One step at a time

Red Lake Peak Challenge

mountain summit at Red Lake PLANNED EXCURSION In the last six years more than 400 people have accepted Ron Erskine’s hiking challenge to scale a high mountain summit. Photo: Ron Erskine

Walking. We do it every day without thought. Over the last six summers, more than 400 people from our community have accepted a special challenge and walked to a high mountain summit. For most, it was simply a lovely, but tiring, day out. But for many others, it was a walk beyond what they thought they were capable of—a transformative, even life-changing experience.

In February 1844, from the summit of Red Lake Peak near Carson Pass, John C. Fremont and Kit Carson became the first Europeans to set eyes on Lake Tahoe. What a surprising sight it must have been. At 8am on Saturday, July 13, 2019, we will follow in their footsteps to the top of Red Lake Peak…if you accept the challenge.

Three years ago, 70 challengers tackled Round Top, a beautiful 10,381-foot peak just south of State Route 88 at Carson Pass. It was a great introduction to a day hiker’s playland I had not explored before. Lakes, accessible peaks, flower gardens, mountain meadows and stunning views were within comfortable reach of the average Joe—no macho required. To wit, the day before our summit climb, we walked to Winnemucca Lake. At the end of a gentle two-mile jaunt through a color riot of alpine flowers, we lunched beside an iceberg-studded lake, looking up at Round Top 1,500 feet overhead. A fabulous setting, and one usually reserved for high-mileage backcountry travelers.

Since the country south of Carson Pass offered so much, I decided to cross the highway, turn north and explore. From a day-use parking area just west of Carson Pass, I set out through a stand of Sierra junipers, aspens, and western white pines that soon gave way to a wide open sea of sagebrush. After a gentle1½-mile walk, I looked to up to my right between hummocks tumbling down from the peaks above. A craggy-crested Red Lake Peak appeared. It called, and I answered.

Here’s the good news: The walk to Red Lake Peak is the shortest hike (about five miles round trip) and the least elevation gain (1,500 feet) of any of the prior six challenge peaks. But don’t be fooled. You don’t stand on a 10,063-foot mountain top for free. The approach along the Pacific Crest Trail is gentle, but when Red Lake Peak appears, instantly every step of the 1,100-foot climb to the peak is there before you. On most ascents, the work is revealed bit by bit, so you are spared a discouraging view of the entire task ahead. Not here.

It is an “Oh, my goodness” moment likely to give you pause. Here’s where you measure your resolve. There is no trail to the top, but the country is wide open, you always know where you are, and the footing is solid. Dig deep. Choose a route and go. Take one step. Then another. And another.

You might be thinking: it’s too much for me. I can’t do it. You underestimate yourself. Each summer, on the morning of our challenge hike, people of all shapes and sizes, teenagers to septuagenarians, look up at a sight that excites them a little and scares them a little. Hours later, they look down from the top, pleased they made it and realizing they had underestimated themselves. It will hurt, but you can do it…if you want to do it.

As in years past, we will do a number of hikes throughout winter and spring to prepare for the summer challenge and get to know each other. The schedule is below. As usual, it begins with a New Year’s morning walk, a great way to start the year. Mark the dates on your calendar. Everyone is welcome whether you plan to come to Red Lake Peak or not. I am particularly excited that on March 30, the Santa Clara Open Space Authority will open Coyote Ridge, a preserve not yet open to the public, to us alone.

To receive emails with full information about the challenge and each hike as it approaches, contact me at [email protected]


1: Coyote Valley OSP. Arrowhead Loop Trail. 9am, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. 4 miles. Moderate.

2: Mt Umunhum. 9am. Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. 7.4 miles. Moderate.

3: Harvey Bear County Park. Coyote Ridge/Calaveras/Harvey Bear/Coyote Ridge Trails. 9am , Saturday, March 9, 2019. 10 miles. Moderate.

4. Coyote Ridge Open Space Preserve. 9am, Saturday, March 30, 2019. 7-ish miles. Moderate.

5. Joseph D. Grant County Park. Cañada de Pala/Pala Seca/Cañada de Pala trails. 9am, Saturday, May 18, 2019. 9 miles. Moderate

6. Sierra Vista OSP. Sierra Vista/Upper Calaveras Fault Trails. About 5 miles. Saturday, June 8, 2019. Moderate+. Red Lake Peak Challenge. 8am, Saturday, July 13, 2018. 5 or so miles. Expect pounding chest, sweating brow, doubt, great views, great satisfaction.

Ron Erskine
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About Ron Erskine
Ron Erskine is a local outdoors columnist and avid hiker.