Pacific Crest Trail: Round Lake to Mount Elwell Trail
ROUND LAKE TO MOUNT ELWELL TRAIL VIA PACIFIC CREST TRAIL NORTH
MILES: 10 miles R/T
DIFFICULTY: Moder ate-plus
MAP: Tahoe National Forest or TNF’s “Lakes Basin/Sierra Buttes”
Last year, I interviewed Doug Pewitt, trails coordinator for Tahoe National Forest. I asked him what his three favorite hikes on the forest were, and he listed the Pacific Crest Trail north from Deer Lake.
Last weekend, I threw the kayak on the Tacoma and headed out Highway 49. I stopped at Pewitt’s office on Coyote Street for the excellent, new TNF “Lakes Basin/Sierra Buttes” map.
After Sierra City, I turned left on Gold Lake Road at Bassett’s Station. I camped up the 4WD road at Gold Lake then, next morning, drove another mile to the sign for Gold Lake Lodge. I turned left into the trailhead parking area with its “Round Lake” sign. Immediately, I came to a large Lakes Basin Recreation Area map then soon took a left at the sign “Round Lake 13/4/ Bear Lake1/2.”
I entered an aisle of large Jeffrey pines and meadows full of paintbrush, yarrow, senecio, cow parsnip and two kinds of mint. Pennyroyal has a round, fluffy, pale-purple head; ladies’ thumb (coyote mint) is taller with a 3-inch, dark purple flowerhead. You know they’re mints because they have square stems and a sharp smell when the leaves are bruised.
I passed the terminus of the trail from the back of Gold Lake, on the left. I hopped little creeks choked with small tiger lilies (lift up their heads to see liver-colored throat spots).
The trail heads up a rocky hill between chinquapin and pine mat, a recumbent manzanita, to a good view of Big Bear Lake. The route dips to a small, unnamed pond, lined with elderberry and thimbleberry, important autumn food for bears. The trail climbs through scrubby firs to another panorama of Big Bear then, immediately, I came to Round Lake with its sign indicating 6,714 feet of elevation.
I headed left at a “Silver Lake 3/4 / Pacific Crest Trail3/4” sign near a rock wall. This and rusty metal and timbers are remnants of the area’s mining history.
Note the mixed difficulty rating of this hike. At this point, the trail begins a goodly climb up an unshaded, rocky slope. But my goal, the Pacific Crest Trail, has little elevation gain. A U.S. Forest Service handout describes it as “a flat ridgetop for twelve miles, offering spectacular views of the entire Lakes Basin throughout the hike.”
Views of the no-name pond, Round and Long lakes and Mount Elwell distracted me. A glimpse of Gold Lake marked a little saddle as the trail dips into a small valley studded with bright-pink spirea. Look for cairns indicating the route out the back.
The trail reaches the PTC at another Lakes Basin rec area map. I turned right near a sign prohibiting all wheeled vehicles – including mountain bikes – on the PTC, looked down at tire tracks, and began to rehearse The Lecture. Shortly, I delivered it to five, Gen-X, Lycra-clad bikers who tried to whiz by me. The Lecture’s kicker is, “My warden friend was nearly killed on the PTC when he was thrown after his horse was spooked by a cyclist.” As usual, one guy had the gall to lie,” Gee, we didn’t see the sign!” The PTC is engineered for horses and hikers, not bikes, and popular stretches like this one have irreparable damage from tires. Folks, this is terrible PR: Every scofflaw who knowingly and repeatedly violates federal law by riding the PTC increases the already profound enmity between mountain bikers and hikers.
A faded sign on a tree read “Plumas National Forest 6 / Long Lake 21/2.” Gold Lake appeared nearly in its entirety, along with Bear. I wound up a slight grade through unusual, lichen-encrusted outcroppings of lava and looked back for a nice look at craggy Sierra Buttes. The other side of the ridge is the mountains above the Yuba canyon, dotted with small lakes.
I noted sulphur flowers, pompons of yellow, orange and red on the same clump. This indicates that the plant has been partly fertilized by insects; Nevada City wildflower guide writer Julie Carville says sulphurs blush when they’re no longer virgins. Small snow patches hung on under a traverse with a panoramic of Long, Silver, Round and Bear lakes. The trail takes two quick switchbacks then flattens for a long way under pines.
I continued straight past the sign, “Silver Lake 13/4/ / Mount Elwell 13/4/ / Lakes Basin Campground 23/4,” indicating a right. The trail loops up a rise for another photo op of the Buttes then heads down a slight slope with one switchback.
The PTC crosses a Jeep road that becomes the unmarked trail to Mount Elwell. I soaked my feet in and ate lunch at a lovely pond here that wasn’t on the map. On the way back, I met two Georgian backpackers who had begun an 800-mile stretch of the PTC at Sonora Pass – and you thought my 10-mile hike was long!
Pat Devereux is a copy editor for The Union and a member of the Nevada County Hiking Club. Contact her c/o The Union, 464 Sutton Way, 95945, or at
This article was originally published on 8/3/2000.
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