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15 Best Hikes in Lake Tahoe (According to a Backpacking Guide)


Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America and sits in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains on the California-Nevada border. Lake Tahoe is a freshwater lake and is a popular spot for visitors all over the world.

I’ve worked as a camping and hiking guide in the Sierra Nevada for the past four years and have guided hiking trips throughout the Lake Tahoe Basin. With roaring waterfalls, wildflower meadows, alpine lakes, and panoramic views all around, hiking in Lake Tahoe is a truly incredible experience.

These are some of the best hikes in Lake Tahoe that I’ve had the opportunity to explore!

When to Go Hiking in Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is a very popular tourist destination year-round. With snow activities from winter to late spring and summertime activities from the late spring to fall, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the area. Hiking in Lake Tahoe is possible most months if you have the proper gear!

Spring

As someone who has been to Tahoe during every season, I definitely think spring is the best time to visit because of the fair weather and smaller crowds; however, it is also the most variable. Depending on how much it snowed that year, you may run into a lot of snowpack still on the trails in April and May. Come prepared with the right gear and research trails before you go to ensure it’s accessible!

Whether the trails are snowy or dry when you’re there, you’ll still see snow on the high mountains!  Also, waterfalls and rivers are flowing at their highest in the spring!

There is a variety of trails that are easily accessible for hiking in the spring, but I’d recommend going to the ones at lower elevations if you don’t have any snow hiking experience.

Summer

Summer is the warmest season for hiking in Tahoe. By mid-summer, you should be able to access almost all of the trails free of snow. It’s a great time to get up to the higher peaks at cooler temperatures or to enjoy the coastal walks along Lake Tahoe where you can hop in or take a dip.

The alpine lakes around Lake Tahoe are also wonderful spots for a picnic lunch and a jump into the lakes (be aware, the lakes are still pretty chilly even in summer)! As summer goes on, more and more wildflowers start popping up in the area! From mid-May until the end of August you’re sure to pass some beautiful flowers on the trail, so be on the lookout.

Fall

Fall in Lake Tahoe is arguable the prettiest season because the Aspen trees change from bright green to yellow and orange. Fall around Lake Tahoe brings moderately warm midday temperatures and cool evenings.

Much like spring, fall is one of the least crowded times of year in Lake Tahoe. When students are back in school after Labor Day weekend the whole Tahoe area has fewer visitors, meaning you’re likely to have some space to yourself on trails.

Winter

You might think winter is not a great time to go hiking but if you have snowshoes or microspikes you can enjoy the beautiful snowfall that the Lake Tahoe area gets every winter.

Many of the short and half-day hikes I’ve listed here are great options for winter hiking. They’re a wonderful way to enjoy the area if you want a rest day from skiing.

Lake Tahoe Hikes Difficulty

There are a variety of Lake Tahoe area trail options for everyone who visits! Some are relatively easy while others are more difficult. Trail difficulty is not necessarily based on length but rather elevation gain, terrain, and a few other factors. The hikes in this article are ranked as so:

  • Easy: The trail is primarily flat, most likely paved, and suitable for all visitors, including those with strollers or wheelchairs.
  • Moderate: There is some elevation gain on these trails or it might be a long hike but it’s still doable by many visitors, including if you don’t hike often.
  • Moderately Strenuous: The hike will last at least a few hours with more elevation gain and rocky terrain. Hiking experience is recommended.
  • Strenuous: There is significant elevation gain, the terrain can be rough, the hike is long, and it is difficult. You should have previous hiking experience.
  • Very Strenuous: The hike is very challenging. There is a lot of elevation gain and it is hard. You should definitely be an experienced hiker.

So…ready to get hiking?

Short Hikes in Lake Tahoe

Some of the best hikes in Lake Tahoe are the short hikes. While they may only take an hour or so, they truly offer beautiful sites and often offer the opportunity to explore beaches along Lake Tahoe or alpine lakes through forests.

1. Sand Harbor Nature Trail

  • Distance: 0.5 miles
  • Time: 30 minutes – 1 hour
  • Elevation Gain: 15 feet
  • Difficulty: easy

The Sand Harbor Nature Trail is located just south of Incline Village, NV on the east side of Lake Tahoe at Sand Harbor State Park. It’s home to one of the most beautiful spots in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

The short walk offers impressive views of the bright blue-green water that Lake Tahoe is so famous for as well as the iconic boulders that rest above the lake’s water level.

