The Best Lake Tahoe Hikes to Satisfy Your Wanderlust

The Best Lake Tahoe Hikes to Satisfy Your Wanderlust

By California.com
August 14, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe. 

Need to take a short break from reality and nourish your soul and body? There’s no better way to let nature embrace you than by hiking alongside meadows full of wildflowers, roaring waterfalls, steep canyons, and tree-lined paths. Embark on the best Lake Tahoe hikes and be rewarded with beautiful vistas and fresh alpine air. Revitalize yourself while you travel around Northern California's most sought-out area—from visiting South Lake Tahoe to exploring Truckee and everything in between, we’ve got you covered.

The Best Hikes Near Lake Tahoe 

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1. Cascade Falls Trail

Take in spectacular views of Cascade Lake while hiking along the easygoing Cascade Falls Trail.

Location: Emerald Bay area, South Lake Tahoe

Hours: 8 a.m.–5 p.m.

Parking: There is free parking on Emerald Bay Road, at the far end of Bayview Campground.

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: About 2 miles

Time: About 1 hour

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: Yes, but on-leash

Permit: Pick up a free Desolation Wilderness permit at the trailhead.

Although the Cascade Falls Trail is considered to be one of the easiest hikes near Lake Tahoe—which is among California’s best lakesit’ll still fill your heart with joy. Halfway through the route, as you traipse through the thick forest, you’ll catch glimpses of the turquoise waters of the 200-foot Cascade Falls. Savor the spectacular views of Cascade Lake and the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. As you return on the same path of hard-packed sand, admire the purple lupine, pink monkeyflowers, and purple-yellow camas lilies along the way. 

2. Skyline Trail 

Take a scenic gondola ride from Heavenly Ski Resort to reach the Skyline Trailhead. Photo courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort.

Location: Heavenly Valley, South Lake Tahoe

Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Parking: Park in the City of South Lake Tahoe parking garage for $25 (daily maximum).

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: About 2 miles

Time: About 1 hour

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: No

Permit: No permits are needed.

One of the best hikes in Tahoe is the Skyline Trail, situated within the Heavenly Ski Resort. Start your Lake Tahoe experience off right, and take a gondola ride and ski lift from this top California ski resort to reach the Skyline Trailhead. Trek up the tree-lined trail to the Observation Deck, where you’ll enjoy expansive views of Lake Tahoe, Carson Valley, and the Desolation Wilderness. One part of the path crosses state borders, so feel the magic of being in two places at once. 

3. Eagle Lake Trail

Watch the cascading waters of Eagle Falls and visit a historic mansion during a trek on the Eagle Lake Trail.

Location: Emerald Bay State Park, South Lake Tahoe

Hours: Sunrise–sunset

Parking: Park in the Emerald Bay State Park lot for $10 (day fee).

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: About 4.3 miles

Time: About 2-3 hours

Route: Loop (with out-and-back option)

Dogs allowed: Dogs are not allowed on the Vikingsholm premises.

Permit: Pick up a free Desolation Wilderness permit at the trailhead.

This trail through the Emerald Bay area will leave you breathless. Park your car and venture down the steep trail to Emerald Bay’s Vikingsholm—a 38-room mansion constructed in the early 20th century—to take a step back in time. You’ll get to listen to the sound of Lower Eagle Falls long before you reach it. Take a breather, then continue on an upward climb to Upper Eagle Falls. The loop trail ends at the Upper Falls; either return to your car or continue on to the Eagle Falls Trailhead (located across the street), which leads to Eagle Lake. The second part of the hike will take you through a dense forest until the path reaches the glistening Eagle Lake. Take in the mystical surroundings before you head back.

4. Donner Pass Trail (Donner Tunnels)

Go back in time by strolling through the historical Donner Pass train tunnel system above Donner Lake.

Location: Sugar Bowl Road, Truckee

Hours: Sunrise–sunset

Parking: Park along Donner Pass or Sugar Bowl Road

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 5.1 miles

Time: About 2.5 hours

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: Yes, but on-leash

Permit: No permits are needed.

One of the best hikes in North Lake Tahoe leads you through the historical tunnel system of the Donner Pass train tunnels. Before the tunnels’ construction in the late 1860s, crossing this part of the Sierra Nevada was quite difficult. Today, the Donner Pass Tunnels act as a free, open-air art gallery, so don’t forget to bring your flashlight to admire the graffiti on the walls. The breaks between the tunnels allow you to enjoy a few minutes of sunshine before heading into another tunnel. One of the tunnel breaks will leave you speechless as you gaze at the deep blue Donner Lake below. 

5. Echo Lakes Trail

Embark on the Echo Lakes Trail to admire views of the shimmering Echo Lakes and go for a dip in the fresh alpine waters.

Location: Echo Lake, South Lake Tahoe

Hours: Sunrise–sunset

Parking: There is free parking near the Lake Aloha Trailhead, Tahoe Rim Trail, or Echo Lakes Trailhead at Echo Lakes.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Distance: About 5.5 miles

Time: About 2–3 hours

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: Yes, but on-leash

Permit: Pick up a free Desolation Wilderness permit at the trailhead.

For a relaxing hike, make your way around the shimmering Echo Lakes. Be on the lookout for fantastic photo ops of the alpine terrain, chirping birds, and wildflowers. Embrace nature’s bounty as you walk alongside incredible rock formations and discover mini waterfalls cascading past Lower Echo Lake until the farthest northwest corner of Upper Echo Lake. Take a swim in the fresh alpine waters before you head back. Aside from having a surreal serene scene, Echo Lakes is also one of the best dog-friendly hikes Lake Tahoe has to offer.

