Ideal for kayakers, stand-up paddlers and nature lovers, the Lake Tahoe Water Trail parallels much of the lake’s 72 miles of sublime shoreline. So stow away the smartphone, grab a swimsuit and test the waters.
In the quiet of the early morning, there’s still a tinge of coolness in the air as my husband and I launch our stand-up paddleboards into the glasslike water of Lake Tahoe. It’s the height of summer, but the beach crowds haven’t arrived yet, which is why we’re starting our journey early. Instead of hiking the trails around the Alpine lakes, we’re diving into the Lake Tahoe Water Trail.
With more than 72 miles of shoreline, including sandy beaches and rocky inlets, Lake Tahoe is ideal for visitors to explore from the water on kayaks and paddleboards. Rental opportunities abound, and public agencies in California and Nevada ensure good launching spots for people who are hankering for a paddle session on the lake — whether a quick summer excursion or a multiday adventure.
Straddling the state line between California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is the second-deepest lake in the United States and the 10th deepest in the world. What people might associate with a winter mountain playground shifts its focus to the lake during the summer, as popular ski slopes are exchanged for beloved shoreline. But there’s enough space here to find your own way, especially when you’re willing to spend a day away from the lounge chair.
Mapped routes around lakes, known as water trails, have been successful across the country in sharing public-access information with those in search of water recreation. The Lake Tahoe Water Trail links launch sites, picnic areas, restaurants, campgrounds and lodging facilities for paddlers to enjoy the lake throughout the year. Online maps offered by the Lake Tahoe Water Trail Association break the 72-mile shoreline into seven segments — perfect for daytrips.
For our excursion, we’ve decided on two stand-up paddle daytrips: one on the south shore and one on the north shore. The variety allows us to experience different parts of the trail and see more of Lake Tahoe from the water. It also keeps my local friends who are deep into north/south shore rivalry from getting angry with me.
On this early morning, we depart our lodging at South Lake Tahoe’s Camp Richardson Resort, wade into the water until it reaches our knees and then stand up on our boards to head west to Emerald Bay. Along for the trip: a life jacket, a windbreaker, water, lunch, sunscreen and the waterproof Lake Tahoe Water Trail Map & Guide.
The still water makes it easy to get into a smooth paddling rhythm as the lakeshore comes to life. The cool water washes over my feet, and I look out across the lake. Beyond us, a brightly colored hot air balloon — which uses the world’s only U.S. Coast Guard-certified balloon launch and recovery vessel — floats silently above the clear blue water for which Lake Tahoe is known.
Over the years, the lake’s famous clarity has been somewhat clouded by runoff, erosion and air pollution, which reduce visibility by a little more than a foot each year. However, steps are underway to stop this decline.
Less publicized than but close in nature to the Keep Tahoe Blue campaign — dedicated to protecting the lake’s environmental health and water quality — is the Tahoe Keepers’ focus on preventing aquatic invasive species that may irreversibly harm the watershed. We rented our stand-up paddleboards, but those who bring their own (as well as kayaks, canoes and inflatable watercraft) are encouraged to clean, drain and dry gear transported between bodies of water. It’s a small task to certify that the lake remains open and welcoming to paddlers.
"No one speeding by, no talking, no distraction. Want to escape your digital leash? This is where to do it."
The balloon passengers may have breathtaking views from high above, but as we pass Kiva Beach at the mouth of Taylor Creek, it seems as if we have the surrounding mountains, including Mount Tallac, all to ourselves. Even in the warm summer, a few of the peaks are frosted with snow, resembling a dessert topping.
All I can hear is the splash of the water from our paddles. I wonder how much longer the morning silence will last, and, as if on cue, a dog runs across the beach and barks at us. Perhaps we’ve interrupted his peaceful morning.
We’re not adhering to any schedule on this clear summer day. With a variety of beaches on which to take a breather, there are plenty of opportunities to adjust the speed of the journey and enjoy the sights and sounds of Lake Tahoe. The only goal is to arrive at Emerald Bay State Park before dark.
At Taylor Creek, I can’t see the Stream Profile Chamber on the Rainbow Trail, but I know that visitors have already begun to gather to watch a slice of the creek through aquarium windows. Native and nonnative fish swim through the habitat, allowing people to see just what lies below the surface.
At the creek’s outlet, I turn to gaze at the tops of trees to find an osprey nest near the shore just in time to see a feathered resident take off. Kayakers stream out from another beach, likely headed along with us to Emerald Bay. We take advantage of the long sandy beach that stretches for approximately half a mile, turning toward the shoreline to take a sunny break. Here, the panoramic views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains lure swimmers and picnickers, and families have already set up blankets and umbrellas for the day.
Children squeal as they jump into the chilly water. Although warmer than winter’s temperatures, Lake Tahoe’s water generally peaks in the shallows at 70 degrees in summer. The kids don’t seem to mind, however, as more children join the group, splashing with toys in the shallow, frothing water.
The lack of shade makes our stay short, and the cool water beckons us to continue on to Emerald Bay. After paddling for a few minutes, I enjoy a benefit of stand-up paddlers and jump into the azure water to cool off before climbing back on my board to continue. We paddle on, past Tallac Marsh and Cascade Creek, with occasional splashes as we dive into the water for refreshing breaks.
