8 Top-Rated Hiking Trails near South Lake Tahoe
On the shores and mountains that ring the sparkling blue waters and turquoise bays of Lake Tahoe, hiking trails lead to peaks, waterfalls, inland lakes, meadows, and lookouts. Views over the lake on a sunny day are astounding. In the spring, the snow-capped peaks stand out sharply on the horizon; in the summer, the wildflowers light up the trails; and in the fall, the leaves glow a brilliant yellow, contrasting with the deep green of the pines.
Many of the best hikes are found on the southwest shore, near the city of South Lake Tahoe. Here, you'll find trails for all abilities. Hikes running along the lake offer beautiful scenery, with little elevation gain and level terrain. These are favorites with families. For hikers looking to reach new heights, challenging summit trails offer jaw-dropping panoramic views. And, for a little peace and quiet, away from the large crowds, the Desolation Wilderness, just inland from Lake Tahoe, offers a mix of trails that take hikers into the rugged backcountry.
See also: Where to Stay in South Lake Tahoe
1 Rubicon Trail
Running alongside and above the shore of Lake Tahoe from D.L. Bliss to Eagle Point on Emerald Bay, the Rubicon Trail offers spectacular views of the cobalt blue lake; the distant mountains; and the shallow, aquamarine-colored bays. The trail hugs a ridge high above the water for much of the way. You can do this either as a round-trip eight-mile hike, or a four-mile one-way hike if you park a car at the far end to shuttle you back to the start. The direction of travel doesn't really matter. If you are only doing this trail in one direction and shuttling, the views are a bit better heading from D. L. Bliss to Eagle Point, but this direction has a slight elevation gain. You will have to pay to park at D.L. Bliss but on a busy day, when it's difficult to find a parking spot, this may be a better option.
2 Cascade Falls Trail
The short hike to Cascade Falls is the perfect trail for many reasons. The mountainside path is scenic the entire way, the falls are stunning, and the view over Cascade Lake to Lake Tahoe in behind is quite possibly the highlight. The towering mountain behind the falls gives the trail a sense of remoteness. But this is only a two-mile round-trip hike with very little elevation gain, and it's not overwhelming for children and families. The trail takes you right up to the edge of the falls, but the surrounding area is mostly smooth, exposed rock, perfect for exploring or enjoying a picnic lunch. The trailhead is located at the back of the Bayview Campground, off Highway 89, about eight miles north of South Lake Tahoe. The campground is across the road from Inspiration Point.
3 Fallen Leaf Lake Trail
This short hike leads to a scenic inland lake with a pleasant shoreline and views to the surrounding mountains. The trail to the lake is just a simple walk, but you can extend the hike and follow the path along the shoreline to the right. Although there are a couple of places to access the lake, the main trailhead is located at the back of the Fallen Leaf Campground. The path is very easy, leading up over a low rise and then down to the lake. From the shore, you can see Mt. Tallac off to the right.
This hike is all about the destination. The water is clear, and mountains on the far shores, often snow-capped in the spring, provide a peaceful setting, perfect for a picnic or enjoying a quiet afternoon. You can find your own space to set up a chair or towel and enjoy a break from the busy trails. Depending on how far you want to walk, this can be a 2.5-mile round-trip hike or less than a mile if you just want to see the lake.
4 Eagle Falls to Eagle Lake Hike
The Eagle Lake Trail, beginning at the spectacular Eagle Falls, has several options for trail length. A good choice is the scenic trail to Eagle Lake. This is one of the most popular hikes on the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe and frequently busy, but it's definitely worth doing if you can find parking. Eagle Falls is essentially right off the highway, requiring only a short stroll to reach the edge of the falls. The hike to Eagle Lake is a steady climb, ascending just over 400 feet in elevation in the span of a little less than a mile, but the reward is worth the effort. This glacier-formed lake lies at the base of surrounding mountains, which reflect the mirror image in the calm waters. The water is crystal clear, and the shoreline is shallow. On a hot day, you can wade in to cool off.
The round-trip hike to Eagle Lake is approximately 2.5 miles. The main problem with this hike is parking, which is extremely limited, considering the number of people who visit this area. On a weekend, getting a parking spot is a matter of luck. Many people stop simply to see Eagle Falls, so there is some turn through, but your best bet is to get there early.
Although this is a short hike, it lies within the Desolation Wilderness area and requires a permit. These are free for day hikers and readily available at the trailhead.
