Lake Tahoe is easy to like, hard to know.
The lake’s alpine grandeur sure is easy on the eye, but public access to the lakeshore is in short supply, hindering (but not halting) the kind of intimacy that hikers develop with other California scenic gems.
Fortunately for the hiker, there are ways to reach Tahoe’s natural treasures. While highways and extensive lakeside properties ring much of the shore, significant parts of the shoreline and the nearby High Sierra backcountry are owned by California State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service. These public lands boast some terrific pathways along the lakeshore and in the Sierra Nevada rising above it.
The largest alpine lake in North America, Lake Tahoe measures 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, and has 72 miles of shoreline. About two-thirds of that shoreline is in California. The lake is mighty deep, too: 1,645 feet at its maximum depth, making it the second-deepest lake in the U.S., trailing only Oregon’s Crater Lake.
From the Taylor Creek Visitor Center, trails radiate outward like spokes from a wheel. My favorite little walk is on Rainbow Trail (.5 mile round trip) that leads from pine forest to a wildflower-strewn meadow to the Stream Profile Chamber, an underground viewing chamber that offers a fish’s-eye view of Taylor Creek. Through the chamber’s windows, you can see trout feed and watch other aquatic life. During early autumn, you can see the Kokanee salmon run.
Trail of the Washoe (.75-mile loop) tells the story of the Native Americans who called Da ow a ga (Lake Tahoe) home for thousands of years. The lake and environs have been (and still are) the geographical, indeed spiritual, focus of the tribe.
One of my favorite Tahoe hikes is in SugarPine Point State Park. Choose from an easy walk along General Creek or a 14-mile round trip hike to Duck Lake.
Another top Tahoe hike is along the lakeshore at Emerald Bay State Park.
For me, the best part of hiking Lake Tahoe is walking along the lakeshore and observing “the three blues:” blue lupine, blue lake, and blue sky. I’ve selected a handful of trails, ranging from 2 to 12 miles long, that individually and collectively offer a great sampling of the Tahoe hiking experience.
The challenge for the hiker in Lake Tahoe is not finding a trail to hike, but coming up with a representative sampling of Tahoe trails that are memorable footpaths. (Hundreds of miles of trail crisscross the Tahoe Basin; however, many of these trails are better suited for mountain bicyclists and cross-country skiers.)
If you have 2 weeks to hike and want to circumnavigate the lake, head out on the 165-mile-long Tahoe Rim Trail. If you have 2 or 3 days to hike, enjoy my favorite lakeshore ramble, a walk in the ponderosa pines, and a great hike into the Desolation Wilderness.
“Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to pristine vigor; and give him an appetite like an alligator,” wrote Mark Twain. I don’t know about 3 months of camping, but I can promise that 3 days of hiking around Lake Tahoe will definitely be a restorative experience.