It is an incredibly scenic trail at all times of the year and one of my favorite places to watch the sunset across the lake with the alpine glow to the northeast.

The Sand Harbor Nature Trail is handicap accessible and there are benches and information signs to rest along the way. There is a nature center where you can learn more about Lake Tahoe and Sand Harbor. It’s a great spot to bring families and kids in the summertime because kayak rentals and tours go out from there!

Sand Harbor is also a great middle point for hiking between South Lake Tahoe and North Lake Tahoe so you can visit the park then continue on to enjoy another town around the lake! Incline Village is a few minutes up the road by car and is a great spot to check out the popular Hyatt and Lone Eagle Grille, grab coffee or ice cream, or rent bikes and water sports equipment.

2. Spooner Lake

  • Distance: 2.5 miles
  • Time: 1 – 2 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 120 foot gain
  • Difficulty: easy

Spooner Lake is another one of the best hikes in Lake Tahoe. Spooner Lake is located less than 30 minutes from both South Lake Tahoe and North Lake Tahoe and is home to more than just the lake.

Starting from the Spooner Lake parking lot, head down to the lake and you’ll pass through a bunch of Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. As you continue on trail these trees will continue to tower over you.

This short hike loops around the lake, starting or ending with a dam crossing. From there you’ll have nice views the whole time. There’s a variety of bird wildlife commonly spotted on this trail. About halfway around the lake, you’ll pass a dense Aspen grove which is especially beautiful when the wind blows through the leaves.

A fun fact about the Aspen trees is they are actually the largest living organism on the planet. All the trees in a grove are connected by their extensive root system and are considered one single tree or organism!

I love Spooner Lake State Park but it can get crowded by mid-day, especially in summer, so I’d recommend visiting it early in the day or in the late afternoon.

3. Cascade Falls Trail

  • Distance: 1.5 miles
  • Time: 1 hour
  • Elevation Gain: 250 foot gain
  • Difficulty: easy

The Cascade Falls Trail is one of the beautiful Lake Tahoe hikes to enjoy sites of Cascade Lake, Cascade Falls, and Emerald Bay. The trail also passes through old-growth forests with the chance of seeing abundant wildlife.

The trail starts just north of South Lake Tahoe across the road from Inspiration Point, one of the most famous viewpoints around the lake. From there the trail passes through the forest and eventually you’ll find yourself on some large granite rocks watching the Cascade Falls roar past you and down to the lake.

While you can’t hike down to Cascade Lake because it’s surrounded by private land, you’ll get to enjoy views of the lake from above!

The Cascade Falls Trail is a great short hike option for all visitors to the area because it is suitable for all physical abilities.

4. Rubicon Trail

  • Distance: 1 – 16 miles out and back
  • Time: 1 – 7 hours
  • Elevation Gain: flat – 2,300 foot gain 
  • Difficulty: easy to strenuous

The Rubicon Trail is one of the best hiking trails in the Lake Tahoe Basin. You can make the hike as short as a mile by hiking down to Emerald Bay and enjoying the beach near Vikingsholm Estate or you can make it a full day hike and explore all the way into D.L. Bliss State Park.

The trail takes hikers across both rocky trails and near sandy coves to enjoy one of the best coastal Lake Tahoe hiking trails.

You can start the full trail at either D.L. Bliss State Park or Emerald Bay State Park. Between those two parks, it’s about 4.5 miles one way; however, the trail continues further in both directions so you can choose how long you want to spend on the trail that day.

My favorite spot along this trail is the beach next to Vikingsholm Estate at Emerald Bay. I love to rent a kayak and paddle around Emerald Bay! I also love the Rubicon Point Lighthouse in D.L. Bliss State Park—it’s actually the highest elevation lighthouse in the US! 

There is also the Emerald Point Trail, a 4.4-mile out and back hike. It’s a great way to see the highlights of the Rubicon Trail.

The Rubicon Trail is a great hiking trail for all park visitors. With the option to hike varying distances and still get incredible views the whole time, it’s worth checking out!

