There are trails that are popular because of hype and trails that earn their crowds and Mount Tallac is definitely in the later group. Hiking Mount Tallac was my first adventure in the Lake Tahoe area when I moved to California and while others have added to my love of the area, there’s a reason why I’m glad to return to it at any time.
Why is that you ask? Well, there’s just so much to make Mt. Tallac worth a visit. First off, you’ve got the killer summit view of Lake Tahoe and plenty of the mountain ranges that surround it. But that’s not the only view, along the way you’ll walk on by 3 other lakes, hike through boulder fields, across potentially snow covered trails and almost scramble up to the summit (it’s nothing intense if you follow the trail.)
As if that’s all not enough, at 10 miles round-trip Tallac is short enough to not kill your toes, high enough (9,738′ elevation) for a good view and a good burn (~3,300′ of gain), and accessible enough to be easy to get to. For all those reasons and more it’s worth a visit but of course, with that sort of perk list, don’t expect to be alone on the trail.
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, Lodging, Trail Facilities
The Mount Tallac trail starts at its own designated trailhead though there are way points that plenty of people go to hike to without pushing for the summit. The trailhead is located off route 89 just a few minutes north of the Taylor Creek Visitor Center. From there, it’s about a mile up a narrow road so drive slowly of course. There are no facilities of any sort at the trailhead (no restrooms, no running water) but you can find restrooms, water and some basic supplies at the visitor center and far more heading back towards Tahoe Valley.
Note: GPS navigation to “Mount Tallac Trailhead” can lead you down the wrong road. The right one is clearly marked, look for it. Also note: This trailhead gets extremely crowded with parking often extending well down the road. As an alternative, the Tahoe Trolly drops off right by the turnoff road.
What To Expect On the Lower Trail
At just 5 miles each way, the trek up to the top of Mount Tallac seems pretty straight forward but the way the mountain rises and levels out, this moderate route can feel rather strenuous. With a route that ranges from dirt to loose rock and is often fully exposed, you’ll want to bring good boots, plenty of water and plenty of snacks to power through to the top.
The first 3 or so miles of the trail are spent walking through the trees on mostly dirt or mellow rocks — it’s uphill for sure but it’s not particularly intense compared to the second half to come. Despite being well below the treeline, parts of the lower hike are directly in the sun (including a great level spot with a view of Tallac well above you to the right and Fallen Leaf Lake to the left) which can make for a warm start or end to the day even if it’s cool and breezy up top. Along this stretch, you’ll only gain about 1,000′ of elevation spread out over a number of mostly mellow rises.
For views, you get lakes. First, you’ll catch Fallen Leaf Lake just as soon as you clear the first major rise of the trail and as you meander back into the woods, Floating Island Lake followed by Cathedral Lake. Many people make that a major break stop as it’s well shaded with plenty of good sitting spots to relax at before heading out from the trees for the fun part.
The Trail (and boulders) to the Summit
Passing Cathedral Lake, it’s rock time. I mean this literally as you’ll head up a few short stone stair cases to get above the lake and quickly find yourself looking down on it rather than across — get use to this type of terrain and elevation gain as it does not let up much. After a few minutes of rocks, the trail will fake you out by returning to dirt but it won’t last long so enjoy it and soon you’ll be hiking up many more stone switchbacks as you start to wave up the mountainside.
The trail is well built and fairly straight forward though it is in a wilderness zone so don’t expect many markers. Given that the entire face you hike over is rocks, it’s easy to lose sight of the trail if you get distracted so pay attention to what’s ahead — if it doesn’t look like thousands of people have walked it, stop, turn around and find where you stepped off the trail.
Crossing into the wide open and up to the hillside, the stone and dirt trail is replaced by large shale boulders which are not kind to a misplaced foot or ankle. Good footing and / or trekking poles help a lot for stability here but it’s only a few switchbacks before this end and you reach the ridge.
The final 1,000′ of Tallac is up the backside of the mountain where you’ll return to some occasional tree cover and mostly dirt trails. In Spring, snow can cover parts, much or all of the trail making it easier to lose but even in summer, there are a few tricky spots so again, look for a trail: when you’re on it, it’s clear (if you’re uncertain, you’re probably off it.)
Wandering around fallen trees, past large rock fields, it’s not long before some incredible views of the surrounding mountains start to come into view. Soon after that, your final objective also becomes clear, well, nearly it, you can’t quite see the summit until you’re basically there. Turning hard right, you’ll wrap back around the mountain rather than going right up it (that’s a more aggressive scramble FYI) until finally, you return to rocks.
There’s a cool vista point standing out over the side of the mountain but trust me, it gets better from the top so take that photo, down one last swig of water and make the light scramble / steep hike up the rocks to the summit!
Welcome to the Top of Mt. Tallac!
At the top you’ll find a large, semi-flat area where you’ll likely run into everyone else on the trail that day snapping photos and enjoying lunch with a killer view.
Hint: If you head towards the very top of the rocks and climb down the left side about 10′ (it should just be a few big steps when you find the right spot), there’s a great little viewpoint that gets less attention. The same goes for a little longer walk to the outcropping towards your right.
At 9,738′, Tallac is not the tallest peak in the area but it’s not far from it and with nothing higher right next to you, you get to see it all. There are the lakes you’ve hiked by to the right, Lake Tahoe’s massive waters ahead, and just off to your right, an entire range of stunning peaks (which you can also hike, Pyramid Peak is the first on the range.)
Watch your footing on the summit rocks, especially if they’re wet, if you have kids or pets with you but beyond that, it’s just awesome stuff to enjoy. When you’re done, it’s back the way you came to your car. It’s easy to miss the turn back to the rocks so look out for that on your left as you descend, if you find yourself walking well down the ridge and see people below you, time to go up.
When you’re done, swing by the Visitor Center to clean up and grab a local map. Highway 89 north (left from the Tallac road) will take you around the east side of Lake Tahoe and is a great view to continue the adventure with! You’ll also find food options both ways for a well earned, post-hike burger, ice cream or whatever.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Out and Back
- Official Rating: Hard
- Start point: Mount Tallac Trailhead
- Distance: ~10 miles r/t
- Duration: 4-7 hours
- Elevation Gain: >3,300′
- Facilities: None on the trail
- Water: Fill up at the visitor center a few miles away
- Crowds: Heavy on a spring / summer weekend
- Cost: None
- Permits: Self issued at the TH
GPS / GPX Tracks