Of all the hiking locations in North Lake Tahoe, none may demonstrate the splendor of the Sierra’s granite architecture more than Shirley Canyon. Located in Squaw Valley, almost equal distance between Truckee and Tahoe City on Highway 89, Shirley Canyon offers two trails for those with stout legs and a hungry appetite for granite or great views. While both trails explore the upper drainage of the canyon, they are difficult to link together and should be considered separate out-and-back hikes.
What Makes It Great
Tucked away from the ski area, Shirley Canyon forms the headwaters of Squaw Creek. The steep drainage contains rushing snowmelt, a handful of beautiful, old-growth pines, and both the Shirley Canyon and Granite Chief Trails.
The Shirley Canyon Trail is an old school, user-created trail, chiseled into the granite slabs and canyon walls by years of hikers heading for Shirley Lake near the top of the drainage. The Shirley Canyon Trail braids and splits several times, but all of the variations lead upward and eventually re-connect. The route crosses bare rock and flirts with the edge of Squaw Creek. Here, Squaw Creek splashes down the mountainside in a sequence of small waterfalls and hidden pools framed with miniature, lush mountainside gardens. Once the lake is reached, hikers have two options: turn around and scramble back down, or push upward to High Camp, part of the Squaw Valley Ski Area which operates in the summer –and the place that offers free tramway rides back down to the valley floor for intrepid hikers. It’s 2.3 miles from the start of the trail to Shirley Lake.
The second trail, on the opposite side of the canyon, is the Granite Chief Trail. The trail leaves the bottom of the drainage almost immediately and climbs high into the granite. At the top of the canyon the Granite Chief Trail connects with the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s 3.3 steep miles from the start to the Pacific Crest Trail.
Who is Going to Love It
Those looking for a good old-fashioned ramble will love either hike. Shirley Lake is a bit swampy, and reaching the Pacific Crest Trail isn’t much of a reward either. This frees the hiker to turn around whenever, and wherever, he or she feels. Many hikes are destination focused –but in Shirley Canyon the destination surrounds around you. There are literally hundreds of spots to stop for lunch, take a photo, poke around, or sunbathe the afternoon away. So ramble on. Just make sure to bring sunblock; portions of the trail are exposed and without shade.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
To access Squaw Valley: Take highway 89 north from Tahoe City for 5-miles. Turn left on Squaw Valley Road. Proceed up Squaw Valley Road for approximately 2.4 miles.
To access the Shirley Canyon trail: At the end of Squaw Valley Road, turn right on Squaw Peak Road and park at the end of the loop as it turns into Squaw Peak Way. Parking is free.
To access the Granite Chief Trail: Near the end of Squaw Valley Road, turn right into the large parking lot adjacent to the Olympic Village Inn. Park on the North Side of the Olympic Village Inn and access the trail just beyond the Ropes Course. Parking is free.