Every time I reach the top of one of the peaks around Lake Tahoe, I feel like I spot a dozen more that I need to explore, it’s an endless adventure! For that reason (and some misunderstood advice), it took me almost a year to get to hike Ralston Peak so let me spare you from my mistake and say this: you want to do this trail, it’s truly one of the best! Ralston may not be the highest mountain in the area but topping out at 9,239′ in the midst of the Desolation Wilderness, it offers one heck of a view, one solid workout by Tahoe trail standards and yet is an adventure you can do in an day with time left for a long dinner after.
So, if you’re up for a solid hike and like seeing tons of lakes, mountains and forest landscapes (what crazy person doesn’t!), put Ralston Peak on the top of your list. And oh, read on down for more details before you rush out the door…
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, Lodging, Trail Facilities
Ralston Peak is an incredibly accessible trail, well, getting to the trailhead is easy I mean. You’ll simply need to navigate to Camp Sacramento off US Hwy 50 just a couple minutes beyond (east) of Twin Bridges (which is the closest public restrooms that I know of.) Look for the lot across the street (left side coming from Sacramento, right side from Tahoe) where most people park. There are a few more spots up the dirt road beyond the church which will save you some walking and perhaps 50-100 of climbing but it’s a bumpy ride and only big enough for a few cars. Expect both areas to fill up on a weekend by mid-morning, this is a popular hike.
Beyond parking spots, a sign post and trail-map, you won’t find any facilities at the trailhead. For water, snacks and a bathroom, your best best is probably the general store Strawberry which is a great place to swing by. They’re basically a camp store with plenty of food, area maps, even a small climbing shop should you need more significant supplies.
Be a prepared hiker: I get it, this is just a few miles but really… there is no water on the trail, no food, no shelter. As popular as the trail may be, you will be in a remote area far from immediate assistance. So please, pack plenty of supplies for a long, hot and cold day out (see: the 10 essentials), check the forecast before starting out as mountain conditions change rapidly, don’t count on cell signal, and stick with your group. Thank you!
What To Expect On the Trail
Ralston Peak’s draw is the summit view far more than the trail to get there. Not that it’s a boring or ugly route or anything but as you’re mostly locked in by the forest, there just isn’t a lot to see on the way, at least not at the level of the boulder fields or Mount Tallac or the expansive views of Round Top.
To get to the top, you can divide the hike into three parts:
Starting off from the upper parking lot, you’ll find a large trail map and information board where you’ll need to self-register your group for a day hike (it’s free) before heading into the woods. Once you’ve done this, you’ll begin climbing right away but while you’ll be going up from the start, the first half of the trail’s elevation is gained over relatively moderate terrain as you switchback up a dirt path through the forest. Much of this stretch is fully covered by the trees and while they won’t save you from the heat of a summer day, they do work wonders at keeping the high-altitude sun from totally bearing down (which it will later on.)
All this gentler climbing comes at a cost of course as you only have few miles to make up for it and at about half way, that becomes real apparent, real quick. The switchbacks become more aggressive, the tree cover more spotty, and rock starts to replace dirt. Hiking up higher and higher, the trail intensity continues to pick up. Still, the trail builders were friendly humans and it seems like every real push is followed by a little more mellow stretch, even a flat bit. There are even a few short dips over the trail that turn the ~2,750′ of altitude gain into close to ~3,000′ of total climbing round-rip (assuming you come back down at some point that is.)
The third and final stretch begins as you find yourself totally out in the open, under the direct rays of the sun or cold of the win at the trail’s major fork (turn right right to the peak, left/ straight to Lake Aloha.) Not all maps account for this route but it’s much more direct than the alternative and thus much steeper. You can’t miss the junction, it’s beyond well worn in and the hill that kicks it off doesn’t hold back either. Thankfully this just continues on for 200′ or so of climbing before mellowing out a bit though you’ll still have a fairly similar rise / run climb to get to the top. You’ll know the fun is almost over as you step off of dirt and onto a large pile of loose boulders to climb the final 100-150′.
The top of Ralston Peak is, well, peaky but with enough flat or semi-flat spots to allow a fair number of people to hang out and enjoy the epic views. Lake Aloha is to your left, Fallen Lake and Tahoe ahead, Echo to your right. I’m a big fan of the PeakFinder app which maps out nearby mountains (it’s not free but it works offline) and using it here will show you a ton of mountains to consider exploring next!
If you were smart and started early (or brought a headlamp to start late), it’s possible to have the place to yourself but mid-day on a weekend I wouldn’t count on it. But whatever, the view is incredible so sit down, enjoy lunch, take a million photos and head back the way you came. Since the trail is mostly dirt, it’s generally easy to follow except for the top stretch so do pay attention to your route finding as you head back (hint: Carin App for iOS is a basic GPS that lets you record your tracks.)
Bonus: Backpacking Adventures!
From the photos, it should be pretty clear that there’s a lot more to explore all around. The Desolation Wilderness has an extensive collection of trails that you can reach parts of on day hikes but backpacking opens up even more. Permits are limited and busy on summer weekends but you can book them online so it’s easy to scout out the options!
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Out and Back
- Official Rating: Difficult
- Start point: Ralston Peak Lot / Hwy 50
- Distance: ~6 miles
- Duration: 5+ hours
- Elevation Gain: 2,800′
- Facilities: None on at the trail or at the TH
- Water: None on the trail or at the TH
- Crowds: Moderate to Heavy in Summer
- Cost: None
- Permits: Self Issued for Day Use / Advance for Overnight