Lake Tahoe, straddling the border between California and Nevada, is not only the largest alpine lake in North America, it lies in a basin containing seemingly boundless hiking trails, plenty of picturesque camping (both in marked campgrounds or throughout the backcountry wilderness), and access to many other smaller alpine lakes with their own personality and recreational opportunities.
The surrounding peaks, that top out at just under 11,000 feet, give the area a yearly snowpack that makes it a world-class ski destination, while summers see the waters filled with boaters and sandy shores packed with swimmers, kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders.
And while summer and winter tourism and recreational opportunities can pack the mountains and beaches, particularly in the lake's wilder southern end, fall's arrival marks a brief respite from the massive crowds.
Fall offers a window when hikers can get out and hit the trails, miss the bulk of the tourist traffic, and see some of Lake Tahoe's postcard-ready flora turn from green to fiery shades of crimson and ocher.
While the air begins to cool and the seasonal summer communities start to empty out, here are five of South Lake Tahoe's hiking trails that are perfect to get out and explore when the autumn hits.
Located just south of the Tahoe Basin, Echo Lakes, comprised of Upper and Lower Echo lakes, is skirted by a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Passing over rolling terrain and entering the Desolation Wilderness backcountry, the 6-mile round-trip trail begins at the small Echo Chalet and veers over granite slopes and below pine canopies before reaching the turnaround point, a small dock for the seasonal water taxi that runs passengers out and back between the chalet lodge and the far end of the lakes.
Beginning at a trailhead adjacent to Bayview Trailhead Campground and opposite Inspiration Point, Maggie's Peak is a thigh-burner of a climb, heading up the Granite Peak Trail for 2.25 miles and 1,700 feet of elevation gain, eventually coming to a peak that offers panoramic views of Lake Tahoe's southern area along with several other peaks and lakes in the Desolation Wilderness backcountry. The hike is a slow and steep one, but the views over Emerald Bay and Granite Lake provide plenty of opportunities to stop and catch your breath while taking in the feeling of wildness that permeates this wilderness climb.
Rather than heading up into the mountains, the trail to Emerald Point takes hikers down a quick drop in elevation from the parking area to Lake Tahoe's shore inside Emerald Bay State Park. From a quick side spur to historic Vikingsholm, the hike follows the Rubicon Trail as it traces generally flat terrain along Emerald Bay's north side for about 2.5 miles, before hikers stray from the trail and find their own way to the secluded and forested shore at the edge of Emerald Bay's far end.
On the shorter and more family-friendly end of the hikes listed here, the trail to Eagle Lake is a 2-mile round-trip climb past a waterfall and eventually to the shore of Eagle Lake, which sits about 400 feet higher than the trailhead. The trail packs a lot of scenery into its relatively short length before allowing hikers to find a quiet lakeside spot or brave the cool waters for an afternoon swim.
The tallest peak on Lake Tahoe's shoreline, the Mount Tallac Summer Trail is just under 10 miles round trip, and it provides the fodder for bragging rights and ice baths. Less family-friendly and more the stuff for adventurous peak baggers and those looking for epic views and the challenge of this massive climb, the trek up Mount Tallac is unquestionably strenuous, but the views from the top of this 3,250-foot climb are some of the widest and farthest that the South Lake Tahoe area has to offer.