Mount Tallac Trail Guide: Epic Views in South Lake Tahoe

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Two hikers descending rocky trail from Mount Tallac with Desolation Wilderness in the background

Mt. Tallac Hike At a Glance

The Mount Tallac trail in South Lake Tahoe is a dramatic day hike with a singular goal: to stand on the summit of 9,700-foot Mt. Tallac and drink in 360-degree views of the gorgeous Desolation Wilderness.

Along the way you’ll enjoy sweeping views of massive Lake Tahoe, two peaceful forest lakes, and a dramatic talus field as you climb 3,500 feet in five miles to reach one of the tallest summits around.

Location: South Lake Tahoe, California

Distance: 10 miles total (out and back)

Total elevation gain: 3,500 feet

Highest point: 9,712 feet at summit

Trail information signs at Mt. Tallac trailhead
Information board at the trailhead. This is also where you get your free permit.

Difficulty

Mt. Tallac is a moderately challenging hike. At 10 miles it probably won’t take you all day, but it will make for 5 – 7 hours of hard work. Here’s what makes it challenging:

  • Steep climbing, especially in the upper half.
  • Very rocky trail. You’ll need to stay focused to avoid a potential trip and fall on the rocky ground. This also means the downhill isn’t much faster than the uphill.
  • Hot with little shade, especially in the upper half.
  • High elevation: with a summit of nearly 10,000 feet, most people coming from lower elevation will feel unusually out of breath toward the top of this hike.

Don’t let this deter you though! If you start early and take it slow and steady, the summit views will be yours to enjoy before you know it. Just make sure to save some energy for a careful descent as well.

Rough rocky talus on the Mount Tallac Trail
Watch your step!

Best Time to Hike Mount Tallac

Mount Tallac is only accessible to hikers in the summer, usually around June – September depending on the year’s snow conditions. During the rest of the year the trail is covered in ice and snow, and not safe to hike without winter mountaineering skills and equipment.

Trail Conditions

Be sure to check the current trail conditions here before you plan your hike (search for “Mt Tallac” in the table). This year (2019) has been an incredibly high snow year, and Mt. Tallac was one of the few high summit hikes in the area to be mostly snow-free. However, we still needed to cross and/or detour around some large areas of snow starting above Cathedral Lake in mid-June.

As mentioned above, the rocky trail conditions make this a challenging hike even when completely snow free.

Getting to Mount Tallac Trailhead

The Mount Tallac Trailhead is near Fallen Leaf Lake, at the southern end of Lake Tahoe. The access road is marked, paved, and easily accessible to all vehicle types.

There is free parking at the trailhead, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it fills up on especially busy days. Don’t expect cell phone reception at the parking lot or on the trail, except possibly at the top of the mountain.

Parking lot at Mt Tallac trailhead
Trailhead parking

This trailhead is also where you will pick up your free self-serve permit.

Permits

Desolation Wilderness, despite its name, is one of the most well-traveled wilderness areas in the country. Fortunately, as a day hiker, permits are free and readily available. You can pick up a free self-serve permit for Mount Tallac at the trailhead (bring a pen to fill it out).

Note that if you plan to backpack overnight in Desolation Wilderness, the permit process is different. You’ll need to apply for a permit and the quota system can be quite strict.

Navigation

The trail is popular and well marked. Still, it never hurts to have a GPS track on your phone, especially for the section at the top that is more of a scramble. On high snow years there may be detours around snow patches where it’s possible to lose the trail.

I recommend using the free Hiking Project app, which allows you to download the route ahead of time and use it without a network connection. Here’s their trail guide to Mt. Tallac, as well as links to download the app.

Water

Bring plenty of water for this hot and dry hike! Unless you plan to refill along the way, I’d recommend starting with at least 3 liters.

Cathedral Lake is the last reliable water source on the route, so if you’re running at all low, be sure to top up there (best to filter or purify) before heading higher. The top half has almost no shade, is slow going, and the high-altitude air feels very dry.

