Nestled in El Dorado National Forest right off highway 50 lies one of my favorite places: Echo Lake. There are several options for hiking in the area – ranging from easy hikes along Lower Echo Lake to hard hikes, like the one we choose – Echo Peak Loop Trail.
Yesterday I recruited my husband to join me in summiting a mountain. Together we hiked 1,830 feet straight up to a modest 8,900 feet elevation at Echo Peak for a total of 8 miles, including getting lost.
The best part – parking is free! Most of the hikes we’ve done this year require a small fee generally ranging between $5-$10. Echo Lake is an exception! Since we hiked on a Monday, parking was no big deal, but in the summer and on weekends you’ll want to get there early as the parking lot will fill up by mid-morning. While you aren’t required to pay, you are still required to fill out a day-permit found at the information stand right before starting the trail.
After crossing the metal bridge at the base of Echo Lake, we found ourselves on the Pacific Crest Trail. The well maintained section follows the length of the lake as you gently ascend. The views here are impeccable.
We hiked the PCT for 1.7 miles before getting to the second leg of the hike – Spring Trail. This trail is not as maintained as the PCT section. The trail takes you up a thousand feet in just over a half mile. Then the last leg – Echo Peak Trail. From here, it’s another 500 feet to the top, straight up. When we got to the top, our legs and lungs burned but barely noticed as a sense of accomplishment washed over us. We ate lunch and enjoyed the cool breeze while soaking in those summit views. We could see Lake Tahoe in the distance along with tons of little lakes dotting the landscape.
The Echo Peak Trail continues past the peak down the mountain where it meets the Triangle Lake Trail. Hike a little over half a mile until you reach the Pacific Crest Trail once again. The PCT will lead you back the way you came – along the side of Echo Lake.
Leaving the summit, we hit some snow. We saw deer and squirrel tracks as well as fresh mountain lion tracks. Obviously, I was excited.
It was right around here when things took a turn. Shortly after this snowy patch, we lost the trail without realizing it. We were following a trail, it just happened to dead-end into a sea of prickly bushes standing taller than me. Panic began to set in as I opened the trail map on my phone to see that we were directly between the two main trails. Our legs were too tired to climb back up and we could see Echo Lake below, so we made a decision to just push through. We knew if we just went straight down we would intersect with the PCT, so that’s what we did. We made our own trail. We scraped through those prickly bushes, pushed through dense dead trees, and over rocks and boulders of all sizes. Several tears, slips and infuriating moments later we found ourselves back on the PCT.
While I can’t speak to the trails we were supposed to take coming down, I will say, I wouldn’t recommend the way we went. We got lucky – we didn’t hit any cliffs or major “road blocks”, we only slipped a couple times combined, and came out with only a few scratches and torn clothing. Learn from my mistake – don’t assume you know where you’re going. Even if you’ve hiked here before, snow changes everything. Use your map. Echo Peak Trail is tricky. You’ve been warned.
When we got to the car we were sweaty and exhausted, humbled and grateful. We worked together through a pretty sketchy situation and feel more united now. Despite our mishap, we had a blast. We’re already talking about coming back to complete the loop – the way it’s intended.
In the end, we accomplished what we came to do – summit the mountain and make it home in one piece to tell you about it.
Have you ever lost the trail? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Happy exploring friends!