Red Lake at Carson Pass

Red Lake is located less than a mile to the East of Carson Pass, on the right side of Carson Pass Highway. I don’t know for sure where does its name come from. I’ve never seen its water look even remotely reddish. Maybe it’s the red grass or cane at its shores, see the title image above. Or maybe it is the red rocks of Red Lake Peak (pictured below) that dominates the landscape. The water in the lake varies from green to deep blue. The lake is less than a mile (about 1 km) long and about quarter of a mile (400m) wide. One of the best views of the lake (keep reading for the truly best one) is from the vista point 1/3 mile / 500m East from the Pass, which is  how most of the motorists see it:

Red Lake as seen from Carson Pass Vista Point. In the background: Hope Valley and Hawkins Peak

The best way to explore the lake and its surroundings is the 4 mile / 6.5 km loop that starts and ends near Carson Pass. We made it on the last snowless weekend of the season. We started walking downhill, aiming at making a counterclockwise loop around the lake. For the first 15-20 minutes the trail was surrounded by trees, but then the views opened up on the left side:

Red Lake Hike
Red Lake Peak and Carson Pass Highway


The first thing one sees is the reddish rocky mass of Red Lake Peak (~10000 ft / 3000 m) overlooking the stretch of Carson Pass Highway. The peak is almost devoid of vegetation except for some grass. It is actually fairly easy to climb from Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Carson Pass, and the views from the summit are breathtaking. Stand by for a separate post on Red Lake Peak climb.

A few more minutes and the trail descends to the lake, providing the views of the lake itself and also of the highest summit in the Tahoe area – Freel Peak (far center):

Red Lake Hike

Once we’re at the lake level the Red Lake Peak is the only thing we can see. The first picture below was taken not during our last hike but in early June. The only difference is the fresh green grass at the lower elevations, which would turn brown by July.

Red Lake and Red Lake Peak in early June
Red Lake Hike
Red Lake and Red Lake Peak in early November


Note that Carson Pass is one of just two passes over the High Sierra that are open all year round (the other one is Donner Pass north of Lake Tahoe). This means that Carson Pass Highway has to be plowed and kept safe throughout the snowy winters. On a good year the total seasonal  snowfall can easily reach 40 ft / 13 m. This makes the road vulnerable to avalanches, especially those from the slopes of Red Lake Peak overlooking the highway. To keep the snow accumulation in check there are a few avalanche guns around the area, mounted on high platforms and aimed at the Peak.

Avalanche Gun Platform at Red Lake
Avalanche Gun Platform at Red Lake


The trail takes us past the lake and ends at the highway. To complete the loop we turn left (west) and follow the road. In general, hiking along highways is not the best idea, but in this case it is worth it, since some of the best views are from the other side of the lake, where the highway goes. And the road is not busy at all.

As we gain some elevation and approaching the final bend of the road before Carson Pass, we see a panorama of the lake and surrounding mountains on our left. I think this is the best point to view Red Lake from. The mountain in the center behind the lake is Markleeville Peak, about 10000 ft / 3000 m. The barely visible rocky range to the right from the peak are the summits of Mokelumne and Carson-Iceberg Wilderness near Ebbets Pass.

Red Lake Hike

We’re almost done and Carson Pass is just around the corner.  We get a glimpse of Elephant’s Back, a mountain located at the Pacific Crest Trail south of the Pass.

Carson Pass
Elephant’s Back


As we look back we see the Hawkins Peak (yet another 10000/3000-er) towering above Carson Pass Highway and Hope Valley:

Red Lake Hike
Hawkins Peak


A few more steps and we’re back at Carson Pass, and all the scenery we just saw has disappeared around the corner.

Carson Pass
Carson Pass


Getting There

From Pioneer, CA: drive about 46.5 miles / 75 km East on CA-88.
From South Lake Tahoe, CA: drive about 12 miles / 19 km South on CA-89, then turn right on CA-88 and drive West for about 9 miles / 15 km.

Park at the Carson Pass parking area for a fee, or for free at the vista point about 500 yards / meters to the east from the Pass.

The trailhead is at the helipad at the end of a short service road that starts about 100 yards/meters to the east of the Carson Pass parking area.

A detailed trail map and GPX tracks are available at

A detailed trail map and GPX tracks are available at

Related gallery: Sierra at Carson Pass

Related posts: Yosemite in September, Lassen Volcanic Park, Salt Springs and Tanglefoot Canyon

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