Most visitors drive by South Upper Truckee Road on their way to Lake Tahoe, unaware of a great opportunity awaiting them there. Venturing down that street into Christmas Valley will reward you with a beautiful, historic hike along the first wagon road over Echo Summit.
Traveling to California was difficult for the influx of immigrants from the east. In early 1850, the major route over the Sierra Nevada mountain range took the pioneers over Carson Pass at an elevation of 8,600 ft. In 1857, the possibility of a less-formidable route over the lower Echo Summit of only 7,400 feet led private investors to finance the first road over the mountains that had a gentle enough slope for horse-drawn wagons.
Named for Asa Hawley, a local trading-post owner, the new road became the preferred route for travelers to the west. The early Pony Express riders raced across this road from April 3, 1860 to November 18, 1860. At that time, the shorter and gentler Meyers Grade opened for wagons traveling to the silver mines in Virginia City and quickly became the preferred route.
Nowadays, Hawley Grade is a beautiful trail through lush forest, offering hikers views of meadows and the winding Truckee River in the valley below. The trail is narrower than it used to be due to erosion on its uphill side. However, it’s still easy to imagine the thundering hooves of Pony Express riders and the clanking chains of heavy wagons traveling Hawley Grade. In sections that are still the original width, portions of retaining walls constructed by the road’s builders are visible.
To reach the trailhead, take Highway 50 toward Lake Tahoe. Turn right on South Upper Truckee Road, which is located just past the KOA Campground and before the Highway 89 turnoff. As you drive, you will pass the Meyers Grade trailhead (described here) and the historic Celio Ranch, founded in 1863. Continue 3.5 miles. Look for the Hawley Grade National Recreation Trail (Road 1110) sign on the right. If the gate is closed look for one of parking spots near it, but if it’s open, drive to a small parking area at the actual trailhead.
This out-and-back, 4.2 mile trail with its 900 foot elevation gain is moderately difficult, so sturdy shoes are recommended. This hike is best in summer and fall because there is waterfall in the spring that can be challenging to cross. After your hike, consider spending a little more time to explore the Truckee River in this area, which runs through a beautiful meadow with lots of aspens and evidence of beaver activity. More information on the Hawley Grade Trail is located here.