6. Winnemucca Lake Trail

Enjoy a leisurely hike through the Mokelumne Wilderness on the well-maintained Winnemucca Trail, which leads past enticing lakes.

Location: Mokelumne Wilderness, South Lake Tahoe

Hours: Sunrise–sunset

Parking: The Carson Pass Information Station has a parking area with a $5 fee (for day use).

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: About 5.5 miles

Time: About 2–3 hours

Route: Loop

Dogs allowed: Yes, but on-leash

Permit: Pick up wilderness permits at the Carson Pass Information Station next to the parking lot.

This easy hike near Lake Tahoe takes you through the Mokelumne Wilderness. On your journey along the well-maintained Winnemucca Trail, you’ll pass by enticing alpine lakes inviting you for a swim. Breathe in the fresh air mixed with the sweet scent of summer wildflowers blooming along the path and around the lakes. The red alpine paintbrush, blue flax, and red mountain sorrel paint a pretty picture, making the hike seem shorter than it is. On your way to Winnemucca Lake, you’ll pass by Frog Lake before reaching the massive pile of volcanic rock known as Elephants Back. Once you reach Winnemucca Lake, either continue onward to the Fourth of July Lake or loop around to Woods Lake and back to the parking area.  

7. Shirley Canyon Trail 

Witness vibrant blooms, huge granite boulders, and lush landscapes on the Shirley Canyon Trail. Photo courtesy of Squaw Valley.

Location: Squaw Valley, near Olympic Valley

Hours: Sunrise–sunset

Parking: There is free parking on the side of Squaw Peak Road.

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 5.6 miles

Time: About 3.5 hours

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: Yes, but on-leash

Permit: No permits are needed.

Prepare for rushing waterfalls, clear pools, large granite boulders, blooming wildflowers, and breathtaking views on the hike along the Shirley Canyon Trail. Disconnect from your everyday worries as you trek to Shirley Lake. Be prepared for a strenuous hike; once you pass huge granite boulders, you’ll be rewarded with a rejuvenating swim in the lake. The lush greenery will make you want to stay forever, so keep your camera ready to capture these timeless moments. 

8. Mount Tallac Trail

Climb to Mount Tallac’s summit and be rewarded with vistas of Fallen Leaf Lake, Cascade Lake, and Emerald Bay.

Location: Mount Tallac, South Lake Tahoe

Hours: Sunrise–sunset

Parking: There is free, easily accessible parking close to the trailhead.

Difficulty: Difficult

Distance: 9.5 miles

Time: About 6-7 hours

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: Yes, but it’s not advised to bring them.

Permit: Pick up a free Desolation Wilderness permit at the trailhead.

The arduous hike to Mount Tallac is well worth the trouble. When traipsing through South Lake Tahoe’s evergreen forest, the glimmering waters of Fallen Leaf Lake will catch your eye. As you continue on, you’ll feel the increase in elevation. The anticipation of the breathtaking vistas that await you will motivate you to quickly reach Mount Tallac’s summit. Upon reaching the peak, enjoy an unobstructed 360-degree view of Emerald Bay, Cascade Lake, Fallen Leaf Lake, Desolation Wilderness, and Lake Tahoe’s south shore. The stunning views will leave you speechless. (Make sure to bring a jacket; late summer snowfalls or sleet storms occasionally occur.)

9. Rubicon Trail 

Traipse along Lake Tahoe’s shore and enjoy breathtaking panoramas on the picturesque Rubicon Trail.

Location: D.L. Bliss State Park, South Lake Tahoe

Hours: 7 a.m.–8 p.m.

Parking: There are parking areas in D.L. Bliss State Park for $10 (day fee).

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: About 13.5 miles

Time: About 7–8 hours

Route: Out and back

Dogs allowed: Dogs are not allowed on the Vikingsholm premises.

Permits: Permits are not needed.

The Rubicon Trail will lead you right along Lake Tahoe’s shore. Begin the hike from the Rubicon Point Lighthouse; savor the scenic vista before starting your journey. Although the path doesn’t have direct access to the lake, small swimmable coves will appear along the way to Emerald Bay. May the birds’ songs and aromatic scents of wildflowers accompany you to Vikingsholm and Eagle Point. Revel in the breeze while you stand at the edge of the Eagle Point viewing platform and enjoy the scenery of the forested terrain. 

10. Tahoe Rim Trail - Tahoe City to Brockway Summit

Explore a section of the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail to see lava-formed cliffs, vast valleys, and glimmering blue waters.

Location: Fairway Drive, Tahoe City

Hours: Sunrise–sunset

Parking: There is a parking area by the Tahoe City Public Utility District Office.

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 20.2 miles

Time: About 10 hours

Route: Point to point

Dogs allowed: Yes, but on-leash

Permit: No permits are needed for this part of the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Set out on the adventure of a lifetime—explore part of the renowned 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail, which wraps around Lake Tahoe—and take in the panoramic views. The Tahoe Rim Trail is known for its vast valleys, unspoiled nature, wildlife, and stunning vistas of Lake Tahoe. Take a dip in Watson Lake during your hike through a mixed forest of fir, cedar, and aspen. Hike highlights include lava-formed cliffs, cinder cones, and views of the Truckee River Canyon. The landscape’s unparalleled beauty will remain with you for many years, just as it did for Mark Twain. Twain describes Lake Tahoe as, “a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the seas, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft a full three thousand feet higher still!”

To continue your exploration of the Golden State’s natural beauty, check out our guide to California’s national forests.

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