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A Weekend at North Lake Tahoe

You’d think, that like many Bay Area residents, trips to Tahoe would be more common for me. The “Jewel of the Sierra” is one of several iconic and beautiful places that are, relatively speaking, a stone’s throw away (if you can put up with the heavy traffic). We decided to make a long weekend of it and headed up to Truckee on a Thursday afternoon.

Donner Pass

The drive was mostly uneventful, with a number of slow patches. I guess it’s hard to avoid traffic no matter what time you leave or how you plan for it. The carpool lane saved us a couple of times. Thankfully, it wasn’t quite as congested as last year’s trip to Grass Valley in the Sierra foothills.

Interstate 80 – which follows a similar route to the old wagon trails from the pioneer days – took us into the Sierra foothills and up a consistent grade all the way to Donner Pass. We stretched our legs at the Donner Lake vista point and enjoyed the view. Small lizards basked on the rocks, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. One of them had evidently grown back its tail – it was short, and the pattern of scales differed from that of its body. Apparently the Western Fence Lizard can drop its tail off in an emergency and grow it back within 3-5 weeks!

donner lake vista point
western fence lizard basking on a rock

The cabin we stayed at was easy to miss, tucked away among the pines. The Truckee River, flowing cold and clear at the edge of the property, was a welcome sight after watching miles of road. After unloading our stuff we headed into historic downtown Truckee for dinner.

Despite being home to modern shops and restaurants, Truckee was once a true western outpost complete with gunfights and gambling. It’s very small and retains a frontier-like aesthetic, but the train station remains operational – you can take Amtrak there. At Bar of America, we each ordered a delicious-sounding fried chicken sandwich; the waiter did us a solid, letting us know the sandwich was huge and recommending we split one. A side of garlic cheese bread held us over until the behemoth arrived.

Before heading back to the cabin, we swung by the grocery store to pick up supplies. The rest of the evening was spent relaxing and making plans for the next day.

Donner Memorial State Park

We took our time in the morning, and managed to arrive at Donner Memorial State Park just before 10am. Finding the visitor center not quite open yet, we walked around the Pioneer Monument, dedicated in 1918. The pedestal rises 22 feet – the depth of snow that entrapped the Donner Party – and is topped with a bronze statue of a pioneer family. I recommend Daniel James Brown’s history on the Donner Party. Moments from that book ran through my mind as we wandered.

We set out on the interpretative trail along the lake shore. Signs along the way described the environmental impact of pine beetles and climate change on California alpine forests, featuring the words and art of local school children. We went as far as China Cove for a nice view of Donner Summit. By the time we returned to the car at about 11:30a, the heat was strong enough that we scratched plans to do any more hiking in the afternoon.

donner lake shore
donner memorial state park

We grabbed lunch at Jason’s Beachside Grille in Kings Beach and watched the goings-on at the lake. It was a little surreal, being encircled by mountains yet feeling like we were at the ocean. I wandered into a shop next door in search of postcards. “You guys looking to get on the water?” the guy at the counter asked. I said no and laughed, embarrassed, realizing we were in a surf shop; but he was friendly about it and gave us suggestions for hikes and places to check for postcards.

After eating, we ambled down to Kings Beach and walked around for a bit, before jumping in the car and continuing to Speedboat Beach. Away from the town’s activity in a residential area, parking was difficult to find, but we were able to secure a spot and walk down to the beach. There actually wasn’t much of a beach at all; just a bank of large, round rocks with a set of wooden steps nearby. The view was really nice, though. It seemed like a great place to swim.

kings beach paddleboarders
lake tahoe rocks and mountains

We were ready for ice cream, so we looked up Little Truckee Creamery and headed back north, which took us on a nice drive along the shore of Donner Lake. We enjoyed our delicious treats outside in front of the quaint shop. Afterwards, we had a few hours to relax and prepare to cook dinner before our friends arrived. Katelyn took advantage of the hammock to read a few chapters of her book and I rolled up my jeans and took a few steps into the frigid Truckee River. Our friends showed up around 5pm and got situated while we cooked. We had a good time catching up over the meal and roughed out our plans for the following day.

