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

7-2018 updates Grouse, Hemlock & Smith Lakes in Desolation Wilderness

Above is called Chappell Crossing and is located as you approach the trail head. Follow the path to the right before the bridge after filling out your day permit at this trail head and attaching it to your gear. The trail to the Desolation Wilderness lakes starts at the posting board heading into the meadows away from Wrights Lake.

Hike Length: 6+ miles; I inevitably find I have done 7 round trip, out and back trail.
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.)  You do get a variety of trail tread and shade/sun. Well maintained. Out and back trail.  Steep and boulder scrambling up to Smith Lake. 
Elevation: 6967.4 to 8840.5;  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  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 Trail head.  

The trail begins heading through a moist colorful meadow, with a wide fairly flat trail.  Even with strong bug repellent here, you are a target for varieties of black biting flying torpedoes.  Early on you will see a sign at a Y, go to the right.  Later you will come across two more signs to keep you on track.  One is the Desolation Wilderness entry point and the other sign is to Grouse Lake.  At that sign (just an engraved post) keep to the right.
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.  
Hiking poles help me climb these sections.
There is a tree fall (in 2018) that you hunch down a bit to get under. 
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.
***I often find people ready to quit with exhaustion and uncertainty at the runoff crossing where the trail veers to your left.  Don't give up here!  You don't have to get your feet wet.  There are stable rocks to step on, and just up around the bend, a very very short jaunt, is the first lake, Grouse Lake.
To get to the granite beside the lake, use the small user path to the right.

Grouse Lake is in a granite bowl and invites swimmers on hot days.  I've seen fishermen who throw back what they catch.  Take your fishing license and check current Desolation regulations.  One side of the lake is rocky with nice boulders to bake on and the other side is marshy and buggy.

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 sometimes offerings for bugs more than humans!  
The trail becomes briefly obscure so GPS can help but  

if you look around you should find the recognized trail using 
other clues without too much trouble. Head toward that peak. *
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.  
 The trail is nice woodsy track from Hemlock Lake 
until you reach the next big ascent. 

Be prepared to climb. 

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 mostly 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! 
Little gems scattered all around the trails.
This is beyond the icing on the cake. (There is less snow in July 2018, and none was on the trail.) 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 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 try 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 blog note that explains clearly why it is unwise to follow cairns (rock towers or stacks). From an excellent hiking resource, this account describes just that experience : 
    "...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 and map would have served us much better.  The cairns died 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  way back to stashed gear, or goofing off.  They are not reliable, and may intentionally get a person completely lost.  

    *If you lose sight of the trail:

    • 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 similar 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 and; 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

    2010-09 We hiked 12 days.
    167 total
    Moderate to Strenuous

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    Happy Trails!
    Updated links 06-2016
    Updated trail conditions, made grammar and spelling corrections, changed a font, added signage details 07-2018