RALSTON PEAK (9,235') CLASS 1
Location: 2.5 miles N of Camp Sacramento, CA
Drive: Take U.S. 50 to Sayles Flat, which is on the north side of the highway opposite the old ski area just down the road from Camp Sacramento. This point is either 9 miles west from Meyers Junction (U.S. 50 and Highway 89 South) or 44.5 miles east from the junction of U.S. 50 and Highway 49 in Placerville, CA. A sign along the wooden fence marks the area, proclaiming, "Mt. Ralston Trail El Dorado National Forest." Opposite this area, across U.S. 50, is a big sign, "Camp Sacramento." Do not park along the highway, as this is heavily signed.
Climb: A dirt road leads east from the parking area. Follow this up, winding about 150 yards to a trail with a USFS sign "17E14." A self-service, day use only, wilderness permit station is usually located here. Take the trail here which switchbacks up through the forest. In the first 1.5 miles, ignore three faint spur trails headed to the right and down. Note these for your return. The trail, at times, goes steeply up what seems to be an erosion gully through heavy brush. Look for signs of usage, and bear with the poorly designed and constructed route here. It does get better shortly. At a saddle, or flatter area, at 8,440+ feet elevation, the trail descends to the left (northwest), then climbs up to the peak's northwest ridgeline. A sometimes difficult-to-find use trail heads right along the gentle slopes to the summit. This is visible as the only, obvious, large rockpile about 0.5 mile to the southeast. Otherwise, one may just head cross-country southeast along the top of the ridge, hiking through scenic low-lying pines near the top. The use trail becomes more or less apparent, following the crest, as you approach the highpoint.
When there is still plenty of snow, one may just head straight northeast, up from the 8,440+ foot saddle, or flat spot, cross-country. Aim for the highest spot. There seems to now be a use trail, this way, with ducks. On the ridge, beware of the drop-off of the corniced ridge. It does avalanche!
Drive: Take U.S. 50 to the signed "Echo Lakes Sno-Park" turnoff, which is either 4.3 miles west from Meyers Junction (west junction of U.S. 50 and Highway 89 south) or 4.7 miles east from Camp Sacramento. Drive east on the main, paved road 0.5 mile to turn left (north) on paved Echo Lakes Road. Just to the south of this junction is Echo Lakes Sno-Park. This parking facility has room for some 50 regular vehicles.
This point can be reached from the east by taking the paved side road right, which leaves Highway 50 at the west end of a short passing lane shortly before the highway winds up the cliffed section of the grade. This turnoff is 2.7 miles west from the junction with Highway 89 south.
The Echo Lakes Road leads in 0.9 mile to a big, paved parking lot. Further along at the end of the road, guest parking for Echo Chalet is marked. Two pay phones, a restroom, and a market are open here in the summer. There is a self-serve, day-use only, wilderness permit station here, too, as well as at the water taxi boat dock on the upper end of Echo Lakes.
Climb: From the big, paved parking lot, follow the paved road down, or take the signed, shortcut, use trail from the nearby gravel parking circle, down to the lake outlet. Limited day use parking is available here near the store and the USFS restroom.
Cross the walkway across the spillway, and take the PCT along the right (northeast) side of the lakes. Ignore the side trails right to "Triangle Lk" and "Tamarack Lk" and "Triangle Lk" again, following the signs to "Lake Aloha." After 4 miles from the start, go left at a junction at Haypress Meadow signed "Lk of the Woods." Shortly reach another junction going left signed "Pinecrest." Follow this trail over a small hill and drop 100 feet to climb back up to the main summit ridge and, joining Route A, either find and follow an unsigned use trail, or head cross-country southeast to the top.
ROUTE B VARIATION
Drive: Same as Route B, Drive.
Climb: Take the Pacific Crest Trail northbound as in Route B. In about 3.5 miles, come to the signed "Tamarack Lake Trail." Take this faint and ducked trail left and downhill a bit. Pass along the left (southeast) shore of Tamarack Lake. Cross the outlet stream of Tamarack Lake. Logs and rocks a few yards below the actual outlet enable a short hop across. Complete another creek crossing, after following a very indistinct trail or route, again a few yards downstream from the Ralston Lake outlet. Climb cross-country, up talus and slabs on the northeast ridge that leads up to the Ralston Peak summit. The steeper, lower, cliffs and slabs can be avoided. The last few hundred feet up the final part of the rib sports a scree trail, with class 2 rocks to complete the climb.
WINTER SKI ASCENT: Park
at Sayles Flat (Route A, Drive), if clear of snow (unlikely in
a normal winter) and not posted. Sometimes, a 2-car spot will
be plowed for cabin owners nearby. Do not attempt to park anywhere
else! Signs abound, and enforcement is quick and severe. If parking
is impossible, go somewhere else.
Assuming one can park legally, follow roughly Route A. At the small saddle at elevation 8,440+, continue straight up northeast to the top. This south-facing slope is often good spring skiing, and offers a nice, continuous, steep run back to Sayles Flat.
As a longer trip, start at Echo Lakes Sno-Park (see Route B, Drive), take the Echo Lakes Road, and ski across Echo Lakes, if safety allows. This is posted as "extremely dangerous." Join Route B to the top.
An excellent tour begins at Echo Lakes Sno-Park. The route follows the peak's southeast ridge over or to the south of Becker Peak, Talking Mountain, and past Saucer and Cup Lakes. Most of this tour is south-facing. Avalanche routes are crossed.
The cirque snowfield to the north and east of the summit has been known to avalanche. Much of the ridge is corniced, so use extreme care when approaching the edge.
TRIP STATS: Route A, 2,900 feet gain with an additional 100 feet gain on the return, 4.5 miles one way; Route B, 2,000 feet gain with an additional 200 feet gain on the return, 6 miles one way; winter ski ascent, roughly the same on Route A, plus 250 feet gain with an additional 150 feet gain on the return, two miles extra one way on Route B; Route B Variation, 1800 feet gain, with 100 feet gain on the return, over 4.5 miles one way.
Notes: The Route A trail
is a popular hiking route. In dry winters, the trail can sometimes
be snow-hiked to the top. On Route B, a water-taxi can sometimes
be taken across Echo Lakes ($12 each way in summer, 2014, $36 minimum) saving about 2.5
miles of hiking, each way, on the trail.
Early in the season, Route B Variation may avoid the snow along Route B. Otherwise, most will choose to take Route B, as little time is saved by heading directly using the Route B Variation. The trail requires much less effort and no cross-country route-finding.
In the snow season, avoid climbing up under the cornices that form along the main ridge. The northeast ridge, or rib, offers safer, avalanche avoidance.