Considered by many to be the jewel of Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay has been called one of the most photographed spots on Earth. We keep our eyes open for osprey and bald eagles while we paddle close to towering mountains, Eagle Creek with its waterfalls and the historic Vikingsholm Castle — once the summer residence of philanthropist Lora Knight.
It seems this afternoon that everyone has congregated at this picturesque corner of Lake Tahoe, so we take a turn around Fannette Island to avoid the temporary congestion of kayakers, scuba divers, stand-up paddlers and motorized watercraft. Knight had located her “tea house” here, in a stone building perched atop the island. The 16-by-16-foot room contained a fireplace and an oak table and chairs, but it’s now merely a shell of its original rustic structure.
Soon, we arrive at Emerald Bay Beach — a National Historic Landmark with 360-degree views that encompass Emerald Bay, Fannette Island, Eagle Falls and Vikingsholm Castle — where we end the day’s adventure and drag the boards onto the beach. Digging into a small net strung at the nose of my board, I grab one of two cans of beer, chilled by Lake Tahoe, and toss it to my husband as we sit on our boards and dig our toes in the sand.
We’ll soon have to move on to the north shore, but for now, we have the beach, the beer and views of the lake. Others may have packed coolers, but how many of them can say that their beer is Tahoe-cooled?
The next morning, after a comfortable rest at Shore House Lake Tahoe, we launch the boards at Tahoe Vista Recreation Area on the north shore. This time, others from the lodge join us, taking advantage of the kayaks and stand-up paddleboards available for guests. After some initial chatter, the group falls silent, completely mesmerized by the lake. They decide to turn west, toward Carnelian Bay. Our path lies to the east.
We fall into a leisurely paddle rhythm and pass the white sand of Moon Dunes Beach and the gigantic Kings Beach State Recreation Area. The wide stretch of sand here is nearly empty, but on our way back it will be filled with families, as kids switch between swimming in the lake and speeding through the playground structure. Right now, though, the only person I see on the beach is a man enjoying coffee with his morning paper. He looks up, gives us a quick salute and gets back to his reading.
Much like the scenery beyond the shoreline, nothing changes as we cross the border from California to Nevada. The water feels the same. Even the rainbow trout that’s been shadowing me for nearly half a mile crosses with ease. The fish scales reflect the sun’s light like fool’s gold before the trout zips below my board into the depths.
The beaches that hug the shore at Incline Village are reserved for the residents of the village, so our path along the waterfront is the best way for us to view them, as well as the grassy lookouts strung with benches that offer a panoramic view of the north shore. Lucky for us, the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe’s Lakeside Beach Bar and Grill welcomes patron access from the lake, so we let our boards rest on the beach while we take an early lunch break.
The highlight of the day’s paddle comes after lunch, as I glide on the lake’s surface past large, smooth rocks that seem to hover in the still turquoise water on the way to Sand Harbor. We dip into rocky coves with stacked boulders, look down into the shallows as fish swim below our boards and decide that sitting down with bare feet dangling into the fishes’ realm is the best way to enjoy the scenery. No one speeding by, no talking, no distraction. Want to escape your digital leash? This is where to do it.
Far enough from the beach crowds, I can only hear the sound of water lapping across my board. Too lazy to pick my paddle up, I swirl my legs around to move away from the shallow water and notice the shades of blue deepen as I get farther from shore. Recently, Lake Tahoe’s water-depth clarity was measured at 71 feet (its depth averages 1,000 feet). I look down, not sure how far my sight penetrates into the lake.
Trout swim beneath my feet. I stretch my toes to reach them, but they’re too far down. The sun twinkles on the surface, and I lie down on my board, letting my blond hair stream into the liquid sunshine sparkles. As a child, I’d traveled to Lake Tahoe annually for summer break. My uncle’s house on the Zephyr Cove shoreline served as a launching pad for my waterborne adventures with my sister, and we’d return each afternoon tired, pruned and waterlogged. But these stand-up paddling excursions are the first time I’ve been really on the water — not looking down at it from a boat. What’s resulted in being part of the lake is an otherworldly solitude I’ve not felt here before.
After nearly an hour, I wake from my Tahoe meditation. We need to get going on the return voyage in order to enjoy sundowners and the lakeside hot tub back at the Shore House. I waver for a few moments: hot tub, lake, hot tub, lake. Sand Harbor’s breathtaking beauty can be enjoyed again tomorrow. For now, it’s time to take a dip in some warmer water.
If You Go:
|Lake Tahoe Water Trail||Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority|
+1 (530) 541-5255
|North Lake Tahoe Visitors & Convention Bureau|
+1 (800) 462-5196
+1 (888) 824-6267
|Camp Richardson Resort|
+1 (800) 544-1801
|Shore House Lake Tahoe|
+1 (530) 546-7270
|Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe|
+1 (775) 832-1234
|South Tahoe Standup Paddle|
+1 (530) 416-4829
Jill K. Robinson is a freelance journalist who lives in the tiny California beach town of El Granada. She’s proud of her Tahoe-cooled-beer-on-paddleboard idea, but you can use it too.