North Lake Tahoe

You’d think, that like many Bay Area residents, trips to Tahoe would be 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).

Interstate 80 follows a similar route to that of the pioneers, though of course we were traveling east rather than west. It took us past Sacramento – at one time known as Sutter’s Mill – and into the Sierra foothills. A steady grade pulled us all the way up to Donner Pass at 7,000 feet elevation.

donner lake vista point
western fence lizard basking on a rock

We stretched our legs at the vista point and I grabbed my camera. Donner Lake was visible through the trees, backed by mountains in the distance. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It felt nice to be out of the city. Small lizards basked on the rocks, unperturbed by our presence. I noticed one of them had a short tail with a pattern of scales different from that on its body. I found out later that the Western Fence Lizard can drop its tail off in an emergency and grow it back within 3-5 weeks!

We continued on to Truckee, once a true western outpost complete with gunfights and gambling. The small town retains a frontier-like aesthetic, which I found kind of charming. The train station remains operational and is on an Amtrak line. Traveling here by rail sounds like it could be a cool experience.

The next day, we visited Donner Memorial State Park. The Pioneer Monument adjacent to the visitor center rises 22 feet – the depth of snow that entrapped the Donner Party – and is topped with a bronze statue of a pioneer family. For a well-researched account of the Donner-Reed party and their experiences, I recommend The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown. Having read it prior to the trip, I felt remarkably connected to the place we were now wandering in.

donner lake shore
donner memorial state park

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 where there was a nice view of Donner Summit from across the lake.

Ready for lunch, we decided to check out Lake Tahoe proper. We ate in Kings Beach and watched the goings-on at the lake. Tahoe has a really unique atmosphere. It’s like being on the beach at the ocean, yet you’re encircled by snow-capped mountains. You can’t help but marvel at the forces that must have created the place long ago.

kings beach paddleboarders
lake tahoe rocks and mountains

It was exceptionally hot and clear, so we abandoned plans to do any more walking or hiking, opting instead for ice cream at Little Truckee Creamery. That took us on a nice windows-down drive along the shore of Donner Lake.

We returned to the cabin where 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 arrived later. We caught up over dinner and roughed out our plans for the following day before settling in the for the night.

When I woke up, 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 for the day’s hike. I was excited to get on the trail with my camera and see how long the clouds would last.

We started on the trail in Alpine Meadows at 6,500 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 at the high points of the trail. 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.

granite chief wilderness sign
indian paintbrush and mountains

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 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 on a northwestern path. 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.

We continued through 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.

log laying between two lakes
alpine meadows valley

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 the GPS on my phone definitely came in handy for putting us back on track toward the main trail. On the return trip, the sun began to emerge more consistently. The wind had pushed big, pearly clouds out toward Lake Tahoe.

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

Lake Tahoe is the second deepest lake in the U.S. with a depth of 1,645 feet.

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 stopped at Sweet Tahoe Time Ice Cream, which delivered both flavors and weird wood carvings in spades.

Back at the cabin, our friends made delicious fresh guacamole and steak tacos for dinner. They also taught us to play their family version of “Garbage”, a card game new to me and Katelyn. I’m proud to say I lost the game in a very impressive manner.

The next morning, we got packed up and headed into town for breakfast., where we also found some postcards and scored some handmade fudge for the trip home. And with that, we parted ways with our friends, and our visit to Tahoe was over.

I’d happily stay in Truckee again when visiting the area. There’s a lot to do and see using Truckee as a home base, and it’s easy enough to reach Lake Tahoe when you want to. There is an interesting contrast between the raw natural beauty of Tahoe and its commercialization. There’s a lot of vacation houses, ski resorts, and of course the casinos at the south end of the lake. With just a little extra effort, though, you’re never far from the grandeur of the Sierras.