As summer begins and restless masses yearn to get outside, the pandemic still requires restrictions at national parks and other popular recreation areas. But options abound for those in the know. Rather than fight for a Yosemite reservation or a Lake Tahoe parking space, consider some of these lesser-known Sierra Nevada outings where you can stretch your legs without rubbing too many elbows.
Horsetail Falls, Eldorado National Forest
If you’ve ever driven to Lake Tahoe on Highway 50, you’ve probably seen the lovely Horsetail Falls north of the road. Instead of zooming past, stop for a change and appreciate it. This outing doesn’t qualify as a secret, but it’s less crowded than other short and scenic hikes within the Lake Tahoe Basin. Kids can do it and it’s dog legal.
Park at Pyramid Creek Trailhead, two miles east of Strawberry, where a $5 fee parking applies. A 1.5 mile loop hike leads through the meadows below the waterfall and features a viewing area of the cascades. Hikers can also extend the outing by trekking to the waterfall for a closer look, adding about a mile.
Fun facts: The Pony Express delivered mail through this river canyon in the 1860s, and noted free solo rock climber Alex Honnold made his first ropeless ascents across the highway at Lovers Leap.
Kinney Lakes, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest
A four-mile loop circles the picturesque Kinney Lakes near Ebbetts Pass. Anglers will enjoy fishing the lakes and anyone will enjoy the clean air and High Sierra view. Children and dogs should like it too.
Take Highway 4 east for about 15 miles from Bear Valley. There’s roadside parking at the pass and in a trailhead lot half a mile east of it.
Hike north on the Pacific Crest Trail past Sherrold Lake. If you want to bag a summit, Ebbetts Peak stands just a few hundred feet above to the south, requiring a short off-trail scramble. Otherwise, continue northwest to Upper Kinney Lake. Various use trails connect from the PCT, circling the lake and leading to Lower Kinney Lake. Many options exist to circle the lakes and return to the road, either out and back or on a loop.
Fun facts: Miwuk and Washoe Indians traveled the Ebbetts Pass corridor, as did Jedediah Smith, the first non-native to cross the Sierra Nevada, surviving a fierce snowstorm in 1827. John “Snowshoe” Thompson delivered mail through this area on his cross country skis from 1856 to 1876.
Carson Pass, Eldorado National Forest
Picturesque mountains and lakes abound on a 5.8 mile loop with minimal elevation gain. This hike will make you feel like you’re deep within the wilderness but only takes half a day. It’s dog legal but might be a bit much for young kids.
Park beside Highway 88 at Carson Pass, about five miles east of Kirkwood, where a $5 parking fee applies in summer and fall.
Hike south through the woods on the Pacific Crest Trail through Mokelumne Wilderness, passing Frog Lake. Turn right at the trail junction toward Winnemucca Lake, leaving the PCT and passing Elephants Back on your left. Winnemucca Lake provides a great opportunity for pictures of neighboring mountain Round Top.
The ambitious can scamper up Elephants Back, Round Top or both. But to complete the loop, turn north towards Woods Lake and then follow a path beside the highway back to Carson Pass.
Fun facts: Winnemucca Lake apparently takes its name from a Paiute chief in Nevada. The name means “one moccasin.”
While the pandemic continues, officials discourage unnecessary travel, so recreation options close to home are best. However, scientists have measured lower coronavirus infection rates at high elevations. So if you live near the mountains or are passing through them anyway, you’d might as well enjoy some outdoors time away from large crowds.
Matt Johanson authored “Yosemite Adventures: 50 Spectacular Hikes, Climbs and Winter Treks” and “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.”