5. Moraine Trail

  • Distance: 2 miles
  • Time: 1 hour
  • Elevation Gain: 50 foot gain
  • Difficulty: easy

The Moraine Trail is located just 3 miles from South Lake Tahoe along Fallen Leaf Road. The Moraine Trail hugs Fallen Leaf Lake and is another one of the great hiking trails around Lake Tahoe.

Moraine Lake is the second largest lake in the Lake Tahoe Basin and is a great spot for hiking, trail running, snowshoeing, biking, horseback riding, and fishing.

Start in the dense forest through the old-growth pines until about a half-mile in when it opens up with spectacular lake views. The well-maintained and traveled path is suitable for all hikers. Enjoy the fresh air and serenity the lake offers.

On this out-and-back trail you’ll see some of Tahoe’s tall peaks, including Mount Tallac. Also, stay on the lookout for wildlife like eagles, deer, and the occasional bear frequenting the area!

Half-Day Hikes in Lake Tahoe

Tahoe has plenty of half-day hiking options located within 30 minutes of the lake. These hikes usually take around 2 – 4 hours and are the perfect way to spend part of your day in the wilderness and part of your day exploring shops or relaxing at one of the beaches around Lake Tahoe.

6. Eagle Falls & Eagle Lake

  • Distance: 2 miles
  • Time: 1.5 – 2 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 450 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderate

The Eagle Falls and Eagle Lake Trail in Desolation Wilderness just north of South Lake Tahoe is one of my favorite places on the South Shore to take people out for half-day hikes.

Starting just above Emerald Bay this trail takes hikers first to Eagle Falls. These falls flow right into Lake Tahoe in Emerald Bay. You’ll cross the bridge over the falls and continue your way on the trail until you reach Eagle Lake. On your way up to the lake, you’ll continue to have beautiful views of Emerald Bay.

Eagle Lake is a beautiful glacier-formed lake surrounded by high granite walls and peaks. I love packing some food and having a picnic lunch at Eagle lake and taking a dip in the water to rinse off!

Because of the short distance of the trail, it’s even possible to hike up to Eagle Falls and Eagle Lake in the winter to enjoy the lake frozen over. Be sure to pack some microspikes to make it up through the steep snow safely!

Of all the Lake Tahoe hiking trails the Eagle Falls to Eagle Lake trail is a very popular moderate hike. Be sure to arrive early in the summer to get a parking spot at the Eagle Falls Trailhead because spots fill up. Or even better, spend a night at the Eagle Point Campground so you can start the hike up to Eagle Lake early.

7. Winnemucca Lake

  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Time: 3 – 4 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1000 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderate

If you’re staying near South Lake Tahoe go check out Winnemucca Lake—a beautiful alpine lake that’s a popular hiking spot in the summer and a great skiing or snowshoeing destination in the winter.

I love all the alpine lakes that are surrounded by granite walls towering above the lakes and Winnemucca Lake is the perfect match for that! Also, the trail is rated moderate but offers sites of what you’d often only see on a multi-day backpacking trip.

Winnemucca Lake is located in the beautiful Mokelumne Wilderness. The trail along the loop is well-established and offers an opportunity to see wildflowers from the late spring to the early fall!

Along the trail, you’ll also pass a couple of other impressive lakes including Frog and Woods Lake, and that whole area is a great spot to extend into an overnight backcountry trip. Many trails interconnect in that area.

8. Fallen Leaf Lake

  • Distance: 3.6 miles
  • Time: 1 – 2 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 140 foot gain
  • Difficulty: easy

The Fallen Leaf Lake Trail is one of the best hikes in Lake Tahoe. I love The Fallen Leaf Lake Trail because it’s flat and borders Fallen Leaf Lake the whole way. Everyone can enjoy this trail whether you’re out for a gentle stroll or a trail run. Also, because the parking lot is right next to the lake it’s a popular spot to see people out on their inflatable paddle boards!

It’s located just north of South Lake Tahoe on the west side of the lake and most people can comfortably enjoy this hike along the well-maintained dirt trail.

The Fallen Leaf Trail is also a great starting point for many other hikes that enter into Desolation Wilderness. Many trails continue up higher, including Mount Tallac.

When out hiking around Fallen Leaf Lake be sure to pack your lunch and bathing suit so you can enjoy a dip in the brisk waters of this incredible alpine lake.