Small mountain lake (Cathedral Lake) on the Mount Tallac Trail
Cathedral Lake

Mount Tallac Trail Overview

The trail begins climbing almost immediately from the parking lot. The first couple miles include a beautiful ridgeline walk with views over Fallen Leaf Lake to the left, and a towering mountain to the right (that’s essentially where you’re headed).

At about 1.8 miles you’ll reach small Floating Island Lake, a nice place for a snack break. Or, you can continue another mile or so to Cathedral Lake, an excellent place to rest and fill up on water if needed before tackling the toughest part of the climb.

Leaving Cathedral Lake the trail climbs more steeply, heading up and across a talus field. Don’t let the increasingly dramatic views distract you too much from the rocky trail underfoot. After reaching the top of the talus field, you’ll continue curving around to the right on easier trail, potentially navigating through or around some snow patches depending on your timing.

Views of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake from near the summit of Mount Tallac
Fallen Leaf Lake on the right, and just a small corner of massive Lake Tahoe on the left

Close to the summit there’s an unmarked junction with an alternate route to the summit on the right, and the typical route on the left. When we hiked, both were open, but we heard the right one is better if there’s still any snow around.

Don’t be fooled by the false summits; the true summit only reveals itself when you’re very close to the top. There’s a tiny bit of rock scrambling but the final climb is pretty straightforward, and before you know it, you’ll be sitting at the top! While the summit perch feels satisfyingly lofty with its sweeping views, the summit area is large enough to feel secure, even for those who don’t like exposure.

Rocky scramble to Mt Tallac summit
Looking up at the summit across a final easy scramble

Enjoy a well-deserved snack as you soak up the view, but guard it closely from the well-fed chipmunks and marmots. As adorable as they are, please don’t feed them. It’s unhealthy for them and makes them even more aggressive with future hikers.

Chipmunk close-up on summit of Mt. Tallac
Yes you’re adorable, but you still can’t have my food.

When you’re ready to head down, simply retrace your steps. Take it slow, especially if you’re tired, and watch your footing on the rocky sections.

What To Bring

Mount Tallac is a summer mountain hike, so you’ll want to bring all the essentials for this type of outing:

  • Water, recommended 3 liters (and filter or chemical treatment if planning to refill along the way)
  • Plenty of snacks and food
  • Map and trail description, or phone with GPS track, for navigation
  • Sturdy footwear: we all hiked in trail running shoes. Hiking boots aren’t necessary, but you definitely do want something comfortable and stable.
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses and optional hat
  • Windbreaker or rain jacket in case it’s a little chilly on the summit, or in case of unexpected bad weather. (Looking for a new rain jacket? Here are my 3 favorites compared.)
  • Bug repellent, optional, but depending on time of year and day there can be mosquitoes in the lower half.
  • Hiking poles, optional, might be helpful on rocky sections for those with unsure footing (read more: how to choose and use hiking poles)
  • Small first aid kit is always a good idea when hiking. One member of our group tripped on a rock and some basic gauze and tape would have been helpful.
  • Camera!

Trail Variations and Extensions

Fallen Leaf Lake alternate start: About 2.5 miles from the main trailhead, there is another trail heading down to the south side of Fallen Leaf Lake. This trail is only 1.3 miles and quite steep. It’s not the most popular way to start the hike, but if you happen to be at that end of Fallen Leaf Lake already, it’s worth considering.

For a longer hike, you can turn left just before the summit and continue another mile and a half to Gilmore Lake. Here the trail links up with the Tahoe Rim Trail / Pacific Crest Trail, for literally thousands more miles of hiking. Note that an overnight permit is required if you plan to camp in Desolation Wilderness.

More Hiking Resources

If you’re thinking about hiking Mount Tallac, you might also be interested in the Hiking and Backpacking Resources page, or these popular guides:

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Pictures of mountains with text: Mount Tallac Hiking Guide - South Lake Tahoe
Pictures of mountains with text: Mount Tallac Hiking Guide - South Lake Tahoe

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