a bit of a loop out of a section of the trail. Instead of going up the first route on the left, go straight a little longer. It will be easier to come down this straight mostly single-track route than going up it. And if knees are an issue, go up and down the wider, less steep route. That route is up a bit farther; from the start it’s the second left.
At the next trail intersection, go up to the left at an angle toward the rocks. Monkey Rock is on the north side. A handful of user created trails go right to the rock. The best photo ops are from farther away. I was able to essentially lean against this guy, with my body dwarfing his.
If Monkey Rock isn’t enough to entice you, the views will. The scenery is stunning from the get-go. At first the route parallels the East Shore Bike Trail, only this one is higher so the sprawling blue waters of Lake Tahoe are even more impressive. The curvy shoreline of the East Shore is evident. Plenty of snow in late May still topped the mountains across the lake. The rocks around Monkey Rock are a bit higher than his perch. It’s a panoramic view of most of the lake, with pools of emerald near the shore in places.
Looking southwest across Lake Tahoe from the rocks surrounding Monkey Rock. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 50 east to the top of Spooner Summit. Turn left on Highway 28. In Incline Village, park at Tunnel Creek on the right. Walk up Tunnel Creek Road.
It costs $2 (cash) per person to enter Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. It’s an honor system. Do the correct thing.
Parking (for now) is free at Tunnel Creek.
Dogs on leash welcome.
The elevation gain was 445 feet. The lowest elevation was 6,337 feet, with the highest being 6,766 feet.