Now that I’m officially a Californian again, I’ve been playing catch up every time I get a chance as I work to get caught up on all the classic Sierra hikes. Pyramid Peak’s notoriety (also the looks) quickly pushed it towards the top of my list so with a base of snow finally starting to cover Tahoe, I snuck out for a winter style climb and what a climb it was – but we bagged it and returned with beta to share!
What to Expect Hiking Pyramid Peak
It’s no surprise that Pyramid Peak is widely talked about: at just under 10,000’ (9,985’ to be exact), it stands as the tallest mountain in the Desolation Wilderness offering one hell of a view of the Tahoe region. Adding to the hype, the mountain is home to one of Tahoe’s biggest and most action packed vertical climbs though there are less exciting ways up as well.
The Rocky Canyon Route packs in over 4,000’ of climbing in under 4 miles by all accounts and at times it gets well beyond that 1,000’ / mile mark to do so. I saw route because Rocky Mountain really isn’t a trail, at least not a built up one. You can find tracks and Google Maps has a sort of accurate version of it, but you won’t find many developed features or signs here.
All of this adds up to a great adventure but one to take seriously. Expect a lot of steep climbing over dirt, rock and, if you’re heading up in winter or spring, snow. There are no facilities to be found, just you and the mountain to enjoy!
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, lodging, trail facilities
I’m not sure if the Rocky Mountain trail is unofficial or just completely unmaintained but either way you won’t find a parking lot let alone a trailhead marker here. To get started, head up highway 50 passing through the town of Strawberry (this is your last stop for supplies and the store is quite well equipped) for a few moments until you reach an overhead freeway sign. Park just past the sign or a bit further up the road but do be mindful of the no parking signs around many pullouts.
There are no facilities around the trail but you can snag a wilderness permit (required), water and a restroom further up hwy 50 at Twin Bridges.
To get on the trail, head across the road and a few hundred feet up you’ll see a white road marker. Looking around the dirt, you should see signs of a lightly worn path and yes, you’re going to start by basically scrambling right on up the hill!
The trail begins with a full on aggressive push up the side of the mountain. The terrain is steep as you climb around fallen trees on a dirt and rock path through the forest. The trees helped keep down the snow for the first 1,000 or so feet though it wasn’t long until we were making snow tracks and contending with icy spots in the morning hours. Along the way up, there are waterfall views, stream crossings, and likely a bit of bushwhacking if the trail hasn’t been visited much lately.
After making your way up about 1,600’, gives you a brief break though it’s never actually flat (and less steep here just means steeper somewhere else anyways.) Writing this well into winter, we found ourselves crossing several feet of snow for more than half the hike and while it was firm enough to survive in boots on the way up, just a few hours later snowshoes were certainly a requirement.
By the time the trail emerges out of the woods completely, you’re over 2/3rds of the way to the top though the going never gets easier. In snowy conditions, the route we followed (big thanks to whoever kicked in steps the day before us), took an aggressive approach carving towards the south side of the mountain above and we were even able to get a couple glissade runs in on the descent.
The last push for the summit is as tough as anything below as you climb up the rocky face of the peak. In this year’s lame winter conditions, this meant contending with a mixture of snow, ice and rock as we worked to avoid postholing through the terrain or stepping off the steeper east face (a few more feet of snow and I’d have glissaded right on down that I think.) While there’s no major false summit to contend with on this approach, the true top remains elusive as small dips block it from view though with every step up, the terrain does start to feel that much less aggressive.
Summit views are an incredible sight to behold and the top of the peak is perfect for hanging out for a while with loads of room though the winds blowing over the snow made our day anything but warm.
Return the same way you came being extra diligent to track your progress. It’s easy to get confused about the crossing points or catch another set of tracks leading to who knows where.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Out and Back
- Official Rating: Very Difficult
- Start point: Highway 50, just past Strawberry, CA
- Distance: ~7 miles r/t
- Duration: 4-6 hours
- Elevation Gain: just over 4,000’
- Facilities: None
- Water: None on the trail (treat any natural sources)
- Crowds: Light
- Cost: None
- Permits: Self register at a local TH / ranger station