With its pristine deep blue water and pine forests, Lake Tahoe is the perfect place for hiking. When Mark Twain crossed the mountains and first glimpsed Lake Tahoe, he called it “the fairest picture the whole world affords.” The lakeshore measures 72 miles around, and mountains surround the entire lake, providing endless options for exploring. Half of the lake lies in Nevada and half in California, so it’s easy to orient yourself by looking at the east (Nevada) and west (California) sides of the lake.
The area offers a variety of hikes of different levels and lengths -- there’s truly something for everyone. Snowfall levels vary throughout the year, but most trails will be accessible from May or June through October.
Here are some of the best Lake Tahoe hikes.
1. Rubicon Peak Trail
One of my favorite hikes in the Lake Tahoe area is the Rubicon Peak Trail. The trail hugs the vertical hills above the west side of Lake Tahoe, winding along the coastline and affording spectacular views.
Enter the trail near Tahoma and the D. L. Bliss State Park. Restrooms are in the parking lot. The Rubicon Trail is 3.5 miles long and is an out-and-back trail. While the climb is listed as 2,000 feet, once you are up on the hillside, much of the trail is gentle. The lake is in view most of the time, and you can also take a short detour to a small lighthouse. Pack a lunch and make a day of it!
2. Vikingsholm Trail
Looking for a short, scenic hike? The Vikingsholm Trail is a perfect choice. It leads from Highway 89 at Eagle Falls down to Emerald Bay. The name comes from the 1920s-era abandoned stone mansion on the shoreline.
Going down, you will see Emerald Bay for the entire 1.7 miles. The hike back up will have you huffing and puffing. You can start with this trail and, as you reach the bay, take up the Rubicon Peak Trail.
Figure out how far you want to hike and where to position your car before you start out, since both of these trails are out and back rather than loops.
3. Tahoe Meadows Interpretive Loop
This is the first trail I attempt every time I’m in the Lake Tahoe area. The flat Tahoe Meadows Interpretive Loop on the east side of Lake Tahoe covers 1.3 miles blooming with wildflowers and bordered with pines. Wooden walkways allow you to cross small creeks easily. Dogs on leashes are welcome.
What’s so great about this hike is that you can head for the tree line and continue on the Tahoe Rim Trail. This allows you to hike as far as you want, out and back. You can go only to Tahoe Meadows for a short jaunt out in nature, or you can hike all day if you continue on the Tahoe Rim Trail.
4. Tahoe Rim Trail
The Tahoe Rim Trail meanders around the entire perimeter of the lake. While the shoreline is about 72 miles around, this trail goes up into the mountains for a total of 165 miles.
There are many options for hiking sections of this long trail. Eight official trailheads form segments that range from 12 to 33 miles. I have hiked a section that abuts the Tahoe Meadows Interpretive Loop, and I’ve joined the Tahoe Rim Trail at the south end of the lake at Kingsbury.
Keep in mind that these sections are out-and-back hikes, so be sure not to overexert yourself. The trail’s website is interactive and can help you decide where to head for a day hike.
5. Flume Trail
The famed Flume Trail is best known as a challenge for mountain bikers, but you can also hike this trail. The main part of the trail runs from Spooner Lake to Marlette Lake up the east side of the lake to Incline Village. It’s named for the flume and tramway system built here in the 1870s. The lumber needs of the miners on the other side of the Nevada mountains grew when silver and gold were discovered. Sawmills along Lake Tahoe processed trees into logs. Tram cars hauled the logs up to the top of the hills. Then an elaborate wooden trough system floated the wood down the other side.
This trail is strenuous, but once you reach the top of the mountain it levels off. You’ll climb about 1,000 feet the first 4 miles of the 14-mile trail. This is truly a rim trail with breathtaking views, since it’s far above the lake.
You can enjoy this trail in shorter chunks, too. I hiked from the Incline Village entrance to Marlette Lake and back, which was about 10 miles total. I will remember those grand vistas forever.
6. Incline Flume Trail
If you’re looking for a more moderate hike along the path of the Flume Trail, seek out the recently opened Incline Flume Trail. Because a part of the Flume Trail was located on private land, until recently it was not allowed on maps. Signage was finally put up when the landowners donated their holdings. It’s still only lightly traveled, known mostly to locals. Since you drive up above the lake rather than walking up, it’s an almost-level path.
For a hike of about a mile with no steep climbs but lovely lake views, try this short jaunt. Along the path, you’ll see the remains of the wooden flume trough, and old nails lay scattered about. This trail is truly a hidden gem.
It starts off Highway 431 about 2 miles north of Incline Village. Right across Highway 431, you’ll see a small clearing in the trees to the other side of the path. Look for a small parking lot with room for about six cars.
7. Spooner Lake Loop Trail
If you have about an hour and want to be outdoors, head to the Spooner Lake Loop Trail. Entrances to the parking lot are on both Highway 50 and Highway 28, since the lake lies at the juncture of these two main roads just north of South Lake Tahoe. Circle the little lake that provides a home for geese and other wildlife and enjoy the shade of the aspen trees on the banks. You can take your pooch along, too.
8. Skunk Harbor Trail
The Skunk Harbor Trail starts just off Highway 28 on the east side of the lake as you head south from Incline Village. No signage exists, so it’s a bit tricky to find. It’s just past Sand Harbor, a large beach and harbor that you can’t miss. Keep going and look for a parking turnout for a few cars. Park and walk down the switchback trail to the water, about 900 feet down from the road. You will have views of the lake all the way down. Some years, a beach and harbor await you. When the lake is full, as it was when I went, the “harbor” is a bit of sand under the trees. The lake-level viewpoint is astounding.
An abandoned stone house just above the water provides a bit of history. In the 1920s, the wealthy family of George Newhall built a summer house here for vacations and parties. Everything was brought in by boat. During the Roaring Twenties, this was a lively place indeed.
While it’s a steep climb back up the hill, you’ll have an excuse to stop often to enjoy the views and catch your breath.
Pro Tip: If you want to find the Skunk Harbor Trail or get more information on any of the hikes on the east side of the lake, stop at the Incline Village Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau located on the main road through town. You can pick up a QR code for the Skunk Harbor Trail and other trails in the area. Scan the code with your smartphone, and Google Maps will open with specific mileage information.
9. Cascade Falls Trail
We’re back to the west side of the lake for one more fantastic trail. Cascade Falls Trail heads up from Emerald Bay at Highway 89 to the pretty Cascade Lake. While there’s not much elevation gain, the trail is rocky, so you will be navigating around boulders. The payoff at the end of this 1.4-mile trail is a wide waterfall. Sit on the rocks, enjoy a picnic lunch, and gaze out at not only Cascade Lake but Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe as well.
The parking lot at the trailhead fills up quickly in the summer, so plan to arrive early.
Pro Tip: Pick up bug spray at one of the local markets before your hike. Mosquitoes especially love the marshy areas like Skunk Harbor and Spooner Lake. After suffering from numerous bites, I will be sure to do this the next time I hike at Lake Tahoe!
Hiking is a wonderful way to enjoy the stunning beauty of Lake Tahoe at your leisure. Breathe in the pine-scented air and settle on a rock whenever you want to stop and marvel at the unrivaled views. Whether you hike for an hour or for a day, you’ll be refreshed and calmed by your time in this wonderland of nature.
For more on the Lake Tahoe area, see this page.