Hiking Lake Tahoe’s Ellis Peak
By TMS Ambassador, Rachel Arst McCullough
Ellis Peak and Ellis Lake trail is an 8-mile round trip hike on Tahoe’s west shore that features wildflowers, panoramic lake views, and few crowds. The snow is typically melted out by mid-July and I’d time a hike soon after that to take advantage of the best of the wildflowers. This trail is for anyone comfortable at that distance and looking for a few steep hills to get their heart rate up. There are a couple of steep drop-offs just off the trail on the ridge portion – a good place to keep a close eye on the kids.
Distance – 8 miles round trip
Elevation Gain – 1,876 (according to my Garmin)
Difficulty – moderate
Trail Type – out and back
Surface Type – single track and double track
Features – wildflowers, forests, mountain and lake views, high alpine, dog friendly
Facilities – none
Parking – small dirt parking area and parking on the side of Barker Pass. Free.
Getting there – from Tahoe Pines, take Barker Pass Road until the pavement ends. Park on the side of the road or in the dirt lot on your left. The trailhead is on your left, just behind the parking. Type Ellis Peak Trailhead into Google Maps and it will get you there!
What I love about this hike
- The amazing variation, from forest, to high alpine ridges
- The 360 degree view at the summit
- The opportunity to peak bag and visit a lake, all in just shy of 8 miles
Things to consider
- Just before the summit push, you cross a road and there may be vehicles
- There are sometimes motorcycles on the trail. I didn’t see any, but saw tire tracks.
If you’re the kind of hiker who likes to warm up, then the parking lot is your place to do that!
Once you hit the trail, it’s unrelentingly uphill for nearly a mile. The trail switches back through a red fir and lodgepole pine forest, so at least it will be shady as you make your way up.
As soon as the forest is behind you, the trail ascends a ridge and you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of the granite-covered mountains of the Desolation Wilderness to the south and a couple of peeks at Tahoe to the north. Besides the summit, this was my favorite part of the hike. It would make a great short hike if you walked to the end of the ridge and back.
The sweeping views could distract you from the beauty right at your feet! Lupine, scarlet gilia, mint, mule’s ear, buckwheat and more dot the ridgetop, along with a few taller trees that appeared to be victims of a lightning storm.
After walking along the ridge, you’re back in the forest, this time with hemlocks in the mix. And, day-glo green lichen. My favorite!
But, don’t get distracted…ignore a single-track trail going off to your left and you’ll shortly reach a marked intersection, where you choose whether to go to the lake or the peak.
I descended to the lake first to take advantage of the short climb out during the cool morning. On your right, you’ll see a rock cliff and some boulders. The base is lined with wildflowers if your timing is good. You’re also likely to see snow in this section early in the season.
And then, the lake! It was very warm and shallow. I wasn’t sure if it would be deep enough for swimming. This is a great spot for lunch and for camping, if you’re on an overnight.
Backtrack to the intersection and now take the steep single track with the small wooden sign that says “peak.”
Ignore the first singletrack on your right, and instead take the second one, which skirts the right side of the peak before heading up to the summit.
This is the single track to look for.
Walk through patches of hardy wildflowers growing up in between the rocks on this craggy section.
Then, enjoy the 360 degree views of the summit, with sweeping lake views and equally as compelling Desolation panoramas.
There are lots of beautiful summits around Lake Tahoe. Want to learn more?
Rachel Arst McCullough is an avid runner, hiker, mountain biker, rock climber, yogi and skier living in Truckee, CA. She’s always up for an outdoor challenge and is willing to put in the hard work to tell you all about the process, learning experience, and adventure, even if it didn’t go quite as planned!