Lake Tahoe sits right in the armpit of California due east of Sacramento and is one of the most beautiful crystal clear lakes in the world. The lake is within a giant basin surrounded by ridge lines and mountain peaks in every direction.
There is a variety of breathtaking hiking trails in and around the Tahoe area. Each one is definitely worth checking out if you want to get out of the city, and breath some fresh mountain air. To help you explore this amazing landscape…
Here are the 9 best Lake Tahoe Hikes:
1. Rubicon Trail
Rubicon Trail is a 16.5 mile out and back trail that starts in D.L. Bliss State Park but transitions to Emerald Bay State Park. It is near the southwest end of Lake Tahoe and takes hikers down along the beautiful shores of Emerald Bay. Rubicon Trail is moderately difficult with a lot of elevation change throughout the early portion of the hike.
It starts high up in the mountains and brings users all the way down to the crystal clear water of the bay to hike along the shoreline. There are plenty of incredible views of Lake Tahoe giving this hike a little bit of everything. You might even get to see some eagles that like to nest along the south shore of Emerald Bay while you’re there.
Just so you know, there is a $10 fee for each vehicle that enters the park so make sure to carpool when you go hike Rubicon Trail. There is also campgrounds at either end of the trail so if you want to backpack and stay the night, I would highly recommend it.
Rubicon Trail is mostly a trail but also has some sections made up of jeep 4×4 roads. This make the elevation gain and loss much steeper so there will be difficult sections.
2. Skyline Trail
To access the Skyline Trail at Lake Tahoe, you will first need to ride the gondola at Heavenly Valley Ski Resort which can be pricey. However, once you reach the top of the mountain and the trailhead, the views are worth every penny. The hike itself for the Skyline Trail is quite easy at just over 2 miles round trip with very little elevation gain (because you are already on top of the ridge line).
Skyline Trail gives panoramic views of Lake Tahoe, Big Bear, and Carson Valley that you don’t want to miss out on. There are a few other hikes at the top of the gondola too if you want something a little more difficult. Trails here are used for skiing in the winter so they are wide, and easy to follow.
There is even a gift shop and a coffee house along with an observation deck to stop at for pictures while on the gondola. If you want to enjoy these amenities, you have to do it on the way up though because the gondola does not stop on the ride down.
3. Cascade Falls Trail
Cascade Falls Trail offers beautiful views of Cascade Lake, Emerald Bay, and Lake Tahoe throughout this easy 1.5 mile hike. It even ends up at a waterfall so make sure to bring your camera while there for the hike. There is very little elevation gain at Cascade Falls Trail but sections of the trail itself can be considered harder because of rocks and larger boulders in the way of the trail. Don’t let that deter you from this great hike.
The best time of year to hike Cascade Falls Trail is in the spring when the water is at its highest. This will get the streams flowing out of the lake raging and the waterfall will be gorgeous to visit.
The parking at Emerald Bay State Park where the trailhead is fills up very quickly so if you want to hike Cascade Falls Trail, make sure to get there early to secure a parking spot.
4. Fallen Leaf Lake (Road)
Fallen Leaf Lake Trail is more of a road than a trail. It is about 8 miles and follows the eastern side of Fallen Leaf Lake. Although, there is plenty of opportunity to go off the road, most of the hikes start just past the campground. There is also more strenuous hikes if you park near the fire station.
However, make sure you know, Fallen Leaf Lake Trail is really just a loosely paved road for cars to drive along the lake. There is even a cafe and store at the marina on the lake you can stop into to enjoy fresh squeezed lemonade and souvenirs.
We warned, some of this area might be closed due to bear activity. While there, keep your eyes open for these creatures as well as other wildlife abundant in the area and be careful. If you are planning on staying at the campgrounds at Fallen Leaf Lake especially, be sure to follow all precautions to keep bears away because they may be active in the area during your visit.
This area is accessible year round and dogs are allowed.
5. Mount Tallac Trail
Mount Tallac Trail takes hikers along the western side of Fallen Leaf Lake and is just over 10 miles out and back. It is a very difficult trail that takes hikers up to the top of Mount Tallac, the tallest peak on Lake Tahoe at 9,735 ft. The elevation gain is around 3,500 feet so be sure you are adequately prepared with water, sunscreen, and food if you want to tackle this amazing mountain.
The summit is quite rocky so be sure you are ready for the scramble to the top where it is easy to lose the trail. Just keep going upwards.
