Hiking the trail to the summit of Ellis Peak rewards you with views of Lake Tahoe, Desolation Wilderness, Granite Chief Wilderness, and a vast swath of the Northern Sierra Nevada. You’ll also see lots of summer wildflowers and you’ll walk through a shady red-fir forest.
Note: this is Hike 18 in my book 100 Classic Hikes: Northern California, fourth edition. The book has 27 hikes in the Northern Sierra Nevada. You can find similar descriptions of the Pacific Crest Trail from Echo Lake to Lake Aloha in Desolation Wilderness, the Sierra Buttes Trail, and also the Lake Margaret Trail in Eldorado National Forest.
The Top 100 Day Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Northern California
The all-color fourth edition features the best trails:
- Northern Sierra Nevada
- Lassen and Mount Shasta areas
- Trinity Alps and Marble Mountains
- Redwood Coast
- Wine Country and Bay Area
Includes trailhead directions and detailed maps and trail descriptions
Often available at Barnes & Noble, REI, and other quality bookstores and outdoor stores (call first!)
Ellis Peak Trail Key Data
Distance: 6.2 miles roundtrip
Type: Day hike
Elevation gain: 1400 feet
High point: 8740 feet
Season: July to October
Contact: Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit
Maps: USGS 7.5’ Homewood, National Geographic Lake Tahoe Basin
HIKE NAME Trailhead GPS coordinates: N 39 04.308 W 120 13.852
Notes: Dogs allowed on-leash. Part of the route is open to Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs).
Ellis Peak Trailhead Directions
Take Barker Pass Road, which is on the west side of CA Highway 89 on Lake Tahoe’s northwest side, 4.3 miles south of the intersections of CA Highways 89 and 28, and 23.3 miles north of the junctions of CA Highway 89 and US Highway 50 in South Lake Tahoe. Bear right 2.3 miles from Highway 89, and then reach the Ellis Peak trailhead on the left at 7.0 miles, just before the pavement ends.
Hiking the Ellis Peak Trail
The journey starts with steep climbing south through a mixed forest of red fir and western white pine. You’ll be grateful when the ascent moderates at 0.4 mile. At 0.7 mile you reach an open ridge, which is definitely the highlight of the hike, ranking only slightly behind the summit of Ellis Peak itself. (Note that you are actually hiking in Eldorado National Forest and will only cross into Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit when you reach Ellis Peak.)
Vistas: Desolation Wilderness and Granite Chief Wilderness
Gaze southward into the heart of Desolation Wilderness at the vast granite expanse of the Crystal Range, including Pyramid Peak, Mount Agassiz, and Mount Price, and also at the metamorphic summits of Dicks Peak and Mount Tallac. Also look north at the metamorphic ridges and peaks of Granite Chief Wilderness, and east at the northern portion of Lake Tahoe.
Hiking Onward to Ellis Peak
As you continue easterly along the ridge, the multi-hued array of flowers at your feet competes with the vista for your attention: note yellow mule’s ear, purple lupine, and red Indian paintbrush, among others. Take it all in, because you soon will be without both views and flowers as you descend into a thick red fir forest at 1.2 miles. The shaded route bottoms out at 1.5 miles and then starts a gentle climb to reach a dirt road (open to off-higway vehicles = OHVs) at 2.4 miles. Left leads to Ellis Lake (described below) but the trail crosses the road to climb at a steeper incline as you start the final push to the summit.
Turn left on the dirt road at 2.7 miles and ignore a faint path on the right that appears after another 200 feet. Enjoy a brief respite on a level stretch at 2.9 miles and look for the faint path on the right 150 feet farther that climbs along the east side of Ellis Peak, bringing you to the summit at 3.1 miles.
Ellis Peak Summit Views
The views will mesmerize you. They include everything you saw earlier on the open ridge, and much more. The full expanse of cobalt-blue Lake Tahoe shimmers below, with the entire lake surrounded by high peaks. Gazing westward, first look straight down at Ellis lake, and then let your eyes track farther west to large lakes and then forested mountain ridges that lead to the distant Sacramento Valley.
Hiking to Ellis Lake
You can easily get to Ellis Lake by heading right on your way down onto that dirt road you crossed at 2.4 miles. The road drops gently north 0.4 mile to the lake, where you’ll be directly under Ellis Peak.
Camp for Free in California National Forests
California’s national forests and BLM lands have thousands of miles of dirt roads with lots of spots for dispersed camping (boondocking). My book provides all the info you need to get started (but is not a guide to specific sites):
- Researching the best locations
- Finding the best camping spots
- Backcountry safety and ethics
- What to take
Done the hike? What did you think?