Hiking Reno/Lake Tahoe: Mount Rose
When warmer temperatures begin melting the Sierra snowpack in spring and early summer, the urge to travel through higher elevations permeates the hiking communities of Reno and Lake Tahoe. The prospect of fresh air, cooler temperatures, and lush tapestries of wildflowers all contribute to this pent-up desire for mountainous outdoor adventure. And when deep snow finally yields first to muddy and then to sturdy trails come May or June, the trail to the summit of Mount Rose is often the first to experience increased traffic.
As the highest point in Washoe County, Nevada and the third highest peak in the Lake Tahoe Basin, Mount Rose--situated in the aptly named Mount Rose Wilderness--has many notable attributes. The trail to the summit departs from a large parking lot located atop Mount Rose Highway (Nevada 431), where several interpretive displays and restrooms are present for less adventurous travelers. First moving southwest along a sandy hillside marked by sagebrush, wildflowers, and abundant sunshine, the trail quickly reaches a minor saddle, subsequently entering a forest of whitebark pines. After a long forested traverse below 9,897 foot Tamarack Peak, the sounds of rushing water heighten the senses as the forest opens and the trail approaches Galena Falls.
From a signed trail junction just below Galena Falls, the Mount Rose Summit trail continues west along the border of a large, willow and wildflower filled alpine meadow before reaching a signed junction with a poorly maintained dirt road. Traveling northwest from the road, the summit trail becomes muddy as it passes through dense stands of willow and big-leaf lupine, eventually beginning a steep climb along a dry, wildflower covered slope. Curving west, the trail continues to climb through whitebark pine forest before reaching a mild plateau and entering the Mount Rose Wilderness.
Once in the wilderness, the trail climbs steeply to the northeast through five switchbacks and more whitebark pines before heading north and moving above the tree line. Another switchback shifts the trail to the southeast as it climbs through alpine tundra on the final leg to the summit of 10,776 foot Mount Rose. Low-growing, sensitive alpine wildflowers and increasingly wide views beautify the concluding length of trail.
Have you ever been to the top of one of Reno’s most famous mountains? If not, read on to discover the specifics of hiking the Mount Rose Summit trail.
Trail Nuts and Bolts
Length: 5 miles to summit; 10 miles round trip.
Trailhead elevation: 8920 feet
Elevation gain: 1850 feet to summit; around 2200 cumulative.
Best time/season: summer through early fall; winter on snowshoes.
Shade availability: good
Trail users: hikers, runners
Do you prefer hiking at high elevations or at low elevations?
The Mount Rose Summit Trailhead is located at the top of Mount Rose Highway (Nevada 431). To get here, drive west on Mount Rose Highway for 13.7 miles from its intersection with Thomas Creek Road at Galena Market, and turn right into the trailhead parking lot. Trailhead facilities include an approximately fifty car capacity parking lot, restrooms (summer only), and interpretive displays. The parking area occasionally fills up on busy summer weekends, so arrive early if you want a guaranteed spot.
The Mount Rose Summit trail departs from the south end of the parking area behind the restrooms. The trail climbs gently to the south before reaching an informational sign after several hundred feet. Proceed up the set of rock stairs to the right to stay on the summit trail. The next 0.5 miles consists of a moderate, sandy climb to the southwest through sporadic whitebark pine and abundant mountain sagebrush. The trail now descends gently for 0.1 miles as it enters a notably denser pine forest and reaches a minor saddle.
From the saddle, the trail continues north through further pine forest and occasional wildflower meadows before re-orienting to the northwest after 0.7 miles. Look to your right through the forest along this largely flat stretch for sporadic glimpses of Tamarack Lake below. Heading northwest, the trail maintains a similar profile (forested, mostly flat) for the next 0.7 miles as it travels below and to the north of Tamarack Peak. From here, descend mildly to the west for 0.3 miles before reaching a junction with the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) beneath the roar of Galena Falls.
