One of the reasons I’m drawn to big mountains is of course those summit views: the further up you go, the less is in the way and all. While getting above everything else often requires a lot of effort, sometimes we luck out and find an amazing view that’s a lot closer to the road (or at least a lot less uphill.) That brings me to Round Top Mountain, a Tahoe Area hike that tops out at over 10,000′. A popular pick in summer, the draw for me was the winter route — miles of snowy views, smaller crowds and an alpine climb all contained in not too crazy package.
What to Expect Hiking Round Top Mountain
In summer it’s just a few miles and under 2,000′ vertical-feet of climb to reach the rocky top of Round Top. In winter, you’ll add on just a mile or so and few hundred more vertical-feet making this one accessible 10k summit year-round. Accessible of course does not mean the mountain is anything to take lightly — the area is remote, the slopes often snow covered and the last few hundred feet are a light, but exposed, scramble.
Still, all of this totals up to a very moderate day out. A few hours for those use to hiking to reach a reward that is really one of the best views I can think of. And while it’s technically not a Lake Tahoe peak (it’s mostly in the Carson Wilderness), that’s the landscape you’ll be viewing from the top — and likely where you’ll end up afterwords if you want some civilization to celebrate your day in.
Heading out in winter, the hike — or rather the snowshoe, starting at over 8,600′ it’s home to plenty of powder in a good season — is all that much more incredible. Skiers will find a sweet run without a crazy climb while the rest of us can enjoy a little slower workout with an incredible view of what winter does to the Sierras on all sides (the top sits well above everything else!)
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, lodging, trail facilities
While there are a plethora of trails around the mountain allowing for many options in and out as a day and multi-day adventure, the main route I know of starts at Carson Pass on CA 88. It’s an easy ride up in summer but one which may require chaining up in winter so come prepared.
You won’t find much of anything around the trailhead save for a couple vault toilets, an info board and a small parking lot (more parking down the road at the Carson Pass Sno-Park which has connecting trails in.) Be sure to pick up snacks, water and supplies well before you head out as well as grabbing a Sno-Park Pass in town as you can’t buy one at the trailhead (you can however get one online and print it out.)
If you are looking for snowshoes, handwarmers or any other last minute gear (but not parking passes), there’s a small shop at Kirkwood Station 5 miles west of the trailhead. Hours are limited but it’s something (the resort is a few miles further west and has restrooms, hot food, etc in season.)
Round Top Mountain Trail Details
From the trailhead, the day begins with an easy couple of mile trek up to Lake Winnemucca at the base of the mountain. Along the way there are occasional views of Round Top and The Sisters that lie next to it but mostly it’s a fun forest walk until you near the frozen shores of the lake.
All told, you’ll climb about 400 hundred feet over this part of the adventure which is not aggressive at all making this part of the trail a great option for an easier day hike or if you want to build camp for a weekend adventure (note: advance permits are required to camp and the ranger station does not look to be open on weekends in winter!)
After reaching the lake and following along the shore under the shadow of the mountain above, the day changes pace immediately as you go from little hills to heading up the slopes. Thankfully the established route takes a less aggressive line though with plenty of snowbase and often cold nights to pack it on down, you’ll fair much better if you leave the Costco-style tube snowshoes at home and bring something with an alpine design (that’s more teeth, more grip.)
Cresting the first major section of the mountain opens up a great view into the valley below for a nice break spot but don’t stop long, you’ve got plenty more to go as you cut up towards the now obvious saddle that separates Round Top (left) and the Sisters (right) above.
There are two sections to reach the saddle: first a few hundred vertical feet over smaller hills and then one steep push to the top as you quickly advance from 1,000′ to 1,500′ before finally leveling off. The Saddle its self is a fantastic viewpoint though it’s not far to the true summit if you’re game to climb a bit more and conditions allow (we saw zero tracks up on our visit.)
If you do continue on up, you’ll want to ditch the snowshoes as you switch onto the rocky path that make up the incredible looking rocky terrain of the top of the mountain. From what I explored and read, it’s a manageable scramble but winter certainly spices things up with snow covered rocks and ice to contend with.
From wherever you stop, you’ll be in for one incredible view. Looking back towards highway 88 across the way you just hiked is Lake Caples, Pyramid Peak, Red Lake Peak, Freel Peak and many others. Behind you, an incredible valley view down the backside of the mountain with an entire mountain range in the not to far distance to gawk at. Last but certainly not least, the Sisters stand right across from you as another option to scramble on up (note impact of snow on that route from the photos.)
When you’ve finished, head down the way you came (consider bringing skis if you have the skills or glissade a couple of the shoots but do be mindful of the avalanche risk posed by the steep slopes.) You can return exactly as you came or head further around the lake to meet up with the PCT, Elephant’s Back and Frog Lake for more views on the way out.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Out and Back or Loop
- Official Rating: Moderate+
- Start point: Carson Pass TH, Highway 88
- Distance: ~8 miles r/t
- Duration: 4-6 hours in winter
- Elevation Gain: Around 2k
- Facilities: Vault toilets at the TH
- Water: None on the trail (treat any natural sources)
- Crowds: Moderate
- Cost: Sno-park Pass Novemeber – May (not sold at the TH!)
- Permits: None for day hikes, advance permit required to camp