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Before This Season’s Fires, We Showed The Kiddos The Scenic Drive Up Highway 4

Updated: Oct 14, 2018

Only a short drive from South Lake Tahoe, CA is Ebbetts Pass. Ebbetts Pass is a narrow, winding, road that connects Markleeville, CA to Bear Valley, CA via Highway 4. The route was named for Major John Ebbetts. It was once referred to as “a route of great promise”. Yet, it was never a primary route for emigrant trains. It’s the perfect getaway for when the crowds inundate Lake Tahoe. In fact, Highland Lakes off Ebbetts Pass will probably even have more cattle than tourists. We heard the cowbells from a few head of cattle that decided to head towards different grazing lands as we settled in for our second night. But, there’s more to Highland Lakes than just cattle.

Our latest adventure up Ebbetts Pass was planned as a kid-friendly, all ages, water saturated adventure. We decided to escape the crowds that invade during the American Century Classic celebrity golf tournament and find our own peace and quiet. I’ve explored Ebbetts many times hiking, splitboarding, & backpacking, but had heard rumors about one of the highest vehicle accessible lakes in the Sierra. Only a short distance from the crest of Ebbetts Pass is Highland Lakes Rd. Road might be a bit of an overstatement. If you take the challenge, then you might be rewarded with a sweet surprise.

Any drive up Ebbetts is always an exciting drive. Highway 4 climbs up steep switchbacks and the grade can even approach 20+ degrees. I’ve seen fifth wheels get stuck trying to navigate the switchbacks. I definitely wouldn’t recommend any long trailers. But, a skilled driver can definitely find wriggle room to get their trailer through the route. Imagine what early pioneers felt as they bravely navigated their wagon trains up and over to supply the mining region around Silver City. These days a bit of extra clearance and four good tires will help even the most timid drivers make it to the end of Highland Lakes Rd. Remember to take it slow and give oncoming traffic their fair share of the road.

Highland Lakes Rd. is just west of the summit of Ebbetts Pass. Head south for approximately 6 miles on Highland Lakes Rd. and you’ll find the Upper Highland Lakes Campground. It’s not the only option, but it’s the only one close to the two lakes. The Bloomfield Campground is the first campground that you’ll encounter. That’s also where the pavement ends. There is plenty of dispersed camping available along Highland Lakes Rd. That’s always a good fallback if money is tight or the campgrounds are full.

We arrived with plenty of daylight. So, we popped the Habitat, unloaded the 4x4 Trailer, and setup the CVT tent for the kiddos. Our mobile city is pretty well organized and stocked. Definitely over pack food and water. You won’t be making a quick run to the store. But, also remember that you’ll be in bear country. They’re not much of a nuisance. But, they can be. We like to use the Yeti coolers for their ability to lock and be bear resistant. We usually keep the dry food in the Habitat. So far, that’s worked well. I hope I’m not jinxing myself.

We were fortunate to time our trip during the wildflower bloom. The wildflowers were great near camp. But, we wanted to see how the meadows were holding up. Tryon Meadow was a bit too far back for the kiddos and dogs. So, we decided on Gardner Meadow.

Gardner Meadow is only 0.8 of a mile from the Lower Highland Lake. And, the elevation loss/gain is enough to make it pleasurable for young kids. There are a couple drainage crossings, but nothing technical. I’m sure during bigger snow years that these areas will hold more moisture. Overall, it’s a great, relatively quick, and beautiful hike. The wildflowers were nice. Honestly, they were better between the Upper and Lower Highland Lakes. We definitely saw evidence of the local 200 head of cattle. But, I think they went lower towards Spicer Meadow. We’d hear the cowbells more once we were settled in at camp.

Fire restrictions weren’t in place, even though we were inundated with smoke from neighboring fires. So, we fired up the campfire and cooked over the coals. The kids were excited to finish the night with smores and stargazing. The adults were excited to watch the kiddos use the Star Chart App to identify the constellations. But, the best was when the kiddos were all tucked in, the lights were off, and the stars really began to shine. I’d suggest timing your visit during a new moon to maximize the stargazing experience.

One day of hiking is usually enough for the kiddos. We can convince them on a few small hikes to overlooks, around lakes, or even just to walk the dog. But, they really like to get out and play in the water. 

The shoreline has a few nice beach areas. But, most of the shoreline consists of tall grass zones. Thankfully, one of the best launching points was closest to the campground. I like to use the inflatables, especially with kids and when visiting high, alpine, lakes. We brought the 12’6” WaiSup, as well as the 10’6” SupATX. Both of these paddleboards can handle almost anything we can throw at them, without risking any damage. The kiddos got out and made their laps around the lake. They shared. And, they even went for a three person, standup, adventure. Ironically, once we were leaving, a family walked by and told us to look out for leeches. I’m not sure how much truth there is to their story. But, we definitely did a thorough leech check once we were back at camp.

Overall, I’d say that Highland Lakes is a great place for fishing, hiking, stargazing, paddling, and family adventure. The kiddos had a great time. The adults had a great time. But, I’d be sure to pack extra toilet paper with the extra food and water. Even though the campground was only at about 50% occupancy, the toilet paper seemed to disappear at an alarming rate. So, get out there and enjoy this quick Tahoe getaway. You’ll be thankful that you did.

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