View Rating - 6 out of 10
Distance - 3.8 miles round trip
Elevation Gain - 900 feet
Highest Point - 7400 feet
Special note: This trail crosses a waterfall, so it is often impassible in the spring and early summer. The trail is best hiked in late summer or fall.
Hawley Grade is a relatively easy hike that combines some nice views with great history of miners as well as the Pony Express crossing the Sierra.
When the Gold Rush began in 1849, thousands of would-be miners headed west across the country with dreams of striking gold. Their goal was Hangtown, the center of the Gold Rush area and what is now known as Placerville. The problem was getting over the Sierra. The best route to Hangtown had been to go from the south end of Carson Valley in Western Nevada, up the canyon past what is now known as Woodfords and up into Hope Valley at 7000 feet. From there, they followed a difficult route up and over Carson Pass at 8600 feet before heading down to the foothills.
Looking for alternatives, explorers wondered if they could get to Hangtown from the Tahoe Basin. They soon found two routes from Hope Valley into the Tahoe. One was Armstrong Pass, also high at 8400 feet, and Luther Pass at a mere 7800 feet. The problem was getting out of the Tahoe Basin. Echo Summit was the logical destination because it sits at a relatively low 7400 feet. Unfortunately, getting from Tahoe up to Echo Summit meant climbing steep rocky slopes with many cliffs.
Private parties financed and built Hawley Grade in 1857, and named it for Asa Hawley, owner of a nearby trading post. The trail was the first one gentle enough for horse-drawn wagons to get up and down the slope. (Although when you hike the grade, you will find it hard to imagine a wagon of any size on the trail. Any wagon would have to be small and narrow!)
For several years, Hawley Grade became the choice of travelers heading west to Hangtown and their dreams of gold. In 1860 - 1861, the short-lived Pony Express riders also used the grade before the telegraph put them out of business. After the Gold Rush waned and silver and gold were discovered in the Comstock Lode beneath Virginia City, many of those Hangtown miners reversed their earlier travel and headed east back up to Echo Summit and then down Hawley Grade on their trek to Virginia City. Several years later, Hawley Grade was itself eclipsed by the construction of Meyer's Grade, an even gentler route down from Echo Summit.
To get to the Hawley Grade trailhead, drive Highway 50 to the base of Echo Summit and turn south on South Upper Truckee Road. Drive about 3.5 miles south down a valley that locals call Christmas Valley. Look for a smallish sign on the right announcing Hawley Grade. It is at a green Forest Service gate that may be locked during the snow season, so be aware of weather if you are going late in the year. Take a pass if it is snowing. If you get to a point on South Upper Truckee Road where the road veers to the left and crosses a bridge over the Upper Truckee River, you went too far and missed the turnoff.
This is the beginning of the hike. A short distance in, you may hear the Upper Truckee River on your left. You can take a short detour through the trees and brush to see it.
|In the spring and early summer, this is a gorgeous rushing rapids.|
(But this is not the waterfall path that Hawley Grade crosses.)
Back on Hawley Grade, the path does an about face from south to north, and you begin climbing up a long gentle incline toward Echo Summit.
As you climb, you begin to get some nice views across Christmas Valley.
The trail goes by some gorgeous Incense Cedars.
This one has a Hobbit hole. A narrow, rickety, circular stairway wound down three flights, and, peeking down, we could just make out the edge of a rocking chair lit by a flickering lantern. The smell of baking biscuits mixed with a strong, crisp hoppy scent. I guess they like beer as much as we do.
Eventually, the path crosses a waterfall. Although gorgeous in the early summer, it's a heck of a lot easier to navigate when the water isn't flowing.
As we climbed higher, we got our first view of Tahoe in the distance to the north.
Although the valley drops away to the side, it doesn't feel dangerous. But as with all hikes, BE CAREFUL. There are a few places where one could slip and slide a long way.
Higher still, Tahoe gets closer. If you look close on the upper left, you can see the ledge where Highway 50 climbs around the cliff below Echo Summit. Our end destination is not far from that point.
Near the end of the trail, the path switchbacks up a steeper slope with some large steps to help you hike. You will hear the traffic of Highway 50, which is just past the upper edge of this photo. The path brings you out on one of the side roads that lead to Forest Service cabins. The view is fine, but I wouldn't walk out onto the highway as there is no shoulder to walk on and the traffic is moving fast. It is best to turn around and head back down.
Be sure and pack a picnic lunch and pick a nice spot with a view to relax. Enjoy!