A vigorous hike that rewards exertion with spectacular scenery and hidden lakes, the Devils Oven Lake hike is not a beginner’s ramble. In addition to the significant amount of elevation gain and loss involved, the trail essentially deteriorates into a cross-country scramble to Devils Oven Lake, and beyond it, Warren Lake.
Beginning at the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) parking area near Donner Summit the trail does not begin auspiciously, as freeway traffic from the Highway 80 artery lends a cacophony of truck and automobile engine noise and belching exhaust to send you on your way. Have no fear; civilization quickly fades after crossing through two tunnels bored under the freeway for the benefit of hikers, one for the northbound traffic, the other for the southbound flow. Thank you, CalTrans.
The hike starts off gently climbing through meadows filled with corn lilies, mule ears and other wildflowers, all blooming very late this year due to the massive snowfall last winter. The air is heavy with the scent of vegetation and water is abundant in the lower elevations of this hike, as you walk through thickly forested terrain. As you approach a saddle the trail begins to angle steeply, but before you reach the top you break out of the tree cover into a gorgeous riot of color as a high alpine meadow stretches before you, filled with purple lupine, more yellow mule ears, and fuchsia-colored checkermallow. The granite cliffs and buttresses of Castle Peak rise up behind the meadow in dramatic fashion. Upon reaching the saddle, breathtaking 360 degree panoramic views demand a rest stop. This is the end of the road for many day hikers but backpackers in pursuit of Devils Oven Lake will continue on after catching their breath.
A highly recommended side trip involves a very short 200 yard detour from the saddle, unfortunately involving more uphill climbing, to Frog Lake Peak overlooking the glacier-carved Frog Lake far below. A remote granite lodge and cabins constructed in the 1930s, now available for vacation rental, adorn the shore, while canoes bob in the pretty lake.
Back on the main trail at the saddle you look down into a massive amphitheater only to realize that you will soon lose all the elevation you just gained. The obvious trail leads you down a valley that was still smothered in snow well into August this year, with many small creeks to hop across. You hike in the shadow of the massive Round Valley Ridge, comprised of volcanic and granite rock, that separates this hike from the Pacific Crest Trail and Peter Grubb Hut on the other side. Where the snow has melted fields of wildflowers can be seen carpeting the hills.
After gaining elevation once again, though not as much as the first ascent, you’ll pass over another ridge, and at this point the trail can be elusive. Dropping 500 feet you’ll essentially scramble down a rocky ridge. If you have GPS or a topographic map you’ll have a better chance of finding the small lake, located at latitude-longitude 39°23’27.04″N, 120°21’26.59″W at an altitude of 7887 feet. If you’re in the right place you should be able to see the lake below you as you scramble. If you can’t see it you may have gone too far on the traverse before descending.
To reach Warren Lake, continue descending steeply for another 1,000 feet, but this year the trail is likely to be under snow and could be challenging without crampons. Paradise Lake, located over the next ridge, is theoretically accessible from Devils Oven and Warren Lakes, but only for experienced mountaineers as there is no real trail and significant rock scrambling is required.
At Devils Oven Lake there are spacious, flat campsites located a short distance from the inlet of the lake, near a large creek that feeds the lake.
The lake itself isn’t that special, but the topography of the roller-coaster hike, varied scenic vistas, abundant wildflowers and massive granite walls make this distinctive journey well worth the effort.
See related article, Paradise Lake Trail, ideal for novice and experienced backpackers. It is recommended to do this hike, taking the more advanced Castle Peak/Round Valley Ridge approach, prior to the Devil’s Lake Hike, to become familiar with the terrain and features.
Devils Oven Lake
6.7 miles from PCT trailhead
Latitude-longitude: 39°23’27.04″N, 120°21’26.59″W
Altitude: 7887 feet
Trail Guide Book
The Tahoe Sierra, A Natural History Guide to 112 Hikes in the Northern Sierra by Jeffrey P. Schaffer
A free Campfire Permit, required for campfires and backpacker stoves, and information about current fire restrictions are available from any Ranger Station or California Dept. of Forestry office, including the Truckee Ranger District. More information can be found at the USDA Forest Service website (http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/tahoe/recreation/index.shtml)
Truckee Ranger District (note new location as of 2010)
10811 Stockrest Springs Road
Truckee CA 96161
To reach North Lake Tahoe from San Francisco by car (approximately 4 hours, depending on traffic and weather):
• Take Interstate 80 east (stay on 80 through Sacramento).
• Exit at Castle Peak/Boreal Ridge exit (just before the Truckee exit)
• Proceed to the south side of the freeway (same side as Boreal Ski Area) and follow signs to the PCT trailhead.