The trail starts at Echo Summit; be sure to visit the Echo Chalet to load up on snacks and food for the 65-mile trek in front of you. It is an easy start to the trail, as you wind around Lower and Upper Echo Lakes. As you climb over and away from the lake, you’re offered views of Ralston Peak
, Echo Peak, and Pyramid Peak in the distance. After nearly seven miles on the trail, you are rewarded with one of the most stunning vistas in the Sierra, Lake Aloha. Lake Aloha is a shallow lake that sits in a bowl and surrounded by Pyramid Peak, Mt Price, and Jacks Peak. Lots of backcountry campsites are available along the entire stretch of the lake.
After this, a short drop in elevation brings you past Heather and Susie lakes and to the bottom of Dicks Pass. From here, start the trudge up the pass for beautiful views and the highest point on this stretch of trail. As you come over the pass, you drop into another small bowl which contains Dicks Lake and Fontanillis Lake, both beautiful and worthy destinations on their own. The next small pass drops you down into the Velma Lakes basin. This area has pretty quick access from Emerald Bay and can be crowded on weekends, but there is plenty of space to spread out and find private camping in this beautiful wilderness country.
After Velma Lakes, the trail heads north through thickly wooded forests with sliver views of the high alpine peaks behind you and to the west. Great camping and backcountry fishing are found at Richardson Lake a little ways up trail from the Velma basin. Stop by the small forest service cabin on the southeast side of the lake and see if any other travelers are camped nearby.
Shortly after Richardson, you start the next climb up to the ridges above Alpine Meadows ski resort. These ridges offer some of the best views of Lake Tahoe along the trail. A quick drop into the Five Lakes Basin, and you’re climbing behind Squaw Valley and very close to the headwaters of the American River, now under the operation of a land trust, it makes a great detour.
From here, the trail stays on high alpine ridges and winds past Tinker Knob and Anderson Peak all the while offering the most vast and open views of the northern Tahoe region. At the base of Anderson Peak and nearly right on trail is the Benson Hut, one of the many backcountry huts operated by the Sierra Club. The hut offers a warm and cozy place to stay along the trail; check the Sierra Club website for availability.
After the hut, the trail drops along a series of switchbacks past Mt Judah and Donner Peak to Donner Pass and the first signs of major civilization in nearly 60 miles. Continue on along granite cliffs with sweeping views of Donner Lake and the Truckee Basin. Two more beautiful alpine lakes, Flora and Azalea lie just off the trail and make for another worthy last detour. The trail turns from granite to dirt as the last few miles of this section sweep through thick conifer forests and at last brings you to the trailhead at Highway 80.