Mt. Elwell / Long Lake loop (dayhike)

Trip Date: 5/30/2015

Location: Plumas National Forest

Permit/Pass: None

Trail map: NF Map

Directions: From the town of Graeagle, on CA SR 89, head south for about a mile and a half. Turn right onto Gold Lake Highway and drive a bit over five miles to a right turn onto Gray Eagle Lodge Rd. (the turn is easy to miss if you're moving quickly). Follow the road 0.4 miles to a fork. Take the right turn and head northwest a couple tenths of a mile to the looped parking area for the Smith Lake trailhead.

Synopsis: This is a truly beautiful hike through conifer forests, past ponds nestled in the hills, over a rocky peak with stunning views, and finally along a gorgeous blue-water lake framed by trees and granite. A classic Sierra trek.

Trail sequence: Smith Lake Trail / Mt. Elwell Trail / Long Lake Trail

Type: Loop

Distance: 8.1 miles

Elevation: Min. - 5766', Max. - 7753'


Rating: Moderate-Difficult (factors: altitude, elevation gain, rocky trail, length)

Notes: Be aware that there are some short sections along the return path next to the lake that negotiate a very rocky meeting of mountain and lakeshore. Be careful not to turn an ankle while navigating the scree. 

Track: Mt. Elwell / Long Lake loop - Plumas NF


Turn by Turn:

  -- Begin by finding the Smith Lake trailhead at the northwest corner of the parking area. Be sure to take this trail rather than the Long Lake trail if you want to do the hike counterclockwise as in this guide.

  -- The path climbs steadily to the north along the east side of a ridge. Upon cresting the ridge it turns a bit to the west and works through the forest until dead-ending at a junction with another trail. This trail also appears to be called Smith Lake Trail (or SMT?). In any case, turn left (southwest) to continue on to Smith Lake.

  -- After a short while the trail reaches a junction with the Mt. Elwell Trail on the left. Stay straight (west) for the quarter-mile or so side trip to Smith Lake.

  -- Returning from Smith Lake take the right turn onto the Mt. Elwell Trail and follow it south as it first climbs gradually, the switchbacks through some steeper forest before finally emerging and leveling out on a pretty meadow area with several small ponds. From here you head west for a bit, then turn back to the south and begin climbing again, sometimes steeply.

  -- At a bit under the halfway mark you finally ascend the rocky north side of Mt. Elwell to reach the peak. It's not until you crest this spot that the full majesty of the surrounding Gold Lakes Basin is laid out before you. To the east Long Lake comes into view. The vista is stunning and surprising, and well worth the effort.

  -- The descent on the south side of the mountain begins rather steeply, but soon tapers off to a more comfortable grade.

  -- Soon Mt. Elwell trail junctions with Long Lake Trail. Turn left onto Long Lake Trail as it heads for the lake itself. The trail will travel along the west side of the lake at the foot of the mountain, so keep an eye out for false trails and spurs that might mislead you.

  -- After passing along the lakeshore the path drops down next to the lake outlet with a nice little falls, then continues into the forest before turning briefly to the southeast.

  -- At this point the trail then turns back to the north (or just east of north) and heads toward the trailhead and parking lot. Be sure not to get sidetracked onto the trail to the Gray Eagle Lodge.

Video: Youtube