North Lake Tahoe

A Spring Weekend Away in the Sierra Nevada

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Given its proximity to the Bay Area, it seems absurd that I haven’t visited Lake Tahoe more often. Like Yosemite, Mendocino, or Big Sur, Tahoe is beautiful and not that far away. Having last visited four years ago, I was long overdue; as for Katelyn, she’d never seen the “Jewel of the Sierra.” We made a long weekend of it, driving 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.

For some reason, Sacramento always surprises me. It covers an area twice the size of San Francisco and the larger buildings seem to suddenly rise out of the flat Central Valley. Maybe it’s the contrast – there’s nothing like those buildings in the immediate area, not even hills. We’d learn the next day that Sacramento was once known as Sutter’s Fort, the destination of the Donner party. They traveled more than 2,000 miles only to become snowbound just 90 miles away.

I-80 – which follows the old wagon trails – took us into the foothills and up a pretty consistent grade all the way to Donner Pass. We pulled off the freeway at the Donner Lake vista point, stretched our legs, and enjoyed the view. Small lizards basked on the rocks, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. One of them had grown back its tail – it was shorter 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

We made it to the AirBnB by 6pm (after missing the driveway several times). The cabin was tucked away among the trees. The backyard, which ended at the Truckee River, was a welcome sight after watching miles of road. After unloading our stuff we headed into town for dinner 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.

Historic downtown Truckee still has a frontier-like feel, despite being home to modern shops and restaurants. It was once a true western outpost complete with gunfights and gambling. It’s very small but I rather liked it. 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.

The visitor center now stood open, so we walked among the exhibits, learning about the difficulties the pioneers faced; the Washoe people, who are the original inhabitants of the Lake Tahoe area; and the transformation of the unforgiving Donner region into a hallmark of California road trip tourism.

Next we set out on the interpretative trail along the lake shore. Signs along the trail 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 I was mentally scratching plans to do any moderate hiking (most of the trails I’d researched had a good amount of exposure and not much shade).

donner memorial state park
donner lake shore

We decided to go see Lake Tahoe and have lunch at Kings Beach where I wandered into a shop 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 and gave us suggestions for hikes and places to check for postcards.

kings beach paddleboarders
lake tahoe rocks and mountains

We ate next door to the surf shop at Jason’s Beachside Grille. Service was a little slow, but I didn’t mind sitting in the shade and watching the goings-on at the lake. The scene seemed almost unreal – it felt like being at the ocean, but encircled by mountains.

Satisfied with our meal, 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.

We were ready for ice cream so we looked up Little Truckee Creamery and headed back up there, which took us on a nice drive along the north shore of Donner Lake. We enjoyed our delicious treats outside in front of the quaint shop.

We returned to the cabin and relaxed for a while, then got ready to cook dinner for our friends, who would be arriving later in the afternoon. Katelyn took advantage of the hammock to read a few chapters of her book. Our friends showed up around 5pm and got situated while we cooked. We had a good time catching up over the meal, then discussed what to do the next day. We decided we’d do a hike in the morning, find lunch somewhere, check out Sand Harbor on the Nevada side, and play the rest by ear.

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. This area is 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.

california alpine slopes
uprooted tree overlooking a valley

A hairpin turn put us on a northwestern direction. Sheer granite cliffs characterized our view to the west. The wind gusts became quite powerful in this spot. Another half mile (and a few short detours after somehow losing the trail) 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. The wind was pretty blustery, but I managed to get some shots I like.

tree and stone
california alpine lake

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. My phone GPS definitely came in handy (though I always have a small compass attached to my backpack as well).

log laying between two lakes
california alpine lake

As we found our way back to Five Lakes Trail, the sun began to emerge more consistently, painting the landscape in different ways for the return trip. 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.

alpine meadows valley
rocky outcrop with light rays

We all really enjoyed the hike. There was a lot of variety and I’m not sure any of us expected to encounter snow. It was good exercise considering the elevation change, but not overly long – enough to build up a good appetite for lunch.

We drove down to Tahoe City for some comfort food at Firesign Cafe. There was a short wait, but they had a satellite coffee shop to kick back in, which was nice. We enjoyed our meal out on the patio where our friends introduced me to the concept of a Bloody Beer – pouring beer and bloody mary mix together. I had no idea!

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, across the state line, and past Incline Village. All the while we had a nice view of Lake Tahoe on the right side of the car.

The strong winds persisted here, working the lake up into white-capped waves that obscured the clarity of the water and crashed into the distinctive boulders along the shore. It wasn’t quite the calm, serene place I’d had in mind! It was still beautiful, with 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 of ice cream. We chose Sweet Tahoe Time Ice Cream which had both flavors and weird wood stump carvings in spades.

Upon returning to the AirBnB, we climbed into the hot tub 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!