The Best Hikes in Lake Tahoe
Trying to pick a favorite trail in Lake Tahoe is like trying to decide which of your children you like best. It’s impossible. There are just too many fantastic hikes in the Lake Tahoe area to narrow it down to just one. While your favorite hike might be a grueling trek to a towering peak, there are some days when you want something a little more low-key.
I divided my list of the best hikes in Lake Tahoe into three categories: Easy, Moderate, and Challenging. If you’re hiking with children under the age of 5, most of the trails in the “easy” category will be perfect. A “moderate” hike is something that will get you a little sweaty and is best for children 7 and up. Younger kiddos can probably manage a few of the “moderate” trails too with an ice cream bribe and a leisurely pace. Save the “challenging” hikes for a day when all you want to do is…hike. These trails will take a large portion of the day!
Short and sweet these mellow trails are mostly flat kid-friendly hikes. But don’t let their short length fool you! Even though these trails can all be hiked in less than two hours, they provide a pretty good glimpse of the stunning beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountains, with minimal exertion.
Looking to get a little off the beaten path? This small alpine lake is located just far enough from Incline Village and South Lake Tahoe to keep it relatively uncrowded. The trail around Spooner Lake is a flat, easy walk. Usually you can spot ducks swimming in the lake and there’s a short boardwalk section that’s a fun novelty for younger children. You can’t swim in the lake but there are picnic tables in the park if you feel like lingering with some snacks after your walk. Insider Tip: Spooner Lake is a winter wonderland, perfect for snowshoeing during the winter months
Trail Length: About 2 miles.
Getting to the Trailhead: As you’re driving on Highway 28 you will see a sign for Spooner Lake-Nevada State Park. Parking is $10 and a state park ranger will be able to point you in the direction of the trailhead for Spooner Lake.
Tahoe Interpretive Meadow
The perfect hike for families with young children! The Tahoe Interpretive Meadow trail takes you through a massive meadow dotted with wildflowers and accented by burbling streams. The trail meanders around the meadow and is one of the most picturesque easy hikes in the Lake Tahoe. Insider Tip: this is best hiked mid-late summer through early fall if you want to ensure that the trail isn’t covered in snow.
Trail Length: 1.3 mile loop.
Getting to the Trailhead: There is a parking lot for the Tahoe Interpretive Meadow trail off of Highway 431. To get to the trailhead from the lake it’s about a fifteen minute drive. Parking is free.
Secret Cove/Whale Beach/Chimney Beach
Sun worshippers will be thrilled to embark on a hike that’s more a mission to find the prettiest piece of sandy shoreline than it is a hike. From the parking lot you can either head right or left. If you take the trail to the right you will get to Chimney Beach. If you plan on going down the the beach there is a steep section as you descend down to the beach.
To check out several absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous beaches, take the trail to the left. The trail to the left is a fairly flat single-track trail alongside the lake that will take you past several crystalline coves.
Speaking of coves, just a heads up, Secret Cove is clothing optional. It can be a bit of a shock to stumble upon a group of sunbathers at 10am stretched out in the sand in their birthday suits. Unless you want the no-tan lines beach experience, I would recommend continuing on to one of the other beaches.
Length: Approximately 2-5 miles round trip depending on which beach you hike to.
Getting to the Trailhead: A few miles after passing Sand Harbor, driving towards South Lake, there is a small parking lot on the right hand-side of Highway 28. The lot fills up quickly during the summer so get here early to get a parking spot.
Hiking to Eagle Rock does require a bit of uphill walking. But for only hiking 3/4 of a mile for views of Lake Tahoe that are incredibly expansive. To get such big views for fifteen minutes of hiking is tremendous bang for your hiking buck. The views will make it seem like you spent 1/2 a day hiking to the top of a peak, minus the exhausted legs. That being said, you will be on top of a massive rock so if you’re hiking with young children, keep one eye on the view and one eye on your aspiring rock climber!
Since it’s such a short hike this is a great addition to another short day hike in the area or to do around sunset after an afternoon of kayaking at nearby Sugar Pine State Park.
Trail Length: 1.5 miles round-trip
Getting to the Trailhead: It’s easy to miss the trailhead while you’re driving along Highway 89. Usually you’ll see some cars park in the forested dirt lot alongside the highway. Next to the parking area is a trailhead sign nestled under the trees and a well worn trail. From Tahoe City driving towards South Lake it is a 7-10 minute drive. If you get to Homewood Ski Area then you’ve gone too far.
Monkey Rock does in fact resemble a monkey! Most of the way to Monkey Rock is a gradual uphill, with the option of taking a very steep short cut trail as you approach the rock. For most of the hike there are fantastic lake views that only get better the higher you climb. At the top try to spot the monkey amongst the other granite boulders. (Hint: look towards Incline Village and slightly down the hill.)
