Travelogue: Summer in Lake Tahoe

There’s something particularly special about getting to devote an entire week to Lake Tahoe in the summer. The crowds thin out between weekends—leaving the trails and the beaches a bit more quiet. You can fit a lot of fun into a weekend, but it’s a destination worthy of really settling into.

This was our first time spending a full week, which was wonderful (save the bit where we ended up in the emergency room—but I’ll save that story for the end)—and even then we left so many things we’d planned to see and do unchecked on our list. Puzzles we’d packed were unopened and books un-cracked.

Our cabin is on the West Shore, so we focused our stay there—with some detours along the North-east shore—but this won’t even touch any of the wonderful things one can find to do in South Lake Tahoe. Here’s what did fill up our days…

The trip started with family. Aron’s sister and her two sons joined us for a weekend during their visit from Germany, so we took them to some of our top destinations around the lake—like the trail just down the road that leads toward Ward Creek. There’s a short loop through a meadow that looks different in every season and ends at a playground. By the end of the weekend, the kids (from ages 4 to 13) were all making the trip by themselves.

I’ve written about DL Bliss State Park before, and it remains one of my favorite places to go. You have to get there early if you want to snag one of the parking spots, so we prepped the night before for an 8am departure. It’s about 25 minutes from our cabin—7 miles south of Tahoe City on Highway 89, and a couple of miles north of Emerald Bay.

The lake is calm and glassy in the morning, but by the afternoon you’ll find the waters filled with boats, the rocks dotted with hikers and swimmers brave enough to jump into the cold water.

Aron’s sister had rented boats back in Davis from the University outfitters for the weekend, and our armada of inflatable vessels was pretty awesome. We were able to all be out on the water, making our way along the base of the Rubicon trail toward Emerald Bay to where daredevils were doing flips off of towering rocks before turning back to the beach.

Later, we walked the first 20 minutes of the trail and looked down to where we’d been: in the right conditions, you can see over one hundred feet into the depths of the lake.

During our time with family, we cooked at home and packed lunches—save for one run to West Shore Market for their cinnamon rolls on Sunday morning. They’re hard to beat! Otherwise our favorite breakfast out is at The Fire Sign Cafe—and we’re not alone, so plan accordingly.

Our nephews had requested a short, rewarding hike, which basically describes Eagle Rock to a tee. Hudson’s favorite easy hike, it takes about 30 minutes to climb to the top of the volcanic plug and get sweeping views of the lake.

That afternoon, after the kids had some playtime in the yard, we all checked out the Commons Beach Summer Concert series in Tahoe City, followed by dinner at Rosie’s Cafe. Though the fare was fairly average, the broad menu and the game-room upstairs kept the kids very happy before it was time to say goodbye.

Our local beach, Hurricane Bay, is just a five minute walk from the cabin and rarely too crowded. We drove down on Monday morning, however, so we could give kayaking to Sunnyside a try! It was a long paddle, especially for Hudson on his own boat, but totally doable. I’d say we were on the water 45 minutes to an hour with a snack break (my kids seem to be hungry even when they’re eating these days), to get to the restaurant.

It was a unique vantage point for us—one gets an upclose look at the mulit-million-dollar homes that line the shore. While Hudson would get tired just paddling, cruising through the pilons of those homes’ private piers gave him an objective, a distraction, that spurred him to the finish.

It definitely made us feel some pride when we pulled up onto the beach. And, after lunch, the kids got ice cream from West Shore Market to celebrate.

We brought along some crawdad-catching lines and a bucket, and the kids would have stayed on the Sunnyside dock catching them indefinitely. I’d say it’s Hudson’s favorite activity in all of Lake Tahoe, and he judges every beach by its fishing potential. Kids gather round to work together—happy to have a “job” on the dock—and so it’s a surefire way to make friends. If you’re headed there, the West Shore Market sells the little fishing lines; salami makes great bait. I’m sure plenty of other shops carry what you’d need as well.

This time, a lot of folks asked us if we were taking them home to cook. We’d never done so before, but the kids were very excited to try it. So we paddled our bucket home—taking care not to spill in spite of the jet-ski and boat wake—and had a mini-crayfish boil that evening before dinner. It’s a lot of work for very little meat, but Hudson and Skyler were pretty proud! (Bonus: they’re an invasive species in the lake, so they were doing a service!)

