Three Can’t-Miss Northern California Backpacking Trips

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Northern California holds a special place in my heart. I grew up hiking around Lake Tahoe and I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains up here. So I’ve taken some time here to detail three Northern California backpacking trips you can’t miss!

Need Backpacking Advice?

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Don’t Hesitate to Reach Out!

First, a quick aside: if you don’t have any backpacking experience, there are so many great guide services available nowadays that I highly recommend you inquire into doing one of your trips with this kind of service.

If you’re struggling to find a trip that fits your schedule and needs, please feel free to contact me with some details of what you’re looking for and I’ll be happy to provide recommendations and/or advice!

So now, without further ado, let’s dive into a look at three backpacking trips in Northern California!

Flora Lake and Lake Azalea

Donner Summit

Lake Azalea

The easiest of the backpacking trips I’ll list here, the hike into either Flora or Azalea isn’t more than two miles, regardless of which direction you’re coming from. A bonus of this trip is that you’ll be hiking on a section of the famous Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to reach the lake of your choice!

This trip can start at two different locations. There is a trailhead for the PCT to the south of the lakes at the top of Old Highway 40. If you’re driving up Old 40 from Truckee, this trailhead is on the right just before you reach the left turn into Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. There is a large parking area on the right next to the Sugar Bowl employee housing building.

From this location, you’ll hike just about two miles on the PCT before you reach Flora Lake. If there happen to be no campsites left here, you can proceed along the shore and onto a spur trail that will take you just a short way up the watershed where you’ll find Lake Azalea.

The other potential starting location is the PCT trailhead located off I-80 Exit 176. When exiting the highway proceed towards Boreal Ski Resort and then follow signs for the PCT. The hike into Lake Azalea from this location is scarcely more than a mile.

For newcomers, I highly recommend the campsite on the far, southwestern edge of Lake Azalea. It is well protected from the wind and boasts an established fire pit. That said, be sure to check the local fire restrictions for the time of your trip and make sure to acquire a free backcountry permit at the Truckee Ranger Station before having a fire or using a camp stove in the backcountry.

Suzie Lake

Desolation Wilderness

Suzie Lake

Backpacking in Desolation Wilderness always requires the purchase of a backcountry permit. I recommend purchasing this permit at the Taylor Creek Visitor Center, as it is the closest location to the Glen Alpine Trailhead, where you’ll start this hike. Overnight permits for Desolation Wilderness cost $5 per person for the first night and $10 per person for two or more nights. The maximum stay is 14 days.

The trail from Glen Alpine up to Suzie Lake is about 4.5 miles with just over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s important to check permit availability before you arrive at Taylor Creek, however. Because Desolation Wilderness is a very popular area for backpackers, you’ll have to specify the exact camping zone you plan on using for your trip.

So if all the sites around Suzie Lake have already been filled, for example, you’ll have to amend your itinerary. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of trails, lakes, and campsites in Desolation Wilderness, so you should have options, but planning in advance is a bit more important with this trip!

Palisades Creek Trail

American River Gorge

American River Gorge

Quick disclaimer: this trail is not for the novice or amateur backpacker!

Starting at the end of Kidd Lakes Road, Palisades Creek Trail winds for more than 7 miles down to the North Fork of the American River. In the process, it drops nearly 3,000 vertical feet. I’ve attempted this trail as a round-trip day hike and let me tell you, it’s still one of the worst backcountry decisions I’ve made in my outdoor career! Take two or three days to really do this trail justice!

Like the Flora and Azalea trips, I recommend acquiring a free backcountry permit at the Truckee Ranger Station before hitting this trail. As you drop from the top of the Sierra Crest down into the gorge, you’ll notice three or four significant changes in the plant and tree species along the trail. The pines and firs of the higher elevations give way to incense cedars and other species well-suited to hotter, lower elevations.

When you reach the river, cross the man-made bridge and there are a number of campsites to choose from. My favorite is less than a tenth of a mile upriver from a nearly 60-foot waterfall affectionately named Rattlesnake Falls. Although you’ll be below 5,000 feet of elevation at the river, the water is coming straight from the peaks of the Sierras, so be prepared for a chilly introduction! Also, don’t forget to bring along a collapsible fishing pole if you have one, as there are some decent-sized fish in the river here.

My biggest piece of advice about the Palisades Creek Trail is not to underestimate the hike out! It’s much the same as hiking in the Grand Canyon, it’ll feel like a nice, easy hike in, as it’s downhill the entire way, but you’ll have to gain back that 3,000 feet of elevation on the way out. Fortunately, your pack will be significantly lighter, but I’d say allow at least an additional hour for the hike out in comparison to however long it takes to hike in!

Prepare, Pack, and Prosper!!

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The Backpack Guide on the John Muir Trail

Some people enjoy the planning, preparation, and packing before the trip just as much as the actual trip itself. There’s a certain degree of child-like anticipation that precedes any backpacking trip, so revel in this feeling! My two biggest rules of backpacking are:

1. Use the buddy system whenever possible! (It’s almost always possible.) Even if you can’t find a close friend willing to tag along, try visiting a Facebook page for a hiking and/or backpacking group in your area. It may sound strange to embark on a trip with a complete stranger, but you can do a good amount of vetting beforehand and it’s almost always better to have a hiking buddy than to go it alone.

2. If you can’t find anyone to go with you, make sure to leave a detailed itinerary with a friend or loved one. Have you ever seen 127 Hours with James Franco? Nobody wants to wind up in that situation, but stuff happens in the wild. Making sure somebody knows where you’re going and how long you’re planning to be gone is essential for every well-planned backpacking trip!

About The Backpack Guide

hiking the ruby mountains - roads end trailhead
The Backpack Guide (Tuck) at left and Jabronie Joe on right @ Road’s End Trailhead

So where are you off to? At The Backpack Guide, I’m always looking for new trails and wildernesses to explore. I’m also excited to see and share photos of readers with their new backpacks or just out enjoying nature. Share your latest adventure or backpack by tagging @thebackpackguide on Instagram and Facebook!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this review and I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section below. I’ll be quick to reply to any questions, comments, or concerns you feel like sharing!

Wishing You The Best of Travels!

The Backpack Guide

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