After enjoying a break at the waterfall, continue to the right at the junction with the TRT to stay on the summit trail. Cross a small stream and move north along the border of a willow-filled drainage for 0.25 miles before reaching a junction with a dirt road. Continuing right to head towards Mount Rose, the trail climbs gently for 0.1 miles through tall wildflowers and dense willow. Excepting very, very dry years, this stretch is almost always damp and muddy. Beyond the willow, the trail climbs moderately to the north for 0.3 miles, passing a diversity of sun-loving wildflowers in the process.
From here, the trail climbs very steeply alongside a deep canyon for 0.2 miles before moderating and crossing a minor wash along the higher reaches of the canyon. Curving to the northwest, the trail climbs moderately for 0.35 miles through scattered whitebark pines before reaching a steep, 0.1 mile climb to a sign marking the border of the Mount Rose Wilderness atop a small plateau. The summit trail reaches a junction with the Rim to Reno trail just under 200 feet beyond the wilderness sign. Continue right to head towards Mount Rose.
After encountering the Rim to Reno trail, the summit trail climbs moderately to the northeast for 0.45 miles--moving atop a ridge for much of this length--before reaching a switchback. Travel through four more switchbacks over the next 0.2 miles before heading north a further 0.25 miles and moving above the tree line. Follow the trail southeast for just over 0.3 miles as it climbs steeply through alpine tundra to arrive at the 10,776 foot summit of Mount Rose, enjoying a slightly flatter trail profile for the last 0.1 miles. Atop the peak, admire your hard work climbing and the 360 degree views. Lake Tahoe can be seen to the southwest; the Truckee Meadows to the northeast; and Donner Pass and Carson City to the west and southeast, respectively. On exceptionally clear days, look for Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta, both members of the Cascade Range, over 100 miles to the northwest. Retrace your steps back to the trailhead, enjoying the views, wildflowers, and wildlife along the way.
What You'll See Along the Way
The Mount Rose Summit trail passes through a wide variety of environments and harbors one of the largest assemblages of wildflowers found in the Lake Tahoe area. Along the first stretch of trail--before entering the forest--look for yellow nude buckwheat, gray-purple Tahoe lupine, and red Applegate’s paintbrush. On the animal front, watch out for fox sparrows and pine siskins in this area.
The duration of the trail from the minor saddle (mile 0.6) to Galena Falls at mile 2.3 is dominated by a forest of whitebark pine, though several stunning old specimens of Sierra juniper are present as well. Sunnier areas through here are marked by abundant white mountain pennyroyal; yellow wooly mule’s ears; the white morph of crest lupine; and the small, pink dwarf monkeyflower. Atop sandier soils, look for the silver-leafed, gray-white flowered Brewer’s lupine growing just above the ground. Conspicuous birds through the forest include dark-eyed juncos, mountain chickadees, and an infrequent pine grosbeak while mammals present include chipmunks and Douglas squirrels.
As the trail passes along the border of the meadow filled with Lemmon’s willow--just beyond the waterfall--purple-white western asters and yellow mountain monkeyflower complement the scene as red-tailed hawks can be glimpsed overhead. In the direct vicinity of Galena Falls, look for the inconspicuous black American dipper (a bird) as it forages for food in crevices of the creek.
The stretch of trail from the road encountered at mile 2.55 to the beginning of the steep climb at mile 2.95 is often the most colorful. Red crimson columbine, blue big-leaf lupine, and blue glaucous larkspur are abundant in moist areas as white Tahoe lupine and red Applegate’s paintbrush dominate the drier slopes. Look and listen for rufous hummingbirds buzzing about the wildflowers through this stretch in July and August. As the trail climbs steeply through the forest before reaching the wilderness boundary, the diversity of flora and fauna proves similar to the previous forested stretch, but also look for yellow Sierra wallflower growing in semi-shaded areas and Clark’s nutcrackers flying about the trees.
As you enter the wilderness, look for matlike, pink-white pussypaws growing in sandy areas. Look for silver-green alpine paintbrush; dull, pink-white hairy paintbrush; and purple dwarf alpine daisy along the final stretch of trail through the alpine tundra. Though few animal are found in the immediate proximity of the summit, rock wrens prove occasional and golden-mantled ground squirrels often beg for food (please don’t feed wild animals). Peak bloom time along the trail varies from early July to late August depending on elevation, slope profile, and flower species.
© 2014 Jonathan Heywood