Round Top & Winnemucca Lakes, Mokelumne Wilderness
Round Top Lake, along with its nearby sister Winnemucca Lake, are extremely popular spots for hiking and camping due to their easy accessibility and amazing scenery – notably the backdrop of rugged Round Top and The Sisters peaks (>10,100′).
- Trailhead: Woods Lake Recreation Area, 4 miles west of Kirkwood Ski Resort – Open in Google Maps.
- Length: 4.5 miles round trip; 2-3 hours.
- Difficulty: Moderate; the elevation gain is 1,100 feet but it’s mostly gradual.
- Usage: Hikers, horses, dogs. $5/day for parking. Wilderness permit required for overnight.
- Best Time for Photography: Wildflowers are great in the summer. Round Top and The Sisters face north and don’t receive great lighting.
- 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
Round Top Lake & Winnemucca Lake Loop
I made this hike during a “recon” after obtaining a permit to camp at Winnemucca Lake that night. I was interested to see an alternate trail to get there, and made the route during the day without my pack. Some intense thunderstorms moved into the area in the afternoon so I never made it back for camping, but after seeing it in person, I’ll be back to camp the first opportunity I get.
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 3 at Winnemucca Lake and I think 6 at Round Top Lake. The station opens at 8am and during summer months, backpackers start lining up at 0730 to obtain permits. They’re only issued on a first-come-first-serve basis, same day.
To get to the Woods Lake Trailhead, continue west on Highway 88 for 1.9 miles past Carson Pass, towards Kirkwood. The turnoff is very inconspicuous and you won’t even see the sign for the Woods Lake Recreation Area on the south side of the road until after you make the sharp turn south onto the road. Drive past the dirt parking area on the left, over a narrow bridge, and into the main parking area on the right. The parking area has a self-pay station and restroom.
After parking, walk south along the paved road until you see the sign for the trail. Round Top will be to the right and Winnemucca Lake to the left. I prefer to do this trail counter-clockwise (or anti-clockwise for you European types). Get the steeper switchbacks out of the way in the beginning and enjoy a gradual descent for the return to the car. If you start early you’ll also have better lighting to photograph the views of the mountains to the north and west doing the route in this direction.
The first mile or so is a pretty steady 500′ climb up switchbacks but thankfully it’s shaded thanks to the cover from mixed conifers. The trail makes a very close pass to Woods Creek at the site of some old mining operations; the remains of an old house and vehicle chassis make up a small graveyard.
Emerging from the forest will bring you into the Mokelumne Wilderness boundary and into an open meadow with great views of The Sisters to the south. Not to mention all of the wildflowers and other vegetation along Woods Creek.
The next mile or so up to Round Top Lake is exposed but you know you’re getting close as The Sisters start to get bigger and you see the tops of the small pines surrounding Round Top Lake. This lake has some nice areas along the shore to eat lunch.
The trail junction at Round Top Lake will take you to Fourth of July Lake if you go right and Winnemucca Lake if you go to the left. You can also make a Round Top summit attempt by following the worn-down trail to the southeast up the 10,381′ mountain. Some girls had just run down from the summit as I passed the junction; they were quite literally scared shitless from the cloud-cloud lightning that materialized over the peak and caused their hair to stand straight up! That’s the last place you want to be during a thunderstorm.
Winnemucca Lake is a short 20-minute, mostly downhill hike. You’ll first see Elephant’s Back to the northeast of Winnemucca Lake, then the lake itself with its prominent island on the east side. It’s surrounded by sharply rising terrain on all sides but the north. This side of the lake is where the three campsites are, along with numerous boulders along the lake from which to cast a line or eat lunch.
To return to the trailhead, take the junction north to Woods Lake. East will take you to Carson Pass. A clear signpost makes this idiot-proof, but we all know there’s no such thing as “idiot-proof”. The trail descends gradually through a meadow along another fork of Woods Creek and enters the lush mixed forest, eventually bringing you to a wood bridge to pass over back to the parking lot.
Tips for the Round Top and Winnemucca Lakes Loop
- Snow can linger for some time at these altitudes, especially since the lakes are under some north-facing slopes that never see the sun. The trail is marked very well though, and is even marked for nordic skiers.