Image by Lauren Pineda

Tackling the Challenging Mount Tallac as a Family of Novice Hikers

My poor father had no idea what he was getting into when we surprised him with a hiking trip for his birthday. Unfortunately neither did we. My dad had recently become more interested in the outdoor activity but only knew so much from the few trips he had taken. So far, he learned that he needed to work out more beforehand so that he wouldn't tire so easily in the middle of a hike. Yet, he couldn't have predicted how difficult it would be to hike Mount Tallac in Lake Tahoe. And neither did the rest of our family of inexperienced hikers, although we should have, or at least, done enough research to be more prepared. This casual attitude is exactly how so many novice hikers get into trouble-or at least have a very tough day.

My dad, a meticulous and over-organized man, normally plans out our entire family vacations. But for once, my mom, brother, and I wanted to plan this trip because it was my father's 50th birthday. While putting together the itinerary for the weekend, we realized that we had been taking his planning efforts for granted. In attempting to book the cheapest way there and back, we hunted for and found low-priced flights in a city that we would also have to book a rental car and road trip from to get to our final destination. What we didn't account for was the amount of energy hiking Mount Tallac Trail was actually going to take, naively assuming that it was going to be a pleasant day hike and not a challenge even for fit and experienced hikers.

Where Is Mount Tallac?

Top of Mount Tallac overlooking Lake Tahoe

Image by Lauren Pineda

Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in El Dorado County, California, Mount Tallac sits southwest of Lake Tahoe in the Eldorado National Forest. The Mount Tallac trailhead is easy to get to from some of the resorts and campgrounds in South Lake Tahoe. It's about a 25-minute drive from Heavenly Mountain Resort and 7-minute drive from Camp Richardson campgrounds.

Because we knew we could get free day use permits at the trailhead parking lot, we failed to read the fine print during the very minimal research we did warning us how difficult and challenging the Mount Tallac Trail actually is. How hard can a 10.5-mile climb up and down a 10,000-foot mountain be? You see why my dad normally does all the planning for our family vacations instead of us.

We flew into Reno, Nevada, on Friday, and rented a car before settling down in a hotel for the night. We planned to wake up early Saturday to make the hour and a half-drive to South Lake Tahoe and start our hike. Our research (again, embarrassingly little) told us that hiking Mount Tallac Trail takes a little less than six hours up and down the mountain. We didn't really think about it being a difficult six hours. We figured once we finished our hike, we could have a late lunch in Lake Tahoe before making the three and a half hour-drive to San Francisco at sunset. And then on Sunday, we would go see the Golden Gate Bridge and walk around Sausalito.

Much to our dismay, (but what must seem inevitable to those of you who are experienced hikers), what we thought was supposed to be a chill six-hour ramble in the desert turned out to be a 10-hour disaster of cranky attitudes, exhausted bodies, and defeated mindsets.

How to Tackle Mount Tallac Trail

Mount Tallac Trailhead

Fallen Leaf Lake ridge line

Image by Lauren Pineda

As my father started to discover what we had in store for him, having his natural role as planner taken out of his hands started to stress him out- which we thought was cute and funny.  What wasn't as funny was our preparation the night before the hike. We completely overpacked. Instead of using lightweight hydration packs, we each brought heavier backpacks that were way bigger than we needed. Terrified of not having enough to eat and drink, we filled all four of our sizable bags with two to three full one-liter water bottles, a sandwich, and a couple bags of chips. Hefting the sagging bags on our shoulders, we all were a bit discouraged by their weight, but we hoped they'd become a lot lighter as we drank and ate throughout the climb. We were very wrong.

We started our adventure around 7:00am, right before sunrise. We dressed in layers, which is smart and what experienced hikers always do, but maybe not as many layers as we piled on. As native Texans, we really bundled up against the chilly California weather, despite it being mid-August. We didn't really think about how those heavy layers would fee, weighing down our packs, after we stripped them off only minutes into the hike. It seemed that the hotter the day grew, the more our packs grew.

The first three hours were absolutely breathtaking. We were excited to start the day and full of energy. The weather was comfortably chilly, and the sun was peeking over the horizon. One thing I know about my family is that they love taking pictures of everything. In awe of the gorgeous forest that is Desolation Wilderness, they were driven to capture as much of it as they could. So we took our time, stopping to take lots of pictures at outstanding waypoints up the base of the mountain including Fallen Leaf Lake's ridge line and Floating Island Lake, before stopping at Cathedral Lake.

I always humor my family when it comes to taking pictures because even though I don't take them like they do, I do recognize that you can never have too many captured memories. Well now when we look back at the pictures my parents took that day, we clearly recall how unprepared we were for this hike. And thankfully we're able to laugh at our cluelessness, since the worst price we paid for our mistakes was having a funny vacation story to tell.

At Cathedral Lake, we stopped to stuff some of our thicker clothing layers in our already-full backpacks and take a break. We were already exhausted from the incline we were hiking (which, to be honest, is fairly moderate), but at least we could see the summit. Our high spirits started to dwindle though as hikers that were behind us started to pass us, steadily and expertly making their way up the mountain with only hydration packs and walking sticks-something else we failed to bring. We also didn't realize that the trail was about to become more challenging.

