Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevada alpine lake that straddles the borders of California and Nevada, makes for a great visit in the fall.
The Lake Tahoe area is beautiful in October, with colorful foliage and bright sunny weather, albeit with cool temperatures.
Lake Tahoe is really, really large (in the United States, only the five Great Lakes are larger) and really, really deep (again in the United States, only Crater Lake in Oregon is deeper).
The shoreline that is over seventy miles long and it takes several hours to drive all around the lake.
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Lake Tahoe is one of the best California weekend getaways any time of year, but October is a truly enchanting time to visit.
Plan a drive around the lake, but also plan to focus on a few pretty spots, spending more time at the lake outside your car!
Considering a visit to Lake Tahoe in October? Read on to discover the top things to do!
Watch the Kokanee Salmon run at Taylor Creek
The concierge at our hotel alerted us to the fact that we were visiting at the perfect time (early October) to see the salmon run at Taylor Creek.
Having enjoyed the experience, we highly recommend this October Lake Tahoe activity for kids and adults alike!
Drive to the Taylor Creek Visitor Center, about three miles north of the town of South Lake Tahoe on California SR89, also called Emerald Bay Road.
To view the salmon, walk about one quarter of a mile along an easy (and pretty) boardwalk trail to a couple of bridges over the creek.
The first bridge didn’t have much happening, but at the second bridge we saw hundreds of red fish in the creek! It was literally a river of red!
Kokanee salmon spend their lives in the deep waters of Lake Tahoe.
Come spawning time, they change color, from a silver-gray to a bright red, and make their way to Taylor Creek.
The males turn a brighter shade of red, and develop a hump in the back and a hooked jaw.
The female digs a nest with her tail and lays the eggs. She dies a couple of days later.
The male protects the newly laid eggs for a couple of weeks and then dies.
It was fascinating to get information about this cycle of life from the interpretive exhibits at the Visitor Center and then watch the fish in the creek.
This is an especially fun activity if you plan to visit Lake Tahoe with kids in the fall.
Tip: If you go early in the morning, you may see black bears feasting on the fish in anticipation of winter.
Tip: If the Stream Profile Chamber on the Rainbow Trail is open, don’t pass up the opportunity to see the happenings underwater from a panel of aquarium-like windows. Park rangers will be able to tell you where to find it.
Take in the Views of Emerald Bay at Inspiration Point
About ten miles from the town of South Lake Tahoe along California SR89 (Emerald Bay Road) is Inspiration Point, a lookout along the road.
Situated high above the lake, the turnout with paved walkways offers spectacular views of Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe beyond the bay, and Fannette Island, the only island on Lake Tahoe.
The dark green evergreens against the emerald of the bay and the turquoise of the lake make for a beautiful vista.
Although Lake Tahoe has a 70-mile shoreline, there are surprisingly few spots at which you get up close views of the water. So the views from Inspiration Point are really worth the stop if you are driving around the lake.
Or a special visit, especially if you also plan to hike to Eagle Lake or Emerald Point.
Stroll the walkways, enjoy the views, and read the interpretive exhibits.
We brought along breakfast to enjoy — flaky croissants from Sugar Pine Bakery and hot tea — while taking in the beautiful views. A sweet start to the day!
Tip: Parking at Inspiration Point can be a nightmare in the summer and difficult even at other times. We visited early on a cold fall morning and still had to wait a few minutes before a spot opened up.
Visit either early in the day or late in the evening to avoid a parking problem. Plus, if you enjoy photography, you will have better light at these times.
Tip: If you have the time and the fitness level for it, you may want to hike down the one-mile trail to Vikingsholm Castle, the 38-room Scandinavian mansion on the shores of Emerald Bay. Be warned though: the trail is really steep!
The interior of the castle is open only during the summer months, and there is an admission fee. You can hike down to the water level as well.
Stroll Heavenly Village
Despite its location on the shores of gorgeous Lake Tahoe, the town of South Lake Tahoe, with its casinos and commercial focus, is not very scenic.
But you’ll find Heavenly Village, a complex of restaurants and stores and the home of the Heavenly Mountain Gondola, ablaze with fall color, from planted maples.
The leaves shine bright in the sun. The colors make for a pleasant post lunch stroll in the Village!
Tip: If the scenic gondola is open for scenic rides, it’s a 2.4-mile ride to the top for spectacular aerial views of the lake. We were so disappointed that it was closed for maintenance during our visit! The view of the deep blue lake from the top is also stunning if you happen to be visiting Lake Tahoe in the summer.
Planning a fall leaf-peeping trip in California? Check out our in-depth guide to fall colors in the Eastern Sierra!
Walk the Boardwalk at Sand Harbor State Park
Visiting Sand Harbor in the fall is easier than in the summer, when it’s almost impossible to find parking.
Walking the boardwalk trail at Sand Harbor State Park is a great way to enjoy panoramic views of Lake Tahoe.
The beautiful boardwalk trail meanders along the shore of the lake, and there are interpretive exhibits along the way to help you learn about the geology of the park, and its flora and fauna.
The views out to the water are stunning, and there are really tall evergreens that line the trail. In the morning when we visited, we had the trail all to ourselves. Heaven!
I loved the big stacks of boulders along the shore, and the pretty little pebbles you could see in the water.
The waters of Lake Tahoe are known for their crystal clarity. Sand Harbor is one of the locations along the shore where the water is a deep beautiful blue-green.
The trail is not very long, but we spent a couple of hours there, pausing to read exhibits, take photos, watch the antics of birds in the water and on the shore, and enjoy the views.
The Sand Harbor beach, just off one of the parking lots in the park, is a stretch of lovely pale sand. It definitely wasn’t beach weather when we visited in the early morning and the water was ice cold, so the beach was empty.
Tip: On nice beach weather days, plan on arriving early to secure a parking spot if you want to spend the day at the beach.
Tip: There is a modest admission fee for the use of the park and the beach, but it is good for the entire day, so save the receipt on your windshield if you plan to leave the park and return later.
We paid the fee (it’s self-serve) but didn’t place the receipt where it was visible and returned from our walk to find a citation notice on our windshield! Fortunately the park office was open by then, so we were able to sort it out with the ranger on duty.
Enjoy a Lake Tahoe Sunset
Return to Sand Harbor State Park in the late evening to catch the sunset.
Walk to the end of the boardwalk to enjoy golden hour light on the boulders and trees and water, and then find a spot from which to watch the sun go down below the horizon.
We found sunset at Sand Harbor magical. It was completely silent. We couldn’t even hear the lapping of the water.
As the sun went down behind the mountains at the far end of the lake, we saw the sky being painted in gold, then orange and then pink, before it turned dark and we realized it was freezing cold!
We headed back to the warmth of the car, grateful to have experienced this magical end to our last day at Lake Tahoe.
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