Not The Hike For Seekers Of Solitude
The key attraction this hike had for me was its relative close proximity to the East Bay compared to most other Sierra Nevada locations. This hike may be the closest the Pacific Crest Trail gets to the Bay Area, and that may explain its popularity. I saw at least 100 other people on this hike, and Lower and Upper Echo Lakes are ringed by boat-in cabins. There also seemed to be a kids camp on Upper Echo Lake in addition to the Berkeley Camp and the Echo Chalet which is a typical mountain general store. Lots of people....
We started from the parking lot on the right side of Johnson Pass Road about 3/4 mile off Hwy. 50, and you need to go back down the road about 1/3 mile back west on that road to reach the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail sign wasn't the best PCT sign I've ever seen, but it's easy enough to spot. Go right/north as the trail gently ascends through an open forest of Sierra red fir, lodgepole and Jeffery pines around the high ridge that surrounds the Echo Lakes basin on the south. It's interesting to see how the vegetation changes as the trail winds its way around to the north side of the ridge. The north side had a lot more understory, and the forest just looked happier in general. The PCT reaches the Echo Lakes Road just above Echo Chalet at the dam holding Lower Echo Lake where you will probably end up going left/downhill on the road to the chalet unless you can find a single track route that I couldn't find.
Walk across the parking lot by the chalet and boat launch, and go across the dam to get back onto single track. However, there is the option to take a water taxi ($12.00 either one way or both ways) across Lower and Upper Echo Lakes which would save you 2.5 miles. Since you're not going to do that continue on the PCT as it contours about 100' above the north shore of Lower Echo Lake. The shady forest is gone except in spots, and has been replaced by a mix of Sierra juniper, red fir and the occasional pine. I even saw a few sugar pines down by the lake. The rock face of Flagpole Peak (adorned with said flagpole) rises on the right with large, exposed rocks. The view to the left down towards the lake is not nearly as interesting with boat-in cabins every few hundred feet all along the northern shores of both Echo Lakes. Upper Echo Lake had dozens of kids in the water on various small flotation devices as part of a camp.
The PCT becomes more interesting as it heads west (towards Canada) uphill away from the lakes. You'll gain elevation that provides a nice view of the Echo Lakes on the way back as you head up to Tamarack Lake which is reached a little more than a mile past Upper Echo Lake. A spur trail goes a few hundred yards down to Tamarack Lake which is a great spot for lunch. There are a number of nice campsites here in the forests around the lake. Ralston and Cagwin Lakes can be reached by going about a half mile further on the spur trail to a small loop.
Continuing west on the PCT leads to the only serious climbing on this hike as it climbs 340' over 0.6 mile to its junction with a faint trail heading east towards Triangle Lake. This is the eastern edge of the thick forest just east of Haypress Meadow, and is probably about as far as you'll see most day hikers. A round trip to here and back to the Chalet is 8.4 miles, and you probably won't park that close. Continuing along the PCT leads to the trail to Lake of the Woods and the large, island-dotted Lake Aloha.
Check out the Official Route and Triplog.