9. Echo Lakes

  • Distance: 5.3 miles
  • Time: 2 – 3 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 500 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderate

If you’re looking for a moderate Lake Tahoe hike where the trail hugs a couple of alluring lakes then the Echo Lakes Trail is a great option for you. The trailhead starts at a parking lot on the southeast side of Lower Echo Lake. From there you can hike along the north shore up to upper echo lake.

The massive granite peaks are covered with snow in the winter and reflect nicely in the lake in the summer. This is a popular spot for ice skating, snowshoeing, and skiing in the winter, and of course, hiking in the summer. This trail is also great for birdwatching and fly fishing!

If you continue hiking past Echo Lakes you’ll end up in Desolation Wilderness. If you’re looking to extend your day out in the wilderness I’d recommend hiking up to Aloha Lake. It’s one of my favorite lakes in the Tahoe area and it’s not too far beyond Echo Lakes!

10. Floating Island & Cathedral Lake Trail

  • Distance: 5.5 miles
  • Time: 2.5 – 3.5 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1,200 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderate

The Cathedral Lake Trail is another one of the best Lake Tahoe Hikes. Starting just north of South Lake Tahoe from the Fallen Leaf Lake parking lot, the trail starts up a moderate ridgeline with incredible views of the lake.

Continuing on you’ll reach my favorite spot on the hike, Floating Island Lake. It’s a much smaller lake but it gets its name from the large patch of grass that moves freely throughout the lake. Then you’ll continue on the well-established trail to Cathedral Lake, the perfect spot for a lunch break.

If you were to continue up this trail you’d enter Desolation Wilderness, and many longer trails continue on once in this area. This trail is very beautiful because of the opportunity to see multiple lakes in such a short distance. It’s also a great trail year-round with snowshoeing opportunities in the winter and hiking in the summer.

Full-Day Hikes in Lake Tahoe

If you’re an experienced hiker and looking for a 10+ mile day out on trail then you should check out these full-day hikes. These trails can be a bit strenuous so I’d recommend some previous hiking experience but they are worth the full-day adventure.

11. Mount Tallac Trail

  • Distance: 10 miles
  • Time: 6 – 8 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 3,300 foot gain 
  • Difficulty: very strenuous

Mount Tallac is one of the best hikes to enjoy panoramic views of the whole Lake Tahoe Basin, Desolation Wilderness, Emerald Bay, and beyond. It’s the highest peak around the lake’s immediate shoreline standing at 9,739 feet tall and it’s visible from the highways into the Tahoe area and almost every spot around the lake.

You’ll want to plan a full day to hike to the summit of Mount Tallac because even if you’re a fast hiker, you’ll want to enjoy the impressive summit views.

The trail starts with a gradual incline through the pine forests along a ridge bordering Fallen Leaf Lake, just outside of South Lake Tahoe. Upon entering Desolation Wilderness about 2 miles in, the trail gets a bit rockier. At the Desolation Wilderness border, you’ll pass Floating Island Lake which gets its name from the small grass island that moves about the lake.

As you continue hiking you’ll eventually reach some rocky thigh-burning switchbacks. Watch your footing here as the rocks become loose! The remainder of the trail goes back and forth between a well-established trail and rocky areas until reaching the summit where you’ll scramble across boulders to your preferred viewpoint.

I love this trail because along the way you pass a bunch of alpine lakes and from the summit you’re looking down on all of Lake Tahoe, including alpine meadows, lakes, and Emerald Bay. It’s one of the best hiking trails for those who are in good hiking shape.

**Because the ascent on the Mount Tallac Trail reaches almost 10,000 feet and gains over 3,000 feet in elevation you’ll need time to acclimate to the altitude. Acute mountain sickness is common for people coming from low elevations hiking high too quickly, so if you don’t feel well on the ascent, run around and rest.

12. Marlette Lake

  • Distance: 10 miles
  • Time: 4 – 6 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 1,750 foot gain
  • Difficulty: moderate

The Marlette Lake Trail starts on the east side of Lake Tahoe at Spooner Lake. With the beautiful wildflowers in the spring, the dense coniferous forests and Aspen groves, and the historical cabins built on the trail, it’s one of the best Lake Tahoe hikes.

