Kit Carson and Silver Lake leave lasting impressions along scenic Highway 88

Scout Kit Carson and Silver Lake leave lasting impressions along scenic Highway 88

For 30-plus years, we’ve been taking long weekend trips up to South Lake Tahoe and the western shore of that dramatic lake, often choosing Highway 50 out of Sacramento for access. Almost as frequently, we have elected a return along Highway 88; but not until the journey just a two weeks ago had we actually overnighted along Highway 88 for several nights, hiked and checked out the lodging, dining and scenic options along the venerable highway.

Silver Lake, looking southeast from Kit Carson Lodge.

In the winter of 1844, the Fremont Expedition was encamped in Nevada’s Carson Valley when guide Kit Carson suggested heading west to reach Sutter‘s Fort in Sacramento for supplies. Washoe Indians told them of a route but warned them not to attempt to cross during the snowy winter. Fremont ignored the advice, the expedition slogged through heavy snows, and, unable to find game, had to subsist by eating horses, mules and dogs; miraculously, they reached Sacramento in early March with no fatalities.

With almost nine-year-old grandson Jack, spouse Susan and I recently set off to explore Highway 88 by heading north east along the highway, made a stop in the Gold Rush town of Jackson at the historic National Hotel and had soft drinks and a the snack in the hotel’s Stanley’s Steakhouse before beginning the steady ascent towards Carson Pass, elevation 8,574 feet.

Following east along Highway 88, you quickly reach the turn off to Jackson Rancheria Casino, a very popular gambling stop complete with big hotel and its own campground for visitors (and cheap gas). The town of Pioneer is just beyond, with quaint shops and several eateries – make a stop just past the town at the Amador Ranger Station to get good maps and insight as to lakes, trails and campgrounds in the higher elevations.

Grandson Jack tests the sea-worthiness of his kayak on Kirkwood Lake.

We were towing our Scotty travel trailer, so we checked out campgrounds along the Lower Bear River Reservoir and the east end of Silver Lake (making notes for a future camping return) before finding a marvelous small campground just a half mile west of the turn off to Kirkwood Ski Resort. Kirkwood Lake’s small campground, only 12 sites, sits adjacent to the lake, offering secluded campsites, spectacular scenery both to the west and north and the delightful lake for testing our recently-purchased two kayaks.

Jack and I took a short paddle following the shore of Kirkwood Lake, pronouncing the kayaks eminently sea-worthy, before Jack began his late afternoon climb in the towering granite boulders and modest cliffs surrounding the campground. Framed by purple lupine and a variety of red and yellow wildflowers, our young climber was in seventh heaven.

Jack finds climbing the granite boulders near our Kirkwood Lake Campground to be both invigorating and scenic!

The following two days we would explore the area around both Silver Lake and Caples Lake, two large and beautiful alpine lakes approaching the summit of Carson Pass. Silver Lake offers the most visitor amenities, with Plasse’s Resort and Stockton Municipal Camp on the lake’s west end and Kit Carson Resort on the east side.

Plasse’s Resort dates to Plasse’s Trading Post, circa 1853, with the resort built in 1900 and run by the Plasse family until 1979. The resort offers cabins, fishing boats and a small restaurant. Just beyond is Stockton Municipal Camp, featuring cabins, dining room and family amenities where generations of Stockton families have enjoyed crafts workshops and a large campfire circle for evening gatherings, sharing tall tales and smores preparation.

Kit Carson Lodge at Silver Lake’s west side offers accommodations right on the lake, boat and kayak rentals and a lovely restaurant.
Stockton Family Camp’s welcome center is at west end of Silver Lake.

The next day, we returned to Silver Lake, torn between kayaking out to Treasure Island in the middle of the lake, and taking the 1.6 mile hike to Shealor Lakes. Jack opted for the hike, and off we went, headed mostly north on a well-marked trail, through an alpine forest then over a glacier-smoothed granite ridge and down to the string of small Shealor Lakes, dotted along Tragedy Creek.

The route offers marvelous views of the Sierra above Silver Lake, as well as the rugged mountains looking north. We then retired for a late lunch to Kit Carson Lodge, a resort with a fine restaurant, cabins and rustic motel-room choices right on the shore of the lake. Two nearby Forest Service campgrounds, Silver Lake East and Silver Lake West (more scenic, nicer restrooms), offer wooded campsites within walking distance of Kit Carson Resort and the lake.

Susan and Jack pose for picture above the Shealor Lakes area (it’s a 1.6 mile hike from near the east end of Silver Lake).

The next day, we explored Kirkwood Ski Resort, pretty quiet during the summer season, and had lunch at a nearby favorite, the Kirkwood Inn (an historic former stagecoach stop). Seeking more high-alpine scenery and hiking options, we continued east past Caples Lake and turned right to reach Woods Lake. Woods lake, at 8,240 feet elevation, just below the late July snowline, offers hiking trails around the lake, taking trekkers over snow drifts to Winnemucca Lake, equally scenic.

Woods Lake, just southeast of Caples Lake, makes for find hiking and marvelous scenery!

Continuing east on Highway 88, it’s only a few miles further to crest Carson Pass, with additional hiking trails running north and south along the Sierra Crest and a visitor center and docents offering maps and personal insights as to best routes (just below the pass, Kit Carson carved initials into a tree in 1844). By now, you have quickly realized that this stretch of the Sierra offers plenty of reasons for future visits.

For more information: El Dorado National Forest, fs.usda.gov/eldorado; Kit Carson Lodge, kitcarsonlodge.com; Plasse’s Resort, plassesresort.com; Stockton Municipal Camp, stocktonfamilycamp.org.

Read more from Tim’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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