With a surface area covering 191 square miles, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America, and it has a diversity of recreational opportunities to match. Summers on the lake are prime time for boating, swimming and paddling along the 71 miles of forested, mountainous or sandy beach shoreline, while winters make a great time to take advantage of the High Sierra snowpack and get out on cross-country or downhill skies in the area's resorts or backcountry trails.
The autumn, however, marks the time when the tourist traffic thins out and the colors along the lake shore begin to warm up into shades of golds and reds in beatific contrast the deep blue of the surroundings lakes.
Accessible via 1-hour drive from Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Reno or by a 3.5-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area via Highway 50, the South Lake Tahoe area offers the more casual travelers the chance to see salmon spawning and the black bears who feed on them, historic lakeside castles, mountain climbs, and lengthy hikes into the alpine lake-filled wilderness backcountry for the more ambitiously adventurous traveler.
Additionally, the sizeable town of South Lake Tahoe offers all the desired amenities one may want after a day outside: restaurants, lodging, theaters and miniature golf for the family or access to the casinos at the California and Nevada state line for the older crowd. Or travelers can opt for the much more quiet and wild stretch near Fallen Leaf Lake and Emerald Bay that offers campgrounds or trail access to the Desolation Wilderness backcountry, where camping is allowed with an overnight permit.
While the wealth of mountains and lakes surrounding South Lake Tahoe can occupy the vacationer or explorer for days, below are some of our favorites for the autumn traveler.
Day one should be dedicated to exploring Emerald Bay. The Emerald Point hike traces the bay's north shoreline before leading to a secluded stand of forest that is perfect for an afternoon picnic. Paddling Emerald Bay can offer a unique perspective of historic Vikingsholm and the surrounding granite towers, and you can also accesses Lake Tahoe's only island, where a short climb leads to the stone foundations of a former tea house atop Fannette Island.
Opposite the parking area here are the easily accessible Eagle Falls, actually two large sets of falls towering above the bay. Or those wanting to push a little bit further can do the hike to Eagle Lake, a large lake that may be a perfect swimming hole if you're lucky enough for a warm autumn day.
Once many of the area's seasonal public beaches begin to close down in the fall, the time is right to head to higher ground and hike along one of the area's more secluded alpine lakes. The Echo Lakes Trail hike offers some of the most accessible trail into the Desolation Wilderness in its gentle rolling terrain along a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. If planned for early enough, the 6-mile round-trip hike can be cut in half with the use of the Echo Chalet Water Taxi that provides a boat ride between the dock at the far end up Upper Echo Lake and the chalet lodge at the trailhead. Those looking for a little more challenging hike to compliment their scenery might think of heading a little further out to Lake Aloha, or if one would prefer more open views to the seclusion of Echo's alpine forest, the hike to Cathedral Lake comes with more climbing, but wider views along the way.
A final day to take in South Lake Tahoe's majestic natural landscape is in order. Starting from the trailhead at the Bayview Campground, hikers can head one direction on a short and gradual hike toward the stone cascading creek at Cascade Falls, or they may opt to head the other direction, which climbs 1,700 feet in under 2.5 miles to the expansive panoramic vistas atop Maggie's Peak. One final stop to step to the edge of Inspiration Point makes a great point to end the day.
Lodging and camping options are as varied as the recreational opportunities around South Lake Tahoe. For those looking for a hotel with an emphasis on socializing in its bars and patios or being within a few blocks of Lake Tahoe, Heavenly Village or the Nevada casinos at Stateline, Basecamp Tahoe South makes a perfect place to end your day and begin your night. Those looking for an upscale end-of-day experience might opt for the Coachman Hotel.
The seasonal Bayview Trailhead Campground gives campers an optimal spot to access many of these trails and Emerald Bay adventures from. Camp Richardson, though much larger and potentially more crowded, remains open year round and has a lodge as well as a campground.