We’ve visited Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevada alpine lake that straddles the borders of California and Nevada, many times in the summer, but recently we visited it in early fall. I found Lake Tahoe to be beautiful in the fall, 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), with a shoreline that is over seventy miles long. It’s a lovely drive around the lake, but, having done it on previous visits, this time we planned to focus on a few pretty spots, spending more time at the lake outside the car.
Here are some highlights from our stay:
Watching 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, and that it was a must-see event. So the next morning we drove 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, we walked 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 a 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. I was not too keen on a close encounter with a bear with nobody else around, so we went later in the morning.
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.
Taking 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 view 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 if you plan to enjoy vignettes like us.
We strolled the walkways, pausing to read the interpretive exhibits, and enjoyed a breakfast we had brought along — 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 castle is open only during the summer months, and there is an admission fee.
Strolling in 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 we found Heavenly Village, a complex of restaurants and stores and the home of the Heavenly Mountain Gondola, ablaze with fall color, from planted maples. The trees are not large, but their color was bright in the sun. The colors made for a pleasant post lunch stroll in the Village, and I was able to take many close-up photos of the leaves.
Tip: If the 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.
Walking the Boardwalk at Sand Harbor State Park
This was our very first visit to Sand Harbor. In the summers, it’s almost impossible to find parking, so it was at the top of my list for this visit.
What a beautiful boardwalk trail! It 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.
Lake Tahoe Sunset
We returned to Sand Harbor State Park in the late evening to catch the sunset. We walked along the boardwalk to find a good spot and found a lone photographer waiting amidst the boulders with his tripod set up. We walked to the end of the boardwalk, enjoying golden hour light on the boulders and trees and water.
Then we found a good spot and settled down to watch the sun set. 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.
What’s your dream destination for enjoying fall? Comment below to respond!