The views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area are definitely what makes this hike worth it. There will be snow on the trail during the winter months so if you want to hike this trail from late October until as late as July, be prepared with proper footwear and layers. Also be prepared for afternoon thunderstorms during the summer months.
There are quite a few long sections with no cover so those storm could prevent you from making the summit. It is always better to make it off the trail safely than endanger yourself or others trying to make it to the top. The trail will always be there.
You can park along the street but a wilderness permit is required to hike Mount Tallac Trail which can be found at the Desolation Wilderness area. Day users can pick up a permit for free from the self-service area near the trailhead. Make sure your permit is filled out completely before hiking Mount Tallac Trail.
6. Horsetail Falls Trail
Horsetail Falls Trail is located south of Lake Tahoe near Twin Bridges. It is a heavily used 3 mile trail that ends in a beautiful waterfall. The early part of the hike is moderately difficult. As the hike goes on, it can get much harder the closer you get to the waterfall because of all the rocks and the steep grade of the trail.
It can also be easy to lose the trail so make sure you stay close to the water if you are in doubt. The last half mile of the trail is especially difficult and you may have to do some light rock climbing in some sections.
There is a $5 fee to park at Twin Bridges and I suggest you arrive early to be able to get a parking spot because this is a heavily used trail. You will also need a wilderness permit to be able to hike here because this trail goes through the Desolation Wilderness area. Dogs can use this trail.
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7. Van Sickle Rim Trail Connector (Waterfall)
The Van Sickle Rim Trail Connector is just across the Nevada state towards the south eastern end of Lake Tahoe. It is nearly 7 miles out and back that will give hikers incredible views of Lake Tahoe with plenty of vistas to look out from. The waterfall is smaller and should be about a mile and a half into the trail.
If you just want to hike to the waterfall, it is not that far and definitely worth it. The elevation on this trail is not too bad so just about anyone that wants to hike here can.
The entrance to the Van Sickle Bi State Park is just behind Heavenly Village and is not too hard to find off of Lakeview Parkway. Dogs and mountain bikes can use this trail.
8. Shirley Canyon Cascade Trail
Shirley Canyon Cascade Trail is a 3 mile hike is on the west side of Lake Tahoe much further to the north. It is just west of Tahoe City. There is a small waterfall shortly into the hike but its not too big.
Because of the altitude and elevation gain on this hike, it is quite difficult. It also might be hard to find and keep with the trail at some points. Look out for blue paint on rocks indicating which ways to go. Curved line to the right means go right and curved to the left means go left.
There will also be straight lines indicating to go straight along with markers on some trees so that you don’t lose the trail. There is lots of rock scrambling on the Shirley Canyon Cascade Trail so it might not be for everyone. The trail ends as Solitude Lake and takes you through breathtaking wilderness.
9. Tahoe Rim Trail – Hike The Entire Lake
The Tahoe Rim Trail is a loop trail that measures around 170 miles in total and takes you entirely around Lake Tahoe. At points it even goes a little bit away from the lake too. There are unbelievable views throughout the hike and you are sure to encounter a variety of wildlife along the way.
This trail should only be undertaken by those that know what they are doing on a long distance and strenuous backpacking trip. If you are going to undertake this trail, make sure you are prepared for all weather conditions and a very difficult hike. There is around 30,000 feet of elevation gain along the whole trail so it could take as long as 15 days to complete.
Be sure to plan ahead where you are starting out so that you know where you can resupply. There are a few different points along the trail to do so. I would also recommend hiking with a friend or group for safety. If you want, there are guided trips offered by The Tahoe Rim Trail Association so give them a call if you are interested.
The Tahoe Rim Trail is best used from July until September. Outside of those months, there will be snow on the trail and more chances for bad weather. If you think you are up to the challenge I’d highly recommend making this trip. Plan ahead thoroughly to truly enjoy this once in a lifetime experience.
There are so many incredible hikes in and around Lake Tahoe. No matter if you are spending a day or a week there, you can find an enjoyable hike to see all that the California wilderness has to offer wherever you are staying in the area.
The hikes I’ve mentioned are some of the best around, but if you do your own research, you’ll find a plethora of other trailheads and hikes everywhere. Plan accordingly for a day outdoors and have a great time hiking. See you out on the trails.
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Cameron is a freelance writer with a focus on hiking, fishing and photography. He studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Colorado Boulder and now calls Chicago, Illinois home.