Fourth of July Lake via Round Top Lake
Fourth of July Lake sits in a deep bowl on the south side of The Sisters peaks in Mokelumne Wilderness. By my count there are four ways to get there; this description will be for the westernmost trail out of Woods Lake Trailhead. This is also the shortest and most direct way of hiking to Fourth of July Lake. Interested in overnighting? Six campsites are available with a permit from the Carson Pass Ranger Station.
- Trailhead: Woods Lake Recreation Area, 4 miles west of Kirkwood Ski Resort – Open in Google Maps.
- Length: 8 miles round trip; 3-4 hours.
- Difficulty: Moderate; your total elevation gain for the round-trip is 2,400′ and it’s steep at the beginning of the return.
- Usage: Hikers, horses, dogs. $5/day for parking. Wilderness permit required for overnight.
- Best Time for Photography: Wildflowers are great in the summer. There can be some dramatic lighting on the mountains that surround Fourth of July Lake in the early morning.
- Are Drones Allowed: No in Mokelumne Wilderness.
- Trail Info Current: Aug 21, 2016
- Further Reading: Top Trails: Lake Tahoe: Must-Do Hikes for Everyone
- Go back to Lake Tahoe Hikes map
Fourth of July Lake via Round Top Lake
This trail system can get fairly busy during peak summer months due to both its proximity to South Lake Tahoe and to the accessibility of fantastic wilderness scenery, namely Winnemucca and Round Top Lakes. But most people stop there. The hike to Fourth of July Lake adds another four miles to the trip, and the return is rather steep as far as casual hikers are concerned. So I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re up for it, you won’t be surrounded by as many people!
You’ll need to get a permit at the Carson Pass ranger station if you’re overnighting. Camping is allowed at designated spots only – there are six spots at Fourth of July Lake. Get to the ranger station early! Permits are issued on a first-come-first-serve basis and backpackers start lining up at the ranger station before it opens at 8. You can read more information about backpacking in this brochure from the Forest Service.
The Woods Lake Trailhead is 1.9 miles west of Carson Pass on Hwy 88, towards Kirkwood. The access road and sign are hidden by trees if you’re coming from the east so be on the lookout for it! It’s on the south side of 88 (take a left if you’re coming from Tahoe). There’s a dirt parking area on the left side of this access road but continue past that over a narrow bridge and into the main parking area on the right. There is a restroom and self-pay station ($5) at this parking area.
Walk south along the paved road until you see the sign for the trail. Keep right towards Round Top Lake. You can get to Fourth of July Lake via taking a left to Winnemucca Lake, but I prefer to do the return trip in that direction (you can read more about these lakes in this post).
There are a few switchbacks in the beginning that steadily climb into a more gradual ascent, shaded by pines. Eventually you’ll see a small waterfall off to the right; this is the site of the Lost Cabin Mine. Another old mine site is further ahead on the trail as it nears Woods Creek with some rusted vehicle chassis and the remains of a cabin. What’s the plural for chassis? Chassis?
You’ll continue through the pines, steadily climbing and pass through a very small meadow lined with yellow wildflowers. A short climb out of that will take you into the Mokelumne Wilderness and into another, larger meadow with commanding views of The Sisters to the south and Kirkwood to the west. This colorful section of the trail follows Woods Creek, lined with lupine and other wildflowers.
Steadily climbing towards The Sisters will bring you closer to Round Top Lake. The lake is hidden by terrain until you pop over the top of the climb, and there it is – small, and usually lined with hikers taking a break in peak summer months. You’ll see a 4×4 post at a trail junction indicating 4th of July Lake to the right.
Taking a right past Round Top Lake will take you into some gnarly windswept pines and onto a ridge with great views of Caples Lake and Kirkwood. The peak right in front of you is Fourth of July Peak. The descent starts here, gradual at first and then getting into some steeper switchbacks as you head down the south side of the ridge.
From here the descent is mostly pleasant; the traverse is very colorful with wildflowers and gently descends towards Fourth of July Lake, which you can view from the top of the descent. You’re exposed in the open in the beginning, and eventually get down into the treeline where you’ll find some more switchbacks. The switchbacks give way to an easier descent all the way into Fourth of July Lake. Three campsites are on the east shore near the trail and another three campsites are on the northwest shore. Remember, these are by permit only.
For day users, there’s plenty of open dirt areas for picnics, still shaded by pines but with views of Fourth of July Lake and the granite mountains rising straight out of the north and west shores. There’s also small trout in this lake.
The return trip isn’t actually all that bad, it’s about 600 feet vertical per mile hiked, but it may seem steeper and this is what deters most people from going through with it. Once you get to the ridge and on to Round Top Lake, you can continue your return trip by hiking to Winnemucca Lake and then back to the trailhead. You can read more details about this portion of the hike in this post about Round Top and Winnemucca Lakes.
Tips for hiking to Fourth of July Lake
- I got caught in a thunderstorm the first time I did this hike. They’ll form fast on the mountains directly west of the lake, and you’ll have no cover if you hike back out to Round Top and the storms are bad!
- Try to time your hike when there’s not much snow left but the mule’s ears aren’t dried up yet – the wildflowers are amazing in mid-summer!
- This is definitely a destination desired for an overnight trip.