Face it: winter is on its way. You’ve got two months—or less—to hike the Tahoe Sierra before the snow flies. This is your last chance. Fall is one of the best seasons to be at Tahoe. The crowds have gone home, which means you’ll not only have trails to yourself, you’ll also score great deals on lodging. And many restaurants advertise two-for-one dinner coupons in the local papers. If you’re a budget traveler, go now.
John Muir said of the Sierra Nevada, ‘You will top arise and need the tongues of angels to tell what you see.’ Indeed, the views from the craggy peaks of the Sierra—the largest unbroken monolith of mountains in the world—are some of the planet’s most breathtaking. Even if you only take a two-hour walk into the woods, it’s totally worth it.
Entire books have been written about hiking the Tahoe Sierra. I’m only going to detail a few of my favorites. If you’re into discovering lesser-known trails and disappearing off the grid, pick up a copy of Jeffrey P. Schaffer’s, the Tahoe Sierra, the most comprehensive field guide to the trails around Tahoe.
The premier organized fall hiking trip at Tahoe is the Donner Party Hike, which provides stellar insights into the pioneer wagon train that got stuck in the mountains above Truckee in the fall of 1846-47—one of the greatest tragedies in 19th-century American history. On the weekend of September 29 and 30, eight different docent-led walks, from easy to strenuous, head to the mountains and flatlands around Donner Pass. Prep for your hike by reading Ordeal By Hunger, by George R. Stewart, the definitive history of the ill-fated emigrants.
The most exciting development in hiking at Tahoe is the recent completion of the 150mi-long Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), which now encircles the entire lake. Most people walk, but you can also ride on horseback or mountain-bike along some, but not all, portions of the trail. Check with the TRT Association for trail maps and great ideas for day hikes.
Emerald Bay (just north of South Lake Tahoe on Hwy 89) abuts the fabulous Desolation Wilderness, a 64,000-acre roadless area, surrounded by sky-punching saw-toothed peaks and vast granite basins. Everything is so big that it’s impossible to judge distance. Don’t overestimate how much ground you can cover in a day. If you’re a strong hiker, plan no more than ten miles—but only if you’re acclimated to the altitude. Otherwise, take it easy.
Despite its lonesome name, Desolation is hardly a secret. Expect to meet others along the trails, especially the easy ones. You’ll need a permit for both day and overnight hikes.
One of the easiest-access—but most popular—trails into the wilderness, the moderately strenuous Eagle Lake Trail heads up steep terrain, for 1mi, to gorgeous Eagle Lake, an aquamarine lake hemmed in by giant granite walls. Bring a bathing suit and cool off in the icy waters, then sunbathe on the rocks. Teens can do this hike in a snap, but younger kids may whine. If you’re in search of solitude, continue another 3.3mi from Eagle Lake to Dick’s Lake, a bigger, more secluded spot. The trailhead is just north of the Eagle Falls picnic area, 9mi north of the Hwy 50/Hwy 89 split in South Lake Tahoe. Arrive early on weekends to secure parking.
When the Eagle Lake Trail is teeming with people, head 7mi north to Meeks Bay Resort, where there’s a general store, picnic area, and a sandy beach. Walk up Forest Service Rd 14N42 (no cars) to the Lake Genevieve trailhead into Desolation. (This is the beginning of the 180mi Tahoe-Yosemite Trail, which runs all the way to Yosemite Valley.) Hardly anybody knows about this hike, and it’s g-o-r-g-e-o-u-s, with stellar views and deep-azure, hidden lakes. There are four other blue lakes immediately south of Genevieve—Cragg Lake, Dark Lake, Hidden Lake, and Stony Ridge Lake. All of them are perfect for a swim on a hot fall day. And because hardly anybody is here, you can dive into the water in the buff (carry a towel). Return the way you came, or make a 20mi loop to Emerald Bay along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the fabled high-mountain footpath from Mexico to Canada.
To get deep into Desolation fast—and hike a section of the PCT—take a boat taxi at Echo Chalet, ten miles south of South Lake on Hwy 50. The trip costs $10 ($25 minimum if there are no other passengers) and shaves 2.5mi off the otherwise 7mi-long hike to Lake Aloha, an enormous granite valley that has been converted into a shallow, high-mountain reservoir with crystal-clear water. The elevation gain is easy, only about 600ft up. (Note: Snow levels this year were far below average, which means that Echo Lakes are running very low. You may not be able to shuttle across the divide between Upper and Lower lakes. Call Echo Chalet to check on current levels and verify operation of the boat taxi; if there’s not enough water, the taxi can’t run its normal course. Taxi operation after Labor Day is catch-as-catch-can; if you’re here mid-week, expect it not to be running.)
Alternatively, aim for Lake of the Woods, which is more secluded and contained than Aloha. Surrounded by tall pines and granite cliffs, the lake feels like a discovery, a place that few people know. Hike the perimeter to find isolated coves and picturesque granite outcroppings. Best of all, the lake is only about 2.5mi from the Upper Echo Lake taxi drop-off point, making it ideal for a day trip.
Aloha and Lake of the Woods are solid destinations for day hikers, but this is mostly backpackers’ turf. If you’re planning to camp for a couple of nights, tack on a full-day’s hike to Pyramid Peak, but note that as you near the top, you’ll have to scamper across loose granite on a steep slope—a very scary feat for an acrophobe. But on a clear day, you’ll be rewarded with top-of-the-world vistas clear across the Central Valley to the Coastal Range. Amazing.
For more hikes around north Tahoe, check out the See & Do sections of our Truckee guide (the Mt Judah Loop provides awesome views); Tahoe City guide (I love Barker Pass Road’s easy access to the Pacific Crest Trail); and Squaw Valley guide (aka Olympic Valley, where you can ride a ski tram up 2000ft, saving you an arduous uphill hike).
• Good preparation is essential. Carry a compass and proper topographic map—Tom Harrison Maps makes the best—and learn to use them before you set out.
• The weather at Tahoe can change fast, especially in the fall. Always check the forecast before hiking! The best resource is the National Weather Service. Read the watches & warnings section, and study the forecast discussion to gather the data upon which weathermen base their forecasts.
• Appropriate footwear is crucial in fall. You’ll be hiking on slick granite, sand, and possibly snow-covered ground. Wear water-resistant hiking boots (not sneakers) with soles that grip rock well. And be sure to treat your boots with water-repellent before you leave home.
• Wear long pants, since afternoons cool down fast this time or year. And wear a hat too; the sun is way more intense at this elevation than sea level.
• Stay on trails—and not just because it preserves the native flora. The trail is always faster than bushwhacking through chaparral. Period.
• Pack a wool cap, thermal underwear (tops and bottoms), an emergency camp blanket, and pocket-sized mirror for signaling, just in case you get stuck. Also carry a pocket raincoat to protect against hypothermia in the event of a sudden late-season thunderstorm or—worse—an unexpected snowstorm.
• Drink lots of water. A maximum of one liter per hour is ideal during strenuous exercise; any more than that and you’ll wash the sodium and potassium (electrolytes) from your system, which will result in intense cramping, threatening your safe return back. Carry a purifier to lighten your load.
• You’re at high elevation when you hike around Tahoe, which means you’ll get winded much faster here than you will at sea level. Don’t overdo it, and don’t hesitate to turn around if you begin to tire.