5 Granite Lake and South Maggie's Peak
Hikers have the option of tackling an easy to moderate hike up to Granite Lake, which lies at the base of Maggie's Peaks, or for more adventure, continuing onward and upward to the summit of South Maggie's Peak. The rewards are views over Lake Tahoe as you make your way up to Granite Lake, a peaceful and scenic spot for relaxing. If you choose to go all the way to the top, you'll be treated to outstanding views over Lake Tahoe and the entire area. The hike to Granite Lake is just under one mile (two miles return), with slightly less than 900 feet in elevation gain. To the top of South Maggie's Peak, the total elevation gain is 1,900 feet. The trail to the very top is steep and demanding, and will add another mile round-trip to the entire hike.
This hike is a good introduction to the Desolation Wilderness area, which extends into the mountains beyond the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe. All hikers in this area are required to pick up a permit. These are available at the trailhead.
6 Glen Alpine Trail to Aloha Lake Hiking Trail
Numerous trails leave from the Glen Alpine trailhead, near the south end of Fallen Leaf Lake, but if you are looking for a longer day hike, or even an overnight backpacking trip, Aloha Lake makes a beautiful destination. This 12-mile round-trip hike, often showing fabulous displays of wildflowers, passes Susie Lake and Heather Lake before reaching the shores of Aloha. Here, open expanses of rock look out onto the glimmering blue water. Surrounded by mountains and dotted with small islands, this is one of the most picturesque alpine lakes in the area. This is an in-and-out hike, with switchbacks and some elevation gain, but it is an enjoyable day hike.
7 Skyline Trail
This popular summer hike allows you to reach high alpine terrain without actually having to hike any real elevation. Accessed by lift, the Skyline Trail is a two-mile hike with outstanding views over Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area. This is a good choice if you are coming to the Lake Tahoe region from lower areas and aren't yet acclimatized but want to hike the higher regions. A chairlift off Heavenly's Gondola takes you to the start of this trail.
8 Mt. Tallac Trail
If you want to bag the tallest peak in the Tahoe area, Mt. Tallac is the hike you're looking for. This roughly 10-mile round-trip hike has more than 3,200 feet of elevation gain, but on a clear day, you'll be glad you did it. Views are stunning all along this trail. Some of the highlights include views over Fallen Leaf Lake near the start; Floating Island Lake; Cathedral Lake; and eventually an eye-popping panorama over Lake Tahoe, Fallen Leaf Lake, and the Carson Range.
The trailhead is off Highway 89, on the road towards Camp Shelly. It's located in the Desolation Wilderness, so you will need to obtain a permit at the trailhead.
Where to Stay in South Lake Tahoe
- Luxury Hotels: With outstanding views over the lake, The Landing Lake Tahoe Resort and Spa is a luxury boutique hotel in South Lake Tahoe, with elegant rooms and suites and an attention to detail that makes this property special. Re-built in 2016, the Deerfield Lodge at Heavenly is more of an upper-end mid-range hotel than a true luxury property. It offers modern and spacious rooms and suites with fireplaces and kitchenettes or full kitchens. It's well situated between downtown South Lake Tahoe and Heavenly Ski Resort. The Deerfield is also known for its superb hospitality.
- Mid-Range Hotels: One of the best options for mid-range hotels in the area is 7 Seas Inn at Tahoe. Rooms and suites are tastefully decorated, some with fireplaces, and come in a variety of sizes. The hotel has an outdoor hot tub and offers a complimentary breakfast. The beach and restaurants are only a short walk away. Americana Village is another great choice, with a large outdoor pool and spacious rooms and suites with kitchenettes. For a mid-range beachfront location, you can't beat the Beach Retreat & Lodge at Tahoe, featuring two on-site restaurants, beautiful common areas, and large rooms, including some with partial lake views and fireplaces.
- Budget Hotels: In high season, reasonably priced hotels are difficult to find. One of the best options is the Big Pines Mountain House of Tahoe, with a great central location. Rooms are comfortable and come in a variety of sizes, including some with kitchenettes. Breakfast is included in the price. The Matterhorn Motel is another budget option with generally good prices and basic rooms.
More Hiking and Outdoor Adventure Ideas in California
- Hiking: California is a treasure trove of great hiking destinations. If you're visiting some of these places, you can narrow your hiking selection with our articles on the Best Hikes in Yosemite National Park and the Best Hikes in Redwood National and State Parks. You can also read about the most scenic day hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail and even the Top Hikes in California.
- Camping: Choose the best places to pitch your tent with our series of articles on the best campgrounds around South Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Sequoia National Park. For a little something different, try camping in the bizarre and beautiful landscape of Joshua Tree National Park.
- Outdoor Destinations: Discover fun and interesting things to see and do in Joshua Tree National Park and Yosemite National Park, and explore the highlights of California's desert destinations.