Ebbetts Pass: easy hikes deliver high adventures

Easy access to alpine lakes, scenic hikes and exciting summits await.

Summer brings the opening of California’s high mountain roads, like Highway 4 over Ebbetts Pass. What easy access this provides to worthy Sierra Nevada adventures. If you haven’t discovered the treasures of the Mother Lode’s high country yet, why not venture out this year?

Here are three moderate outings near Ebbetts Pass which will deliver more happiness than most Gold Rush miners attained in these parts.

Kinney Lakes

A photograph of a lake in the foreground, with a forest on the opposite side and a mountain peak in the background. This is Kinney Lake.
Travelers on Highway 4 can enjoy visiting the Kinney Lakes near Ebbetts Pass. Credit Matt Johanson

A four-mile loop circles the picturesque Kinney Lakes near Ebbetts Pass. Anglers will enjoy fishing the lakes, and just about anyone will enjoy the clean air and High Sierra view, including children and dogs.

Take Highway 4 east for about 15 miles from Bear Valley, or Highway 4 west for 18 miles from Markleeville. There’s roadside parking at the pass and in a trailhead lot half a mile east of it. 

Hike north on the Pacific Crest Trail past Sherrold Lake, reaching Upper Kinney Lake in about one mile. Then, leave the PCT to take a use trail around Upper Kinney Lake and neighboring Lower Kinney Lake. Many options exist to circle the lakes and return to the road, either out and back or on a loop.

Miwuk and Washoe Indians traveled the Ebbetts Pass corridor, as did Jedediah Smith, the first non-native to cross the Sierra Nevada, surviving a fierce snowstorm in 1827. John “Snowshoe” Thompson delivered mail through this area on his cross-country skis from 1856-1876.

Ebbetts Peak

A photograph of Ebbetts Peak in the background, showing a clear field up the hillside.
Thanks to Ebbetts Pass, hikers can scale Ebbetts Peak and return with just a one-mile effort. Credit Matt Johanson

A short and easy ascent delivers an impressive view. Ebbetts Peak might be the best mountain in this region for introducing children to the rewards and adventure of climbing.

A photo of a man and a woman standing next to a large American flag blowing in the wind at the top of a mountain peak
Hikers Bob Leung and Polly Sang visit Ebbetts Peak’s summit, where a flag honors veterans. Credit Matt Johanson

Starting from Ebbetts Pass, find the dirt road leading northwest. Follow it about a quarter-mile to its end. Take the northbound trail up to the saddle and then climb a use trail northeast up the last few hundred feet to the summit.

For variety, descend northwest toward Sherrold Lake where you’ll meet the Pacific Crest Trail. Turn right to take it back to Highway 4, where another right returns you to Ebbetts Pass in a few hundred yards. Making this loop adds only a half mile to the total distance. Be cautious of this option in the early season though, when the north slope of Ebbetts Peak will have snowfields.

The climb to the 8,736-foot summit and back takes most people an hour or less. Take it easy if you just came from low elevation, though.

Pioneer John Ebbetts crossed this pass in 1851 and later suggested the route for a transcontinental railroad to surveyor George Goddard. After Ebbetts died in a steamboat explosion in 1854, Goddard named the pass after him. Despite Ebbetts’ vision, no railroad was ever constructed here, though a toll road opened in 1862 to accommodate silver mining. The road became public and free to use in 1911.

Highland Lakes / Folger Peak / Hiram Peak

A photograph of Folger Peak, taken from the shores of Highland Lakes.
Folger Peak stands over nearby Highland Lakes, where its trailhead is found. Credit Matt Johanson

Get off the main highway and discover the attractive Highland Lakes area. A short and pretty hike leads to the modest Folger Peak summit, suitable for beginners, kids and dogs.

Take Highland Lakes Road leading southeast from Highway 4, about 4 miles east from Hermit Valley Campground if eastbound or 1.3 miles west of Ebbetts Pass if westbound. Drive on the partly-paved, partly dirt road for 5.8 miles to Highland Lakes Campground beside the second and smaller lake. The road can be rough, narrow and windy in places but is generally drivable for cars without high clearance.

Walk through the campground area on the west side of the road and locate site #4. A use trail leads from it through lodgepole pines to the west. Soon you’ll emerge from the trees, turn north and start steeper climbing up a gravely slope. When you reach the secondary peak on the mountain’s southern flank, you’ve gained about 75 percent of the climb’s elevation. The last segment is slightly steeper and rockier than the lower portion but still class 1 if you stay on route. The round-trip outing of two miles climbs 1,100 feet to a 9,720-foot summit, taking most people one or two hours.

Folger Peak carries the name of an eastern Sierra newspaper pioneer, although no one knows for sure which one. Robert Folger (1820-1899) founded The Alpine Chronicle in 1864 and was the west coast’s oldest working journalist at the time of his death. His brother Alexander Folger (1831-1902, and identified as Andrew by some sources) became the town’s first postmaster and also published newspapers with his brother in Markleeville and Bridgeport.

A panoramic photograph from Folger Peak showing mountains in the distance, and an alpine lake in the valley
Folger Peak’s view includes Hiram Peak and the Mokelumne and Carson-Iceberg Wildernesses. Credit Matt Johanson

Our summit view features peaks of Mokelumne and Carson-Iceberg Wildernesses and the nearly 9,800-foot Hiram Peak to the southeast. If Folger Peak warmed you up for a bigger challenge, that could be your nightcap. After descending, find Hiram’s trailhead across the road in the east side of the campground. A 1.5-mile use trail to the summit involves steeper climbing and class 2 terrain.

Or, maybe you’ve had enough hiking for the day. In that case, take a refreshing dip or cast your fishing line into the pretty, picturesque Highland Lakes. There’s no shortage of opportunities for adventure or leisure along Ebbetts Pass.


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