One of the prettiest spots in the Sierra Nevada mountains is conveniently located near Lake Tahoe. The hike to Lake Aloha passes several other alpine lakes along the way. It’s not easy — almost six miles, one way, with about a thousand foot elevation gain — but every step brings you closer to a little slice of heaven.
You can hike to Lake Aloha from two trailheads. I chose to start at Echo Lakes. To get to Echo Lakes, head south on US 50. As you climb the mountain towards Echo Summit, you’ll see a small, unmarked road that splits off to the right (2.8 miles south of the US 50/California 89 junction). Follow this road for a little over 1/2 mile, then turn right onto Echo Lakes Road (signs should point the way). You might want to park along the side of the road, shortly before arriving at the lake, since parking at the lake is limited to pass holders.
Alternatively, you can begin your hike at the end of Glen Alpine Road. From South Lake Tahoe, take California 89 north to the Camp Richardson area, and turn left onto Fallen Leaf Road. Drive to the south end of Fallen Leaf Lake, then turn onto Glen Alpine Road and drive to the end.
The hike to Lake Aloha begins with a big decision. Do you want to spend some cash and make it easier, or save your money and spend more time hiking?
If you choose the route that begins at Echo Lakes, you’ll start the journey right here, at the southeastern end of Lower Echo Lake. There’s a water taxi service that will take you across both the Lower and Upper Echo Lakes, and drop you on the northwest side. That will take almost 3 miles off your hike — basically cutting it in half.
That sounds like a great idea, but I thought the water taxi was pretty expensive. It costs $14 per person, with a 3-person, or $42 minimum, for a one-way fare. Since I was hiking alone, I would have had to wait for a couple of other hikers or pay the minimum. I decided it wasn’t worth it.
The Hike to Lake Aloha: Echo Lakes
Plus, I figured that the hike along the Echo Lakes shore was half the fun! This part of the trail is just as beautiful as the rest of it, and I figured I was up for the challenge. So, I opted to hike the entire way.
It takes almost two miles to get around Lower Echo Lake. The trail never comes close to the water — you’re always up the hillside, and often, there are resort cabins between you and the water. They’re not obtrusive, and they don’t ruin the views, but the cabins and the boats do add some extra noise to this part of the hike to Lake Aloha.
After you reach the upper end of Lower Echo Lake, the trail departs briefly from the waterfront, goes up and around some terrain, before the upper lake comes into view. It seems like there are more cabins, and more noise, at the upper lake — perhaps because the upper lake is smaller, so everything is closer together.
Once both Echo Lakes are in your rear-view, the trail starts to get interesting. You’ll pass the spur trail that leads down to the water taxi boat dock (I didn’t hike down there, so I don’t know how much distance it adds to your hike). Then…
… the trail climbs steadily for a while…
… and you start to gain some serious elevation. Looking back, you’ll have a fantastic view of the Echo Lakes…
Hike to Lake Aloha: Desolation Wilderness
…until about the spot where you round a corner and enter the Desolation Wilderness. From this point on, you’re required to wear a tag on your backpack, indicating you registered for the hike back at the trailhead.
This part of the trail is sparsely forested, which makes those giant twin trees a noticeable landmark.
While your hike to Lake Aloha has an obvious destination — Lake Aloha — you could also choose some side-trips to other lakes along the way. This is Tamarack Lake, on the south side of the trail. Later on, you’ll also pass side-trails to Lake of the Woods and Lake Margery/Lake Lucille.
Speaking of the woods, here it is! Around the area of the turnoff for Lake of the Woods, you’ll pass through a dense forest. It’s a nice, cool portion of the trail, especially on a bright, sunny day. And as a bonus, the trail reaches its highest elevation here, before dropping down a couple hundred feet to Lake Aloha. So, you’ll find yourself going downhill for a change.
This is the only spot where, in late June, I found snow along the trail. There was, however, snow on the mountain peaks, not far above Lake Aloha.
After the brief walk through the forest, the trail opens up again. Once you get near the lake, there are many paths over to the water.
Lake Aloha is stunning. Its shallow, clear water allows you to see the granite rock just below the surface, as it sparkles in the sun. It’s pretty easy to find your own private rock here, take off your hiking boots, and soak your tired feet in the water. At least, that’s what I did. And it was nice.
Once I recovered (somewhat) from the long hike to Lake Aloha, I started exploring.
On the east side of the lake, you’ll have a nice view looking west towards Pyramid Peak (on the left in this photo, I think) and Mount Price.
The jagged shoreline takes you out onto one tiny peninsula after another. Sometimes some rock-hopping is required, and you’re actually on an island!
Looking north, Mosquito Pass is in the distance, along with Jack’s Peak. In some spots, the water has submerged the roots of some trees, which are now ghostly skeletons protruding from the lake.
That should have been the first sign that this wasn’t a natural lake, but I didn’t realize it…
…until I circled around the southern end, and discovered this dam. As it turns out, Lake Aloha is actually a reservoir. It was first dammed in 1875, and other dams were built from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. By 1969, all this dam-building came to an end, when the Desolation Wilderness was designated by Congress. However, somewhere along the way, the decision to keep the dams was made. And while it means that Lake Aloha isn’t entirely natural, it’s hard to argue with having such an enjoyable lake in such an idyllic spot.
On the far side of the dam, you’ll find more exposed rock, since the water levels are lower. Before the dams were built, this area was known as the Medley Lakes, and I’d imagine the entire area looked a lot like this.
You can walk along the top of the dam, out to a point that feels like you’re in the middle of the lake. But the truth is, I barely explored one corner of Lake Aloha. If I rejoined the main trail, I could have hiked for another mile and a half before reaching the north end of the lake. I did go a short distance up the trail but determined that the views were better on the south end.
On the way back down from Lake Aloha, I really struggled. I had brought a half-gallon jug of water along with me, plus a small water bottle, but it wasn’t enough for a hot summer day. By the end of the hike, I was rationing each sip. And making matters worse, I had developed some blisters on my feet. If not for those two problems, I probably could have handled the hike without much difficulty. But I was thirsty, and each step hurt.
At the end of the day, my Fitbit confirmed what I already knew. On an average day at work, I’m lucky if I walk 3,100 steps. On this day, I had hiked ten times that amount.
Here’s a look at the drive from South Lake Tahoe to Echo Lake and over Echo Summit on US 50:
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The Bottom Line
The hike to Lake Aloha is a big challenge, mostly due to the length of the hike. The moderate elevation gain makes it much more manageable for most hikers. You could easily spend hours at the lake itself, swimming, hiking, and sightseeing, but at some point, you’ll need to make the return trip. Bring plenty of water — most of the day you’ll be exposed to a lot of sun, and you’ll probably need more water than you think.