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Pyramid Peak: Hard to Find, Easy to Love

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Out of the darkness and up the road, headlights surge our way. Going 60 miles per hour down the steep grade into Strawberry, the semi seems to come so close to us. It’s followed by another. We desperately cling to the narrow shoulder of the road in search of the trailhead.

Photo: Rhett Gause
Gena Bradshaw ascends the talus field that leads to the summit of Pyramid Peak.

The Alltrails app and various friends have told me the Pyramid Peak trailhead is difficult to find, and now I’m desperately searching. There’s nothing to mark it but a few cairns on the side of Highway 50, a couple hundred feet east of a pullout, between Twin Bridges and Strawberry, Calif. It’s 6:30 a.m. and we see nothing from the other side of the road. Our headlights aren’t bright enough, but the truck’s lights are. Finally, I see a small clearing up a steep mound of dirt.  “Cairns!” I yell.

We rush to climb the soft dirt and disappear into the forest. The trail is immediately steep and taxing, but I lunge forward and upward in the early morning haze. I feel like I’m in a dream.

At 9,983 feet, Pyramid Peak marks the highest point in Desolation Wilderness. Shaped after its namesake, I have seen the huge granite pyramid from just about every mountain I have summited in Tahoe. From South Lake Tahoe, it can easily be seen high above Mt. Tallac. Occasionally, it can be glimpsed all the way down in Sacramento and, every so often, as far as the Coastal Range. Every time I top out while climbing at Lover’s Leap, there it looms, high above us.  Gena and I, and a few more friends, have talked about a ski descent from its summit once the snow pack is right. We have been set on scouting it out before winter comes, so when we finally found the opportunity, and with good weather predicted for Tuesday morning, the wheels started turning.

The previous night, we drove 30 minutes west on Highway 50 to Strawberry from South Lake, what would be about an hour and a half from Incline Village, so that we could be closer to the trailhead in the morning. It is important to get to the very small pullout early, as it often fills up fast. The trailhead is only a minute or so drive from the Lover’s Leap campground. We pulled into the Leap after dark, got settled, had a few drinks, and went on a hike.

Photo: Rhett Gause
The fall foliage makes for great views in Lake Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness.

Hikers heading east along the well-manicured talus trail, historically a section of the Pony Express that wraps itself under the massive rock formation, eventually stumble upon an impressive flat slab of granite. The South Fork American river washes over the slab creating natural pools and water slides. We hopped over a little section of water to lie on an elevated slab that was acting as a little island.

The stars stretched out over us. The black velvet sky was pinpricked with millions of little lights. We began talking about how crazy it is that this exists every night here. It’s funny how stars can make even sober conversations so very viscerally inebriated. We lay pondering the heavens.

As we continue up the steep trail, a single track often marked with cairns, we gaze up at the massive old-growth forest that surrounds us. Cedars, the size of redwoods, abound. They cast their early morning shadows on ferns that have started to turn orange with the fall. We pass an enormous tree that has mysteriously fallen. Its root system is above the ground and is somehow supporting the weight of cabinet-sized boulders. When we make it to the top of the canyon, the sun has turned the sky pink and orange with its warm light. Ahead, football field slabs of granite gently rise upwards, gently kissed by alpenglow. I still cannot see our goal.

This trail, the rocky canyon/southeast ridge trail, is the most direct of the four to Pyramid’s summit. At just over 6 miles, it is pretty short. What makes it difficult is the elevation gain. From trailhead to summit, there is 4,083 feet to be gained. Most of this is realized in the first mile. At the top of the canyon, the second mile becomes much more of a moderate incline and an enjoyable hike.

After working our way up another mile through the slabs, alpine meadows, and new-growth aspen groves, we finally see our goal. The talus field rises out of the rolling landscape we’ve been moving through. The last part of the hike becomes so enjoyable as we scramble up the talus field. The rocks that looked small from down below, are now the size of refrigerators.  Naturally, we scramble up the steepest and most challenging terrain. The next thing I know, there is nowhere higher to climb.

Reaching the top, I see Desolation Wilderness unfold under us in the spectacular mid-morning golden light. Lake Aloha stretches its veiny waterways across the brutal landscape far below. Alpine lake after alpine lake fill the rocky void. I wonder in amazement how this landscape was formed and how it sits right above the basin, where we all live. I see Mt. Tallac, Mt. Rose, Freel Peak, Job’s, and Job’s sister. South Lake Tahoe is unfathomably low. Lover’s Leap, and where we started on Highway 50, seem far away. Looking west, we can see all the way down into the valley. We can even faintly see Sacramento. The clarity is unbelievable. There is no wind and it is still. For a full hour, the longest I’ve ever spent on a summit (intentionally at least), we eat, casually take photos, and relax in the warmth of the sun. Eventually, we sign the summit log and pack our bags to head down.

After happily running down the mountain and canyon, we approach the truck at approximately 1 p.m. The day is still young.

Editor’s note: Overnight visitors to Desolation Wilderness are required to obtain a permit prior to entering the wilderness area. They are available at
the ranger station.

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Pyramid Peak: Hard to Find, Easy to Love