We had an early dinner and then a sunset walk to Ward Creek. It’s not a long walk, but the kids were so stimulated by every little thing they spotted along the way that we were out until dark. The two acted as investigators, looking closely at ants, watching for footprints and scat. Like Sherlock and Watson: Hudson walked slightly off a trail at one point: “It’s a good thing I went off the trail, or we wouldn’t have seen this poop.” Skyler surveyed a field of pine cones and announced “I think it came from that tree,” pointing up.

On Tuesday, still wanting more time out on the water, we drove to the Nevada side of the lake, into Incline Village, and squeezed onto the beach at Sand Harbor. It was pretty quiet around Tahoe City midweek, but here was apparently where everyone had gone. It was packed! Still, it made for a fantastic day trip from our neighborhood. The water on the East Shore is probably the most beautiful—filled with those classic scenes of rounded boulders in brilliant turquoise coves. In Sand Harbor, you can get up close with relatively little effort—and still have a beachside grill, bathrooms, and plenty of sand for castle-making.

In the summer, they also hold the Shakespeare festival here. I’d love to go sometime.

We could have easily passed a few more hours there, but needed to get home before dinner for a quick turnaround.

Before the trip, we’d spent many (many) hours corresponding with potential babysitters, and we found two to come over on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Babysitting in Lake Tahoe—especially in high season—is expensive, so this was such a treat!

Aron made reservations at Christy Hill and we sat out on the patio looking onto the lake. The food was wonderful!

Some clouds rolled in and turned pink with the sunset. We took our time walking around Tahoe City and peeking into stores we’d yet to investigate. There was a new cocktail bar, the Pioneer Club, that looked terrific for another visit, and a movie “haus” that serves drinks. But instead we walked along the bike path by the water, noting more restaurants for future visits, and walking out onto the Tahoe Gal pier (it’s a rare thing to find a dock you can walk out onto!) Just as it got dark, bats started skimming the water in search of a meal.

Wanting to keep up the momentum, we chose a challenging (for us) hike for Wednesday, and set out for the Granite Chief Wildnerness area. The Five Lakes trail is 4-1/2 miles roundtrip, and gains about 1000 feet in elevation in the first half. In other words, it’s a lot of climbing on the way up, but at least it’s all downhill on the way back. The views are incredible—you start on the base of KT-22, in the valley looking at the Alpine Meadows ski mountain until you reach the lakes up top.

It was definitely a long way for the little ones, so we borrowed a tip from a friend and brought M&Ms, leaving a few here and there under the guise that they’d been left by the M&M Fairy. Hudson was rightly suspicious, but you could tell there was a part of him willing to believe if it meant more candy. Skyler, however, was completely sold on the idea and carefully checked every rock—even pressing on a few in case they’d give up the little gems. She was imagining what color the fairy must be and decided it was all the colors of the M&Ms.

Once back home, we introduced the kids to another sitter, and drove down the lake to Chambers Beach for some drinks at Chambers Landing, the oldest bar on the lake. They’re famous for their punch and the setting is really lovely. It can be quite a scene on summer weekends, but it was very relaxed when we were there.

For dinner, we made reservations at the Swiss Lakehouse—another one of the oldest establishments in the area. The charming swiss chalet serves wonderful food and has a really personal feeling. Doris Rinderknecht, the manager, will likely greet you and has been doing so since 1977! It’s only open for a limited time each year—Tuesday through Sunday throughout the summer, and then a few weeks around the winter holidays, when they light a fire and make the most delicious smelling fondue.

On Friday morning, we loaded up the gang and got on our bikes for a ride to Squaw Mountain. It’s about 10 miles each way. We figured if it were too long to make it home, we could always use public transportation and go back for the bikes.  But even on his own bike this year, and with Skyler on the like-a-bike trailer with Aron, we made it!

On the way, we stopped at the Tahoe City Farmer’s Market, which is really terrific. It’s at Commons Beach, so the setting is gorgeous; plus, the produce, fish, and food trucks are fantastic.

The hardest part of the ride is actually from our cabin to Tahoe City—lots of ups and downs—but then you ride along the Truckee River trail for most of the way. They were about to close it through October for maintenance, so we got in the ride just in time!

Aron tells me Skyler sang and talked the whole way. “She never ran out of breath so I’m guessing she was not pedaling very much.”

Once at Squaw, we decided to get the $139-family pass that included the gondola ride to High Camp and all of the activities up there. The 10-minute ride climbs 2000 vertical feet to the 8200-feet-high camp!

At the top, there’s a pool and hot tub (with a bar, grill, and restaurant), lawn games, playground, a frisbee-golf course, roller-skating rink, climbing wall, and meadows that lead to out to a host of trailheads. In fact, you can connect to the Pacific Coast Trail—it’s 1520 miles to Canada or 1140 to Mexico!

