By Eva Glasrud
Gentle granite slopes. Deep blue mountain lakes. No roads for miles… yet a charming group of lakeside cabins.
Welcome to Lower Echo Lake, an El Dorado paradise I only discovered this summer… because of Rimadyl.
For those whose doggie companions haven’t reached that age yet, Rimadyl is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that treats arthritis. My 13-year-old Australian shepherd mix, Ruby, had developed a limp in her back left leg that spring. Soon, she was hobbling around on three legs, so I took her to the vet.
Diagnosing her arthritis, he told me, “She can still go to the dog park… but her mountain climbing days are over.”
That… was devastating. For years, Ruby and I have been trekking together in the California backcountry. I also spend a lot of time traveling alone each year, and people always tell me how “empowering” that must feel.
For me, whether I’m in Myanmar or Java or Peru, traveling alone just feels like traveling alone. Liberating? For sure! I’m accountable to no one but myself, and can always do exactly what I want. But “empowering”? I wouldn’t call it that.
But… for some reason, when I hoist up my backpack and hit the wilderness with Ruby, I do feel weirdly “empowered.” Not to mention how primitively awesome it feels to see my little wolf enjoying nature the way her ancestors did.
So, yeah. “Her mountain climbing days are over” was a harsh blow.
Until Ruby got her miracle.
By “miracle,” of course, I mean modern medicine.
Within a day or two of starting on Rimadyl, Ruby’s limp was gone. The moment we’d arrive at the dog park, she’d take off sprinting like she was 6 years old again! Sometimes, she ran so fast I thought she was going to accidentally do a front flip!
I realized that Ruby’s mountain climbing days were not necessarily over. We just needed to find the right mountain.
Which is how we ended up at Lower Echo Lake, just south of South Lake Tahoe. We’d picked this hike because:
- The first and last two miles of the hike could be eliminated, if necessary, by hiring a motorboat taxi from one end of the lake to the other. (How else would all those lucky lake house renters get their food, gear, and other necessities across the lake?)
- The elevation gain was relatively minimal for “mountain climbing,” and…
- It’s the kind of area that lends itself to “playing it by ear.” If things go well and Ruby seems energetic, I thought, we can hike all the way to Aloha. If she starts slowing down or seems anything less than enthusiastic, we can make camp at Ralston or Tamarack Lake, which are only about 3-4 miles in.
After one last mental check at the parking lot, Ruby and I headed down the hill to Echo Chalet (where you can buy sandwiches, coffee, and last-minute supplies). We didn’t need anything, but I popped in quickly, anyway, to take one last look at the map. (I didn’t bring one with me, because the trail is very well-marked and straightforward.)
Then, off we went!
We started with a short climb, which Ruby handled with ease. Next, a brief switchback that yielded a view of South Lake Tahoe and the dramatic remains of the 2007 Angora Lake fire, which burned more than 200 homes. (Echo Lake was spared thanks to the abundance of granite surrounding the area.)
Preferring to err on the side of caution, I checked my little lady’s leg. She seemed thrilled, with no signs of pain. So we continued along the granite slopes, enjoying lake views and peaking at the unique cabins scattered along the lakeside. When Ruby got thirsty, we ventured down the granite about 100 meters so she could enjoy some fresh, cool water and get her little paws wet. (She doesn’t swim, but she LOVES putting her paws in the water.)
About 2 miles into our hike, we reached the western edge of Lower Echo Lake, then proceeded about a half mile, past Upper Echo. This was the steepest part of our hike, so far, but Ruby was crushing it. Nevertheless, we took a long break at a viewpoint to enjoy some snacks. Ruby napped in the shade while I chatted with other hikers. One was, like me, a solo female backpacker — and she was out there celebrating her 48th birthday!
Another was a dad, taking his preteen sons on their first backpacking trip. They couldn’t chat long, because they wanted to make it all the way to Aloha. (He mentioned that the last three miles of that hike were steeper, and there are vaguely sharp rock pieces all along the trail, which could hurt Ruby’s feet.)
I’d long since decided that Ruby and I would not be going to Aloha — and that’s totally fine. It wouldn’t kill me to make camp early, for once, and have plenty of time to swim before it cooled off in the evening — and, hopefully, to catch some fish to go with our dinner!
So, after our break, Ruby and I continued on another half-mile or so, until we reached a trail junction. We went left, downwards toward Ralston Lake. It was relatively easy to stay on the trail in this direction, but I could tell by the scattering of hikers heading towards me but clearly not on a trail, that it was a little harder to spot the cairns going the other direction.
Even though it was the 4th of July weekend, and we’d been expecting crowds, Ruby and I were delighted to find we had the whole lake to ourselves. We picked a lovely little beach to pitch our tent — then I cooled off in the Tahoe snow melt while Ruby barked ferociously to get back on dry land (I told you she hates swimming!).
My little wolf did her scouting before curling up beside me at dinnertime. We shared a trout, and I made sure she got her Rimadyl in a timely fashion.
It was so warm and clear, we were tempted to sleep under the stars… but, ultimately, we compromised, sleeping in the tent without the rainfly. The moon woke me when it rose, full and bright, like a spotlight. So I rolled over and spooned my little doggie.
13! I thought to myself. My brave little doggie is 13, and she made it all the way out here with me. When I saw one last shooting star before drifting back to sleep, I realized I had nothing left to wish for.
Check out Lower Echo Lake on the Bivy App