RELATED: How to Prepare for the Ultimate Lake Tahoe Camping Trip

Cathedral Lake

Cathedral Lake

Image by Lauren Pineda

Cathedral Lake was the last marker that made me forget we were climbing upwards. Looking around made me feel like we were still at sea level with the lake glimmering right in front of me, surrounded by a canopy of deep green trees that sat against a clear blue sky. We could finally see Mount Tallac's summit peeking over the treetops, and for a second, it felt like we might actually finish the hike around the suggested six-hour timeframe. But after walking out of the forests around Cathedral Lake, the trail led us to the bottom of some scree and talus slopes. The narrow path switchbacks up and up until hitting the grassy plateau where the summit began.

As we started up this part of the trail, I heard my dad softly say, "Oh, no."

hiking up Mount Tallac

Image by Lauren Pineda

We grabbed some Mother Nature-given walking sticks to help us, but before long, we found ourselves on all fours at times (basically bear-crawling) to keep our balance as we made our way up the slippery, rocky slopes. If you looked up from Cathedral Lake, you would think that our four family members were from different parties since we got separated along the path- another foolish rookie mistake. At this point, my mom and brother, who aren't the biggest fans of the Great Outdoors even in good times, decided they were completely over this journey and the best way to bring it to an end quickly was just to put their heads down and keep booking it onwards and upwards. They were also in way better shape than my dad and I were.

My father and I alternated frequent breaks while trudging our way up the slopes, one of us stopping to gasp and urge whoever was in front to keep going ahead. Our morale was already floundering when we were faced with the demoralizing sight of the same hikers who passed us back at Cathedral Lake, now passing us again, this time on the way down after having reached Mount Tallac's summit, with the same smile and vigor they had while climbing the mountain. We waved again, chuckling and vaguely embarrassed.

Mount Tallac

Image by Lauren Pineda

Once we got to the plateau where the summit began, my brother and mom had had enough. We were exposed to the broiling high-elevation sun and were 6 hours into our hike. We sat underneath a small, bare tree and wolfed down the warm, soggy sandwiches that were stuffed at the bottom of our stupid, heavy backpacks. The hikers who were passing us in both directions were probably wondering what kind of camping trip we were on, since to get at our food we had to pull out enough clothes for an extended backcountry stay, yet we lacked a tent or any other useful gear.

My mom and brother laid down on top of all the thick clothes, fashioning them into some kind of mattress or nest, wishing my father and me good luck on the way to the summit before closing their eyes and napping.

Mount Tallac Summit

Mount Tallac

Image by Lauren Pineda

Although this was the most difficult part of the climb, the views at the end were worth it. My dad and I braved the steep slopes of loose rock that led to the mountaintop, climbing with more ease because we had left our bulky backpacks with my mom and brother. As our eye-level hit above Mount Tallac's surroundings, we were able to forget for a little while the insane journey it took to get there. To the south, we saw the vast Crystal Range making its way towards the horizon and the top of majestic Pyramid Peak (the highest point in Desolation Wilderness). To the north, we could see the entirety of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevadas filling all the surrounding space as far as our eyes could see.

Our view was completely unobscured, and my dad and I were able to share a special moment in marveling at the panorama we had worked so hard to see. We felt the sense of astonishment that comes when you're in a place that makes you truly understand and feel exactly how small we all are.  We looked down at the now-small pockets of natural colors that made up Desolation Wilderness- the same trees that towered over us when we walked through at the beginning of our hike. And although it would've been nice to share that experience with our entire family, it was an incredibly memorable experience to have with my father for his 50th birthday.

The hike down went much faster, of course, but it had taken us six hours to get to the top and it was another four hours until we made it to the bottom.  Picking our way down the steep slopes before Cathedral Lake with heavy packs made it hard to keep our footing in the loose rock. Cranky and ready to be at our next destination, we each walked at his or her own pace, only calling out names into the silence to keep track of each other. When we finally made it back to the trailhead, we laughed the humble laugh of those who just successfully finished a stressful adventure while learning some lessons along the way.

Mount Tallac

Image by Lauren Pineda

Originally, we wanted my dad to take the back seat of this trip. My brother and I planned to be the ones making the drive to San Francisco after the hike, just like my mom did when she initially drove to Mount Tallac from Reno. But as any good father would, my dad stepped into his parental role and happily drove us to San Francisco while we napped. He still likes to joke about how he had to "save" his 50th birthday trip.

What're some of your favorite adventures (or misadventures) you've taken with your family? Share your stories with us on our Wide Open Roads Facebook!


Lauren Pineda is based in Austin, Texas, and found her love for writing in local music journalism. She now enjoys writing about all the hilarious mishaps and adventures that happen when traveling somewhere for the first time and prides herself on being a budding traveler with an ambitious drive to learn more about the places she visits. Instagram: @lt.jpeg

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