I was pleasantly surprised by how beautiful and fun this short hike was, however this is a popular trail so don’t expect to have it to yourself. You will be sharing the trail with plenty of other hikers as well as mountain bikers. As long as you don’t jump out in front of a mountain biker coming down the hill, sharing the trail with other hikers and bikers shouldn’t be a problem.
Insider Tip: As you head towards Monkey Rock you will see a fork in the trail. The left trail is the steeper, shorter trail. If you want a calf burn you can try the steeper trail, otherwise the more gradual trail offers better views and less strenuous hiking.
Length: 2.4 miles roundtrip
Getting to the Trailhead: Just outside of Incline Village is the Tunnel Creek Cafe. The trail to Monkey Rock starts on the road behind the cafe. Don’t park in the cafe parking lot. There are a few parking lots for hikers and bikers adjacent to the cafe. You’ll want to get there by 9am to get parking.
These are the kind of trails that leave you pleasantly fatigued yet still get you back to your cabin in time for an afternoon swim in the lake. You’ll get big views and a nice sweat going but for most reasonably fit people you won’t find yourself overwhelmingly sore.
Five Lakes Trail
If I was going to narrow down my list of the best hikes in Lake Tahoe to my top three, the Five Lakes Trail would definitely be at the top of the list. It’s a mostly uphill hike en-route to the lakes but nothing too steep or treacherous. You’ll hike across stunning granite faces and through pine forest before arriving at a cluster of picture perfect alpine lakes. Bring a fishing pole or a swimsuit and try to pick your favorite lake. Insider tip: There isn’t much parking and the first section of the trail is very exposed so it’s best to get an early start.
Length: 5 miles
Getting to the Trailhead: From Highway 89 turn onto Alpine Meadows Road. After a few miles you will see a dirt parking area and the trailhead.
The huge views and perfectly placed granite boulders at the top (thanks nature!) make the 1.5 mile uphill hike worth the effort. If you’re looking for a fairly quick hike that gets you sweaty, this is the hike for you. Most of the hike is through a pine forest but despite the trees you will be able to get views of sparkling Lake Tahoe. You’ll want to take pictures almost immediately, just know that the views are even better at the top!
Length: 3 miles roundtrip
Getting to the Trailhead: When you’re driving on Highway 267 out of Kings Beach towards Truckee you will see a paved parking area on your left-hand side. Park your car and carefully cross the highway to where the trail starts.
Incline Village Bike Path
Ok I did something a little sacrilegious and snuck a paved path onto my list of the best hikes in Lake Tahoe. That’s because this newly completed bike path has some of the area’s best views of the lake. Additionally, the paved path gives you the option of wandering down various narrow dirt trails that lead to secluded swimming coves. Insider tip: walk along the bike path at sunset. The crowds are thinner and this section of lake is the perfect spot to watch the sun dip down behind the mountains across the lake.
Trail Length: 3 miles one way
Getting To The Trailhead: Once you pass through Incline Village heading towards Sand Harbor you will see a large parking lot alongside Highway 28. Park here.
Incline Village Flume Trail
This 22 mile trail isn’t going to a life changing hike but it’s a pretty single track trail that winds it’s way along a ridge above Incline Village. The wildflowers and the views of Lake Tahoe are quite spectacular and definitely a worthwhile walk if you’re staying nearby.
You most likely won’t be hiking all twenty-two miles in a day so just hike until you’ve used about half your energy and turn around. There isn’t too much elevation change in the first few miles of trail, making it very possible to do a 4-6 mile hike without too much difficulty.
Also important to know, the Incline Village Flume Trail is a very popular trail for local mountain bikers . As a hiker this means you’ll need to step to the side of the trail when one comes cruising down the trail. However, for the most part the bikers, trail runners, and hikers seem to coexist peacefully.
Last but not least, these booty burning hikes will take at least half a day and your muscles might beg for a big glass of wine and a hot tub session afterwards.
The Rubicon Trail is a classic Lake Tahoe hiking journey. There are a few different spots that you can start the 16 mile trail. The most popular option is to hike between Emerald Bay State Park and D.L Bliss State Park, 4 1/2 miles one-way. This section of trail is exceptionally stunning. With beautiful views of Emerald Bay/Lake Tahoe and numerous spots to stop for a mid-hike swim, it’s no wonder this trail is so popular.
You can start the trail either from Emerald Bay or D.L Bliss State Park. I recommend Emerald Bay because when you’re done you can relax at the beach, check out the Vikingsholm Estate or even walk up to the nearby falls if you’re wanting more hiking.
An option if you want a shorter hike and you’re a logistical mastermind is to park a car at D.L Bliss State Park so that you’re only hiking one-way. This would make it a 4 1/2 mile hike, therefore reducing the amount of time you spend on the trail and increasing potential time spent lounging by the lake. t
Length: 9 miles round-trip if you’re hiking from Emerald Bay State Park to D.L Bliss State Park. 16 miles if you want to do the entire trail.
