August 22 (~07:25 – ~16:10)
Phipps Creek – Glen Alpine Junction (10.5 mi / Total: 1102.2 mi) (+7.3 bonus miles to Echo Lake water taxi)
Total PCT miles: 2265.4
Town! I couldn’t be more excited about going into South Lake Tahoe today. Finally I’ll be able to rest and sleep in – I’m exhausted. I have a short day ahead of me, or so I hope – 20 miles to Echo Lake, or a little less if I take the water taxi from Upper Echo Lake to the far end of the lakes, from where I can hitch into town. I’ve already walked those last 10 miles in the snow, back in May, so taking the taxi doesn’t mean I’ll be skipping anything. I’m a little annoyed about having to re-walk all these miles as there’s no good way to exit the trail before that, but at the same time I’m curious what that final stretch looks like without a thick snowpack.
I take my time in the morning, taking advantage of not having to walk 30 miles today, and while I pack up I receive two visitors. The mother and daughter from the tent next to me are just starting their day and chat with me on their way out. They have 13 days to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail (a 165 mile loop), the mother tells me, and just like me, they were also happy to have someone else camped nearby last night.
I’m on my way shortly after, and continue through the forest which goes through a slow change. The forest opens up, and soon makes space for tranquil, sun-doused lakes. First I pass the lovely Middle Velma Lake, and move down to Upper Velma Lake, which steps it up a level – it’s quite astonishing. The trail is suddenly surrounded by rock, the riverbanks covered in these calming light grey boulders. It’s stunning and it’s only the beginning.
I move towards Fontanillis Lake and it’s a peaceful thing of beauty – blue water, hills with remnants of snow in the background, green trees contrasting against crisp rocks and I can’t stop taking pictures. When I cross an outlet I climb on top of a layer of high rock and find the exaggerated counterpart to what I’ve just seen, grey rock resting in all directions, everything a little bigger, with Lake Tahoe glimmering in the far distance.
On the far end of the Fontanillis Lake, the climb begins up to Dicks Pass, with views over Dicks Lake. It’s steep and rocky but it’s beautiful, and there’s a short level section at the top, temporarily concealing the views to the other side – a large valley with all the lakes ahead of me, and even further away I see something else altogether: a light blue lake at higher level, surrounded by just rock, light grey rock. It’s as though it’s in its own little realm, something entirely different from everything else.
I descend down the rocky path, and think about how we were going to go up this pass in the snow that afternoon, months ago, and I have no idea how we would’ve made it – even right now going downhill in perfect conditions takes a long time, it’s a long way down. I can only imagine what a steep nightmare the snow would’ve turned this into.
It’s just after midday when I reach the junction with the Glen Alpine trail, which is where I came off last time I was here, as a snow-blind northbounder. It’s another 10 miles to Echo Lake, and walking this again basically means I’ll doing these bonus miles for fun. Although I was quite keen to see what this area looks like without snow, now that I’m here I wish I could just snap my fingers and be in town. I have to remind myself, Just a few more hours, just a few more, but of course it turns into a lot more than that.
As I progress I try and recognise landmarks from last time I was here. Our campsite next to Lake Susie for example, but I can’t find it, everything looks different. The lake is huge, last time I barely saw any exposed water. Then the next lake. I remember sidling along it in the snow, a precarious path next to the snow-covered water, but now that I’m here I have no idea how we could’ve made it past – it’s tremendously rocky and the lake is much longer than I remember.
Then the trail meanders along all these rocky outcrops, up and down and up and down and I don’t remember this at all, even though I was here, I walked this in the snow. I recognise nothing.
But the biggest shock comes when I reach the top of a rocky climb, turn a corner and suddenly find myself in front of that pale alpine lake high up on the plateau I watched from the top of Dicks Pass – Lake Aloha. It’s so splendid I don’t have the words for it, I just keep repeating out loud, no way, no way. The entire environment shines like a pale silver, the water a shimmering silver-blue, the grey rocks all encompassing. It’s the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen.
I follow the slow, uneven path and take pictures of every angle, unable to progress very much. The water is high, there are boulders everywhere – where were they when I passed through in the snow? Everything was flat back then, was everything covered and hidden deep below? I try and locate the big rock we lunched on, but it’s gone, instead I see endless other rocks, and I’m just amazed. This can’t be real.
It takes hours to reach the other end of Lake Aloha, after which I follow a busy, rocky path to Echo Lake. I’ve never been here before, I know I took a much different route in the snow. I remember staying at lower elevation, close to the frozen-over water, and seeing my first bear prints in the snow. But still, I must’ve climbed over some of these hills, and I just can’t imagine where, or how. How did we ever get through all this?
When I finally reach the far end of Upper Echo Lake, I can call it a day. The lake isn’t frozen over anymore and a water taxi runs to the other side. It’s not much, but it cuts just under 3 miles off my journey, and right now that’s definitely worth the $15 I have to pay for the short but scenic ride across. What’s more, an older lady is interested in my PCT journey and during the boat trip asks me where I’m going next, and I tell her I’ll be hitching into town. She tells me she’s sorry they can’t give me a ride as her group is staying at Echo Lake, after which the couple next to me invite me to come with them instead. A hitch without having to hitch!
They’re great as well. They have two dogs but they are perfectly behaved, and I really enjoy the drive into town. They even take me all the way to my hotel even though they’re staying at a campsite on the other side of town. After saying goodbye I check in, (sad that it’s absolutely nothing like the Coachman Hotel I wanted to stay at) and I head out to pick up some food. I lie on the bed. Quiet, finally. These two zeros are going to be great.