Trails in Northern California

Trails in Northern California

Leave No Trace!

Visit for more information about Desolation Wilderness. Visit or call 1- 877-444-6777 to make park reservations. Visit Campfire Permits to get a permit online. More about Leave No Trace principles.

August 27, 2011

Grouse, Hemlock & Smith Lakes in Desolation WIlderness updated 6-2012

Above is called Chappell Crossing and is located as you approach the trail head. I often see people and children fishing from the bridge. This trip there were kayaks tied nearby. Do not cross here to go to Grouse, Hemlock, Smith, Twin, Boomerang or Island Lakes. Follow the path to the right.

Hike Length: 6+ miles
Difficulty and Grade: Strenuous.  (Like doing a stair stepper all day!  Mostly steep and rocky tread, some marshy areas, , creek crossing, spaces of regular forest floor.)  Well maintained. Out and back trail.  31.4 %  climbing to Hemlock. The grade going down from over Smith by bushwhacking was 39.8%! Steep and boulder scrambling. Very little snow left.
Elevation: 6967.4 to 8840.5, so ascent,  if you bushwhack up to the ridge over Smith, is 2123 feet and with descent totals 4246.
Located: in Desolation Wilderness, so a permit can be filled out at the trail head for day hikes but online or at Pacific Ranger Station for backpacking.  No campfires allowed.  (Day permits are free and are to assist the park with information about park use for funding and grants, knowing how much use areas are getting, and in the rare event someone doesn't make it back, finding information from their permit could be helpful in locating them.)

Take Highway 50 E and turn north on Ice House Road.  Follow the signs to Wrights Lake and park at the Twin Lakes Trail head. 
OR  (a better drive if you ask me):

Take the Wrights Lake Road north (between the 36 mile tract and the 39 mile tract) in the vicinity of Kyburz off Highway 50 and follow the signs to Twin Lakes Trailhead.  

The trail begins heading through a moist colorful meadow, with a wide fairly flat trail.  This year, even with strong bug repellant here, you are a target for varieties of black biting flying torpedoes. 
As you can see, the lilies are bright bursts of color amoung the corn lilies and other wildflowers, as tall as eye level, and growing by the acre.  I did not edit the color on this shot!

Grouse Lake Trail ascends very aggressively and is not for the faint of heart!  It is quite vigorous and requires good footing as well.  Take water because you will sweat for this prize!  Please wear reliable shoes and check out these real photos if in doubt that it matters Shoes with Soles.

Grouse Lake is in a granite bowl and invites swimmers on hot days.  I've seen fishermen who throw back what they catch. This month I saw two fishermen straight across the lake rather than from the granite side as usual.  Take your fishing license and check current Desolation regulations.  One side is rocky with nice boulders to bake on and the other side is marshy, actually plan on walking through standing water from snow melt, and it has the mandatory mosquitoes and biting flies to go with the moisture.

As I looked back on my way from Grouse to Hemlock Lakes, this excellent view took me by surprise.  Many more views do the same as you hike higher, believe me!

Here is Hemlock Lake.  It is small but has some nice sandy areas and rocks also to 
spread out a picnic.  The grassy side and the shade are offerings for bugs more than 
humans!  The south side still has some snow blankets and is quite marshy too.  
The trail becomes briefly obscure so GPS can help.  
Edited in note 9-11-2014: Note that doing my forestry volunteer work yesterday, 
I knocked down over 100 cairns on and near this trail.  Many led off trail, all over the place. 
If you look around you should find the recognized trail using 
other clues without too much trouble.  ****
This was a fun shot of Hemlock because the water is beautifully clear as you can see.  The peak in the background is along toward our next destination, Smith Lake.  Be prepared to climb. The section between Grouse and Hemlock was the resting place but now you will have to work at it again!
This is the trail heading up to Smith Lake.  Most of it is just this way.  I scrambled up the boulders according to my GPS's location of the forest's recognized trail, but found on the way down, there is a clear trail that runs fairly parallel to the runoff from the Smith Lake dam.  It traverses mildly and heads downward more directly, without bushwhacking and gets you on a more level easy trail pretty quickly.
These were fading and few, but a lovely sight! (Last years photo.  Nothing so beautiful this trip yet)
Little gems scattered all around the trails.
This is beyond the icing on the cake.  The area this side of the lake has forest and shade, and the footing is easier.  As you can see, across the lake is uninviting for hiking, beautiful even breathtaking!  Snow remains along the granite side but less of it.  It is possible to hike all the way around the lake.
I scrambled up the rocks to see over Smith Lake for that previous photo showing the whole basin, but the bonus was the completely unobstructed view of everywhere else!  I enjoy a good boulder scramble, hop, and this was dizzying standing on the next highest boulder I could climb for photos.  People also hike to the ridge over Smith and across the saddle over to Lyons Lake and make it a loop with Lyons Creek Trail. Only do it if you are skilled and energetic.  The climb down this way is steep and can be visually intimidating, or even frightening, to some.

**** I found a blog note that explains clearly why it is unwise to follow cairns (rock towers or stacks). Forestry workers will tear them down, possible before you return due to the hazard of leading folks astray, which can have serious results. From an otherwise excellent hiking resource, this account describes just that experience from an experienced hiker: "...trail led right up to the edge of a creek, and I thought I might need to cross it. But there did seem to be a trail, although not as distinct as the trail leading up to it, heading directly up. I went that way, and encountered a difficult climb with no clear trail, but cairns set out all over the place that made me think I was going the right way." and later, "There are cairns every which way. In 2006, I started climbing too quickly straight up to the west, rather than making a more gradual ascent to the southwest. Following cairns that shouldn't have been left there, I often found myself backing up to find an easier route--which followed other cairns. When I made my return, I added more cairns to the easier route, and knocked away some that had led me to dead ends." taken from NorCal Explorer blog.  My daughter and I had that same experience looking for Enchanted Pools and worried a little and wasted time following cairns.  Use of a compass would have served us much better.  The cairns dead ended out and we bushwhacked to cross the creek we knew we had to cross to get to our destination.

Cairns are not set up by the forestry, but hikers who are finding their own way or goofing off.  They are not reliable, and may intentionally get a person completely lost.  Use clues by looking ahead, from a higher point if possible.  Look for fallen trees cut away from the trail, and rocks and branches that are blocking what looks like a possible trail.  Keep looking in the general direction the trail should go.  The forestry tries to keep the vegetation off of the trail to keep it visible on recognized trails.  Use your map to locate peaks or visible landmarks and identify the compass direction you should be headed.  Look for the place you are and how to intercept the trail (like heading to a certain side of a lake).  
For more hikes:
Desolation Wilderness
10+ miles
30 miles
Moderate to Strenuous/Difficult
18 miles
12+ miles
Moderate to Strenuous
13+ miles
Moderate to Strenuous
Umpa Lake & Enchanted Pools
8+ miles
Cross country ~ Moderate
Horsetail Falls via Pyramid Creek TH
Aprox.  10 miles to lakes at the top of the falls
"Difficult, and potentially dangerous" miles
10 miles
8 miles
Lyons Lake via Lyons Creek Trail
10+ miles
9.2 miles
6+ miles
Lyons Creek Trail with melting snow
9+ miles
3.8 miles
2010-09 We hiked 12 days.
167 total
Moderate to Strenuous

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