Getting to the Trailhead: If you’re hiking the Rubicon Trail in the summer you will want to get an early start. Parking at Emerald Bay is limited and the lot fills up really fast. If you have one day in your vacation that you’re going to be awake by 6am, the day you hike the Rubicon Trail should be it.
The parking lot is well marked and right on Highway 89, about ten miles from South Lake Tahoe.
The relatively short milage of the five mile trail lures hikers into thinking that this will be an easy hike. However, it’s uphill and sections of the trail aren’t as well marked as one might like. But there are several big perks of the Shirley Canyon Trail. You get to enjoy sweeping views of Squaw Valley, a scenic cascading stream, and you can ride the Aerial Tram down from the top for free!
If you want to lessen the intensity of the hike and are okay with forgoing the free Aerial Tram ride down, Shirley Lake is a satisfying turn-around spot. Take a break by the lake before heading back down the mountain. Insider Tip: Treat yourself to a refreshing post-hike margarita at High Camp!
Trail Length: 5 miles one-way.
Getting to the Trailhead: Drive into Squaw Valley and park at the end of Squaw Peak Road. You will see a trailhead sign and a map.
One of the most challenging day hikes in the Lake Tahoe area but also some of the most picturesque scenery. A waterfall, wildflowers, meadows, rocky peaks, this trail has it all! The last section of the trail leading up to the summit is lose rock so be sure to wear sturdy shoes. Also, due to the high elevation of Mount Rose, there’s a good chance of encountering patches of snow if there was substantial snowfall the previous winter.
If you decide you want to shorten your hike, the waterfall is 2.5 miles from the start of the trail. The section of trail to the waterfall is easy on the eyes and easy on the legs, the majority of the elevation change is after the waterfall. However, some of the most spectacular views and scenery are after the waterfall…
Length: 10 miles round trip
Getting to the Trailhead: The parking lot for the Mount Rose trailhead is off of Highway 431, a little past the Tahoe Meadows Trailhead. It’s a large, paved lot with plenty of parking spots.
Meeks Bay Trail
You can chose your distance and how many lakes you want to visit on this popular Tahoe hike. The first lake is 4.5 miles from the start of the trail and there are three other lakes that you can reach between miles 4.5 and mile 6. Be prepared for a steady climb but also really beautiful scenery. Lake Genevieve is the first lake that you’ll encounter and it’s very possible take a dip in the crisp, clear alpine lake. Insider tip: day hikers and backapckers are supposed to get a Wilderness Permit for hiking the Meeks Bay Trail. Day hikers can pick up the free day-use permit at the self-serve station at the trailhead.
Length: 9 miles round trip if you’re only going to the first lake. 12 miles round trip if you want to visit several lakes. Even longer if you want to extend it into a backpacking adventure.
Getting to the Trailhead: About twelve miles after leaving Tahoe City on Highway 89 heading towards Emerald Bay you will see a dirt parking lot. A good landmark is the Meeks Bay Resort which is across from the trailhead parking lot.
Tips for Hiking in Lake Tahoe
- Bring some bug repellent. Most of the time mosquitos and bugs aren’t much of an issue. However, some trails can get a little buggy if there is standing water from snow melt.
- Bring tons of water. It’s easy to get dehydrated when you’re hiking in higher elevations. Bring and drink more water than you normally would
- Save the hardest hike for last. Let your body acclimate to the altitude for a day or two before taking on anything too challenging.
- In the summer, hike in the morning when the sun isn’t as intense.
- Generally the best time of year for hiking in Lake Tahoe is June-October when the trails are the least likely to be snow covered.
What to Wear/Bring for Hiking in Lake Tahoe
- Sturdy shoes. You don’t necessarily need hiking boots, I usually just hike in study all-terrain sneakers, but you will want something with traction and good support.
- A hat. The sun is intense and most trails do have sections that are exposed to the sun.
- A weather-proof jacket. On a bright blue summer day you probably don’t need to bring a jacket. However, in the fall and spring months the weather can change dramatically and it’s a good idea to bring along something that’s windproof/waterproof.
- Polarized sunglasses. The polarization really cuts down on the sun’s glare and brings out a lot of the incredible shades of blue in the lake.
- Insulated water bottle or Camelbak. Insulated water bottles keep your water cold, an awesome hiking luxury. A Camelbak is the most lightweight way of carrying water with you and makes it easy to take sips as you trek along.
- Hiking poles. If you’re planning on doing a hike with a lot of elevation change, hiking poles can be very helpful. They’re good for providing a little extra stability on the trail and can take away some of the impact/strain on your knees.
The Bottom Line: Hiking in the Lake Tahoe area is the perfect way to take in the grandeur of the Sierras .
Further Reading On Hiking In California
- Easy Hikes in Santa Cruz, California
- The Best Hikes in San Diego
- Exploring Lassen Volcanic National Park