I love this trail because Marlette Lake sits at 8,200 feet in elevation about 2,000 feet above Lake Tahoe and you can get views of them at the same time!

The hike up to Marlette Lake is a well-established dirt road that connects to the Flume Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail. Sometimes you’ll pass mountain bikers or horseback riders, and while there are a few steep climbs along the ascent they are worth it from the views you’ll have at the top.

The pristine alpine lake offers a great spot to take a dip and swim and is a great spot to visit year-round. You can snowshoe or cross country ski up to it in the winter or hike, bike, or ride a horse in the summer!

The trailhead is about 30 minutes from both South Lake Tahoe and North Lake Tahoe. It’s one of the best Lake Tahoe hiking trails for its stunning views, flora and fauna, and wildlife.

13. Middle Velma Lake

  • Distance: 10 miles
  • Time: 5 – 7 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 2,200 feet
  • Difficulty: moderately strenuous

Middle Velma Lake is located in the beautiful Desolation Wilderness, surrounded by granite peaks and an alpine environment. It’s one of the less trafficked areas in Lake Tahoe and therefore, a great option during the busy season from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

There are three lakes in the Velma area, lower, middle, and upper and they all offer beautiful spots for resting, camping, and photography. To middle Velma Lake, it’s about 5 miles one way but you can continue on from there to extend your backpacking trip.

While it’s possible to hike to Middle Velma Lake as a day hike, I’d highly recommend turning it into a backpacking trip! While carrying a pack makes it a tougher climb up the steep trail, it’s worth the effort to wake up in such a beautiful area!

**If you plan to camp, you must reserve permits for overnight camping in Desolation Wilderness.

Multi-Day Hikes in Lake Tahoe

If you’re looking to explore some of the more remote options around Lake Tahoe then you should plan an overnight backpacking trip.

14. Tahoe Rim Trail

  • Distance: 170-mile loop
  • Time: 10 – 14 days
  • Elevation Gain: 28,000 feet
  • Difficulty: very strenuous

The Tahoe Rim Trail is a 170 miles trail established by the Tahoe Rim Trail Association. The whole trail circles around the Lake Tahoe Basin passing through alpine meadows, lakes, and dense pine forests.

The backpacking trail is one of the best multi-day hiking trails in Northern California. The cool thing about this trail is it intersects with other trails and roads so it’s easy to resupply or just day or section hike part of the full Rim Trail.

The full trail takes groups anywhere from 10 days to over 2 weeks; however, it is so worth it. There are large ascents and descents along the way so it’s best to be in very good hiking shape before starting.

With around 28,000 feet of elevation gain over smooth dirt, sand trails, and occassional rocky scrambling, it can get tiring; however, the views and landscape the whole way are incredible.

If you only had to choose one section of the hike, I’d recommend the western side of the lake from Desolation Wilderness up to Granite Chief Wilderness. This is also a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Being designated wilderness areas, these are the most protected and remote areas of the trail.

15. Fourth of July Lake Loop

  • Distance: 16 miles
  • Time: 2 days
  • Elevation Gain: 3,300 feet
  • Difficulty: strenuous

Fourth of July Lake Loop is one of the best hikes in Lake Tahoe for getting away from some of the popular trails that everyone visits on day hikes.

The 16-mile loop is located in the Mokelumne Wilderness and starts at the Carson Pass Trailhead just 30 minutes from South Lake Tahoe.

The trail starts with a gradual climb up to Frog Lake, Winnemucca Lake, and Round Top Lake. Then it’s a steeper descent on a well-maintained path down to Fourth of July Lake, a great spot to camp for the night.

The hike then continues passing through the alpine landscapes as you drop lower through the coniferous forests, passing tall granite peaks for much of the hike! This loop is a great beginner backpacking option.

When camping in this area you must get a permit from the Carson Pass Management Station or from the Amador Ranger Station. You also must camp in designated campsites to protect the area.

Let’s Get Hiking!

When visiting Lake Tahoe there are plenty of opportunities to explore the beautiful landscape around. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a beginner there are hiking trails for everyone. From alpine lakes and meadows filled with wildlife to dense forests and stunning views of Lake Tahoe itself, it’s hard to go wrong.

So grab your hiking pack, snacks, poles, and boots, and start planning your hiking trip to Lake Tahoe!



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