72 Perfect Hours In Lake Tahoe
“The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be? — it is the same the angels breathe.” - Mark Twain, writing about Lake Tahoe in Roughing It
Scent Of A Happy Place
The scent of pine sap and dirt elicited a flood of vivid childhood memories. It was summertime and I was maybe 5 years old. There was a cool breeze coming off the lake. We scrambled from one giant boulder to the next, avoiding the hot sand that flowed below us like lava. Eventually we found the magic spot. Cool water replaced the hot lava and Kris put a piece of bacon on the end of a clothes hanger. He carefully lowered the bacon down between two rocks with the precision of a surgeon. We watched wide eyed as a small clawed creature emerged from the darkness into the clear blue water. It made its way over to the bacon and latched on! Our little hearts raced with excitement. Crawdad!
There were parents around somewhere. Keeping tabs on us from a distance, in that passive way that parents do when they feel at home. They were in their happy place - and so we were free to roam. The world was our oyster, and this place was our pearl. It was as if happy places were an imprintable trait. An emotion and a place, tangled up together forever in the cellular building blocks of our being.
Humans don’t use emotional memory that often. We tend to focus on details rather than feelings when we’re trying to remember something. But the nose can sniff out nostalgia- and there was only one place that could transport me back to those endless childhood summers. There was only one place with that perfect combination of pine and dirt wafting through the fresh mountain air — Lake Tahoe.
It seemed like a lifetime ago since I’d scrambled around on these rocks, but Tahoe had left its mark, and now all those dormant memories were waking up. A warm, safe feeling washed over me: a happy place feeling.
My parents both grew up in Reno. They met at Wooster High, stayed friends at the University of Nevada, and got married shortly after my dad started graduate school. They moved away for work, but their friends, families, and formative years remained in Nevada. And so, every summer my parents would pack my little brother Kris and I up, and we’d make the road trip back “home” to Reno, from wherever we happened to live at the time.
Road trips were rough at that age. There were no smart phones, iPads, or even portable gaming systems yet. It was just us, the back seat, and I Spy. But we looked forward to it every year. Reno was a playground, full of long lost friends, and Tahoe was the vast, natural extension of that playground. The first place my parents took me hiking. The first place I experience the liberation of sleeping under the stars. And the first place to shape the grown human I would eventually become.
72 Perfect Hours At Lake Tahoe
As time passed (and people too), our trips down to Reno became fewer and farther between, until eventually it faded into a distant memory. Then one day—not that long ago—I passed a huge “Visit RenoTahoe” billboard in Seattle. The sign said “No Guts. No Story,” and featured a girl jumping into the famous blue water, snow capped mountains raising up in the distance. Those dormant pine-filled memories stirred deep inside, even though it had been years since I’d been to Tahoe - like lots and lots of years. It was time to go back. Time to taste the air again.
Like all of my childhood trips to Lake Tahoe, this itinerary starts in Reno- although it’s not the same Reno I grew up visiting. As it turns out, “The Biggest Little City in the World” has really cleaned up since I was a kid. It has embraced its plentiful recreational opportunities, and reimagine the central area as a place to wander and gather outside, rather than inside the dark confines of a casino. Downtown Reno’s scenic Riverwalk District is full of new and delicious places to eat and drink, an amphitheater and a kayak park, and on trend coffee shops to fuel up before or after adventures in the area.
Mountain Bike the Flume Trail
I’ve never been much of a biker. It’s one of those activities I’ve always really wanted to like, but never have. It might have to do with an incident when I was younger involving steep switchbacks and shale. Maybe. I mention this only so you understand that when I tell you that riding the Flume Trail was one of the cooler things I’ve done, you know I'm serious! I would do it again in a heartbeat. It’s truly one of the world’s premier biking trails, and I'd recommend it to anyone headed to Lake Tahoe.
The Flume Trail mountain bike ride is a moderate 14 mile ride (that doesn’t involve shale or steep switchbacks). The ride itself is not particularly difficult or technical, but it does traverses across several steep sections, so you’ll want to be comfortable with a little bit of exposure. As the Visit Reno Tahoe slogan goes, “No Guts. No Story.”
Take the shuttle van in the morning from Flume Trail Mountain Bikes to Spooner Lake State Park and ride the Flume Trail one way back to your car at their bike rental shop and café. The shuttle is first come first serve and leaves multiple times a day. It gets busy on summer weekends, so get there early. Individuals renting bikes from the shop (as opposed to bringing thier own) get priority on the shuttle - fair is fair!
Soak In The Sun At Bonsai Rock
After a rewarding morning on the Flume Trail, you’ll be ready for a swim, and some much deserved rest and relaxation down at the lake. Luckily, you’re just a few minutes away from Bonsai Rock!
Nestled high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Tahoe’s water is vast, azure blue, and clear as any swimming pool. It’s also deep. Really deep - it’s the second deepest alpine lake in the United States behind Crater Lake in Oregon. Off the rocky coast just a couple miles south of Flume Trail Mountain Bikes, is a large boulder with four small trees growing out of a crevice at the top. This is Bonsai Rock. Parking is along the side of the road, and it’s a short but steep walk down to the water from there. Its minimalist beauty makes it a popular spot for sun worshipers and nature photographers alike.
Bonsai and other rocks in the area make great platforms for jumping into the cool water for a refreshing swim. But a general word of warning: the water can be very deceptive due to its clarity, and the depth is always changing with the seasons, so always check the water for obstacles before doing anything crazy!
Paddle Board from Sand Harbor to Secret Cove
There are pristine beaches and photogenic look-out points stretching down the coast for miles along Route 28 on the Nevada side. Perhaps the best way to indulge is to paddle board or kayak. Every inch of the approximately 5 mile paddle from Sand Harbor to Secret Cove is stunning, so there’s no need to rush it. Meander as far as you’d like, and and head back to Sand Harbor when you’re finished. Once you leave some of the more popular beaches, it’s not hard to claim your own little piece of alpine paradise. And when you do, you just might not ever want to leave.
Plan on launching your “water vessel” from Sand Harbor first thing in the morning (parking fills up fast), and head south. Most other access points for the coast require you to carry your board relatively long distances down steep and often slippery trails to the water - which can be tedious and awkward. The convenience of Sand Harbor’s boat launch is well worth the $10 day fee.
Note: Secret Cove is generally accepted as a nude beach, so don't be surprised if there's more nature on display than you bargained for!
Watch The Sun rise over Emerald Bay
The view overlooking Emerald Bay is perhaps Lake Tahoe’s most iconic - and “one of the most photographed locations on earth.” While it’s awe-inspiring at any time, its location on the southwest corner of the lake makes it a great spot to experience sunrise. Our morning there, we were lucky enough to have the view to ourselves. We stuck around until the sun was high in the sky, watching the deep blue water come to life in the ever-changing light.
For all of my favorite photography destinations at Lake Tahoe (including many from this post), and the gear you’ll need to capture the shot yourself, check out The Best Photo Locations At Lake Tahoe.
Hike The Rubicon Trail in D.L. Bliss State Park
After sunrise at Emerald Bay, head to D.L. Bliss State Park and the trailhead for the Rubicon Trail. The trail winds its way along the coast, sometimes along the shoreline of secluded coves, other times enjoying expansive cliffside views high above the lake. A classic for a reason, the Rubicon Trail is a great introduction to hiking in the High Sierras!