Mount Elwell in the Lost Sierras

If you are a fan of backcountry lakes, the Lakes Basin Recreation Area in the Lost Sierras is a must-see destination. Even though the area boasts over twenty alpine lakes, it sees surprisingly few visitors, especially in seasons other than summer. Last fall, we made the straightforward, but memorable, ascent to Mount Elwell. This hike follows a well-maintained trail starting near the Elwell Lakes Lodge and traverses only 2.8 miles and 1,700 feet of elevation gain before reaching the summit, making it an excellent outing for hikers of most abilities.

Looking southeast from the summit of Mount Elwell with Long (left) and Mud (right) Lakes in the foreground and Sierra Buttes in the background
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We were fortunate to enjoy this hike on a beautiful November day. A few weeks earlier, the Sierras received a good deal of snow from an early storm system. The trail first climbs gradually to Long Lake, and a series of intermittent creeks were flowing in full force due to the recent snowfall. In 0.5 miles, we turned right at a junction to begin hiking along the eastern shore of Long Lake. However, for the next mile or so, the lake is not visible and instead hides behind a small ridge. After about 15 minutes, the anticipation of seeing Long Lake became too great, and we took a small detour off trail to climb the ridge and get our first view of the water. With its frame of snow-capped mountains, clear waters, and numerous islets, we proclaimed that Long Lake is one of the most picturesque lakes in the Northern Sierra Nevadas.

From the top of Mount Elwell, alpine lakes can be viewed in all directions. Jamison (left) and Rock (right) Lakes can be seen looking west.
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Past the eastern shore of Long Lake, the trail meanders up the rocky slope of Mount Elwell and provides ever more magnificent views of the Lakes Basin region. A junction leads hikers across the mountain’s main ridge through a forest of red firs and lodgepole pines. Past the trees, hikers must scramble over some large boulders to ascend the final summit block. Fortunately, the true summit is flat, which makes for a perfect resting spot to enjoy the phenomenal views. We were easily able to identify Sutter Buttes, rising like an island in the Central Valley, 70 miles to our west. Peering even farther, we were able to see California’s Coastal Range peeking above Central Valley smog.

We even correctly determined the direction of San Francisco Bay Area (about 150 miles away) to the southwest by noting a gap in the coastal range. Our foreground was even more impressive with the snowy Sierra crest outlining ten lakes (The Millpond in Graeagle, Jamison Lake, Rock Lake, Wades Lake, Mud Lake, Long Lake, Silver Lake, Big Bear Lake, Gold Lake, and Upper Salmon Lake?). Take a look at our book, Base Camp Reno: 101 Hikes From Sage to Snow, for more great hiking trails in the Lost Sierras, including trips to several of these lakes.

Christopher and Elizabeth Barile

Christopher and Elizabeth Barile

Christopher and Elizabeth Barile have developed a passion for the natural world through hiking. They have hiked thousands of miles together while carrying their two young children on their backs. In addition to summiting over 150 peaks in the Greater Reno area, Christopher and Elizabeth have visited 40 U.S. national parks. Some of their other favorite outdoor activities include backpacking, camping, snowshoeing, and birding. Both Christopher and Elizabeth have advanced degrees in chemistry from Stanford University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Christopher is a chemistry professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Elizabeth is an artist and educator. "Base Camp Reno: 101 Hikes From Sage to Snow" will be in bookstores and everywhere online April 5, 2022.

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