Ralston Peak is on the southern border of Lake Tahoe's Desolation Wilderness. The peak itself is the highest bump on a ridgeline that runs from Echo Lakes in the east, to Horsetail Falls Canyon in the west. This ridge, which can easily be seen looming above the roadway as motorists make their way up US 50 to Echo Summit, consists of Becker Peak, Talking Mountain, the Saucer Lake headwall, "Baldy" (Peak 9,188') and Ralston Peak itself. Skiers take note: this fine-looking ridge runs almost perfectly east-to-west, and is quite steep on the north side. As a result, the ridge holds snow well into late spring and early summer.
The south side of Ralston Peak is a sparsely forested hillside that drops about 2,500 feet to US 50 and the canyon of the South Fork of the American River in less than two miles. The northeast face of Ralston is a fairly steep series of cliff bands above Ralston Lake and the main Desolation Valley. The main route to the top is the Ralston Trail, up the more gentle south side of the peak.
For the main trail: take US 50 to Camp Sacramento (about 1.3 miles east of Twin Bridges). Turn into the well signed turnoff on the north side of the highway and look for the signs for the Ralston Peak Trail.
The peak can also be approached overland from the Desolation Valley via a well-maintained trail that leads up the prominent north ridge from the Haypress Meadows area. The Haypress area can also be reached via the Echo Lakes.
Any time of year is a great time to climb Ralston. The south face of the peak tends not to hold much snow, so a winter hike is fairly doable. For this, avoid the main trail and simply bushwack your way up the peak from near the Aspen Creek Tract. Alternatively, go mid-winter or after a decent snowfall (but beware of avalanches) and bring your skis.
Camping is allowed in the Desolation Wilderness under a strict quota system. See "Red Tape" above for more info.