Beyond Big Blue, Part IV: Hope Valley and the Lakes Basin

Packer Lake in the afternoon. | Priya Hutner

The yellowing aspens flutter in the wind. The sun filters through the forest illuminating the trees’ yellow, red and orange leaves around a beautiful lake. This is a magical fall feast for the eyes. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada, Hope Valley, Kirkwood and the Lakes Basin area of the Lost Sierra offer a wealth of natural beauty, outdoor recreation and plenty of lakes.

While Lake Tahoe might be the region’s most famous destination, numerous other lakes are waiting to be explored, each with unique charm and appeal. A jump in the cooling waters of an alpine lake in the autumn is an invigorating experience.

Hope Valley
Just south of Lake Tahoe lies Hope Valley, a unique destination. The valley is almost 3,000 acres and rests at 7,000 feet on the eastern side of Carson Pass. Several lakes are stunning and a must-visit if you are looking for a lake adventure. Just off Highway 88 and Blue Lakes Road are several lakes to explore.

Upper and Lower Blue Lakes are a pair of stunning high altitude lakes nestled in a glacial basin. The lakes offer hiking trails, fishing and opportunities for photography. The crystal clear waters reflect the towering mountains surrounding them, creating a breathtaking panorama. These lakes are a serene destination for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of more crowded areas. Enjoy a 3 mile hike around Upper Blue Lake. From there, hike another 2 miles to Granite Lake. It’s a 2-mile trek from Blue Lakes. Start out at the Middle Creek Campground and head west up the trail. There are lovely views of the Upper Blue Lake.

Read Priya’s first three parts on other lakes at

The trailhead for Twin Lakes is 1.3 miles west of the Blue Lakes Road turnoff. Twin Lakes and several smaller lakes can also be enjoyed in this area.

Crater Lake and Scotts Lake are also in this area. The hike to Scotts Lake begins at the same place as the Crater Lake hike but almost immediately veers to the right, traversing the mountainside for more than 2 miles and climbing sharply up to the lake. This trail is 3 miles long and climbs 650 feet in elevation.

Located just south of Kirkwood Ski Resort off Highway 88 is Caples Lake. The picturesque lake is surrounded by forests and breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. It’s particularly stunning when the foliage turns vibrant shades of red and gold. There is an unmaintained trail around the lake that offers a 6-mile loop.

Emigrant Lake can be accessed at the western tip of Caples Lake. Hike the shore of Caples Lake, staying level for the first 2.5 miles. The trail turns south and climbs 800 feet to Emigrant Lake. Enjoy a snack or lunch at picturesque Emigrant Lake.

Lake Margaret is another lake off Hwy 88 in this scenic area. The trailhead is found between the tip of Caples Lake and Kirkwood. The hike to Lake Margaret is 2.5 miles and includes traversing granite slabs, forest, meadows and crossing several streams.

This area and the surrounding lakes offer birding, hiking, swimming, picnicking and astonishing natural beauty.

Lakes Basin
Wendy Wright and I took a drive to explore one of my favorite places – the Lakes Basin area north of Truckee. It is a lake lovers paradise. There are approximately 20 lakes in the area, and the backdrop of many of these lakes is the magnificent Sierra Buttes. Some lakes are more popular than others.

Stop in at Bassets Station on Highway 49 (they have delicious ice cream). Turn on to Gold Lake Highway and explore several lakes along the way.

Sardine Lakes is first on the Lakes Basin tour. It’s about a mile from Bassets off Gold Lake Highway. It’s a popular spot with crystal clear water perfect for paddleboarding, kayaking and fishing (no swimming allowed). Upper Sardine Lake is about a half mile hike to the right of Sardine Lake Resort. Upper Sardine Lake is smaller than Lower Sardine Lake and has a more tucked-away feeling. Both lakes are equally scenic. Swimming is permitted at Upper Sardine Lake.

Packer Lake is located off Packer Lake Road. Swim, kayak and paddleboard in the serene waters with the surrounding forest. It’s a picturesque spot for relaxation and exploration. Wright and I drove to the Packer Resort, where she once chinked the cabins some 20 years ago.

Salmon Lakes, upper and lower, are another set of beautiful lakes along the Gold Coast Highway. It’s a peaceful oasis for those seeking solitude with excellent fishing prospects. Next off the highway are Snag Lake, Haven Lake and Goose Lake. They are all smaller lakes. We went on a Saturday, and most campgrounds were already reserved. Wright and I found the last spot at Goose Lake and set up camp with a stunning view of the Buttes. We finished set up and went on to hike the Packer Saddle Trail. It was lovely.

Gold Lake is the largest of the lakes in the area. It is known for its breathtaking beauty and sweeping views of the Sierra Buttes. It’s surrounded by towering pines and is a recreation paradise. Continue on the Gold Lakes Highway and have a bite to eat in the sweet town of Graeagle.

The Lake Basin area is a special place to swim, paddle, camp, hike or bike. The Sierra Buttes is a monumental breathtaking sight. The trailhead for Sierra Buttes Lookout, Packer Saddle Trail and Pacific Crest Trail are located off Packer Road before turning to Packer Lake. Turn left on Country Route 621. There is a sign for Sierra Buttes. Follow it to the parking lot and trailhead. The 5 mile out and back hike to Sierra Buttes lookout is gorgeous.