Carson Pass, like the Crystal Basin, is a magnet for anyone wanting a superb taste of the mountains. Great views, hikes for every level of hiker, backpacking, lakes, it’s just perfect for a day in the forest.
There’s two sides of Carson Pass for the outdoor types. On the north side of Highway 88, is the trailhead for Meiss Meadow, which can take you to much more than Meiss Meadow. You can hike all the way over to Big Meadow from here.
At the pass itself, on the south side of Highway 88, the trailhead leads out to several lakes. Frog Lake, Lake Winnemucca, Round Top Lake, 4th of July Lake are some of them. They are all reachable in a day hike, depending on your willingness to put some hours on your boots.
Round Top Lake is on most lists of hikers in that area. You can reach it from three different approaches. It’s maybe the least visited due to the effort it takes to get there. It’s worth the effort. With a little planning, and a bit of knowledge of the three trails which will get you there, most hikers will be able to get there and enjoy this little beauty.
The first trail, which is the easiest, starts at Carson Pass. It’s the easiest because your trip is the most gentle, right till you get to Lake Winnemucca. Carson Pass sits at 8,574 feet. Round Top Lake is at about 9,389 feet. The hike from Carson Pass, past Frog Lake and on to Lake Winnemucca does involve a steady climb. It’s mostly a gentle uphill though. It’s when you get to Winnemucca and head off on the trail to Round Top Lake that gentle evaporates from the trail description.
Keep in mind that in every description of every trail that the terms gentle, moderate and difficult, are very non-specific. It all depends on you, what kind of shape you’re in, and whether you are used to hiking at 4,000 feet or higher. You’ll figure out whether it’s easy or hard when you’re on the trail.
From Winnemucca, which is about two miles from the Carson Pass trailhead, your trip to Round Top Lake is another mile, and the trail starts at steep, right until it gets to really steep. It’s not a straight up trail, and you won’t need climbing gear, but in this case, it’s simply a bit of a trudge.
The good news is that the trail flats out at a saddle, which then leads down to Round Top Lake. Your trip back to Carson Pass is mostly downhill. You’ll pass Winnemucca and Frog Lakes on the way. Both are good spots to take a break.
The second trail that will get you to Round Top Lake starts at Woods Lake. Taking this trail is a bit more of a climb, as Woods Lake is lower than Carson Pass. It’s not overly strenuous, but it does require more effort than the trail from Carson Pass. It’s a shorter route, and one that takes you through beautiful forest and meadows. The last bit of the hike is the part that will have you huffing and puffing a bit. When you arrive at Winnemucca, it’s the same route up and over the saddle to Round Top Lake.
The other trail leading to Round Top Lake is the most difficult. It’s the same trailhead from Woods Lake, which splits to take you either to Winnemucca or Round Top Lake.
For a little bit you’ll be hiking on an old road, which will turn into a trail. This trail is the shortest route to Round Top Lake, and is a more steep uphill. You will go through some nice forest, past a meadow or two, and then past the remains of the Lost Cabin Mine.
From here, you’re in the open and it’s a series of switch backs, rubble and rock on the trail, and aching thighs. There is no doubt that you are headed up for the two miles it takes to get there. Take your time. This is a hike, not a race. Right about the time you are questioning your sanity, the trail flats out and Round Top Lake awaits you.
All three routes have something different to offer. The views are wonderful. Take the time to identify the peaks around you as you look at the map you took with you. You can link the Woods Lake routes into a loop, an out and back, or do the out and back from Carson Pass.
You’ll earn every bit of the goodies you brought with you when you get to Round Top Lake no matter which route you take. Make sure you take more than enough water for the day as there isn’t any potable water up there. Hiking around Carson Pass is always a great experience.