Lake Tahoe is one of our favorite hiking places in California. This huge, crystal clear, deep blue alpine lake stole our heart at the first sight! It’s the second deepest lake in the USA (after Crater Lake in Oregon). But Lake Tahoe means much more than that: it also means the surrounding granite peaks and pine forests of the Sierra Nevada, and the countless smaller, hidden alpine lakes in the area. It’s some of those amazing scenic hikes that we want to tell you about in this post.
Imagine pine scented trails that pass by one, two, three or more wonderful alpine lakes and eventually take you to those massive white granite rocks that are so typical for the Sierra Nevada. Several trails at Tahoe satisfy these criterias, and all of those we show you are day hikes – or even shorter. Of course, you can find longer routes and get lost in the wilderness, but this is the teaser part. 🙂
The icon of Lake Tahoe: Emerald Bay
They say Emerald Bay reminds of a fjord. Even though we don’t think it really does, it’s the prettiest part of Lake Tahoe’s long shoreline and deserves to be the iconic spot.
How to access Emerald Bay? By car, by boat or on foot. Our favorite shoreline trail runs along Emerald Bay, but you can also choose to drive there directly and enjoy the beach. (We warn you: the water is cold!) You can sign up for a boat tour to tiny Fannette Island in the middle of the bay.
But let’s see some actual trails…
Best shoreline hike: Rubicon Trail
Rubicon Trail is the most popular trail directly along Tahoe’s coastline. The entire hike is 6.5 miles (one way), and it can be done as a day hike – unless you spend half of the day on the beach like us.
We started at the Rubicon trailhead and turned back from Emerald Bay, after chilling out on the beach. Rubicon is a busy trail, however, you will be rewarded with the best close views of Lake Tahoe, and there are a lot of access points to the shore, too.
Best panorama: Maggie Peaks
While Rubicon Trail leads you to Emerald Bay, the trail to Maggie Peaks rewards you with the best views of Emerald Bay from above! Then at the end it leads to a panorama that’s our favorite in the area.
We started at Bayview Trailhead (yes, that’s the first view of Emerald Bay) and headed toward the Desolation Wilderness at the end of the campground. Signs were very straightforward, and we could issue our free permit for a day hike to Desolation Wilderness at the crossing at the end of the campground. It was a scenic trail all the way, offering views of Tahoe and other alpine lakes, but the best was Maggie Peaks at the end. Though climbing to the peaks required some off-trail travel, it was well-worth it. There we got a view of Tahoe and about six other alpine lakes below us! Maggie Peaks means two peaks, and you should definitely climb up to both of them to decide which has better views – just to figure out that you can’t decide.
Moderately busy, well maintained trail. Granite Lake is a perfect rest stop at around halfway to the peaks.
Best walk: Donner Lake
Hidden in the mountains northwest of Tahoe, Donner Lake is a charming place for outdoor activities. Donner Memorial State Park offers more than 8 miles of hiking trails – of which we chose to complete some shorter ones along the lakeshore. We got nice views and nice picnic benches as we spent a few hours on this easy and refreshing trail.
You can also rent a kayak or paddleboard to explore Donner Lake. Get a map at Donner Memorial Visitor Center.
A full day getaway to the wilderness: Twin Lakes & Island Lake
Perfectly clear alpine lakes reflecting the nearby granite peaks as mirrors – this is what you get on the trail starting from Wrights Lake toward Twin Lakes. Our first and last thing to do was having a rest stop at Wrights Lake to enjoy the calm morning and evening views.
But views only get better as you start this trail. It’s located in the Desolation Wilderness, so you need a permit that you can get for free for a day hike at the trailhead. And then you enter a real wilderness: bare landscapes with white rocks and barely any shade – also, barely any other hikers. After Emerald Bay and Donner Lake, we appreciated the solitude of this trail, far away from crowd and noise.
It’s a steep hike to reach Twin Lakes, but we even ventured a bit further, to Island Lake. The name is descriptive, it’s a special lake with lots of small islands in it. After taking tons of pictures and marvelling at everything around us as we were almost on our own, it was time to turn back. We reached Wright Lake by sunset.
Parking at Wrights Lake Campground is only for campers, but there’s a lot of space for parking before the campground, and it adds only about 5 minutes extra walk.
Short, peaceful hike on the east side: Marlette Lake
Though most of Lake Tahoe is part of California, the east shore belongs to the state of Nevada. If you don’t want to see many people, check out this side!
We took delight in the quiet trail that took us to Marlette Lake. To get to the trailhead, take Route 28 south out of Incline Village for 5 miles to the parking area just across the road from the Chimney Beach trailhead, and look for a logging road – parking is at the beginning of that road. Keep your eyes open as it’s easy to miss this trailhead, and have a map because it’s not always straightforward where the path goes.
It’s 5 miles there and back, and can be done comfortably within half a day.
What about swimming in Lake Tahoe?
Tahoe’s nice beaches and the other beautiful alpine lakes are tempting to jump in for a short swim, but they are actually very cold. We’ve seen a few people swimming, but these lakes are definitely not swimming lakes for us, even in the middle of the summer – we tried though…
Water temperature near Tahoe’s surface is usually around 40-50oF (4.5 to 10oC), sometimes it can warm up to 65 to 70oF (18 to 21oC) during August and September. It’s 501 meters deep, and its surface elevation is at 1897 meters, by the way, so no wonder it’s so cold.
Where to stay?
There are tons of campgrounds in the area, but if you prefer sleeping in bed, you can choose from accommodations in the nearby towns like South Lake Tahoe, Tahoe City, Incline Village – just to mention a few of them.
Best time to visit
Hiking season at Tahoe starts at Memorial Day (end of May) and ends at Labour Day (beginning of September). The weather is usually sunny and hot during the day in this period, nights can still be chilly.
Of course, from late autumn until mid-spring it’s also high season – for skiing and snowshoe hiking, but that’s a different story…
Do you have a favorite alpine lake?
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