Five Lakes Trail

I woke up and got the coffee started for everyone. I was surprised to see a significant amount of cloud cover. The forecast hadn’t indicated anything other than clear skies. Thankfully, it seemed we’d also benefit from cooler temperatures. I was excited to get on the trail with my camera and see how long those clouds would last.

We started on the trail in Alpine Meadows at 6500 feet in an area just south of the famed Squaw Valley ski area. The cloud layer hugged the surrounding peaks and I started to think it might be a little foggy when we reached the lakes. Instead, the clouds slowly lifted throughout the hike, with high winds pushing them up and over the ridges. The sun even made an occasional appearance, casting beams down here and there on the landscape.

The first mile featured good views and a forested area with plenty of wildflowers (tiny forget-me-nots, mule’s ear, and indian paintbrush among many others). The trail switched back in front of enormous contrasting granite and volcanic rock formations. After the switchbacks, the trail headed south with wide open views of the valley to the east.

A hairpin turn put us in a northwestern direction. Sheer granite cliffs bordered our view to the west. The wind gusts became quite powerful in this spot. Another half mile found us entering the Granite Chief Wilderness, as announced by a cool retro-style sign. We caught sight of the first of the Five Lakes shortly afterward.

granite chief wilderness sign
indian paintbrush and mountains

We returned to the trail which continued into alpine forest, with big boulders all around, and even some patches of snow. Shortly after the two mile mark we took a break at the shore of the westernmost lake. I took the opportunity to set up my tripod and play with different shutter speeds to affect the appearance of the windblown water.

Next we meandered along the shore, enjoying the clarity of the water, and the views to the west featuring Squaw Peak. We either followed rough paths or made our own way as we wound between the lakes. I always have a small compass attached to my backpack, but by phone GPS definitely came in handy for finding the direction of the main trail.

log laying between two lakes
alpine meadows valley

On the return trip, the sun began to emerge more consistently. I was happy to see the clouds moving in interesting ways and creating a variety of shapes – some big fluffy ones, some high, smooth, wispy ones. The prospect of lunch carried us back to the trailhead.

We drove down to Tahoe City for some comfort food at Firesign Cafe and kicked back in their small satellite coffee shop until we could enjoy our meal on the patio. Our friends introduced me to the concept of a Bloody Beer – pouring beer and bloody mary mix together. I had no idea! Didn’t hate it.

Sand Harbor

Sand Harbor, on the Nevada side of the lake, had been recommended to us several times as a must-see, so we headed out that way. The road took us through Kings Beach and across the state line, passing by casinos that had seen better days. All the while we had a nice view of Lake Tahoe out the right side of the car.

The strong winds persisted here, working the lake up into white-capped waves, and churning up material that reduced the clarity of the water. It wasn’t quite the calm, serene place I’d pictured, but the iconic smooth boulders were still something to see. There were plenty of opportunities to climb around on the rocks and get a different perspective.

Our friends realized there was a geocache nearby, so we went hunting for it. The capsule contained a feather and a tiny scroll of paper with names of geocachers on it (unfortunately, no room to add names – or to “take something, leave something” as is the custom).

Windblown and satisfied with our visit, we set off in search for, of course, ice cream. We chose Sweet Tahoe Time Ice Cream which delivered both flavors and weird wood stump carvings in spades.

Back at the cabin, the hot tub gave us a chance to relax and alleviate our various ailments (for me, my knees tend to feel a little stiff after 4 miles or so of uphill/downhill hiking). Our friends made spectacular fresh guacamole and delicious steak tacos for dinner. They also taught us to play their family version of “Garbage”, a card game new to me and Katelyn. All I can say is that I lost the game in a very impressive manner.

Truckee

We got packed up and then headed into town for breakfast. The Squeeze Inn was too crowded so we wandered in to the Wagon Train cafe. I think it worked out for the best as we all appreciate a good diner. Afterward we finally fulfilled our quest for postcards and couldn’t resist buying some fudge to take home.

I think we could have used one more day in the area to explore, but I was happy with our weekend getaway. It had the right amounts of activity and relaxation. Besides, I have a lot of ideas for our next visit!