Reaching Smith Lake requires ascending over 1,500 feet in just over 4 miles, but once at the lake the sweaty climb from the Twin Lakes trailhead is quickly forgotten.
While it’s one of the smaller lakes in Desolation Wilderness, at over 8,000 ft elevation and with an unobstructed view far, far to the west, Smith Lake is a must-visit spot.
The elevation profile clearly shows the challenge but at least has a constant slope once the incline begins:
To get to Smith Lake, drive to the Twin Lakes trailhead (off route 50 near Tahoe), and take the trail towards Twin Lakes until reaching the fork for Twin Lakes / Smith Lake, and take the route to Smith Lake. The route leads past Grouse Lake and Hemlock Lake, before taking a final steep and faded trail up to Smith Lake. The last ascent may require some route finding or scrambling off trail, but as long as you keep ascending and don’t go too far to the east you’ll reach the edge of Smith Lake.
The final ascent:
The reward for reaching the lake: spectacular views to the west.
Desolation Wilderness is extremely popular and permits are required for overnight visits. Quotas are in place for the destination zones inside the Wilderness, and you need plan your route in advance, at least for the first night’s stop, as well as entrance and exit areas. It’s a bit difficult to read some of the maps published online; this is the one I’ve found to be most useful: https://www.recreation.gov/nrso/ca/dslt/DSLT.pdf More information about the permit system is available on the recreation.gov site.
When visiting Japan it’s hard to ignore the opportunity to eat delicious food every day, at every meal even, regardless of budget. Below are photos of every meal I ate on a trip in April, 2017 (though not every single takoyaki snack or vending machine morsel was documented). Most photos include a description and location.
The local conbini, or convenience store, usually provided breakfast, unless there was a French-style bakery to visit/judge or the mind was dead-set on a morning natto-don. Jet lag also forced breakfast hand, often leaving no choice but to arrive at the food markets early in the morning, before most of the other tourists.
Lunch choices can be dizzying. Plan on having two lunches per day if you can fit it in. It’ll all be walked off anyway.
Many days were planned starting with the final destination, dinner, and from there backwards in time. Dinner isn’t the end of an evening, but it can be a highlight.
Part of the Los Padres National Forest, the Ventana Wilderness feels remote, shows off incredible views of the Pacific coastline and the Santa Lucia mountains, and contains a quite varied environment. It’s close enough to the San Francisco Bay Area to be accessible for one– or two–night outings.
At 5,164 feet, Cone Peak overlooks the ocean from just 3.2 miles off the coastline. Cone Peak is ringed by a few campsites and is a highlight of the Ventana Wilderness — and recent repairs to surrounding trails have improved accessibility. The ascent to the peak is steep enough to present a bit of a challenge, but not so steep to trigger regret when carrying a backpack and a day’s supply of water.
We spent two nights in the Ventana Wilderness, making it up to and then around Cone Peak. We left the San Francisco Bay Area on an October Friday morning and arrived at the trailhead by 1pm. We followed this route:
Take Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to unpaved Cone Peak Road (watch for signs for Cone Peak and the road, also called Coast Ridge Road), and drive ~5.5 miles north. Note Cone Peak Road is closed due to weather during the rainy season. Park near the Cone Peak trailhead or alternatively closer to the Vicente Flat trialhead, on Cone Peak Road about one mile before the Cone Peak Trailhead.
Take Cone Peak trail to Cone Peak, then down to Trail Spring Campsite and onto Gamboa trail.
Follow Gamboa trail to Goat camp for the night. We chose this site because there’s usually water flowing from a stream about a quarter of a mile away. In the 2015 California drought, water access was especially important for a multi–day trip. If you’re planning to go during the dry season, check for water condition reports on the Ventana Wilderness Alliance forums.
Time: 05:51:11 hours, though we backtracked at one point and hiked about a mile more than necessary
Distance: 8.98 miles, including the backtracking
Ascent: 1,859.32 ft
Min/max altitude: 2,467.18 ft / 4,801.25 ft
Hike from Goat camp to Vicente Flat trail
Take Vicente Flat trail to Vicente Flat campground and camp there. Note there is usually water about a half mile from the camp site.
Time: 07:32:24 hours
Distance: 8.23 miles
Ascent: 1,365.82 ft
Min/max altitude: 1,527.11 ft / 2,553.76 ft
Day 3 (half day):
Hike on Vicente Flat trail from Vicente Flat campground to Cone Peak Road and back to the car
We met few people along the trail, and we were the only ones staying at Goat camp on the night of Day 1. All along, we enjoyed solitude and only the sounds the forest and ocean wind brought us.
It took some time to piece together the information needed to plan this route. There is a lot of information online, but much of it is more than five years old. The sites below were some of the most useful for planning, especially for finding water sources and picking campsites:
An important tip we learned from the Ventana Wilderness forum was to bring mosquito head nets. Many large and pesky flies were thwarted by our nets as we continued along our way in peace.
At Vicente Flat campground we met volunteers who maintain the trails, clearing fallen trees, making sure signs and paths are easy to see, and putting in hard physical labor so that everyone can enjoy the forest. As we planned our route, we learned the trail conditions have varied quite a bit over the years, and in recent years roadblocks have been removed and the trail has been easier to follow in areas where previously one might have lost it.
I’m really grateful that the Ventana Wilderness is available to anyone, and for volunteers who keep it so accessible. I donated to the Ventana Wilderness Alliance and if you’ve enjoyed the forest, you might consider doing the same.