Approx. 5 miles round trip, moderate to strenuous.
Mt. Elwell is the second highest peak in the area, topping out at 7,818 ft. It can be a strenuous hike but the views from the top make it so worthwhile. I usually prefer this hike in the fall when it’s cooler, but the temps in the Lost Sierra have dropped this week and I felt like flexing my muscles, so off we went to the Smith Lake trailhead just 15 minutes from Nakoma.
There are a couple of ways to access the peak, but today I chose to go up and back on the cooler north side which has more shade plus two ponds and a small lake near the top for my black dog to cool off.
Starting at the Smith Lake trailhead, accessed off the Gray Eagle Lodge road, the trail is in full sun for the first 1/2 mile or so. After you cross the rather oversized bridge, stay to the left toward Smith Lake and about a 1/4 mile on, go left where the sign indicates the turn for Mt. Elwell. You’ll immediately cross Smith Creek again, this time with no bridge. (If you want to see Smith Lake, go 1/4 mile past the turn to Mt. Elwell and you’ll encounter the beautiful green-blue water of Smith Lake.)
The forest of moss-covered firs you encounter shortly after crossing Smith Creek is one of my favorite places in Lakes Basin. There’s just something about that section of forest that feels enchanted to me. Every time I hike through I expect to see elves and fairies peeking out from behind the trees.
The trail gets a little steeper near the top, and even in mid-August we encountered a large patch of snow that obscured the trail. Past the patch of snow we arrived at the saddle which runs between two rocky uprisings. The one to the west is the actual peak. If you have no fear of heights and don’t mind a rocky scramble, I highly recommend ascending the peak. It provides great views down the Little Jamison Creek basin on one side and views of Long, Silver and Round lakes on the other side.
We weren’t fortunate enough to see Mt. Lassen on this particular day, but that’s another reward for ascending the peak on clear days.
We enjoyed our picnic lunch, then headed back down the way we came. The entire hike with lunch took about 4 hours. This hike is best attempted in the morning so you’re off the peak long before any afternoon thunder storms roll through.