Plus, if you hike up one of the trails—like Shirley Canyon—to get to High Camp, you can ride the tram down for free.

We went swimming, and the kids tried roller skating for the first time. Skyler fell once and was done. Hudson fell over and over and over again and kept at it. I think he only decided he was done when he spotted the rock wall.

No doubt the kids could have stayed and played at the playground longer, but we still needed to ride home. We got some ice cream and spent a little time in the Patagonia shop in the village, and barely made it back before bedtime. Dinner was late that night!

This was a Thursday, so we could have also watched an outdoor movie in Squaw village. In the summer, (July through August), they show family classics in the plaza. And, sometime, we’ll have to see if the kids want to go to the Squaw Kids’ day camp.

Friday, we decided, would be a more mellow day: a float down the Truckee River.

Various outfitters set up camp during the summer and for about $40/pp, you can rent rafts to take from Tahoe City to the River Run Patio and catch their shuttle bus back. Or, as we opted to do, you can bring your own gear and take public transit (TART) back for $1.75 per adult.

It was a lot of fun, and super easy to do! The only rapids to speak of are at the very end—a nice little thrill for which you might want a paddle even if you use an inner tube.

The atmosphere surely varies with the crowd—it’s a party on the weekends!—and you can grab barbecue lunch on the patio at the River Run Cafe and watch the rest of the rafters come in once you finish.

In the evening, and whenever there was downtime, we’d play in the yard or sit down for card games. The kids are getting skilled at Uno, and we tried a new one that was a big hit: Sleeping Queens.

For our last full day, Saturday, we decided to paddle to Sunnyside again—this time to meet my parents, who came up for lunch.

The way there was even easier this time, knowing exactly where we were going. But the paddle back was much, much more challenging as the wind picked up. It was a good reminder that you need to keep mother nature in mind before setting out on any adventure around the lake.

We’d planned to slowly pack up that evening and then stop in Truckee on the way home Sunday, but everything changed very suddenly when Skyler had a bad fall in the backyard. She’s got a vivid imagination and had thought she might be able to fly from the treehouse. Unfortunately, as you imagine, that didn’t work out. We rushed down the mountain (accidentally leaving behind the dog, we realized half-way) to go to the Roseville ER. It turned out that she’d lacerated her liver and her kidney and we spent the next 48 hours in the pediatric ICU at UC Davis. Luckily, she’s going to be fine—she’ll make a full recovery—and we have the dog!

It was a really heartbreaking end to a great week—one that, with that exception, we’d hope to repeat at the first opportunity.

A few other suggestions for summer activities that I’d written down… 
⋅ Ropes courses, like  Granlibakken’s Treetop Adventure Park.
⋅ Hikes, like Page Meadows. In her 5 Things Guide to Lake Tahoe in the Summer, Dominique of The Simple Proof recommends Emerald Bay, Desolation Wilderness, or Quail Lake as great in the summer as well. I’d love to do the Rubicon trail soon!
⋅ Sailing (or other boating excursions).
⋅ Mini Golf (there’s a cute spot in King’s Beach and another just north of Tahoe City).
⋅ The Emerald Bay Trolley and a hike down to the beach.
⋅ Outdoor Movie nights. I know that Commons Beach hosts them on Wednesday nights and Squaw on Thursdays.
⋅ Casino shows. Harvey’s hosted Amy Schumer and Florence & The Machine while we were in town!
⋅ The Shakespeare Festival in Incline Village
⋅ Waterskiing lessons (with, for example, the High Sierra Waterski School)
⋅ Summer Thursdays in Truckee
⋅ Farmer’s Markets
⋅ Other one-time events—these can be found in Tahoe Weekly‘s schedule. It’s a great resource!
⋅ History lessons: There are several mansions remaining on the shores of Lake Tahoe—like the Ehrman Mansion at Sugar Pine Point State ParkVikingshom at Emerald Bay, and The Thunderbird Lodge on the lake’s east shore in Nevada.
⋅ And visiting all the boat-up bars: From Lone Eagle, Garwoods, Jake’s on the Lake, Hacienda del Lago, Sunnyside, West Shore Cafe, Chambers Landing, Camp Richardson, south to Riva Grill.

What am I missing?

P.S. Our A-Frame is available for rent! And more previous posts about visiting Lake Tahoe: a Winter babymoon at the Ritz at Northstar, visits to Incline Village in the winter and in the spring, and a daytrip to Angora lake

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